(Hello, all! Finally got this third story put together after God knows how long. It's noticeably more lengthy--which is part of the delay--but is also one of my favorites to date. Hope you enjoy!)
Events were now progressing in directions Robbi found favorable.
Today was her first day truly accompanying Deagon on his latest escapade. The fact that he had allowed her this privilege, in spite of his disgust for her previous actions in support of Praetoria, was certainly promising. Further benefits included the ability to see more of Primal Earth, or at least of the Rogue Isles.
At the moment, however, all Robbi could see was thick steel walls and shipping crates marked with spider-like emblems.
According to Deagon’s instruction, departure from Port Oakes required stowing away on ferries used by Arachnos for transport of goods from island to island. Doing so was apparently a common practice; Robbi counted at least three other stowaways joining them on their particular cruise.
Eventually, however, the ship stopped. The stowaways all departed through whatever openings they could find, Deagon and Robbi doing the same. The two came out onto a dock, Deagon hefting his rifle onto his shoulder and observing the path ahead.
“Well…here we are,” Deagon remarked. “The Nerva Archipelago.”
Robbi, too, gazed out ahead. The Archipelago did not seem all that different from Port Oakes. While it lacked Oakes’ shipping focus and associated docks, the structures seemed similarly bare-bones and run down, as if every settlement on the Rogue Isles lacked proper maintenance. The distant horizon was dotted with what seemed to be large figures, statues of stone that stretched to the heavens.
“We’ll need to watch our step here,” Deagon began, drawing Robbi’s attention. “Nerva’s the odd one out of the Isles in that it’s a United Nations protectorate, which means Arachnos doesn’t have as much of a presence here. The ones with the biggest foothold are Longbow, an arm of the UN’s ‘Freedom Corps’.” He punctuated his statement by using the fingers of his free hand to imitate quotation marks.
Robbi merely blinked. “What is this…Freedom Core?”
“It’s a government peacekeeping agency with some Primal Earth heroes involved,” Deagon explained. “Longbow is their more aggressive branch that’s headed up by Ms. Liberty, one of our more famous heroes. Or infamous, depending on who you talk to. Negative impressions certainly aren’t helped by Longbow’s soldiers being gung-ho about their version of justice and decidedly condescending towards those who don’t follow their specific rulebook.”
His Clockwork sidekick paused, slowly nodding in understanding; judging by Deagon’s bitter tone, she would have to tread lightly with this subject. “How will I recognize Longbow personnel?”
“Bright red and white spandex, occasionally wearing star-spangled capes. In the Isles, they stick out like sore thumbs,” Deagon scoffed. “At any rate, we have a contact we need to meet. You remember the plan?”
“Yes,” Robbi nodded. “I recall my role in this affair.”
“Good,” Deagon nodded as well. “Just make sure you leave some room to improvise, if the need comes up. Not every plan goes as smoothly in practice as it does on paper.”
Robbi nodded, and without another word, Deagon turned to venture ahead. His Clockwork companion followed, already calculating routes to take. Deagon’s level of trust in her—and potentially the amount of time she would be allowed to familiarize herself with Primal Earth—would depend on how well she performed the task he gave her.
She would have to avoid disappointment.
Their contact was waiting for them at a local beach. Alongside that contact was his entourage.
A trio of soldiers stood on the beach, all but one sporting green uniforms and charcoal chest armoring. One of the soldiers in green covered his face with an armored mask, the other opting for a simple hat and goggles. The final of the soldiers dressed in a garish blue spandex, his costume’s limbs ending in dark gloves and boots with face similarly shrouded. A crate rested between the three, big enough for an adult—like the hat-wearing soldier—to sit on.
All eyes turned to Robbi’s mercenary benefactor as he approached, sand groaning beneath every footstep. Deagon, with rifle now on his back, was the first to speak.
“Archon Britt?” he ventured.
“Ah, Mr. Deagon, yes? Welcome! Lovely beach, yes? Aside from the odd Coralax incursion, of course,” the hat-wearing soldier grinned, tipping his hat and rising to his feet. “The Council has heard of your exploits, in particular your one-man raids against sects of the Lost. Quite impressive for an up-and-coming mercenary!”
