WorldNet News Tent Ė Morning
"Welcome back," Lance chirped to the audience. "Joining us now is a very special guest. Robert Lake is the sole survivor of the ill-fated Flutie expedition, and the only person known to have crossed safely through the Heisenberg Breach, passing from the Anomalous Zone back into our reality."
The cameras focused on an older, heavyset man who fidgeted nervously under the glare of the lights.
"Mr. Lake, can you give us an overview of the AZ?"
"I can tell you this much: it ainít what you got on your screen right there. Thatís our world. Thatís what you see on this side of the mist. You go through the mist, youíre in a whole ínother world."
"Can you tell us what itís like on the other side? In the Zone proper?" Lance asked.
"Well now, Missy, thatís the catch, ainít it? The landscape there, it changes like the weather. You can go from hot-ass desert to tropical jungle to snow-covered mountains in an afternoonís walk. And if you go back the way you came, it might be a totally different landscape the second time around."
"Youíre saying that you canít give us any idea of what the contestants are likely to encounter?"
"Now I ainít saying that. Thereís one thing Iím for sure theyíre gonna encounter. Not a doubt in my mind."
"Whatís that, Mr. Lake?" Lance asked curiously.
"Monsters," came the answer. "No doubt about it, theyíre gonna face monsters."
"Well, letís take a look, shall we?" Lance said, turning to her monitor.
Anomalous Zone Ė Fields of Battle Ė Same Time
Tailed by a gang of hover-cams, Dixon and Livia passed through the first ring of mist into morning...and directly into an ongoing battle.
On a large and level plain, two armies were arrayed before them. One was composed of dark, misshapen figures that were either too large or too small to be human. Most had either too many or two few limbs. The other army consisted of figures that were closer to human, though they were taller than average and almost too beautiful to look upon. Their clothes shone brilliantly in the morning light, shining white and pale-ice blue. Though outnumbered by their goblin foes, the shining ones fought with a cold efficiency that left the battleís outcome in doubt.
In the middle of the field of battle, two archetypes did battle.
The Goblin King stood ten feet tall, clad in black-iron and blood. His great bone club was as tall as his opponent and dug huge gouges in the earth as he swung and missed and swung again.
His opponent appeared short only in contrast to the Goblin Kingís height. It moved with quicksilver grace, as ungraspable as the winter wind. The androgynous face gave no hint of gender, nor were any clues divulged by the slender, silver-armored body.
Somehow, in the midst of the din of battle, the two combatants became aware of Dixon and Liviaís presence. They slowly lowered their weapons and looked towards the newcomers. Around them, as if in tune to their leadersí thoughts and mood, the battle ground to a halt.
Livia and Dix looked at one another. Livia cleared her throat. "Umm...Donít mind us," she offered.
"Just passing through," Dixon added.
"Kareesh kataa!" yelled the Goblin King.
"NŠiea lae siathla!" added the Fae.
As one, both armies, dark and light, turned and attacked. The morning sky went black as a cloud of arrows rained towards Livia and Dix.
Watchers Council Ė Slayer Rec Room Ė Same Time
Miraís eyes were wide as she and her fellow slayers watched the vid screen.
"Damn," she said.
"Yeah," Brianna agreed. "I was hoping they would get at least part of the way in before running into resistance."
"Bet youíre glad now that Liv pulled rank. Just think, that could be you getting pelted with arrows," offered Bunni, who was seated behind Mira and Brianna. Mira shot her a look, and Bunni immediately backpedaled. "Not that arrows could get through the Seraphim armor. Sheís as safe as a turtle in its shell. As long as she doesnít get too close to any of thoseó Oh, crap."
Brianna chuckled. "Thatís our Livia, always making a beeline for the biggest thing on the field."
"Dammit, Livia, save the thrusters for emergencies. You only have a few minutes of flight time all together. Save it for when you need it most," Mira muttered.
"Ooooh!" said everyone at once, cringing as they watched.
"Thatís gotta hurt," added Brianna.
Mira just shook her head.
Council Command Center Tent Ė Later
Jocasta and Katherine were in the Council command tent, watching the events unfold on a vidscreen.
