Evolution: Therapeutic

FREELANCER HQ, ARCHAVEN

NAMI MEDA’S OFFICE

 

The girl sitting in the comfortable chair was refusing to make eye contact – she played with her phone instead, curled up in the chair like a cat. She would look comfortable if she wasn’t so stiff.

“Good afternoon, Vera.” Dr. Meda’s voice was even. Dr. Meda’s voice was always even, her posture always perfect. The Freelancers called her ‘Medahuman’, because she was human but seemed to have an impossibly iron will. She was the longest-lived mental health counselor in the history of the organization, even after losing an eye to a violent client.

Continue reading “Evolution: Therapeutic”

Psychological Fallout

FREELANCER HQ

NAMI MEDA’S OFFICE

 

Dr. Meda’s door was, in fact, large enough for Wasteland and his shiny new armor. He wasn’t sure when she’d enlarged it, but it was before he started having his sessions with her. The room itself was spacious, and Wasteland knew that the couch was both large enough and durable enough to accommodate him.

 

The doctor herself was seated in her chair, swiveled away from her workstation. She offered a cool smile. “Hello, Wasteland. Have a seat and tell me about your week, won’t you?”

 

Wasteland nodded at Dr. Meda, and smiled behind his helmet. One thing the doctor always did, was make him feel human. As much as he had disliked therapists and therapy in general in his previous life, Dr. Meda’s sessions had really helped him. He’d never admit it outside her office, of course. He sat, the new armor easing into the extra durable couch, and he put the massive gauntlets on his knees. “Hi Nami, uh… well, my week. It’s been…. a strange week. Uhm.”

 

He gathered his thoughts. “Well, started off pretty okay. Finished assembling the armor that you see before you. Had some very kind help from some of the Legion tech folks. I can actually fly without crashing into things, for a sustained amount of time. Which is beyond great. Flying is just…. amazing.”

 

He pauses, thinking, “Well, then there was this pyrokinetic in Boulder, Colorado. He’d… well, he had a history of burning people alive, people how were…. I don’t know, rich or well to do, or had a lot of media attention. Rooster and I took him down, as well as Throwaway…. What kind of codename is that? I mean, really. I feel kinda bad for the girl. I mean, I chose mine for obvious reasons, but… eh. Off topic. I got carried away taking him down, Rooster nailed him pretty hard, too, but… This guy, Otto de Fur, or whatever, had taken this classy strip joint hostage. A lot of people scared. And I got carried away.” He repeats. “I nearly beat this guy to death in front of people, I just got… so angry. He had all this power, and he gets off on being the center of attention and murdering innocent folks who didn’t do anything wrong.” The helmet shakes a little, side to side, clearing his thoughts. “Luckily, Bart was there to stop me from doing him in right then and there. Could have been really bad.”

 

“It’s a very human response to be overwhelmed by emotion,” Nami replies, “but I’m glad you didn’t have to go through that. It sounds like this villain stung you deeper than you expected, though, like it was personal. Do you have any idea why?”

 

Wasteland thinks about that, then shrugs, the shoulders of the suit groaning a little as it tries to mimic the subtle gesture. “I’m not quite sure. Maybe because my own relation to fire and heat? Or what he was doing?” The helmet looks down at the floor. “The guy was a decent pyrokinetic. Good looking guy, could probably have chosen normal profession he wanted, if he wanted to. He could have been normal.” Wasteland looks back up at Dr. Meda. “He could have had whatever he wanted, and what he wanted was to be an asshole. To hurt other people for no reason other than his ego.” He pauses, thinking. “It seems so selfish. I was maybe a little jealous of him. And angry that he wasted it.”

 

“You feel as though he squandered an opportunity that you never had?” Nami suggests.

 

That. That, a lot.” He looks at one of his hands, the dark green metal, the articulated, thick, cold fingers. “I’m stuck in this thing, always will be, far as I can tell, unless I’m down in my bunker.” He sighs, the sound odd through the speakers of the helmet. “I mean, I get it. I’ve, we’ve worked through this, and I’m pretty okay now with the suit. And living in it. But it still hurts when I see that kind of stuff, you know?”  He looks back down at the floor, then back up at Dr. Meda.

 

“And there was another Black Operation. Scorched Earth tactics. It was… messy. But I got the job done.”

