Chapter Three: Karmadillo

He must have dozed off despite the cold because he snapped to alertness at a sound. Unsure if what he'd heard was real or dreamed, Number Four rubbed his face with his free hand to banish sleep as he closed his grip on the pistol in his lap. His skin was icy cold. The glow stick was still faintly gleaming, so he hadn't slept long. Silently berating himself for a moment of weakness - because Utonium certainly couldn't be expected to stay alert, being an adult and all - Wally stood, determined not to succumb to sleep again. He checked on the Professor, wondering if the man was asleep or unconscious, but he seemed to be breathing steadily. Very much wishing there was more he could do, Number Four turned and scanned the darkness beyond their little cave. It was raining again, and he listened carefully, learning the sound so that he could distinguish anything that didn't belong . . .

There. Something was definitely in the undergrowth a few yards to his left. Moving carefully, he snagged a fresh glow stick and bent it against his side to activate it before tossing it into the brush. The light arced and landed amidst the scrub brush.

Hissing erupted and Wally had a glimpse of beady red eyes and lurid, green armored plating as half a dozen nightmarish creatures scattered from the light, dragging long tails behind them. Without hesitation he raised the Null-Void and shot beyond the spot where they had been. A squeal rang out, and then silence.

"What was that?" gasped Utonium, waking up. He sounded startled, maybe even frightened.

"Those hitchhikers we picked up," Wally said. "I think they . . . I think they merged with armadillos or something."

A frown answered. Being an adult, Utonium was understandably confused. It was obvious to Wally that he didn't get out much. "Don't Fusion Spawns usually go for machinery?"

"Yeah, but when there's none around they'll take what they can get." He glanced back at Utonium. "I saw five or six."

The Professor sighed. "I'm sorry, Wally, I won't be much help to you."

"Don't you worry," he replied with feigned bravado. "I got this one."

"Armadillos," said Utonium laboriously, "are nocturnal and have poor eyesight. Their bellies are not armored. They have heavy claws for digging and . . . and can move with surprising speed when they need to."

Wally glanced at him in amazement, wondering if this man had any limits. The Professor's words were slurring, though, and he found that cause for concern. "That's a lot of help, Professor. Where'd you learn that?"

"Bubbles did a report on them in second grade." He sighed and muttered, "I think she's done a report on every variety of animal in North America."

"Oh. Cool. Well, thanks. Guess we can call them Harmadillos."

Utonium smiled. Like his son, he was always amused at the names given the Fusion Monsters. It was hard to keep a straight face when reading reports about things like Rending Machines and Pain Saws and now . . .

"Or Karmadillos, since we seem to have offended whomever's in charge of our horoscopes today."

Wally answered with a grin, following Utonium's meaning. His smile faded a moment later as he saw what effort it was taking for his companion to stay alert. "Um . . . do you need to lie down?"

With a small grimace and a nod the Professor closed his eyes, unable to keep awake but compliant when the KND helped ease him onto his side, just in case. Working gingerly, genuinely afraid of causing the man more pain, Wally positioned him as he'd been told with knees bent and his right hand in front of him as a precaution. At least this put more pressure on his wounded side if he started bleeding again. He tucked the blanket in close around the scientist and hoped he hadn't done anything that might be wrong or aggravate Utonium's injuries.

Brushing his blond hair away from his face, Wally rose and stared challengingly into the night, going over what little information he had to work with to keep the two of them alive long enough to be rescued. Fusion monsters tended to carry over the strengths and weaknesses of their hosts and he could only hope these nasty creatures were vulnerable. The question was how many of them were there? He knew they wouldn't quit any more than he would.

He surveyed their shelter. The shallow, dusty pocket in the side of the hill where Utonium lay was overhung by sloping rock that protruded just enough to give them a dry spot about twenty feet across. The ground was dirt and rock, and beyond the overhang was scraggly vegetation that struggled to survive in the poor soil. The land sloped uphill to more rock on his right and to his left it went downwards to where they had crashed amidst those poor excuses for trees. It was an unpleasant, inhospitable place, but he was glad he was on land and not the water.

Moving carefully, he retrieved the glow stick he'd tossed at the Fusions. He had an odd sensation that wasn't fear so much as a state of high alert. He could sense eyes upon him and he knew they were formulating an attack. While he was not the bookwormish type to grasp lofty ideals and philosophies, Number Four understood fully well the dynamics involved in battle tactics and how best to apply them. School work might be beyond his skills, but when it came to survival and fighting, Wallabee Beetles had few peers. Melees, not math, were what mattered the most right now, and he sensed he was going to be given the chance to prove his ability very soon.

They would attack from all sides. They had the advantage of numbers even if armadillos weren't much bigger than cats. They would try to cut him off from the Professor and pick them both off. Luckily the Professor was close to the wall of stone rising behind them. It wouldn't exactly be easy for them to flank him. At least, he didn't intend for it to be easy.

He had a single Null-Void pistol, nine glow sticks, the yo-yo, and lots of rocks in his arsenal. Keeping a wary eye on the darkness, he took a few minutes to stockpile rocks of decent throwing size, filling the pockets of his hoodie and mounding more of them close by the Professor. Mentally he categorized the weapons and their range – the blaster was his long-range defense, rocks were medium range, and the yo-yo was for in-fighting. He wondered how many adults realized what an effective weapon they were handing their kids every time they bought them a yo-yo. They may as well be handing Junior a rocket launcher for all the damage a trained expert could do.

