Section Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen: A Dangerous Bloom

Gardius' Moon – Underground Bunker Airlock – 1035 Hours

"About time." Daniel muttered as the door before them let out a clunk, finally unlocking. According to Lithic the air was breathable inside.

Grabbing hold of the handle he tugged, grunting, and blinked as Otavi laid a hand over his. "Something wrong, O-" He gulped as he turned to look at her. She had that faraway look in her eyes again, and it was aimed right at where they were headed.

"We must be careful." she murmured, sparing him a glance. "Something dangerous is ahead."

He always hated whenever someone gave him that bit of advice: something you already knew minus any info that would actually be helpful. But Otavi could inject all sorts of information into those four words. He nodded.

This door was somehow even bulkier than the last, and the hiss and clank as it swung open made him flinch. "Tell everyone we're here, why don't ya?"

No-one was in sight behind the bulkhead, thankfully. It opened up onto a long, sterile-white corridor. That was probably deliberate, because the only lighting was from a dim bulb in the ceiling. A few doors were set into either side of the corridor.

Daniel took a few steps toward one, the low clunks from them seeming about three times too loud to him. Gingerly he opened the door, and noticed the stains on it just a second before he saw what was on the other side.

Otavi jumped as her friend slammed the door quickly. He took a deep, slow breath and tapped the door. "N-nobody there, heh heh…"

He didn't open any of the other doors after that, holding his ear to them instead. Nothing. 'course, it was possible the doors were just air-tight and there was stuff inside besides…that. But just for once, he'd be fine with embracing ignorance.

The corridor made a sharp turn off to the left, and as they approached it he did begin to hear sounds, and not particularly pleasant ones, either. Crashes, muffled growling, and the unmistakable whine of a laser. Daniel thought back to what he'd seen in the room. Well, this place being a control room was probably off the table now. This seemed like more of a storage room, and he felt like he had a pretty good idea of what it was meant to store. He wished he didn't.

They turned the corner carefully. The only door leading off this one was at the very end, slightly ajar. The sounds he had heard were behind it for certain.

Gulping, Daniel took a step forward, and practically on cue the door was slammed almost totally off its hinges – as something came rushing through.

0

Planet Gardius – Museum Display Room – 1035 Hours

GD and Ace both sensed the attack coming and dodged at roughly the same time, the former with a quick leap, the other by simply backhanding the laser shots away. They turned as a different model, colored gold, came walking toward them. Not like the military march of the other droids, but a casual saunter. That alone was enough to make it unique to the two even before it spoke.

"Impressive. But I suppose both of you have to be, for the Bureau to hire mere tools."

"What'd you say-!?" Ace said, taking a step forward, but GD moved in front of him, staring the other machine down.

After a few moments he replied. "Statement: you are one of the people behind these machines, I assume? I am quite flattered by the compliment – but also curious why you would reveal yourself to us now, over a mere robbery." He paused, tapping his chin. "Contemplation: is this a mere robbery?"

"My, my," an amused laugh came from the speaker, "you machines do love to overthink things, don't you? But I'm afraid my lips are sealed."

Ace pushed past GD, glaring at the machine. "Don't talk about the sergeant like that."

All this produced was an amused laugh from the robot's speaker. "My, such loyalty. But I'm afraid I'm talking about you both, dear."

But GD had had enough of letting this new foe speak. With a sudden sprint he crossed the distance of the trophy room between them, thrusting his claw out in a stab at the gold machine's chest. As soon as he learned what to target, one move had proved more than sufficient for any of their models so far.

Unfortunately, the intelligence behind this one seemed to be aware of this, and of him as well. He was forcibly stopped short as two hands seized his arm in a skillful hold, and one quick motion later was thrown into the floor eye-first. GD tried to roll, but was pressed back down as the droid used his back like a spring-board, coming down toward Ace.

"Taking to the air against a lightning-user?" he muttered, his left gauntlet crackling. "Not a very good idea. Spark Knuckle!"

"If you say so." The robot's controller said as it slipped around the attack, grabbing hold of the gauntlet once the charge had left it. Ace grunted as he was born to the ground from its weight, and before he could summon more magic the arm was wrenched harshly to one side. He bit back a cry of pain and swung out, but it easily slipped away, backhanding him in the nose on the way.

The two rose and faced the machine. GD's hand hung limper than before, and despite his barrier jacket Ace felt a dull pain within his arm. "Hm, perhaps I should have stayed home. I was interested in seeing what you two were capable of, but I suppose even great minds can produce duds now and then."

Ace clenched his fist. "The only dud was in the head of who decided to make me. So shut up!"

"Well, we're in agreement there. I'm almost certain their brain wasn't functioning when they made you."

GD moved to intercept him, but Ace moved quicker. "I told you to SHUT UP!"

Behind the droid's controls, Grace smiled to herself as she watched him charge. "I saw that hesitation, even if he didn't feel it. A bit disappointing, but I suppose it isn't his fault. I'll have to meet him in person at some point, of course – won't that be fun?"

0

Gardius' Moon – Underground Bunker Hallway – 1036 Hours

Some animals, Daniel knew, could move so quick or strike so fiercely that your eyes could almost believe there was more than one of them for a second. That was the case here.

Not because what came out of the door was fast, although it was, but because in a certain horrible way, it was multiple animals. Lunging ahead for his throat was the head of a lion, fangs bared, while from where its tail should have been came a striking snake, its hiss filling the hallway. Both were connected together in a way that would make Daniel eat his device if it were natural. Staples and others remnants of whatever surgery created the thing stood out across both their hides, and a mad look was in the eyes of both heads.

