Part 1: Punching Out

XSWAT HQ, Sub-Basement 5A
Friday, February 13th, 2128

“You ought to kill that thing.” Sergeant Quinn didn't even try to hide her skepticism. She spared a glance at the test chamber, then turned back to focus her disapproval on Technical Sergeant Raphael Hightower. And his extremely dubious science project.

“That's what you said about the last two, Molly. I'm not about to waste this one... Madam Director expects results, and this is probably our last chance to deliver.” Rafe checked the chamber's integrity, just to make sure the Entity trapped inside couldn't possibly escape, then double-checked the massive energy-banks adjacent to it as they charged up... not much longer.

“But that's exactly what we had to do, in the end.” She put a hand on his shoulder and softened her voice. “Rafe... please. We don't have to do this today, of all days. Let's just take a break, you and me.”

Hightower sighed. Friday the 13th. Superstition, again. “Can't, sweetheart... there's too much on the line, here. Like my entire career, all my work, any chance of this project succeeding... we're getting close, you know.”

“Close to what? Getting more people killed?” She realized the remark stung. “Sorry, I know that wasn't your fault.”

“It's alright. Entities kill people, even XSWAT officers... but if we can find a way to shut down their esper powers...” He paused for a moment, with that 'lost in thought' expression she knew so well. “I met someone who could do that once... to both humans and Entities. Most dangerous woman I ever met.” Hightower shook his head at the memory.

“Is that all she was to you, Rafe?” Quinn didn't like talking about his old enemy, either. That woman may have been long gone, but she had defined the trajectory of Hightower's life, which always made Quinn slightly jealous, for reasons she could never explain, even to herself.

For his part, Rafe was baffled as to why his fiancee insisted on “competing” against a woman he had hunted down and killed several years previously.

“Sergeant, we're almost ready.” All business as usual, Corporal Driggs made the announcement without a hint of having overheard their discussion.

“Okay, let's do this.” Rafe examined his consoles. “Do we have any video left at all?”

Driggs nodded. “Somehow, yeah. The Entity's still trying to escape, but... no dice. Most of the cameras have taken direct hits, but we've got a couple left. What the hell are they made of, again?”

“Cathode ray tubes; the tech is a couple of centuries old. Modern CCD's fry out anywhere near an Entity, so I had to use something else. Using mages to scry on the test chamber proved to be... problematic.”

In response to the unspoken question on Driggs face, Hightower simply put a finger near his temple, making a circular motion—the universal sign for loss of sanity—and shrugged.

Driggs took a deep breath. “I used to say XSWAT had everything except a mad scientist... now I'm really wishing they didn't. This whole thing is insane.”

“Mad? I'm getting close, here, Driggs!” Look...” He called up a file on his pad. “I've completely shut the current subject's esper powers down twice already, just briefly... it couldn't teleport, fire any blasts, deliquesce... for up to 5 minutes! If we could scale down all this hardware... turn it into a practical weapon for the field... think about it.”

“Yeah, sure, all 12 tons of it.” Driggs sneered, “Anyway, it's ready to fire again. Good luck.”

“Hit it, Molly.” He nodded at the board, where the mains all indicated ready. Sergeant Quinn leaned forward and activated the firing sequence. Even though everyone expected it, the massive THUD of the primary relays kicking in still startled them, and the lights dimmed all over the lab as a gigantic magnetic pulse reverberated across the containment chamber, and the Entity trapped inside it, carrying the brainwave pattern replicated from a long-deceased freak-of-nature esper weapon. Momentarily, its frantic efforts to escape stopped... or at least subsided for a while.

Hightower went over his read-outs with manic enthusiasm. “Highest response we've gotten yet... one more run, then I'll be ready for stage two, I'm sure of it this time!”

Quinn wrapped her arms around Rafe, hopeful that she'd have him out of the lab and all to herself soon. “Congratulations. Is it too early to celebrate?”

Driggs pointed at their single remaining monitor. “Something's not right in there.”

“Of course not.” Rafe shrugged. “We just scrambled whatever that Entity uses for brains.”

“It's, uh... molting. Or something.” Driggs wasn't sure what he was looking at. Hightower and Quinn joined him at the monitor. The Entity appeared to be shedding its outer carapace, rapidly... until it abruptly split wide open, and something else began emerging from inside it. Hightower jumped to his feet, staring wide-eyed.

