Return from the EDGE
He didn't mean for things to turn out this way.
Of course, to any reasonable person, this wasn't a turn of events that could be predicted. After all, sophomore high school students didn't just walk into death-traps.
He paused to revise his own statement. That only applied to sane sophomore high school students.
Funnily enough, his next thought was that his mother was going to kill him. He wasn't meant to be in this part of town anyway, but the message boards had called to him. Here, in the fancier reaches of the shopping district, was a rare Cait-Sidhe figurine.
That part at least, was worth it. That day, he'd managed to get out of class just as the bell rang. He rarely had the chance just bolt out when the bell rang since he was the class representative. At the time, he'd probably taken it as a sign from the universe.
'Go for it!' some strange force that supported figurine collectors was saying.
So he wasn't complaining, since it meant he didn't need to use the back entrance and double back to the buses in front of the school. Yves, the "perpetually held back junior", and his goons hung around the school's entrance, making life difficult for everybody. Especially if they were as sheepish as he was.
He'd even thanked these theoretical figurine gods that he didn't have gymnastics practice that day.
He got off the bus a full six stops earlier than he should have, still pretending he was only considering cutting through the farmer's market to get to the high-end shopping district. He could turn back at any time.
As soon as he was off the bus it was as if his legs were on autopilot. He entered the address into his cheap smart-phone and followed it's instructions almost mechanically. Determined to get a glimpse at this marvel for himself before it disappeared forever. Probably into some rich family's "collection", where it would never be truly appreciated.
He'd been collecting crystal figurines ever since his first year of middle school. Everybody he knew well enough to tell this hoped he would grow out of it eventually. Maybe he did too, but here he was five years later, still marvelling over the stories they told in simple glass.
Still after the thrill of the chase.
There were lots of people who knew more about them than he did, all he had to do was go on the message boards to figure that out. But he liked to think was nobody more passionate about them than he was. He could feel it in his heart of hearts.
Thus he quickly made his way past the elaborate food carts advertising freshly baked breads and home-grown beets, sidestepping around the gossiping stay at home moms and dads. He happily misused every bit of his gymnastics training to inch past carts just as they barrelled in his direction.
Because that counted as practice on some level, right?
If he suspended all the adrenaline and fear coursing through his system right now he could still see it. A beautifully stylized silhouette; with deceitful slits for eyes on the rounded face of a trickster. It had the body of a stout man, with both hands on holding on to the edge of an earthen-looking pot. It was as if it weren't a figure at all but a fossil, captured in the moment of escape.
The real kicker to this particular figure was that it was all an abstract geometric structure. It had thick, boxy corners jutting out every which way to create the shape. It really beat the more standard rounding that was common with ceramic figures.
Some people on the forums insisted that cheapo crystal figurines held no candle to the hand-moulded ceramic figures they collected. He'd been caught in many an argument over the finesse of each art, and he'd never once given in. They were probably the only times in his life where he could win a fight at all.
Whilst he was looking at it, a mousy looking woman stopped right next to him. Of course, he was too caught up in staring at the Crystal Cait-Sidhe, until she broke protocol and touched the protective glass casing. By reflex, he turned to look at her. He considered for a moment if she were possibly another forum member, but stopped himself from asking.
Imagine how awkward that would be? he thought. When one of the store's attendants coughed, startling them both out of their crystal cat induced stupor, he was saved the second-hand embarrassment.
Judging by the looks of these unfortunate nerds, the attendant quickly explained in her haughtiest tone that the 'cat-man statue' was 'very expensive' and that her store was 'not a showroom'.
Which seemed a bit rude, if you asked him. Though he only had ten kronor in his pocket, which was about three zeros away from what he needed to even consider buying the crystal cat, he could have been one of those secret millionaires. The ones you always saw on TV.
Buying Cait-Sidhe figures.
He certainly wasn't a secret millionaire, he thought as he'd walked out of the store. His hands drooped in the pockets of his mass produced cotton blend trousers as he fell into step with the rest of the city.
And then he was a boy this close to accidentally dying of a heart attack in the face of RRs.
He didn't know what the acronym stood for, but he'd seen the creatures way more than enough times to have them committed to memory. They came in many shapes and forms, almost always shaped like the ancient miniature creatures that used to inhabit the Earth alongside humans.
Insects, he recalled from history class.
