“Been gone so long that I forgot how crazy you bastards are.” — Aiden “Tiger” Caldwell
Yup. They took the bait.
Appetite watched from over one of the many hills tearing through the Old City. Tiger let him borrow his fancy binoculars from his ship, the Hua, for such an occasion. Working as a smuggler and a bounty hunter in the Dusk Orbit and Early Lights planets, Tiger had picked up more than his share of odds and ends. Weapons were hard to come by but he shared what he could. It was nice having him back. Sometimes, all it took was time away from the planet. Appetite knew this way too well. A sharp longing to do that all over again struck him hard in the chest. First things, first, we gotta get out of this mess we got ourselves in. He zoomed over rolling hills and through the dead and crumbling monuments of a city, ridiculously high-calorie protein bars in his free hand. Among the swirls of dust and debris, he watched the men and women of the Civilization comb through the Old City. The Bluecoats followed them like mice catching the smell of peanut butter.
Tiger, Vermin, and Jo strolled up from the bottom of the hill to meet him on the summit. Tiger wiped the sweat from his brow, swatting a bug away from his leather eye patch. He gritted his teeth, straining up the hill. Appetite heard their chatter as they ascended. “Don’t tell me that the life in the city done made ya soft. Hikin’ giving the old boy trouble,” Vermin teased, ignoring that he too was sweating like a pig running a marathon–maybe even more so. “Betcha have a fancy apartment somewhere, livin’ it up.”
“Y’know that ain’t true, bud,” Tiger muttered, his deeper voice still a pleasant surprise. “It ain’t easy out there. Getting harder and harder to do what I do.”
“Heard you’re getting quite the name for yourself. I wanted to meet your crew.” Jo patted him on the back.
“We’re making it. The crew didn’t want to come home with me though. Something ‘bout backwater planets givin’ them the creeps. They might’ve heard about y’all. Hua can handle herself without a crew. Mulan handles most of the functions anyway.”
“Mulan?” Everyone made a face at him.
“My AI on the ship.”
“An AI ship,” Vermin squawked. “How’d you get one of those?”
“Eh, Mulan had a complicated relationship with her previous captain so I uh…well…removed ‘em.”
“You killed the captain, didn’t you?” Appetite asked, finally chiming in.
Tiger rolled his one good eye. “Killed’s such a strong word. And it’s not stealing if the ship wanted to leave.”
“It’s good to have you back, Aiden. I really mean that. I wish–”
Appetite swallowed his words. Kindle would’ve loved to hear about one of her favorite cousin’s adventures. He shook off the feeling. She’s fine. She’s fine. He told himself. Tiger must’ve seen the words and worry on his face ‘cause his face changed too. The chocolate dark eye shined with empathy so strong that he had’ve gotten it from his father. He sat down beside him, putting a firm hand on Appetite’s shoulder. Strange how that made him feel better. “She’s alright, cuz. I know she’s alright. I’ll tell her all ‘bout it when she gets back. Right now,” he looked off into the horizon, “we’re gonna have to do somethin’ about all those people on our lawn.” He emphasized his point with a slap on the back. “Eyes on the prize. She’ll come back when she’ll come back. Let’s make sure she has something to come back to.”
Vermin crawled up beside them, looking a little bit like a human-shaped spider. “When are ya gonna stop worrying, big guy.”
Jo socked him in the back of the head with a closed fist. “I don’t know, Beau, how ‘bout when you get a lady Woody will stop worrying about his only kid?”
“That ain’t called for,” Vermin pouted. “I was sayin’ what everyone knows.”
“Y’all right, though. We got things to do.”
Readjusting on the hill, Appetite watched the Bluecoats below with his eyes. He took another bite of his protein bar and chewed it slowly. He let his mind slow down. There hadn’t been any contact with them yet. Oddly, the family listened to him, even referred to his guidance. He hadn’t expected the older men to listen to him. They hadn’t before when it came to the whole family. But they did as they were told. They stayed outta sight and almost outta mind. Not a single family member had taken upon themselves to take charge. They trusted him and for that, he was gonna give them the time of their life. He straightened his back, taking in the positions of his family, the Coats, and the shadows of the wild mutants in the area. Three factions: military, scoundrels, and scavengers. A good ol’ fashioned punch up. Appetite checked his watch–a little past noon. It wouldn’t be long before the wild ones got a bit restless.
