Posted by: lordkyler | September 6, 2014

Rusty – Short Story

This is a short story taking place not long before the events in the snippets I posted last time. It is set in the same universe of shapeshifters, elementals, and techno-wizardry, although it features a few different characters. I’m rather pleased with how it turned out, and I think it helps build the world well. It could perhaps form a secondary plot or flashback sequence of some sort if this ever turns out to be a book. Enjoy.


The warehouse seemed quiet, but appearances could be deceiving, a fact I knew all too well.

I had scouted the location for several hours beforehand, but there was still no guarantee that it was deserted. When your enemies can glide on the wind or burrow underground, it’s practically impossible to cover all the entrances.

Ambush or not, though, I couldn’t afford to wait much longer. One last check, just in case, and then I would go for it. I pulled out my scopes.

A quick optical scan revealed nothing. I tried thermal and piezoelectric, but the warehouse walls were too thick to penetrate from this distance. I could send in drones, but that would reveal my presence as well. It annoyed me that with all this technology, sometimes we were still blinder than bats.

Actually, bats have something better than sight. That gave me an idea. I reached into my kit and pulled out a seismic imager. It would send a shockwave through the earth, and use the echoes to reconstruct a 3D map of the area. If they had tunneled in, I would be able to tell.

The imager looked like one of those round speakers you plug into an iPod, except it was made of stainless steel and had an attachment that could expand into a dish the size of a dinner plate. I deployed the dish, anchored it against the ground, and pressed the button. It let off a dull, muted thud like a distant subwoofer, then began flashing lights as it processed the returning shockwaves.

I put on my specs, a high-tech pair of glasses with a microcomputer and heads-up display. After a few seconds, the imager transmitted its data to the specs, and a ghostly image of the model appeared in front of my eyes.

The model was roughly bowl-shaped, the radius of the seismic shock distorted by varying densities of stone, and missing chunks on the surface where basements cut into the earth. The model was grainy and imperfect, but it would do. With a few adjustments, it would be much more useful. I slid my left sleeve back, revealing a control pad on my arm. With speed gained from thousands of hours of practice, I made my changes.

First off, I didn’t care about the rock. I wanted to know where the rock wasn’t. I inverted the model. Instantly the stone bowl was replaced by a grid of basements and cross-crossing tunnels, obscured slightly by residual images from cracks and cavities underground. I fiddled with the settings until the unwanted images vanished, and sharpened the lines of the underground structures.

I now had a working map of the underground. Rather than try to navigate through it looking for the warehouse in particular, I sent it to my augmented reality setup. The model spun and zoomed until it matched my coordinates, then turned into a green overlay. I turned my head from side to side, and the projection turned with me. Excellent.

Looking around, I could see a lot of basements and parking garages. The warehouse itself had a couple of stories underground, nothing too extensive. It did, however, have what I was looking for. A ragged tube extended from one corner of the warehouse basement, out of place among all the square edges of the buildings. The tunnel extended in a more or less straight line to what appeared to be a subway line directly beneath my feet.

So, it looks like they’re home after all. Hope they don’t mind visitors coming in through the back door. I gathered my gear and headed for the subway.


The entrance had been covered up quite well, but with the augmented reality system I could see the tunnel hiding just behind the rough concrete. I couldn’t move the elements like they could, but I had tricks of my own.

I glanced around to make sure nobody was nearby. They had chosen an obscure corner of the subway to begin their tunnel, a closet inside a storage room. It seemed deserted, especially at this time of night. It had been child’s play to disable the cameras and override the card swipe.

Now it was just a matter of getting through the wall they had left up. The back wall of the closet was bare concrete, with a few shelves and hooks embedded in it.

From what I knew about elementals, it must have taken some skill to move this wall out of the way without cracking it or disturbing the shelves. And then to move it out and replace it afterwards with no visible seam… that would have taken masterful control. The elementals had sent their best.

I had me.

Now, I’m not a vain man. As much as I would love to say that being outnumbered and outgunned makes this a fair fight, I can’t. It is decidedly against me. But I don’t think that it’s  quite as unbalanced as it appears. With the element of surprise and good tactics, I should be able to take them. Brain beats brawn nine times out of ten. There was a reason our clan survives while being so small.

Using a few laser cutters, I carved out a section of the wall. I lined it up so it would look like a natural seam in the material. I had to push myself pretty hard to provide enough power to the lasers, but they went cleanly through the concrete. After that, it was simple enough to use some pistons to slide the recently-cut portion backward, leaving a small entrance into the tunnel beyond.

