Anya let Pan out of the V-187 and he waddled off to a corner of the roof, scratched at the ground, and then went about his business. Gary told Anya to meet them when she and Pan were ready for a late dinner and discussion about their next move. His truck lifted off from the roof as its wheels folded up and small, stubby rockets extended. Gary waved at her and Samaira gave her a nod as the two left. Anya checked their position on her menu, and she was able to track them without any issues.

Next, she took Pan off the roof and to a nearby park and let him dig around until he found some ants. She texted Tori with an update, assured her that she was fine, and she’d be in Manhattan tomorrow to meet with the FBI. Tori responded with a slew of emojis conveying relief and concern. Tori said that she wanted to meet for lunch tomorrow if Anya wasn’t too busy being arrested for domestic terrorism, and if she was, they could just grab something to-go. Anya also texted Agent Riley to tell him the alien was dead and she would keep her word and see him tomorrow morning. The agent told her to meet him on the roof of 26 Federal Plaza with her “flying car gizmo” at 9 AM sharp and she assured him that she would.

When Pan had demolished the anthill, she flew to where Gary and Samaira’s dots had stopped: a tiny white building with red trim and a sign that read “Aaron’s Drive-In/Take-Out.” Gary’s truck was parked just outside with Gary beside it. He looked up as she flew over and waved at her and directed her to a wide open spot next to his truck. Anya wondered how he could see her with her craft cloaked, and at night, but landed beside him all the same. She rolled her window down once she’d landed, and Gary leaned forward. His thick glasses had some kind of HUD on them that let off a faint glow. He touched the side of them and the HUD faded.

“You okay with eating in your car? I’ve been eating in my truck for years, but it’s gonna be a little cramped with all of us and our food in there, and I’d kinda like to involve your little scaly friend,” Gary said. Anya had been wondering what to do with Pan. She hated to coop him up alone in the V-187 after a lifetime in cages and zoos, but didn’t want to risk his safety or alarm normal people.

“In here is fine,” Anya said. There was more than enough room for all of them, and the pilot’s seat rotated so she could face them while they ate. Anya decloaked the V-187, figuring that if anybody really got upset about seeing an alien hovercraft, they’d just have to deal with it.

She assured Pan that she would be back in a few minutes, then went inside the small diner to order. She was assaulted by the rich aromas of frying onions, potatoes, beef, butter, and other heavenly scents as soon as the doors opened. The diner was small, with only a few circular tables surrounded by bar stools and a narrow counter facing the window for seating. The walls were white tile and fire-engine red, and there was a huge glowing white menu above the register that listed a wide variety of delicious foods in bold red print.

Samaira was already inside, once more in her normal clothes and glasses, tapping her chin and biting her lip as she studied the menu.

“Heya Gare,” a middle-aged man said from behind the counter with a nod. “Don’t usually see you out this late.”

“Just showing my friends around town,” Gary replied. “The usual, please, to go.”

“You got it. And you two?” the man asked. Anya ordered a burger on pretzel bread with a side of fries and coke, and Samaira got fried fish tacos and onion rings. Gary paid for everything and they were given thick cardboard boxes spotted with grease and lined with crackling wax paper. The smells of the food taunted Anya until they all got into the V-187.

“Hello! Pan here!” Pan said as they entered. He sat next to Anya and across from Gary, Samaira, and Chandrali. All three of the latter paused as they entered the craft to stare, wide-eyed, at Pan as he waved a claw at them.

“H-hey,” Samaira said as she sat down. Chandrali, in her smaller form, draped herself over Samaira’s shoulders and watched pan warily from behind the woman’s long sable hair.

“Nice to meet you,” Gary said and extended his hand to the pangolin. Pan regarded the hand, then pushed his head into Gary’s palm. Some basic introductions were made, and Anya told Pan that their new friends had helped get rid of the “bad guy,” earlier.

“New friends are good. Do you like ants?” Pan asked. “And digging?”

“Can’t say that I do,” Samaira said.

“I’m more of a beer and autoshop kinda guy,” Gary replied.

“That’s okay. Still friends,” Pan nodded.

“Your AIs got that data stream, right?” Anya asked.

“Mine did. Said he’s still decoding it or something,” Gary said. Samaira nodded around a mouthful of fried fish and coleslaw.

“Felix?” Anya asked.

“Still working on it!” her AI replied. “Maybe five minutes?”

Anya nodded and took a few moments to enjoy her pretzel burger in silence. When she swallowed, she looked up at Samaira and grinned.

“So I take it you were a fan of those magical girl cartoons?” she asked.

“A little,” Samaira said and smirked.

“What kinda skills were those?”