All three soldiers’ eyes focused solely on Deagon; Robbi seemed virtually beneath their notice. In spite of this, she remained silent and followed their gaze, watching as the mercenary performed his role.
“Well, I’m sure you can imagine that an up-and-coming merc won’t focus on groups like the Lost forever,” Deagon said. “At some point, I’ll be expanding my net and setting my sights higher. I’m told you have an interest in giving people like me a leg up?”
“Indeed,” Archon Britt nodded. “The Council will rule this world someday, and those who aid us in our pursuits in any way—big or small—shall be rewarded for doing so. You are, of course, more than welcome to fully join the Council, but we do recognize the benefits of having freelance mercenaries in our pocket. For instance…Adjutant Nebble?”
He snapped his fingers, prompting the spandex soldier to open the crate. Soon, he lifted out a strange device, resembling a rather long rifle with pulsating red energy emanating from its open barrel.
“How much do you know about the Kheldian race, mercenary?” Nebble asked, a mild sneer in his voice as he hefted up the massive rifle.
“I’ve heard bits and pieces,” Deagon shrugged. “Wouldn’t hurt to hear more, though.”
“Kheldians are energy beings from outer space, capable of bonding to beings of flesh and blood and bestowing great powers upon them!” Nebble explained, illustrating by leaning his head back. A pulsing darkness soon filled the eyes of his mask, only to fade shortly after. “But, if one finds the correct energy frequency and applies it to a bonded Kheldian, they can be forcibly—and painfully—separated into human and Kheldian. This is their greatest weakness, and one this Quantum Array Gun exploits.”
“Kheldians bonded to humans have become quite prominent in the hero community, categorized into groups called Peacebringers and Warshades,” Archon Britt added. “Should you ever find yourself against one of either, our Quantum Guns may prove most handy…if you decide to purchase one, of course.”
“I’ll admit, that does sound tempting,” Deagon nodded. Robbi continued to look on, even as the mercenary spoke further. “But I’ve also heard rumors about the Council having mercenaries of its own. The, uh…Void Hunters?”
“Oh, yes, our elite anti-Kheldian force. But I’m sure one of your profession would have no desire to split his profits,” Archon Britt replied, dismissively waving his hand.
“Ah, but that’s the thing,” Deagon held up a finger. “The Quantums aren’t going to last forever. If I buy them, I’m going to need to come back to you over and over for maintenance, more ammunition, and so on. And I just so happen to have heard about groups of Freakshow who’ve also had dealings with the Council and came away with more than just the Quantum Guns. They got powers like what your friend here was showing off earlier.”
He nodded over to Adjutant Nebble, whose grip on the Quantum Gun’s handle tightened. Archon Britt and his allies exchanged glances.
“Tell you what,” Deagon continued. “If you give me some background on how one gets these powers, we’ll see if we can reach an agreement. And those abilities are worth more than a few weapons, right?”
The Archon pursed his lips for a moment, slowly nodding. He glanced to each of his two allies; the masked soldier in green merely shrugged, while Adjutant Nebble slowly shook his head. Eventually, Britt looked back to Deagon.
“Very well,” the Archon said. Nebble’s head noticeably sagged in response, but his superior paid it no mind. “There are several ways one may receive such powers. The standard method is to bond with a specific type of Kheldian called a Nictus, who have turned their once-bright bodies dark in search of power. On the other hand, a Nictus whose life comes to an end will crystallize, and fragments of these crystals—N-Fragments for short—can be implanted in a human being, which has given rise to our Galaxy troopers and Void Hunters. They will not have as much power as a true Kheldian, but it will be power nonetheless.”
“Granted, if the procedure goes wrong, you’ll end up as one of our War Wolves,” the green-masked soldier finally spoke up with a shrug.
Robbi paused, blinking as so many terms sailed over her metallic head. Deagon also paused, slowly raising a finger.
“…let me see if I’m understanding this correctly,” Deagon began slowly. “Implanting fragments of a dead, crystallized Nictus will give someone Kheldian abilities…but if the process isn’t done a specific way, the person having the implants done will instead turn into a giant wolf monster that has nothing whatsoever to do with Kheldians.”
“Of course!” Nebble declared proudly. “Don’t you know anything about science?”
