"What the hell?!" Norway interrupted, pointing into the southward sky. The others turned to look, just in time to see some flying object crash into the upper stories of one of the taller buildings across the square.
It was black, whatever it was, but apart from that, it was moving too fast for any of the observers to pick up any details. The object punched clean through the building it hit, hurtled down in an arc across the square, mowed down the remains of the subway station entrance on the corner, and plowed a deep furrow up the street, missing the Nutrition Lab by no more than a handful of yards. Chunks of pavement and rocks rained down. Wincing, Kaban crouched to shelter herself and Serval behind her backpack and helmet, while Norway and Blackie scrambled for cover, but none of them was hurt.
"Everyone OK?" Serval asked as the four of them emerged warily from cover.
"Think so," Norway said.
"I'm fine," said Blackie. "What the hell was that thing?"
"I don't know," Kaban replied, standing slowly up. Beside the Nutrition Lab, the dust was still settling over the fresh crater in the street, and nothing seemed to be moving down there.
Carefully, Kaban picked her way through the scattered chunks of concrete and asphalt to the edge of the crater, with Serval right by her side and the two rats following a hesitant few paces behind.
"Uh, that's probably dangerous—" Blackie said, but, as she reached the edge of the crater, Kaban gave a surprised cry and started down the slope. While Serval scrambled after her, Blackie and Norway halted at the edge to get a better look.
Lying at the bottom of the crater, surrounded by the broken stubs of severed utility lines and long-dry water pipes, lay—
"A Friend?" Norway said, baffled.
"Looks like one," Blackie agreed.
I have a message from another time...
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Part III: Whoever Fights Monsters
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
Philip Jeremy Moyer
© 2019 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
The figure lying crumpled at the bottom of the crater seemed to be, like them, a young woman with animal features, though neither of them could say what animal they represented. She was sturdily built and dressed all in black—turtleneck, frilled skirt, tall stompy boots—but her most immediately arresting features were the jagged plates on her back and her very long, powerful-looking black-scaled tail.
"Wow," Serval said. "I've never seen a Friend like her before. She's huge! And look at those things on her back! She reminds me of Hammerhead."
"She does, a bit," Kaban agreed. Crouching down by the mysterious figure's head, she bent to feel for a pulse. "Although you're right, she's a lot bigger than Hammy."
"What do you reckon, some kinda croc?" Norway wondered.
"Maybe," Blackie said. "I'm more concerned with what could have done this to her."
"Well, we're not gonna be able to ask her that, poor thing," Norway said, bowing her head sadly. "Rest in peace, unknown Friend."
Kaban looked up and shook her head. "She's alive."
"You're kidding. After that? Wow."
At that moment, the new arrival dispelled any doubt as to her survival by abruptly sitting up, shedding little bits of rubble as she did so and causing all four Friends to recoil in surprise.
"Oh! Be careful," said Kaban. "You could be badly hurt, you shouldn't move."
"Urrrgh," the mystery girl not-really-replied, dragging her hands down her face. Then, pausing, she looked through her fingers at Kaban. Her eyes were red, much brighter red than the two rat Friends', and the look in the one that was now fixed on Kaban was one of fathomless puzzlement. She lowered her hands from her face and looked at them, turning them over a couple of times, deeply confused.
"Uh... I'm... I'm Kaban," said Kaban hesitantly. "Can you... tell me who you are?"
"Uh?" the girl in black replied, peering at her again.
"Kaban," repeated Kaban, pointing at herself; then, pointing at the mystery girl, she asked, "You are?"
The unknown Friend waved a hand as if to say "not now, not now," pressing the other palm to her forehead, and got slowly, unsteadily to her feet.
"I think her mind's still back over there," Norway opined, slanting a thumb in the direction she'd flown in from.
Standing, the strange girl was even bigger than Serval had originally suspected. She towered over Kaban, whose head barely came up to her midsection. Kaban was not a particularly tall girl, true, but even so, Serval now gauged the newcomer's height to be at least seven feet, possibly closer to eight.
Still, for all her immense size and obvious power—she had, after all, just survived crashing through a building and falling from a substantial height, hitting the street so hard she punched a ten-foot-deep crater in it, and evidently without so much as a broken bone—she didn't seem particularly dangerous. She moved slowly, hesitantly, and though she was clearly confused and dismayed to find herself surrounded by four strangers, she wasn't reacting to them in any way aggressively.
