"Goddamn! Are we out in the Wastelands or something!? Why the hell are there so many variants!?" Stella shouted as she sent an uppercut right into the chin of a chimeric fusion of lion and turtle. Her glowing fist sent an explosive blast upwards, knocking the lion straight into the air with half its face blown off.
The lion's corpse fell limp onto cold, rocky earth. These were the vaults, and most of it used a tunnel and cavern network that already existed underground.
"They all look ugly as hell, too! Like someone just took random variants and mashed them together like a modern day Frankenstein."
"They're everywhere!" said Falco. He moved with jittery, adrenaline controlled steps, aiming this way and that, firing his Aztech lasergun freely. The green laser bolts, guided by smartlink technology, auto-aimed and precisely bored through the eyes of several variants.
The neon green gun had a red strip of light running down its barrel that indicated how much energy it had left, and it was almost completely gone.
"I-I'm running out!"
A variant, this one a large, fire-wreathed serpent with the face of a man, lunged at Falco.
Diamondback rushed in, tackling the serpent and sending it flying back where it smacked back more waiting variants like a bowling ball.
"Steady, kid. Don't lose your calm," said Diamondback.
"Easy for you to say! You're invincible!" said Falco.
"Here." Alan came by to Falco and grabbed his gun. A burst of red electrical charge ran from Alan's segmented, cybernetic fist and into Falco's gun, charging the weapon back up.
"Thanks, dude," said Falco. "You're a real one."
"You remind me of how I used to be is all," said Alan. He got back to fighting, aiming his wrist at a bat and spider fusion flapping its grotesque form towards them.
His forearm opened up, revealing the pointed head of a rocket. The rocket shot out like a firecracker and blew the incoming variant apart like a pinata, sending guts and fur and shredded wings everywhere.
"Holy crap, you're really cybered out!" said Falco. "That's some premium stuff, too. Who'd you go to!? I'm looking to get cybernetics too."
"I did it myself," was all Alan said.
"You're absolutely nuts, that's what you are," said Tox. She moved about with more ease, having had more combat training. Plus, she was basically indestructible too.
Her noxious purple slime form slithered about, expanding and engulfing several dog and cockroach fusion variants. They flailed about in her body before melting away into bones within seconds. "Self-operating is hard as all hell, and you managed to replace like, 70% of yourself."
"Focus!" said Diamondback. "Maintain circular formation. Keep up suppressive fire. Protect Kris at all costs. He's the one that's going to crack us into the vaults."
The way the team was arranged was in a ring with Kris in the center. Kris provided what fire he could with his pistol, a Freefire Six Blaster revolver that fired high powered explosive shots. However, most of his cybernetics were made to enhance his neural processing, not his combat efficiency.
Alexis stood guard beside Kris, channeling a green storm cloud overhead which constantly fired lightning bolts like a sentry turret.
"Shit, one thing goes wrong and it spawns ten more issues. This is why rookies shouldn't be allowed on high profile missions," said Kris. "Diamondback, I'm beginning to question the sharpness of your judgment here. I could see Clint giving into the kid's demands, but you? Weren't you supposed to be the rational one to balance things out in the Spearhorns?"
"Yeah, well, there's only so much I can do. Riding with the Spearhorns, especially Clint, you come to realize that planning ahead doesn't really do you much good other than piling on more stress.
It's how you adapt to the chaos he creates that's important," said Diamondback as he caved in the skull of a tiger and shark hybrid. Several bird and mosquito hybrid variants fluttered around him, trying to stab through his diamond exterior with their blade-like needle mouths to no avail.
"Fair enough," said Kris. "I should've expected a contract from Clint wasn't going to exactly be squeaky clean."
"This isn't right," said Ace. He was with Stella, right in the thick of close combat. He used his hands like clamps to prevent a huge leech variant with centipede legs from clamping down on him.
With a grunt, he cleanly ripped the variant in half, a faint blue-white glow surrounding his hands as he used tactile telekinesis to distribute his force precisely to tear the creature down the middle.
"What's the matter?" said Stella as she blew back a group dog sized rats with spider heads.
"These variants…I recognize them. They're part of the biostudies team. The team that studied me," said Ace. "But they shouldn't be coordinated like this. They're all 'imperfect'. Mindless. They should be tearing into each other as much as they're tearing into us."
"Improvements in research, maybe?" said Stella.
"Maybe." Ace punched a gorilla type variant in the chest. The creature's sternum shattered and caved in as it flew back like a cannonball had been blasted into it. "Something's just…off. All of these guys, they have a scent on them. It's…strange.
It reminds me of…myself?"
