HAM0102022019-06-16T14:48:21+00:00

01.02.02

Tori was in the back of the V-187 before Anya could even finish opening the door all the way.

“That was easy,” Anya said as she shut the door again and began conducting a pre-flight check of all the systems.

“Anya, if you think I’m not gonna take a ride in an alien jet-car or whatever this is, I dunno why we’re even friends, because you clearly don’t know me,” Tori said. “Plus, it’s obvious some stuff is going down and I can’t just let you go do it alone. But heads up: if I die in a fiery crash, I will haunt you.”

“It’s anti-grav,” Anya replied and smirked. “No combustible fuel. It’s all magnets and batteries, apparently. I did my homework when I was picking a vehicle.”

She strapped herself in and finished her pre-flight check. The outer cameras worked fine and showed her everything around the V-187, front-to-back. The battery indicated it was fully charged, had a week’s worth of full-time usage left in it, which was more than enough for a quick hop down to South Carolina. Beyond that, she’d need to let the solar cells recharge the vehicle.

“Yeah but the Air Force could still blast us out of the sky,” Tori said.

“Stealth craft,” Anya said. It was one of the reasons she had picked the V-187. She didn’t have an expert understanding of the government’s radar capabilities, but she figured they’d be able to spot any unlicensed aircraft sooner or later, and wouldn’t take too kindly to it.

Hence, stealth.

Anya adjusted the stealth settings for the vehicle for daytime and there was a slight hum from inside the vehicle. The interior remained the same, but the readings told Anya that anybody outside would see little else but something like a heat shimmer in the air.

“Fine, fine,” Tori said. “Are you gonna tell me what the hell has been happening? I’ve been freaking out just a tad.”

“As soon as we take off,” Anya said. She took a deep breath, stretched her fingers across the silver guidance discs, and then pressed down on the elevation footpad.

“Oooooooh,” Tori said behind her as the V-187 lifted into the air.

“You buckled in?” Anya asked as they rose up and up. Anya’s stomach dipped as the craft lifted up above the roof of her building. She turned the craft to the south, so Manhattan was well to her right, the Lower Bay was ahead of her, and the Atlantic was to her left.

“Yeah,” Tori said, her voice high, but excited.

Anya pushed the guidance discs forward, and there was an increase in the hum of the V-187, a slight lurch, and then it shot forward. Anya was pushed back into her seat as Brooklyn was put behind them in the span of a couple heartbeats. Tori squeaked and Anya laughed as they zoomed out over the water, past Middletown, New Jersey, and then over the Atlantic Ocean itself as Anya veered to her left.

“Holy shit!” she said and laughed again.

“Oh my god!” Tori said and a giggle escaped her as well.

“I can turn on some screens in the floor so we can see underneath us!”

“Don’t you dare! I feel like I’m gonna piss my pants already!”

“All right, maybe next time,” Anya said and slowed down. They were already nearing the center of New Jersey, and would reach their destination in less than a half hour going at normal speed.

“All right, first,” Tori said from the back, “this is amazing. But, I need a drink. I don’t suppose you got any booze in here?”

“No, sadly. The pilot probably shouldn’t have booze within reach,” Anya said. However, she realized her regeneration ability would nullify most alcohol, short of her chugging tequila or something. “Should I be concerned about your day-time drinking?”

“Anya, I’m in an alien stealth hover-car speeding over the ocean to who-knows-what. I suspect you are about to tell me some even freakier news, based on what I’ve seen and heard about Prospect Park last night and this morning. A cocktail is a perfectly reasonable request.”

“Fair,” Anya shrugged. “Next time. Probably best to stay sober for now though.”

“Ugh, party pooper,” Tori said with a smile.

“Felix, I’m gonna set things to autopilot, but lemme know if you pick anything up on the menu,” Anya said.

“You got it, chief!” Felix replied as they appeared, then turned and waved at Tori. “Hello again!”

“Hey little alien baby,” Tori said.

Anya finished plotting in their route to the autopilot, then rotated her seat around to face her friend. She took a deep breath, and then told Tori what happened: meeting Carl, learning about the enemy aliens, the deaths in Prospect Park, her big attack that nearly set the woods on fire, punching Officer Ramierez, and intercepting the alien’s final data stream and why she was going to Columbia.