Britt grinned widely and nodded along. Deagon merely sighed and shook his head.
“All right, you know what? I’ll take that risk,” he declared. “How much for the N-Fragment treatment?”
The Archon put a hand to his chin, nodding thoughtfully as he looked Deagon up and down. “Well…you do seem a fit enough individual to make good use of the N-Fragments. And, as you pointed out yourself, such a process would bring us more funds than a simple Quantum Gun sale. Sergeant Vane?”
The green-masked soldier stood at attention, both he and his superior ignoring Adjutant Nebble’s dejected sigh.
“Ensure that we are not followed,” Archon Britt ordered. “We shall escort Mr. Deagon to our nearest laboratory and conduct our transaction there.”
Deagon slowly nodded in what seemed to be satisfaction, then looked over to Robbi. “You keep on lookout, too.”
Robbi nodded. She turned her gaze around the area, eyes scanning the group’s surroundings and taking note of all she saw. Mobsters in pinstripe suits interrogated victims in the relative safety of an alleyway. The odd Hellion waved around a torch without a care in the world. Rusty satellite dishes stretched to the sky.
Her gaze lingered on the dishes, mouth opening slightly and metal tongue clicking, as the Council soldiers led her and Deagon away from the beach.
Archon Britt led his party into a maze of warehouses, many of them several times the size of the tiny storage facility Deagon and Robbi called home. The inside of the particular warehouse Britt selected seemed just as mundane, even when the Archon happily led his associates to a blank wall and knocked on it. Soon, however, a section of the wall faded away, a pair of glistening silver elevator doors in their place.
“Right this way,” Britt said with a grand gesture to the opening elevator doors. Deagon simply shrugged and played along, Robbi and Britt’s subordinates following suit.
The elevator soon descended, carrying the group down further and further into the earth until finally halting. Once the doors opened, the Council’s true base was revealed, a sprawling underground facility laden with all manner of technological marvels. Soldiers marched to and fro with assault rifles in hand, guard robots in black stood rigidly at their stations, and more blue-garbed Galaxy troops manned the numerous computer terminals.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” Archon Britt grinned. “The fate of all who join the Council and prove themselves worthy will be to partake in such splendor!”
“One step at a time here, Archon,” Deagon reminded him. “We still have a transaction to finish.”
“Yes, of course,” Britt nodded. “If you’ll follow me?”
The Archon led them deeper into the compound, Deagon lightly elbowing Robbi’s side. As if on cue, the Clockwork’s eyes again began to wander. Massive pistons rose and fell from the ground, overseen by more Council soldiers. Massive tanks, seemingly made for fuel, were under guard by at least three soldiers each. All of it seemed very important to the Council, perhaps to this base in particular.
“Now, the procedure is completely painless, but there may be some internal sensations you—”
An alarm’s sudden but telltale blare cut the Archon off. Red lights on the ceiling flashed, the soldiers beneath them scrambling for their weapons. Deagon simply folded his arms and looked on, his posture relaxed and seemingly content.
“What? What’s going on?” Archon Britt snapped into his radio. “Intruders?! How can this have—”
“We can worry about how this happened later,” Deagon interjected. “What’s important right now is driving these intruders back. Any idea who they are?”
Britt held up a finger, listening to his radio for a moment, before sneering one word. “Longbow.”
“Well…in that case,” Deagon began, “Robbi can help your people fight them off right now, but you and I go ahead and get that N-Fragment procedure done while Longbow is busy. Having one more person with powers might be what turns the tide here.”
Robbi blinked, but maintained a careful silence.
“Fine, fine, do what you will!” the Archon snapped. “Deagon, follow me.”
The mercenary nodded at Robbi, prompting her to turn and march back to the elevator. Once the ride finished, she exited the doors and made her way further out into the open, making herself a single blue-and-silver beacon amidst a sea of shelves. She tilted her head back and opened her mouth, emitting several lines of Clockwork code.
The sounds of battle echoed from ahead of her: the thump of falling bodies, the hum of energy blasts, the shriek of shredding metal, the roar of rapid gunfire. Soon, the cacophony of violence faded away, the faint noises of post-battle chatter taking its place. Then came the telltale repeated thumps of boots on metal. Footsteps.