Brains over brawn, I thought.

The door behind me burst open. The storage room instantly turned into a typhoon, a blast of wind and water, followed by flying rocks and creeping vines.

Nine times out of ten, I reminded myself. They’d been more clever than I gave them credit for. I had only one path of retreat: the hole I’d just cut. I slapped a button on the laser cutter’s tripod as I ran past, and the machine folded up into a compact bundle. I pulled it to me with magnetism as I dove for the hole, pursued by the storm. I leapt in and turned around to check out the situation.

Figures were appearing in the doorway. I recognized one of them. It was the really vain one that was always messing around with lava. He had some now, as a a matter of fact, a pulsating blob of orange liquid that lit the room. Spying me through the hole, he tossed it at me with tremendous speed, a sneer on his lips. I kicked outward with a sudden blast of kinetic energy. Water surged back out through the opening, and managed to stop it, enveloping the room in steam, and blocking the hole for a moment or two.

Elementals were capable of planning in advance, but they seldom gave thought to tactics in the heat of the moment. If the lava guy – whose name was John – had given his actions much thought, he probably wouldn’t have done that. I was going to have to count on that impulsiveness now, if I was going to beat them.  I reached into my pocket for a couple of mines. They were only the size of marbles, but they had a directed charge that could do a lot of damage, especially in an enclosed space like this. I tossed them at the walls on either side of the tunnel. Their sensors automatically detected their angle and motion, and rotated themselves to latch on to the rock and face their explosive side outward.

I ran up the corridor to gain some time, but I hadn’t made it fifty feet before the wall exploded behind me. Damn, that earth-shifter was strong. The blast triggered the mines I had planted, and they detonated harmlessly, although they did cause a tremendous amount of smoke and dust. Fortunately, I was far enough up the tunnel that I was safe from the blast, but it set my ears ringing.

The tunnel proceeded upward at a steep angle, but I ran just as fast as if were downhill. Some of the elementals were fast – especially wind-shifters – but I had a head start, and could draw on kinetic power to accelerate my footsteps and lengthen my strides. I placed more mines behind me as I ran.

The elementals followed, though they did so at a slower pace. John and one of the water-shifters were working in tandem to clear the tunnel of my traps. He would send a hail of pebbles ahead of them, and the water-shifter would shield them with a standing wave. The sound of the explosions grew distant as I gained ground.

Before too long, I had reached the end of the tunnel. It was a dead end, of course. I had left my heads-up display active, and I now that I was closer, I could see that the tunnel had stopped short some six feet from the warehouse basement. I couldn’t drill through that much, not in the time I had.

I cursed and kicked the wall. We couldn’t afford this. My death or capture would be bad enough, but not devastating for the group. But if we lost that cryptex, we might not make it this time. After the last thousand years of superstition and persecution, our little gang might finally die in this, our greatest era. Well, they wouldn’t get it easily, I knew that much.

Moving as quickly as I could, I unslung the backpack from my shoulder and practically ripped it open. Inside was perhaps the greatest assembly of high-tech gadgets known to man, stuff that would’ve made DARPA prance around like a kid at Christmastime. I began throwing things frantically, thanking all the powers above that I had established such rigorous automation protocols.

I tossed a pod to either side of me, barely watching the football-sized drones unfurled their tiny tripod legs and came to attention, their complement of minute missiles primed and ready.  I tossed the rest of the mines down the corridor, and followed that with a silver baton. It flew some twenty feet down the corridor before exploding into a steel web that crackled with electricity. I reassembled the laser cutter, and as a finishing touch to my defenses, I unleashed the drones from their hiding spot in my shoulder pads. The two quad-copters carried little in the way of weapons – just a small taser and blinding laser – but their array of sensory information would help keep all the turrets properly calibrated.

With my defenses assembled, I turned to my offensive weapon. Generally, I stuck with my smaller, more discrete weapons: electroshock gloves, hidden batons, pistols, etc. But when raw firepower was required. I turned to the Mk. 30 Zeus. It had to be broken down into five separate pieces in order to fit into my backpack, but I was capable of assembling it upside down and behind my back with my eyes closed. Within thirty seconds, I was holding three feet of shiny electric death in my sweaty, shaking hands.

It was a lot of firepower. But they had a lot of people, all very skilled. I charged up the Zeus, taking comfort in the neon blue lights that flickered into life, feeling the soothing hum steady my heartbeat. If I could just take out John, I’d be satisfied. One faction leader taking down the other.

It was time for the last stand of Felix “Rusty” Cross.

