Fern inhaled with sharp silence through reddening teeth. His vision blurred around the edges, but a heavy magma was rising through the fizzy screen inside his temples. He was solely focused on China Pot, now only ten feet from him.
“Oh, I remember you,” she said in an almost cheerful tone.
Red Rose looked at Al, who shrugged.
A black laugh left Fern’s lips, “I’m honored.” He began walking diagonally towards her, leaving Blackout and C.K. in their places. “I couldn’t wait to see you again.”
C.K. eyed the cameras and made a move towards Al.
Blackout tried to grab his shirt, but C.K. ignored him.
“I’m not letting you any closer to these poor animals,” Al projected to the cameras. He retrieved a bright blue vial from his purple backpack.
“I don’t think you have a choice,” C.K. responded. Then he swiped his hand across his tablet. Instantly a hundred small drones crawled from the storm drains and gutters to grab Al’s feet and carry him back towards the left side of the pound, squarely in front of one camera crew.
Al stumbled and shook the green, four-legged drones from his feet. “I see you’ve got some…new friends,” he smiled. He threw the vial to the ground, but the drones caught it before it smashed into the pavement. They scurried the vial to the back of their ranks, forming a swaying green carpet that stirred just outside of Al’s reach.
They were working perfectly this time, C.K. thought. As long as he could keep them together if they stacked, he was certain he could win. That’s when he saw Al slip the straps of his backpack around his shoulders so that it was sitting on his front, accentuating his belly.
“I wouldn’t get too cocky,” he said while unzipping the bag’s main pouch. He produced two large, purple rubber gloves, deftly slipping his hands into each of them.
C.K. danced his fingers on his screen and the drones chattered into three groups.
Al now reached into the side pockets of the pack and clicked two vials into special slots in the wrists of the gloves. His fingertips twinkled, “Ready when you are.”
Right up the street Blackout was having emotional issues. Red Rose was gliding towards him from what seemed two different directions, and that wasn’t because he was high, either. The movements were so fast and fluid they ran together and shifted apart like waves.
“I don’t think I know your name,” Rose said casually in the approach.
“Uh, Blackout,” he answered. “Red Rose, right?”
A subtle nod.
He proceeded cautiously, “I usually think of flower names as, uh, for girls…”
“Think whatever you’d like about my name, Blackout,” Rose said. Only 5 feet separated them now. “I’m just here to ensure you think twice about hurting animals from now on.”
Damn, thought Blackout, she was good with the banter, too. Or maybe “he.” Yeah, he was sticking with “he.”
Before he was too conflicted Rose threw a fine piece of the red fabric in front of his eyes and, somehow, his feet were now parallel with the street. While still suspended in mid-air, he felt a hard heel crash into his stomach and send him straight to the ground, gaping for oxygen.
Red Rose pouted down at him, “Is the big boy ready for nap time so soon?”
The first breath Blackout was able to take smelled so lovely he wanted to drink it. He saw black dots fly across his vision in dull alarm. He hastily grasped for Rose’s foot but was handily avoided. He couldn’t even touch the red material swaying tantalizingly before him.
Fern saw none of this. He was singly focused on China Pot, languidly stepping in her direction as she backed away at the same pace.
“Don’t make me hurt you, again,” she breathed.
Another laugh from Fern. “You’re not cut out for this.” His next step he took at an angle to carve a careful circle around her. “You should have disappeared when you had the chance.” His anger had morphed into a hot anticipation when he saw the fear in China Pot’s eyes. He nonchalantly heated the asphalt behind her to make it too risky to run on, then cut his circle closer. One camera was shooting the scene through the fiery glaze half a block away.
“You don’t know me,” she shot back. Her skin glossed and she put her hands up to fight. “I chose this job for a reason.”
Fern stopped in his place in the street to evaluate his surroundings, nodded, then flamed all the asphalt on the street between them. His mouth was almost watering with the sweetness of the plan cooking in his head.
China Pot retreated to the concrete.
“Nice move,” he said. “That is harder to melt,” he pushed his lips out. “But I wonder: are you here to fight,” he opened his arms in invitation, “or here to save the little puppies?” With that he blasted in the direction of the pound and sent sparks everywhere.
Everyone glanced back to where Fern was standing, slack hand still raised to fire again.
Immediately China Pot threw herself in his path.