Now she let Kaban lead her up out of the crater and sit her down on one of the bigger blocks of concrete near the Nutrition Lab entrance, to be looked over more carefully for injuries. Kaban could find none, apart from her continued disorientation and apparent muteness—after all she'd been through, her clothes weren't even torn—but told her to sit still and rest, anyway. If she couldn't speak, the newcomer at least seemed to understand when spoken to, for she nodded and stayed put, resting her head in her hands again.
"OK, so... now what?" Norway wondered as the four regrouped by the door.
"Well, we can't abandon her here," Serval said.
"No, you're right, we'll have to try to bring her with us," Kaban said. "She doesn't seem hostile, just confused. Maybe she'll recover if she has a chance to rest, and we can find out who she is and where she came from."
"I guess that makes sense," Blackie agreed. "In the state she's in now, she won't last long trying to fend for herself, even as tough as she seems to be." She cast an uneasy glance back along the stranger's flight path. "I don't like not knowing what was going on over there."
"I don't either," said Kaban. "I'll go see how Lucky Beast is doing. Blackie, can you guide us to the ferryboat when I get back?"
"Sure thing," Blackie told her, and Kaban went back into the lab.
"What are we going to call this one?" Norway asked. "'Hey you' seems inappropriate."
"Roadbuster?" Blackie suggested, with the first smile Kaban or Serval had seen from her.
"Hey, stranger, can you tell us your name?" Serval asked, leaning down next to the newcomer (who was nearly as tall as she was even seated).
The black-clad girl looked at her with a less dazed, but no less baffled, expression than she'd given Kaban. Then, slowly and with evident discomfort—as if she'd forgotten how her mouth worked—she said, "Go... ji?"
"Goji?" Serval replied, tilting her head. The stranger looked back at her for a few seconds, then slowly, hesitantly nodded. She didn't look entirely convinced by her own answer, but Serval figured it was the best she was going to do right now.
"OK, then," she said cheerfully. "We'll call you Goji-chan. I'm Serval, and this is Brown Rat and Black Rat. You already met Kaban. Don't worry—we'll look after you."
Kaban returned a few minutes later to report that the device was packed up and ready to go; they just had to figure out how they were going to carry it.
Between Serval, Norway, and Blackie, getting it out to the street wasn't much trouble; it weighed nearly a ton, but that wasn't too bad divided between three Friends. The problem was that the smooth black plastic case was plainly designed to be carried by some kind of machine, not three people working together. Getting it through the clean, level-floored corridors of the Nutrition Lab was one thing; maneuvering it in the rubble-strewn, pockmarked streets was going to be something else again.
"Goji-chan" sat on her block of concrete and watched with evident incomprehension as the three, with Kaban's well-meaning supervision, tried different holds and arrangements of themselves. Nothing seemed to be working, and Kaban had just about decided to go back inside and look for something she could make an improvised carry harness out of...
... when the black-clad stranger suddenly rose to her feet, walked over to them, and picked up the case, hefting it onto her shoulder like a person might carry a baulk of timber.
"... OK, that's one way to do it," Norway observed, sounding impressed.
"Uh... thank you?" Kaban said hesitantly.
"Thanks, Goji-chan!" said Serval brightly. "That's a real help! Are you sure you'll be OK carrying it?"
Goji-chan made certain of the case's balance on her shoulder, then nodded with an affirmative-sounding grunt.
"I guess she's decided she likes us," said Blackie. "That's a relief. OK, let's head out. The sooner I get you guys to the boat, the happier I'll be."
"Oh—just a second," Kaban told her. "Lucky Beast, will you please lock up the Lab?"
"Affirmative," Lucky Beast replied. After doing so, it returned to Kaban's side and announced, "I will accompany you to activate the ferry's systems and confirm your authorization. After that I must remain here. I am not programmed to operate outside the An'in Region."
"I understand. Thank you." Kaban knelt down, taking off her backpack, and tucked the little robot into it, then shouldered it again and stood. "Might as well save you some walking," she observed with a smile. "All right, Blackie, lead on."
