Content Warning: Violence
“Approaching your position in one mile. Be ready.” I hear Dragon’s voice crackle through the communicator on my left wrist. I dodge out of the way of a Paladin’s shoulder-mounted turret and launch a wave of flame at their chest in retaliation.
“Ready. How’s the Paladin situation?” Chimera’s voice says through the communicator.
“Working on it.” Dragon replies.
The situation isn’t exactly ideal, two heavily armored enforcer vans and four Paladins, all guarding the large semi truck which holds our cargo. The back two Paladins are trying to hold us off, the front two are no doubt scanning for Chimera or Kitsune. I glance back at Dragon, who’s struggling to grab something from a bag slung between her wings.
“Going for the back right one. Cover my approach.” I say into my communicator before diving directly towards the metal titan. I can’t catch what Dragon says back to me over the sound of the wind. I feel something catch the wind behind me as Dragon circles around to my left, drawing some of the fire from the left Paladin. I use the brief few moments of cover to enter the Cinder State, feeling my body fall away to the surging wind. I continue my dive towards the Paladin at an increased speed and position myself inside their frame.
It’s difficult to keep myself in position at the speeds the Paladins are going. If I try to hang in one spot, I’ll just phase out of them, but if I keep flying with them, I can’t gather much fire. They probably planned for this to some extent after how I killed the last one.
I glance around the frame, it would be a tight squeeze, but I could theoretically fit without getting impaled on something inside of its mess of wires and metal. I’m terrified that something is going to pierce my armor, or that I’m just going to be flattened, but I have to try. I drop out of the Cinder State and feel my body impact the metal casing, hard.
Fuck me, I can barely move in here. This is a massive risk, and not one I can afford to take. I clench my fists and call fire to them as I expel shallow breaths. I need to stay as flat as possible. I channel the fire in my fists and press my head tight against the metal.
Fuck all of this. This whole fucking police state, the fact I have to do this to survive, the fact that almost everyone else died or gave up. Fuck Exodus for making us have to risk our necks this bad. Fuck my father for failing me!
I push on the metal frame and feel fire engulf the robot. As bits and pieces of it melt and burn away, I reignite my wings and take to the air the second I’m clear of the rubble. I can’t waste a second and snap my head to the left. Dragon is fighting a Paladin, trying to get around to their back. She slaps a metal box onto them, just as the thing turns its head all the way around and encases her right arm and the box in heavy carbon.
Fuck these things! They can turn their heads around now too? No! This thing is not taking Dragon! I’m not losing her on a job like this, on a fucking set-up mission for our most important job. We need her.
I need her.
I charge the Paladin when I see Dragon glance at me. She starts to say something, but I don’t hear it as I strike the Paladin in the head with my left foot. Sending a wave of flame out around its shoulder.
Pain. Searing pain is the only sensation that greets me immediately afterward. It’s hard to think, hard to move, and hard to stay airborne. I crash into the sand on the side of the road, pain still gripping my body hard. I hear something crash into the pavement a few feet from me. I try to look or get over to them, but it hurts too much to move even that small amount. I cough and let out a staggered breath.
Getting beaten by another spirit-touched is bad, getting beaten by a dumb machine is unforgivable. I’ve failed. I failed Dragon, I failed Chimera, I failed myself. I’m so fucking stupid. Maybe I should have just left after we killed Heatstroke. Maybe everyone would be better off that way. Goddammit. I shouldn’t call myself a hero.
“Phoenix!” a growling voice greets me as I feel a clawed hand grip me. I force my head to crane around and am greeted by Dragon, holding me tightly against her icy scales. Her hand is free of the carbon and the Paladin is laying in a crater in the concrete.
“H-how?” I ask.
“I had a plan. That device is an EMP, I didn’t plan to have my hand frozen to it, but that didn’t impact me a ton.”
“How did you get your hand free?”
“I finally finished that corrosive acid to counteract the carbon. It took a few seconds longer than I need it to, but it got me free. Sadly the EMP also killed my communicator, so I need yours.”
“By all means.”
Dragon grabs my wrist and I go limp against her chest as she speaks into it.
“Chimera, Kitsune, we lost ground, two Paladins down, but the cars got ahead of us. We’re going to catch up, but you’re going to need to start without us.” Dragon says into my wrist before turning back to me, cradling my head. “Are you okay? The Paladin got you pretty good, I can wait until you’re ready to move.”
This is embarrassing, humiliating actually. I’m supposed to be the experienced one, the one with a mastery of her powers, but I’m still a headstrong kid and Dragon is so much better at this than I am. I let out a staggered breath and touch the part of my back where the laser hit me. It stings like a bitch, but I can get past it.
“I’m fine.” I nearly whisper as I push myself off of Dragon to get up. I stumble slightly before igniting my wings. Before I take off, Dragon grabs my shoulder and I look back at her. We can’t waste time like this, but I want to, badly.