“Well, my class is Arcane Archer. I got Archery, Mana Manipulation and Projection, Mana Sight, Intense Focus, Arcana Expertise, and a few other things. Chandrali here was a companion from the RAC store I tweaked a little, then took a skill called Beast Kin that lets me communicate a little with her, makes me more palatable to animals.”

“You seem very nice nice,” Pan said in agreement.

“Gary?” Anya asked. “No offense but you look pretty old. Must have a lot of levels.”

“Yeah, I s’pose I do,” he said and chuckled. “I’m sixty-two. Went up to level 65 after I went through all those side-things and killing the alien last night. First class was something called Tech Lord, and the second one I got since I was past level 50 was Technomancer. Mechanical Engineering, Robotics, Machine Integration, Machine Sight, Mechanical Intuition, Metal Manipulation, few other things. Basically all amounts to me being able to build pretty much whatever I want within a few minutes if I got the materials. Had to demolish some of the cars in the garage around us to whip that lightning tripod together after the fridge hit me with the EMP or whatever it was.”

“That’s pretty impressive,” Anya said.

“Tend to favor function over form ,though,” Gary said. “Nothing I make tends to look as sleek as your ride here.”

“You?” Samaira asked.

“Phoenix Knight,” Anya said and rattled off her skills.

“That’s a rather interesting skill set,” Samaira said.

“Kinda threw it together last minute,” Anya said and shrugged. “It’s worked out for me so far though.”

“Thank god you showed up when you did. We would’ve been in real trouble otherwise,” Gary said as he finished his hot dog.

A small flash of grayish-white light announced the arrival of Gary’s AI as it appeared on his knee. Like Felix and Ivy, it had a chubby, infantile body, and a head in the shape of some kind of plant. This one had a thick bulb with a pointed peak, and oblong petals stretching up and out. It had a stern, eager expression on its face and folded its tiny arms over its chest as it materialized.

“I got the enemy position!” it said in a rough voice. “How about you take some real fighting skills and we go clean this planet up?”

“Wow,” Anya said and raised her eyebrows.

“Yeah, Gizmo here is very enthusiastic about fighting,” Gary said and shook his head.

“I got it too! I was just being polite and waiting for a better time to say something!” Felix said as they appeared beside Anya.

“I got it too but I was last. Sorry,” a blue AI said in a mournful tone as it faded into existence reluctantly beside Samaira. Its head was a drooping mass of swaying branches that looked like a tiny weeping willow.

“It’s fine, Boo,” Samaira sighed. “Just show us what you got, okay?”

“O-okay,” the blue AI sniffled and then it and all the other AIs projected their various colored maps in front of their hosts.

The maps showed the precise locations of the aliens and the vague positions of the hosts, like it always had. Anya recognized the map as the same from Monday night, mostly by Pan’s previous position at the Riverbanks Zoo. A clock in the corner fast-forwarded and the various dots moved around the map, and it was the same data she had gotten from the puppet alien. The aliens homed in on hosts and many of them went dark, with only a few of the red lights vanishing. She saw her dot and Carl’s converge on the red dot in Brooklyn, saw Carl’s wink out, and then the red dot. That was as much information as she had gotten from the puppet: all the movement from when the aliens entered the atmosphere to when she killed the puppet itself.

But now she had everything the fridge alien had known, and she went pale as she watched the map.

The red dots coordinated, came together when possible, and hunted down hosts with brutal efficiency and accuracy. Most of the hosts were alone, and they almost always disappeared.

“Dear god,” Gary said. Anya couldn’t keep track of all the hosts vanishing. It had barely been 24 hours since her fight with the puppet alien and…

“Felix, how many?” Anya asked. “How many hosts have died in total?”

“As of the fridge-alien’s death, exactly 9,891 hosts have been killed,” Felix said and the petals of his rose-head drooped.

“How many were there to begin with?” Samaira asked. “Ten thousand and something?”

“10,608,” Anya said.

“Many friends gone?” Pan asked. Anya nodded.

“Nine-thoouuusaaannnd,” Pan said. “How many is?”

“A lot,” Anya said.

“Many friends still here?”

“No, only 717 left alive,” Gary said and leaned back in his seat.

“Looks like 27 absolute cowards have left the planet entirely! Retreat is the coward’s way!” Gizmo said. Anya noticed some of the hosts vague orange circles widening until they simply vanished.

“People just left Earth?” Samaira asked.

“There’s spaceships in the RAC store. Nothing faster than light, but enough to get you gone,” Anya said.

“Can’t blame them,” Gary said.

“Yes you can! You should blame them non-stop!” Gizmo insisted.