Ordinarily Daniel would have been glad to throw up at the sight of it, but if he wanted to keep a mouth to do that from it could wait now. As the creature leaped, he took a step back and shoved Lithic forward like a stick, catching the thing between both jaws. It stumbled, sprawling on the ground from the jump, but that didn't deter it one bit; letting out a choked snarl the lion tried to chew right through the device to get at him.

Grunting, the digger prepared a spell, trying not to think too hard about the thing in front of him. Then he watched, eyes fixed, as the snake head slowly rose up from behind, staring right back at them. Its eyes glowed. "Uh…Otavi?"

From behind him came the sound of the girl's violin. He smiled at the surge of power that rose up within him. Even without plants around, Otavi more than pulled her weight.

The chimera let out a noise of surprise as the little morsel before it pushed, sending its legs sliding back across the white floor. Its snake head tried to loose whatever spell it had been preparing, but Daniel kicked it under the jaw and shoved quickly, sending it teetering onto its hind legs. He ripped Lithic out, drew him back and-

"Move, now!"

When Otavi said something like that, you listened. He leaped to the side, and just after heard a prolonged roar of pain from the beast. It staggered, and then collapsed, revealing dollar-sized burns in both its heads. A similar mark was where he'd just been standing.

What had done it was hovering near the ceiling: a smooth-looking machine with a silver shell. Five small cannons extended from it, one of them currently smoking.

Daniel tensed himself to leap again, but all it did was zip back down the hallway, toward where the chimera had come from. He shared a glance from Otavi, and they followed.

The sounds coming from the room had lessened, but not died down completely. It seemed to be a holding chamber for more of the hybrids like the one he just fought. Or had been, at any rate: the cages were all shattered now, and with one last shot the final chimera fell, a gruesome mix between a bull and some kind of bird.

The figure responsible turned to face them. It was another machine, like the ones who'd blown themselves up earlier, but this one looked more important. It was bigger, but had slimmer limbs, and a fragile looking frame. One thing it didn't have was a right arm, at least for a moment or two. The floating machine came over, adjusted itself, and slid smoothly into the slot.

They both tensed as the machine raised its returned arm, gesturing at them – no, at their devices. It then pointed down at the floor. Even wordless, the intent was clear. "Oh, you can forget that." Daniel growled. "You want a pair of hostages? You'll have to earn them, buddy."

Its shoulders went up and down slightly, the simple gesture managing to indicate the corpses now strewn about the room. Only some of them had put up enough resistance to be riddled with laser fire, rather than a single surgical hole. But if it was one thing the archeologist didn't like, it was being threatened.

The thing looked like it could snap a shot off pretty quick, and it had better; otherwise whoever built it was just about to watch their hard work get scrapped, literally. Still feeling the enchantment pulsing through his veins, Daniel ran forward, swinging his device ahead of him in pick form.

Before his eyes, the thing came to pieces. Not because he hit it (although that definitely would have happened then, too, if you asked him), but because it literally split apart. Both arms slipped off just before the legs did too, following the torso higher into the air. The head separated from that and went up near the ceiling, gaze still on the pair of them.

Daniel stopped his charge, and took a step back. He'd expected the arms to come off, since that was where you put the weapons, right? "Unless…" he suppressed a gulp, somehow feeling like the pieces without eyes were looking at him, too, "you didn't really feel like making parts that didn't have weapons in them."

The arms moved first, quickly moving through the air above him. He raised Lithic carefully, but before he could think of any game plan the limbs stopped, one aimed at the back of his legs, the other right at his forehead. He flung himself to the side just before the ten pin-point beams intersected each-other.

That got him about, oh, a half second to breath before one of the legs came flying at him, lined with energy and whirling like a buzz-saw. "…why the hell did I have to make that comparison?"

Gritting his teeth, he swung Lithic in a powerful arc at the leg. They collided in a clash of sparks and a vicious whine – but his enchantment gave him the edge, and it went spinning off into the corner of the room. Trouble was, so did he. Daniel went rolling across the room, only stopped when his back hit something solid. Smooth, too, bit of a relief with all those broken-

A set of binds snapped over his chest, pinning his arms together. Craning his neck, he saw the machine's chest piece hovering there, the restraints coming off of it. "Dammit! Let go of me!" He struggled, but the piece seemed designed for this. Even barely moving was painful. Before his eyes, the two arms hovered into view, fingers glowing.

He had to think fast. Lithic was still in his grasp, not that he could swing it very far. But he could angle the device so it and the robot piece were touching; that was more than enough. Or at least it would be if this thing's insides were as sensitive as they looked.

The shovel began to vibrate quickly, enough that it would have been pretty painful to hold for long. But he didn't need to: the vibration carried onto the chest piece, and the binds trapping him weakened. He broke free, barely dodging the arms' fire as they turned to track him. "Run!" he shouted to Otavi, but she was already out the door. No way they could fight that thing with just the two of them. Hell, they might need an entire squad!

0

Planet Gardius? – Teleport Chamber – 1040 Hours

Lacerta frowned as the bind loosened, releasing the Section Thirteen officer prematurely. She hadn't anticipated him thinking that quickly, or her machine's spells being that easily disrupted. Father would have to be told, later. But it had very little consequence: in these unfamiliar tunnels, they could not hope to surpass Unit Comet's speed, and the terrain would only grant her the advantage. The girl waved a hand and thought, and the machine reassembled itself.

