“So… this is Relédiaka.”
“I had heard that the trees were big here, but— wow! You can barely see the ground from the tops!”
“Well of course you can’t see the ground. We’re stuck in an office,” Kevérin grumbled.
Kaoné silently glanced over at the Pyrotechnic, who was sitting slouched in a chair, sulking.
About a day had passed since the two were inducted into the NSD. They had attempted to contact as many of the five other Chaotics as they could the morning after speaking with Commander Nikéyin, but they succeeded only in reaching Christeané, who claimed that he would meet with the two of them once he finished “urgent business.” Unable to directly contact the others, Kaoné and Kevérin decided to visit the capitals of the other continent-nations where they would be able to ask the local military headquarters for the locations of the Chaotics in that nation. This quest lead to them boarding the next inter-capital flight out of Nimaliaka Central, which happened to be directly to the Relédiakian capital of Lédia; three hours later they arrived in the famous “Capital in the Trees,” so-called for its position in the literal treetops of Relédiaka’s massive forest. The trees grew to be hundreds of meters tall and well over fifty meters thick, providing a solid foundation for constructing tree-bound buildings and pathways — which the Relédiakians had done for millennia. Lédia was far from the only city built into the forest canopy, but it was certainly the oldest and largest, sprawling across hundreds of treetops and forming a dense urban mesh that nearly plunged the forest floor into darkness. Tourists could often be found wandering the outskirts of the city, marveling at the height of the urban neighborhoods over the actual surface of the planet.
But Kaoné and Kevérin had to content themselves with flipping through tourist brochures — as soon as they arrived, they were met by a Relédiakian soldier who led them to the nation’s military headquarters. There, they found the office of Siyuakén Wanléon, one of the Chaotics they were searching for. On the door to her office was a sign that read “out; be back soon,” so Kevérin and Kaoné decided to wait for her in the reception area.
That had been three hours ago.
“Why the hell are we still here?” Kevérin scowled, glaring at the blank far wall.
“We’re waiting for Siyuakén. She should be with us soon…”
“That’s what they said an hour ago. They also said that two hours ago. Oh, and three hours ago, too.”
“True…” Kaoné frowned. “I wonder what’s taking so long.”
“We could have gone to Riverana and back in this time. Who was in Riverana? Some… Kiev…”
“Kievkenalis Yumach,” Kaoné stated after pulling up a digital version of the roster on her glasses. “…He’s a Chaostechnic.”
“A Chaostechnic!” Kevérin exclaimed, “well why didn’t we go get him first?”
“You’re the one who barged onto the first inter-capital transport you saw, not me.”
“…Touché.” He glanced at the personnel listing on the wall next to him for the tenth time that hour. “Why do we have to wait for Siyuakén?” he complained again, “she’s the same age as us, right? Like, around 21 or 22, right? There’s no way she’s so far ahead in the ranks that we have to wait this long for her.”
“She’s a Lieutenant,” Kaoné replied, with a pleased smile across her face. “Like me!”
“What?!” Kevérin jumped to his feet in indignation. “What are we waiting for a Lieutenant for? I’m a Transfer Captain! I—!”
“Outrank Lieutenants in any military, I know.” Kaoné rolled her eyes. “You’ve only told me that at least twice a week since we met.”
Kevérin gave Kaoné an unamused look.
“Why are you complaining so much all of a sudden, anyways?”
Kevérin grunted and sat back down. “I’m just bored. There’s nothing to do.” He glanced over at Kaoné. “Aren’t you bored?”
“Sorta,” she replied, and then tapped her glasses. “I downloaded a couple AR games, though. That helps.”
“Have you heard of Dessert Destruction?”
Kevérin stopped mid-sentence as he locked eyes with a pale-skinned young woman who had just stepped into the reception area. Her black hair was cut short, not even shoulder-length aside from thin strips of hair over her ears. Her brown eyes weren’t hidden behind glasses as was the case with most of society, and her height was a near-match for Kevérin’s. She wore a pair of brown boots, caked in old mud; white pants and green chaps that tucked into the boots; a brown cloth tied around her waist under her belt; a collared green shirt with short white sleeves; and a series of straps around her torso and arms that were attached to two metallic prisms, one on each of her forearms — forearms that were largely obscured by the large box of files and folders that she held in her hands.