It was late in the afternoon by the time they reached the ferry dock. There was no sign of foul weather; the sky, just beginning to darken toward evening, was perfectly clear apart from a few puffy white clouds—so clear that Kaban could see a glint of light on the horizon, which she realized after a moment was the afternoon sun flashing off the Sandstar crystals at the peak of the Great Mountain in the center of Kyōshū Island. Whatever the strange disturbance off to the south had been earlier, there was no sign of it now. Even the sea itself seemed unusually calm. The boat Black Rat had told them about was there at the pier, shabby with age but afloat and on an even keel.
"That's the same kind of boat as the one from back then," Serval observed.
Kaban nodded. "The Park must have used a standard type for all the inter-island ferries," she mused. "Hopefully this one still works too."
"Well, I guess it's goodbye for now," said Norway. "Good luck, you guys."
Blackie nodded agreement. "I hope you can get that thing to work when you get back to Kyōshū, for everyone's sake."
"Me too," Kaban said, nodding. "Thank you two for all of your help."
"It'll be fine," Serval assured them. "Between them, Kaban and Lucky can fix anything."
Kaban blushed slightly at the praise, but chose not to address it directly, instead asking Goji, "Do you want to come back with us to our island, Goji-chan? There are Friends there who might be able to help you more than we... can... what the?"
She trailed off in puzzlement and concern, her train of thought interrupted, as the sea along a nearby section of the waterfront suddenly began to bubble and churn. The water almost seemed to be boiling.
"Now what the hell?" Norway asked rhetorically.
A moment later she had her answer, as a huge shape erupted from beneath the surface and lunged, streaming water, up onto the cracked pavement of the embarcadero. It was so bizarre, so completely out of keeping with their experiences, that it momentarily defied classifications by the minds of its onlookers. Only after a few seconds' baffled terror did Kaban recognize it as a crab, but a colossal one—bigger than a Japari Bus, hundreds of times bigger than it should be.
And, she realized after a moment more's horrified contemplation, it seemed to be made of metal. Some kind of... machine?
"What the crap is that," Blackie demanded, as if expecting anyone else around her to know.
"I have no idea," Norway replied. "Doesn't look like any Cerulean I've ever seen. Or smell like one, either."
The enormous metal crab seemed to notice them then. It turned, its legs punching little divots in the street, and regarded them with eerily glowing green eyes, and then it did something even more terrifying: It spoke.
"Well, well, well," it said, its voice—strangely calm and mellow-sounding, coming from such a monstrous creature—sending a shiver of repressed mammalian panic up Kaban's spine.
"Oh great, it can talk too," Serval said, sounding not too far from panic herself.
"What have we here?" the crab went on.
"I think," said Blackie matter-of-factly, "we are in a lot of trouble now."
"Well, there's your bunch of hooey," Serval told Norway with a nervous giggle.
"I stand corrected."
"What do we do now?"
"I dunno about you," Norway said after a moment's thought, "but I plan to scream and run."
Through all of this byplay, while the other four all edged away from the monstrous crab, Goji-chan stood rooted to the spot, staring intently at the creature with the expression of someone who can almost, but not quite, remember something important. Even under these conditions, Kaban noticed the look, but didn't understand what could be causing it.
"Goji-chan?" she asked quietly. The taller girl's scarlet eyes flicked momentarily to her, and as they returned to the crab, Kaban was startled to see them abruptly lose their confused, vacant glaze and take on a look of concentrated intent.
"X," Goji murmured, her voice grating in her throat, and Kaban couldn't miss the undercurrent of loathing it carried.
Before she had a chance to reflect on that, though, the metal crab moved... but not to advance. Instead, it reared up and... changed, its parts rearranging themselves in a weird mechanical dance that left it in a completely different shape. When the process was finished, all of a second later, it loomed before them in the vague shape of a person—albeit a person made of metal, twenty feet tall, and bedecked with bizarre vestiges of its crab-like form.
"Ah, ah, ah," said the creature in a cheerfully mocking tone, wagging a finger at her.
Goji stood still a moment longer, as though facing off against the metal giant across the twenty or so yards that separated them, her body visibly quivering with tension. Then she abruptly dropped the food machine's travel case, scooped up all four Friends like so many sacks of laundry, and ran for it.
"You can outrun me, but you'll never outlast me," the creature's voice, back in its "pleasantly mocking" mode, called after them.