“…so I’m just going there to see if this person,” Anya pointed at her map and the orange dot, “knows they even have a menu and if they need any help.”

Tori leaned back in her seat and stared at her friend in silence. She stared out the window at the passing ocean on their left for a solid minute before she faced Anya again.

“That is supremely screwed up,” Tori said. “Wow.”

“I know,” Anya said.

“Aliens.”

“Puppet aliens,” Anya clarified.

“And you can regenerate.”

“Uh-huh.”

“You blew up Prospect Park.”

“Not all of it!”

Tori leaned back in her seat and stared up at the roof of the V-187 for several long minutes. Anya thought her friend was about to demand that she land the craft and let her out so she could take a bus back.

Instead, she only asked, “Are you okay?”

Anya let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. Now that Carl was gone (Dead, Anya corrected herself in her head, Carl’s dead.), Tori was the only one who knew, who she could confide all this crazy shit to.

“Not really,” she replied and ran a hand through her hair, “but considering that I’m even functioning at all, I’d say I could be a lot worse. Means a lot just that you’re not freaking out.”

“Oh no,” Tori held up a hand. “I am freaking out to my core. I am having a freak out parade. Aliens that look like Sesame Street rejects and murder cops? Holy shit. Thousands of other people with the potential to order a nuclear warhead at the push of a button? Oh my god. You turning into a regenerating fireball magician? Wow. But you’re still my friend. So I’ll just charge you for my therapy later, okay?”

“Deal,” Anya said and smiled.

“My biggest concern now is that there’s going to be a bad alien in Columbia if the host there is so easy to spot.”

“I thought about that. The nearest alien as of last night was a couple of states away. But I’m still gonna fly around and ping the area. If there’s a baddie, I drop you somewhere safe, grab the host, and pick you back up and we run for it. If there’s not, then I’m gonna check out the host myself and if they’re cool, you can come if you want. If not, you stay in the V-187 and we keep it stealthed so nobody can see you.”

“That sounds pretty reasonable,” Tori nodded. “And very tactical of you. Is that you or that skill you got?”

“I honestly can’t tell. It’s all just me now, I guess,” Anya said and shrugged.

“So I get you’re going to see this person in South Carolina now because they’re probably at risk. After this, what? You gonna talk to the FBI again?”

Anya heaved out a sigh and let her shoulders droop. “On the one hand it’d be really nice to just hand this all off to somebody. But, I dunno. The cops had their guns on me, and even after I saved one of them he tried to arrest me. Carl seemed pretty skittish about letting the government know too. What if they wanna experiment on me, or use me as a weapon?

“I just have no idea. This isn’t exactly the sort of thing I was planning on doing last week. So for now, I’m keeping it simple: get this host in South Carolina, see if they need help, go from there. Maybe they’ll have a better idea for who to contact than me,” Anya shook her head and shrugged her broad shoulders as she finished. She hadn’t even really thought about contacting the feds or anybody since last night. Everything had been a blur.

“True,” Tori said. “You mind if I ask you a very boring, but personal question to kinda come down from all this alien stuff?”

“Please do.”

“You gonna visit your mom while you’re here in South Carolina?”

Anya grimaced. She hadn’t even considered that.

Shit, what does that say about me that I didn’t even think of Mom when I knew I would be coming down here? She thought.

“Guessing that’s a no,” Tori said as Anya’s grimace spread.

“It hadn’t even occurred to me until just now.”

“Have you told her anything?”

“God no,” Anya shook her head. “She’d think I’d been possessed by demons or something.”

“I could try and convince her that I’m not a demon!” Felix said.

“Abso-fucking-lutely not. She would have a heart attack or try and have her church attack us,” Anya rolled her eyes.

“You ever gonna tell her?” Tori asked.

“I mean, I’ll have to at some point. But no. Not now. I’ve got enough shit to deal with,” Anya said. One of the displays behind her beeped for attention and Anya spun the pilot’s seat back around. The HUD on the windshield flashed as they neared their destination.

“Looks like they’re at the Riverbanks Zoo,” Anya said. “Felix, ping the area while I do a couple circles.”