The woman paused uneasily when she noticed Kevérin’s presence, at which point she glanced between him, Kaoné, and then over at the door beside them with the nameplate that read “Siyuakén Wanléon.”
Kaoné caught the glance. “Are you Siyuakén?”
“I’m Lieutenant Wanléon, yes…” She looked between Kevérin and Kaoné again, this time with a level of confusion in her expression. “…Who are you?”
“Figures no one told her we were waiting for her. Of course, I should’ve known,” Kevérin grumbled under his breath.
Ignoring his undignified muttering, Kaoné took it upon herself to do the introductions. “I’m Lieutenant Kaoné Densalin, from Nimaliaka.” She then gestured toward Kevérin. “And this is Transfer Captain Kevérin Tyrion, from Tekdecé.”
“Nice to meet you,” Siyuakén replied as she stepped forward and held her palm up to a metal plate by the office door. A second later something clicked and the door swung open. She stepped inside, gesturing for Kaoné and Kevérin to do the same. “So… what brings you here?” she asked as she set the box of files and folders on her desk and began rifling through it.
“If you didn’t know to expect us, you might not believe what we have to say,” Kevérin responded uneasily.
“Maybe, maybe not.” Siyuakén shrugged. “I won’t know until you tell me.”
“Alright. So… it’s not official yet,” Kevérin started, “but Nimaliaka, Tekdecé, and the Riveranian Protection Force are cooperating to form the Nimalian Systems Defense, a non-national organization that’ll handle all extrasolar matters.”
“My CO actually just mentioned that to me,” Siyuakén commented. “…Oh, so the two of you are who he was talking about.”
“So you know that we came to ask you to join Hazardous Memento?”
“Huh? That’s not our name.” Kaoné threw Kevérin an unamused glance.
“What? It’s better than Hero Machina,” Kevérin snorted.
“I don’t know about that…” Siyuakén replied.
“…So, are you in?”
“I hope you’re not expecting me to just drop everything and say ‘yes.’”
“No, but it’d definitely be easier for us.” Kevérin then glanced between Kaoné and Siyuakén, both of whom stared back at him disapprovingly. “…What?”
“We know it isn’t that simple,” Kaoné stated as she turned back to Siyuakén. “I’ll admit that neither of us even knew about any of this before yesterday.”
“So the two of you did just drop everything and say yes?”
“Whatever we’ll be doing as ‘Hero Machina’ has to be more exciting than sitting around on stand-by,” Kevérin claimed, “I know we weren’t busy at all. What are you doing that’s so important?”
Siyuakén sighed and gestured for Kaoné and Kevérin to take a seat. She then crossed her office, closed the door, and walked around her desk across from her two guests before sitting down in her chair.
“…That serious?” Kevérin questioned uneasily.
“Pretty much…” Siyuakén responded, “I’m going to guess that the two of you are looking for my friend, Rebehka, as well?”
Kaoné checked her roster quickly before asking, “Rebehka… Tchiréon?”
Siyuakén nodded. “That’s her. She and I have been working on a classified project for the past few years—”
“Whoa, wait, classified?” Kevérin interrupted, “can you really just up and tell us about it then?”
“Sure it’s classified, but my CO said it was fine to share this with you,” Siyuakén replied. “The two of you, me, Rebehka — it’s not hard to tell that you’re looking to recruit the Chaotics born during the Chaos Energy Quake.”
Kaoné and Kevérin glanced at each other warily. “I guess that is pretty obvious, huh…” Kaoné admitted.
“I suppose now is a good time to point out that Hero Machina’s ‘official’ task is to investigate the Quake,” Kevérin stated.
“That’s good to know. That increases my chances of joining you.” Siyuakén sighed warily. “The project — well, the situation Rebehka and I are investigating, we believe it could be related to the Quake.”
“Wow. We’re making progress already!” Kevérin exclaimed.
“What’s going on?” Kaoné questioned.
“As far as we know, it all started about ten years ago,” Siyuakén began, “animals with metallic body parts have been showing up the world over. But it doesn’t look as though the metallic parts grew with the animal, or as if they were surgically inserted in place of the original body part. It looks more like an infection, almost. Like giant rashes. Giant metallic rashes… yeah, that’s probably the best way to put it.”