“Phoenix, it’s okay to be hurt. Anybody would be-”
“I’m fine! Let’s go!”
“Phoenix… please. I don’t want you to get hurt worse than you already are. I care about you.”
I stare into Dragon’s reptilian eyes, her intelligence, and humanity still clear beneath the draconic visage. How does she look beneath the scales? Beneath the cloak and mask? What’s her name? Why can’t I get these questions out of my head? I shake my head gently and look at her longingly.
“Come on. We have a job to do.”
Before she can respond I launch myself into the air and down the old sandy road. Dragon follows behind me pretty quickly, but I keep a comfortable distance between us. I would give anything to make this world like the one I grew up in. I want to have a life where I can be a normal teenager, where I can go home to my parents, where I can date a girl I like. This place is so fucked, and it’s going to kill me if I don’t kill it first.
I find the long stretch of road where Chimera and Kitsune are facing off with the two Paladins. Both of the trucks have crashed. One of them is totally overturned while the other has crashed into a small rock formation. The semi-truck sits abandoned in the middle of the road. The enforcers and truck driver lay all around the road, if they aren’t dead, they’re going to be soon.
This wasn’t the plan, Chimera shouldn’t be fighting, she should be trying to disconnect the cargo. Dammit, another thing that we fucked up because of my mistake. I growl under my breath and hit the pavement as fire washes around me. I slide into the back knee of one of the Paladins and send fire with my strike. It doesn’t do as much damage as I hoped, but I got their attention as I slide in front of them.
“Chi, Go.” I say, glancing back at her. She just gives me a nod in response before turning her full attention to the trailer on the back of the semi truck. Dragon lands between me and Kitsune and unleashes her breath at the Paladin Kitsune is fighting.
“How long until the autopilot kicks in?” Dragon asks Kitsune.
“The fuck should I know?” Kitsune says, not taking her eyes off the Paladin.
“When did you remove the driver?”
“I didn’t, your baby sister did. And she did it about thirty seconds ago, maybe 45.”
“Exact time would be better.”
“Yeah, well having our back up actually fucking here on time would be better too.”
“Fair point.” Dragon says “Chime-”
“Yeah, I heard, let me focus.” Chimera says, visibly straining at exerting her power to break the heavy bolts connecting the trailer to the truck.
The Paladins both have their attention fully on Chimera, which means we have to play defense. That’s not exactly an ideal position for me. One of them begins to charge their carbon as the other covers them with their own lasers. This situation is going to get a hell of a lot worse if Chimera gets frozen in carbon. Think Rachel, think.
The Paladin unleashes their Carbon directly at Chimera’s back. Before I can react, Kitsune throws her hand forward and Chimera loses footing, slipping forward and face planting on the asphalt. She glares back at Kitsune, her eyes glowing bright blue, Kitsune gives her a small shrug.
“Oh fuck off, little miss superhero, I saved your ass. Besides, now we’re even.” Kitsune says, blocking more laser fire with her fans.
“Dragon, I’m going to go for my Cinder State trick, be ready to pick up my slack.” I say to Dragon in a low voice, she nods as I let myself fade into the air again. I circle back behind one of the Paladins and begin to phase into it. The second I do I feel myself being repelled by some sort of internal air cannon. It sends me down and out the back of the robot and I struggle to gather myself and it feels like an active strain to come back to my solid form.
“Hey Dragon?” I say, flying overhead and returning to a defensive position.
“Yeah, I know. It repelled you. Some sort of Faraday cage or an internal shield?”
“Air cannon I think. I felt a ton of pressure driving me out of it. That wasn’t there before.”
“I know. I’ve been working on a theory. They have some form of mild reactive adaptation. It works slowly, and it’s probably not exactly right, but it’s the closest thing I have right now. I’d love to get my hands on a Paladin to examine it, bu-”
“Hey lovers.” Kitsune says, cutting dragon off. “Less talking, more defending.”
I hear an exasperated groan from Chimera, a laser strikes her in the back as she lifts the entire trailer off of the truck just before it’s autopilot engages and the cab drives away. Chimera turns toward us, her eyes glowing a fabulous bright blue as she throws the trailer at the two Paladins and glares at the three of us. The trailer crushes the Paladins easily, leaving only smashed bits of metal.
“Hey, Chimera, easy. We need what’s i-” Dragon starts.
“Shut up! I just ended this! Fuck! Do I have to do everything!” Chimera says, the light and bubbly tone she usually adopts totally fallen away.
“Chimera… Please…” Dragon says. Chimera drops to her knees, and her eyes drop their blue glow. Dragon goes to her side immediately. I didn’t notice Chimera had been using her power to lift various rocks and trees until I hear them crash down around me. I wonder if she had even been meaning to do that.
“I’m sorry…” Chimera says, getting to her feet with her sister’s help.
