The world seemed to grind to an abrupt halt around Vienna. To her left, a ten foot tall elephant man towered over Erin. To her right, Ursula was wrestling with a slightly more reasonably sized boar man, just barely keeping a hold of his vicious tusks. In front of her, there was an actual fucking supervillain lifted directly from a Captain Comet storyline, and behind him was a bat creature that Edifice had trapped in a force field. He struggled, violently, but apparently being inked made her force fields much easier to maintain – she wasn’t too worried about him breaking out any time soon.
“I’m sorry, fucking what?” Ursula snapped incredulously. It seemed to be all she could manage – all of her attention was on not getting her guts spilled by the boar man creature thing.
“Yes, um, could you... Run that by us again?”
“Beastmaker!” Ami replied, breaking character for a moment. Just like that, the bat and boar alike stopped their struggles. Tentatively, Ursula let go of the tusks and Vienna dropped her shield. Neither creature moved – like they were statues. “Come on, you’ve gotta have heard of Beastmaker, right? He was a pretty big deal, back in the day.”
“I’m... afraid I haven’t, sorry,” Erin replied.
“I have,” Ursula said. “He’s... A comic book character?”
“No he’s not!”
“From Captain Comet, right?”
“I think so? I got super hardcore convinced Captain Comet comics were for babies when I was like twelve and I didn’t get over myself until a year back, so I missed a bunch and I’m a bit rusty on the lore.”
“What on earth are you talking about?” Ami replied, somewhere between a young child indignant that an older kid had just said her favourite superhero wasn’t cool and a historian gently baffled that someone just told her that pre-splice humans didn’t ever actually exist. “Why are you rambling about comics of all things? Captain Comet was a real person.”
Beastmaker abruptly vanished, replaced by Captain Comet. Like he’d stepped out of the pages of a comic book and into real life. Tall, well muscled, with long red hair and bright green eyes. He even had the costume. “Jacent Danger, also known as Cap’n Comet. I could give you his date of birth, his date of death, his blood type, literally anything you could ask for. Real historical figure. How do you all not know this? What are they teaching you kids?”
“Not that comic book characters apparently actually existed, that’s for sure.” Vienna stared, even moreso than she had stared at Beastmaker. When she had made the mental comparison to a Captain Comet villain, she hadn’t really considered he might actually be a Captain Comet villain. Of course she hadn’t. Captain Comet didn’t exist. He was a fictional character that someone had made up. Right?
But, well, here he was. In the flesh, sort of. She wasn’t entirely sure how Ami managed all of this, but he sure fucking looked like a real person and not a cartoon character. Beastmaker had looked like a cartoon character, though Vienna hadn’t really been able to tell at first – she didn’t exactly have the most experience with what pre-splice humans were supposed to look like, aside from the soldiers. And, now that she thought of it, the soldiers also had that sort of smooth, cartoony look to them.
“Okay, yes, I took a few liberties with Beastmaker’s appearance, I’ll admit. But, like, the real guy didn’t exactly make for the best boss fight, okay?” Once again, Ami abruptly changed shape. Beastmaker, again, but with that same realism that Captain Comet had. And without the goggles and the bloodstains. Short, kind of overweight, and very unassuming. Being pre-splice aside, he looked almost violently normal, like everyone’s family doctor. “Like, I’ll admit the mythology angle had a mixed reception and was probably a bit much for your first time. This is a learning experience for all of us! But a chubby Chinese guy who gaslights people into thinking they’re furries is overcompensating in the other direction.”
“I... Um.” Vienna struggled to come up with any kind of response. Judging by the deafening silence from her companions, she wasn’t the only one who couldn’t quite process what was going on. There were an awful lot of questions being raised, and Vienna struggled to pick just one.
“Like, don’t get me wrong, the historical Leonard Chu was obviously a real, legitimate threat. Just... not a very interesting fight, divorced of the real world context.”
Vienna frowned. Suddenly one very specific question managed to fight its way to the forefront of her mind. “Wait, hold on. Leonard Chu? The guy behind the splice?”
“The very same! Don’t ask me how he managed that one, records from around that time are understandably very spotty.”
“That...” Vienna stared. Some more. It wasn’t really her fault that she kept getting caught off guard. Her mind struggled to reconcile the three disparate pictures of Leonard Chu; the man who saved humanity, the comic book supervillain, and the historical person who was apparently both and neither at the same time.
“Okay, hold on,” Ursula interrupted. “This is all very interesting, but we’ve got other priorities.”
“Hm. You know what, you’ve got a point,” Ami replied.
“Right! So, you need to let us g-”
“We’ve totally killed the momentum of the boss fight! There was all that buildup to a cool fight and now we’re just talking, and that’s boring!” Ami changed, one final time, returning to the original Beastmaker form. “Enough expository banter!” He shouted, the computer once again slipping back into character. “You fools have dared interfere with my plans, and for that transgression you must die!”
“that’s not what I- ack!” Ursula found herself interrupted by the boar man resuming his charge. The elephant man took a thunderous step towards Erin.
And, in front of Vienna, Beastmaker took a deft leap to the side, allowing the bat man to fly directly into Edifice’s abdomen.
“Bob for fuck’s sake you’re confusing the kid. Please take this a little seriously.”
“That’s just what someone who has the old maid would say!”
Viola had, mostly, gotten the hang of five card draw very quickly. It wasn’t exactly a complicated game. A lot of it boiled down to getting lucky with your starting hand. If you had something to work with, it was easy to recognize what didn’t fit and get rid of it. What made the game interesting was the psychological aspect. Trying to predict how good (or bad) the other players’ hands were, and making it unclear how good (or bad) your own hand was. As much as getting a good hand relied on luck, getting a bad hand didn’t necessarily mean you lost if you were good enough.
