ANYA: Hello. I’m Anya. Are you both okay? Do you know there is an alien nearby?

Anya leaned back in her seat and stared at the message screen. The blue dot flashed and pulsed like a loading icon and then glowing blue words appeared following a name.

SAMAIRA: We’re fine. We know about the alien. Are you here for it, or something else?

Anya paused as she read the words again. Something else. What else could she be here for?

ANYA: Looking for hosts. I killed one alien already. I don’t mean you or anybody else any harm. I just want to help.

The blue dot pulsed and flashed again, and Anya assumed that happened whenever a host was typing. She couldn’t blame the blue host, Samaira, for being cautious. For all she knew, Anya could be harmless but foolish like Carl, or she could be some psychotic murderer. The news had been full of plenty of awful stories of what were either alien attacks or hosts running amok. She wasn’t sure which was more terrifying.

SAMAIRA: We’ve killed one already too. Come to us. We’re in a parking garage nearby, 6th floor. We don’t want a fight, but we can defend ourselves. Bring the yellow host as well.
ANYA: I’ll meet you, but bringing the yellow host is a bad idea. He’s young and very scared.

The menu flashed as the blue dot filled the screen and her ear beeped again.

“That host is trying to call you on video,” Felix said.

“Fine,” Anya said and tapped the blue dot. A young Indian woman’s face appeared on the screen. She looked around Anya’s age, and had striking angular features and wide dark eyes behind even larger circular glasses. Her black hair was pulled back in a loose braid, and she tucked a strand of her hair behind her ear as she saw Anya.

Somebody else was behind her, peering over her shoulder. It was a man who looked to be in his sixties with receding white hair and a thick mustache, thick square glasses, and a well-creased but gentle face. He smiled and waved at the screen.

Anya could see herself, picture-in-picture, up in the corner. The “camera” or whatever it was sending her image to the other host, was somewhere in the center of her menu judging by the angle.

“Hello there,” the old man said, his Chicago accent evident even in just those three syllables.

“H-hi,” Anya stammered, surprised at suddenly being confronted like this.

“What’re you playing at?” the Indian woman, Samaira, asked. Her voice was on the cold side, stern like a school-teacher’s.

“I’m not?” Anya asked.

“You want to keep that other host hidden to do what? Launch some kind of surprise attack on us?” Samaira said.
“No!” Anya said.

“Easy there,” the old man said. “She might not be like the other one.”

“Other one?” Anya asked.

“Explain why the yellow host needs to stay behind,” Samaira said. Anya rolled her eyes and leaned to one side as she moved her menu. She jerked a thumb behind her at the back seat where Pan sat.

“Oh!” Pan said and his stubby ears twitched along with his snout. He waved a claw at the screen. “Hello! Pan here!”
“Uh,” Samaira’s face went from sharp and stern to slack and shocked so quickly Anya snorted and had to hold in a laugh.

“Oh my goodness,” the old man behind her said and adjusted his glasses. “Is that an alien?”

“No, he’s a pangolin. A menu hit him while he was in a zoo and I rescued him this morning, made him super intelligent, it’s a story for later. He needs to stay in my car because he’s very shy and very hard to ignore, and he’s only level 11. I didn’t want to cause a ruckus,” Anya said.

“Ruckus,” Pan repeated. “Ruckus. Ruuuuckus.”

“Oh. Yeah. That makes sense,” Samaira said. She glanced down, to the side, cleared her throat and tucked another hair behind her ear. “Sorry.”

“Can’t blame anybody for being too cautious lately. I take it you met some other hosts then?” Anya asked.

The old man nodded and said, “We did. But I think this would all be better talked about in person. Especially with our other-worldly visitor so nearby. It’s been motionless for hours, but that could change any minute. Will you still meet with us?”

“Yeah, of course,” Anya said. “I’ll be there in a few.”

“Right. Good. Soon,” Samaira said in a clipped tone and then closed the video connection.

“Kinda testy,” Anya said and then turned to face Pan. “I’m gonna go talk to those other people. You stay here and be safe. Do you need to poop? Make old ants?”

“No poop,” Pan said. “Pan stays here.”

“Right. If you need something, do you know how to call me with your menu? Uh, the think-board?”

“Contact?” Pan asked and twitched his head to the side. Anya showed him, then tried to tell the shy yellow AI to instruct Pan on what to do to call her when she left. Once she was sure the pangolin would be okay, she got out of the V-187 and closed the door behind her.