"Looks like theyíve cleared the first hurdle," Katherine said with a sideways glance at Jocasta. "If thatís the worst of it, Livia should be fine."
"Yeah, sheíll be okay. Theyíll both be okay," Jocasta agreed verbally, but her expression was saying something else entirely.
"Liviaís tough. And smart. So, as long as she paces herself..."
"She better. Dix is pretty resourceful."
"Oh?" Katherine asked, a slight frown creeping onto her face.
"Yeah, he and Toni were always neck-and-neck in flight school and..." Jocasta trailed off as she noticed the look on Katherineís face. "...and I probably shouldnít be talking up my ex, huh?"
"Heís the competition, Jo," Katherine reminded her. "We donít want him to be too resourceful."
"I know. But I donít want him to get hurt, either. Ya know? I donít want either of them to get hurt." Jocasta sighed in frustration. "Giles is right. This is a really dumb way to decide something this important."
They watched the vidscreen for a while. The crawl at the bottom of the screen indicated that the betting odds were in the Councilís favor by a slight margin and urged viewers to place their bets now.
After a moment, Katherine asked, "How...um...how did you guys split up? You seem to get along okay." She looked down at the ground. "It wouldíve been nice if Trent and I could have stayed friends," she said wistfully.
Jocasta took her hand. "Oh, Katie, Iím so sorry. I feel likeó"
"Jo, it wasnít your fault. Even if weíd never met, I was going to call things off with him. I was just waiting to do it in person. I-I think that even if things had gone down differently, we probably wouldnít have stayed friends. Still, seeing you and Dix bantering like old friends just makes me a little wistful for what might have been." She watched the vidscreen for a while and then looked up with a mischievous grin. "And itís not like you gave up Dix for me."
Jocastaís eyes went wide, and she shook her head as she returned the grin. "Slayers," she muttered fondly. "You know, it was a whole different situation with me and Dix. We were already drifting apart, and after he left the Council to work for Hubris, our schedules kept us from seeing much of each other. We went out for drinks one night, and I was trying to think of an easy way to tell him that I wanted to break up, and he said, ĎYou wanna break up?í and I said, ĎYeah,í and that was that. Weíve kept in touch by email and the occasional phone call since then."
"Why did he leave the Council?" Katherine asked.
"Because he wasn't a slayer."
"Huh? I mean, of course he wasnít a slayer, being a guy and all, but how did tható"
"Dix piloted the first prototype of the Seraphim armor. He assumed that once the suit was finished he would be wearing it in the field along with the slayers. When it became clear that the Seraphim armor was only going to be used by slayers, I guess he felt that there wasnít much purpose in continuing at the Council."
"But to go to work for Hubris? I mean, theyíre the bad guys..." Katherine trailed off.
"We didnít know that at the time. Besides, thereís always been some transferring back and forth between us and Hubris. James worked for them before coming to work for us. A-And Tyrell was in power then, so Iím not so sure that it wasnít just a case of switching the bad guys he worked for."
"Do you think he knows now? About Hubris?" Katherine asked.
"I donít know. I like to think not, but Dix can be so focused on winning that he gets tunnel vision. He may not be seeing whatís right in front of him. With Dix, it can be win at all costs."
"Liviaís the same way."
"Yeah, thatís one of the things Iím worried about," Jocasta admitted.
Anomalous Zone Ė Mist Ring Ė Later
There were shapes moving in the mist as Livia and Dixon passed through. Half-seen, out-of-the-corner-of-the-eye type shapes. Possibilities waiting to be born. Perhaps there, perhaps not. Perhaps watching, perhaps not.
The cameras were certainly watching, spinning around the contenders like sharks sensing blood in the waters.
"That was pretty cool," Dixon allowed. "But we may want to reconsider just plowing through the next bunch. Yeah, itís an ego-booster to waltz through an army and have their arrows just bounce off like, like, like, ummÖ" He paused. "I canít really think of a good analogy right now, but you know what I mean. Arrows bouncing off metal and stuffóitís all super-heroic and probably good for the ratings, but we blew a lot of ammo and used up some fuel that may be needed later. And you took a few heavy hits. A cracked faceplate at this stage of the game isnít good. Next time, you may want to reconsider going after the biggest thing on the battlefield."