It was unfortunate that the two of them had found their way here. This was not part of her duties, but they were her enemies, separated from the rest, and assuming this encounter was sound evidence, incapable of posing much of a threat to her. And with her as their foe, they would not be seeing the stars again.

"So, have you finished amusing your father?"

She had not been paying attention to the room around her. Dr. K's bird flapped its wings as it descended from the ceiling, landing on a pipe closer to her. It preened at a wing as the collar crackled. "My experiments certainly count as part of the cargo up there, yes. But exactly what information do you believe they could gain from them about us? I am quite proud to say the TSAB has no concrete information on me."

The condor regarded her with a keen eye. It had no outer signs of his experimentation, but perhaps he had modified its intelligence somehow, to better serve as a messenger. "But I'm sure you were aware it would please your father – for some reason he seems to dislike me. And anything that raises his spirits can't be unnecessary, can it? In that sense, you're quite predictable."

Letting out a slight sigh, Lacerta turned, raising the visor to stare at the avian. "If you do not have anything relevant to discuss, please leave. I am-"

An alert from the visor's display made her eyes widen, just slightly. It had nothing to do with her, but was something she had been on the lookout for since this operation began. She snapped the visor back down quickly, sending a transmission to her partner and moving Unit Comet in pursuit of the officers. Lacerta had always been quite good at multi-tasking.

0

Planet Gardius – Blockaded Museum Hallway – 1038 Hours

Despite some of the…'humor' familiars of his function tended to attract, Barnes prided himself on not playing with his food, at least not while he was on the clock. Of course his duties today didn't specifically include ending anyone's life, but he liked to give his master what he wanted, not just what he'd asked for.

So anyone able to stand up against him for very long wasn't managing it because he was bored. And even if he inclined toward that, he'd be a fool to play around with Jeanne Stromhold. He didn't honestly care either way about what record she had, but neither could he deny the woman was made of tough meat indeed. She wasn't going to give up or beg; you couldn't take her anything but seriously.

But that was fine by him. He wasn't going to get left in the dust by Katie, even if she was the one fueling his magic at the moment.

Right now Jeanne was at the opposite end of the corridor again; for someone supposedly famed for her sturdiness, she was damn good at slipping out of things. Tensing his muscles, Barnes' paws flew across the floor as he charged forward.

He'd expected her to try and fire, but she prepared a shield instead, reaching across where he'd be leaping. And leap he did – with his back legs, sending him into a reverse flip with his tail swinging above the barricade, down toward her head. A blow from it could pulverize most mages, and even her if she had no time to defend herself properly.

He probably would have felt more confident about it if her expression had budged, just a little.

Jeanne took a broad step forward through the shield, which evaporated like spit on a hot sidewalk. Leaving Flashpoint's main body to thud to the carpet behind her, she hefted his axe form in a broad slash overhead. The water that formed the blade was searing hot – hot enough to sever a familiar's fifth limb in two.

Barnes tried to roll with it, but the pain shot right up his spine, and sprawled hard onto one arm. He took a second to rise, but that was fine. She had to go and cut off his tail, didn't she? He turned to watch Jeanne take a step back, frowning at the holes that had been burned in the front of her barrier jacket. The tip of his severed tail sat a few feet away, the blood from it eking its own hole into the carpet.

"Who the hell made you, anyway?" she muttered, splashing the corrosive substance off.

"Wouldn't believe me if I told you. Which I won't." Barnes growled back. His tail would grow back on its own in the next few hours, but in the meantime it would hurt like hell. He hadn't been planning on revealing that little trick, least of all to someone so able to roll with it. But hell, now that he had…the familiar hung back, feeling a sac in the back of his throat slowly fill up…

Jeanne frowned, quickly reconnecting her device's two parts. "Great. That's all I need right now."

0

Gardius' Moon – Skies Above Cave-In – 1039 Hours

"So these two are supposed to be important? Really? I better not be getting pranked or something."

The boss would probably smack him upside the head for thinking like that, but hey, it was true. He'd been in simulations against solo opponents that put up more of a fight than both these two at once. It was boring, really; everything they tried he saw coming from a mile away. The captain especially: it was like he'd fought her…before.

Ryusei frowned beneath his visor, just as Alyssa raised her head, meeting his eyes. He flinched, just before she took off like a rocket straight toward him. Those eyes were pure anger; not the annoyance he got from Lacerta or the talking-tos he got from the boss, just hatred. She didn't want him beaten now, but gone. He'd never seen anything like it be-

"…no. Not now, anytime but-"

The flames billowed around him, the heat they gave off a contrast to the cold night air. Most of the roof around him had been pulverized; he would have been too if he'd donned his barrier jacket a moment slower. Gripping his device tightly, he walked out of the flames.

The red-haired girl stared at him like she had seen a ghost, eyes widening. Just as quickly, though, the anger returned, with two words.

"You devil…"

Two things hit Ryusei then; Bowie's point on the outside of his armor, and a needle from within it, sliding from a hidden compartment smoothly into his neck. Cypher's idea, that was, and he understood why. Bad enough this should happen one-on-one, but if he went wild while the boss was around, things could go wrong really fast. It could be the needle thinking there, though; whatever was in it calmed him down.

It also made his vision go dotted with spots, and his hearing to go dim for a second, but he'd prefer that to seeing some of her memories. The one in his head fizzled out like static on a TV, but not before parts of others came flashing in. Ryusei had gotten used to it by now, but this time one brief image stood out: the face of the woman in front of him. She was younger, but the look of anger was almost exact.