The ones sharing the now-distorted shopping district space with him were gigantic crawling creatures. They reminded him of the huge cylinders that were part of the city's drainage system. They had visited those on a civics field trip, and he was sure that the educational visit wasn't meant to inspire this much fear in him.
Unlike those solid concrete constructions, they had soft looking bodies that seemed to emit a green glow, and billions of tiny black legs that would occasionally peek out from under their fleshy masses. They easily towered over the second floors of almost every building. There were about six of them in all. He couldn't be sure since they kept slithering around each other.
He figured that one would have been terrifying enough.
He had been walking along with the rest of the city, his cheeks probably still red from the run-in with the shop assistant. At first, he noticed the air grow heavy. He thought it was just his body playing tricks on him, especially when strange colourful swirls of light began to float around. Nobody else seemed to notice them, so he walked on.
Then the world froze for a moment, and his centre of gravity disappeared from under him.
The atmosphere seemed to warp, gaining a sickly green tinge that seemed to stain everything except for him. He was about to call out when he realized he seemed to be the only person left on the planet. It wasn't a moment after when out of muddy black portals, they appeared.
All of this had happened about ten minutes ago, and he was now hiding behind a large sign in front of a café. He'd judged this to be the very edge of the space. If he tried running past it, it seemed as if he were on a treadmill, trying to reach out to a non-existent backdrop.
Though he'd never been in a similar situation, he was glad his instinct was to freak out quietly. From drills in school, he knew that the RRs hearing wasn't the best, and so it was best to remain calm when confronted by them.
Of course, he was nowhere near calm. In fact, calm was no longer visiting the Europe Sigmund found himself it, let alone Norway. He also found himself completely unable to make any noise. For that at least, he counted himself lucky.
Then again, he remembered, RRs always came after human beings when they spotted them. It was really just a waiting game. But his teachers had also said that nobody could see RRs, and that the only way to tell if they were present was if proximity alarms went off.
He'd remembered this before his phone had gone mad, which had given him enough time to get the back case and toss out the battery.
He guessed mentioning that the whole world disappeared, leaving you the sole survivor of humanity in the area, would be a bit much for students.
As he pondered this, he heard all the RRs scurry along. The sound their slithering bodies made, along with their strange footsteps that sounded like a heavy rain drumming on a metal roof, made him feel ill. Even so, he was determined to hold out until he couldn't hold it in any more. Bad hearing or not, teenage retching was loud.
"Over here!" a woman's voice called, directly where the RRs were headed. Without any thought, he broke cover, ready to call out to her to stay quiet and not be a hero. All they had to do was wait for the-
A blonde woman flew through the air on what appeared to be a hovering platform. Attached to it were two barrels that spun around in every direction, spraying beams of light at the RRs.
One of the RRs took a direct hit and fell to the ground a few feet from where he was hiding. It's massive eyes lolling about it's head, staring at him. He took a few steps back before he realized it was no longer moving.
Following her was a large, muscular man. He held a sword in each hand, each larger than his entire body. He stopped right in front of two of the massive RRs and slashed at the air. The blades each created a perfect semicircle of some sort of energy, carving both RRs in two. They too collapsed to the ground.
'Oh,' he thought with a sigh. They were the CAs. They were decked out in the skin tight white bodysuits he had seen in news reports after other RR attacks. Except now, their faces lacked the distinctive blur that hid their identities.
Just as he fell back in a rush of relief, a third Capable Actor appeared. Another woman, a redhead, rode in on a tiny platform. It was supported by three spindly legs, each attached to an oversized wheel. Each about half the size of one of the RRs.
"I'm detecting vitals somewhere," she shouted to the others. "We have a potential in here."
"That's got to be a mistake," the large man said as he lodged one of his blades into the ground. He used it to hoist himself high up into the air. "I've only heard rumours about potentials making it into RCZs."
As his body was level with the blade in the ground, he let go and jumped right onto one of the RRs' heads. With a large shout, he drove the remaining sword into it's head.
"The hardware never malfunctions, or so the good doctor keeps saying," the blonde woman said as a beam of light singed through the RR the large man was attacking. If he had to guess from her strong mannerisms and commanding tone, she was this team's leader. "Look around, determine their location."
He was amazed; not just at how unafraid they were, but at how they moved across the block with their gigantic weaponry as if it were a normal summer day that wasn't overrun by world-destroying monsters. The blonde woman's turrets continued to shoot at the three remaining RRs. They retreated to the far end of the street, where Sigmund assumed the other edge of this space was.