He would have given a lot to know if the mayday had gotten through, but since there was no way of knowing he had to plan accordingly. If only the Professor hadn't been hurt. He'd be so much more optimistic about their chances if only Utonium was in some sort of shape to chuck a rock at a target. Of course rocks wouldn't stop a Fusion Monster, but the animal part of it could be hurt and a good shot with a rock could slow one down long enough for it to be dispatched by Wally's gun (though he never considered relinquishing the Null-Void, and wouldn't have even if Utonium had been the picture of health). Still, he didn't rule the man out since he'd managed to surprise Wally time and again today. For a grown-up, not only was he downright useful, but he had spunk and he sure knew a lot about a lot of things.

He crouched down, wishing he could see better in the dark and hear better over the sound of gently falling rain. His hearing he could do nothing about, but he might be able to help a little bit with the vision aspect. Number Four considered the glow sticks. They weren't much and they wouldn't last the night through, but it would be foolish not to put them to use. The Karmadillos (as he now thought of them) had not gone far and they would be back - sooner rather than later, he suspected. If there was one thing Fusion monsters had in common, it was a lack of patience.

His decision made, Wally acted. He laid hold of four of the glow sticks and snapped the cores to activate them. He wondered what Dexter might do with the things, considering he had a reputation for super charging everything he got his mitts on. Something as bright as sunlight would be very helpful out here. He'd have to suggest it to the Professor. He checked on Utonium first, the greenish light of the glow sticks making the man look rather sickly, and he wished he knew how to tell if a person was asleep or unconscious or in shock. For now he'd assume sleep because he had no real idea how to deal with the other states.

The sound of something passing through leaves alerted him to full awareness. Quickly Wally set the glow sticks at even intervals around 'his' territory. They didn't cast much light, but they did produce shadows and he silently swore anything that moved was getting shot unless it identified itself as a KND right fast.

Suddenly the brush seemed to erupt and an untold number of ugly, mutated creatures rushed at him, shrieking a shrill din. He had a brief glimpse of beady red eyes, clawed feet, and heavy, bulky armor. With a shout of surprise and fury he opened fire. The Null-Void rays deflected off their armor plating, smacking into the trees or rocks or dispersing into the air. They were faster than he'd anticipated, shockingly so, their clawed feet scratching and slipping on the rocks. There were too many for him to handle alone. He had to take some of them out now.

He shifted the Null-Void to his left hand and grabbed the yo-yo from his pocket. With practiced ease he got his finger through the loop and just as one of the Fusion monsters was scrabbling at the hem of his pants, he whipped the yo-yo down and bashed the thing right on top of the head with a loud crack before neatly catching and reloading the toy at the same time. Wally followed through with a shot from the Null-Void, right at the thing's head and close enough that he could feel the heat it put off. He didn't have time to find out if it was a winning combination or not - he was too busy kicking and struggling to keep more of the armadillo-things from dragging him down – but the mingled stench of ozone and burnt hair was oddly satisfying. The Fusions weren't too heavy - no bigger than a large cat - but with five or six clinging to his clothes the weight added up quickly.

Twisting around, he shook off most of them and held them at bay with kicks and swats and rocks. One of the green creatures clung to his sleeve with teeth and claws, so Wally used what he'd been given and whipped the thing around like a club, knocking two more of the armadillos well away and buying himself some space. Leaning over, he smashed his unwelcome passenger to the ground as hard as he could. It let go and he promptly punted it far away into the darkness. He smiled when he heard it crash through the brush with a loud squeal. He had room to use the Null-Void now and he looked for a target.

Abruptly he realized two of the glow sticks were gone and another was being dragged away by what was suddenly his next appointed target. With an angry shout Number Four swung the yo-yo in a wide, overhead arc and brought the heavy plastic spool down on the Karmadillo's back. It squealed and twisted, lunging at him with a savage hiss and giving him his first good look at the unfortunate monsters. It was hideous – all armor and teeth and claws and glowing red eyes. He fired the Null-Void hard and fast. The impact of the laser beams flipped the Karmadillo onto its back, and Wally grit his teeth and fired half a dozen shots into its exposed underside. He could smell burned flesh. It was sickening and infuriating that he should be forced to kill these silly and harmless creatures.

He heard a noise to the side and whipped a rock at the sound, driving another Fusion away from a glow stick. He threw a few more rocks in the Karmadillo's direction just to be sure. They seemed to have had enough for the moment, because no more attacks came and the two glow sticks he'd set out were left alone. Wally put them back into place and added a third, keeping a sharp eye on them. Adrenalin kept him alert and aware. His heart was still pounding in his chest as he surveyed the battlefield. There were two dead Karmadillos in his little territory and he was fairly sure he'd taken out another. Having no desire to stare at the things all night, he kicked the bodies into the bushes and then checked on the Professor, keeping a wary eye out for the next assault.

"Are you all right?" rasped Utonium, barely cracking his eyes.

Wally blinked, shocked the man was awake. Then again, battles were not exactly quiet affairs and Number Two had told him more than once that he tended to shout a lot when he was fighting, though he rarely remembered much about battles except the beginning and end.

"Uh, yeah." He was panting. "You?"

Professor Utonium didn't answer. He was staring past Wally with a look of sheer horror.

He swallowed, feeling the hair on the back of his neck stand up and a chill ghosting down his spine. Quietly he asked, "I'm gonna hate this, aren't I?"

With a tiny nod of his head, Utonium barely breathed, "Yeah."

Slowly Number Four looked over his shoulder.

"Oh, crap."