There's no such thing as retirement, only extended vacation.
Alexei Belitrov, formerly a Major in another world's version of the Red Army, was having a good day. His current case manager, whose name he hadn't yet bothered to learn, had procured for him several novels he hadn't been allowed access to, not the least of which was Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. He'd been waiting over three years before they approved that one, allowing him to finally carry on the story of a young wizard and his friends. Of course, it helped that his English lessons had accelerated past the rudiments and into more advanced grammar and literature.
Alexei had also been given more music to listen to. He was quite interested in the French duo who insisted on wearing ridiculous masks in public; their work was actually really catchy. Not as nuanced as Tchaikovsky, but there's only so many times you can listen to the 1812 Overture before it grows stale.
And, most importantly, this week marked the fifth year anniversary without the nightmares. Alexei hadn't set his chronometer to be counting that, but it had been anyway. There were some things Alexei felt were better left forgotten, drowned in fiction provided by his Skinny Crow captors.
So it was quite a change in pace when a sapient, ectoentropic lump of thermite shaped like a gigantic flea fell through his roof and on top of him while he lay reading, shouting in what sounded to Alexei like broken Chinese. Alexei's immediate reaction was to scream in pain, which did no good because Alexei had lost the function in his vocal cords sometime in the mid 1960s. Instead, something between a high-pitched tone and radio static was picked up on all radio receivers in range. It should be noted that no radio receivers were in range because, as the ball of thermite fell onto the bed, it continued to fall, straight into extrauniversal space. To the ball of thermite, this was mostly natural, but to Alexei Belitrov, it was absolutely terrifying.
When, eventually, Alexei came to, he realized that he was in a rather familiar corner of the multiverse. In front of him lay several dead soldiers, attired1 similarly to himself. Alexei judged that they were German, because their weapons were attached to their arms like bracelets, instead of bolted down like his own weapons had been.
"Sorry, comrade," Alexei whispered as he removed the nearest soldier's primary weapon, a large caliber machine gun. "I need this more than you do." Weapons sweeps were always nasty work, but, had Alexei died in his own time, he wouldn't have minded his own men taking what they needed. He repeated the process for the soldier's secondary weapon, a 23 mm semi-automatic shotgun. He searched the nearest dead men for proper supplies and excess ammo, to complete his loadout.
Feeling properly equipped for the first time in over 25 years, Alexei set about finding the thing that had brought him here and dealing with it. His final course of action would be settled later…
Zao, formerly an Oxidist officer in the Southeastern Biological Synocracy's army, was having a rough day. His current opponent was a much younger Oxidist, one who'd hardly seen combat and was still springy and young.2 Their scores were matched, and had been for the last few hours; every point Zao scored would quickly be matched by his opponent. Right now, Zao was one point behind.
Now most people3 would be disoriented by extradimensional travel, but this isn't true for Oxidists. The Synocracy built them specifically to be able to teleport themselves within attack range of the Imperium's Mark 24 Landships. So, as the tennis ball hurtled towards Zao at several hundred meters per second, it was perfectly natural for him to jump through the multiverse in order to catch it.
What Zao did not anticipate was that, as he fell through the multiverse, he'd catch one crackling claw on the edge of the wrong layer of reality and slip back into the Foundation universe.4 Nor did he expect to pick up a hitchhiker along the way. For that matter, he had no way of knowing the hitchhiker would be a fellow veteran.5
So, when they finally stopped falling, Zao was really surprised to see an unconscious monstrosity of a man occupying much of the same space as himself. Zao was further surprised to see that there were a large number of dead soldiers that looked fairly similar to his hitchhiker on the ground close to where they landed. He didn't recall having visited this particular corner of reality in the past, but generally speaking he trusted his multidimensional sense of direction implicitly.
It was a pretty fucked-up corner. Most of the trees were long-dead, blasted and scattered. What little greenery still stood looked sickly. The sky was overcast, the land barren, and the lack of bugs and birds pretty damn eerie. It reminded Zao of the war.
The unfortunate stranger seemed alive, if unconscious, and Zao felt a pang of guilt- accidentally running into someone mid-game was faux-pas enough, but carrying them out of their home reality was just unforgivable. It might be a good idea to look for water or something for when his unfortunate hitchhiker woke up. So, he rolled off, looking for supplies for his armour-clad victim. If he could find a local or break in on some regional radio transmissions to figure out just where the hell he was, that would be an added bonus.