That explained why she was pissed, then…but the reason why made him kinda angry, too.

Angry, but still very, very calm.

Alyssa flinched as her next thrust came up short; the fault of the sudden bind coming from one armored hand. That left Bowie's shaft within grabbing distance, and he tugged her in close. Then before she could struggle, he spoke.

"I take it you noticed whose moves I'm using? But in case you haven't noticed, you're not fighting her at the moment."

He shoved Alyssa backward hard, then pointed a finger right at her face. "But if you wanted something more original, all you had to do was ask."

The next words were to the AI inside the armor. It wasn't as chatty as a Device, but it was always listening. "METEOR, send me the sword."

"Acknowledged. Transporting Close-Range Armament 1, code-name 'Nova'."

A crackle came from the armor's audio channels. "Ryusei." Lacerta said dispassionately. "I detected a psychological spike from you. What happened?"

"Nothing, thanks to Grace's medicine. Remind me to thank her when we get back – I won't be much longer with these two."

She paused. Ryusei could practically see the frown. "Wait." the girl added, noticing something else. "You're using Nova on them? It hasn't been tested in live combat yet. And it's quite the card to be showing now."

"The captain's already figured out where a lot of my moves come from, so I'll have to show them something new to make sure I can keep this diversion up. Besides, it's not the only weapon this armor has, and it being damaged wouldn't be good either."

Lacerta was impressed despite herself. The logic was there, of course, but ordinarily Ryusei would have voiced it far more crudely. She would have to ask Dr. Flush about the medicine's contents later on.

"Anyway, if there's nothing else, I'm kinda busy here."

Alyssa had recovered from the gut-punch impressively fast, and gone in for more stabs. He dodged them all, moving smoother than he had before. Not that she cared; he was going down no matter how fast he could move.

Ryusei noticed the light growing off to one side a full second before she did. The lieutenant was there, preparing a decent shot of magic going by his armor's readings. Probably not on the captain's orders, though: surprise flickered across her face, and she pressed the attack, trying to push him in that direction. It didn't work, as he dodged staying right where he was.

Finally she broke off, but because she had to. A fiery bind leaped up around him, but he smashed it with one heavy flex. No teamwork at all…not that he could talk, but it was still embarrassing to watch.

The knight's blast was almost fully charged. It wouldn't be much work to dodge, but he had something different in mind.

Arturia stared as what appeared to be a device, or something quite similar, blinked into existence near their opponent's hand, and was quickly snatched up. It was a sword, apparently modeled after the slimmer, eastern models rather than her large claymore, and matched the colors of its owner's suit. It seemed a bit small in the armored hands, but he held it like it was second-nature.

She wasn't going to give him the chance to use it. "Fire, Frangir! LAUS CALAMUS!"

The sparkling corona left the device's launcher with enough force to push its wielder backward. Ryusei watched the blast coming at him with a calculating eye.

From nearby, Alyssa watched both sides of the blade light up, and it start to vibrate. A bad feeling came over her.

As the blast approached, he held the blade up in both hands, waited until it was nearly upon him, and then swung down vertically. Both officers watched as the spell was bisected down the middle, each half swerving around to dissipate uselessly.

"W-what in the world?" Arturia thought in astonishment. "He deflected it that easily?"

"He didn't deflect anything." Alyssa replied, shaking her head. "The spell just split apart when his sword got close. Never seen anything like it."

The mage raised his head, and she could sense one eye looking right at her. And then he took off…right for Arturia.

"Shit."

0

Planet Gardius – Museum Hallway – 1040 Hours

"I hope Alyssa's alright." Anton sighed inwardly. "At least she's probably not trying something as risky as this."

He was currently kneeling in-between two sculptures, under a cloaking spell. Both eyes were on the hallway Katie would come out of; he wasn't sure how good her senses were in this area, but hopefully not good enough to blow this plan. He wouldn't just be dead meat if that happened, he'd be grilled. How she reacted first off would be the key.

Footsteps approached, and with bated breath Anton watched Katie enter the hallway. He froze, just in case her gaze wandered, but it focused right on the door to her left, ajar just a smidge.

"Really? I even slowed down a bit, and that's the best you came up with?" she stepped forward and laid a hand on the door.

The instant her fingers came into contact, runes lit up just inside the room it led to, as well as on the door itself. They went off, causing a gale-force explosion in the hallway. Anton flinched as the stands toppled over.

"A little trap a five-year old could have seen through? I'm a bit offended." Katie turned, barrier jacket crackling but largely unaffected, and looked right at his hiding place.

Anton was already moving, though, retreating quickly (well, alright, desperately) down the hall. He flung a quick gust of wind behind him, but it was swatted away like a bug.

"You look smart, I'll give you that, but I suppose smoke and mirrors count for a lot." With ease she flicked one of her knives, sending out a whip of lightning that curled around his leg and sent him hurling to the ground. She approached slowly, watching him try to crawl forward. "Do you know how pathetic you look right now?"

He stopped. "Actually yes."

Quickly, Anton raised one hand. "I have to, when I'm trying to look like it." He struck it down on the hallway floor.

"Squall Cage."

More sigils appeared around them, on the walls and floor just where Katie happened to be standing now. The ones on the floor each produced a swirling current of wind; barely anything on their own, but together they created a miniature cyclone in the hallway, lifting the lightning mage off her feet and halting her forward movement entirely. She could have powered out quickly, of course, if it weren't for the binds that came out from the walls. Alone either of them wouldn't have been enough to hold her more than a few seconds. Katie knew this was the case, which made it all the more infuriating that she couldn't now.