Appetite had a good idea where something as important as a Terracore would be. He had done his research on the Old City in his spare time. Though the information was thin, if you knew what you were looking for it wasn’t a problem. Deep within the Old City was a spiraling skyscraper, CEO building meant for the Member of the Board of the First Civilization. Whatever caused the collapse had cut their plan short. People tend to forget important things when their lives were at risk. By the time the conflict finished, no one would’ve remembered to come back–leaving a priceless technology untouched. Given this new information and Drifter’s insatiable greed, a fella might think they would’ve gotten it soon. But, there were places where even the Caldwells wouldn’t go. Not out of not wanting but not having enough resources.
Today they were gonna make that step with the help of the Bluecoats.
When the sun glittered over the horizon, he saw the droves of wild mutants. Unlike the Caldwells, the wild mutants lost all sense of human thought. They roamed C’dar like human shaped animals, sharing odd mutations here and there: discolored skins, open pores that leaked liquid, eyes too big for their heads, bent and twisted arms and legs, razor-sharp teeth. In a way, it was like looking into a twisted mirror of themselves. One flawed gene away and they would’ve been like any of these monsters. Appetite groaned as the numbers swelled bigger and bigger, the monsters crawling outta every space like roaches congregating in the dark. A cold feeling of dread-soaked his thoughts. Doubt came at the stupidest times. Appetite took another breath. Too late now, we’re in it for the long haul. He checked his watch again, 12: 03. Two more minutes–
An explosion rippled through the air, tearing through one of the tall, abandoned buildings and raining debris on the ground. Appetite pinched his nose. Two minutes early. At the very least, he respected his uncle’s restraint until this point. The building choked up black smoke as it fell to the ground, red bursts of fire sputtering out from the week foundation below. The wild mutant gawked in amazement for a long time, gathering like animals seeing fire for the first time. The amazement soon crept into wild confusion as another explosion from what appeared to be an RPG opened up the belly of another building to their right. Pandemonium took the city within seconds.
Appetite nodded. This was a good start. A little messy, but good.
“Time to get down there.”
Appetite sprang into action, rushing to the tank as best as his big body would allow. He climbed up and into Vermin’s massive beast, a personal project of his known as the Hung Beetle. Modified with a scrap found all over the planet and parts stolen from the Coats over the years, Hung Beetle was Vermin’s pride and joy. The inventors of the family always had somethin’ up his sleeve. He wondered if they ever finished the mech too. He held onto the ring of the manhole, Ham Bone slung over his shoulder. Vermin started the engines, everyone else piling up front. Everyone secure, they rode down the long sandy hill they were perched on and speeding through the forests of glass and concrete obelisks. “Beau,” Appetite shouted over crunching debris and thick sand. “Put on somethin’ good on the radio and pass me somethin’ to snack on. ‘member what we’re here to have fun.”
From the lower hatch, someone tossed up a few high protein bars, vitamin-infused drink, and a packet energy tablet. Altogether, this “snack” of rations was enough to feed two men well for two weeks. He guzzled everything down like a snake devouring a mouse, washing it all down in one unending gulp of what tasted only of water and fake orange flavor. A maddening amount of raw energy flooded him. The red fur sprouted on his chest, down his arms in thick patches. The slow, rational thoughts sped up in his head. He felt everything more in this intoxicating high of energy and power. The wind against his skin, the sand coming up his nose and down his throat, the sounds of gunshots ringing his ear, everything felt stronger. He enjoyed it. “Where’re my jams at,” Appetite shouted, hammering the top of the tank. He knew that he was getting a bit wild, it was okay. They needed a little wild.
“Hold’ya horses, I’m gettin’ it.”
