Aster followed a commercial jetliner’s flight path to the edge of the Ash Barrens. Dropping into a nosedive, she broke the sound barrier before turning back to face the city. She kept low between destroyed buildings, careful to stay below effective radar range. A light rain pattered the streets. Overcast morning skies hung over the wreckage of the city.
The Centauri crept behind piles of rubble. She strained to listen to the area for a moment. Pulling the sleeve of her flight suit up, she tapped the screen of her watch. It blinked before the image of her academy advisor, Hazel Eight, appeared.
Aster said, “I’m in position.”
Hazel nodded, “Good, here is your extracurricular assignment. Locate the suspected Faustini terrorist hiding in the ruins. Find out as much as possible. Then return to the academy.”
The girl chewed her lip a beat. “Why me?”
“Our board of regents has reason to believe other students might be… compromised. We know for sure you are not.” Hazel narrowed her eyes. “Do you understand.”
“I think so,” said Aster.
Hazel gave her a pensive thumbs up while attempting to smile. “Good, remember: observe and report. This is a stealth mission.” The watch blinked off.
The district had been abandoned after years of giant monsters appearing in the area. It created a time capsule to when the Citadel first appeared. Twisted steel and broken glass made the area look like a war zone. Save for the occasional tree or grass sprouting out from the tarmac, it was lifeless and silent.
Overhead, a screeching engine came to a halt as flood lights lit up the street below. Aster dashed behind an overturned rusted mail truck. The lights scanned the area and came to a stop over her hiding spot. A bay door opened and two sets of feet hit the ground. Aster drew a sonic stun pistol. The sound of footsteps grew closer. She gritted her teeth trying to decide to fight or hide or run. When the footsteps stopped a few feet from the truck she decided.
She flew around the side of the vehicle. Kicking the feet out from under one of her assailants, she fired the stun ray directly into the face of the other. Then leaped into a backward glide from the pair and kept her pistol level at the two figures.
“Oh, hey Courtney, er, Aster. There you are. Nice shot,” said Havoc. The boy stood up and dusted himself off. “Well don’t just stare, Thorn. Thorn?” He waved a hand in front of its face.
The plant blinked its photoreceptors. “Oh, hey, sorry. Did I fall asleep there a moment?”
Aster flew right to their faces and grabbed their collars. Dragging them a few inches off the ground, she said, “What the blue hell are you morons doing?”
“Well, Havoc was giving me A-Jet flying lessons. I think I’m close to qualifying.”
The girl made a terse smile. “I’m so happy for you,” she said in a less than convincing tone. “But I don’t have time for this. I’m on a secret mission. I can’t have you lugheads screwing this up for me.”
“Woah, slow down space princess.”
“Space princess?” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Wait, I take it back, I meant squadmate. We’re a team. Thorn and I just wanted to back you up.” Havoc looked over at Thorn. It was staring off into the distance swatting at the air. “Thorn? Buddy?”
They blinked again, “Hey, yeah, backup? That’s right. We’re your backup.”
“You told me your assassin would be able to handle Doubletake,” a masked figure in a cloak said to a view screen. He paced between humming equipment in the center of a half-collapsed warehouse.
On the screen, the Amazing Richard rolled his eyes, “If your intel had included a time traveler than we would have.”
“I don’t care about your excuses!” The cloaked figure slammed their hands on a console. “You did not deliver on your end of the bargain.”
The Amazing Richard said, “Those are strong words considering you have failed to steal Grand Calamity as promised.”
“I’m working on it. My protege is seeing to it personally. She should have it within the week.”
Richard’s lips pulled into a blue smile.
The cloaked figure continued, “But on second thought, I may need its power to fight Aegis since you failed.”
Tucked behind shipping crates, Havoc asked, “What are they talking about, Aster?”
She said, “The same thing they’ve been talking about. Some botched mission and something called… Brand Amity?”
“Brand Amity? That makes no sense,” he replied.
“Well, I could hear better if you could shut up for a minute,” she retorted.
Havoc held up his pointer finger as if he was going to argue but nodded in agreement instead.
Richard said, “You want power? How about one of my monsters? On the house, as it were. I’ll just deliver one of the Battle Beasts to your location!”