Fern shot once more, but China Pot dispersed the attack with her fist.
C.K. returned to Al, who had used the distraction to place his left hand on the pavement. Yellow bubbles rose from the ground as he dragged his glove in a semi-circle around him.
The group of drones closest to Al’s right side jumped to attack, but bounced off the quickly hardening formation. C.K. then sent them around to flank Al, but he had put his other glove to the street and a sinkhole opened in seconds, throwing that group of drones into the gutter below. He put his left hand on the edge of the hole and sealed it along with the drones scraping around inside.
C.K. narrowed his eyes, thinking. He hovered his hand over his tablet.
That’s when he glimpsed three vials being hurled in a high arc over the created embankment separating him and Al. With a few strokes on the screen, the drones scattered to catch the vials. But when they did, an orange smoke leaked through the corroding glass, anyway. C.K. retreated to a safe distance. He was then forced to watch as the orange smog spread and caked itself onto his drones. It seeped into their joints and jammed their circuits.
Two thirds of his army now lay helplessly twitching on the ground.
Al appeared from his enclave by melting it with his right glove.
His gloating grin officially pissed C.K. off.
Blackout didn’t have time to be angry. The last two minutes of his life were spent exclusively focused on picking himself up off the pavement, each time nursing his pain and pride. Wiping the blood from his lip on the back of his fist, he lifted his head again.
One hand across their abdomen and their chin perched on the other, they looked at Blackout almost pitifully.
“Sorry,” said Blackout. “But it takes me a while to get warmed up.” He had stopped with the chivalry nonsense after the first flurry. Now he honestly didn’t know how he was ever going to lay a hand on Rose at all.
Rose responded with a warm smile, “Oh, not a problem.” They started towards Blackout again, in the same rosy-wave pattern as the other 4 times.
But Blackout was ready, or so he thought. He stood up straight with his elbows tucked to protect his fractured ribs. He opened his eyes as wide as he could, determined to see through Rose’s attacks. All he needed was one opening.
The first hit buckled his left knee. When he put his arm down to catch himself, a flash of crimson under his chin stood him back up before doubling him over. His jaw hung loose, like it had become unhinged.
Red Rose pulled their fist from Blackout’s abdomen. And found they couldn’t. Another blow to Blackout’s temple, but it seemed weak and disoriented to them. Not the surgical precision they prided themselves on.
“What are you—” they asked Blackout in an alarmed tone.
Blackout gripped Rose’s arm with both of his through the thin, red fabric, all the while clawing desperately for the raw skin underneath. He looked at them—lips fat and bloody, eye swollen, nose dripping blood—and managed to grin. “Shh,” he said. “You’re just gonna have a little nap now.”
Another left cross from Rose fell loosely against Blackout’s face. His grip was tightening around their wrist and dragging them raggedly into a dark, humid tunnel. They fell backwards.
Blackout laid them gently on the pavement. He wanted to let out a deep, deep sigh, but his cracked ribs sent a bolt of pain straight through his entire body. His vision traced a blurry line to the camera, so he stiffened his back, raised his chin, and trudged towards the pound with all the vigor of a zombie.
Fifteen feet up the street to his right, Fern was haphazardly throwing fireballs at China Pot.
Her sleeves were completely gone, blemishing the creamy ceramic on her arms with smoky stains. She tried to push through the flames to make a run at Fern, but her soles stuck to the over-heated asphalt. She was completely trapped.
“Oh, I can fix that for you,” offered Fern. He blasted her feet with a stream of fire until she was barefoot on the street.
China Pot set her jaw and leered at Fern, “You’re going to regret that.”
Pausing his volley, Fern tilted his head to one side in feigned contemplation.
China Pot seized the opportunity to charge him. She dug her toes into the soft asphalt and launched her entire body in his direction.
Fern stood there in the same pose, completely unconcerned.
Within two steps she was off balance—it was like running in quicksand. She caught herself on her hands and continued stumbling in his direction, set on knocking all of his teeth from his head.
He watched her desperate crawl to him with a lightheaded glee. Maybe he should let her get one shot in. That way it didn’t look like he was bullying her.
China Pot balled her small fist and raised her hand to strike.
Fern unfolded his arms. She had to be planning more than this.
Just before her arm reached Fern, she transformed her fist into a small wrecking ball.
