Leader’s posture stiffened as he assessed the situation.
“The rendezvous point… It’s miles away.” Magician reported, fiddling with the navigator.
Low on energy. Middling fuel. There was no way they could take on the throng on government agents at their tail without tapping into their more forbidden weapons.
As if sensing the hesitation, Berserker brandished his array of palm-sized explosives.
“We are not levelling the damn city, Berserker.”
Berserker spat, his acidic mucus literally melting part of the pavement. “It’s self-defence.”
“It’s a last resort.” Leader groaned. “We need to find cover.”
“Well if you’ve got a nicer spot than this, Leader, we’d be so very happy to oblige.”
Huddled amidst the rotting stench of whichever street corridor they found themselves in, the trio’s eyes darted nervously at every rustle of movement.
Above them, the ominous whirr of a helicopter blades grew louder. A sweeping beam of harsh light travelled across the suburb, flashing a searing eye at every speck of suspicion.
Leader’s hands touched the mouldy brick wall. His ravenous heartbeat, the blood rushing through his veins, louder than the pipes behind them. It was risky. He had no idea what was on the other side. But anything really, was better than being a sitting target.
“This building is as good as any.” Leader grunted. He was nervous, but for the head-strong Berserker and especially nervous, young Magician, he masked himself with a steely confidence.
“Let’s phase in.”
Quaint. Austere. A little dusty sure, but strikingly well-loved. The background murmur of a box television droned with a monotonous news reporter, adding to the well-lived ambience. The house was illuminated by a warm, cottage-like grow by virtue of an artificial fireplace, chic wooden flooring and archaic, out-of-fashion furniture. It was a paradox, like a fairy’s secret home in the middle of a boring, repeatable suburb - a massive far cry from the steaming heap of rubbish they were at only moments ago.
Leader, amidst the comfort, checked his watch to make sure they hadn’t inadvertently phased through the corridors of time.
“What’s that smell?” Magician perked up, lifting his still-organic nose towards true north.
Leader switched on his olfactory sensors.
Garlic! What a delicacy! A profound spark to the senses in all its controlled, fiery vigour. He was never able to afford such a rare spice back at home, with garlic-flavoured dishes being exclusive to special events like birthdays, weddings, and anniversaries. Whoever this house belonged to must be celebrating an impeccable occasion.
Like bees to nectar, Magician and Leader trailed towards its scrumptious source, finding themselves in what had to be a miniature factory. Celery, carrots, mushrooms, and other unnameable alien oddities sprawled neatly across the marble countertop. Ginger bulbs and sacks of onion hung from overhead hooks, alongside punnets of flowering leaves and blossomed petals in what seemed to be a garden for hamsters. The gentle, ever-present whirr of the exhaust filled the air, harmonising with the rhythmic pops and bubbles emanating from the guarded steel pot.
Before they could take a peek, they were interrupted by an ear-splitting screech.
“Stay back, human!”
Leader dashed back to the living room to find Berserker, horrified but prepared, aiming a glowing freeze-ray towards a human woman.
It was a hilariously dramatic sight, really, given that Berserker was a hulking, two-metre tall combat unit with mountainous protruding muscles and mechanical eyes which shone red with ardent danger; while she was a meagre, frizzly haired grandmother who probably couldn’t kill a fly if she tried. A floral print sweater was her armour of choice. Hello Kitty slippers presumably being her weapon.
“I’ll kill you where you stand!” Berserker hissed, spit splattering across the carpet.
Behind her thick-rimmed spectacles, the woman’s gaze seemed distant. Rather, it seemed indifferent, as if she hadn’t quite realised the terrifying situation she was in. She licked her lips, as if contemplating about a snack, before lighting up in pleasant recognition.
“Oh my, a visitor! What a lovely surprise.” She exclaimed, a warm smile slipping onto her thin, chapped lips.
Berserker refused to lower his gun - not in the name of self-defence, but because he was literally paralysed by fear. Just something that came with having an impeccable instinct for danger.
“Sit down, please sit down!”
Leader stepped out of the shadows, feeling as if he had to address the situation before Berserker had an opportune slip of the finger.
“There’s more of you! Oh that’s so, so lovely. Please take a seat! Make yourself at home!”