“Got it!” Felix said. Anya flew in a slow, wide circle around the Riverbanks Zoo below. She widened the circle as she continued to fly and Felix kept pinging.

“No signs of enemy aliens anywhere nearby. That’s definitely a host down there, and I’ve got their exact position,”
Felix said as the orange dot on Anya’s menu map changed to yellow as Felix made the connection.

Anya began to look for a place to set the V-187 down. There was a large wooded area with walking paths threaded through it on the far side of the zoo. Anya did a quick scan of the area and saw that there were only a few people walking around. She switched the V-187 from fly to hover and set it down as far away from the zoo’s visitors as she could.

The stealth craft descended through the trees without disturbing them any more than a strong breeze. Anya turned all the systems in the craft to stand-by except for stealth, which remained active. She doubted anybody would notice the V-187 amongst the shady trees even if it wasn’t mostly invisible, but she didn’t want to take any chances.

“I’m gonna go in and scope it out. If the host is cool, you can join me and we can try and explain stuff, but if you’d rather stay here, that’s fine.”

“Gotcha,” Tori said.

“I’ll make myself scarce!” Felix said and vanished in a blink. Anya emerged from the V-187 when she was certain nobody was looking in their direction. From outside, it appeared as though the air itself slid aside to allow Anya out. She had to admit that even knowing the craft was there and standing mere feet away from it, that the stealth was very effective. She closed the door with a wave to Tori and emerged from the woods onto one of the manicured wooden pathways of the Riverbanks Zoo.

The sun shone through the leaves, and Anya sighed as she felt the much warmer temperature seep into her. It hadn’t even occurred to her before now, but it made sense that she’d feel better in a warmer climate. The frigid weather in New York wasn’t really conducive to her Flame Dominion skill, but here in Columbia——even in winter——there was heat to passively take in.

“All right, just point me in the right direction, Felix,” Anya muttered as she walked toward the center of the zoo.

“You’re going the right way,” Felix replied in her ear. “The host is only making small movements. They don’t seem to be aware of us. Do you want me to resume regular pinging?”

“No, if they had activated their menu, they’d already know we’re here, right?”

“Yup!”

“Then keep it shut off for now,” Anya emerged into an open area with palm trees running through the center, surrounded by angular-roofed buildings advertising food and souvenirs. At the edges of the space were signs pointing to different displays and animal enclosures. It wasn’t very busy on a weekday morning, but there were still quite a few people taking in the sights and sounds of the animals.

Anya checked her phone and veered toward one of the outdoor animal enclosures, the “New and exciting Pangolin Pen!” a sign stated in bright yellow letters. Beside the text was a cartoon caricature of an animal resembling an armadillo, but with huge claws and scales.

Anya approached a high-walled enclosure filled with sand, large rocks, short grass, and broad-leafed trees. Several people stood at the edges of the walls and peered over the edge, with small children sitting atop their parents’ shoulders and pointing at the creatures below them.

“Straight ahead,” Felix said as Anya approached the wall. The enclosure held ten pangolins, half of which managed to look mildly threatening with their large claws, but adorably shy at the same time. They waddled around their habitat, clawed hands held close to their chests. They all looked as if they might be trying to nervously ask somebody out on a date. The other half were curled up into balls and either sleeping or hiding from the crowd, or perhaps both.

“There,” Felix said. There was a short, stout man with thick black hair and a mustache standing in the center of the pen. He wore a khaki shirt, matching shorts, work boots, along with a name tag that identified him as “Frank,” and a member of the zoo’s staff. He faced the crowd of on-lookers, pointing at the pangolins around him as he answered questions.

“Just have to wait until he’s done answering questions I guess,” Anya said.

“The zookeeper?” Felix asked.

“Uh, yeah.”

“He’s not the host.”

Anya turned to her side and studied the people along the edge of the enclosure’s wall. “So who?”

“That one, straight ahead and to your right. Near the back,” Felix said. Anya frowned. That was in the enclosure. But Frank was the only one…

“No fucking way,” Anya whispered.

Anya looked again, straight ahead and to her right inside the enclosure, near the back next to a metal door that led elsewhere. The host was crouched low in the dirt as they extended their comically long tongue over the ground in their search for food.

It was a pangolin.

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