Robbi remained where she was, face blank but mouth drawn in a thin line. In the windows above her, she glimpsed sight of the drones she called as they took their positions. The footsteps within the warehouse grew louder as the intruders approached.
And then they arrived.
Longbow really did wear very bright red-and-white spandex. Some even accompanied it with bulky jetpacks and helmets resembling half of a grey egg. Most of them carried standard firearms such as pistols and rifles, though the occasional gasoline tank could be seen mounted on a few rifles.
The group paused when Robbi—a single Praetorian Clockwork standing seemingly alone in the middle of a vast hallway—entered their field of vision. She took this as her cue.
“Good day,” she said politely. “I am Clockwork em-three-three-five-six-five-seven, dubbed ‘Robbi’ by my benefactor for simplicity. I have standing orders to prevent you from further accessing this compound. I apologize for the inconvenience.”
A few of Longbow’s soldiers looked to one another in confusion, some gesturing at Robbi as if asking their fellows if they all saw the same thing. A young woman with strangely purple skin muttered something to a few of her comrades before stepping forward. As she did so, a dark glow in her eyes—almost identical to that demonstrated by the Council’s Galaxy troops—seemed to subside.
“Hey there, uh…Robbi, was it?” the woman asked. The Clockwork nodded. “My name’s Pulsumbra, I’m an officer with Longbow. My squad here got a tip about a Council base in this location, which I think we can safely confirm after fighting through a few squads of Council soldiers to get here. You said you’re under orders to keep us from getting further?”
“Okay, so…do you mind if I ask who gave you those orders?” Pulsumbra ventured.
Robbi paused, evaluating her options. Her ultimate goal was to buy time for not only Deagon’s procedure, but for more of her drones to make their way into the most strategically-important sections of the Council’s base. With this in mind, she elected to keep the conversation going.
“My benefactor is named Deagon,” Robbi answered.
Pulsumbra paused, as if waiting for more information, but Robbi’s silence pushed her to speak. “Uh…okay…Deagon, got it. What can you tell me about this Deagon?”
Now Robbi responded. “I do not possess a great deal of information regarding my benefactor. I am aware that he is a mercenary active in the Rogue Isles, but I am not privy to further details regarding his operations due in part to only being in Deagon’s care for a short time.”
“Well, that’s helpful,” one of Pulsumbra’s comrades sarcastically remarked.
“Hey, easy, you’ve worked with Clockworks like her, right?” Pulsumbra admonished him. “When you have ever known them to lie?”
Robbi blinked. “…you are familiar with Praetorian Clockwork?”
“Huh? Oh, yeah!” Pulsumbra spoke up, clasping her hands together. “We actually have some specialized Mender Clockworks working with us in Longbow, designed by Dr. Alec Parson himself. They’ve been really helpful as support units!”
Alec Parson. A name Robbi recognized. A name from Praetoria. A name connecting her to the world she had lost.
“…Dr. Parson is on Primal Earth?” One could almost hear a faint hope in Robbi’s monotone voice.
“Yeah, he is!” Pulsumbra replied with a smile. “Actually, he’s working with this super group over in Paragon City called the New Praetorians. You can probably guess this for yourself, but that group’s made up of survivors from Praetoria. Kind of like you, actually!”
Another of Pulsumbra’s allies spoke up. “Warden, we’re kind of on a schedule here, can we make friends with gutter-dwellers another time?”
The purple-skinned Warden shot her comrade a warning glare, but nonetheless looked back to Robbi. “Okay, Robbi? I’ll make you a deal. If you turn yourself in now and let us pass, we’ll see if we can get you to meet the New Praetorians. What do you think?”
Another instance in which Robbi was required to make an existence-altering choice. Primal Earth seemed to be littered with them.
Dr. Parson had seen to the proper functioning of many Clockwork in Praetoria, Robbi included. An encounter with sons and daughters of Praetoria—of Robbi’s home—was an extraordinary opportunity. But how would she get to that point? Pulsumbra’s opinions seemed rather isolated; would Longbow follow through on her word? And even if they did, would Robbi remain as she was once within Dr. Parson’s sights?
There were too many variables. There was too much uncertainty. There was too much risk. Her best option became to stay her current course.