“It’s okay. I’m sorry I let you get hurt.” Dragon says, keeping her arm around her.
“Kitsune.” I ask, trying to just ignore our awkward fight yesterday. “How did you know Chimera was the younger sister?”
“Please, I don’t need my power for that. I just watch things. Try it sometime, you might actually learn something.”
Dragon walks over to one of the empty armored trucks and sets Chimera down, letting her sit on the rear bumper. She gently touches Chimera’s wrist and removes her communicator, quickly attaching it to her own wrist. Our job isn’t done, we’re just starting phase two.
“Unicorn, you’re up.” Dragon says into the communicator. “Remember my warnings. There are probably guards inside, but they’ll be shaken up. You’re not invisible and those darts are going to hit you the second you become tangible.”
“Okay. I got it.” Unicorn answers back. I see a wispy green figure float towards the trailer and begin to fade into it. I almost can’t see her in the early morning sun. Almost. This is a hell of a way to begin my birthday. I was already up when I got the call at a little past five in the morning that we needed to intercept a truck. We were planning on doing it tonight, but they moved up their shipping schedule.
I’m nineteen, I would be out of school by now if I didn’t need a year off to recover from my injuries. Next year I’m supposed to enter the workforce. I’m going to be assigned a job or further schooling based on where I’m “best suited”. When I get assigned wherever I will be, maintaining this superhero gig is going to get a hell of a lot harder to pull off. I’ll probably have to make a choice between being Phoenix and being Rachel. What a great thought to have on my birthday.
“Hey, Red.” Kitsune says, her Cheshire grin growing incrementally.
“What?’ I grumble back.
“Aww come on. Still pissed at me for yesterday?”
“You mean when you got your ass kicked by Chimera and ran away like a little girl?”
“I was more talking about the part where you thought you could actually beat me and I showed you exactly how realistic that belief was.”
“Don’t push me, Kitsune.”
“Hey, Chimera got me fucking good, the girl’s powerful and she has my respect. I know when I’m beaten. You’d do well to learn the same.”
“That sounds a little defeatist of you.”
“Please, there’s a difference between being beaten and giving up. I will always choose to live to fight another day, but I will never give up on saving my people.”
I sigh and look at Kitsune, she’s leaning against the overturned truck, her foot against the top of the cab. She holds both her fans gently in her hands, waving herself idly with one. I take a brief glance over my shoulder at Dragon and Chimera. Dragon is still tending to her sister, though Chimera seems to have calmed down. Good, I could use the distraction. I need to have a private conversation.
“How long have you known?” I ask.
“Hm?” Kitsune says, perking an ear up slightly.
“My identity” My voice is barely above a mumble.
“Few months. No way the regime wasn’t going to know and I stumbled across a datapad with a list of hero identities and other basic info. Most of them were dead, but your name was the most interesting.”
“Do we know each other?”
“Oh, like I’d actually give you information that vital to me. I could be your best friend, or I could be nobody, and you’d be none the wiser. But, you know we go to the same school. I’ll tell you I’ve seen you one way or another. I can’t say I was expecting you to be Phoenix, but I can’t say I was surprised either.”
“And you were able to figure out Dragon and Chimera too?”
“Dragon yes. She made it far too easy. I figured that out before the regime did. Pretty proud of that actually. I just had to look for the secluded girls with good grades and no friends and eliminate everyone who wasn’t a junior or senior, find out which of them had nearly flawless marks in science and math, then it was just a matter of matching up attendance records to days that y’all have done jobs. Honestly, I’m surprised Dragon would be so clumsy. You do a much better job of hiding it at least. Your teachers all comment on your wonderful demeanor and studious behavior. You also manage to cover your absences pretty well. If I were Dragon I would take a couple random days off school or intentionally get a B+ on a quiz or something, just to throw off anyone who would come looking for me. But, I don’t think she could live with herself if she got anything less than perfect marks.”
I scan my brain for any possibilities that immediately come to mind. A few girls I have class with get near perfect grades and are excellent math and science students, but I can’t see any of them being Dragon. I want to ask Kitsune, I so badly want to ask her, maybe even beg her, to just give me a first name to go on. I just want to see under the mask, maybe even want to let her see under my mask.
I only realize my gaze has shifted over to Dragon when I feel my head snap awkwardly, violently, and involuntarily towards Kitsune. She snaps her fingers to get my attention, her Cheshire grin down in a slight grimace.
“Hey!” she says, rolling her beady eyes as I acknowledge her. “Remember what I said yesterday, it’s better for all of us the fewer people who know our identities. Stop fantasizing about Dragon underneath the scales, I wasn’t done.”
“I’m sorry. Go ahead.”
“As I said, Dragon was easy. Chimera was harder, I didn’t consider something that, in retrospect, was obvious. I honestly didn’t figure it out until I knew she was Dragon’s sister, but fuck does it ever make so much sense. I’m curious, while we’re waiting for Goody-goody, humor me.”