She was, she realized, having fun. In spite of herself. She felt almost... relaxed. Which was weird because she’d been fucking kidnapped – again, she couldn’t fucking stress that enough.
“Anyway, full house.”
“Motherfucker!” Makoto threw her cards down in disgust. Yuri had already folded early on, and Sunny let out a disappointed sigh as she placed her cards down – two pair. “I wouldn’t mind your bullshit so much if you didn’t keep winning.”
“Well, maybe you should just get good.”
“I am good! You’re just an asshole!”
“Um,” Viola interrupted, laying out her cards. An ace, a four, a three, a nine, and a jack, all spades. “This is good, right?”
“Ah, a flush. Yeah, that’s good. Doesn’t beat a full house, though.”
“Hey, don’t worry about it,” Bob said with a friendly grin, gently tousling Viola’s hair. “You picked up the game quickly. Pretty soon you’ll be wiping the floor with all of us.”
“Oh god, please don’t even imply that.” Makoto slumped forward. “It’s bad enough I keep losing to a clown, losing to a kid who had literally never heard of poker until an hour ago would be the ultimate indignity.”
“You’re just jealous she’s better’n you.”
“Do you know how much I played back in the day? It was literally a part of my job!”
“Hm?” Makoto turned her head slightly at Viola’s interjection. “Oh. Yeah. It’s kind of a long story,” she said, waving her left hand dismissively. It was the first time Viola really had a chance to get a good look at it, which is why it was only now that she noticed Makoto’s pinkie finger was missing.
“What happened to your hand?”
“That’s also a long story.”
“We’ve got time,” Bob countered. “We can’t play poker forever.”
“Ugh. Fine. Whatever.” Makoto sighed. “I used to be a yak. Quit, had to do yubitsume.”
“A yak?” Makoto’s answer just served to confuse Viola more. “I thought you were pre-splice?”
“No, no, not... not that kind of yak. Like... Yakuza. Japanese mafia.”
“Oh,” Viola said, and then after a moment continued. “I don’t know what either of those are.”
“Like a big ol’ group ‘a bad guys.”
“It’s more complicated than that. But yes, basically.”
“It’s... Ugh, how do I explain this to you. Do you even have a concept of crime? I know you don’t have guns for some inane reason.”
“I know what crime is!” Viola snapped. “A-and the Disarming wasn’t inane!”
“Pft, yeah. Sure kid. Disbanding the military is historically such an effective idea. Let me guess, y’all’ve got a ‘Self Defence Force’ set up or something?”
“Oh, you managed to actually go through with it? That’s almost impressive.” Viola sputtered indignantly, struggling to find any kind of response and failing miserably.
“Listen,” Bob interjected. “It’s cute that y’all think that you can just ban armies and everything’ll turn out fine in the long haul. But the thing about bannin’ guns is that the people who’re gonna misuse ‘em are the people who ain’t gonna follow that rule in the first place.”
“B-but there aren’t any guns anymore!”
“Don’t matter. All it’s gonna take is for one dome to realize that if they have weapons but no one else does, then they’ve pretty much won the war before it’s even started.”
“But...” Viola trailed off as she tried to articulate her response. “But why would anyone even do that? Things are good as they are.”
“But things could be better. Simple as that.” Bob reached down and gathered up the cards. “People’re people. That ain’t ever gonna change, no matter how y’all pretty it up. Might take ten years or a hundred or a thousand, but eventually someone’s gonna decide they want more, an’ see how easy it’d be to get more. And when they do, everything’s gonna go to shit.”
“But that doesn’t make sense.”
“People don’t make sense, kid,” Bob responded bluntly, handing the deck to Viola. “Y’all ever heard of the prisoner’s dilemma?”
“It’s an ol’ thought experiment. You’ve got two folks, let’s call ‘em Dave and Joe, who broke the law somehow, let’s say... Hell, let’s say they’re yakuza, ‘s relevant.”
“You still haven’t explained what that is.”
“The point is that they got caught by the cops and now they’re bein’ questioned. They’ve got no means of communicatin’ with each other, or with anyone else ‘cept the people interrogatin’ ‘em. The cops offer ‘em a deal. See, they got a lotta evidence on ‘em, but only for a smaller crime, not the big one – let’s say they robbed a bank. But if one of ‘em rats on the other, then that’d be enough. So the deal is that if they cooperate with the cops, they’ll get a smaller sentence.”
“Okay... I think I get it?”
“There’s three ways it can go. First, Dave and Joe both decide to keep their lips sealed an’ they go to prison for one year on the lesser charge. Second, Dave and Joe both decide to narc on the other and they both serve two years in prison.”
“Okay so then why would they ever not choose to stay silent?”
“Because ‘a the third way it can go. Dave stays silent, but Joe decides to spill the beans, so Dave gets put away for ten years but Joe goes free. So if you chose to stay silent, the best case is you go to prison for a year and the worst case is you go to prison for a decade. But if you talk, the worst case is you go to prison for two years and the best case is you go free.”
“But... why would anyone betray their friends like that?”
“Who said they’re friends? They just work together.”
“Don’t get me wrong, kid. I agree with you. In a perfect world, both prisoners would stay silent and take the year of jail time on the chin. But this ain’t a perfect world.”
“So... that’s it, then? They just always betray each other?”
“But you just said-”
“I just said people’re people, kid. If everyone behaved perfectly rationally, they’d always choose to talk.” Bob pulled himself upright and went over to join Yuri in tending to the dying embers of the fire. “But if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, it’s that people are never perfectly rational.”
“This is stupid,” Makoto interjected.
“Hey, fuck you, this is important philosophical talk.”
“Yeah but what does it have to do with explaining the concept of organized crime to the kid? Does she even know what prison is?”
“Sort of? I learned about how it was handled pre-splice in history class two years ago, but we don’t really handle it that way anymore.”