"You take out the biggest guy, and the rest of them lose heart. Works every time. And whatís up with all of this Ďweí stuff, Dix? You could have just jetted right over the top of the whole mess."
"And let the Council get all of the action shots? Weíre on camera, remember? Half this battle is for public opinion. That means that not only do I have to win, I have to look damned good doing it. And since the Kerberos suit hides my boyish good looks, I gotta look good by doing stuff like saving you from being blindsided by guys with glowing magic swords. Besides, we make a good team, and weíll stand a better chance of making it to the goal if we work together."
"You think we can be a team now?" She stopped and turned towards him. "We stopped being a team when you jumped ship and went over to Hubris."
"Is that how you see it? I jumped ship? From my point of view, the ship hit an iceberg, and I swam to the nearest life raft. Funny how perspectives can be different like that. But slayers always have had trouble seeing past their own chosen-ness to see that there are different points of view out there."
"Come off it, Dix! You got all hot under the collar when they started fitting Mira for the Seraphim armor. And you knew it was coming! You knew the suits were being designed for slayers. You knew it, and you got pissed when the plans didnít change to suit you. You were working for the Council, for godís sake. You were helping make weapons for slayers. Whatíd you think was going to happen? Youíd be made an honorary slayer and join the ranks? It wasnít like we wanted you to go. You left because you couldnít have what you wanted. So, donít play poor-little-me ícause it just wonít fly. Iím sorry you didnít get what you wanted, Dix, but you were the one who left the team, and now isnít a good time to try to re-up."
Dixon sighed. "No team then?" he asked.
"Hell no! You think Iím gonna truó"
Dixon launched the first attackóa volley of pea-sized grenades which exploded in mid-flight into a rapidly thickening net of fibers.
The Seraphim armor burned the fibers to dust before they struck home, and Livia responded with a vicious, spinning side-kick that struck the Kerberos armor like a hammer striking an anvil.
For all the good it did. Dixon hardly seemed to notice as he returned the favor.
The mist and the cameras watched as steel rang on steel.
Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Cleveland Ė Same Time
Sean Rayne munched popcorn as he watched the fight on the vidscreen.
"Thatís gotta hurt," he laughed.
The crawl at the bottom of the screen showed the betting was now in Hubrisís favor.
"You want in on the action?" Rayne asked Tyrell, who was closely watching the events on the vidscreen. "I got in while the odds were still in the Councilís favor, so I should clean up. You should jump in while the odds are still close."
Tyrell looked at him with disdain. "Is this all a game to you? A chance to stir up trouble? The future weighing in the balance, and you act as if youíre watching some, someó"
"Blood-and-circuses spectacle?" Rayne offered in a perfect imitation of Chairman Giles.
Tyrell shot him a look, but didnít respond. He turned his attention back to the vidscreen. After a moment, he growled with frustration. "What the hell is Osbourneís problem? He should have beaten her by now."
"I know," Tyrell insisted. "You know what kind of weaponry heís packing. Why the hell isnít he using it?"
"Why isnít he using the lethal stuff?" Rayne repeated Tyrellís question rhetorically. "Same reason she isnít. They donít have the stomach for it. Face it, old man, the way those two are decked out, the only way to stop them is to kill them." He tossed a piece of popcorn in the air and caught it in his mouth. "Theyíre not like us. They just donít have the stomach for it."
Tyrell started to respond, but the look of anger on his face faded to thoughtfulness. He smiled slyly. "Then we need to do something about that, donít we?" He flipped open his comm unit. "Eris, itís Horatio. Hereís what we are going to do."
Anomalous Zone Ė Mist Ring Ė Same Time
Livia and Dixon faced each other, weapons ready. The shattered remains of several unlucky hover-cams lay between them, and the ground bore the scars of their battle, as did several of the mist-enshrouded trees. The combatants themselves were not unmarkedótheir armor scarred by the force of blows given and received.
Livia seemed to have received the worse of it. Her faceplate was shattered, and there was blood on her face. Her eyes were defiant.
"Had enough?" she asked.
