"Am I dead?" Falco looked around from the dirt, hands covered over his head.
"No, not yet." Alan grabbed Falco by the shoulder and hoisted him up. "In spite of your best efforts."
"Hey, and here I thought at least you had my back. Being a newbie like me and all," said Falco.
"The machines have stopped moving," said Alexis, her crackling eyes scanning their surroundings. Her barrier was in the center of a smoking, scorch blackened crater. All around them was a ring formation of mechs comprised of standard gun toting droids led by the hulking Cyclops with their missile launchers and quadruple high caliber autocannon arms.
All of the machines had glowing golden circuit patterns wreathed through their bodies – signs of Machine Mind manually controlling them.
"Stella, update us," said Diamondback.
"Ol' Clint out in the front beat the tar outta the Sword, but not just that. He got the Sword to send an executive command here to let us in and out to get what we want," said Stella. "I just relayed that info to the mind creeper here."
"Seriously?" said Tox. She instantly put an impatient hand against Alexis's barrier. "Lexy, take this thing down. I have to help Ace."
Alexis nodded, but Diamondback held up a hand.
"Not yet," said Diamondback. "I understand how you feel, but we need to ascertain the situation."
"No, you don't understand!" said Tox, exasperated. "These machines might stop, but that thing, that clone, it isn't a machine! Machine Mind can't control it – it might still be beating Ace up!"
"Correct." Machine Mind's voice resonated all throughout the cavern, echoing from each and every mech present. "I will uphold this ceasefire, but I cannot guarantee the safety of your companion. He has, unfortunately, destroyed the operating device I implanted within the clone's brain."
"That must mean Ace beat it, right?" said Tox hopefully.
"Inconclusive," said Machine Mind. "That clone is a near perfect specimen. Almost as perfect as the one you used to breach this lab. A simple brain injury would be insufficient in destroying him."
"Clint…?" said Stella, narrowing her eyes. "He's involved with this somehow? Are y'all studying him?"
"I have said too much. This does not concern your narrow minds. I will open the vaults and give you the Kryptic. But in exchange, you will leave peacefully. You will not damage our research any further."
"Understood," said Diamondback.
"Is that going to be it?" said Alan. "Weren't we supposed to make them hurt?"
"No. We were supposed to 'make some noise'," said Diamondback. "We've done that already. The Kryptic is all we are here for. We get it – we get out. No further need to risk ourselves."
"Damn, now that's something I can agree on," said Kris with a sigh.
"Y-yeah, getting outta here doesn't sound all too bad," said Falco.
"No. No, this is too easy," said Alan. "The Trident has so much here. So much that could be taken from them-,"
"This is not the time to let your personal grudges interfere." Diamondback's voice was stern. Final.
Alexis clasped her hands together. Her barrier rippled. "I'm shutting out sound so he can't hear us. I just want to weigh in and say that I'm sort of on the new guy's side. JUST getting the Kryptic seems like a letdown. And what's the point of leaving Machine Mind and the researchers behind?
Won't they just alert the rest of the Trident?"
"But that's the point, isn't it?" said Diamondback. "It forces the Trident to split their forces over here. As for them knowing the Krytpic is gone, I imagine that's a calculated move on part of Thanatos. If I understand correctly, the Trident's biggest leverage over Solomon Solar is the Kryptic.
Whoever has that Kryptic holds Solomon's collar. In this case, that'll be Thanatos.
Once Solomon understands that the Trident no longer has it, what do you think an abused, chained dog will do? It'll lash out. Or worse."
A drone tapped at the barrier, making everyone glance up at it. It was a small flying drone meant for underground excavation with several clasping appendage extending from its body. From one of its appendages was a large black case.
"Letting sound flow back in," said Alexis.
"What is this?" said Stella.
"The Kryptic," said Machine Mind. "While you all were busy bickering among yourselves, I've decided to give you more incentive to get out of here. And, of course, the knowledge that in ten minutes, reinforcements will arrive."
"Let's take it and leave." Diamondback stepped forward, tapping at the barrier, indicating for Alexis to take it down.
Alexis glanced at Stella for permission.
"Alright," said Stella.
Alexis put the front of the barrier down. Diamondback stepped in, using his bulk to cover everyone behind him incase Machine Mind decided to double cross them. However, no such treachery occurred.
Diamondback took the case without issue from the drone and stepped back into the barrier.
"And now out you go. Through the elevators which I have graciously reactivated for you," said Machine Mind. "On the way, you are free to check up on your straggler friend."
"Let's hurry," said Tox, worried.
"NO!" A voice boomed through the cavern, filled with animalistic rage.
"Wh-what the hell is that!? Some kind of monster!?" said Falco, shaken.
"No…that's Ace!" said Tox, eyes wide and bright. She turned around to the source of the voice only for confusion to mar her happiness. "What…happened?"
Sometime prior –
Ace laid down in a pit of shattered earth, blood streaming from his mouth. Blood also trickled from his white eyes – a sign of him overusing his tactile telekinesis. Pain assailed every part of his body. He was sure he had fractured multiple bones all throughout his body, but thankfully, his undead body let him move.
"What a sorry sight." The clone floated above Ace, staring down at him with blank, bright white eyes. Machine Mind's voice echoed from the clone's head. "Look at you, my child. So weak, so…imperfect. To think there was once a time I thought you perfect. You, of all things. Just because you proved superior to your siblings."
Ace grit his teeth. Many of them were cracked. He floated back up out of his crater, lip quivering, eyes half closed in equal parts anguish and anger. His childhood returned to him –
His first memories. Waking up from a deep underwater slumber, coughing out thick amniotic fluid from his burning lungs as he desperately tried to adjust to oxygen. He was smaller, then, probably no bigger than a five year old child developmentally.
He floundered on cold, hard lab ground. Firm but gentle hands raised him up.
The hands of his brother. Square jawed and white haired – an exact image of what Ace would have looked like grown up.
"You're special, aren't you?"
"Yeah, special in the head. C'mon, stand up straight. Father doesn't tolerate weakness."
Memories lining up in a cold, sterile white room. Beside him were three of his brothers. One ten years old. Another fifteen. Another twenty. All of them stood in order of their age, forming a natural linear graph of heights and builds.
They held their balled fists to their sides, all of them trembling in exertion against a seemingly invisible force.
"Come now, exert your minds." Father's voice echoed through the room. "This is merely twenty tons of gravitational force. It should be nothing for specimens like yourselves. Push through the pain and the weakness, my children."