“Pretty sure we’re gonna make the nightly news. You’re gonna be famous little guy!” Anya said as they flew away from the Riverbanks Zoo.

“You know what you’re gonna do with it yet? Maybe just take it back to Central Africa and plop him in a field near an anthill, away from people.” Tori asked and patted the blanket-covered pangolin curled up on the floor of the V-187. It twitched but didn’t move otherwise.

Anya nodded. “Not a bad idea. But I think I’m gonna activate him.”

“What? What if it goes nuts? The Zookeeper was saying people harvest pangolin scales like crazy. What if it wants to get revenge on humanity for killing so many of its kind?”

“Then I’ll kill it,” Anya said and frowned. “The menu said it would just activate it to an acceptable level or something. It’s not gonna be a genius. And I’m gonna pick a class and spend more points before I activate it, so if the pangolin is all murder-happy, I can do something about it.

“But if it’s not crazy, then I have another host to help me with the aliens in the best case. At the very least, I’ll have even more proof to show somebody who might be skeptical, or just a host that can fend for itself and distract or maybe kill an alien while I go do other things.”

“Okay,” Tori said. “Now?”

“Hell no!” Anya said. “We’re thousands of feet up in the air traveling at sub-sonic speeds. I’ll drop you off and go take him into an empty field somewhere.”

“Hey, you’re thinking ahead and stuff!” Tori said.

“Shut up.”

“Speaking of thinking ahead, should I just tell Mr. Higgins you’re quitting?” Tori asked. Anya bit her lip. Her job seemed so far away, from another life and time line. She had to remind herself it had only been a few days since things had been normal.

“No, I’ll do it,” Anya said.

“What about your apartment?”

“I’ve almost blown it up once, and might attract aliens to Bushwick if I stay there. We couldn’t let this guy stay in a crowded zoo all day. It’d be silly for me to stay where I am too.”

“Oh,” Tori said and Anya heard her voice hitch slightly as she continued, “I mostly meant how you were gonna pay for it without a job. Maybe sell something valuable but inconspicuous from your menu store but…yeah, that makes sense.”

Anya set the V-187 to autopilot and then turned to face her friend.

“Tori, I’m leaving my apartment. That doesn’t mean I’m gonna ditch you, or never set foot in New York again. You helped me when I first moved to the city, and you’ve been amazing through all of this. But it’s dangerous to be around me now. Especially if I’m gonna go out and find more hosts who I hope are human. No offense little guy.”

Anya directed the last to the curled up pangolin.

“I know,” Tori said. “Just kinda sucks I’m not gonna see you at work every day. And that I’m gonna have to be worried about you until this is all over.”

“If it’s ever over,” Anya said. “But until then, I promise, we’ll still see each other. I’m gonna need somebody to drink with to unwind from all this or I’m definitely gonna go crazy.”

“Any time you want,” Tori said and smiled. They spent the rest of the brief flight in relative quiet. When they came within sight of Manhattan, Anya circled the entire city and had Felix ping it for aliens. When the AI gave the all-clear, Anya set the V-187 down on her rooftop, and left it stealthed. She deposited the pangolin on the floor of her apartment, and left it as she walked Tori out of her building to the street below.

“I guess I’ll head back home,” Tori said. “Dunno how I’m gonna focus on anything now that I know what’s going on.”

“I’m sorry to put all this on you,” Anya replied. She realized that staying away from regular contact with her friend was the best way to keep her safe, but hadn’t thought about what leaving her alone might do otherwise. Tori held up a hand and shook her head.

“Nope, none of that. I’ll be fine. The worst I have to worry about for now is dealing with Higgins’s temper tantrums. And if this alien invasion thing keeps going the way it’s been going, everybody else will know soon enough. You call me whenever you want or need to. Maybe stop by on the weekends.”

They hugged each other, and Anya felt her eyes sting a bit. She knew she wasn’t leaving Tori for good, but she wouldn’t be seeing her every morning during their commute. They wouldn’t gripe about Higgins together during their lunch break, and they wouldn’t make any plans on the subway every Friday night.