Goji ran flat-out for four blocks, until she came to a bus shelter that was still mostly intact. There she stopped, depositing her four passengers in a somewhat disorderly heap behind what little cover it offered.
"No—the machine!" Kaban cried, trying to get past her and go back. "We need that!"
"I couldn't get you four out of there fast enough carrying a ton of baggage," Goji told her, effortlessly holding her back with one arm. "Don't worry. X will ignore it. You can get it back when I'm finished with him."
"What—what—what the hell is that thing?" Norway panted.
"An experiment," Goji replied. "A mistake. One I've been assigned to correct." Turning away, she said, "You four stay here. He'll lose interest in you now that he's got me to deal with. If you stay low and don't draw attention to yourselves, you should be OK."
"Um... who are you?" Kaban wondered.
"My name's Shingoji. I'm with an agency you've never heard of, from a world you've never seen. But I'm on your side and I'll do what I can to protect you."
So saying, she straightened to her full height and walked away, heading back to intercept the approaching enemy.
"... OK, so, she's pretty cool," Blackie observed.
"Yeah," Serval agreed, and the four crouched behind their meager cover to watch.
"Ready for Round Two, X?" Goji asked as she came back within earshot of her quarry. Cracking her knuckles, she added, "I won't go so easy on you this time."
"Please," replied X in a chiding tone. "'X' is so impersonal, don't you think? Call me... Rampage."
"Uh-huh," said Goji, unimpressed; and with no further preliminaries, she leaped to the attack.
From her vantage point, Kaban realized two things in short order. One was that the freaky crab-robot-thing was even more powerful than its stature implied. In addition to enormous physical strength, it had weapons she didn't even have names for, weapons capable of laying waste to its surroundings. She understood now what had reduced so much of Renraku City to rubble; she was seeing the process continued, live and in person, right now.
The other was that Goji-chan, despite being significantly smaller, was even stronger than that. She was easily able to jump two or three times her own height, high enough that she was striking downward at Rampage's face. When she connected, the hulking robot was staggered as though he had been hit by someone his own size, or even larger.
Kaban had seen this kind of thing before. It was a thing that Friends who came from bigger animals could do—Friends like Hippo, Brown Bear, and African Bush Elephant. If they summoned their inner power, released their wild sides, they had all the presence and strength of their original forms in the bodies of Friends. If the same phenomenon was at work here, she reflected, Goji-chan's original form must have been very large indeed.
Both combatants had immense physical power and a tremendous capacity to absorb punishment without obvious injury. Beyond that, both seemed able to recover from any injuries their opponents did manage to inflict in unnaturally short spans of time. Between them, they managed to level more or less everything that had still been standing within a three-block radius of the point where the fight began, without seeming to have accomplished much of anything.
And yet, when the currents of their battle brought them back near enough for Kaban to get a good look, she realized that Goji-chan was taking the worst of the fight so far. They both recovered quickly, but damage to Rampage seemed to repair itself almost instantly, and as she steadied herself on a block of rubble and caught her breath, Goji was visibly bruised and bloodied.
Think, Kaban, think, she told herself. That monster has to have a weak point somewhere. Something Goji-chan can—wait, what's it doing?
For Rampage had paused in his advance up the street. Something had caught his eye, diverting his focus away from his adversary. For a moment, Goji was pleased; it gave her a moment longer to pull herself together, concentrate on the energy recovery techniques her mother and father had taught her, and stoke her internal fires for the next round.
Then, too late, she realized what had caught the beast's attention. Somewhere along the line, she hadn't noticed exactly when, the case she'd been carrying for Kaban and company had been knocked over in the melee. It lay over on its side with the lid sprung open, and in the early-evening shadows that now lined the wreckage-strewn street, the glow of its power source was plainly visible.
"What's this?" said Rampage, his green-lit optics going wide with surprise. "No. Can it be?" He bent and tore the cover the rest of the way off the case, throwing it carelessly aside, then drew back in astonishment. "It is!" he declared. Then, looking up, he gave Goji and her friends his hideous mechanical face's version of a smile.
"For three centuries I've been trying in vain to get my hands on this," he said, "and then you go and bring it to me. Why, I'm almost... touched."
"What the hell's it talking about?" Norway muttered.
