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To the Victor…
Chapter 5: Baby Steps
by Tog

The night air was cool and brisk, even for September.  He had begun to wish he’d had on more than a t-shirt and jeans.  When he reached the end of the alley he heard a voice tell him to stop. It was far too dark there to see who had spoken, and that actually made him feel a bit better about things.  This voice scared him.

“Glad to see you made it,” the voice said.

“I been in before.  This wasn’t no diffrn’t.  I do gotta say that I didn’t expect there to be that many of ‘em though.”

“Still, the compensation was enough for you?”  It sounded a little menacing.

“Y—Yes.  Oh, yeah.  Hey, it was fine.  We knew the risks going in.  It was just a job like any other.  It’s just that some of the guys thought that maybe next time, if there is a next time, we might get more information so we can be ready.  Ya know?”

“Understandable, and reasonable.  There may well be a next time.  We’ll be in touch soon.  Until then I was told to offer you a safe place to relax for a bit.  You can get into Eastgate I assume?”

“Heh, ya mean the Hollows?  Yeah, I can get in there.  No Prob.”

“Good.  Here is the address.  It’s a little run down, but it’s safe.  We’ll contact you there when we have a new task for you.”

With that, the voice pulled back further into shadows and seemed to disappear.  The man in the t-shirt looked around nervously then inched his way back to the street.

*     *    *

Lista entered the room where the others sat and plopped down in a beat up old chair.  “Waiting sucks.  I’m not good at it.  I hate stuff I’m not good at.”

Jyn looked over at her and said, “It’s only 15 minutes. It’s not like you have anything better to do now anyway.”

“Not the point.  The point is we need a microwave.”

“Hey, considering the condition of the rest of this zone, this school is in great shape.”

“But it’s just a school.  It’s not a real base.  We’re squatters.  And what’s worse, we’re squatters that have to wait 15 minutes for a dinner that would take 3 minutes to nuke.”

Epim burst into the room, her excitement was barely contained. “Everyone!  Gather!  I’ve got something.”

“Well a bit of penicillin should clear it up.  I’m sure Lis’ has truckloads of it.”

Epim gave Jyn a side look while the others came in.  Once all were present she explained:

“I’ve got a lead on the guys that jumped Lis at that office a few weeks back.  One of them just got out of jail and Ent and I followed him tonight.  We heard him meet with the person that hired him and found out where they were gathering while they wait for the next job.”

“Great!” said Tog.  I don’t suppose you were able to follow the guy that hired them back to wherever he was from?”

“We couldn’t.  He was ‘ported away.”

“Damn.  Still, this is good.  Where is Ent?”

“She’s in the Hollows, watching the building from a safe spot.  Her last report said that a few more Outcast had gone in.  I’m thinking we wait until about 5 AM and hit them just after they go to sleep.”

“Sounds good to me.  Okay everyone meet out here at 4:30, and be ready to leave.”

*     *     *

On the roof across the street form the Outcast safe house, Entimangler watched.  There had been no activity or a few hours, but the steady thumping of the radios from within said a few were still in there.

As far as anyone knew, she was unique on this world.  She was nearly 8 feet tall, definitely insectoid with an iridescent exoskeleton that shifted between green and purple as she moved.  Her arms had a row of long sharp spines on the forearms and ended in a three prong claw which could emit a black vapor.  This vapor dissipated quickly but served many purposes in her former life as a guard on a prison ship.  First, it was a gaseous version of a non-Newtonian fluid.  It was a vapor unless it was quickly compressed.  Under rapid compression, it would turn almost solid.  This gave the effect of being hit with a rock rather than a large claw.  A second effect was that on contact, some of the vapor would adhere to the target.  As it dissipated, it would cloud the vision and make it hard to return an attack.  Before the crash, when she still had all four arms, she could project this vapor in the form of tendrils that could be used to anchor a target to the ground for a short time.  It was an ability she missed.

In addition to her outward physical abilities, she had a wider range of vision than most humans.  It wasn’t as good for fine detail.  Compound eyes weren’t made for that.  They were made for seeing the slightest movement, and they registered in the ultra-violet range as well as a short way into infra-red.  She had been taught to use that ability to see IR to serve as a form of early warning.  She wasn’t able to see through walls, but she could see an increase in body temperature in warm blooded creatures; an increase that usually indicated an adrenalin surge and was nearly always followed by a “fight or flight” reaction.  It was hard to catch the Guards unaware.

The thicker atmosphere of Earth also gave her superior hearing, as well as far better endurance and regeneration than she had known before.  Epim thought this might be due to a higher volume of oxygen in the air, but admitted that it was just a guess.