"Hey, Ace, know you don't like talking about your past, but if there's anything that you know that'll get us out of here, now's the time to spill it out," said Tox as she formed an empty ring in her stomach. "Damn it! I hate fire! Ace, take this guy out for me!"
A fireball passed through it that Ace caught.
"Yeah." Ace reached into the rock below. A neat circle of blue-white formed around his hand. He pulled back, driving up a perfect sphere of rock that he threw like a bullet at the culprit: a beetle type variant with an abdomen that seethed smoke and flame like a furnace.
The rock splattered the beetle's face, killing it instantly.
"Honestly, if I did know something, I would have told you guys. I'm not selfish enough to keep all that to myself. I just don't remember too much. All I remember is the doctor and what he did to me. But things that didn't relate to me directly - it's all foggy," said Ace.
"Numbers are starting to thin," said Diamondback. "Which is good. As far as threats go, none of these variants measured up to the Cyclops. At best, the toughest of them were high C rank threats."
"Which worries me, because there should be ten more Cyclops left," said Kris.
"Probably waiting for us in the weapons vault," said Diamondback. "I can see the variants not attacking each other, but I figure it's harder to get them to recognize machines as friends.
In any case, if Machine Mind packed all the Cylclops near the vault, that just makes them easier to EMP."
At that moment, a tenseness hung in the atmosphere. It cut through the chaos of the variant attacks. In fact, the variants, their numbers now drastically thinned, began to retreat, scurrying away through dark tunnels.
Everyone felt this shift in atmosphere.
"Threat is coming from here," said Diamondback, perking up as he tossed aside the mangled corpses of the bird mosquitoes that had been pecking at him before.
He stared ahead, down the dark depths of a large tunnel - one of the main paths leading to the vaults. "This tunnel leads to the Biostudies vault. I'll scout it out." Diamondback hurriedly trudged forwards. He had no nightvision, but that did not matter to him.
After all, he normally fought while completely blind. His diamond metamaterial skin was flexible, allowing him to cover all his joints, but it had one weakness: it was not see-through.
But Diamondback had mitigated even that weakness, training to fight without the need of sight at all. He navigated the dark of the tunnel with ease, stepping ahead with confidence.
In the next moment, Diamondback was sent hurtling back. An extremely impressive feat considering he weighed close to half a ton.
Ace caught Diamondback in mid-air.
Diamondback's chest had a small, fist-sized indent on it.
"What the-?" Diamondback instinctively put a hand to the damage on his chest.
"Someone actually managed to hurt Diamondback…?" said Falco, eyes wide.
"Not important. Falco, Alan, get back, now!" said Diamondback. Without him, Falco and Alan were utterly defenseless and closest to whatever threat it was that had sent him flying.
Diamondback fell to the ground.
The sound of hard material smashing against hard material at extreme speeds echoed through the innards of the vault caverns. A shockwave of force exploded outward from in front of Alan and Falco, knocking Falco flat on his back. Alan managed to dig his heels in.
"W-what?" Falco blinked as he looked up.
Ace was there. No…there were…two Aces?
One Ace uniformed in black floated in the air, both hands trembling as they struggled against the fist of another completely naked Ace. Their faces were utterly identical. Same square jaw, white, spiked up hair, and light blue eyes.
The only difference was that the naked Ace was noticeably more muscular.
"Two Aces!? What's going on!?" said Tox. She looked down. "And I really did NOT want to see that from my friend."
"All of you, on alert!" said Diamondback. His calm exterior, like his chest, had cracked. "That thing, clone, whatever it is…it's strong."
"Not…as strong…," Ace grunted out, slowly giving ground in the air as his clone pushed back against both his hands with a single fist. "As me!"
Light blue enveloped the cloned Ace's back.
Ace used tactile telekinesis to transfer the force of his push to the clone's back. This pushed the clone forward with even more force, but instead of making it overpower Ace, he stopped resisting and instead used the clone's sudden momentum against it, redirecting the clone into the ceiling.
The clone smashed through the sturdy rock of the tunnel like it was made of brittle glass.
Ace breathed out, hands still shaking from exertion.
"Splendid." The clone popped down from the crater it had made, landing on the ground. The voice did not come from the clone's mouth -which did not move- but instead from its head.
"…Doctor," said Ace, leering.
"Correct, my child. I see the prodigal son has returned," said Dr. Ziegler.
"Don't call me that. I am not your child," said Ace. "But I will be your killer."
"Unfortunately, that is simply not possible. And I apologize. I will stop calling you child, though I regret that you do not hold endearment towards me as I did to you. But regardless, this new child of mine is a suitable replacement for you.
He is far closer to perfection than you are," said Dr. Ziegler. The clone floated forwards menacingly. "All of you have made it far, but this heist of yours ends now."