Kevérin grimaced. “That sounds, uh… pretty gross.”
“You can’t even imagine…” Siyuakén sighed again. “The poor things look like they’re in so much pain… but any animal infected with the metallic rash seems to go mad. They become extremely hostile and attack everything in sight. Even normally docile creatures will go crazy. It’s far from easy to subdue them, and there’s no known way to cure them, so usually… we have to put them down.”
“Aww…” Kaoné frowned.
“That’s sad…” Kevérin nodded slowly. “But… if these animals have been appearing all over the world, why haven’t we heard of them?”
“Because the governments don’t want a panic.” Siyuakén snorted in derision. “They’ve tried their damnedest to make sure the public doesn’t learn about it. It’s not hard, either. On any other continent-nation the infected animals are easily spotted and put down by local teams, and nothing is heard from them. Here in Relédiaka, though, there are massive forests to hide in. The infection is a bigger problem here since we can’t find the infected animals quickly enough to put them down and stop whatever this ‘disease’ is from spreading. But most of the towns are tree-borne, so people rarely see the animals anyways…”
“I’d heard stories, but I never imagined that the forest floor is actually that dangerous!”
“It’s pretty nasty down there, I’ll admit. Only Chaotics are allowed on the forest floor, and never alone,” Siyuakén stated. “General policy is to put down any infected animals on sight, but Rebehka and I are part of a group that tries to capture and study them to see what’s wrong.”
“Why you two?”
“Because I’m an Electrotechnic, and she’s a Cryotechnic. Our powers allow us to more easily subdue animals.”
Kevérin snorted. “By shocking or freezing them?”
“It’s got to be better than… er…” Siyuakén paused for a moment. “…What kind of Chaotics are you?”
“He’s a Pyrotechnic, and I’m a Materiatechnic,” Kaoné replied.
“Well it’s definitely better than burning them,” Siyuakén retorted before looking over at Kaoné. “Wait… you’re a Materiatechnic? Like, actually?”
“I don’t lie,” Kaoné huffed.
“Hmm…” Siyuakén mused, “…how good are you?”
“Like, how finely can you control matter?”
“Um…” Instead of a verbal response, Kaoné held up her right hand. Her sleeve cuff detached from her sleeve, rotated 360 degrees, and then reattached itself seamlessly.
“…Wow,” Siyuakén replied as she inspected the sleeve, “…no seam. You’d never even know you pulled off the cuff…”
“It took a lot of practice to be able to do that,” Kaoné commented, “and, even then… I’ve got a long way to go, as a Materiatechnic.”
Ignoring him, Siyuakén asked, “how well can you use your power on moving objects? Living things?”
“I don’t like where this is going…” Kaoné responded uneasily.
“But, just think about it!” Siyuakén urged, “we’ve never had a Materiatechnic help us before. Your power could be key to getting rid of the metallic infection!”
“And what if I kill the animal on accident?”
“It’s what would have happened anyways.”
“I hope you aren’t ‘putting them down’ so gruesomely as removing matter from a random part of their body!”
Siyuakén drew away from Kaoné in surprise. “…Sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No, no, I’m sorry,” Kaoné quickly apologized, “I just… …I won’t do it.”
Kevérin pursed his lips as he glanced between the two women who were now sitting in awkward silence. Choosing to break said silence, he questioned, “so what does this ‘metal infection’ have to do with the Chaos Energy Quake?”
“That’s a little harder to answer.” Siyuakén turned to address Kevérin. “Our ‘evidence’ is pretty qualitative. This infection thing has only been a Nimalian issue — that we know of — for the past decade, but we’ve received reports of similar infections on planets in CSA space. Those reports go back as far as twenty years… but no farther.”
“That’s not exactly a solid connection.”
“Which is why I’m considering joining you guys. If you’re going to investigate the Quake, you may discover some things about this infection, and you might be able to establish an actual connection. If nothing else, I’m sure I’d get a chance to check out the non-Nimalian infection reports. Hmm…” She paused for a moment before suddenly standing up.
“Where are you going?” Kevérin questioned as she briskly walked around her desk and to her office door, “after all that, you’re not just dropping everything and joining, are you?”
“No, not just yet, at least,” Siyuakén replied as she opened the door and gestured for the other two to follow. “An Electrotechnic, a Pyrotechnic, and a Materiatechnic… we should be safe enough.”