 

Nami nodded, writing notes in her little spiral-bound. “Understood. I think it’s normal for you to feel that frustration and bitterness, Wasteland. You’ve suffered a great deal and operate under some deep limitations. About the other mission, then we can come back to that: how did you feel about it? Scorched Earth is more than nearly any of us are asked to do. Are you all right?”

 

Wasteland’s voice is steadier when he talks about this kind of stuff, he’s more sure of himself. At least regarding this mission. “It… was what it was. And it needed to be done. It had to be done. The people I’m sent after in these kinds of missions, they’re real monsters. And they’re also people.” He takes a deep breath. “The Freelancers get a bad rap, that we’re mercenaries, for hire. But it’s also true, I think, we’re still better than some of those others out there. I don’t think the Legion would have had the… I’m not sure what the word would be. Fortitude? Balls? Amorality? to kill the people I killed.” He pauses for a moment, thinking. “Maybe. I don’t know. But I do know what these people were doing. Had done. Were planning to do. I think, I believe, that anything less than extreme prejudice would have resulted in a lot more blood. A lot more pain for innocent people.” He looks at Meda, conviction in his words.

 

“I’d like to make the observation,” Meda taps her lips with a pen, “that this is the first time in any of our sessions that I’ve heard you talk about the morality of mercenary work. In fact, you very rarely seem to want to express any opinions about your missions at all.”

 

Wasteland blinked behind his helmet, then let out a little laugh. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s true. I’ve been…. I don’t know. I guess maybe being in the public light… Oh crap, Bart really got me thinking about politics and public eye.” He laughs, again, quietly. “You’re right. I guess I was just so… concerned, maybe. About what would happen to me if I didn’t get the cash to pay for the suit. For repairs. What would happen to people, I was willing to do anything, whatever it was. But, well, this mission, maybe? Or maybe just cycling back to other missions like this, thinking back, on the flight back?” He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess maybe I’m getting a conscience? Wouldn’t that be inconvenient.” He says sarcastically, chuckling. “What do you think, Nami? Should I be… thinking about this kind of stuff, knowing that I’m going to have to do it again later?”

 

“I’m never going to discourage you from personal reflection, Wasteland,” Nami offered a small smile. “It’s a lot easier to manage our feelings and hang-ups if we go looking for them and we’re proactive about how to address them. If you know and understand these things—your resentment, your conscience—then you will be better able to manage them when they cross a line.”

 

He nods, understanding. “Makes sense. Find your weak spots, deal with them, make a plan of attack. That’s good, I like that.” He pauses, then chuckles. “I guess, intellectually, I’m fine. I was a good soldier. The mission was completed. Nothing unnecessary. I don’t feel guilty, at least as far as I can tell. I might have a few nightmares, but that’s par for the course.” He nods, feeling even more confident in himself than before.

 

“Have you had any new nightmares? New themes?” Nami resumed writing in her notebook. “I promise I won’t get too Jungian, but it helps me understand what you’re thinking about right now.”

 

He shakes his head. “Nothing too new, that I can remember. Always fire, like I’ve said a billion times before.” He chuckles, though there’s a distinct lack of mirth this time. “Different faces, different people. Mostly people I’ve burned or irradiated, like always. I think there’s more people though, faces in a crowd, rather than just one or two. I guess my body count is getting high enough my subconscious thought it was time to modify?”

 

“That makes sense,” Nami replied, nodding, “and it may also be your subconscious evolving its focus. Do you ever worry that it’s going to become too much for you to bear?”

 

He takes a long time to think about that, then shakes his head. “Honestly? If you’d asked me that when I first started, or even a few years ago, I might have said yeah, I was worried. But, I know I have PTSD. I am working with you on treating it. I can handle it, and I can handle this. I might have some bad days. Some really bad days. But… I think I’m going to be okay. I’m not worried about it becoming too much, not right now. I know I’m doing everything in my power to keep myself stable and balanced.” He looks off to one corner, then back to Dr. Meda. “So, I don’t think I’m worried anymore. Other than that irrational worry that everyone has, I’m sure.” He chuckles lightly.

 

“Good. So!” Nami clicks her pen and looks up at Wasteland’s helmet. “You knew I was going to bother you about this eventually. So let’s talk about your social life.”