“Okay, fair enough. But they didn’t teach you about the mafia?”
“Not really. I’ve never heard the word before. You... said it was organized crime, though? So it was a bunch of people working together to break the law?”
“Like I said, it’s more complicated than that. It was more like... Like, when the way you make a living is illegal according to the people in charge, they’re gonna look for any opportunity to get rid of you. So we generally avoided actually breaking the law unless absolutely necessary, especially not in any big, obvious ways. And we got in the people’s good graces. Helped protect their businesses from the competition. Did a lotta disaster relief work.”
“Oh. That... doesn’t sound too bad?”
“Yeah, no. It was. When I said we protected folks from the competition? We did it by beating them so bad they were barely alive. Didn’t kill ‘em, though, unless we had to. Murder is a good way to get the cops mad at you.” Makoto sighed despondently. “There were a lotta gang wars. Lotta unsavoury shit. I mostly ignored it ‘cause I was good at the unsavoury shit. Was about the only thing I was really good at. The only place I felt like I belonged. Until...” She sighed, holding up her hand. “Well, until I couldn’t ignore it anymore. Let’s just leave it at that. That’s why I’m missing a finger. So I don’t ever forget that I’m not a good person.”
Viola couldn’t think of anything to say, so she didn’t say anything.
“Ugh. That’s enough downer talk,” Makoto said, pulling herself upright. “That was all centuries ago. No point dwelling on it now.”
“Y’gotta learn to find the joy in things. Otherwise you just go crazy. An’ that ain’t good for anyone.”
“... Right.” Viola wasn’t sure whether it was a good thing or not that the conversation dried up there. On the one hand, she didn’t particularly like the return to that initial unpleasant silence. But on the other, she found herself relieved that the particular subject of conversation had passed. She wasn’t entirely sure what had happened, but she... got the impression she hadn’t been on the winning end of the debate.
Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last, Viola found herself very much wanting to go home. And more than that – to go back to how things were. Before the soldiers. Before Ami. Before whatever apparent alien invasion had occurred in Locksmouth. The constant, agonizing tension wasn’t exactly pleasant, to be sure. But at least it had been almost over – once High School was over, they would all be free to go their separate ways.
And, as much as she hated her friends constantly being at each others’ throats, it was at least better than this.
Ursula made an attempt to overpower the boar man. Wrench him hard to the left, flipping him over onto his belly and throwing him to the ground. That was the plan, at least, and then she could have followed up by giving him a good solid stomp like she had to the bat. The problem was that she didn’t have the physical strength to manage that first move. Every attempt to rotate him was met with an equal but opposite force, keeping them at a stalemate. Ursula couldn’t keep this up forever – she just plain didn’t have the stamina. Which was unfortunate, because as far as she could figure the boar man could keep this up forever. He wasn’t real. Some sort of hologram, or a robot, or fuck at this point if you told her Ami could just do literal magic she’d not be able to rule it out one hundred percent. He had the edge on her.
But Ursula did have an idea for how to even the odds in that regard.
“Hey, Delphi, remember how you were talking about trying out your super strength? I think now would be a great time for that.”
“Agreed.” Ursula wasn’t a fan of the way Delphi spoke using her mouth. It felt weird. Like... well, like there was someone else living in her body and occasionally using it against her will. It was an unpleasant situation. Like she was crazy. Which was probably how Viola felt all the time, now that she thought about it. She found herself with a newfound sense of empathy for what her packmate had to go through every day for a large chunk of her life. She didn’t like it. At all.
Dark blue ink flowed out from nowhere, enveloping her. Almost black, but not quite, dotted with stars and galaxies and constellations, and outlined in a purpley red. “Okay, buddy, eat this!” she shouted, jerking hard to the left and throwing the boar man to the ground. It was almost scary how effortless it was. Like he wasn’t there at all. Clearly Delphi hadn’t been exaggerating the strength boost – if anything, it felt like she’d almost understated it. She lifted her leg high up and then slammed her heel down as hard as it would go. Unfortunately, in the time it had taken her to set up the blow, the boar man had rolled out of the way. Her foot crashed into the ground, sending sparks flying. Not exactly the result she’d been expecting.
“Hey! Careful, you’ll break my projectors!” This time, even though Ami was breaking character, the fight didn’t stop. The boar man pulled himself back to his feet and charged at Ursula. “Do you have any idea how hard those are to fix? It’s not like anyone manufactures the parts anymore or anything. I’ve gotta do it all myself and it takes forever.”
“Sorry!” Ursula shouted, deftly dodging the boar’s mad charge and quickly repositioning herself to counter the next one. “I didn’t mean to- wait why the fuck am I apologizing to you you’re trying to kill me.”
“Don’t even think about breaking them on purpose!” Ami snapped, charging forward again. “That’s cheating!”
Ursula had been considering it – breaking whatever mechanism let Ami do these things would be an easy way to win the fight. But, well, she didn’t want to risk the penalties for cheating. Instead, she grabbed the boar’s tusks once again, this time using the momentum of his charge to pull him forward and throw him back onto the ground. “I don’t need to cheat to beat you!” This time she didn’t hesitate to throw a heavy punch at his face. Her fist collided with his snout, caving it in by a good few inches. He squealed in agony, but considering he was some sort of hologram Ursula didn’t feel any sympathy for him – instead, she threw another punch, and then another, until he stopped moving. “There! How d’ya like that, asshole!”
She slowly pulled herself upright. That had taken slightly more out of her than she’d expected – the adrenaline high was fading, and she could feel the exertion taking its toll. It had taken significantly more effort to beat the boar man than her typical boxing match. Probably because her typical opponent wasn’t actively trying to kill her. The fact that she wasn’t using an inertial dampener also probably contributed in some way, though she honestly wasn’t sure whether it’d have made her more or less tired. It wasn’t like she’d really taken any hits from the boar man. His attacks had been very clearly telegraphed, and her reaction time had been good enough to catch him before he became a real threat, so it had ultimately been just a matter of overpowering him.