Of course, these benefits did little offset the loss of her second pair of arms.  Still, she was adapting to the change.  Slowly, but it was happening.

A sudden change in the noise from across the street caught her attention.  The music had stopped and had been replaced with angry shouts, followed shortly by the sound of combat and then silence. 

Back on the ship, she would sit alone and guard one set of prison cells.  That was her role.  If there was an escape, her role was to incapacitate the prisoner and return them to the cell.  A strange noise on the ship was handled by ship security.  A Guard never left her post.  Ship Security were a smaller, faster version of her, with more articulated claws for use with weapons.  They were also bred to be more self reliant.  She contacted Epim at once. 

It was so ingrained in her to wait for the rest of the colony that she didn’t even consider going in alone.  When Epim had suggested she do just that, a feeling washed over her.  She felt she was being shunned.  Abandoned.  Members of the Guard never go and investigate, and certainly never alone.  They sit and watch.  They chase and capture.  They team with other members of the hive if they are needed for a large riot or other major disturbance.  The never investigate.  It wasn’t a rule, or even a law.  It was something much bigger.  Deeper.  It was part of the genetic code that made up her race.  The Colony is one.  Members have specific jobs.  None are told to go alone unless they are bred for autonomy.  None can disobey an order from a commander either.  Epim was a commander, second only to Doug in her view, even if neither were members of the Colony.  This was how she had to see things to make sense of this world.  With the closest thing to fear that she could possibly have, she dropped 4 stories to the ground and crossed the street to the building she had been watching for the last three hours.

At the door she paused and checked the street.  There was no one about, and no unusual sounds she could make out.  The door opened under minimal effort and she slipped inside.

The entryway was poorly lit but her eyes were quick to adjust.  The carpet was torn up in places and covered with filth and stains.  The walls were coated with dirt and spray paint.  Her antennae twitched as she scanned the air for smells.  There was a foul, musky taint to the air.  Not rotten, but the smell of an unwashed animal or person; possibly a mix of the two.  It definitely looked the part of a gang hideout.  It also looked no different from any other building in the area.

She crept along the wall, as much from instinct as training.  As she approached the first hallway, she heard a faint scuffling sound and a mucousy sort of breathing.  There were two of them, and one was big.  Their skin was green and they had the look of something not quite human.  She thought again how being there alone went against everything she had ever known.  An inky mist surrounded her hands and she plunged ahead.

The first Troll to see her probably didn’t think she was real.  An iridescent purple and green bug looking thing standing nearly 8 feet tall was out of place, even in Paragon City.  He froze for a moment.  It was a moment too long.  Once the first blow landed, he was finished.  Unable to see his target clearly, he lashed about in vain.  The second, smaller Troll pulled a gun and fired.  The chitin exoskeleton deflected the round and cushioned the impact to the point it felt like a punch to her.  Her second punch came over the top of the guard of the bigger Troll.  His face snapped to his left from the impact.  This was followed by a right uppercut to the underside of chin which took the fight out of him.  The second Troll turned to run.  He would wake up three hours later in a prison hospital.  Only a fool turns his back on a Guard.

She continued through the halls toward the sound of jeering.  Again, the hall split, but this time there were five of them.  She inhaled deeply and rushed the biggest one.  She was hit hard by multiple gunshots and a massive left hand.  She refused to let it phase her, and continued to pummel the Troll until he fell.  The others had moved in close, so rather than fight them one at a time, she angled around to line them up a bit.  He arms became a blur as she batted each one multiple times.  None of the blows were all that hard, but there were a lot of them.  In addition to the fists and forearms, there were heads banging into each other, and counterstrikes intended to pass over the shoulder of an ally striking the back of the head instead.  When it was over, two more fell.  The remaining two were taken down with a quick jab and hook.

She was winded, and more than a little hurt, but that could be fixed by waiting just a minute.  Another benefit of the higher oxygen content here.

At the top of the elevators she found the first Outcast.  He was in bad shape.  She placed a transponder on him and he was teleported away.  In the corner of the room was the Outcast she had followed to the building.  He was cowering under the threat of two more Trolls.  Between him and the current position of Entimangler was a wide open room with a dozen Trolls in it.  Jyn had worked with Ent a bit on focus over the past month and Ent thought back on this.  She thought about the crash.  Her lost Colony.  Her arms.  Her future, stuck on this planet.  The orders from Epim that put in this position.  She got angry.  Then she got focused.  Running across the room to the two guards, she took a few hits; in taking them out, she took a few more.  The second guard fell, and another product of her genetic code engaged.  Humans might call it an adrenaline surge, but to her it was just another tool used to guard prisoners.  The damage she had sustained was forgotten for the moment and she turned her attention on the rest of the room.  Weaving between the columns allowed her to cut some of the damage for a moment, as well as forcing some of those with guns to step in range of the vapor clad pincers.