“Oh...SHIT!!!” He began recharging the power system, knowing it was useless. It needed a lot of maintenance between runs. This was bad... it might not charge up fast enough, or at all. A deep, guttural voice emerged from the chamber...

Technical Sergeant Hightower... I think we've both collected enough data for now. Perhaps we could adjourn to a conference room and compare notes? I'm thirsty... would you have Sergeant Quinn bring coffee? Thank you so much. Now if you don't mind, I'll let myself out.

Its escape efforts redoubled with increased power, loud enough to shake the entire lab. It was obvious the containment system could not hold for long against this new assault.

Quinn stared in disbelief. “Bring coffee? Since when do Entities talk like that?”

Driggs rolled his eyes as he ran to a locker at the back of the room, where he broke out a clamshell and a C-90 maser. “Obviously you never met a Class Four... arrogant fucks, they are. Not to mention mean as all hell.”

“Molly, call for backup.” Hightower's personal force field went up. “We're gonna keep our guest occupied until they arrive. When the Big Machine's ready, you fire it up.”

Hey, don't talk about me like I'm not here, Hightower. You're beginning to make me angry.”

Hightower cut off the audio link to the chamber. “What's the story, Molly.”

“Brogan's on the way.” It was the first good news since the crisis started.

“Which one?” Driggs sounded worried.

“The BIG one, dummy. You think they'd send the Director's chauffeur down here to handle this? More good news... he's got Tyger and Cartwright with him.”

“Well, tell 'em to hurry, will ya?” Driggs still wasn't thrilled, which was understandable, considering he was about to go up against a Class IV Entity of unknown (but presumably substantial) capabilities with only an esper scientist of dubious sanity to back him up.

“Oh, I don't think they're gonna stop for coffee or anything, Driggs!” Quinn shook her head in astonishment. Men are idiots.

“Hey, I can still hear you people! This is going to be more fun than I thought!”

Hightower sighed and looked at his compatriots. “All this, and it's clairsentient, too. Great.”

“And in case you didn't notice...” Driggs stabbed a finger towards the pounding noises coming from the massive chamber, “ still has functional esper powers, genius. Did that Machine of yours even DO anything besides piss it off?”

“We'll find out once it's recharged... I hope.” Hightower double-checked his data, unbelieving.

THUD! “Trick or treat!” Cracks started to form in the outer walls of the containment vessel.

Driggs finished putting on his clamshell. “Okay, we gotta go in now, or Halloween's comin' early, and we're the fuckin' treats.”

Hightower nodded. “Right. I'm gonna pin it down; you blast it. Molly, remember what I told you....”

“Rafe, if you're in there when the Big Machine fires, it'll hit you a lot harder than that Entity. Your esper powers might be gone for good....”

“Just do it, Molly. There's never been a Class Four incursion inside XSWAT HQ... now I'm responsible for this one, and I'm not letting it get loose.”

In the “airlock” outside the containment chamber, Driggs expressed his doubts to Hightower. “You realize this is basically hopeless, right? It's gonna see us coming, and even if it couldn't, we'd be no match for this thing.”

Hightower nodded. “We don't have to kill it; just stall it until the Entity Busters get here... or until the Machine's fires up.” Driggs nodded. “I'm gonna open this door on three. Fire once I've pinned it. Are you ready?”

Driggs hefted the massive C-90 Dragon into firing position on its bipod. “ I'll ever be.”

“One... two... three!” The Entity heard everything, and joyfully shouted THREE in unison with Hightower, firing a blast at the same instant his telekinetic barrier went up half-way between them. It knew exactly what he was thinking, and fired over their heads, above his barrier. The blast ricocheted off the airlock ceiling, then banked off the wall behind them, and struck them both in the back. Neither of the men were seriously hurt, but the impact sent them hurtling out of the airlock, into the chamber.

Not good... it might be smarter than us. Hightower reached out with his telekinesis in a frantic attempt to grab the Entity, pin it down for a moment so Driggs could get a clean shot. It was far and away the strongest Entity he had ever faced. But for a moment he had it....

Driggs' maser was off its bipod after his tumble across the floor. The creature was only meters away, but it was thrashing around, he was out of position, trying not to hit Hightower... the shot went wild, and blasted scorch marks all across the far wall. Fortunately it wasn't breached, and the Entity was still contained for the moment. In response to the damage, the airlock door slid shut automatically, sealing them inside with their quarry.