Ursula’s train of thought was abruptly derailed when an alligator man lunged at her from behind. She turned around just in time to catch his jaws, holding them open inches from clamping shut around her head like a vice. “Oh for fuck’s sake how many of you are there?! Little help here, guys?”
“I’m preoccupied, darling,” Erin replied, taking a shaky step backwards in time with the elephant man taking one towards her. His feet collided with the ground with rhythmic, heavy thuds. “Actually I was kind of hoping you could give me a hand with my own little problem?”
“Yeah sure I’d love to fight the ten foot tall dude so that the girl who can grow twenty feet tall on a whim doesn’t hafta risk breaking a nail.”
“I don’t know how to fight!”
“You don’t need to know how to fight if you’re twice the other guy’s size just pick him up and throw him or something!”
“Where on earth is Vienna?!”
“Fuuuuuuuuck!” As if on cue, Vienna shouted an expletive from on high – both girls took a brief moment to look up. The bat man, it seemed, had elected to take off into the sky, and had somehow managed to take Vienna with him. The rabbit was clinging tightly to his back, and he was flying wildly through the sky, bucking and doing loop-de-loops and taking erratic turns in an attempt to knock her off. Her hands were currently busy holding on for dear life, so she couldn’t use her shields to counterattack, leaving her trapped just trying not to fucking fall to her death. “Land, motherfucker! Land!” If the bat man understood her, it kept that to itself, instead screeching and intensifying its efforts.
“I... Don’t think we’re going to be seeing any help from Vienna any time soon.”
“I’ll deal with bigmouth here, you get over yourself and step on the elephant and then try and help Vienna!”
“Okay, fine,” Erin muttered to herself, turning her full attention back to the very large man who was slowly advancing on her. He’d had the common courtesy to hold off from just stepping on her while she was talking with Ursula – or perhaps he didn’t particularly see the need to rush. She wasn’t exactly a threat to him given their relative sizes and the fact that Erin was, at the end of the day, a squishy nerd.
Which, now that she thought about it, was odd. Ami almost certainly knew about Erin’s superpower at this point, considering she’d very prominently used it to... deal with Phix. So, if the elephant man was another avatar Ami was using, by extension he also had to know that she could get bigger. Maybe she was just that confident that she could out-fight a giant Erin now that she knew it was coming. Or maybe she was just that committed to the character. Erin wasn’t really sure which was the case and frankly she didn’t care. She just wanted rid of the elephant man.
Erin unceremoniously discarded her backpack. She didn’t want it getting in the way. “Titania, it seems we’re on our own. Let’s try not to end up unconscious for more than a day this time.”
“That sounds like a plan.” Green and yellow ink bubbled to the surface and swelling outward as Erin flowed larger in one fluid motion. As tall as the elephant man, and then taller. What she lacked in bulk, she made up in raw size. She didn’t go to the full twenty feet, but she didn’t particularly need to – fifteen feet already rendered him roughly child-sized in comparison to her.
He balked slightly, reacting in (seemingly) genuine surprise at her sudden growth. Either Ami had somehow managed to forget that Erin could do that, or she was in fact that committed to staying in character. She elected to not give him the opportunity to gather his wits, grabbing him by his tusks and then immediately realized she had no idea what the fuck to do next. She operated on instinct, wrenching his head hard to the right before he could start to fight back, pulling his legs out from under him and slamming him to the ground. Taking a cue from Ursula’s handling of the boar man, she quickly stomped, aiming for his tusks. He let out a pained trumpet as his left tusk snapped off like a twig.
The elephant man scrambled backwards, in an attempt to pull himself back together. With one tusk missing he was significantly less potentially stabby, but it also meant Erin wouldn’t be able to pull the same trick again – not enough leverage. So she moved to press her advantage, somehow. “Oh no you don’t,” she said, moving on instinct. And her instincts said to hold him in place the only way she knew how; by abusing her larger size. She jumped in the air and came down on top of him boobs-first.
She very briefly worried that she’d made a poor decision. Her boobs were big, yes, but also very soft. Cushioning the blow was probably a poor idea. The somewhat sickening crunch that resulted, however, mostly assuaged her fears. Tentatively, she pulled herself back up off the suddenly motionless elephant man. “Oh, dear,” she muttered. He seemed to be dead, or at the very least stunned. A part of her hoped it was the latter. Which... was silly, really. He was trying to kill her, after all. And he wasn’t real, regardless, so it wasn’t like she’d have actually killed a real person.
But, well, he sure felt like a real person. That alone was enough to set off an instinctive guilt and a welling panic in the pit of her stomach. She immediately began struggling to swallow it back – now was, without a doubt, the absolute worst time possible to have a panic attack. Or at least comparable to ‘while in the middle of a life or death game of riddles’. But still, even though it was the worst possible time and even though it wasn’t real, she couldn’t fight back that instinctive terror. She’d crossed that line. She’d killed someone.
Wait hold on no she hadn’t his trunk was snaking its way around her leg. If he’d been a bit quicker he could probably have caught her off guard and taken the advantage back, noticing he was still alive was enough to knock her out of the panic attack. He’d also made the critical mistake of putting his mouth in fairly easy reach of her foot, and got himself a light kick to the teeth for his trouble. That jarred her foot loose of his trunk, and so the second kick to his teeth had a windup. There was a light splatter of blood on her green-inked foot. She followed up by stomping on his other tusk several times until it also snapped off. “I have had more than enough of you, thank you very much.”
The elephant man writhed in pain, clutching at his face and letting out low rumbling moans. He was probably out of the fight, but just to be sure, Erin turned around and sat on him. “There. You’re staying right where you are for now.” He struggled beneath her, but just wasn’t strong enough to move what was likely several tonnes of mouse off of him. “How are you holding up?”