There came the music. A good song too from the Old World. Appetite howled his excitement, knowing all too well that he sounded a fool or a madman. Were they all mad? He couldn’t tell at this point. Only the itch of the battle remained. He let out another roar as they come upon the battle, a tank rolling down the hill at full speed. Wild mutants and Coat alike turned, attention ripped away from their fight and onto the metal beast charging at them. Some moved too slow. Satisfying crunches and splatters hit the side in a spray of meat and bone. The rancid smell would’ve sickened him any other time. In this berserk like haze, it only caused his stomach to grumble. Appetite leveled Ham Bone on his shoulder. “Gonna make a hole, give pops some time.”
“We gotcha back!”
Appetite leaped out of the manhole of the tank. He sailed through the air and landed on a man’s shoulder blades, crushing bone underfoot with his weight. Somethin’ satisfying ‘bout that. The other men gawked for a second, confused. Not many men could process watching their friend crushed by a man the size of an industrial fridge. But the surprise was gonna wear out eventually. Better milk that for all it was worth. He let his body act without thought. Men fell to Ham Bone’s blasts one by one. Every buck from the shotgun, every satisfying flash of the shotgun sent chills down his back. Pellets punched through men, mutant, and droids alike. He was an axeman in a forest of saplings, the wolf in a pasture of grazing sheep. Only a few minutes passed, and the bodies stacked around him. He reloaded his gun. The thirst, the hunger didn’t subside. He wanted more.
He searched the battlefield. The chaos spread, thicker than fog. The Coats structured formation had fallen apart among the wildness, relying now on their training. The mutants whooped and hollered, feral anyone and everyone–even themselves. Then there were the Caldwells, the middle ground. Not quite feral, not quite structured. Madness following a logic that only they understood. They weren’t here to wipe them out but if it happened it happened. Spilled milk and all that. Appetite charged through the battlefield, shouldering through men and blasting left and right and pushing up the main street. BAM. BAM. Another few slimy green-skinned mutants fell in a crumpled mess at his feet.
One had the sense enough to view him as a danger now. It sprinted at him, leaping through the air onto his back. The man (maybe a woman) clawed at his back. There wasn’t any pain. The sticky blood clung to the scraps of his shirt. The open wounds felt raw against the air. Still no pain. The berserk in him exploded in that instant. With all the power in his one arm, he ripped the mutant from his back and slammed them into the ground by its head. The concrete of the once road exploded against the creatures crushed skull. Appetite pulled his blood-slicked fingers from the ruined bone and gristle.
What bothered him most wasn’t his raw strength or the twitching remains. No. What bothered him most was he wanted to taste it all. He pushed down the urge.
More Coats and ferals swarmed every inch of his sight as he gathered his breath. Those who didn’t notice him fought each other tooth and nail. Lasers and bullets tore through one side; claw, acid, teeth on the other. Still nothing. He needed to find him. That was his goal before this high wore off. Somewhere in the madness was Captain Xan. He needed to be held up or whacked, either was fine, at least until they could get to the prize. Once they get what they want…we’re done. Simple as that. He had to keep going. He had to find him and hope that his pops could handle the Major. He searched again, heart pounding in his chest. Pops and his brother couldn’t handle both. And–
Deep in the fray was a flag of blue, white and red with a horse in the center. A sizable, white carrier ship floated near the ground swarmed by the feral mutants. An elite squadron of Bluecoat helmed and covered from head to toe in blue armor surrounded the ship. They fired into the crowd, blue and red lasers shooting from their impressive looking rifles. Captain Xan stood among his men, shouting orders and mowing down swarms of me with his gatling arm–a mutant killer in an ocean of targets. Again, he knew on some level that he was terrifying and terrible. A fully-functioning droid more than likely with an AI harvested from a dead soldier wasn’t anything to mess around with. He had to be careful. This high might protect him for a while, but if it ran out, he was done too. He had no choice. Go at him or die. “I see him,” Appetite belted through the crowd to his folks, “back me up! We need to keep him away from the building.”