 

“Abuh? Social life?” The helmet tilts a little. “Uhhh…. Rooster has invited me to do some make a wish stuff, soup kitchen, and support of the… ah, gender and relations equality stuff? Honestly they keep adding letters and I’m never going to get all of them right anymore.” He sounds a LOT more uncertain now. Missions, fighting, kicking ass and taking names? He can do. Social interaction? RUN FOR THE HILLS.

 

“Been thinking about it. Would like to, you know? Also maybe sponsor some stuff myself, once I get a…. I can’t believe I’m saying this…. a decent public image. I don’t know. Lots of people like that, out in the open, it freaks me out a bit.”

 

“What do you imagine a decent public image would look like, for you?”

 

Wasteland kind of boggles, and puts a hand up to his helmet, as if to run a hand through his hair. Some gestures never really die. “I honestly don’t know. I never thought I’d -get- a public image. This is all brand new territory for me.” His hand clinks on the helmet, and he looks at the gauntlet, realizing what he was doing, then puts it back down. “Maybe if the news says that I’m not a health hazard while in the suit? I guess? That’d be nice?”

 

“That’s not so much a public image as a health advisory. What kind of a person do you want to be, out there in the world?”

 

“Uhm. I don’t know.” He sounds worried, now. “I don’t want people to find out who I was. What happened back… where I used to live. I guess, I could be a guy. In a suit. Who punches bad guys from time to time…which is what I am right now.” He sighs and his helmet clanks down into his hands. “I guess somebody who doesn’t do too bad a job helping out.”

 

“You want to be seen as helpful,” Nami prompts. “As an aid, rather than a threat. It’s all right to want these things, Wasteland. You deserve them, even if they are hard to achieve.”

 

“Yeah. I’d like to be helpful, I think. I mean, a threat, sure, I’d want to be known by the bad guys out there not to screw around with me.” He shakes his head. “But yeah, there’s that worry, that when someone sees me really cut loose, which, I’m in the public eye now, my whole helpful image…” He makes the sound of a bomb going off, his hands gesturing to an explosion. “No more nice public.”

 

“You were in public when you were fighting Otto da Fe,” oh, so that was his name. Evidently Dr. Meda had read the debrief already. “You felt out of control. But your team brought you back, and it may not even have been knowing what you were going through. You are developing the toolset that you need. These things aren’t inaccessible to you, and you are not doomed to be an uncontrollable force of nature.”

 

“That was… “ He paused, and thought. Well, she was his doctor, and she hasn’t led him wrong yet. “I knew his name was something like that!” His weak attempt at humor subsided, then he nodded. “Yeah. They did. You’ve got a point. There’s that. I guess some part of me was still in control, too. As he didn’t just go up in flames as I touched him, so…” He shrugged again. The poor armor just kind of twitches the shrug. “How should I react when someone asks me why I burned someone to death, in the heat of a fight? Is there any good answer?”

 

“Every sapient being struggles with the overwhelming impact that our body chemistry and environment has on us. You were saddled with a more dangerous set of bodily impulses than most people. It’s hardly unheard of for humans to be blinded with rage upon seeing atrocities, or their loved ones being hurt. You’ve needed time to learn how to keep yourself under the tighter standards of control than most people need. But it’s a human thing. You still have a human heart and mind. You are a person. You can be seen as a person.”

 

He chuckled again, again without mirth. “I think so sometimes, other days, not so much. I want to be. I know some villains out there, some heroes, want to be seen as larger than life. God given, or blessed, or whatever. I’ll take being just a person, and not something monstrous.”

 

“We’ll get you there. One last question, and then you get your homework.” Nami clicks her pen and raises her eyebrows. “Is Rooster your friend?”

 

Uh… yeah. I think so. At least we get along. Been out for drinks, we work well together… Nicer to me than some of the IT guys I’ve met.” He bobbed his head in agreement. “Yeah, I’d say we’re friends. Not the best buddies, but, you know.”

 

“Whom else are you friends with?”

 

Wasteland thought about it, and shrugged. “I don’t have anyone else. A few of the operations guys during my missions, we’re friendly enough, but we wouldn’t go hang out. Maybe some random folks over the internet, but obviously they don’t know who I am in the real world.”