“Juuuuuust dandy, thanks.” Ursula had somehow managed to make exactly zero progress struggling with the alligator man. It was a perfect stalemate, even moreso than the boar had been. “It turns out smiles here’s got a really strong jaw.”
“Would you like a hand?”
“No, you need to keep the big guy pinned. How’s Vienna doing?”
“She seems... busy.”
“Lovely. Try and... I don’t know, grab her outta the air or something?”
“I don’t want to hurt her.”
“Stop sitting on your asses talking about nothing and help me!” Vienna interjected as the bat man swooped within range. It immediately swooped back out of range in an erratic loop. Keeping her grip was getting increasingly difficult. “Edifice, please tell me you have a plan.”
“Okay! We’re getting somewhere!”
“You’re not going to like it.”
“It’s gotta bebetter than what I’ve managed to come up with!”
“Okay. I’m going to take control.”
“Just do something already.”
“Okay.” With that, Edifice let go of the bat man.
“wait what the fuck did you just do.”
“Just trust me!” Edifice snapped as they began to plummet. Vienna, surprisingly, found herself not panicking. She was very far beyond panic. Like a small spot of tranquility in the centre of a hurricane. She was high up enough that the best case scenario involved breaking every god damn bone in her body. She didn’t want to think about the worst case scenario. Being inked might have helped, but a fifty foot drop was a fifty foot drop. She was just going to splat on the sidewalk a bit more literally.
Edifice didn’t panic. Instead, she made use of her now free hands to create a shield around herself just in time for them to collide heavily with the ground. Vienna’s vision swam and her whole body hurt, but she wasn’t dead. Edifice didn’t seem to react to the pain, instead immediately catching the bat man with another shield and sending him crashing into a building. “Delphi, let go now!” Ursula obeyed the command instinctively, pulling away just in time for Edifice to pull the bat man out of the building and slam him into the Alligator man. She lifted him one final time, arcing him through the air before hitting the elephant man in the skull. She took a moment to make sure all three were dead, or at least unconscious. “There. Do you have anything else up your sleeves, or can we go now?”
Beastmaker glowered furiously from a good distance away. There was a palpable tension in the air, all three girls waiting anxiously for whatever he was going to throw at them next. Not a one of them was capable of more fighting, physically or mentally. Ursula collected herself as best as she could, Erin nervously removed herself from the elephant man’s body, and Vienna just let Edifice remain in control of their body. She just hurt too much to do anything else. All of them waited for the other shoe to drop.
Suddenly, an eager grin plastered itself on Beastmaker’s face, and he began to clap. Slowly at first, and then faster until he was giving them a one-man standing ovation. “That was awesome!” Ami said.
“You guys totally kicked my butt! I was like ‘grrrr’ and you were like ‘no way’ and then you were like ‘BOOM’ and I was like ‘oh no!’ and then Erin crushed me with her boobs!” Ami continued rambling for several minutes, pantomiming the fight like a child re-enacting a cool fight scene from a movie, which looked outright comical coming from Beastmaker. “See, isn’t it way more fun if you just play along?”
Something inside of Vienna snapped. “Fun? Fun?! You were trying to kill us!”
“Well, yeah, it’s no fun if I pull my punches.” She shrugged. “I mean, you guys can clearly handle it, so I’d say I struck a good balance. Heck, I could probably stand to go a bit harder!”
“A good- did you see what just happened?!”
“Yeah, you pretty well curbstomped me. I don’t think any of you even took any hits?”
“I fell like fifty feet!”
“Okay, okay, fine, no flying enemies next time, but you seem pretty spry for someone who fell like fifty feet.”
“I-” That was, she realized, a good point. She hurt, yes, but not nearly as much as she by all rights should have hurt. Between the Ink and the shield, she probably had some nasty bruises at worst. She’d injured herself worse when she’d fallen over at slightly the wrong angle. “Okay, fine. But you-”
“Anyway, that’s enough of that. I’m gonna leave you guys to cool down and recover. Oh, yeah, where’s Viola? I know she’s not much of a fighter, but I figured it could have been fun to defend her from the mooks or something?”
“You kidnapped her!”
“What? No I didn’t.” Ami’s reply was annoyed and somewhat indignant. It sounded genuine, like everything she said. Vienna would almost have believed her, were it not for the fact that she knew for a fact it was a lie.
“You took her! Those... weird soldier dudes from the entrance.”
“They did?” Once again, Ami’s bafflement seemed unsettlingly genuine. “What are they thinking? They’re not supposed to... Ugh.” She threw her hands up in the air in frustration. “You! Stay put! I’m going to go fix this mess!”
With that, Ami abruptly vanished, leaving the girls once again on their own. The bodies of the beast men also vanished into thin air, as did all the damage from the fight. Like it had never happened, aside from the bruises and the exhaustion.
Their Inklings receded, vanishing to whatever metaphysical space they occupied when the girls weren’t inked. Delphi had attempted to explain, and it completely went over Ursula’s head so she’d given up after thirty seconds. Vienna collapsed backwards, sitting slightly too heavily on the asphalt ground. “Oof,” she grunted. “What the fuck just happened?”
“I have no idea.” Erin wandered over to a building, leaned against a window, and allowed her body to drop, sliding down into a sitting position. “We seem to have wasted all our stamina on a fight that we were always going to win.”
“You think so?”
“I was pretty sloppy,” Ursula interjected. “Showboated a lot, relied on the same tactic over and over. I only beat chompy ‘cos Vienna pulled through in a pinch.”
“And I mostly copied Ursula,” Erin added with a nod. “I almost get the feeling I didn’t get hurt because Ami let me win.”
“Now that you mention it, the only time any of us took any real damage was me letting go of the bat.”