Appetite became a wrecking ball, smashing through the crowds. He saw a few of his family holding their own, making a way for him. Tiger and Jo’s clean shooting skills, Vermin’s well-landed shots from his tank taking on the mechs from afar, Eleen and Loner’s drones tearing through the crowd. Madness, he thought, madness. No time to think. He pivoted, avoiding laser fire. He was a large target and strong and durable. Didn’t mean he had to take damage like an idiot. He swerved from cover to cover, alley to alley, closing the gap between the Captain and himself. Maybe I’m crazy too. It had to be a family thing.
Towards the middle of the cesspool, the soldier and the wild mutants grew more difficult. Only strong remained. The Blue Guard fought toe to toe with the twisted and tower abominations in the city square. Appetite moved in, slipping through the battle and saving his ammo, relying on his pure raw strength to keep him safe. One of the ten-foot beasts crashed into an already broken window of a building beside him. The creature moaned and died with hundreds of still smoldering, blackened burns littering its body. Appetite saw a little of everyone in that dying body, his dad, his daughter, everyone he had ever loved. The anger his body boiled over to the rim into a cold calculation. He needed an opening. Find a weak link. Exploit it. Take everything. It was how they worked. Don’t go for the healthy animal bearing its teeth. Go for the one already bloodied.
He found that wounded target in the crowd. One of the Blue Guard stepped a bit too forward and got caught out of position. The man, though a grizzled vet from his appearance and stars, leaned heavily on what looked like an injured or mechanically busted leg. The shaded visor of his helmet was cracked, revealing a little of his war-hardened eyes. On his own, he was holding off a mass of mutants as they dropped back. In every classic story, he would’ve been the hero. Appetite gave that no further thought when he blindsided him with two clean shots back to back shots from Ham Bone. The helm’s visor shattered, leaving nothing left to hold after that. A grisly scene but ham bones are meant for soups. He rushed over, reloading and then shooting few surrounding stranglers before letting Ham Bone to its holster to pick up his prize–a Civilization Rifle, a 402-CV.
The 402-CV was a fully developed laser rifle with very little need to recharge, meant for the best of the best of the Civilization’s defenders. For it to be in some backwater bumkins hands must’ve been mighty disrespectful. Neither respect or disrespect mattered much on the battlefield. They couldn’t be used long before the reset stopped the gun. Didn’t matter. A few seconds was all he needed. Appetite unloaded on the fools, blue lasers tearing into their ranks. A sick satisfaction rose in his chest as they croaked their surprise. Captain Xan, though a little late, reacted to save the rest of platoon. He flung a wide hexagonal hard-light shield up from his arm, its surface absorbing the blows. He pressed against it the blows with his body, teeth gritting and face expressive. His expressive face was betrayed by his cold, distant eyes. “That doesn’t belong to you, “the Captain said from behind his shield, “smart using the environment against us, but time’s running out.”
He was right. They were the one on the clock. They could run it down. Captain Xan widened the shield, stepping forward. The glint of red in his eyes spread to the rest of his eyes, removing all human from them. “You all are mistakes. The only reason you’re alive goes down to one simple reason, you have something that we want.” The Captain’s voice lost all emotion now as well, leaving a hollow, reverberating robotic shell. “You have a key on your chain that you never knew where it went. That’s why your worthless family hasn’t been wiped off the map. And you’re the perfect person to bring that key out.”
It was the only way.
The Flame was connected to the deep to the planet, so was the Terracore. He hadn’t made the connection before and felt all the dumber for it. Only through pure luck, they sent Kindle away to her grandfather’s. Or was it? Where they all playing some sort of game? One piece after another fell perfectly in his head and with anger beyond anything he ever felt. The surge of power from his mutation felt nothing in comparison. No one messed with his kid—used her as the fish and her family the worms. No one. Against better judgment, against all logic, he charged at them, dropping his new weapon to the ground.
Whether it was the rage, the high, or the madness so common in his family, he punched at the blue hard-light shield. Lightning sputtered in all directions, forking around him. Pain shot up his body with every punch. He felt his skin fry with every thunderous punch. Raw and bloodied fists slammed into the shield, each louder the next. The pain shot up his knuckles until he didn’t feel the surface or the electricity anymore. Crack. One crack on the shield. Crack. The shield splinters grew like a pebble flung into a windshield. Crack. The shock on the man’s face on the other side of the shield told the story. Crack. Crack. Crack.