The Entity shrugged off Hightower's telekinetic hold, but not easily, and he was ready to renew his grip. “One more time, Driggs.”

This time Driggs had the C-90 in position, and it didn't miss. Explosive ruptures formed across the Entity's dark carapace, ejecting black ichor and steam across the room, eliciting an enraged scream. But it didn't go down. And with fresh ichor splattered all over them, the remains of the Class Two Entity which had started all this were getting up again. The chamber was about to get really crowded... and very messy.

Hightower shouted a warning, but it was too late... Driggs rounded on the smaller Entity and fired. Its carapace shattered into a million pieces as he expended the last shot from his heavy maser, and Driggs realized he'd been tricked; the larger Entity had merely been animating the remains. Hightower was still trying to crush their tormentor, to no avail. Definitely smarter than us.

Its hideous gloating filled the chamber.“Left your reloads in the lab, didn't you, Corporal Driggs? You are both going to die... then I'll have that coffee with Sergeant Quinn. Or just drink her blood; I've heard all about the coffee at XSWAT.”

Driggs dropped his now-useless maser cannon. “I got nothin', Sarge.” He drew his sidearm, not really expecting it would hurt the monster in front of them.

“Back-up's on the way... keep your clamshell on.” Hightower decided to change tactics, and fired a telekinetic lance at the damaged Entity, abandoning his attempts at restraining it. A small rent appeared in its carapace, but the Entity only laughed again, and returned fire.

The Entity's blast smashed Hightower's barrier, pushing him back against the wall. “Too easy.”

Hightower shook his head, groggy from the impact. “How we doing, Molly?”

“Almost there... unless we lose a breaker... or a capacitor explodes... or the overload relays cut out... you get the idea, Rafe. And Brogan's team is en route... ETA 90 seconds.”

Hightower knew when he was beaten. Ninety seconds is too long... but Molly knows that thing can hear her... so she's lying. But if I can figure that out, so can the Entity. Time's running out fast....

The Entity fixed Hightower with an eyeless stare. “You are powerless... or soon will be. I shall leave now.” It turned its back on him and fired a blast at the chamber wall, widening the cracks from its previous efforts.

“Do it, Molly... fire it up. Now!” Hightower shouted the order, as Driggs rapid-fired his maser-pistol on 'creature' setting to no effect.

The Machine charged up to 105%, then 110%... Sergeant Quinn wasn't sure how much it could take, or if it would even effect a Class Four Entity... and they'd never fired it up twice without a thorough overhaul. Anything could happen. “I'm sorry Rafe.” She started the firing sequence, uttering a hopeless prayer.

The laboratory went dark, and stayed that way as the most powerful anti-esper pulse ever flooded the chamber, and the Entity ceased its efforts to blast through the walls. Hightower felt his own esper power being taken from him, like a paralyzed limb he could no longer feel or move. And finally, Driggs' maser battery went dead as he fired his last shot. For a moment, everything was silent.

“So... your little machine actually works, Hightower. You realize it will have to go... along with yourself. And now we will have to do this the hard way.” The Entity returned its attention to the wall, using its massive fists, shaking the entire laboratory with each impact.

Hightower dragged himself to his feet and closed with the monster. “Yeah... looks that way.” Upon reaching the Entity, he executed a flawless a Aikijutsu takedown, succeeding by sheer surprise more than anything else. It went down in a thrashing, chitinous noisy heap of claws and spikes, coming to rest on its back.

Driggs gaped at him, dropping his useless maser to the floor. “The fuck did you just DO?”

Hightower stood over the monster as it lay on the containment chamber floor, staring in disbelief. It returned his gaze with equal incredulity until the moment broke. “You're under arrest, ass-hole. You have the right to remain silent. You have the right to stay the fuck down until my backup gets here to deal with you, got that?”

“Now you die, Hightower... as a mundane... only a nuisance.” The Entity reared up and lunged at him, its massive jaws snapping shut on his right shoulder, sawing through flesh and crushing bones.

Hightower felt acidic saliva seeping into the jagged wounds of the stump where his arm used to be as the creature picked him and threw him across the chamber, then blacked out when he hit the wall. The last thing he saw was the inner lock door opening, and Sergeant Molly Quinn leveling a heavy maser she could barely lift at the Entity which had just killed him. “Got your coffee... right here... you sonofabitch!”

“No, Molly....”