“You don’t think-”
“No. It doesn’t make sense.”
“I find myself unsure what does make sense anymore,” Erin muttered. “It feels like every time I’ve gotten a grasp of the situation, something happens that completely undermines everything.”
“Well,” Vienna said, pulling herself upright. She stood, shakily and unsteadily. Now that the adrenaline rush was fading and that Edifice had retreated, her whole body suddenly ached. Especially the point of impact.“We’re not gonna figure out anything just sitting on our asses.”
“Oh hell no.” Ursula stormed over and grabbed Vienna firmly by the shoulder. “You’re not going anywhere until you’ve recovered.”
“Is a big girl. I’m certain that she can take care of herself.”
“Look at you, you’re barely standing. What would Viola say if you got yourself hurt trying to rescue her? Or worse.”
“I don’t think there’s a worse. Ami’s pulling her punches, right?”
“We don’t know that. She seems to want us to win, but we can’t say for sure she wouldn’t kill us if we lose.” Erin shrugged. “Besides, I don’t know about Ursula, but I am exhausted. We’ve made a good amount of progress, I think, but the killer robot has a point. We should rest.”
“Yeah, what she said,” Ursula said. She gently pushed on Vienna’s shoulder until the rabbit gave up and flopped backwards, resting against the larger girl. Satisfied that Vienna wasn’t going to push herself, the doberman dragged her over to the wall Erin was resting against and sat her down beside the mouse. “Come on, let’s eat something.”
“Yeah, okay.” Vienna reached to her back, and then froze. “Where the fuck is the backpack?”
“Shit. It musta fallen off.”
“Relax, darlings. I saw this coming. Vienna, do you still have your PET?”
“I put mine in the backpack and set up the peoplefinder app. All we have to do is go to where it is. Um, assuming Ami will let us.”
“Right,” Vienna muttered, once again pulling herself upright. “I guess we’re not having a break after all.”
“Hey kid, catch.”
“Huh? Ack!” Once again, Viola found something hurled at her face. This time she managed to catch it, which was good because it was her PET.
“Congratulations,” Makoto groused. “You’ve been well behaved enough to earn your phone privileges back. Try and escape again and I’ll smash it.”
“You got good taste in music, by the way,” Bob interjected. “The stuff I recognized at least. Top tier.”
“Okay.” Viola cringed into herself, desperately hoping they would go back to leaving her alone.
Once they did just that, she turned her attention to her PET. She elected not to touch the peoplefinder. Unlike Ursula, she’d not sprung for a nice model – a generic model rather than a nicer name brand like Fantastic Dynamics or Travers Innovations or Antronics or Mentek or Divido or whatever. It wasn’t expensive, she hadn’t put in months of work to save up for it. But she still didn’t relish the thought of Makoto smashing it.
She fiddled idly with it, but ultimately found herself not really feeling like doing anything with it. None of her modest game or music collection really spoke to her, and she felt like sneaking in some stress relief would probably be a really bad idea. So instead she just sat and did nothing. Just like she had before she got her PET back. God, she wanted to go home.
“What the hell are you doing!”
Viola found herself jolted out of her boredom. She knew that voice. It was Ami.
“They were hangin’ round the exit,” Bob replied with a shrug. He was speaking to a strange looking pre-splice man in a bloodstained labcoat. One of Ami’s avatars, she assumed. She didn’t even bother trying to fathom the context. “Probably thinkin’ ‘bout escapin’. We gave ‘em incentive not to.”
“Well, don’t,” Ami snapped back. “You only interact with them if they do try to escape, not if they think about it. And what part of don’t kill them did you not get!”
“Hey, that wasn’t our fault,” Yuri interrupted. “They ran off before we could do anything. Which wouldn’t have happened if you told us they had superpowers, by the way.”
“I only sorta knew they had superpowers though! And anyway, what part of ‘nonlethal’ made you think it was a good idea to shoot her arm off!!!”
Bob shrugged, unintimidated. “They didn’t die, that’s the important thing. As I recall, you specifically said we’re free to enact your orders as we see fit. So I don’t really see the problem with takin’ Viola. We’re just doin’ what you told us to.”
“Okay, well, maybe don’t. There’s rules for a reason and I don’t appreciate you bending them. I-”
The argument stopped abruptly. Viola briefly panicked – had Ami noticed her listening in? Or maybe someone else had found the shack and her attention was on them? Regardless of what had made Ami interrupt herself, it probably wasn’t going to be good for Viola.
“Oh. Oh, huh. That’s interesting. That’s very interesting.” Ami’s avatar turned to look directly at Viola. “Hey, you’ve still got your phone thing, right?”
“Okay, good. I was worried you’d lost it like Ursula did. I just picked up a broadcast from Locksmouth and I... I think you’re gonna wanna see this.”
“What?” Viola’s mind raced with possibilities. Foremost in her mind was a call from Papa, or maybe one of the Ecksteins or the Lerouxs. Or, hell, she’d have taken any information on the situation in Locksmouth at all.
In a way, she got exactly that. Her PET let out a sharp chirp, an emergency alert not unlike the one that had set off this whole mess. Hand shaking, she opened the call.
Scarlet Eckstein hadn’t been having a particularly good day. If one wanted to get technical she’d not been having a particularly good series of days, but today was exceptionally bad because she’d lost track of Leanne. Currently Locksmouth looked like a god damn post-apocalyptic wasteland and also there were actual god damn real life monsters crawling around god damn everywhere, so she really didn’t relish being on her own. And of course they wouldn’t even have been inside the dome had she not insisted on coming along with Leanne on the wildlife survey and then been completely fucking unable to handle the wilderness for more than thirty seconds. So it was basically her fault Leanne was in trouble.
Also her butt hurt. And she’d not showered in days. Her tail, normally perfectly cleaned and maintained, big and fluffy and soft, was instead a fucking mess. Everything about her was a mess, really, but she was a skunk so her tail being a mess stood out.