One Troll landed a hard shot to her body, but paid for it as the spikes on the backs of her forearms were raked across his chest.  That was another one down.  For a moment, she thought she might have a chance.  That one thought was enough for her to lose focus.  For every blow she landed, they landed three. 

She was fading.

Her escape route was cut off.  She was outnumbered.  It looked hopeless.  Still, her genetic code was in control.  If she was going to go down, she’d make sure to have one Troll in each hand.  She backed around the last pillar to make them come to her.  At this point every second not getting hit was critical.

The first Troll around the corner met with a hard right punch to the body.  The shroud of vapor prevented her from feeling just how many of his ribs cracked, but she was pretty sure she heard three.  She followed that up with a right elbow to his face, and she saw his eyes roll back in his head.

No sooner had he started to fall, when she felt a sharp pain on her upper shoulder.  She slipped her left hand down and struck the Troll in the groin.  She hoped they were still human enough for that to be effective.  As he doubled forward, she hooked the back of his neck with her right forearm spines and pivoted back to the right to drive his head into the pillar; one of them cracked, which one was of little concern to her.  She continued that arm motion to strike another that was coming up on her right side.  He fell away to reveal a stack of three to 5 more.  She stepped in and unleashed another flurry of blows, rakes, and claws.  As they fell, she again retreated behind the pillar.  How many more were there?  Eight?  Fifty?  Any more than one was going to be a problem.

She looked at her options.  She could throw maybe three more strikes, but they’d probably get her before then.  She could focus on her fast regeneration again, but would take all of what little she had left.  There wasn’t a choice.  Go down fighting.  She heard them closing on her position, took what she felt may well have been her last breath, and charged around the corner to see what looked to be a large block of floor coming right at her.  Just beyond that she saw Tog and Lista.

*     *    *

The next day, Epim came to her room and knocked lightly on the door frame.

“Ent.  I owe you an apology.  A big one.”

Entimangler tilted her head slightly to one side, paused, and tiled it a little more.  “Why?”

“Because I treated you unfairly last night.  You are so different from humans.  It never occurred to me that you would try to take on that whole building alone.  I only intended for you to go in and look around.  We left here as soon as you contacted us, intending to join you at the door.

“I was trained to be a doctor of the mind, as you were trained, and bred, to be a Guard.  My training was for human minds.  I’m at a bit of a loss to understand you, and how you think.  I want to understand you.  I want to help you to understand us.  I’m sure we can do it, in time.  From what I’ve seen, you do have feelings as we know them.  Emotions.  I’d like you to find someone to talk to about them.  If you feel afraid, or happy, or angry, I’d like you to share it.  It doesn’t have to be with me.  It should be the person you feel most comfortable around.  You see, insects on earth communicate with their hives by releasing smells so the others will know what happening.  If you do that as well, we have no way to detect it.  That’s why humans talk to each other.  It’s the main way we share things.

“After a while, I’d like us to talk as well, but first I’d like you try to get a feel for how we are as a people.  I also want to say we’re not a Colony, and never will be.  We’re a family, and you’re a part of it.  An important part of it.  In a family, everyone is equal, more or less.  Doug is sort of the “dad”, and I guess I’m the “mom”, but that doesn’t mean we have the same power over you that a leader in your colony did.  If any one of us tells you do something that you’re not comfortable doing, tell us.  That includes that sharing thing I just mentioned.  I’d really like for you to do it.  But it’s not an order.  You don’t have to if you don’t want to.  Do you understand?

Ent sat for a moment, unmoving on the large, white cocoon she had spun for a bed so long ago.  Finally, she nodded and Epim left the room, head low.

Back in the break room, the other six sat in around a small table with a stack of books in place of the fourth leg.

“Well?” asked Tog.

“No idea.  She didn’t really seem interested in anything I had to say.”

“Does she remember calling out to us when we got there?”

“God,” said Lista.  “That was the freakiest thing I think I’ve ever heard.  The way she practically screamed ‘Not abandoned!  Not alone!’  Like we’d have really ditched her.”

Epim took a sip of her tea and stared into the cup for a moment.  “I can sure see why she felt that way.  Everything she is tells her that she is a small part of a large colony.  Now she’s basically an equal partner in a seven way split.  If we treat her like that, she sees it as if we’re cutting her off, but if we treat her like she expects, she falls to the very bottom of the pecking order and I just don’t know if I can get around that.  I hope we can find some way to get her to meet us half way.”

An electronic voice layered over the clicks of her natural voice came from the hallway.  “Lista?  You have talking time?”

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