"We'll take care of this," she said. "Right Rod?"
She nodded at the man, and the two of them charged at the enemy.
"Found ya," the red headed woman shouted, he jumped back. He'd been so distracted by their teamwork and the tables turning that he'd completely lost his bearings. In his head, it had almost been as if he were back at home, watching one of those sci-fi serials his sister loved to force him to sit through. Though she didn't make any significant movements, the platform she was standing on began to descend.
"You know, you could've called out to us," she said as she dismounted. "So we didn't accidentally shoot you or shred you to bits."
"That could happen?" he said, finally finding his voice. Though it was more a squeak than a question.
"100%," she said casually, as if she were ordering a latte.
"Don't worry now though!" she continued, grabbing him around the shoulder and giving him a somewhat violent jostle. "Aallotar and Roderik are almost done handling the targets."
"You guys saved my life," he said lamely as he worked his way out of her grip.
"Oh, not just yours," she explained. He must have given her a look, because she went on. "Well, it's complicated."
Before he could ask her to clarify, his centre of gravity dropped again. They both keeled over, but the red headed woman grabbed him before he fell over like he did the first time. The bright green seemed to drain out of the distorted landscape. In it's place, a foreboding violent pink glowed at the edges of a now much duller green.
"Oh no," she exclaimed before pressing at her ear. "Situation?"
Her team mates seemed to be speaking into her earpiece, and she listened with a grim expression. He looked over her shoulder to see that the three gigantic RRs had disappeared. In their place was a towering creature with large, pastel coloured wings that emanated a sparkly haze.
"Stay here!" she said, pushing him back. She waved her hand around for a moment and a bit of the underside of the platform she had been standing on flew to her. It landed safely in the hand she'd been waving around, and she quickly strapped it to her face. She repeated the action, this time she handed him the item; a face mask.
"Keep this on," she said, getting back onto her platform. As soon as she was steadied, the platform raised itself above the wheels again and quickly took her towards her team mates. As he put on the mask, his confidence and relief deserted him as quickly as it had arrived. Against the new RR, the three Capable Agents appeared as nothing more than specks of dust.
They fought at the far end of the highway, so he wasn't able to see much of what was going on. When the battle came closer, he noticed that even though the massive creature's wings towered over them, it's main body remained the same size as before. In addition, it now had two giant antennae on the top of it's head, which it occasionally used to shoot out the sparkly gas he'd seen earlier.
Whilst the blonde woman and the man with the swords moved at relatively normal speeds. The red headed woman moved too fast for him to keep tabs on. Every few seconds, she'd have moved to an opposite parts of the block, using one of her three wheels to stab at the creature's wings.
The creature seemed to be tiring of their fight, and it charged straight for the man; Roderik. The red headed woman used the opportunity to hit it with one of her wheels again, successfully ripping through one of it's wings. He squinted to get a better look at how she had done it, and noticed a whirling blade protruding from the black wheel.
The CA's technology seemed to be leaps and bounds of anything he'd ever seen in his life. As he watched them fight it off, his confidence in them grew. He wasn't going to die today, he was sure of it.
The monster fell, taking Roderik with it. His mask slipped off, and his eyes widened in horror, forming large white domes that contrasted against his dark skin.
It appeared the universe was intent on killing not just him, but the three CAs who tried to disobey it's will.
"Roderik!" the blonde woman -Aallotar- screamed. Her voice was projected through the mask, booming around them. The red headed woman quickly went for the second wing, slashing that as well.
"Forget me," Roderik shouted. He had let go of both swords and quickly grabbed the gas mask as it fell away, putting it back on. "I'm initiating HCF Lead System Protocol."
"We're counting on you then," the red headed woman said to Aallotar, catching Roderik as he fell and lowering him to the ground.
"HCF Lead System Accept," Aallotar said. "Plovečki Oružje version. Teški Lopati."
The monster crashed to the ground, sending the sparkling mist flying everywhere. Even he had to shield his eyes for a moment, and when he moved his hands away from his face, the two blades Roderik had let go of were flying through the air. They landed in the barrels that Aallotar used to fire her beams of light.
An ear-piercing metallic clang emanated from the barrels as the blades settled, and Aallotar smiled a deadly smile as the swords seemed to expand in size, growing wider.