“Leanne, where are you?” she muttered to herself as she curled tightly into a ball. She’d made the decision to stay put. If Leanne was okay, and came back to find Scarlet but Scarlet had left to go find Leanne then they’d just stay separated. Probably forever. So instead she stayed in place even though it had been a while and she was running low on food and water (which is why Leanne had left in the first place) and it was cold and wet and her butt hurt and-
Her internal monologue was interrupted by a noise. Like... well, like footsteps. Maybe it was another person. Maybe it was Leanne! Or, on the opposite extreme, maybe it was one of those weird grey zombie things. She scooted backwards, pressing her back more firmly against the wall of the bombed out building they were using as shelter. “H-hello?” she eventually squeaked, barely audible. It was probably a bad idea, but she was desperate enough to take the admittedly extreme risk.
“Ah! Hello, is there someone there?”
It wasn’t Leanne, unfortunately. The voice was a man, around her age maybe? The important thing was that he was a human and not a zombie or alien – they didn’t seem able to talk. “Yes! Hello, I’m here!”
“Hold on, I’m coming...” There was more noise, awkward uneven steps as whoever it was crawled their way through the wreckage and into the small room that Scarlet and Leanne had made into their base. The man was a horse, tall and somewhat lanky, dressed in messy looking office clothing with a pair of glasses resting on his nose. He also moved with a noticeable limp. “You, uh, you don’t mind if I hang out with you, do you? There were a bunch of people in a park but one of the people organizing it was an alien. Think I broke my leg getting outta there.”
“No, no, it’s okay. I’m pretty sure Leanne won’t mind. Um, assuming she comes back. I hope she comes back soon...”
“How long’s she been gone?”
“Oof. Well, I’m pretty sure she’ll be fine,” the horse said, somewhat patronizingly.
“Uh, yeah.” Scarlet nervously shuffled, but pulled away from the wall a bit. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re probably not a zombie or a monster.”
“I’m glad you’re not a zombie or a monster either,” the horse said with a chuckle. “Oh, I figure we should probably introduce ourselves, if we’re going to be a group.”
“Yeah, that makes sense. I’m Scarlet. Scarlet Eckstein.”
The horse’s eyes lit up with recognition. “Oh. Well that’s one heck of a coincidence.”
“Yep. Vinnie Coniglio.”
“Oh. Oh! Like as in the twins?”
“Yep. Fancy meeting you here,” he said with a warm laugh.
“Yeah. Uh, nice to meet you. For the first time. Is that bad? You’d think a good parent would know her daughter’s girlfriends’ parents.”
“It’s fine,” Vinnie said with a dismissive wave. “We know each other now.”
“Yeah, I guess. God, I’ve not thought about Ursula in a while. I hope she’s okay...”
“She’s a tough kid. It’ll take more than us going missing for a few days to rattle her.”
“Yeah, I guess. Still, I-”
“Wait,” Vinnie interrupted. “I think I hear someone coming.”
The two clammed up, staying as silent as possible. There was, after all, the very real possibility that it was one of the monsters. And, well, now that Vinnie was here, Scarlet was no longer quite so desperate for companionship. It was a bigger risk.
“Hey, Scarlet? I’m back.”
That was all Scarlet needed to hear. “Leanne!” She jumped up and ran to the entrance, tackling her wife to the ground. “Oh god I was so worried about you I thought you’d died or something you were gone for so long and-”
“Hey, hey, easy, I was out for like twenty minutes tops.” The taller bun gently stroked Scarlet’s hair. “It’s fine, it’s fine. I’m back now.” She pulled herself upright, the sobbing wreck that was her wife still clung to her midsection as she dragged herself in. “Oh! I see you made a friend.”
“Yeah. Um, this is Vinnie. Vinnie Coniglio.”
“Huh. No foolin’? Small world, huh.”
“Yep. It’s good to see some familiar faces. Or at least hear familiar names,” he corrected with another small chuckle.
“Speaking of familiar names, I come bearing more friends! Hey!” she shouted, poking her head out of the large hole that was acting as the door to their little hideaway. “It’s safe! C’mon in.”
“Just a minute!” came a reply.
“Wouldja believe I bumped into Erin’s moms?”
“That’s quite the coincidence.”
“Not really. Helen works outta Locksmouth and she can’t telecommute all the time.” Leanne moved out of the way of the doorway. Shortly after, a small mousey woman with big round glasses (among other things) crawled into the room, followed by a large, stocky gila monster.
“U-um, hello,” the mouse said.
“Hey, Helen,” Vinnie said with a wave. “Pardon me for not getting up but I’m pretty sure my leg’s broken.”
“That’s great,” the gila monster (presumably Lauren) grumbled. “Having a guy with a broken leg is exactly what we need if we get attacked by monsters.”
“Lauren,” Helen snapped.
“Sorry, sorry. Just kinda stressed.”
“It’s fine, she’s got a point,” Vinnie said with a dismissive wave. “We’re all stressed. And this... isn’t exactly the most defensible position.”
“Yeah,” Leanne said wearily. “We’re still looking for a better place to hide out, but neither of us know the town very well. It’s all we can do to find enough food and water.”
“Speaking of which,” Lauren said, dumping a sack in the middle of the room. Several water bottles and food bars fell out, making it clear what it was full of. “Not the best haul, but enough.”
“I was thinking we could head to the university,” Helen said. “It was mostly intact when we were there and there’s a lot of places to hole up that are much sturdier than here.”
“That sounds like a plan,” Leanne said with a nod. Scarlet seemed to be content to remain quiet now that her wife was back and there were a bunch of strangers around, clinging tightly to the taller bun. “It’s kinda far, though, and I’m not cool with leaving Vinnie behind.”