Anton stood up, looking far less like someone just caught off-guard. She couldn't help noticing that he was holding the baton with the arm she'd stuck her device into the other night. "Just so we're clear," he breathed, "I didn't start this fight. You did."

The baton cut through the wind like it wasn't even there, and although it looked like a silly little instrument in the secretary's hands, when it hit Katie she found it was a bit more like a small, sharp piece of metal. It struck her across both cheeks and the chin as hard as Anton could swing; harder, with the wind helping it along.

Then he stepped back and waved his weapon, causing the wind to pick up enough to slam her into the ceiling. Binds broken, she flopped to the floor.

Anton let out a huge sigh, and then took a gulp from his inhaler. Well, he'd been right at least. From what he'd seen of her fighting, she hadn't looked as durable as her brother, or even Alyssa. "Yeah," he said tiredly, "not so tough anymore, are-"

One of Katie's hands clenched over the knife nearby it. Hurriedly dumping water on that little flame of competence, his brain sent him about face and running. Catching her off-guard once didn't mean he'd come close to actually beating her in a straight fight, and he wasn't going to try – not today at least. If he got back to Captain Stromhold or GD and Ace, then that was more than enough of a win for him.

"Step two: so far, so still alive." he thought, turning the corner. She was going to be mad when she woke up, which was either going to be very good or very, very bad for him. Good thing this museum had plenty of hallways like this.

Not long after he'd gone, Katie rose. Anton's attack had banged her around a little, but she could still stand, easily. She swished her tongue around, feeling the blood within it. "Well, no problem," the lightning triad murmured, "it'll just make it more enjoyable when I catch him, that's all."

She pursued.

0

Planet Gardius – Museum Display Room – 1040 Hours

GD had wondered briefly when this droid had shown itself if it was not the commander unit Doctor Forrester had asserted the existence of. Unlikely, he had concluded after a moment, for various reasons. Now, however, this conclusion had unpleasant consequences. If a common machine – albeit one almost certainly being controlled remotely – could pose this much of a threat to he and the Corporal both, what would its commander be capable of?

But there was something else. It had only been a hint at first, but as he watched the blows Ace and the droid traded, it became more and more apparent. Having data on someone was one matter, but it seemed to know almost exactly what move he would make. GD had been by the young man's side in enough combat to understand the difficulty of this; it was not something you could accomplish by memorizing a computer screen or making calculations.

Case in point. He watched as Ace struck out with a quick, powerful blow, so much like the element he was most at home with. The droid met and blocked it, then the second blow, putting them at a deadlock. His injured arm didn't help, either. "Trying to solve your problems with brute force? I can't say I'm surprised. Just disappointed."

That was another matter. The person at the controls of this machine seemed to know exactly what buttons of Ace's to push. He was more sensitive than he first appeared, GD knew, and he was beginning to make mistakes. Not merely because of anger, but because they clearly had knowledge of his origins. First-hand knowledge, quite possibly. It was fortunate that he was present in this fight.

Quickly GD approached from behind as the corporal tried to charge his gauntlets, and was met with a kick to the stomach, just in the right place to stun him. "Query: Corporal, are you thinking of what I am?" He spoke calmly, and Ace heard him, nodding.

"You bet, Sergeant! This guy is really ticking me off!"

The droid paused as Ace tightened his hold, braced his legs, and then heaved. His pull hoisted the machine above his shoulders. It was still hanging on, but that was-

"Huh?" Ace thought as he found himself holding two severed arms. They'd come apart mid-throw, as easily as some doorknobs had back before he'd gotten a hang of himself.

The momentum remained, however, sending the droid into a graceful, sailing leap. What wasn't graceful was the hole it gouged in GD's chest with a vicious, mid-air kick.

Ace bit his lip as his CO went sailing backward, innards sparking. "Sergeant!"

"My, distracted that easily?" the droid crooned as it hopped back, attaching its arms while he ran over. "Perhaps you have changed. Or you're quite a good actor."

The corporal stopped mid-way, clenching one fist hard enough to make the gauntlet whine. "What are you trying to do, anyway?" he growled. "Even I ask, you're not going to say a word. You want me to get angry, right?"

"Do I?" the droid asked, tilting its head to one side.

"Well, you can forget it." Ace said, offering GD a hand up. "All that's going to happen is us beating you." He moved back into his stance. "And when we meet for real, I'm going to beat all the answers out of you. Whoever you are, you can count on that."

A charge sparked in his boots, bolstering his speed as he ran forward. The droid dodged again, as his blow crackled through the air, but only just. Then GD came out from one side, scything at it with his claws. It evaded them too, but when it stepped back they both saw the marks.

"Now we're talking." it said.

Ace frowned. "Sergeant, it's going to take forever if we just keep pecking at it like this. If I can just get a hold of it, I know I can end this in one or two hits."

"Agreement: there is a tactic available for cases like this, Corporal."

"Now you're thinking what I'm thinking, Sergeant."

GD dove forward, slashing rapidly at the other robot, not faltering as all of them were dodged. On the other hand, their foe couldn't get past him so easily either.

Meanwhile, Ace raised his good arm, building up a great charge of lightning. "Spark Field!"

The gauntlet slammed down, releasing the charge and allowing it to spread through the floor. Not just the part of it around Ace, either, but traveling across the entire room. Both droids saw it coming, and leaped into the air: a move like that would dissipate quickly, but also wreak havoc on a machine's innards.