The two barrels disconnected from the base Aallotar was standing on. She spread her arms out wide, forming two fists. Each barrel attached itself to one of her arms, and she quickly brought them together. He gasped, it was as if she'd taken the twin blades as arms.
"Now, let's see how well you handle our double drive!" she flew towards the creature. Even though he'd seen a lot today, he was still surprised when the blades in the barrels started to spin. As soon as
they touched the monster's flesh, he looked away again. Still, he could hear it's cries as it was pierced.
It's screams seemed to resonate for a millennium. When he found the courage to turn back to them, the bloated blades in Aallotar's turrets were covered in green goo. The monster had deflated right in front of them.
As he was taking his first unburdened breath since this whole thing began, as if by sleight of hand, the bodies of the RRs and the fluids hanging from the blades dissolved into a green mist. They floated upwards lazily, as if they weren't deadly beasts just a few moments ago. Another portal opened, and the mist quickly flew into it as if it were a vacuum.
Roderik wheezed, taking off his mask. His eyes were bloodshot and his nose was dripping like a tap. For some reason, he took this as a sign to take off his own mask, as the two women dismounted their platforms and headed towards him.
"Analyze the dust, Viveca," Aallotar instructed the redhead. She propped up Roderik's head
"Already on it," Viveca said as her hands once again started to signal. At once, a small cube that was about the size of a standard mason jar flew out of her platform and began to transform. A top layer revealed it self and split in two, then the next one did the same, until it formed some sort of mini-computer. "I'm connecting to his gas-mask. Lucky Doctor Hagen had us install one in all of our HCFs, huh?"
"Rod," Aallotar said, laying him down and starting to apply chest compressions. "Stay with us."
"No need, it doesn't seem to be much more dangerous than the other poisons we've faced," Viveca said, picking up Roderik's mask from where he'd dropped it. "It says here in the read-me that the masks can also be turned into miniature reverse filtration systems. That should keep him stable until we can get out of here."
"Phew," Aallotar said, taking her hands off his chest. Roderik gasped a few times before settling on the road, wheezing.
"Just put this on his face and he should be up and running," Viveca informed her. Aallotar took the mask from her red headed team mate and strapped it back on to Roderik's face.
"By the way, we've still got to do our usual and return the RCZ," Viveca said matter-of-factly. Then she turned to him. "And do something about the kid."
"Kid?" Aallotar wondered aloud before her eyes settled on him. His eyes widened, like he'd been caught spying on somebody. Again, it had been as if there was something unearthly playing out in front of him; something that had nothing to do with him. Now with both Capable Actor's eyes on him, he felt anxious.
What was going to happen now?
"Hello young man," Aallotar said, stepping away from Roderik's side and beckoning him over. "Would you mind coming over here?"
He didn't really have a choice, so he quietly stepped away from the sign he was hiding behind and forced his legs forward.
"I'm Captain Aallotar Varhild," she said before gesturing to her team mates. "And these are Officers Roderik Olefe and Viveca Aftenblad."
He nodded, unsure of his voice again.
"What's your name?" she asked.
"Sigmund," he said. "Sigmund Bergman."
"We're Capable Actors, as you've probably guessed," she gestured to her outfit and he nodded.
"You probably don't know what's happening right now," she continued. "But if you could just hold on whilst we investigate the area, we'll have you out of here in a jiffy."
"I'm on it," Viveca shouted as she hopped on to her platform. The wheels on her strange tricycle spun to life before they sped across the asphalt.
"So," Aallotar trailed off, looking directly at him. "What's a young man like yourself doing in the shopping district this early in the afternoon?"
"I'm not skipping," Sigmund said, his arms splaying out in front of him as if they were trying to deflect the accusation. "School lets out at three, I was just-"
Admiring a half-man, half-cat glass figurine.
That was definitely not something he could say.
"Going to a dentist's appointment," he lied, his voice squeaking again. Though it was a weak lie and he knew he had a billion tells, Aallotar didn't seem to catch it.
Making conversation right after gigantic monsters almost killed them whilst a speed demon on three deformed legs spun around observing the area; this was not what he'd imagined Capable Actors' jobs to be like.
"Must be a pretty fancy dentist, to be here," Aallotar commented. "I haven't been to the dentist myself in too long, I should fix that. It always sounds like so much trouble though."
"Put all my money on Favoured's Wonder," Roderik said drowsily, startling the both of them.