“I’ll be fine,” Vinnie said, as reassuring as he could manage. “I got all the way here from that park I forget the name of, I can probably get to the University.”
“Okay. Then it’s settled. Let’s take some time to recover and then-” Leanne found herself interrupted as every PET in the room went off at once. A sharp, shrill chirp that signified an emergency frequency.
Everyone moved to answer it, acting on pure reflex. Of course they accepted it, it was an emergency broadcast.
There were six people on the other end. Five of them were aliens, those strange ink creatures, like the greys but in different colours. Vinnie recognized several of them from the incident at the park. The sixth somehow managed to stand out even more – he was a pre-splice human. Helen let out a choked noise upon seeing him, somewhere between surprise and excitement and a little bit of fear.
After a moment, one of them stepped forward. The silhouette of a young girl, maybe slightly younger than their own daughters, but coated in shiny black ink and outlined in pink. “People of Locksmouth. Please lend me your attention,” she said after a moment. There was a subtle, almost imperceptible nervousness to her voice, but also a strength. “I can’t give you my name. To do so would endanger people dear to me. However, I can tell you the name of the alien life form, the ‘Inkling’ I share my body with.”
There was another pause. Only a small one – were it not for the fact that everyone present had their own teenage girls, they probably wouldn’t have noticed it at all. A subtle apprehension, the slightest hesitation before taking that one final step. “Her name is Echelon.”
It was a lot for Viola to take in. Inklings in Locksmouth. A comic book character come to life from before the splice. An evil intergalactic overlord bent on world domination! It all sounded like something out of a comic book. Clearly this was the civil war Delphi had mentioned. Maybe that was why Aubrey and her friends came to earth, to help Echelon in the fight against Empress Osoth. Maybe. She had no idea because as far as she knew Aubrey was still an amnesiac.
Though on the other hand, maybe the broadcast had been enough to jog Aubrey’s memories. She could feel a subtle but insistent nagging in the back of her mind, a familiar sensation that typically meant that Aubrey wanted to talk. It’d have to wait, though. Ami was still present, looming over her expectantly. “See? I told you there were aliens!”
“Uh, y-yeah. I guess you were right.”
“They kinda look like those goo things you and your friends have, maybe they’re the same thing?”
“Maybe,” Viola lied. She was almost certain they were the same thing, but she didn’t quite feel comfortable telling Ami that.
“Aliens! Invading earth! And there’s good aliens fighting them! And Captain Comet is there! Actually really there!It’s so cool!”
“M-maybe Echelon and her friends will beat Osoth before you have to, um...” Viola trailed off as Ami’s expression soured.
“Hey. Don’t think this means the game’s off. You’ve still got to beat me before the time limit’s up or it’s bye bye Locksmouth.”
“Anyway, speaking of which! You should get going! Go get back to your friends so you can save the world and stuff!”
“Oh, um. I-I thought I was-”
“You thought wrong!” Ami’s exuberance was tinged with manic annoyance. “This whole thing isn’t part of the game and has slowed you all down way too much. You guys need to get back on schedule! Come on, up! Up!” The strange pre-splice man Ami was using as an avatar grabbed at her, pulling her upright and pushing her away. “I’ll deal with the soldiers, don’t worry about them. You’ve got friends to get back to. Give ‘em a call or something, let ‘em know you’re alright!”
“Okay, okay, I’m going! I’m going!” Viola cringed away from the physical contact, already making her way away. She was more than happy to get away from the soldiers and Ami and back to her pack as soon as possible. She stormed off in an arbitrary direction for several minutes before running out of steam entirely, leaning tiredly against the nearest building. She was exhausted, which was baffling considering she’d literally not moved all day. Maybe she just needed to eat something that wasn’t nutrient paste or energy bars.
“Viola. We need to talk.”
“Can it wait? I need to call the others and turn on the peoplefinder and-”
“Now.” There was something... different about Aubrey’s voice. Cold, but firm. The kind of voice Viola could never in a million years imagine coming from herself – the fact that they shared a voice made the whole thing slightly surreal.
“Okay, if it’s important,” she said, somewhat reluctantly. At the moment her priority was getting back to her friends.
“My name. It’s Fantoma.”
Viola’s heart skipped a beat. “You remember your name?”
“I remember everything.”
Viola’s breath caught in her throat as she pulled away from the window and turned to look at her reflection. She’d considered the possibility idly, but now that it was actually a reality she almost struggled to react at all. It was something she’d been hoping for... pretty much since she’d first met Aubrey. “Fantoma,” she said, enunciating every syllable carefully. Savouring the way it felt to say. Almost in awe. “I guess I’m going to have to get used to calling you that, huh?”
“Yeah...” Aubr- Fantoma didn’t seem to be as happy as Viola would have expected. She sighed, looking her host directly in the eye. “Viola, I’ve got... something I need to tell you. It’s important, something to do with the broadcast. With Echelon.”
“Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. We’ve gotta get to Locksmouth, right?”
“Yes. As soon as possible, or your world will be doomed. It’s a matter of days.”
“Of course we do. You’ve gotta help beat Osoth, right?”
Fantoma took a sharp breath. “Right... About that.”
“You’re... not going to like what I have to say next.”
Viola’s heart sank. It felt like a pit had opened up beneath her, and she was in freefall. The elation at learning that Aubrey had finally remembered who she really was vanished, replaced with a deep apprehension. “W-what? What’s going on, I don’t-”
Fantoma raised a hand silently, waiting for Viola to stop. The harlequin rabbit cut herself off, scared and confused. Fantoma didn’t look happy. She could barely look her host in the eye, from the looks of it. “In order to save your world...” She paused, taking a deep breath and a few moments of silence. Presumably to collect her thoughts and to work up the courage to say whatever terrible thing needed to be said.
“In order to save your world, Echelon needs to die.”