But only one of the droids had known it was coming. GD went right for Grace's droid in the air, grabbing ahold of one of the legs. Under the VR helmet, she frowned.

Just after they'd committed to their jumps, meanwhile, Ace raised his gauntlet up from the floor. The electricity he'd expelled suddenly came rushing back, flowing into his gauntlet and producing a violent surge.

Grace peered forward in the chamber. "That kind of spell, hm? Interesting. Very interesting."

Using the hold he'd managed to gun, GD swung the other machine around in midair; now they were both falling toward Ace, just as the young man tensed his legs and dashed forward, gauntlet sparkling. "LIGHTNING..."

"Ha. I'm impressed."

"FINGEEEEER!"

GD leaped away just before, allowing Ace to skewer their enemy with his gauntlet. The blow punched a hole into the droid, but the strike artist wasn't quite finished there. Raising the droid above his head with one hand, he let the charge loose.

His sergeant nodded at the bolt of lightning that rose up toward the ceiling, but didn't actually pierce through. You would not expect it, but the Corporal could display surprising restraint at times. The machine they had fought was still in one piece, as well, although the blast had rendered it completely inoperable.

He walked up as Ace set it down. The blonde grinned. "Think the Doctor will be happy when we get back, Sergeant?"

"Assumption: I believe that…"

A sudden light from below them caught the two's attention. The disabled droid's eyes had begun to flash. Very, very quickly.

The explosion came after the two leaped aside, Ace tackling GD to shield him from the blast. It wasn't very big, thankfully, and aside from a few pedestals being knocked over there was no serious damage.

Ace coughed. "Uh, well. He'll be happy that we weren't hurt, anyway!"

"Query: you are not very familiar with the Doctor, are you, Corporal?"

0

Planet Gardius - Museum Hallway - 1042 Hours

Katie didn't think of herself as a very patient person. When she wanted something, she wanted it quickly. She would have much rather been chasing the pest through open sky, instead of these cramped hallways. He could be anywhere now for all she knew.

Not, of course, that she was afraid of him and his stupid little tricks. But this place was already surrounded, and she didn't have the time to start breaking down walls. Barnes had picked something out to take, so it was about time for her to do the same. She'd have been done already, if only the idiot hadn't shown up and distracted her. Another thing for Barnes to rub it in about.

Turning a corner, she saw Anton in the middle of a four-way intersection, taking a puff from that plastic thing he used. Seeing it stoked her anger more: how the hell had she been given the slip by an invalid this many times!?

He looked round and saw her. Then he was off again-

Scratch that. They were off again: more of those damned clones of his. One went up, one went left, and-

Her gaze fixed on the one going right. Katie hadn't figured her whip had affected his leg that much, but there it was, a brief stumble from the one going right. No clone did that. Stepping up to that hallway, she smiled and called, "You know, it's not safe to run with an injury."

He flinched. It was almost adorable, really, how out of his depth he was. He'd come from somewhere where you could get away with flinching. How lucky for him.

As Anton sped up, trying to run, she smirked, twirling both of Lacerto's halves in her hands. Lightning began to wreath her. She dropped into a diving stance, raised one of the knives-

-and sent it whistling toward the secretary as he tried to sneak up behind her. He jerked back, gasping, but the energized knife cut through his barrier jacket and into his arm. It wasn't a wound that could kill, at least not quickly, but she could tell it had hurt him. Of course, any amount of pain might be too much for someone like him.

"You already got me once with that sort of trick. I'll admit I didn't see it coming," she took a step forward, fingering her knife, "but exactly where did your mother drop you to make you think it would work twice in a row?"

That area of insult tended to drive even the thickest-skinned into a fury, but all her words did was make him travel backward, but not before throwing out some more useless wind. It blew back Katie's hair as she stood twirling her knives, watching him run down the hallway. His leg injury seemed to have been a fake. He was sneakier than he looked; shame he wasn't stronger, too.

"You remember this move, don't you? Lightning..." she grinned like a cat. "RAVE!"

And then she was off like a rocket, if the rocket was wreathed in lightning and had two electrified blades on the front. Anton saw it coming and hit the dirt, but that only meant the knives didn't hit him; the aura of lightning surrounding her washed over him as she passed above, blasting chunks from his barrier jacket and cutting at his face.

She flipped in midair and came to rest with her feet against the wall on the far end of the hallway. Katie's senses buzzed at her that there was something a bit off here, but she ignored them to focus on what was in front of her eyes: Anton swaying to his feet. Her attack had opened up a cut on his forehead, and he blinked as the wound dribbled down under his glasses. She had a clear shot, and there was nowhere for him to run this time.

It looked like he was going to say something, though. Fine, then. She watched as he raised a finger and said two words.

"Got..you."

The typical retort from Katie rose up in her throat, when an ominous noise rose up from nearby. Just under her feet, in fact.

She looked down at the brick wall, to see that it wasn't brick wall, not anymore. The surface shimmered as an illusion spell dissipated, revealing a glass case that now had a large crack running through it. A pair of sensors within were glowing bright red.

Katie had just enough time to realize what she really should have turned off when they were in the security room earlier, and say a few words of her own. "I hate you."

Anton gave a little shrug.

Then the security system took effect. The principle behind them was simple: any magical force that touched them, be it an attack or some attempt at thievery, was absorbed (to a certain extent, at least: anything that used, say, an AAA rank mage's full power would certainly break the case, the security sensors, and probably the room both were in) and sent back two-fold in pure power. There were ways to deal with it, of course - but they required knowing it was there to begin with.