"Search me," Blackie replied. "What does an insane death robot want with a machine that makes food?"
They were startled to discover that Rampage could hear them at that distance, because his next remark was clearly an answer to Blackie's rhetorical question:
"Oh, don't mistake my purpose, subcreature. I couldn't care less what the humans who once infested this planet were doing with the Hypercube."
And then, before anyone could react, he drove a hand through the machine's transparent case, seized the Sandstar crystal at its heart, and tore it out, reducing the rest of the equipment to tangled wreckage.
"No!" Kaban cried, bolting involuntarily to her feet. "Why?! Hundreds of people were counting on that machine—they need it to survive!"
Rampage arched a brow ridge. "Really?" he said, sounding genuinely interested. "How extraordinarily..." He trailed off, contemplating the glow of the crystal for a moment, then looked up with that twisted pseudo-smile on his face again and added cruelly, "... satisfying."
"I don't know why you want that crystal so bad, X," Goji said, her voice low and tightly restrained. "And I don't care. You're not leaving this place alive."
Rampage laughed. "Oh, my dear. You have no idea how many square-jawed little do-gooders have said that to me." A darker, more genuine smile. "They were all delicious."
Then, becoming mockingly brisk, he went on, "Now then. With the Hypercube procured, I have much to do, so let's wrap this up, shall we?"
So saying, he produced a colossal three-barreled cannon from somewhere, leveled it, and launched a volley of missiles—but not at Goji. His point of aim was instead several degrees to her left.
Both Kaban and Serval had stared oncoming extinction in the face before. Unfamiliar though they were with the weapon, they recognized its approach at once.
Serval reacted faster, with the finely-honed instincts of a non-apex predator—one optimized to strike, but also to flee, and to know when to do which. Catching Kaban around the waist with one arm, she felt her wild nature releasing within her as she prepared to make the greatest leap of her life. In the back of her mind, she regretted abandoning Norway and Blackie to fend for themselves, but in a situation like this, she knew they would understand. In extremis, every Friend for herself; that was the ancient law.
In her heart, she knew the effort was probably in vain, specifically because she was breaking that law. She might have been able to jump clear by herself, but carrying another person, she was unlikely to get far enough to escape. But to abandon Kaban and live on without her, with the knowledge that she had done so? No.
Better to go together.
As the moment elongated, she wondered abstractly whether there would be anything on the other side, and if they would be together there. That kind of thing had never crossed her mind before she met Kaban. Although a sapient being, she'd still had the mindset of a wild creature of the Savannah. No yesterday, no tomorrow, and certainly no eventual ending. Just the eternal moment called Now.
How weird, she thought, to think of that now...
As fast as Serval was, Goji was faster. Uttering a word none of the Friends had ever heard before, she flung herself headlong to the left, interposing herself between them and the incoming fire. Explosions blanketed that end of the street, engulfing the Friends' former cover in dust and smoke. The shockwave struck all four of them, sending them tumbling painfully away from the blast zone—but Goji's body intercepted the worst of it, including the bulk of the heat and all the shrapnel.
Thanks to that, Serval's desperate leap and the two rats' frantic scramble for better cover were not in vain; though knocked for a loop, none of the four was seriously hurt.
The same couldn't be said of Goji, who fell to her knees and toppled forward, smoke trailing from her shredded clothing. She caught herself, barely, from falling completely, but lay crumpled on elbows and knees, retching blood so hot it sizzled and steamed where it splattered to the pavement.
"Well, that was predictable," Rampage observed dryly as he advanced to stand in front of her. Reaching down with his free hand, he seized her by the neck and hauled her up, not just upright but completely off her feet, and held her face-to-face with himself.
"You realize, of course, that they're all going to die anyway," Rampage continued, his tone conversational. "In fact, I may wipe this entire planet clean of organic life before I leave it, just because the place has given me so much trouble." Pulling her a little closer, he inquired, "Does that frighten you? It should. After all, it means not only have you failed to destroy me, you were unable to prevent the extinction of an entire species." He levered her out to arm's length and began to close his hand, growling, "Take that knowledge with you to wherever you organics go."
Goji blinked, the fog in her scarlet eyes clearing, and bared jagged, bloody teeth in a shark-like snarl.
"You talk too much," she rasped, and then her long tail whipped up and around like a kusarigama's chain, smashing into the side of his head.