“Excuse me,” said a squeaky voice behind me. I whirled, nearly jumping out of my skin. I charged Zeus to full capacity, ready to fry whatever had snuck up on me.

It was the world’s most adorable puppy. “I didn’t mean to frighten you,” the puppy continued. As it spoke, it began growing, becoming a full-grown dog. The voice shifted as well, becoming deeper and more familiar. What was a shapeshifter doing here?

“Who are you?” I demanded. “I won’t hesitate to shoot you, regardless of what form you’re in.” That was technically a lie, as I had just hesitated to shoot him, but I didn’t have any time to waste. I could already hear the approaching elementals.

The dog transformed rapidly, fur melting like wax, becoming flesh. A man stood in the dog’s place. I recognized him. One of the shapeshifter council.

“I’m Stephen White,” the man said. “I’m here to help you.”

“Why would a shapeshifter care what happens to a tech?” I asked. “It’s one less problem for you to deal with.”

“Funny, that’s what the other shapeshifters said. But I’m here of my own accord.”

“I don’t believe it. You’re too tight-knit. A herd. This is some sort of trap.”

“If I wanted to kill you or capture you, I could have done already. I’ve been a flea on your backpack for the past three days.”

I had been so busy trying to secure this asset that I hadn’t taken the time to disinfect. It was entirely possible. And that would explain how he’d shown up here so suddenly.

“Besides,” he said with a dumb-ass smirk, “can you really afford to turn down my help?”

I caught myself grinding my teeth. “No, I guess not.”

Stephen held out his hand. “I’m just trying to help, Rusty. There are bigger things at play here than our little rivalries. Take this as a token of good faith.”

I shook his hand. Not as a gesture of fellowship, but because I could use my glove’s sensors to scan his biometrics and exclude him from the security sensors.

A triple explosion echoed down the hallway. “That’s the last of the mines,” I said. “If you’re going to help, you’d better hurry.”

Stephen had the audacity to wink at me before collapsing in on himself to become an insect of some sort. I was tempted to flip him the bird, but I refrained. No point making more enemies now.

Silence reigned over the corridor, unbroken save for the faint hum of Zeus. I made a gesture and killed the lights. I had infrared, but the elementals wouldn’t. Down the corridor, I could see a faint glow, probably emanating from John’s magma.

Suddenly, a volley of rocks burst from nowhere, each as large as my head and moving with breathtaking speed. They hit the net, rebounding with a metallic twang. I was very glad I had opted for the full anchors rather than the less-traceable but flimsier grapples.

A flood of water swelled up next. My tech was smart enough to keep from shorting out, and my turrets were anchored, but the water could easily drown me.

However, the dead end worked to my advantage now. The water shifter had filled the entire tunnel, and had left no room for the air to escape. Water swirled up to my waist, but the increased air pressure kept the water from advancing any further. After a moment, the water-shifter couldn’t keep pushing, and the water flowed back downhill.

Silence again. They were reconsidering their assault. I decided to keep them on their toes, and threw one of my remaining toys down the hall. It exploded in a vivid flash, accompanied by a deafening bang, which was amplified by the narrow cavern. My gear filtered out the excess noise and light. They would not be so lucky.

I charged Zeus and fired a few shots. Electric blue shots cracked instantaneously down the tunnel, like lightning hammered into nearly straight lines. I’m pretty sure I hit at least one of them.

One of the shifters pulled a sheet of rock from the wall to shelter them from the barrage. Standstill again. Well, I had nowhere else to go. I could wait.

A few long moments followed, perhaps five or ten minutes. I could hear whispering from time to time, but even with my tech, it was too quiet to make out. I didn’t feel like wasting any more gadgets or energy unless it was nessecary.

Would they try to starve me out? Elementals weren’t usually the patient sort, but perhaps they didn’t want to risk injury. I set the drill to working on then wall behind me. It would take hours to cut through that much stone, but it would work eventually.

There was a sudden, startling crack to my right. I looked over to see the stone rupturing. They had flanked me! I should have expected this. Just because I was stopped by stone didn’t mean they were.

Too late to do anything about it now. Mind and body moved as one. Zeus began hammering at the widening crack with incredible speed, matching my fevered heartbeat. The air burned with the sharp tang of ozone from the electrical discharge.

While firing with my right hand, I sent a small pulse to a specific location on my left glove. This activated a circuit recalling the net. The metal mesh immediately retracted back into the baton and flew to my hand with magnetism. I threw it to block the new opening, but I could see the glow of magma, and I knew that the net couldn’t hold up long against it.