Anya had spent most of the day flying over New England during her search, but hadn’t let it go to waste. She had asked Felix about the menu and other skills and items that would be of use to her. When she’d mentioned what a pain it was taking the armor off, or how wearing it in public while carrying the glaive would be inconvenient, Felix had directed her to the RAC store.

There were a number of magic charms and advanced tech that would effectively pull her armor to her from any location. There were others that would make the armor jump onto her and equip itself within moments. Anya didn’t like the idea of having the armor fly across a city or something, and that was when Felix had shown her the “STRUCTURES” sub-menu of the RAC store. Amongst the nigh-infinite number of houses, bunkers, tents, statues, and others, there was another sub-menu reserved for “FOLDED SPACE.”

“What the hell?” Anya had asked when they had been over Maine.

“It’s a little pocket of empty space that you carry around with you in a container that could not physically contain said space under normal circumstances.”

“So it’s bigger on the inside,” Anya said. “A little tin of mints on the outside could be as big as a bedroom on the inside?”

“It could!” Felix said. “There’s also a skill for doing it yourself, but at lower levels you can’t do very much with it.”

Anya said to keep that information filed away for later, but she had plenty of RAC to spend for now. Felix agreed and showed her several options in the store. There was a range of folded space containers, all of them expensive. The cheapest was a thumb-sized capsule that could hold a shoe-box’s worth of items and cost 5,000 RAC. It was measured by spatial dimensions rather than weight or volume. Anya figured she would need something long and flat to hold her armor and glaive, but that had a small enough container to carry it easily.

A purse? No, too easy to drop.

A backpack? Maybe, but still on the big side and still too easy to have taken or left behind. She needed something that she could wear all the time, but most people would just overlook.

“How about this?” Felix had suggested when she’d told him what she wanted. Several bands appeared on the screen: some just looked like watches, others looked like small leather wrist guards or cloth aerobic bracelets. All of them had some kind of compartment on them, or pouch, where the folded space could go.

“Perfect,” Anya had said. She selected a thick leather band with a wide-faced watch on it that looked like something a hiker might wear. The watch face flipped up with the tap of a button to allow access to the folded space within. Any objects getting near the folded space would bend, narrow, or warp as needed provided they could fit inside the spatial envelope within. Objects that were too big for the folded space would not fit at all and fail to adjust to the watch’s tiny opening.

The spatial envelope paired with the tiny watch opening was very expensive, 120,000 RAC, but Anya figured it was worth it. Anya also spent another 3,200 RAC imprinting each piece of armor and her glaive with one of the summoning charms Felix had mentioned and set the charm to coincide with opening the watch. She could have set it to almost anything, including a magic word, or pose, or something else, but she figured simple was best.

Anya removed all her armor and the glaive from the back of the V-187, and watched with some amazement as each of the large pieces tapered down and were sucked into the black hole beneath the watch. It was almost cartoonish to watch the sturdy plate armor and the long glaive just vanish into a hole no larger then a golfball. While her hand didn’t distort or go into the folded space past her finger, she found she didn’t need to in order to manually remove items. The watch face displayed everything inside of the spatial envelope and when she twisted the dial encircling it, the picture changed. A tip of her wrist later and the star’s breath crystal she had selected plopped right out of the watch and onto the ground in front of her.

Once the armor, tactical belt, and solar glaive were all stored in the watch, Anya wiggled her arm. It didn’t feel any heavier or any different than before she put everything into the spatial envelope. She opened the watch and there was a rush as the armor flew out and glomped onto her body in a matter of seconds. The glaive came out last and Anya caught it out of the air.

“That is so fucking cool,” Anya whispered. She pressed the button on the watch again and her armor zipped off her in an instant and she was left in her casual street clothes.

With her armor and weapon needs taken care of, there was one last matter to attend to. She’d asked Felix about skill suggestions and had settled on her choices for now. Anya brought her menu up and spent most of her other points until she only had a handful left.


She didn’t get any significant bonuses for any of those skills (except for a free shoes token for Parkour), but she still had plenty of RAC if she needed to buy more grenades or those recharge crystals. She spent her remaining 6 stat points by raising her speed and dexterity by 3 each, and confirmed everything. The pain was intense, but compared to what she went through after her class selection, it was nothing.

“Okay,” Anya said and flexed her hands. “That’ll do.”

She gripped the handle to the access entrance on the roof, and ripped it straight out of the door.