“Fine. Nothing better to do right now.”
“Exactly. So, tell me Phoenix, how would you go about discerning who Chimera is?”
“Honestly, based on the way you did it, I’d figure out who Dragon is first an-”
“No no no. Ignore the sister bit, start fresh. You’re looking for Chimera. No idea who she’s related to. What do you do?”
I look at Chimera, her sleek blue costume is reflecting the sunlight beautifully, showing her gorgeous figure in the skin-tight body glove. Her golden curly hair and blue eyes are the only physical features I can see with absolute certainty. Then again, this is transcendence we’re talking about, she could have red hair and green eyes in real life and I’d be none the wiser. How would I go about figuring out who she is?
“Enhanced aspect.” I blurt out, almost without meaning to.
“Go on.” Kitsune says, giving a small nod of approval.
“Serenity. She’s someone who meditates maybe, or does yoga.”
“Close. Meditation is something she does while transcended to talk to dead superheroes. So it must be pretty lackluster as a mundane.”
I furrow my brow and think for a second.
“Hiking. She likes the woods, she likes being alone. She probably goes out into the wilderness to escape from the pressures of school and being Chimera.”
“You’re on fire.” I groan at the pun. “So, you know she likes the outdoors, tons of students go hiking every weekend, narrow it down.”
Let’s see, Chimera is… Well fuck, I don’t know what else to go on. All I really even know about her is that serenity is her enhanced aspect. Come on! Think! Okay, okay, she’s a hero. She’s way into being a superhero and like a “classic” superhero.
“Military family?” I ask.
“No, but I see how you’d get there. A more abstract sense of duty.”
“Yes, to an extent, but not enough it dominates her mind.”
“Then I don’t know…”
“Self-sacrifice. She doesn’t feel her life matters, so she dedicates it to others. There’s a reason she’s willing to jump in front of a fireball for someone she doesn’t know. She’s more than willing to lay down her life for someone else, because to her their lives matter, hers doesn’t.”
“Fuck” I mumble, not meaning to say it out loud.
“Yup. The girl has issues, but I’m pretty sure we all do. Come on, one more and you should have a pretty good profile of who Chimera is.”
“Can I have a hint?”
“Her transcended form.”
Okay, transcended form. She’s a classic superhero, a hot girl with a cape, a cowl, and a body glove. She has bright red lips, deep blue eyes, and long blonde hair. The classic beauty standard for most white women. Her figure is toned, but slim, her muscle mass doesn’t nearly represent her strength. She’s actually shorter and slimmer than Kitsune or I, despite “superheroes” typically being bigger and more muscular, or bustier in the case of female heroes.
“Body image issues. Like an eating disorder maybe?” I say, Kitsune’s grin nearly doubles in size.
“Damn fucking close,” Kitsune says, standing up straighter. “I’m not getting you all the way there, that’s for you to figure out if you so desire, but you are close Phoenix. Way closer than I thought you’d be.”
“Alright, maybe I’ll take a crack at figuring out who you are later.”
“You’d never figure it out. I have fail-safes built in and a ton of red herrings. The whole point is gaining as many secrets as I can without giving any of mine up. I doubt even Oracle could figure it out. I know she hasn’t yet.”
Kitsune decidedly sends me the message this is the end of our conversation by heading over towards Dragon and Chimera. I follow behind and stand next to Dragon as Kitsune settles opposite the three of us.
“How’s she doing?” I ask.
“Not great. There’s a stalemate. She’s pinned down, so she can’t go solid and open the trailer, but the guards can’t hit her. It’s a waiting game right now.” Dragon says, looking at her communicator, the one she took from Chimera.
“Should I go assist?”
“No.” Chimera answers before Dragon can. “This is her first mission, we don’t want to fuck up her confidence. We only send in calvary if it’s absolutely necessary. If she gets a crucial role in a big job, there’s a solid chance she’ll flourish. It’s what happened for me on my first mission with you girls.”
“Yeah, but we didn’t put training wheels on you. You just knew how to use your powers.”
“Look, I’m just saying it’s important we let her try when it isn’t life or death. That way, when it is life or death, we know we can rely on her.”
“That’s actually pretty smart Chimera.”
“I have my moments.”
“Dragon? You think she can do it.”
“Honestly, no.” she says with a shrug. “But I’m willing to be proven wrong. Why? Sad you didn’t get a crack at it?”
“I’m more bored than anything. Are we just waiting for them to run out of darts?”
“Well, actually ye-”
“Help.” Sarah’s voice comes crackling through our communicators. Her voice is pinched and short, she’s panicking. Fuck.
“Phoenix. Go!” Dragon orders, but by the time she starts telling me I’m already in The Cinder State.
So much for an easy job.