"Hardly." There was a clik-chak-klak as a shoulder cannon retracted and was replaced by what appeared to be a bullhorn on steroids. "Iím just getting started."
"Really?" Livia asked. "I woulda thought youíd be getting tired by now. After all, under all that metal, youíre still just a man. Me? Iím a slayer. I can keep this dance up all night."
With that, she launched herself at him, using her boot jets to add momentum to the leap. Dixon was slammed against a tree with enough force to send it toppling into the mist. Livia followed through with a series of blows and kicks which forced him to give ground.
"It always bothered you, didnít it? That no matter how hard you trained, your reflexes would never be as fast as even greenest of newly-called slayers."
A crosscut punch drove Dixon to his knees.
"No matter how hard you worked out, youíd never have the endurance of a slayer," she goaded. "Thatís why you left the Watchers Council, wasnít it? Because you couldnít stand being second best at anything."
A kick to the head cracked Kerberosís faceplate.
"And around all of us slayers, thatís all youíd ever be."
A second kick knocked him on his back.
"Second best," Livia pronounced with certainty.
Dixon replied with a blast of sound from the bullhorn-on-steroids. Livia, with her faceplate shattered and her hearing unprotected, staggered backwards. Dixon got to his feet, his movements calm and unhurried.
Livia swayed unsteadily, her balance obviously affected by the sonic attack. Dixon continued to approach.
"I know you probably canít hear me right now, but I know what youíre trying to do, and it wonít work. Youíre not gonna make me mad, Livia. Itís good tactics against some back-alley vamp or hot-headed demon, but the first thing you learn in flight school is to keep your cool. The quickest way to lose a fight is to let your emotions take control. Iím not losing this fight."
Hubris Command Center Tent Ė Same Time
Eris closed her comm unit and put it away. She turned to one of the doctors seated in front of a bio-metric control panel. "Increase adrenal stimulants by two hundred percent," she ordered.
The doctor hesitated. "Maíam?" he questioned. "Heís already borderline. We boost adrenals any higher, and we risk permanent damage. Itís also going to affect his reasoning. High-level brain functions donít work well when youíre that deep into fight-or-flight."
"Just do it," Eris hissed and stalked away, clearly expecting her command to be carried out.
The doctor hesitated again, as if weighing some internal, Hippocratic balance. He turned back to the control panel and made adjustments, ignoring the alarms now flashing red.
Anomalous Zone Ė Mist Ring Ė Later
Dixonís arm blurred as he blocked Liviaís blow.
"Letís talk reflexes, Liv," Dixon said as he followed through with a punch that would have smashed into Liviaís unprotected face if she hadnít turned her head at the last moment. As it was, the slayer staggered back, stunned.
"For the past year now, Iíve been taking these shots," he continued without pause. "Canít say that itís very pleasant, but theyíre damned effective. Superconducting nano-fibers have bonded to every nerve and neuron in my body. The whole world moves in slo-mo around me, slayers included."
Livia rolled as an armored foot drove downwards towards her head. For one moment, Dixon was off balance, and the slayer took the chance to throw her opponent to the ground. They grappledóstrength against strength, all art and skill forgotten in a contest of brute strength and endurance.
"Letís talk endurance, Livia," Dixon whispered, his voice tight with strain and anger. "You wear the Seraphim armor. I get that. Iíve done that. With Kerberos, itís a whole different matter. I donít wear Kerberos; I am Kerberos. Microprocessor controlled IVs feed just the right amount of nutrients and chems into my veins. Bio-scrubbers filter fatigue toxins out of my bloodstream before they have a chance to build up. You can keep this dance up all night? I can keep this up for days!"
He broke her hold and slammed his head into hers. Blood flew as Liviaís nose broke, and she fell back, stunned. Kerberos rose to his knees beside her.
"Face it, Slayer, youíve been rendered obsolete. Every strength, every special ability, everything that sets a slayer apart, makes her special, has been rendered moot by technology."
Kerberos raised his arms, clasped his gauntlets together to form an energy ball. He prepared to bring his armored fists down like a hammer on Liviaís unprotected face.
"Iím afraid youíre no longer needed," he told her.
End of Act Two
On to Act Three