“Oops,” Anya said. She still wasn’t entirely used to her strength yet, but at least the door was unlocked. It swung outward, and she followed a maintenance stairwell down to one of the upper floors until she found an elevator and took it down to street level. The two hosts waited for her just a couple blocks ahead, and Anya hurried toward them.

The streets of Chicago lived up to the city’s nickname, and a biting winter wind bellowed between the towering buildings. It was made worse by the lengthening shadows as late afternoon began to fade into twilight. The people around her ducked against the onslaught and shuddered beneath their coats. Anya felt nothing but the wind itself, and suspected that if she were in summer clothes she would be fine.

Her red hair billowed behind her along with her open jacket as she walked the short distance to the parking garage. The garage was several stories tall and just as gray and utilitarian as any Anya had ever been in. She took the elevator to the 6th floor and stepped off.

“Over here,” a woman’s voice said. Anya glanced to her side and saw Samaira and the old man standing near a faded brown Ford F-150 with a heavy green tarp covering the back. A pure white cat sat on the hood of the truck next to Samaira, and both cat and woman regarded Anya with steady gazes.

The old man stepped forward at once, hand extended, a smile on his face. He wore an old pea coat, flannel shirt, jeans, and steel-toed boots. Anya noticed how large and calloused his hands were, and that he had a wedding band on the left one.

“Gary…” Samaira started to say and reached out as if to stop him, but leaned back with a huff. She wore a long coat over a plain white blouse and dark blue dress. The white cat flicked an ear and turned its head to the side.

“Gary Fredrickson,” the old man said as Anya returned his smile and shook his hand. “Whoa, heck of a grip on you, young lady.”

“Sorry! Sorry, I’ve had to get used to a lot of stuff recently,” Anya replied.

“You and the rest of the planet,” Samaira said, but relaxed her posture after Anya shook Gary’s hand.

“Before we talk, I have to ask about the alien. It hasn’t done anything? It’s just been sitting around?”

“We fought it and another one last night. But no, this one hasn’t moved all day,” Gary said.

“Two other hosts helped us fight it and a second alien last night,” Samaira added.

“My map showed me there were five hosts here last night. You say that you two and another two fought it. Where are they?” Anya asked, though she suspected she knew.

“Dead,” Gary said and frowned. “So young. Damn shame.”

“And the fifth? They didn’t fight?” Anya asked.

“No, they waited,” Samaira said. “We killed one of the aliens and the second one retreated after being wounded. Jessica and Tyson, the hosts, had been killed. The fifth host came out of nowhere, decloaked or something, and stole the stuff Jess and Ty had bought from the RAC store. Gary and I were talking about what to do and didn’t see them until they’d practically stripped Jess and Ty. They vanished almost as soon as we noticed them and retreated out of our detection range.”

“A looter,” Anya said.

“Yeah. Jess and Ty had some decent stuff too. Jess was in her late thirties and Ty wasn’t that much younger, had plenty of RAC,” Samaira said. “And if that cowardly jerk hadn’t been hiding during the fight, they might not have died at all.”

“You AI didn’t get their signal?” Anya asked.

“You gotta accept or exchange messages with a host or make physical contact to set up the permanent link,” Samaira said. “I tried messaging the stealth host from last night, but once they’d robbed Jess and Ty, they were just gone. It’s why I messaged you first and got suspicious when the yellow host didn’t want to come. I didn’t want another looter or something to mess with us.”

“Damn. Can’t blame you though. What about the aliens?” Anya asked. “Did they look like puppets?”

“Puppets? No. One was a marble statue and the other was a blue mail box. The statue was all wiggly like pudding and the mailbox was crazy fast,” Samaira replied.

“We managed to kill the statue by hitting some kind of core it was using to reform anytime it was hit. The mailbox didn’t have anything like that, it was just quick. Tyson held it down for a split second, and Jess managed to shoot it with some kind of laser gun. It didn’t reform after being wounded, just killed the two of them and then ran off,” Gary said.

“The one I fought looked like a puppet and could regenerate, but it was kind of slow over open ground,” Anya said.
“So they don’t all have the same powers.”

“No, they don’t. Gary and I were exhausted, but we tried to follow it. It was too fast and got away, but our AIs picked up an alien signature this morning, said it matched the one from last night,” Samaira said.

“The aliens have unique signatures?” Anya asked.

“Apparently so,” Gary shrugged.

“So why hasn’t it been moving?”