The blow was so powerful it actually broke Rampage's neck, momentarily interrupting all voluntary motor functions in his body. With a sound that was more electronic feedback than vocalization, he was flung like a ragdoll off to Goji's right, into the tangled remains of one of the buildings that had once lined this street. Released by the sudden slackening of his hand, she landed on her feet, but her legs wouldn't hold her; she crumpled again, to hands and knees this time.
With an almost musical sound, the cubical Energon crystal he had wrenched from the Friends' vital machine fell to the cracked pavement, about halfway between the two combatants.
Slowly, feeling herself starting to grey out again, Goji crawled toward it, inching painfully forward on legs like jelly. If she could reach it before Rampage recovered... but she could already hear him thrashing around and bellowing, pulling himself out of the rubble-filled basement she'd knocked him into.
Spirits damn that immortal Spark, she thought, and grimly applied herself to her task, as hopeless as it now appeared to be.
Kaban, still pulling herself together, wasn't sure exactly what Goji-chan was trying to do, or why reaching the Sandstar cube before Rampage would help her; but she knew a purposeful action when she saw it, and she could see that her strange friend needed a little more time. Just a little would probably do it, but how could Kaban buy her even that? With her own weak little body, and Serval out cold...
Ah! she thought, and turned to the two rats, who were making their way groggily toward her.
"Norway, do you remember telling me the buildings around here aren't very stable?" she asked.
"Uh-huh?" Norway replied, puzzled. "Not gonna lie, I don't see how that's important right now."
Kaban told her. As she did, a pair of slow smiles spread across the faces of Norway and Blackie.
"Leave it to us," Blackie said, and the two of them disappeared into the ruins.
With a snarl of triumph, crab-mode Rampage pulled himself free of the last of the rubble and placed a foot on solid ground, then another, and another. His opponent was still down; she seemed to be trying to crawl to the Hypercube, for all the good it would do her. Now that he was free, he could easily beat her to it. He thought he would let her get within arm's reach and then crush the life out of her, just to prove a point. And then he would deal with her little frien—what?
At almost the same moment, the leaning shells of the tower blocks to either side of the hole he'd just dragged himself out of cracked, shifted, and fell together, shattering into great slabs and chunks overhead. Rampage bellowed with rage and consternation as the wreckage rained down, knocked him back into the hole, and re-buried him in fresh kilotons of broken duracrete.
In what had been the basement of one of the fallen blocks, Black Rat grinned a nasty grin, sparkles of expended Sandstar flickering from her incisors, and patted the freshly-gnawed-off support column in front of her.
"Never corner a rat," she remarked, then turned and flitted back into the shadows.
The respite was short-lived. This time, the rubble burying Rampage exploded, blasted apart from within by salvos from his heavy weapons. When he reared up out of the basement hole again, it was in yet a third form, that of a weird armored vehicle with that giant three-barrelled cannon on the front of it. He had done himself some damage, unleashing all that heavy ordnance in a confined space, but he didn't care. He was at such a pitch of rage right now, his body felt nothing.
"I may have to allocate more time than planned to making you all suffer," he observed, pivoting to train the massive cannon on Goji—only to discover, to his momentary dismay, that she had reached the Hypercube in the time it had taken him to extricate himself a second time.
The dismay passed quickly, though, because it was such an obviously empty gesture. She had no way of employing it as a weapon, and it wasn't as though she could try to escape with it; she couldn't even stand up, let alone pick up the cube and run.
All the same, she had obviously suffered greatly to reach it; the hand she now reached out and placed atop it was trembling with effort and pain, and she leaned on it for a moment, panting.
Chuckling darkly, Rampage returned to robot mode, cannon in hand, and theatrically cricked his repaired neck as he strolled unhurriedly toward her. "And what," he inquired mock-pleasantly, "were you planning to do with that?"
Goji slowly, painfully raised her head to look him in the eye.
"You never studied," she said; and then, closing the hand atop the Hypercube into a fist, she raised it, gathered all her remaining strength, and smashed it.