The whole thing came tumbling down in a cascade of light.
The forked lightning erupted into a storm of discharge. A fork of lightning struck dangerously close to Captain Xan and found its home in a Coat’s chest. Appetite, at least subconscious, knew that he was lucky as a mug. He wasted no time charging at the platoon in the disarray. The near-human droid’s reaction time served him well when Appetite lurched at him. He fired a few lasers slam into Appetite’s chest. The pain registered for a moment and didn’t slow him down in the slightest. None of that meant anything to the rage, greed and gluttony incarnate, the very thing Uncle Monty talked about in his book. He slammed his blackened fist into Captain Xan’s face, sending him flying into the concrete. Bad thing ‘bout killing a droid: the sight of oil ain’t quite the same as blood. Shame that.
“Go aid the Major,” Captain Xan said, picking himself off the ground. “I’ll handle this one.”
His men gawked for a second and then took the orders like good little boys and girls. There were plenty of other soldiers to help the Captain, or so they thought. No need wasting more of his elites lives on this beast. Appetite chuckled low at their scurrying. He only chuckled more when the Captain turned to him. Half of his sharp, angled face was a ruin of metal and wires. Torn fake flesh hung limply on his nose and around his odd metallic red eyes. Captain Owen Xan grabbed another weapon from his side.
“You’re tough” He huffed. Odd for a machine. “One of the zero types from Daedel. I expected the new blood to dilute your abilities in the second generation, but it seems it only made your DNA stronger. Don’t matter though. If guns don’t work…” He plucked two small cylinders from his side. “I’m growing tired of this. Major wanted you alive. I don’t have the patience for that anymore. Time to put you down.”
There were two flashes of blue. Appetite felt blood on his throat, on his chest, on his shoulder. These he felt. The numbness of his abilities was wearing off. Sluggishness clung to his every movement as he tried to dodge. The Captain proved too fast. His eyes couldn’t follow the dancing blue blades felt. Cut after cut, the blades of light hit him. He tried to fight, tried to scramble back. Nothing. Captain Xan swerved in with clean-cut towards the belly. Appetite went to knock it away to his dismay. Xan fainted with his left, stepped in, and sliced at the tendon on the back of his leg. He collapsed to one knee. More pain. This time sharper and clearer than before. A small pang of fear followed. Appetite gritted his teeth, reaching for Ham Bone to his side. His fingers never made it to the trigger. They rolled on the concrete by his knees. “See blood and–”
Appetite responded with a punch so strong that it sent the Captain flying into a building. The Captain barreled through the glass and the concrete on the other side of the street. The sheer power of the blow echoed over the chaos of the battle like thunder. “Stop talkin’.” Appetite held the nubs of his missing fingers, wandering forward. Charred, beaten and bloodied, he blinked through this every increasing agony. Thinking too long about it would lead to shock. He needed to lean on the adrenaline, focusing on what needed to be done. Kill him before he kills you. Kill him before he kills you. Appetite bit down on the remainder of his shoulder of his sleeve, ripping the fabric away with his teeth. He wrapped the mess of his right hand. Bile stung the back of his throat at the sight of two of his joint bones poking out from the poor man tourniquet. Don’t think about it, kill him before he kills you.
Captain Xan cracked his neck back into place, stepping from the concrete and glass. “You don’t get it. I’m going to kill you by the time that you even have the chance. You’re wasting your time.” He flicked the two blue blades again, reforming them at his side. “You don’t learn either. I suppose that’s a side effect of being an uneducated pig.”
Not falling for that again. Appetite smiled instead. “Ought to keep’ya mouth shut sometimes and maybe you’ll get a promotion one day.”
“Ah, so you do learn…” He extended the blades into long blue swords, the color of ice. “Good. Maybe there will be something left for your daughter to bury.”