 

“All right, then, here’s your homework for the rest of the month,” Nami offered him a tight smile, the kind that she only made when she was about to say something that he wouldn’t want to hear. “Make a new friend. Reach out to someone who isn’t in the Freelancers. Online is all right, but you need to actually reach out and be a person. Got it?”

 

Even behind his helmet, Nami could probably tell that Wasteland was giving her a mild glare. He was quiet for a second, then sighed. “I’ll…. do my best. I’ll try.”

 

“Good. You’ve got your homework, and I’ll see you in two weeks! Have a lovely rest of the month, Wasteland.” ((tag and scene?))((Yep! Thanks so much, this was a blast!))

Recovery: Default in Our Scars

DETROIT, MICHIGAN

COUNTY JAIL

 

Carolina Smith hunched alone on the jail cell’s cot, gently running a finger across the throbbing gash across her forehead. It’d scar real bad. The Pariah’s scars always stayed, and hers was long and low. She’d wear it forever, marked with the brand of a cause she barely even cared about. The drug habit that had gotten her into this mess in the first place had just sunk its talons even deeper.

 

She once thought she’d find a way to get out of the game, quit Jorja’s crew and just be a god damned accountant, but her last chance at that future had just leaked out of her forehead and scabbed over. She’d be no good as a face any more, and she was a good enough shooter and brawler—how did she ever end up being a good shooter and brawler?—that she was probably looking at life as a hitter until her body gave out.

 

Damn paras. Damn humans. God damn everybody.

Continue reading “Recovery: Default in Our Scars”

Recovery: Bookkeeping

FREELANCER HQ, ARCHAVEN

TRAINING ROOM 04

 

“Good afternoon, Miss Smith.” The lab-coated man across from her looked more like a misplaced socialite than a doctor. He was tall, with a smile-creased face and dark hair lined with gray along the sides. His accent was upper-class british, and his gray eyes shone with a bright curiosity. His grin was, frankly, more infectious than was appropriate for a man who ought to be curing infections. “Or should I say Ledger?”

Continue reading “Recovery: Bookkeeping”

Where There’s Smoke: A Friendly Favor

MICHAEL CHENEY’S OFFICE

ARCHAVEN

 

If there was one good thing about Michael Cheney, it was that he was predictable. The man followed the rules when it came to appointments and open door hours. And so, the great suit of armour containing Wasteland found itself sitting in a comically large chair in Cheney’s office.

 

“So,” Cheney said, flipping a fountain pen between his fingers. “You wanted to see me? You’re normally a self sufficient agent.”

“Yes, sir. I wanted to talk about one of our agents in the Social Rehabilitation program. Vera Newman, AKA Throwaway.” He shifts slightly, feeling like he is towering over Cheney even in the super sized chair. “I’d like to know more. She did some good work helping with Otto De Fe, standing up to the guy, knowing he could immolate her in a snap of his fingers.”

 

“We discovered Newman under some… unusual circumstances. She had been on our radar for a while, doing celebrity impersonations and racking up a good deal of cash. Nothing too terrible, and I can respect someone with that kind of business sense. She bought a few houses, I thought that’d be the end of it… And then she made that tape.”

“I understand. A large mistake. I understand that put her quite in debt in years towards the social rehabilitation program. However, from what I’ve seen from my interactions with her on and off the field, I believe she’s made progress. I was wondering if I would be able to help her with that rehabilitation.” The speakers boomed loudly in the little office, and Wasteland winced. He turned the volume down just a tad.

 

“Help her?” Cheney’s eyebrows rose. “Well. You have to understand, acts have values, yes? You paid off your rehabilitation quite quickly, as you’re… well, one of a kind. Newman, though, is of… limited use in the field. She could take a bullet to the heart, for instance, and our investment would be ruined. We’re keeping her in… low-risk scenarios.”

“ Of course, sir. Actions to consequences, and generating the maximum gain. In the field of combat, sir, perhaps.” He paused for a moment, gathering his thoughts.  “But I’m not sure the Freelancers are using her shapeshifting talent to the best investment, to use your vernacular. In my time in… other situations, sir, that I obviously cannot discuss, there would have been a good use for greater intelligence. Situations like Otto De Fe, while helpful, aren’t key. But intelligence assets are.”