“…You want to show us one of the infected animals, don’t you?”
“So that you’ll at least know what to look for, whether I join your squad or not.”
Kaoné frowned warily. “I don’t feel too good about this…”
“Don’t worry,” Siyuakén replied. “…As much as I don’t want to, if it comes down to, it I’m sure I can stop anything that decides to attack you. I’m sure you can help too, uh… Transfer Captain.”
“My name’s Kevérin.”
“Right. So, are the two of you with me?”
“…Will you join us if we go with you?” Kaoné asked.
Kaoné and Kevérin glanced at each other uneasily. Kevérin followed the glance with a shrug and turned back to Siyuakén. “Sure. We’re in.”
“Alright!” she exclaimed, “let’s go!”
“Er… the ground didn’t look quite so far away when we flew in…”
“Relax,” Siyuakén replied as she readied the lift to the forest floor, “this lift may not see much use, but it’s still reliable.”
“How often do you go down there?” Kaoné questioned.
“Probably once a week or so,” Siyuakén answered, “but Relédiakians don’t use the lift. The lift is for foreigners like you who don’t know how to use swinging gear.”
Siyuakén held up her arms, forearms forward, showing off a metal prism strapped to each forearm. At the end of each prism closest to the elbow was a cylindrical canister, mounted with its bases parallel to the sides of her arms; the other end of the prism was sloped away from her hand, and a single spike appeared to be mounted within.
“Oh, so that’s what those are…” Kevérin nodded. “…Wait, how do you swing with those?”
Siyuakén glanced at the lift control panel to see how much longer they had until it arrived. Seeing that there was still plenty of time, she held her right arm out toward the dense treetops, away from the city behind them. There was a small spark and the spike shot out, revealing that it was attached to the prism by a cord. Then, almost as soon as it had shot out, it retracted, snapping back into its mounted position.
“So it’s like a grappling hook?”
“It is a grappling hook. Once it extends out a certain distance, hooks open outward, out of the spike.”
Kevérin whistled. “Not bad. How do you power something so small, though—?”
“Wha—!?” Kaoné jumped, startled.
“Damn it!” Siyuakén glared into the distance, scanning the treetops for the source of the cry. “I just had to go and wake up a dragonbird, didn’t I—?!” She froze as a massive bird-like creature dived out of the leaves some distance away and began rocketing toward the three Chaotics. Then she scowled.
Kevérin caught the expression. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s infected!” Siyuakén replied, “…the infection’s reached the birds, too? Damn— hold on!” She stretched her arm toward the bird. “Avert your eyes!” she exclaimed just before a bright bolt of lightning jumped from her fingertips to the dragonbird. It immediately seized up, all of its muscles contracted; however, while its wings were no longer flapping, it still maintained its forward momentum.
“It’s coming this way!!” Kevérin yelped.
“Watch out!” Siyuakén shouted, grabbing both Kaoné and Kevérin by their shoulders and pulling them to the side. She succeeded in keeping all three of them out of direct harms way, but she wasn’t quite fast enough to keep the giant bird from scraping against Kaoné, who stumbled over, unprepared for the animal’s surprisingly large mass.
“Kaoné! Get— shit!” Kevérin exclaimed, quickly reaching out for the Materiatechnic. But he was too late; she tripped on the walkway and toppled over the low railing, falling straight down to the ground below. However, as a Materiatechnic, she had nothing much to fear — when she judged she was within a couple seconds of hitting the ground, she quickly liquefied the dirt and made it reach out to her, disabling all surface tension as she fell into the liquid-like blob. As soon as her downward speed slowed to nil she ejected herself from the dirt blob, allowing it to re-solidify as she hastily removed the leftover dirt splotches on her body.
“Eugh…” she groaned. “Disgusting—”
“It’s still coming?!” She whipped around just in time to see the dragonbird throw itself at her. She quickly dove to the side before rolling over and jumping back to her feet, unconsciously reaching her hand toward the bird. No, wait, no—! she panicked, no, don’t kill… it?… Her panic turned part-way into confusion as she noticed the dragonbird stomp the ground and turn back to face her. Wait, just now… she thought to herself uneasily, my… power…
It didn’t work!