Robbi merely tilted her head back and emitted more Clockwork code. The noise of shattering glass soon echoed through the warehouse as her drones broke through the windows above, dropping abruptly onto the Longbow squad. Panicked yells and gunfire filled the air as the squad fought back, culminating in several blasts of dark energy knocking several drones aside.
“All right…fine,” Pulsumbra sighed, cracking her knuckles as her eyes began to glow much like the Galaxy Adjutant’s had. “We’ll do it the hard way.”
Dark matter surrounded her hands, prompting Robbi to draw her Rikti rifle. Before either could fire, however, a small sphere sailed over Robbi’s shoulder and fell at Pulsumbra’s feet. The Warden’s eyes went wide, her arms crossing in an X-shape in front of her just as the grenade burst. Robbi merely stared ahead, the explosion small enough to not reach her but large enough to stir up a cloud of dust and fire. As the smoke cleared, however, Pulsumbra stood entirely unharmed, shielded by a purple bubble of energy she had apparently generated around herself.
“Okay, the gloves are off now!” the Warden cried. “I need Miniguns and Nullifiers up front, Eagles on flank, and—”
The sound of a laser blast cut her off, a single green bolt piercing the ceiling. Robbi paused, turning her head to find Deagon behind her, his smoking beam rifle pointed upward. He gave his Clockwork companion a nod as he strode by her, shifting his rifle into his arms and focusing his helmet’s visor on Pulsumbra.
“I’d hold your fire if I were you, Warshade,” Deagon declared. “You’ve got more important things to worry about.”
Robbi, as if on cue, opened her mouth and began clicking her tongue again. Each and every one of Longbow’s soldiers aimed their guns at the duo, but a grimacing Pulsumbra held up a hand to stop them.
“I take it you’re Deagon?” she asked, earning a simple one-shoulder shrug from the helmeted man. “What are you talking about? And why are you—”
“Warden, the drones!”
A light on each of Robbi’s fallen minions began to blink, accompanied by a loud beeping noise that accelerated its pace as the seconds passed.
Down below, the drones standing by critical structure points in the Council’s base also began to beep, freezing in place and ignoring every attempt at stirring them. Archon Britt could only snarl.
“That accursed mercenary!” he spat. “He played us like a damn fiddle!”
“EVERYONE AROUND ME! NOW!” Pulsumbra roared, throwing her arms out wide as her soldiers gathered. A purple energy began to course through her body, spreading a field out to her comrades as the dark aura in her eyes intensified.
“That’s our cue as well,” Deagon commented, putting a hand on Robbi’s shoulder. “I’m admittedly taking a gamble here, so brace yourself.”
A dark energy identical to Pulsumbra’s began to flow across Deagon’s arm and onto Robbi’s body. The Clockwork blinked, but before anything could be said, darkness swallowed her field of vision. In what seemed like a split-second later, the darkness peeled away, revealing the gloomy sky of the Nerva Archipelago. That sky was soon lit with orange, however, as a nearby warehouse burst into flames from a multitude of spontaneous explosions from within. Even the ground beneath the warehouse began to sink and crumble, as if something beneath it had just been destroyed.
“Well, I’d call this a successful venture,” Deagon remarked as he dusted off his hands.
Robbi stared into the flames for a moment, hesitating before speaking. “…did the Longbow squadron perish in my drones’ detonation?”
“Unfortunately, that’s not likely,” Deagon shook his head. “That Warshade was prepping a teleport of her own to get her people out. We might run into her again, or we might not. Either way, it’s best we keep on our toes.”
Robbi nodded, though her gaze remained on the burning warehouse that had once sheltered the Council base beneath.
“For now, it’s time we head home,” Deagon said. “I’d like to try and master some new tricks before our next bit of field work.”
He lifted up a hand, allowing dark energy to course through it; the implantation of N-Fragments had evidently been successful. Robbi simply nodded once more, and turned to follow the mercenary as he departed the scene of his arson. Their mission had finished, and her benefactor seemed pleased with the results. This was an acceptable set of circumstances.
Still, the possibility of encountering Alec Parson or other Praetorian survivors existed. Perhaps, someday, she could meet them. But, for now, Robbi would hold steady in her role as Deagon’s accomplice.
She needed no more drastic changes in her life.