"What?!" Rampage blurted, drawing back in utter disbelief, as what had been the most perfect naturally-formed Energon tesseract he had ever seen in his life was reduced to a meaningless clutter of tiny cubes. From a four-dimensional source of limitless energy to a mere few kilograms of ordinary crystalline Energon, priceless to pedestrian, in an instant. He was so horrifed, so... so outraged by the sheer effrontery of the gesture that, for once in his warped and miserable existence, he was rendered utterly speechless.
What Goji did next was even stranger. Still hunched over the shattered remains of the Hypercube, she scooped up a big handful of the little cubes, gazed into their light for a moment...
... and then stuffed them into her mouth.
Crunch, and the same multichromate glow began to flicker and shine through the jagged slits and tears in her black clothing. It shone out of rows of gill-like slots or fissures in the black-armored hide of her tail as well, as though her very flesh were illuminated from within.
Crunch, and sparkling motes of Energon overspill—the Friends perceived it as Sandstar in the process of being expended—filled the air around her.
Slowly, she began to rise, climbing to her feet from her pain-wracked crouch.
Crunch, and the Energon glow reached her eyes as she straightened to her full height.
Her face set in a furious snarl, Goji looked Rampage straight in the eye, crunched the Energon between her jagged teeth one last time, and swallowed. The radiance shining from within her brightened still further, then began arcing like electricity among the plates on her back.
Order: Daikaijū | Family: Metasauridae | Genus: Gojirasaurus
His mind all but blank with a mix of rage and a most unfamiliar sensation he did not immediately recognize as terror, Rampage shifted back to crab mode and waded in, determined to crush the life from this wretched creature with his bare claws. So she could absorb Energon somehow. No matter! He still had the advantages in mass and physical power, and he would—
Goji met his charge, caught both his claws with her bare hands, and halted him as if he'd crashed into a full-power force barrier. For a few moments, they stood locked together, each exerting their full power, face to face.
"Do you know Nietzsche?" Goji inquired through gritted teeth. "'Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.'" She chuckled darkly. "Well, I was already a monster, and now I'm going to show you how the Nakajima do things downtown, you crab-faced son of a bitch."
With that, she flexed her knees, got herself under Rampage's claws, and thrust upward with all the power in her legs. Flung up and over backward, Rampage skidded a good twenty yards up the street before he managed to shift to robot mode and halt himself, tumbling over and coming up facing her.
"Die, die, die, die!" he bellowed, unleashing his full arsenal. Shells from his cannon, energy blasts, artificial lightning all lashed at Goji, momentarily obscuring her from view in a cloud of boiling grey-black smoke.
His weapon power expended for the moment, Rampage ceased fire and stood, peering into the smoke, ignoring the chiding of his status computer and scanning for the proof that his all-out bombardment had done for his foe.
Instead, something moved in the cloud of smoke—a flicker of light—
Goji emerged from the cloud, wisps of smoke trailing from the glowing rents in her clothes. There was something vaguely bestial about her carriage now: her powerful legs slightly crouched, back slightly hunched, arms bent at the elbows with hands held straight out in front of her, palms up, fingers bent like claws. Her eyes were shining like torches with the Sandstar's light.
She took two strides toward Rampage, stopped, threw back her shoulders, and raised her face to the sky, her mouth swinging open. From here, too, rainbow light poured out like the glow from an opened furnace—and with it came a thunderous roar, at once guttural and yet slightly shrill. It was a sound that somehow combined an animal's rage with the shriek of tortured metal, and seemed much too large to have come from anything as small as a humanoid woman.
Her challenge issued, Goji lowered her head and charged, making for him at a dead sprint, the soles of her heavy boots throwing up clods of broken ground. Rampage set himself to meet her charge, but before he could finish shunting all remaining power to his linear actuators, she was upon him. Her fists seemed to strike like explosions now, blasting out chunks of his armor plating. She smashed his defense like a plate-glass window, finishing up with a punch to the center of his chest that caved in his plastron and sent him skidding back still farther.
Howling with fury and fear, Rampage produced his final hold-out weapon, an Energon blade, and mounted a countercharge. She met it with an air of contempt, letting the blade go past her, then trapped and disjointed his arm before whirling into a complex throw that finished with another spinning tail slap. By this point she had propelled him nearly half a mile from where their fight had begun.
Rampage dragged himself to his feet once more, struggling to regain control of himself. At this point it was obvious that he had to get out of here. In the state she was in now, with all that Energon somehow coursing through her, there was no way he could win this fight. His reserves were gone. He had to regroup, recharge, regenerate.