“So only 690 hosts actually left on Earth,” Anya clarified.

“9,336 deaths were due to the enemy aliens. The other deaths appear to be accidents or probably…y’know,” Boo said and made a hanging gesture with her tiny mitten hand.

“Suicide,” Anya said and put her face in her hands.

“The other coward’s way out!” Gizmo said.

“Stow it,” Gary snapped at the AI.

“It’s not all bad news,” Felix said. “The highest death rates happened in the first 12 hours. After that, well, see for yourself.”

Felix highlighted several areas of the map where hosts joined together. In those instances, it was almost always a total victory against any nearby aliens.

“Over 50% of enemy aliens have gotten their butts handed to them!” Felix said. “Teaming up is a great strategy.”

“No kidding,” Samaira said.

“How many enemy aliens are left?” Gary asked.

“422 targets!” Gizmo said. “We still have the numerical advantage!”

“Assuming most of the other hosts aren’t opportunistic looters like the guy last night,” Samaira said.

“Or psychos,” Anya added.

“It all sounds really bad,” Boo moaned.

“Stop that,” Samaira said.

“Whoa,” Anya said as she looked at her map. “Check out Tokyo earlier today.”

The map had been running in a loop, showing the progression of the enemy aliens over the last day. Five aliens had converged on a single host at the edge of Tokyo. After what the clock told her was a six minute fight, all of the enemy alien signatures were gone, and the single host remained.

“Holy moly,” Gary said. “One guy?”

“Or gal,” Samaira said.

“Or gal,” Gary acknowledged.

“This would’ve been around noon Chicago time,” Anya said. “And all the aliens in America and Canada weren’t moving much, if at all. Felix mentioned that last night, that most of the deaths occurred in North and South America but…”

Anya started as she figured it out and felt incredibly stupid for not realizing it sooner.

“They move at night,” she said. “Or at least they prefer to. It’s why the fridge stayed put in that store all day and didn’t react until we got close after sundown. Look at the map. Everything in Asia, Africa, Europe, Australia, they’re all moving around opposite of the other side of the planet where they’re mostly stationary.”

“Yeah. Why? Are they nocturnal?” Samaira asked.

“Maybe the same reason they keep looking like fridges and statues and puppets and anything but hostile aliens,” Gary said. “They’re trying to blend in. Less chance of being spotted if you move around at night. The ones in America today moved around during daylight a little, but only if a host approached them. Lookit this one in Texas.”

Gary pointed to a circle approaching a red dot just outside of Dallas. The circle narrowed to a dot as it got closer to the alien, and then the enemy alien began to move when the host was almost on top of it. The host dot vanished and the red alien dot became motionless once again.

“Glad we decided to keep our distance until the mall was clear,” Samaira said with a shudder.

“Bad guys are sleepy?” Pan asked.

“During the day, kind of,” Anya replied.

“Or it’s when they heal or change shape,” Gary said. “Like the blue mailbox changed into the fridge.”

“We’re sure it was the same alien?” Samaira asked.

“Yeah. I’m not good at most stuff but I’m sure. It had the same signature,” Boo said.

“Confirmed! Boo is not very good and it was the same alien life sign as the one we battled valiantly with on Montrose Beach!” Gizmo said.

“How’d it get so much stronger, though? The way you guys described the mailbox, it could only do a couple of basic attacks. Same with the puppet alien. It was tough but it only had a limited bag of tricks. The fridge tonight was a lot tougher and did a lot more.”

“I have an idea!” Felix said. “When the enemy aliens entered the atmosphere last night, I only picked up on them because they had an energy signature similar to the menu systems that hosts got. Maybe they have similar functionality too.”

“Uh-oh,” Anya said and the hairs on her neck prickled.

“Oh god,” Samaira added.

“Uh, what am I missing?” Gary asked.

“We level up from those fights. This one with the fridge, how many levels did we get?” Anya asked.

“You got four! Congratulations!” Felix said.

“Yeah, awesome, but the puppet only gave me two, and I’m at a higher level now. So that would imply the fridge was tougher. But when it was just a mailbox it wasn’t as strong. But it killed two hosts. So…”

“So the aliens can get stronger by killing us,” Gary finished. “Damn.”

“Felix, can you pinpoint the alien that’s killed the most hosts?”

“I sure can!” Felix said. “It’s a tie for first place!”

Two alien signatures blinked on the map. One of them started in Vancouver and made its way down to Sacramento after zig-zagging across the Pacific Northwest. The other started in Beijing and made its way down to central China. A number appeared beside each of the alien dots.