“We figure it’s been healing itself or waiting for back-up from other aliens, maybe,” Gary continued. “But we haven’t dared go near it or too far away from it because of where the darn thing chose to rest.”

“The Water Tower Place?” Anya asked. “It sounds like a city facility for water treatment or something.”

“It’s a shopping mall,” Samaira said and Anya’s fists clenched.

“Yeah. Thousands of people just having a nice day shopping. If we went in, we weren’t sure what would happen. We think it may have chosen the mall for that very reason: to use people as a shield if it came to it,” Gary said. “We figured we would wait until the place closed and then go to it or let it come to us here.”

“Except if another alien is on the way, then we’re probably screwed,” Samaira said. “We’re just sitting ducks waiting out here, hoping it doesn’t get back-up.”

“We thought of trying to clear out the mall too, but didn’t know how to do it without causing a panic,” Gary said. “Pulling a fire alarm would require one of us to go to the Water Tower, and if we get close enough, we might set the alien off, make it lash out. If we call in a fake bomb threat, shoppers could freak out and hurt each other, or the bomb squad could anger the alien while they’re looking for a bomb that doesn’t exist.”

“Well, now that you mention contacting the authorities, I might be able to help with clearing the mall before closing without causing a panic,” Anya said and told them about Agent Riley.

“You went to the feds?” Gary asked, and for the first time during their brief conversation, Gary sounded irritated.
“Uh, yeah. They were gonna find out anyway if they hadn’t already and I didn’t want to just cover my own ass if it meant people would be at risk, which, they are,” Anya said and gestured in the direction of the mall.

“Let’s say this Agent Riley is willing to help us kill an alien. How?” Samaira asked. The white cat twitched its tail as it looked between Anya and Samaira.

“I don’t know. I was on the phone with him right before you messaged me. I told him I’d call him back once I talked to you. I didn’t know if you would be angry or scared that the government knew about you,” Anya said, then pointed at the cat. “Also what’s up with the cat? It’s not a host is it?”

“No, she’s not. She’s mine. She helps. Don’t you Chandrali? Yes you do,” Samaira said and reached up to scratch under the cat’s chin. The cat purred and closed her eyes.

“Uh-huh. And speaking of help…what do you think? See if Riley can clear the building for us?” Anya asked.

Gary frowned. “The Water Tower doesn’t close until nine. That’s still over three hours away. Another alien could be coming our way right now, and I hate to think of having to deal with two of those things in the heart of my city. Last night we were lucky, got the two out near Montrose Beach. Not a lot of folks out there at night in the winter you know.
But here? It’d be a nightmare. Call your agent and ask. No harm in a question, I s’pose.”

Samaira sighed and nodded, then turned to pet her cat again while Anya dialed Agent Riley.

“Ms. Nowicki,” Riley said. “So glad to hear from you so quickly. You ready to come in?”

“No, but I wanted to know if you were ready to save an entire shopping mall full of people.”

“The alien you mentioned earlier is near a shopping mall? Which one?” Riley asked and Anya heard him snapping his fingers as if to signal someone.

“Before I tell you, I need to know you can evacuate a mall without causing a panic. The alien hasn’t moved all day, but we think if people freak out, it may attack.”

“I can clear the mall. I make a couple calls, get the mall to practice a mandatory ‘evacuation drill’ or something. Make an announcement that it’ll only be fifteen minutes and everybody gets a free 30% off coupon. Total BS, but it’ll keep folks calm. I’ll hold SWAT teams back a few blocks until the place is clear and then move in. How’s that sound?”

Anya blinked. She hadn’t expected Riley to be so accommodating.

“Really?” she asked.

“I made a few calls after I spoke with Ramierez and you. I’m not getting the whole story, but from what I’ve heard from my boss and some other people I trust, I’m not the only government worker who has been approached by someone like you. The Intelligence Community is buzzing with all kinds of interesting stories too. And everything on the news, well…my mother didn’t raise a fool, Ms. Nowicki.”

“So you believe me? About the aliens?” she asked.

“I believe something very strange and dangerous is happening and it would be best to act with caution. I’ve been tasked with following up on the Prospect Park incident, and therefore you. You’re advising me we may have a second such incident in a shopping mall, and I’d like to avoid that. But I have a condition.”

“Okay,” Anya said, a note of tension creeping into her voice. “What is it?”

“Assuming this all turns out well, you come in and have a sit-down with me in my office, and we get your story on the record, ASAP.”