 

“You think we can trust her enough to bump her up the ladder, give her a promotion, get her into work that’d allow her to pay off her debt to society?” Cheney asked, one eyebrow staying high and the other dropping.

 

Wasteland paused again, thinking. He was a soldier, not a politician. He had to use his field of advantage. “Sir, you didn’t see her when she stood up to that maniac. She was scared, sure. But she didn’t let it control her. She acted, and then when it came time to get down and let others handle it, she did so. No wild heroics. No cowardice. Professional and straight to the point. I have a hunch, sir, and they usually pay off. I think we should give her a chance, to really make a difference, and pay off that debt.”

 

“I see.” Cheney said, and there was a pregnant pause. “You would take responsibility for Throwaway, then? I assume if we found anything that… jeopardized her employment, you’d be able to take responsibility for that?”

“I would take responsibility, sir.” He didn’t hesitate. If it got thrown under the bus, so would he. He felt in his bones, burning and irradiated that they were, that Pariah and Vera were doing the right thing. While the smart thing would be to bail and leave them to their fate, it wasn’t in him. If anything, fighting the human supremacist movement, supporting independents, and in general keeping the peace should be seen as a good AND profitable thing. But he couldn’t say that to Cheney. He was certain that if it came to light, Cheney could spin it so that it was a Freelancer outreach program, designed for better policing and peacekeeping. But Vera would never be free.

 

He nodded to the man, accepting it. “Also, she’s going to need a better codename. We’re Freelancers. The best of the best. Not trash.”

 

“…” Cheney watched him for a moment, and then broke out into another big grin. “Loving this enthusiasm and initiative, Wasteland. This is exactly what I want to see from our agents. Go ahead and set up a new codename with Newman, get her ready for jobs. As I always say, the less agents we have in social rehabilitation, the better.”

You have never heard Cheney say that, ever.

 

Wasteland blinked behind his helmet. That wasn’t… what. That…. oh shit. Well, time to ramp up the paranoia. Check everything. Make sure that Cheney and anyone else didn’t have anything on him, at all. Clean the history from his suit. Delete the porn…. well maybe not the porn. He’s pretty sure Cheney doesn’t care about that…. delete it anyway, just in case.

 

“Really? Thank you, sir. I’ll let her know. I’m sure she’ll enjoy a new codename.” And make triple clear that none of the Freelancers have anything on Vera or Pariah, at all. Kill Solomon Swift. Wait, that’s just a daydream. “Thank you for your help, I’ll forward you any new details and ideas I have for jobs across your desk first, of course.” He rises from his chair, and offers a metal gauntlet to Cheney.

 

Instead of shaking, Cheney bumps his own knuckles against Wasteland’s metal ones. “Good talk, Wasteland. Can’t wait to see how this turns out.”

 

“Uh… yes sir. Got a good feeling.” He nods, and shuffles around the giant chair, and out the door. It’s kinda awkward, being this big in an office.

 

Where There’s Smoke: Pacification

Tags: Collateral, the Freelancers, Corey “Stormcore” Adams, Vera “Everyperson” Newman, Carolina “Ledger” Smith, Archaven

 

Pacification

DISTRICT 014 SUBURB

ARCHAVEN, EASTERN EUROPE

 

FROM: dispatch@freelancers.co.av

TO: uncontracted@listserv.freelancers.co.av; active@listserv.freelancers.co.av

SUBJ: [URGENT] APEC: Collateral

 

ATTENTION ALL AVAILABLE FREELANCERS

Freelancer special resource Collateral has escaped handlers and is currently AT LARGE in the surrounding suburbs. Casualties mounting; more expected. All available Agents will receive 1.5x standard contracting rate for this All-Points Emergency Contract. Available and uncontracted participants in the Social Rehabilitation Program are expected to report to dispatch for possible deployment.

 

Collateral is to be disabled and subdued by any means. Damage to the head or spine of the contained body at Collateral’s center may cause permanent damage or death to the resource and may void reward.

 

Three people on a crowded dropship, heading toward ‘Suburb 14’. Fifteen minutes out, they’d said.

 

Carolina– no, Ledger –looked through her mask at the two available ‘partners’ she’d been assigned for the emergency mission. Corey she knew, though this was her first time seeing him in armor. They’d sparred. He was decent at it, but she knew that his specialty was firearms. The other woman… was the green-haired one who’d given her the cold shoulder in the hallway. Fun.