Anton ducked and covered, which was a good move; the energy released by the security devices became a shockwave that ripped halfway through both adjoining hallways. It was so loud he barely heard Katie's scream of pain.

He only dared to look up when he heard something flop to the floor. Katie looked more worse for wear after her move than Anton. Several parts of her barrier jacket hung in ribbons, and the skin underneath was smoking. Her ponytail had come undone, leaving her hair tattered.

"...what now?" He hadn't expected it to do that much, or really, to even work at all. He had made a guess that Katie couldn't change directions during that spell, but if he had been wrong, it would be him lying there now.

If she was out for good, he had to arrest her, then. If. He rose, tottering a bit, and walked over carefully. "Um..." He probably would have remembered exactly what you had to say if this wasn't the first time it had ever come up. "For starters, you're under-"

She shot straight up, knife in hand, but Anton had sort of expected that. He dodged to one side of the stab with the aid of some wind, landing in the hallway going left.

Katie...did not look happy. Lightning began to crackle all across her body as she stared at him, in a way that didn't look as natural as her earlier move. It didn't do much for the look in her eyes, either.

Anton was getting pretty good at predicting the future when it came to Katie, and he had a sudden premonition of his own if he remained in this hallway a moment or two longer. So, he took the nearest exit out. That this happened to be a window didn't factor much into his decision.

He was still strong enough to fly, but as he broke through the pane, the force of the blast behind sent him tumbling. But he was getting pretty lucky today; underneath him was a soft landing.

Well, maybe not that lucky. It was an open dumpster, after all.

Which was worse between the landing and the smell was up for a lengthy debate, but at least he was still in one piece. Anton grabbed hold of the side and pulled himself up.

"Freeze!"

He stared into the business end of four police-issue staff devices. Anton slowly dropped his baton over the side, and held out his hand. In a flash of light, his Bureau ID card appeared in it. "Anton Langsley, Section Thirteen...if you can believe that."

They lowered their devices, looking disappointed. What was the point of reacting that fast if you didn't get to arrest someone?

"Um. Could one of you help me out of here?"

0

Gardius' Moon - Collapsed Tunnel - 1041 Hours

Dwight flinched as a loud thud came from somewhere above-ground. Not a good time to make a sudden movement; his shot pulled above Red Shoulder, letting him move a bit closer. It had been like that for a while. He thought he'd have him pinned down, and then the guy would manage to slither forward. Dwight hadn't wanted him to get close at the beginning of the fight, but now more than ever, because it was pretty clear now just how out-classed he was. Military beat police most of the time, and if Red Shoulder wasn't from there, he'd eat his gun, literally.

Things had turned out pretty badly the last time they had met, and that was on the Bureau's turf. This time it would be by their rules, and somehow Dwight got the feeling they wouldn't be very friendly ones. Times like this, he wished he'd had a bit more imagination when requesting his device. Straight shots were useless in this tunnel, and he couldn't pull off making them move like other mages. Gas was useless up here,

What would his boss do in this situation? Blast the whole tunnel to bits with her cannon, probably - sort of the question for him. Alyssa and Arturia? Just fly out, probably - and ditto. He gave the drop behind him another glance. Would it hurt more than if Red Shoulder got up to him? Could be worth some consideration depending on how things went.

He fired off another few shots, then ducked as a few came back in return. The boulders around them were good cover, and so far none of them had gotten hit. They'd given Dwight an idea a little while back, though, but he didn't plan on using it unless he got into deep shit, pardon his french.

The lull between shots had gone a bit too long for his tastes. He quickly rose, eyes searching for the black suit.

What he did see was a grenade, tumbling over his rock and landing right near his feet. At times like that, your feet did the thinking for you: by the time his brain had caught up he was leaning against the rock wall, shield up.

The explosion was bigger than a normal grenade, but he weathered it fine enough. His boulder got a chunk blown out of it, but it was still fine for cover. But moving had forced him out in the open. He quickly moved back-

That rifle Red Shoulder was using was something else alright. His barrier jacket might as well have been leisure wear for how much resistance it offered to the bullet, which went right into his left leg, near the knee.

Well, now if he somehow got past the trained mercenary playing for keeps he'd have to escape the tunnels by hopping on one leg. Great. The only thing worse than thinking about how bad he was off was wondering if anyone had it worse.

0

Gardius' Moon - Cavern - 1042 Hours

Someone at least thought they did. But Daniel had thought that in more than a hundred different situations this far in his life, so it probably didn't mean as much now. As it turned out, the machine could fly pretty fast. Well, the individual pieces anyway. They'd caught up not long after they'd left the bunker, and the area they'd done it in, a wider part of the cavern, didn't improve matters much. It was a lot like that time he'd gotten swarmed by that hive of nullsquitos in the river, except with lasers.

...bigger lasers, anyway.

Growling, he swung his shovel, aiming to bat an arm out of the air as it flew by. Nothing doing; it quickly ascended away, turning to aim a shot at him. Pulling Otavi close, he slammed Lithic into the ground. A curved rock wall burst from the ground, shielding them from the fire. But guarding one spot didn't really mean jack against this thing. The other arm and both legs were approaching from behind.

Daniel could think that far ahead, though. He waited until the first arm stopped firing, and then leaped through the barrier, pulling Otavi with him. It collapsed behind the pair, just in time to bury the limbs in rocks.

The digger laughed, running as fast as someone else's legs could carry him. "Ha, take that you-

The machine's head lowered down in front of them., eyes glowing. "Oh."