They separated and Tori gave Anya a gentle squeeze on her broad shoulders. “Promise me you’ll be safe. As much as you can.”

“Promise,” Anya said.

“And that you’ll tell me whenever something happens. Like the pangolin. I wanna know what the deal is ASAP.”

“And that you——”

“Tori,” Anya said and hugged her friend again. “I will keep in touch constantly and I will be back in the city this weekend for dinner or something. I swear. Okay?”

“Okay,” Tori said. “But you also have to promise to let me breathe.”

“Sorry! Sorry. Still getting used to all the muscles,” Anya said as she released her friend. She hadn’t realized how tightly she had been squeezing. Tori nodded and took a breath.

“This weekend!” Tori said as she walked toward the subway station.

“Yup!” Anya called back and waved. Tori waved back, and Anya watched her until she rounded the corner of the next block. She sighed, trudged up to her apartment, and started to make a list of things she needed to take care of before she left. She would need to pack some food, a few keepsakes, say good-bye to Mr. Kim, pay out the rest of her rent, get her deposit back (assuming the landlord didn’t keep it for the damages she’d caused)…

By the time Anya had climbed the stairs back to her door, she had almost forgotten about the pangolin inside. It had emerged from under the blanket and was walking around her apartment on its hind legs in shuffling steps. It had also pooped on the floor.

“Great,” Anya sighed. “I hope you get smart enough to know that kinda literal shit ain’t cool.”

She got cleaning supplies out of the bathroom cupboard and set about picking up the mess and washing the floor. The pangolin watched her with curious dark eyes, but kept its distance. Anya had just finished wiping up the hardwood floor when there was a knock at her door.

“Just a sec,” she said and threw the dirty paper towels in the trash. “You forget something Tori?”

Anya opened the door expecting to see her friend there.

Officer Ramierez, the young cop from Prospect Park, stood there instead. His eyes widened as he saw her and his mouth dipped open. There was a colorful bruise on the left side of his face from where Anya had punched him on Monday night.

“Uh!” Ramierez gasped and his hand darted to his hip.

“Ah!” Anya shouted in surprise and she punched him square on the chin. There was a sharp crack as her knuckles connected and Ramierez flew back against the far wall. He tipped over to the side and lay on the floor with a quiet thud, then began to snore.

“God dammit,” Anya sighed.

A quick search of Ramierez revealed  his wallet, phone, keys, a small revolver in an ankle holster, and a pair of handcuffs. Anya noticed a distinct lack of a badge or shield in his wallet and she frowned. She wondered why he had made for his hip and not his ankle, and realized it was probably reflex. She put his phone in her pocket along with the keys to the handcuffs, Emptied the revolver’s bullets into the trash, then put the revolver in her other pocket. She cuffed his hands behind his back, hauled him up to the roof, and strapped him into the back of the V-187. She went back and retrieved the pangolin and set it on the floor in front of Ramierez.

She threw some food and water into one bag, her laptop in another, and a final bag for a few personal items: a framed picture of her and Tori at the first place she had gotten pizza at in Brooklyn, some souvenirs from various trips, and her pillow and blanket from her bed. All of this went into a storage compartment in the back of the V-187, along with her solar glaive. She decided she’d have to take care of the rest of her moving out after she dealt with Ramierez and the pangolin.

She changed out of the khakis from the zoo and back into her normal clothes, and then began her pre-flight procedures. Ramierez continued to snore in the back seat, and Anya hoped he would just stay unconscious until she had handled the pangolin. She didn’t want to just keep knocking him out if she could avoid it. She had already set fire to public property, punched Ramierez once, stolen a rare animal from a zoo, and she guessed there was some kind of crime for piloting unregistered aircraft and not issuing flight plans or something. She didn’t think her budding rap sheet would get much worse just from punching Ramierez twice, but it couldn’t be good for him physically.

She had located a decent vacant field on a map in Jersey that was only a short flight to the south. It was miles away from any major population centers, and if she had to blow something up…well, it was Jersey. Nobody would notice.

She set the V-187 down in the field and turned all of its systems off, including stealth. There wasn’t a soul to see in the field or beyond, and she might as well let the vehicle charge while she could.