 

She shifted her shoulder holsters, still getting used to the light but ever-present weight of the specialized pistols they’d commissioned for her.

 

“So,” Everyperson said, finally breaking the silence. “How about, that, uh… Corey, don’t you like sports?”

Carolina winced behind the mask. What did this lady know that made her so pissed?

 

Corey was in the process of checking his systems. He looked up, his one brown eye blinking. “Sports? They’re good for team building?” He said with the hesitance of someone who hasn’t really played sports since he was seven. He picked up his assault rifle, checking the stun pulse shots, and shouldered the weapon. There was no sign of anything heavier on him. “But we should talk strategy.

 

“I suggest I provide heavy fire and distraction.” He could take it. “And the two of you evacuate any civilians left in the area.”

 

“They said that they’re gonna bring in a containment ship, but we have to pin her down somehow,” Carolina’s voice was nervous, “can… you do that by yourself?”

 

Corey considered the question. “Not physically. She’s in my old armour, and that was a tank, if I do say so myself. I can pin her down via firepower, but I’m unsure how much stun blasts will take to bring her to unconsciousness.”

 

“Here’s a question, what the hell am I supposed to do besides not die?” In truth, Vera knew that the others had no better impression than she did. She’d been given some photos with brief descriptions: this was Collateral’s husband (whom she accidentally killed back when her name was still Rae), her kid (ditto), the scientist who helped install her into Earthcore (dead, replaced by Dr. Bowman), but… it all seemed like shots in the dark. Dispatch had also mentioned something along the lines of providing a decoy for either Ledger or Stormcore, which sounded like a super great idea.

 

“I dunno,” Ledger shrugged, “um… what do you do, actually?”

 

“Ssssshape shifting. Uh. Perfect impersonation of any human being.”

There was a long pause as that sunk in. “… oh.”

 

“Yeah.” Vera busied herself with looking at the files.


Corey looked at the two of them, bemused. “Regardless, I’m trying to recall any weaknesses the Earthcore had. I’ve not been given any up to date schematics of the…attachments to Collateral. I’ll keep her busy and away from the two of you.”

 

“The dossier said that she can jump almost a half a mile in that rig,” Carolina’s anxiety about the mission managed to overtake the awkwardness. “With two of us evacuating, there’s no way that we can get all of the civilians clear.”

 

“Then the most important thing is that I lead her away.” Corey sighed. He slipped his helmet on, and it sealed, expelling air and pressurising.  “I hope that she’ll come after me in a rage and she’ll ignore the both of you.”

 

“That’s stupid. You’re the muscle, and you want her to be paying all of the attention to you? No, I’ll lure her, you two hit her hard. You uh, can hit, yeah Carolina? You’re… a Para now?”

Ledger sighed. “You should… probably call me Ledger now. And yeah, I’m a Para, and I can hit hard, but it costs me in a big way. If that’s what it takes, though, that’s what it takes.”

 

“So let me run, and you two gun. Comprehende?”

She looked over at Corey for confirmation. He seemed to understand this shit better than she did.

 

“I don’t like it. The threat to you will be much greater than to either of us. But it’s a decent plan. Stay under cover and keep moving.”

 

“I guess it’s a plan, then,” Ledger tried to keep the tremors out of her voice, “I’ll start out using the guns and if they don’t work I’ll break out the powers.”

 

“Alright. And we’re all Freelancers now, so we gotta trust each other. We can do this. When are we landing?”

Carolina pulled up the sleeve of her trenchcoat, checking her watch. “Less than five minutes.”

 

She unholstered one of the pistols they’d given her, checking its battery housing, lock, readouts, and settings. She’d practiced with the thing, but it felt weird going into combat with a gun that didn’t use plain old chemical propulsion.

 

“By the way, um,” she said, “in case this sucks and I croak– sorry about. Before. Hope your friend is doing all right.”

 

“Yeah, I’m sorry too about, uh, the cocaine thing. Friends? Or coworkers, at least?”

“Yeah. And for what it’s worth, I never really cared about… the cause. My parents were real gung-ho. I just wanted to be an accountant.” She checked the other pistol. “Just ended up accounting for the wrong people.”