"Must be the poison wearing off," Aallotar said to Sigmund, before turning back to her large team mate. "I thought you said you'd stopped going to the races?"
"What," Roderik said, suddenly sitting straight up. "What races?"
"Favoured's Wonder doesn't sound like it's from the office Installation Christmas pool, does it?" Aallotar said in a mocking tone before she turned to Sigmund. "Listen kid, don't ever go to the races."
"Why?" Roderik said, taking his mask off and looking at Sigmund for the first time. "It's a great place to bond with friends."
"And blow all our vacation money," Aallotar added. She seemed to have touched a nerve, because Roderik smiled a defeated smile and scratched at his bald head. Aallotar laughed, her short bob bouncing manically around her.
"Nice work with the combo, boss man," Roderik said after a moment. "It's been a while since we've used one in the field."
"I told you to stop calling me that," Aallotar said sternly "But it did work better than expected."
"Finished!" Viveca yelled, stopping directly in front of them. "Nice to see you up Rod."
"At least somebody appreciates me," Roderik said with a fake pout. Aallotar gave him a coy smile.
"I also found these," Viveca said, hoisting up a smart phone and it's battery. "I'm assuming they're yours kid."
"Yeah," Sigmund confirmed as she tossed them to him. After he'd caught them, he felt across his shoulders for his backpack straps, just to confirm they were still there.
"I took out the battery because I knew the proximity alarm would probably let the RRs know where I was," he felt the need to explain.
"Nice one, kid," Viveca said, dropping off from her platform again and grabbing one of his shoulders.
"We can Return the RCZ now," Aallotar said to her colleagues.
"Don't worry too much, all you'll feel is that wobbly feeling you felt as we came in," she said, looking to Sigmund. "I hope."
"What?" he asked as she called up a cube of her own and pressed a few holographic symbols it had projected. Roderik gave him a reassuring smile, whilst Viveca gave a thumbs up.
"Initiating RCZ Return," she shouted. "Brace!"
There was nowhere near enough bracing for what would come next, as Sigmund felt each of his limbs be pulled in a different direction. The pain throbbed at his senses, and he had no choice but to let it infiltrate them.
Then it all went black.
When he opened his eyes, his heart skipped a beat. Not because he was still alive, but because Christoph Clemens was staring right at him. Before he had a chance to process anything, Christoph teleported himself a few feet away. He was wearing a green football uniform, running across a vivid field of daisies. Then, he kicked at Sigmund's head.
He winced, but not before realizing what he was seeing was a commercial being played on one of the big screens across the street. Viveca was shaking him, a bit more violently than necessary, he thought.
"He's awake!" she said. "Doctor!"
His eyes fluttered about for a bit before refocusing on what he could only assume was reality. The sky was blue again, and the colour had returned to the buildings all around him. He could even hear the bustle of the city, albeit at a distance.
"Boy, boy!" a large, stocky man entered his line of sight. Maybe he was the Cait-Sidhe's brother, Sigmund mused, even as he was the focus this man's very serious expression. "Can you move?"
"His name is Sigmund, Doctor Hagen," Aallotar said. "And you should have considered asking him questions before loading him full of that pain medication."
"I'm not here to take medical advice from somebody who has never even seen a potential emerge before," Dr. Hagen shot back indignantly before grabbing at Sigmund's left eyelid and opening it wide. "Returning the Reverse Capability Zone using normal protocol? What amateurs! You're lucky he seems to be exhibiting normal brain function at all."
Sigmund had to admit that sounded less than promising.
"I didn't even know the RCZ had protocols other than normal!"
"How our top team of Capable Actors don't know standard potential extraction protocol is beyond me!"
They went on like that for a while, until Sigmund started to fall asleep again. The doctor seemed to notice, and gave him a strong tap on his chest. All he felt was a slight thud.
The pain medication was clearly stronger than anything he'd ever been given.
"I thought you said not to apply too much pressure to his body," Roderik chimed in.
"For the first twenty-seven minutes," Doctor Hagen replied. "Now, we can move him."
Sigmund felt a variety of people's arms around him before he was weightless. As soon as he realized he was being lifted, he was being dropped onto something much more comfortable than pavement. When it started moving around, he guessed he'd probably been put on a gurney.
"It's okay boy," the Doctor said in a surprisingly soothing tone. "You can sleep now."
And so he did.