Alexei couldn't exactly put his finger on it, but he had a gut feeling he was somewhere in Germany, and further that he wasn't alone. The tracks surrounding where he'd… fallen? Been dragged? Were curiously insectoidal, and something about the way the ground around them seemed drier bothered him. Almost as if the thing was radiating heat. Whatever it was, it had made no effort to hide its path, moving off with inhumanly long strides. Where it kicked off from the ground, the prints were deep, cracking even the hardest ground- whatever it was had a great deal of power in its legs.
It had been a good long while since he'd had to move through rough terrain, and even longer since he'd been to Europe. It felt good. It wasn't as clean as Site-17's sterilized, filtered air, but the irradiated air of what he was sure, at this point, was Germany's Black Forest was somehow comforting to Alexei. It reminded him of the hot air he'd breathed in the last summer, before the War, working the community farm alongside his parents. What he wouldn't give to see that farm again. Of course, it was probably radioactive and useless for farming at this point, if not completely covered in debris. But still, a man can dream, right?
Were Alexei still capable of regular respiration, he'd be breathing very heavily. It was tough work. The only exercise he'd done for the last two-and-a-half decades had been push-ups within the confines of his cell, and as the Foundation eliminated the restrictions on what he could and couldn't have, he'd been neglecting even that. But the Engineers had built his Armor well. It was meant for war. It was meant for long marches. So Alexei pushed on, let his Armor do most of the work, let its nervous system feel the muscles strain instead of his own. Now that he was back home, he might even find a Technician to do a full checkup on the state of his Armor.
He was steadily moving uphill, and had been for the last five minutes or so. He suspected his target was seeking a vantage point. What it could possibly want with him was beyond Alexei, but it didn't matter. The tracks had gotten closer together- the thing had slowed down, and showed no signs of speeding up. It had to be close.
Zao had decided that his best course of action on finding water would be to find a vantage point. Flying might be an unnecessary risk- if his experience had taught him anything, it was that open, rolling ground like this would almost inevitably be watched from above. Better to keep a low profile. So far, all he'd found were hills and broken landscape. He wasn't picking up any radio transmissions, either, which was even more eerie than the lack of birds. He couldn't see any trees tall enough to be worth climbing that were still standing. Not for the first time, he missed when his sensor package had been military-grade, when he could smell infra-red and taste the gamma emissions of Mark 24 atom forges on the wind…
He'd been moving uphill for a while and still couldn't see anything of interest on the brow of the hill. He stopped, slowly surveying the horizon. The bug-man was on his trail, looking up at him from less than 30 meters away…
Alexei could smell his quarry now, the Armor's insect-like nostrils twitching within their small pockets next to his eyes. It smelled like hot metal, the bursting clouds of thermite mortars. His instincts and training told him not to follow the path exactly- who knows what he might step in or trigger- but there wasn't much ground cover to work with. All he could do was keep his stance low and his eyes peeled. There was no telling what the creature's intentions were. He rounded a rill in the hillside and stopped, trying not to gawp at the thing that stood before him.
Zao and his hitchhiker simply stared at each other for a long moment. The stranger broke radio silence, sending three simultaneous transmissions, only one in a language Zao understood. "What the fuck do you want from me?! "
Before Zao could respond, the other man raised his right arm — There hadn't been a gun there before, had there? — and Zao felt a five-round burst of 12.7x108mm6 bullets whiz past him. He flattened his body low to the ground7, popping up a hesitant eyestalk.
The hitchhiker — his enemy, apparently — was gone. Likely uphill, if he was smart. Still, flattened as he was Zao was reasonably confident he'd be difficult to see. He allowed his surface to rise up to combat temperature, reforming himself into a more compact, fast-moving form as he pondered his current predicament.
Alexei was terrified. He was absolutely certain that the creature had been hit by at least one of his bullets, but it hardly seemed phased. He switched the safety on the shotgun off, hoping the creature wouldn't come close enough to make the rapid application of 00 buckshot necessary. He checked his ammo packs, recounting to see if he had enough grenades. He hoped so.