 

“We all make mistakes. If we survive this, I’ll tell you about mine.”

“Okay, kids, we should be reaching the drop zone soon. We’re a ways out, because we don’t want to get so close that–“

 

The intercom was drowned out by a loud crash, metal slamming against metal. The vehicle lurched, then tilted, and the Freelancers drifted upward from their seats as gravity ceased to keep up with the craft’s downward momentum.

 

Corey stumbled then braced. He really braced. If he went loose in the vehicle, he’d cause some serious damage to both Ledger and Vera. Hands against the roof of the vehicle, and feet planted firmly, he wedged himself securely. Then he patched into the vehicle’s visual feed and nodded in confirmation. “She threw a car at us.”

 

“Oh, Christ -” Vera is gripping onto the handholds with all her strength. “We need to get on the ground, I can’t lure shit if I’m a smear on the wall.”

“Are you fuckin’ kidding me? We haven’t even started the mission–” Ledger threw her hands outward, trying to catch onto a handhold or wall, then finally gave up and thrust both arms straight outward. A spidery red script poured from her hands and snaked through the cabin, around her arms, around Vera, webbed Corey into the corner, and–

 

CRASH.

 

As the stars and the ringing in their ears died down, the Freelancers found themselves frozen in position, bound by the rigid energy cabling that Ledger had thrown up at the last moment. Then the script crumbled, dropping them all on the floor of the wrecked craft.

 

Corey was neither bruised or shaken by the crash. The suit was good for that. Instead he knelt up and tested his wings. They whirred, moving from closed position to wide open. Then he asked, “Are the two of you injured?”

 

“Not yet.” Ledger’s tone was resigned.

 

“Lil’ bit,” Vera grunted. “Broken ribs, I think. Fuck. Fuck. Hurts like a bitch, but I’ll be okay.” She stood and staggered up to Ledger, leaning in to whisper: “If I don’t come back from this, find the Pariah. Tell her I died of my own choice, doing a stupid fucking mission to earn my stupid fucking freedom.”

And then she stepped back, and she was no longer Vera.

 

She was Collateral’s mother.

 

And she took off at a sprint.


“HEEEEEEEEEEEY KIDDO C’MAWN AND GIVE YOUR MOM A HUG -”

“She’s going to get herself killed.” Corey reached out and tapped Ledger on the shoulder. “I’ll go first.” He stepped out of the vehicle and zoomed up and out.

 

“Fuck’s sake,” Carolina groaned, clambering out of the wreckage as quickly as she could. “Noooo. If she hears that you died and I was there, she’ll force-feed me my mask!”

 

Stumbling steps took the Masked Ledger over rubble and ruin, through the streets of a once probably very nice suburb, until she caught sight of their quarry: it was hard to miss the giant hulking metal mass.

 

Collateral seemed to be holding still, for a moment, making only small, hesitant movements as she tried to process what she was seeing. A carbon copy of her mother, trying valiantly to get her attention.

 

Corey flew overhead, hovering to the right of Collateral where her file said her unenhanced natural eye was supposed to be. He hoped to be far enough and that Vera was distraction enough, that Collateral didn’t notice him. His rifle came out and he waited, studying Collateral in his old armour. He wanted her moving when he attacked. She’d have less chance of avoiding hits that way.

 

“GET DOWN HERE RIGHT NOW YOUNG LADY,” Vera hollered at Collateral. “YOU NEED TO COME GIVE YOUR MOTHER A HUG.”

And then she took off at a sprint again. C’mon c’mon c’mon do I gotta piss in your eye –

 

The hunk of metal seemed to contract in on itself for a few moments, emitting an earsplitting squeal before Collateral’s amplified voice boomed out from unseen resonators, almost shaking the ground and even louder than the metal noises. “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL!!” She screamed. “YOU’RE NOT MY MOTHER! WHY ARE YOU TORTURING ME??!!!”

 

“Oh shit,” Ledger drew both of her pistols and took off running toward Collateral, moments too late: like a great robotic animal, the metal mess took off in a screaming, loping, four-‘legged’ run toward Vera, fast. Way too fast.

 

“HOJESUS I’M GON’ DIE -” Vera vaulted herself to the side, not able to roll with any grace, just launching herself away from Collateral’s impact point.