He barely had time to dodge to her left, and now she was standing on solid ground. A swift roundhouse kick with a broadsword for a leg glanced across his chest, ripping into his red leather jacket and only narrowly missing his body.
Fern didn’t let her strike again. One explosion at her ankle and a fireball to her face staggered her backwards. She lost her footing in the soft asphalt and landed on her bottom. That didn’t stop Fern from barraging her with flames once she fell, though.
She covered her face with her hands, but the heat was too intense. She could smell her hair burning. Forming two large saucers with her palms, she attempted to get up, only to be rattled back down by the shaking ground.
Then it shook again, like a giant fist was pounding on a door.
Fern searched for the source of the disturbance.
Fifteen feet diagonally in front of him C.K. grasped his tablet with both hands. A minute before two green sliders had appeared on opposite corners of the screen, and C.K. mashed his thumbs into them and slid down.
Al threw his arms out to steady himself.
“I wanted to save this for another time,” he said. The street behind Al cracked where he had previously sealed it, “But I guess you’ll do for a test run.”
A hail of debris sprayed into the sky. Out jumped a mech that landed surprisingly lightly on the street, directly in front of C.K. It was about 7 feet tall and stood upright facing Al.
“I see they fit together pretty well,” said Al in a congratulatory tone. He wiggled his purple fingers in anticipation, “I always loved breaking Leggos apart.”
A control set of tiny dials with bright orange numbers and green switches materialized onto C.K.’s screen. With a few clicks, the composite drone’s eyes glowed green, then it bent down to all fours and dashed directly at Al with feral speed.
Al swiped his hand along the concrete to make another barrier.
The mech instantly responded by leaping two stories high onto a building wall to Al’s right and launched itself directly at him.
Al rolled out of the way as the mech blazed past him at dazzling speed before digging its four legs into the asphalt to stop itself. When he lifted his chin it was already poised for another pass. Biting his bottom lip, Al pressed the fingers of his left and right hands together as the mech charged his position. A pale light burst from his fingertips, striking the green giant over its left side. Two limbs immediately grew grotesque bubbles a second before melting onto the ground in a green paste.
The mech slid across the pavement for several feet, but C.K. was already at work. While the drone slid it rearranged its makeup to replace the limbs, sacrificing two feet of height, and slammed its front legs into the pavement to right itself with a slick handspring.
Al rushed it. He had thrown his right glove down and produced his last orange vial from his front-pack, which he tossed at the recently recovered mech’s feet.
C.K. saw this and slid his thumb down the screen in response. The mech collapsed into the tiny drones, half of which formed a wall and absorbed the orange smog that jammed their joints and shorted their circuits. The other half reformed, now standing only three feet high, and leaped at a waiting Al-Chemy.
It latched onto Al’s torso. He promptly slid his left glove across its frame, paying special attention not to touch himself. The mech began dissolving from his stained lab coat, almost as if he was putting down a beloved pet.
C.K. drew his index finger in a short line to the center of the screen, and a small drone appeared from the storm drain two feet from Al’s ankles, carrying the bright blue vial Al had tossed at him first.
Al’s eyes grew wide. He glanced back over to C.K. in terror, “No—Wait!”
Silver light engulfed the block.
C.K. shielded his eyes. When he peeked out from behind his fingers Al and everything within a 10 foot radius of him was covered in a pink, marshmallowy film.
Al carefully parted his lips to breathe. He took off his glasses, painted perfectly pink now, and turned towards the cameraman who was, unfortunately, within range of the blast, now trying in desperate futility to clean his lens, which only swirled the sticky substance in endless circles.
C.K.’s face was a bit troubled, teeth showing through a prolonged inhale.
But Al checked his rose fro and simply nodded in C.K.’s direction.
C.K. nodded back. He looked over his shoulder to find Blackout limping towards him.
“Jesus,” C.K. said in reference to Blackout’s battered appearance.
“You’re one to talk,” said Blackout. “It looks like Jigglypuff filmed a porno over here.”
C.K. dropped his arms. The dials and switches went dark with the screen. He thought about all the work he would have to do rebuilding his drones and felt a supreme fatigue settle on his neck. Then he raised his head.
The Upville Humane Society burned at the end of the block, no more than 15 feet behind the pink mess.
They both turned to face the other side of the street.
China Pot crouched against a constant wave of flames—the last one left.
Everybody knew that was only because Fern was taking his time, though.