The creature was getting closer, Alexei could tell. The thick metal smell was getting stronger, and the rising smoke from downhill could only mean that it was combusting the scrub. His Armor was built to survive flash temperatures up to 200° C, but that didn't mean heat wasn't uncomfortable, and if his thermal sensors were anywhere near right this thing was definitely hotter than 200°.
Alexei started to low-crawl uphill, away from the end of the path the creature had blazed when he paused to listen. It seemed the creature had stopped. Alexei turned himself over, so he could sit up and look over the log that was his cover, getting a grenade ready so he could throw it, should he have to. Just as he was lifting himself up, the creature, smoke pouring off it, landed a few meters away, almost immediately setting the ground alight. It looked smaller, somehow, but it moved in almost perfect silence- there was nothing mechanical about it, despite the rust-red colour of what he could only assume was its hull. Acting automatically, Alexei threw the grenade, lifted himself to a standing position, and began to run away from his pursuer and its rapidly-combusting landing zone, too unnerved to check if his aim had been off.
Zao's first soldierly instinct was to set the hillside a-blazing, but that was quickly overridden by other, more reasonable thoughts. What if this man doesn't know I don't mean harm? I should at least try to reason with him. Maybe he can help me figure out where we are.
He made an experimental leap, cooling himself down as he did so- it would take a few seconds before he wasn't hot enough to melt steel on contact. He aimed for a slight rise near a large fallen log, which seemed to offer a good vantage on- The hitchhiker was already there, arm coming around with a grenade in its hand. Before he could try to explain their situation, the explosive detonated in his face.
Zao engulfed the grenade, letting the airburst spend itself deep in his superheated metal guts. Diplomacy, it seemed, had failed. He spat out a chunk of molten slag and turned up the heat, lengthening his limbs to a configuration perfectly suited for running on rough terrain.
Alexei could feel the oncoming wave of heat. The thing moved lightning-fast, driving a rippling wall of burning vegetation before it. The brush behind Alexei were catching on fire. The grenade hadn't killed the thing, then. He'd have to try something else. In front of him was another large trunk, at least three meters in diameter. On either side, the ground fell away into a pair of matched gravelly streambeds- if he descended, he'd be even more exposed. He had no choice but to turn and face his attacker.
The creature was about ten meters away and closing fast. Behind it, nothing but scorched desolation8 Alexei prepared two more grenades, hoping it would buy him time to scramble over the fallen tree, or at least get some distance down one of the streambeds. When the thing was about five meters off- it showed no signs of slowing down- Alexei raised his left arm, fired two shots from the shotgun in rapid succession, and tossed the grenades.
The creature bent and twisted like seaweed in a strong current, moving past the buckshot. It extended an arm that reminded him of the footage on white blood cells they'd shown during medical training, engulfing the explosives before they could detonate. Still, his hostile gesture seemed to make the thing pause- it ground to a halt, shapes that could only be armour coalescing on its red-hot surface. Alexei could only hope that it would take the thing some time to regain its momentum. Long enough to get as far away as possible. In the meantime, grenades were all he had.
Zao was unimpressed by the quality of the man's explosives, but if there was one lesson he'd learned it was that overconfidence in the face of seemingly inferior firepower had killed more Oxidists than he could count. His kind were resilient, but unstable- the added energy from, say, repeated detonations could overcome their ability to thermally self-regulate.9 He hardened his outer layers, letting himself cool off a tad. The insect-man treated grenades as if they were candy to be given to larvae and children- hopefully he would not be so liberal with whatever heavier weaponry he was presumable carrying.
Then another thought crossed his mind: Is he even worth it? I can probably find my way home from here pretty easily. I don't need to waste my time with this nonsense.
He was only moderately surprised when three more grenades bounced off his outer shell and exploded.
You know what? Fuck this guy.
There was no thought to it- the thing was an immobile hard target, and he had explosives to spare. Letting the handful of grenades fly free, Alexei spun, vaulting over the mammoth log and descending into the wider of the two streambeds, which ran eastwards, away from where they'd landed.
Zao was getting too old for this shit. Tennis, he could handle. Sapient tank factories, he could handle. Special Containment Procedures, he could handle. He'd even known a few people who'd had insectoidal splices, and they were fine, upstanding citizens. Hell, he preferred a hexigrade body plan, whenever possible.