 

If that wasn’t Corey’s cue to swoop down, he didn’t know anything. He let gravity pull him as his jets blazed. His rifle was at ready and he hovered for a few scant seconds in front of Collateral and let loose a burst of stun blasts. White pulses of light spat out of his rifle, each connecting against the massive target that was Collateral. They should have disrupted her systems, and would more than sting. Then the turned and sped away, luring her away from Vera.

 

The scream of pain that Collateral let loose upon being struck with the stun blasts was enough to nearly deafen Ledger, and she imagined it must be worse for Vera, who was only paces away from the monstrosity. The hulk turned, and lurched, and stood still for a moment– then it was gone, only a crater where it stood moments ago.

 

A faint, tinny, muffled crash made its way into Ledger’s senses through her ringing ears. A moment later, Collateral crashed to the ground, only paces away from her. In huge, malformed metal ‘arms’, Stormcore struggled to avoid being crushed, or at least to bring his stun rifle to bear.

 

“Uh– UH–” Ledger raised one of her pistols and fired several times, but the stun bolts weren’t nearly as powerful as the ones Corey had fired earlier. She didn’t even know if Collateral felt them.

 

There was a scream of metal, but it was fine, it was just his precious wings being crushed. Slag smeltin-. Corey didn’t have time to swear, but this close to Collateral, he had one trick. Slapping a hand onto Collateral’s faceplate, he hacked into her own systems….and what did you know. She actually had some good firewalls. Corey felt his armour bend and redoubled his efforts. If he could get past her walls, he could paralyse her systems.

 

“What’re you–” Corey heard her voice, confused, then scared, then he was through and wait a second no why was it feeding back it’s not supposed to

 

Collateral and Corey screamed together as his armor and hers caught each other in a vicious feedback loop, suffusing both users with blinding pain and sending arcs of electricity through the air. Though she shed plates and parts rapidly, Collateral’s grip remained, and Corey’s armor started to buckle in earnest.

 

“Corey, Corey – no no no -” Vera shifted again, into Collateral’s daughter. “Mom, no!”

It felt cheap.

 

But sometimes a cheapshot is necessary.

 

“Baby?” The feedback loop stopped for just a moment, and the mech turned, and plates unfolded, and a woman’s badly scarred face was visible– and she reeled as a stun bolt hit her face, dropping Corey so he lay just next to his stun rifle.

 

Collateral turned toward the offender, her face exposed in a mask of rage for just a moment before the metal closed down over it and she leaped upon Ledger, who shrieked in panicked surprise and dropped the stun pistol.

 

Corey, likely barely conscious by now, saw that most of the excess armor that had been piled atop Earthcore by Collateral’s horrific powers had sloughed away. She was almost uncovered. Almost.

 

… wait, was that an exposed elbow? When she pulled her arm back?

 

He reached for his rifle, painfully slow. Ah yes. His pain dampeners were overloaded. Crushed ribs were likely. The suit will worked despite all his damage alarms. He pushed himself up, synced with the rifle, aimed and fired one single accurate shot.

 

With a startled shudder, Collateral just… stopped moving. Corey’s suit struggled to inform him that the human host inside Earthcore’s twisted remains had fallen unconscious, and the device’s power had gone toward sustaining her life and repairing itself. They’d won.

 

“Oh God someone please help me,” Ledger croaked from underneath the metal hulk.

 

“HQ. Send containment in. She’s down for now. We require medevac.” It wasn’t sent in Corey’s voice, but through a synch version. He didn’t feel like he could manage manual vocalisations just yet. He pulled himself up, and yes, there was the suit digging into his side. He stumbled towards the metal hulk and tried to push it off Ledger.

 

Vera, wheezing and sweating and dealing with a case of shaky knees, moves to the other side of the hulk and strains with her skinny arms.

 

The hulk doesn’t move. Vera’s strength makes no difference whatsoever, and Corey’s suit, while it would have been able to do the job normally, was operating with limited hydraulic capacity thanks to its damage.

 

“Oh, this is going to suck so bad later,” Ledger whimpered before bracing herself and shoving the hulk away with ridiculous strength, using Corey’s efforts to roll it to the side as she lifted. That done, she collapsed on her back, pulled her mask up, and looked up at the sky.

 

“Really not looking forward to paying this one off.”