Asterion – Chapter One

Well, the US may not be ready for it’s first woman president, but we are all ready for the best team of all (well, mostly) female nerds who fight science-y crimes and have adventures since… well, since the last one of these.  Here they are still cleaning up a bit after the first novel (which you should definitely get because it’s good).

Asterion – Chapter One

An old shopping cart lay on its side in the middle of the woods, rusted and overgrown with moss like the Earth was trying to swallow it back inside.  Jennifer happened upon it at twilight, hating it when people dumped their junk in the forest like that, although she wondered what the story was.  How had it come to be here?  Maybe some children or teenagers had stolen it to play with, one of them riding inside while the others pushed.  That seemed quite likely.  But maybe there was some evidence she was missing because it had corroded first or been carried away by something else.  Maybe someone, in some desperate situation, needed to take something into the forest to hide and bury it and the trolley was the first thing they found to transport it.  Occam’s Razor suggested the former explanation to be most likely as it required making the fewest assumptions, but she would probably have to accept that she would never really know the true story as it had happened so long ago.  It was still interesting to speculate.

It was interrupted by playful laughter.  Children, she thought.  Not something one expected to hear this deep into the woods at this hour.  She had been a somewhat adventurous child, but usually tried to be home before dark.  Usually.  Now she thought that if any children were lost out here they’d either be crying or being as quiet as possible so as not to draw the attention of any monsters, as she was now.  Instead they were laughing, and so she turned and walked very stiffly toward the source of the noise, treading carefully so as not to snap any twigs.

Jen pushed aside some branches which didn’t give way too easily, slightly ripping and pricking at her clothes and skin.  She made it through, finding herself in a clearing with four kids.  All of them looked to be about ten years of age, not noticing the adult at first as they were too busy chasing each other round and round the circle.

The fair young woman took a tentative, holding up her palms as she stuttered a greeting.  “Um, h-hi.  I…” suddenly all eight eyes snapped on her from underneath their pointed brows.  Her heart and body jumped in opposite directions as she thrust her hands out.  “O-oh-kay…  T-that’s… I… I don’t want to hurt you.  I just…” but before she finished explaining they all took off with surprising speed, disappearing through black portals into the woods.

Jen took a few steps after them, but in the few seconds that allowed her to think realised they were too fast.  There was no way she would catch up.  Something else caught her eye.  She slowly turned her head and body around, scanning the ground.  She stood inside a circle.  A Fairy Circle.

She was quite used to seeing them during rambles around her home.  Fungal spores below the ground grew out from a central point waiting for the right time to sprout.  In the past people believed they were portals to the fairy realm and that standing inside them at the right time would allow you to glimpse the hidden people.  All the grass inside this circle was dead and withered, possibly starved of nutrients by the fungal growth.  But there was something else that was odd.  She knelt closer, seeing that the mushrooms were not like any species normally seen around here.  They seemed to be glowing.

“Magic Mushrooms?”

Jen jumped back again as the voice reached her ear.  She found herself briefly eye to eye with a blue haired woman wearing a ‘Rock’ t-shirt.

“I had some once at a festival,” Kaya said.  “Left the festival soon after because I thought US Navy dolphins were stalking me.”

Indeed, it was easily understood why peoples often associated things like this with the spiritual and supernatural.  “Well,” Jen said, “I honestly don’t know what would happen if you ate these.  So, probably best not.”  These were synthetic fungi, created by Stag Corp.  She had come across them before in the lab and outside, although they didn’t seem to have spread too far yet.  It was mildly disconcerting to find them here although it was honestly the least of her worries right now.

“No argument here.  They might look cute at Sea World jumping through hoops, but through puddles and mirrors holding red rocket launchers…”

Jen shushed her friend.  “You hear that?”

They stood in the circle, listening.  They couldn’t hear any laughter but there were whispers like running water coming from all around.  Kay looked at her phone, but the screen was blank.  She pursed her lips, “Shhhi…”

It was some kind of electro-magnetic dampening field.  Disabled phones, lights, cameras and any other electronic device.  They really didn’t want their picture taken, but it meant they were close.  As the whispers grew louder, Jen reached into her pack and heaved out some hefty goggles that covered half her face.  These were insulated from the effect, but even able to see a far broader spectrum they were hard to spot.  High in the branches her green lenses focused on a roughly man sized shimmer…

It suddenly shot in size, Jen instinctively shoving her friend out of the circle just before an invisible force smashed into the ground blowing them both back.  Jen yelped as her shoulder struck a tree, slumping down as through her wincing, watered eyes she saw the bark skinned creature remove its shroud.  Its bright eyed gaze fell on Jen and she immediately scrambled for anything to protect, her hands grasping and swinging it upwards as the creature took a stride toward her.  It felt like she just hit stone, the shock and vibration hurting her more than it did the creature that just caught her branch in its hand, tossing it aside and then pinning her to the tree by her throat.  It then slowly, purposefully raised its other hand, fingers poised to take her eyes.

Jen had another trick up her sleeve.  Or, more specifically, a cattle prod which like her goggles she had modified to resist the effect of the dampening field.  The creature released her and staggered, the sudden surge in power causing ripples across the chitinous armour as it phased in and out.  Before it could orient itself, Kay jumped up behind and finding a soft spot in the neck stabbed it with a needle.  It howled, collapsing to the ground and convulsing several times before finally lying still.

“You okay?” Kaya asked.  Jen was on her arms and knees massaging her throat.

“It’ll be soup for dinner,” she wheezed, “but otherwise… help me get his mask off.”

The mask was held by a sticky, fibrous membrane and once removed the creature beneath it appeared to just be a young man.  Jen checked his breathing.  “He’s alive,” she said.  “We… we have to remove all his armour.”