I bolted down the corridor toward the elementals, activating yet another circuit as I went. The turrets followed, although their strange skipping stride couldn’t keep up with me while sprinting.

Zeus was at full capacity covering my retreat, flashing like a strobe light at a rave. I could hear rocks crunching behind me, giving the elementals cover, and now and then the flashes of light would be strangely refracted as they fizzled out against a stream of water.

I threw a flashbang at the entrenched elementals waiting at the end of the tunnel. But this time, they were waiting, and one of them caught the small sphere in an orb of water. The detonation was muffled, though the brilliant light made the water glitter for an instant like an enormous diamond.

A section of the floor suddenly bucked beneath my feet, sending me sprawling and knocking Zeus from my hands. I scrambled to my knees and extended the batons that I kept up my sleeves. I  pulsed hard, making them spark with electricity. The elementals stepped out from the shelter, ringed with their elements of choice. John and another earth-shifter stepped into the corridor behind me, John’s lava casting a hellish glow over the scene. My turrets rotated back and forth, trying to stay pointed at whoever they considered the greatest threat. The quadcopters circled me like angry insects. It was a tense, breathless moment, a volcano on the brink of eruption, a virus one keystroke away from activation.

“Stand down and we’ll let you live,” John said.

“Shut up and I’ll let you die,” I said.

“You’re hardly in line to be making demands,” he said, laughing arrogantly.

“Tell that to the grizzly bear,” I said.

John laughed again. “Is that another one of your ridiculous code names? What’s this one, a furry tank?”

“You could say that.” I opened the video feed for one of the turrets pointing behind me. It revealed a dim, massive, shaggy shape rising slowly from the ground, with two eyes glowing like coals in the lava light.

I grinned. A dull, bowel-loosening roar shook the cavern, a nightmare sound from dark ages past. Everything exploded.

The elementals behind me spun around, water and earth at the ready. Stephen – clothed in two thousand pounds of grizzly – charged, bowling them over. I reached for kinetic energy, and then stilled my mind.

All of us engaged in this little war have one thing in common: the source of our powers. We harness that power very differently, but at the core, it is the same essence. The soul. Shapeshifters twist it to change their bodies. Elementals stoke it to wrench the elements under their command. And techies, like myself, harness it, using the power of our will and the strength of our intelligence to produce and manipulate energy.

I had trained for decades, sharpening my mind, quickening my reflexes, memorizing and computing and calculating. One by one, I had learned to harness energy of all kinds, kinetic, thermal, electric, even managing to tap a small portion of the atomic. A fully trained warrior such as myself was capable of tremendous focus. This is the power I tapped now.

It seemed almost as though time had frozen, and my mind had detached from itself, viewing the situation in the third person. Indeed, thanks to my drones and turrets, I could see the entire battlefield at once. It was like looking at a computer simulation running in slow motion.

The first thing to do was to get myself a little breathing room. They would likely use wind first. It was the quickest-acting of the elements, and if pushed strong enough, could knock me off my feet. I countered this by sending out a strong wave of kinetic energy. It ought to be enough to divert the winds for a moment.

The grizzly behind me was tearing through the two elementals. Shards of rock and ice formed a hurricane, but the fur and fat of the bear was too thick to be penetrated by most of the maelstrom. Ahead of me, John was already sending a tendril of lava looping over his shoulder, while his companion appeared to be in a wind stance, as I’d anticipated.

I retracted my batons and slammed my palms into the rough stone, and then pulsed kinetic. Have you ever seen Newton’s Cradle? The balls in the middle stay still, while the energy is transferred to the ones on the end. With a lot of practice, a tech can steer a kinetic charge through a solid substance in a similar manner. The two shifters suddenly found themselves kicked into the air, throwing off their aim.

However, for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The force of the blow sent me flying upward, mere inches from the stream of magma that hung in midair. I hit the ceiling hard, and my concentration wavered. I fell again, but instead of landing on hard stone, I landed on something furry and marginally softer. Stephen.

I tumbled off immediately as the bear kept up its headlong charge up the corridor. John and the remaining man were still struggling to regain their footing, but John was a master at his work, and he managed to pull hard on the magma rope, looping it around Stephen like a boa constrictor. The acrid stench of burning hair and flesh immediately filled the air. The bear bellowed.

I forced myself to my feet and collected my wits. John was laughing as he caused the magma to twist around, scorching Stephen mercilessly. Stephen began bulging, trying to shield himself behind a larger form, but the red tentacles were digging deep, burning and cutting the flesh as it grew.

“John!” I called. “I’ll give you what you need. Just stop.”