This time it was Otavi who moved him, shoving him away and letting the energy hit her instead.

It wasn't a regular laser; the energy spread out to ensnare Otavi, and then began to crackle. The violinist screamed.

"You hunk of garbage!" Daniel slammed his shovel into the dirt and swung it forward. A cascade of rocks hurtled toward the machine's head.

Without missing a beat, the torso suddenly lowered into the air ahead of it, projecting a barrier that stopped them all. The head's attack, meanwhile, increased in energy, along with Otavi's screams.

Daniel grit his teeth, hesitated a moment, and then leaped.

On the other side of her interface, Lacerta's eyes widened a fraction as his jump took him right into her attack. "That is his next move? For what purpose?" Otavi flopped to the ground, while the energy now trapped the digger. He wasn't screaming like her, but one look at his face told you the pain he was feeling at the moment. "Either way one of them will be caught, and she cannot defend herself without his aid. What a useless, emotional move."

Her eyes turned from the trapped man to the girl, rising and staring at the sight with wide eyes. That explained something of their relationship. Despite herself Lacerta felt a twinge of pity. The girl was from a dead kingdom that was never coming back, and according to her file, didn't even have memories of it left. They had dredged her up in this time and then left her be when it was found she had no practical use. Well, there would be one for her now.

The rubble behind them scattered as the unit's limbs resurfaced. They flew over, and with a few precise movements the machine was whole again. Lacerta grasped hold of the beam and tugged. Daniel's body was pulled out of mid-air to rest before the machine. She quickly disarmed him of his device, and brought one foot down to pin him.

Daniel halted it with both hands, staring up at the machine with defiance. "You're not...laying a finger on..."

Lacerta shot him twice. He held his grip a moment, and then fell limp.

Still pointing the hand at him in case he tried anything further, she raised the unit's head to look at Otavi. She gestured to the violin and fiddle, then to the ground nearby.

"No." the musician replied back calmly. Strangely calm, given what she had just been through. "Get away from him, or you'll regret it. Now."

Ryusei would have wondered what the girl was playing at. Lacerta could tell that tone of voice didn't come from any bluff. She raised the unit's hands toward Otavi, and waited.

It didn't take long. After a moment or two Otavi began to play, and it was a song she had never used before. Lacerta was certain of that - it was low, mournful, and came through the transmission clear as day, almost straight into her nerves.

The girl was a summoner of plants, Lacerta had read, and could enchant those who couldn't move to do so. Everything she had done this with so far was native to Planet Gardius, however, and this moon would offer nothing of the sort. But the mere fact that she was playing meant there was something she could bring here.

The Unit fired with both arms, but Otavi ducked and weaved, moving safely between every shot. Lacerta frowned, pressing the fire, but the musician seemed to know exactly where they were going to go. So the reports of her precognition were not mere rumor, then. But there were ways of dealing with that.

Making her machine hover, she flew it at full speed toward Otavi. The girl looked attentive, and ready to dodge. It was unfortunate, then, that Unit Comet was designed for this sort of thing.

As it neared her, the unit spun, detaching its arms and firing them toward her. She evaded the whirling blades they became, but could not deflect them. That was unfortunate, for they both did a u-turn in the air and came scything toward her back, while the unit's main body whirled around, kicking at her with both legs. Lacerta would be very surprised if the girl could dodge this.

And to her credit, that would indeed have been impossible for Otavi. But sadly for her, she had no knowledge on exactly how quick this summon spell was. With a final stroke of her fiddle, Otavi murmured to the cavern, "Knight's Elegy."

Lacerta pulled the unit's parts back at the first flicker of movement. It came from below, and the object that caused it sprouted up and around the girl: a large bud, a size or two bigger than a human being.

Reconnecting Unit Comet, she stared at it calmly, arms up and prepared to fire the instant anything happened. There was no prior information to help her here, only her own intuition. Fortunately, she had that in abundance.

Finally, the bud split open down the middle. She fired, and quickly pulled the machine aside as all ten beams were deflected, scattering around the cavern.

They weren't the only thing coming her way, however. Lacerta quickly ascended, but not quickly enough to keep the blade from piercing into Unit Comet's right leg. It wasn't a serious wound, but the first it had taken so far. She leveled it off near the ceiling, and watched as the blade and the arm that held it pulled back to the cocoon as their owner emerged.

It was a plant, as she'd expected, but a peculiar one. Most plants, after all, didn't resemble humans.

That would have been noteworthy enough already, but just as the spell had said, this one seemed to fancy itself a knight. A sharpened branch served as its sword, and the shield that had deflected her lasers was a glowing leaf. It had a face, if the eyes she saw watching her - the unit were any indication, but it was covered by a helmet made from a carved up nut. Put together with the plant's lanky limbs, made out of curled vines, she would have found it comical if it had not done what it just had.

The plant knight took a step forward, turning its head back slightly to watch the girl take up position behind it, violin at the ready. Yes, the classic summoner/familiar combination. A good opponent to test Unit Comet's merits against.

"Very well. In that case, I'll make certain you understand just how outdated you Belkans are now, girl." Lacerta thought to herself. "As well as me and my father's power."

To be continued...

Next time, Alyssa and Arturia realize they'll have to work together to survive this fight, but not before sharing a few words about family. Down on Gardius, with her subordinates out of harm's way, will Jeanne be able to manage the same? And most importantly, what's the deal with this familiar Otavi has summoned?

Find all this out in Family Talk, the next chapter.