“You’re saying you won’t help innocent people if I don’t come in?” Anya asked. This caught Gary’s attention and the old man scowled at the phone.

“No, I’ll do that regardless, assuming you tell me which mall. But I’m saying that if you don’t come in on your own, it’s the last time I ask nicely or do you any favors. Then I have to start looking into your family and friends, and that’s a helluva lot of paperwork and effort for me, stress for them, and unpleasantness for you. So please, Ms. Nowicki, save everybody from all of that and just tell me I’ll see you tomorrow morning. I’ll even have coffee and donuts. The good stuff too, from this little place up on Morton Street that makes maple bars like you wouldn’t believe. None of that cheap crap.”

Anya bit her lip. She didn’t want to run forever. She didn’t want to just camp out of the V-187 and go from city to city hoping to get lucky. If Samaira and Gary hadn’t stayed here to watch the alien, she wouldn’t have found anybody. And Riley seemed…reasonable. And if he wasn’t, if he tried to ship her off to Guantanamo, she felt strong enough now that she could escape without too much difficulty.

“Deal,” Anya said.

“I’m a man of my word, Ms. Nowicki. I really hope you’re a woman of yours.”

“Have been so far,” she said.

“And the others?” Riley said. “You mentioned two other people like you. And that giant armadillo thing.”

“Pangolin. And I don’t speak for them.”

“Fair enough. I’d really like to meet that pancake-whatsis though. Ramierez said it was pretty neat.”

“He named himself Pan,” Anya said and smirked.

“He named himself? Huh. Well now I definitely wanna meet him. Later, maybe. What mall is this thing at?”

“The Water Tower Place, in Chicago.”

“Chicago? Jesus. All right, I might have to make an extra call or two but this is doable. SWAT will get there and…”

“No,” Anya said. “They’ll be killed.”

“Ms. Nowicki, I appreciate that you think you’re the only one that can handle this, but——”

“The thing in Prospect Park killed three officers in under a minute. It regenerated from fire and gunshots in seconds. It spit acid and grew extra arms.”

Riley paused on the other end of the line.

“What did the aliens do last night?” Anya asked Samaira and Gary as she put Riley on speaker-phone.

“The statue shot lightning,” Samaira said. “And every time we cut or shot a piece of it off, it just returned to the main mass.”

“The mailbox one was faster than most sports cars I’ve seen or worked on,” Gary said. “Zero-to-sixty in under a second. It mostly just tried to slam into us, but once it belched some kind of toxic gas out of its mail slot. That’s how it killed the other two hosts.”

“Who is that?” Riley asked. “Are those the other people like you?”

“If you send a bunch of SWAT guys in, they’re gonna get butchered,” Anya said as she ignored Riley’s question and took him off speaker-phone. “If you don’t believe me, ask Ramierez again how quickly his partner and the others died.”

“Like I said before, I’m not just gonna call some patrol cops in blind,” Riley replied.

“But they’re just gonna be regular humans with guns,” Anya said.

“It’s procedure. It has to be done and it will be,” Riley said, his voice firm.

“Fine, but we’re going in first,” Anya said.

“I guess I can’t stop you. It’ll take a while to secure the outside of the mall.”

Anya let out a breath. “See you tomorrow, Agent Riley.”

“I certainly hope so, Ms. Nowicki,” he replied, then hung up.

“Well?” Samaira asked.

“He’s gonna help, but he’s insisting on sending SWAT in,” Anya said. Gary shook his head.

“Just meat for the grinder,” he said. “But it sounded like they wouldn’t be moving in right away?”

“No, he said they’d have to secure the area or something first after the mall was evacuated. We’ll need to move in as soon as the mall is empty. But I dunno how to do that without getting closer,” Anya said.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on the place,” Gary said and nodded at his truck. Anya peeked inside the cab and saw an old miniature TV hooked up to the dashboard that showed a crystal clear image of the exterior of a tall white building with people bustling on the sidewalk around it.

“Did your truck come with a surveillance system?” Anya asked and smirked.

“Nah. But I always did like working with machines, even after I quit at the factory,” Gary said as he threw back the tarp in the bed of his truck. Beneath it were a number of bestial robots of various shapes and sizes that all looked like they had been cobbled together from rusty engine parts and unfamiliar technological components.

“Do you need to do anything to get ready?” Samaira asked. Her eyes glowed a deep blue, and so did Chandrali the cat’s.

“Nope,” Anya said as her smirk grew. “I’m ready to go.”

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