He paused a moment in his torture, face flush with victory. “You’ll give me the cryptex?” he asked.

“I have something you need even more,” I said. “A lesson.”

I sent a series of pulses across my body, sending signals to all of my gadgets. Zeus began firing randomly, drawing the attention of his companion, who was then felled by a taser from one of the drones. John recalled his lava with shocking speed, forming a barrier between us. I sent the other drone through it to keep his attention, a missile of melting plastic. Then I took a couple of steps forward and punted one of the drones. There’s a reason they’re football shaped.

The drone skidded across the ground, sliding underneath the magma shield and re-opening. John swung the shield toward it, but the other turret fired at the same time. He couldn’t stop both turrets at the same time.

The missiles fired by the turrets were small, but they packed a punch. I stumbled backward as they burst, shockwaves amplified by the tunnel. The noise threatened to blow out my audio filters. Stephen and John would likely lose their hearing for hours.

John nearly stopped them. Through sheer instinct, he threw up a curtain of rubble and muddy water that took the brunt of the blast, and the lava stopped the missiles from the turret I had kicked, but overall it was just too much to block entirely. He was thrown backward, and was knocked unconscious against a wall.

The rocks he had thrown out in his desperate defense had swept Stephen and myself against the wall as well. I was hurt, but not too badly. Stephen was on fire, still burning from the lava. He bellowed in agony, a terrifying sound coming from a beast that large.

I rushed to his side, then focused my thoughts and plunged my hands into the fire. They burned for a moment, but I dug deeper, searching for more stillness, more quiet. Then I began to draw the heat away. It was an advanced technique, not quick enough or powerful enough for combat uses, but I could cause entropy as well. I could also speed the process by transferring the heat away from him, and I did so, sending it back out through the stone and air.

Gradually the fire died away, and Stephen stopped with his roaring. Shuddering, he began to shift back to human form. The burns remained. Shapeshifters could use their powers to heal at shocking speed, but they couldn’t negate wounds instantly. He would  bear these scars for a few days.

John lay sprawled at the end of the corridor like a rag doll, wreathed the embers of his own magma. I walked over to Zeus. It was damaged in the explosion and would require repairs. No matter. I could kill John well enough with my hands.

I stamped over to his still form, but Stephen stumbled between us, holding up a blackened hand. “DON’T,” he said. He spoke too loudly, the result of not being able to hear himself. “HE’S IMPORTANT.”

I tried to shove past him, but he swelled up, putting on a larger form to use weight where his injured muscles were failing him. “I TOLD YOU. THERE’S SOMETHING BIGGER GOING ON.” He didn’t have any of the smugness I had seen in him earlier. He just looked sad, serious and very, very tired.

I stepped back for a moment. I owed him that much at least. Without him, I would have been overwhelmed in seconds, tech and weapons regardless. He nodded and clapped me on the shoulder, then stepped over to the end of the corridor, still limping. Puzzled, I followed.

He slowly settled into a crouch, fighting his protesting muscles. I recognized it as a stone-shifter stance. What was he doing? Drawing a deep breath, and letting loose a feral cry, he stomped a foot behind him and thrust out with both hands, wrists touching, and palms together. A crack appeared in the stone.

My jaw dropped as the crevice widened. Trembling and screaming, Stephen forced his fingers apart, then his wrists, then his arms, twisting them back and forth as he pulled them apart. The stone seemed almost to liquify, flowing and writhing like a living thing as the crack widened and deepened, following Stephen’s movements.

He was shifting the stone! But it wasn’t quite like way elementals did it. Both he and the rock moved differently, like a living thing, the way his body did as it changed forms. How was this possible? I had never even heard legends of cross-discipline powers. The training and the power itself molded a person, locking off other avenues even as they grew in strength. Yet here he was, making a tunnel through solid stone.

Light appeared at the end of the tunnel, yellow and artificial, but almost blinding after the darkness of the tunnel. The basement of the warehouse.

“Let’s go,” Stephen said, speaking quieter as his eardrums healed partially. “We have something important to do, and the cryptex is vital to our plans. If we hurry, we can get in and out before the rest of the elementals realize their trap has failed.”

I swallowed hard. There was a paradigm shift looming, I had felt it for some time, but only now was I getting an glimpse of what it might be. I prided myself on being forward-thinking and open-minded – it is a tenet of our philosophy, after all – but the prospect was frightening nonetheless. Perhaps Stephen was right about working together.

I stepped up beside him and offered him my shoulder. He took it, and together, we hobbled down the hallway, heading toward the light.

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