Kaya shrugged.  “So we knocked him out, and now we’re going to strip him and tie him up?”

“W-we don’t have a choice,” Jen answered, blushing slightly. “Once the retro-virus has done its work he’ll be human again, mostly, and prolonged exposure to this will be toxic.”

“Will he remember anything?”

“Unclear.  Some do, some don’t…”

“So, maybe he’ll just wake up thinking he must have had a great night,” although it was obvious from how Kay regarded him that she did not consider this man a mere innocent caught up in things beyond his understanding.  “Thing is, Titania’s not in their heads controlling anything anymore, but this lot were still hunting.”

“I guess they just don’t know how to be anything else,” Jen suggested.  She would have been prepared to offer a choice whether to administer the retro-virus, but this group had made theirs.  She couldn’t allow them to carry on causing harm.  Once her work was done she could leave it to the normal authorities to punish or rehabilitate them.  “Try the radio.”

The radio was also in the backpack, a hefty cold-era device as was much of the equipment Jen had acquired to help fight the changelings.  All that paranoia about the end of world was finally paying off in a small way.  Kaya put it to her ear.  “Dibbles?”

After a moment Sergeant Delainy answered.  “What is it Cade?”

“Nice to hear you too.  While you’ve been enjoying your coffee and doughnuts, we got one of those changelings.”

“One?”

“Yeah… one,” Kaya deflated, their achievement suddenly seeming less impressive.  “But I mean, one’s pretty good, considering…”

“Just stay where you are.  We’ll have backup there shortly.”

“We still have to find those kids,” Jennifer reminded them.  “If they’re remaining true to form, they’ll likely be held up underground in a tunnel or cave.”

*****

But not all of them were.  Up above a second bark skinned creature watched the two women, waiting until they let their guard down before it struck.  It would make it quick, not toy with them like his former comrade.  But plans change, and suddenly he sensed the presence of another very close by.  The changeling looked to an adjacent tree where a girl with black hair and eyes perched on the tip of a branch watching him.

“All this stalker shit is kind of creepy,” Tenley said.

The changeling’s voice was like a loud rasping through the mask.  “Traitor…

“Well, technically I never actually promised Titania I would help her after…”

“After you had your revenge?”

The girl frowned.  “After she was done using me.  Now she’s gone,” Tenley raised a metal staff to point at the creature, “you had a choice as well.  You made the wrong one.”

“What was it like?”

“What?!” Ten frowned even more.

“To take life.  Did you feel powerful?”

No, she could answer honestly.  Cold.  It felt cold.  Everything since her mother’s death had felt like a dream or video game.  Just something she had to get through and complete.  She never thought much about it, or what to do when it was all done.  “Are you just going to yap?” She sighed.

“My choice… is to be what I am…” he finished abruptly and leapt at her.

Tenley deflected the initial blow with her staff and he proceeded to chase her, twisting around the branches toward the ground.  Although both combatants were phenomenally strong and fast, the girl was of course much smaller and not wearing armour.  Although the staff made up for her reach, Tenley really just had to keep avoiding and deflecting his blows until the right opportunity arose.

Finally they jumped off the branches, Ten landing on the ground in a crouch, the changeling falling after her.  She raised her staff to block his fist, but this time it broke in two and she had to leap backwards.  The changeling instantly leapt after, and once again she sprang backwards.  His bound was farther, striking her in mid-air with a clothesline.  Ten fell on her back, grimacing as pain exploded from her chest.  But now he was close.  As he was about to stamp on her, she rolled to the side and shot underneath him, catching his shin and knee in a scissors between her legs and toppling him.  It was then a simple matter to jam the needle in the soft spot between the armour plates.

As the retro-virus began to spread, Tenley stood and staggered back.  Then straightening herself, she snorted, “not anymore.”

*****

Sure enough, there was a cave nearby.  Jennifer and Kaya entered the mouth of it, and it was soon like they had entered another world.  More of the luminescent fungus grew down here but to enormous sizes.  Some large enough that they could lie on them.  They came across some kind of caterpillar-like creature excreting silky thread which Jen tested and couldn’t pull apart.  They probably used it to make their own clothing, or under suits for the armour they wore.  Speaking of which, in one corner was a pool filled with crystals.  Jen knew that Titania used sound, singing, to get it to grow into a variety of shapes.

Kaya broke a piece off one of the giant mushrooms, sniffing it out of curiosity.  “These things still freak me out.  We’re going to have to burn all this, right?”

To stop it spreading further into the natural ecosystem, Jen nodded.  “Yes,” although she felt a tinge of regret.

“Hey… you okay?”

Jen inhaled as if she needed extra energy to sort her thoughts.  “It’s just… this was my father’s work.  And now I have to destroy it.”

“It was Alvin Stag’s work too.  That beard faced rambling lunatic wanted to be god and pressured folks to do all this before they even knew what they were doing.  So I guess what I’m saying is you’ve no choice.  Your dad would understand.  I’m sure he’d probably be proud.”

She supposed it wouldn’t all be a waste.  People like Doctor Sarkis would eventually figure out ways to use this technology responsibly and to save many more lives than had been lost by Alvin Stag’s impatience.  So Jen smiled.  “Thanks.  I don’t think the cave goes much further.”

“What are we going to do with these kids when we find them?”

“I don’t know.  Just be careful.  Remember each one of them is as strong as…” Jen finished as they entered the final cavern.  The children were there, all of them just sleeping peacefully it seemed.  And a fifth child had joined them, sat up on a rock slowly swinging her legs.

“What kept you two?” Tenley asked.

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