Just before he would have turned and dived into the sea, though, he spotted the little pink-and-red figure of that human, just barely in sight amid the rubble back by the battle's origin point.
He had one missile left, if he could get the launcher back online. That would be a fitting parting gift. It would spin a defeat into a draw, if not a tactical victory, and leave his foes with a bitter reminder that no one defied Rampage and came away unscathed.
"What in the universe are you?!" he demanded, partly to buy his weapon repair system time, and partly out of genuine incredulity.
Goji took a few more measured strides toward him, the nimbus of Energon light around her still brightening—its colors beginning to deepen. When she was just far enough away that she wouldn't have to shout, she stopped and told him in a low, even voice,
"I am Nakajima Shingoji. Daughter of Gojira the Hunter—the Beast of Cold Fire—and of Mosura the Wise, Herald of Storms. I am the Black Huntress. The Beast Who Hunts Beasts. And today is the day I end you, X."
As she spoke, the light shining from Goji's torn clothes and crackling around her spinal plates changed, brightening still further and shifting from the rainbow hues of Sandstar to an eerie, otherworldly violet. Her glowing eyes, staring coldly at him, suddenly went completely black—the closure, although Rampage didn't realize it, of protective third eyelids. She opened her mouth again, her jaw swinging uncannily wide, and breathed out a great gout of black smoke. Heavier than air, it poured onto the ground in front of her and rolled forward in an oily cloud, reaching Rampage in moments and roiling around his legs.
A moment later, as if sparked somewhere deep within her, the smoke ignited, becoming an incandescent torrent of fire. The flame front raced up the cloud, exploding everything around Rampage and engulfing him in flames, its shock wave blowing the remains of the facades off nearby buildings.
Rampage began to laugh. This display was very dramatic, but no mere fire was going to pose a threat to him, however explosive it might be. A meaningless light show! Nothing more!
His launcher came back online. Savoring the moment, he raised the weapon and targeted the human.
"Too little, my dear, and too—" he began.
The stream of fire still issuing from Goji's mouth narrowed and brightened, like the flame of an acetylene torch as the operator fine-tunes the oxygen feed, until it coalesced into a finger-thick beam of concentrated violet light. This raved across the distance between them with a sound like a razor across glass, striking Rampage square in the center of his fractured plastron. Instinctively, he threw aside his weapon and raised his hands as if to protect himself, but the plasma beam took only moments to eat through his armor and impale his supposedly immortal Spark.
The irony of it all was the last thing to register on his consciousness, and his hysterical laughter was drowned out by the shattering explosion of his twisted essence unraveling. The blast flattened everything for blocks around, reduced Rampage's shell to atoms, and could clearly be heard—although not comprehended—as far away as the Japari Library.
Just beyond the edge of the blast zone, Goji closed her sparking, fizzling jaws on the last of the violet glow, stood regarding the burning crater for a few moments, then turned away.
"Nakajima to Steelhaven," she said, raising a hand to her ear. "Mission accomplished. X is down. No need for the containment protocol—Spark death confirmed, I repeat, Spark death confirmed."
"I saw the plasma spike from here," the voice of her mission coordinator replied on her comm implant. "Good job. Give me a vector for pickup and let's get out of here."
"Negative," Goji said. "I've made a mess here. I'm going to see what I can do to help clean it up. This is a UCS, so stay out of sight for the time being."
After a moment's pause to take that news on board, her handler replied, "Roger, understand. Call if you need me. Steelhaven out."
Lowering her hand, she stood for a moment in thought, then started walking with heavy tread back toward her friends.
to be continued in Part IV: Homecoming
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
Features Future Imperfect
Friends Like These: From the Chronicles of Japari Park
Part III: Whoever Fights Monsters
by Benjamin D. Hutchins
with Philip Jeremy Moyer
with the gracious aid of
The EPU Usual Suspects
Philip Jeremy Moyer
(in order of appearance)
Based on Kemono Friends created by
Kaban created by
title banner made using
Kemono Friends Title Generator
Shingoji Nakajima inspired by
Shin Gojira (by Toho), by way of
the fan comic Shingoji-chan by Kishida Shiki
E P U (colour) 2019