But fucking bug people tossing piddling explosives at him unprovoked? That was an insult to common decency. This insect was a threat which needed dealing with. Zao concentrated, settling back into his old, familiar training, and bloomed. It was time to Oxidize the world. Despite himself, Zao felt a certain fierce joy. It was nice to feel this angry again. He didn't have his old firepower, but he had more than enough to face mere bullets.
Water was a scarce resource on the surface. Soldiers on both sides depended on wells dug by the Engineers (or some monstrosity built by the Engineers, more likely), or on the infrequent rainfall in order to survive. It was likely the Germans Alexei had encountered earlier had died of dehydration, not combat-related injuries.
So it was fairly odd when Alexei found a small pool of relatively clean water, a remnant of the stream that had flowed here long ago. Sure, a Skinny would have to boil it in order to survive, and his Armor would have to filter out the mud, but to him, it was potable. So he bent down to drink.
The water was boiling before his hand could touch the surface.
Oh, fuck me.
Zao was bounding now. Not jogging, not running, no, bounding. He wasn't even avoiding obstacles; by the time he hit the ground between leaps, they were mostly glassy cinders. He was clearing rough terrain at an even 20 meters a second, following the old stream his quarry was running down. At full size, he could pinpoint the insect-man in the winding bed at the peak of each jump.
The idiot had stopped for water, kneeling dumbfounded at the edge of a hastily-evaporating pool. Zao landed, river rocks melting beneath him, but before he could leap forward and end it, the hitchhiker dove to Zao's right, away from the pool, both guns firing. Zao didn't even feel the shots hit home. He reoriented his legs, having to balance as the molten rock sluiced about beneath his feet.
The bug-man was lying on the stones, vulnerable. Zao turned, and with one limb formed into an upraised spike, burning white-hot, he prepared to finish the fight.
A tennis ball, smouldering slightly, had just dropped out of thin air and begun to sink into the melting streambed, incongruously green-yellow against the burning redness. He blinked. It was his serve.
Figuring that killing the hitchhiker could wait, he picked up his ball, grabbed his racket out of its nth-dimensional pocket, tossed the ball into the air, and swung…
Alexei couldn't believe the thing had moved that fast. But it was no matter. He could see its arm turn into a white-hot blade; could feel the intense, burning heat radiating off of it. He knew it was all over.
But then it stopped. It stopped to pick up a… tennis ball? And it pulled a racket from nowhere. It was distracted. Maybe, just maybe- if it was this hot, exposing it to moisture, whatever was left in the pool… it would be his salvation. He would extinguish the unholy fire10 with irradiated German river water. So as the creature swung its tennis racket, Alexei lunged as hard as he could…
Zao felt the hitchhiker tackling him just as the ball hit the racket. No matter. Zao would just use the coming inter-universal jump to dump the jerk somewhere else. Then he could finish his game and go home…
Later, Zao would think back on the experience, and would think he'd done the right thing given the circumstances. Right now, he was relaxing. He remolded himself to the long lead futon, stretching out his limbs and waving one at the radio, which belched and began playing soft, calming music. The filterbirds were happily sucking impurities out of the air in Zao's garden as a quiet sunset descended upon Xin/Wellington.
He'd won the game. Somehow, the kid has slipped up long enough to let Zao break the tie and win the game point. The kid had stated that he'd like to play again sometime. That might be nice. He didn't have to play against Huoyao all the time, right?
It had been a good day.
Alexei felt the intense heat of the thing for about two seconds, and then blacked out.
When he came to, he was lying in some sort of… large warehouse? Alexei was used to small bunkers, or the open sky. Not the strange in-between the Crows seemed to have everywhere. It was dark here, but not so much that Alexei felt inclined to activate his night optics. As he got up, he noticed some sort of instructions on a sticker on the wall, along with the Foundation logo. There was a number of radios sitting on chargers on a table next to the sign; knowing he'd need one in order to communicate with any Skinnies he encountered, he took one and attached it to the belt he'd recovered in Germany. He allowed the Armor to commit the sign to memory before continuing, hardly noticing the yellow line on the floor he'd crossed.
Suddenly, he heard strange music, and a bellowing voice shouting, "I'VE GOT YOU THIS TIME, MOE THE ESKIMO!!!"