“Felix?” she said and the AI appeared in a swirl of orange light.

“Here!” they said.

“I’m gonna activate the pangolin in a few minutes,” she said, “and before I do, I want to pick my class, just in case things go bad.”

“Exciting!” Felix cheered. “What are you gonna pick?”

“I actually want your help with that. Can you find me any classes that fit my current skill set and would provide me with some decent survivability in any fights I might get into?”

“Yes! Here!” Felix said. The chubby hologram was almost shaking with delight as they brought up Anya’s menu to the class selection screen. Either Felix had been giving this prior thought, or they were lightning fast at finding exact matches. The menu before Anya showed a single class, but it looked like it had been made for her.




“Holy shit,” Anya said in a wheeze. With the touch of the confirmation button, she would more than double her existing skills, several of her stats, and gain even more skills and equipment than she had. And even after all that, she would still have all the points and RAC she hadn’t spent to diversify with other skills por make her existing ones even more powerful.

Anya looked at Felix and raised her eyebrows. “So where it says ‘fire skill, host choice, magical or natural origin only,’ I could make those 15 points go to Flame Dominion? And the same for Pole Arms and other stuff I’ve taken?”

“That’s right! While many classes have specific skills aligned with them, many others have general ones,” Felix replied.
“And was this always here? Because this looks almost tailor-made for what I got.”

“Yes,” Felix said. “The menu system has millions of combinations for various skill sets joined together. It’s not exactly a match for what you currently have, as you have no skill with any form of armor, but it’s very close! Would you like to take this as your class?”

“Can I see some others?” Anya asked.

“Of course!” Felix spread the menu out before her. Felix had selected dozens of potential classes for her to choose from, all enhancing the skills she had already chosen or adding others. Most of the classes seemed like specializations and focused on one type of skill over another.

The Field Commander class gave her more mental skills relating to strategy and information gathering. The Infernal Evoker class had an abundance of fire skills like Pyromancy and something called Hellfire Form. Another class, Gladiator, focused entirely on melee combat skills. A fourth class, Life Mage, was centered on healing herself and others.

“Can I make adjustments to classes?” Anya asked.

“No, I’m afraid not,” Felix replied. “But there are so many permutations of classes that you shouldn’t need to. And if you don’t like it you can always pick another class later.”

“With the respecification token at level 50?” Anya asked.

“That too.”

“Is there something else?”

“Yes. You get to pick a second class at 50, a third at 75, and a fourth at 100 and combine those classes in unique ways. Or you can specialize and focus on increasing the existing stats of a chosen class.”

“Jesus,” Anya said. The level of potential power the menu offered her was staggering. It only made her think about the aliens though, and how strong they must be if the menu had been sent as a defensive measure.

“All right. I’m gonna take Phoenix Knight,” Anya said as she finished looking over the dozens of prompts before her. They all either offered too much specialization or gave her too many new skills. Anya didn’t want to be a Jack-of-All-Trades sort, but she didn’t want to pigeon-hole herself either. She’d increase her existing skills with the class bonuses, and use her remaining points to go in a different direction and experiment.

“Good choice!” Felix said and gave her a thumbs up. “Just confirm when you’re ready!”

Anya stepped out of the V-187 and into the empty field. It was just a dirt field with some sad patches of weeds and grass sticking up amongst the rocks and clumps of soil. The road was a quarter mile away and behind a row of trees, and the nearest structure was some kind of abandoned barn or storage facility in the distance. Anya wasn’t sure if anything would happen by raising her levels so much, but she didn’t want to take any chances.

Anya checked inside the vehicle to make sure Ramierez and the pangolin were okay. The former was still out cold and the latter hid under its blanket. She closed the door on them and jogged away until she’d put several dozen yards between herself and her two kidnapping victims. Anya brought up the menu and selected “PHOENIX KNIGHT.” She made sure all the bonuses from the class would go to her existing skills (except for the point for “ARMOR” which would sit unused until she chose an appropriate skill), took a breath, and hit “CONFIRM.”

Anya waited.

One second dragged by.

Then two.

Then thr——

Anya screamed.

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