Purple electricity crackled around the room. Over the cloaked figure’s head, a fracture in reality formed. Claws scratched at the corners of the anomaly.
The cloaked man yelled at the monitor, “You double-crossing fool. I’ll see you hell.”
The robot laughed. “I’ve been. It didn’t suit me.” Then his screen snapped off.
Havoc turned to Aster, “Maybe we should go.”
“Hey,” she turned and looked sternly at him. “This is my mission. I call the shots.” The air fizzled and cracked with power. A bulbous worm the size of bus landed inside the warehouse. It began to howl and grow. “I’ve considered it. Let’s make a tactical retreat.” Havoc nodded vigorously.
Thorn pointed at the monster. Their mouth fell open, “Look at the size of it.”
The cloaked figure looked straight at them. He said, “You there! Stop!”
“You two, get to your jet. I’ll hold him off,” Aster said.
Havoc replied, “Yes, sir.” He took Thorn’s arm and made a run for a break in the wall.
“You have a death wish, girl?” the cloaked figure asked. Aster lifted off the ground. “Unless you wanna be worm food, we need to move, space prince.”
“What did you call me?”
“Listen, we need to move.”
“Oh no, we are beyond listening. This is personal now.” Aster made a flying leap at the man. She made a fist and lobbed it between the man’s eyes. He held a hand out in front of his face. Right before impact, he slapped her hand away. Her body weight followed the fist. He rolled her to the side face first into the concrete. It cracked where her nose met the ground and she slid across the floor.
The monster roared. It had grown to twice its size. As it quivered and convulsed, it began shoving anything near itself into its mouth. With each pile of rubble, it became stronger.
“I don’t have time for this!” yelled the cloaked figure. He made a run for the break in the wall.
When Aster looked towards him, she watched two of the man running away. A moment later, her vision cleared. The girl gritted her teeth and started to chase him. However, two massive claws caught her over her shoulders stopping her. Above her, a single angry eye watched her. From the head of the monster, a single horn grew to a sharp point. It bellowed at her covering her in spit.
“Do you mind?” Aster asked. She lifted back the creature’s claws and flew after the man.
Outside, a sleek white jet shaped like an uppercase ‘A’ lowered into the streets. It spun to face away from the crumbling warehouse. In the rear of the ship, a bay door swung open. Havoc stood in the opening.
The cloaked figure burst into a sprint. Behind him, Aster soared close to the ground. Havoc made a finger gun and pointed it at the running man. Dropping his thumb made a bolt of green energy leap from his finger to the man’s foot. He tripped, tumbled, and came to a stop laying on his back. Aster made a pair of fists. She vaulted high above him with them raised. Bringing her arms down, she cried, “Don’t call me princess!”
Force from the impact made the man sink into the street. He gasped for breath. Blood trickled from his nose. His mask was torn. Aster started to grab him when a set of vines pulled her into the ship. Thorn had one hand on the wheel and the other reeling the Centauri inside.
“Put me down! I have him right where I want him!” the girl said. Just beyond the bay doors, jaws snapped shut on empty air. “Actually, flying is good.”
Thorn punched it. The A-Jet’s twin engines scorched the monster as it flew away. The jet hurtled into the gloomy morning.
Aster fell into a chair behind the pilot seat. She took a deep breath she did not know she needed. A small table had balloons, a cupcake, a construction paper card with crude drawings on the side, and small box. She asked, “Who is this for?”
Havoc cleared his throat then said, “Well, uh, so you see…”
“Surprise!” Thorn said.
“Happy birthday, space princess” Havoc cheesed a grin.
Aster took a bite of cupcake. She opened the small box. Inside was a simple gray necklace with a single star. The girl smiled. She said, “Kind of on the nose isn’t it?”
Havoc said, “It was the only titanium charm that the store carried we could afford. Apparently being a talking house plant means you don’t carry a lot of spending cash.”
Thorn looked over their shoulder, they said, “Hey, I made the card!”
Aster pulled her hair over her shoulder and clasped the jewelry around her neck. She said, “Well I really like it. Thank you. Both of you.”
As the ship pulled above the broken skyline, Thorn hit play on the stereo. Citadel City came into view. The clouds broke to show a glimmer of sunlight just beyond the monolithic doors of Gate Nine. Monster sirens rang in the distance.
The End… For NOW!