“Holy shit,” Samaira said. Pan’s AI let out a terrified squeak and cowered behind him. Pan himself curled into a ball. Each of the killer aliens was followed by a small group of 3-4 more, and numbers appeared beside them as well, with the smallest being 2 and the highest being 13, behind the leader with 23.

“If the fridge today got that much stronger just from killing two hosts…I can’t imagine what those monsters must be like,” Anya said as she stared at the blinking red dots.

Gary polished his glasses in thought while Samaira put her face in her hands. Chandrali purred at her and curled into her lap. Anya stared at the map and at all the red dots, the orange circles, and how the former stalked the latter.

Anya felt herself spiraling down as she watched the map continue playing its loop of the last 24 hours. Almost 10,000 people killed. That wasn’t counting any nearby people who had been unlucky enough to get drawn into the fights, like the cops in Prospect Park. How many more would die? What kind of horrible nightmares were stalking central China and California?

The idea of taking however much RAC she had left, getting on a spaceship, and leaving this doomed planet behind was tempting.

Anya looked at Gary as he stared out the window, at Samaira with her shoulders slumped and her face in her hands, and at Pan, curled into a ball next to her. She thought of Tori back in New York, of all the people at the Water Tower Place and the Riverbanks Zoo who had been in mortal danger and had no idea. She even thought of her mother in Clemson and how she didn’t want her last words to her to have been spoken during a fight.

“Fuck ‘em,” Anya said.

“What?” Samaira asked as she looked up. Gary quirked an eyebrow at her.

“I have a tiny sun in my chest that lets me melt or blow up anything I want, I know alien kung-fu, am strong enough to knock out an elephant, and I can fly. Sort of. You’re an actual magical girl who can teleport and shoot explosive transforming arrows and you have a giant tiger with diamond claws for a pet. Gary, you can build a robot army in a few minutes from scrap. Pan,” Anya paused and looked at the pangolin as he uncurled a tiny fraction from his ball and stared up at her with one eye, “you are very good at digging.”

“I like digging,” Pan replied.

“We’ll work on other stuff later,” Anya said. “My point is, we’ve killed two of these freaks so far and we’re just four. There’s hundreds of people like us out there. So fuck these aliens. Looking at what’s been going on is intimidating as hell, but I’m not dead yet, and neither are most people. We can fight, and I’m going to.”

“Yes! You can be my new host if you want!” Gizmo said and Gary rolled his eyes.

“Quiet you,” Gary said with a smirk then looked at Anya. “True enough though. Well said.”

“Thank you for that,” Samaira said. Felix grinned up at Anya and gave her a double thumbs up.

“I think it’s still a miracle any of us are sane with everything that’s happened since Friday night. God, it hasn’t even been a week yet,” Anya said. She had a memory flash of Carl’s head getting slapped off and the brief glimpse she had seen of the police officer’s face melting and quickly slammed those thoughts to the back of her mind.

“I’ve been touch-and-go a few times,” Samaira said and Gary grunted out a weak laugh.

“So what now, then? It’s night, the aliens will be moving around,” Gary said.

“I’ve got to rest, and make my way to New York for meeting with Agent Riley tomorrow morning. I’m gonna set the V-187 on a winding path over several States and try to sleep while it’s on autopilot. Felix can wake me up if he pings anything. When I meet with Riley, we’ll see what he’s willing and able to do. If it’s a trap or he does something stupid, I can get out easy enough.”

“Can I still come with you?” Pan asked. Anya smiled at him and nodded and he clicked his claws together in something like a tiny clap.

“We should stick together, or at least within a reasonable distance,” Gary said. “Samaira and I were talking about leaving Chicago. Too many people around could get caught up in all this. A lot easier for me than you, though.”

“It’s still between semesters. I’ll just tell them I’m taking a break and will restart my MS in the fall,” Samaira said. “I’m ahead in my coursework anyways. The college will be fine with it. And if not…oh well. It’d be foolish to pretend like nothing was going on.”

“You wanna come to New York with me?” Anya asked.

“I’m not setting foot in a government building, but we’ll watch your back and stay close. New York’s probably got some pretty good scrap yards around it I can poke through while you’re having your meeting with the feds. If you need me, I can be there lickety-split. And if you lemme know what your flight path is, I can set up a complimentary one and we can cover more ground while still being nearby.”

“Yeah. No more going solo, for any of us,” Samaira agreed and smiled at Anya then Pan.

Anya felt her shoulders relax. Just hearing Gary and Samaira say that she wouldn’t be alone unwound a tension she hadn’t been aware of seconds before. Pan clicked his claws together again and bumped his head against Anya’s side. Anya patted him on his scaly back and turned her chair around to plot out her winding course back to New York.

Tomorrow would be another busy day.

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