“Ma’am, I don’t think you understand the gravity of…”
“I was making soup today but I’m afraid I’ve made too much!” She interrupted without a sliver of trepidation. “But with three big strong boys like you, I think we might just do it.”
The shared glance between them was brief, but heavy with the weight of unsaid deliberations. Berserker had a bad feeling about it. Magician was filled with uncertainty. Leader however, thought with a contemplative depth. They needed time to regroup - to fuel up their energy reserves, recharge their battle chips, and just have a general wink of sleep before they proceeded with their mission. It was inefficient to stay, but far too risky to explore the outside, especially with the humans on such high alert.
Drawing upon his namesake, Leader took full responsibility for the fate of his comrades. He didn’t like the situation either, but it was what his team needed.
“Stand down, men.” Leader said apprehensively, turning towards the overly optimistic grandmother. “I guess we’ll be having soup tonight.”
Leader had removed his taste indicators years ago. For a soldier, it was the least practical of the five senses. Sight, sound and touch were a given, and a sense of smell at least could be used to identify burning smoke or whiffs of poison. The ability to taste was a distraction. He got rid of it as soon as he adopted the Leader role.
However, teased by the exciting, childlike gulping from Magician and the aggressive, rabid munching noises that came from Berserker - he regretted not at least bringing a backup tongue.
It was funny, uplifting even, seeing his comrades’ fears and concerns shrivel away from a bowl of delicious soup.
He drank his out of formality. It tasted like salt water.
The old woman abstained from eating. Instead, she sat at the edge of the table, beneath the low-hanging chandelier, casting a spectral glow that emphasised her aged yet dignified features. She looked like a professor on a lectern, and upon closer inspection of the photographs and certificates that decorated the dining room, she very much could have been.
“Is that you?” Magician, already finishing his second bowl, pointed towards a photograph depicting a captivating, blonde-haired woman adorned in a white, origami-like dress.
“Oh no, if only I was that beautiful.” She laughed, eyeing the picture with distant longing.
It couldn’t have been her, Leader thought to himself. The crispness, the colour grading, the noiseless details - this kind of photography was not readily available, at least for humans, during the old lady’s youth.
The likeness was strikingly evident. While age had softened the old lady’s defined jawline, traces of its former strength still lingered, mirroring the contour in the younger woman’s face. Both possessed eyes with an a unique, almost enigmatic slant, and most tellingly, that same warm smile - a beacon of welcome that made even these three outerworldly visitors welcome on the mysterious planet Earth.
“Where is she now?” Magician asked.
Leader felt the pang of regret before the old lady even registered the question. As Magician’s words hung in the air - a shadow of grief flashed across her visage. A tightening of the left eye. An uncanny twist of the finger. A fleeting downturn of the lips. Lasting no longer than a heartbeat’s hiatus, the whisper of sorrow was ephemeral. Leader could only notice it due to his heightened, military-grade biosensors.
Magician and Berserker weren’t permitted that level of technology yet.
“Our condolences,” Leader said promptly, his allies stiffening at the realisation.
The old lady continued to smile the way that she did. Lovely. Inviting. Full of motherly warmth. Leader noticed now, just subtly, what he had missed earlier. The undertone of sadness, the sonorous hum of regret, the reverberating notes of affirmations left unsaid.
“How did she go?” Berserker asked, somehow completely deaf to the situation.
“Car accident. A hit and run.”
The gargantuan unit glanced up from his soup.
“Do you know who it is?”
Two sets of disapproving glances. One from the team lead; one from the inexperienced private, both falling beneath Berserker’s notice.
They expected some kind of negative reaction from the woman. A sharp inhale, a stab of rage, a scalding scowl - but instead, she smiled as she previously did, unfazed by his utter obtrusiveness. She seemed… at ease somehow, like a paper boat in a ripple-less pond, buoyant with eerie serenity.
“A drunk driver. Twenty-seven years old at the time.” She stated as if she were reciting the morning news.
Berserker surged to his feet, the stool he was perched on skidding cartoonishly across the floor.
“He must pay for his crimes.”
The old woman shrugged. “He served his sentence. Suspended license and fifteen years in prison.”
“That’s not enough.” Berserker growled with ardent venom. “He must compensate you with his life - if not eternal servitude.”
The old lady chuckled with an edge - like a blade being drawn from its sheath.
“Oh that’s not necessary.”
“You must take your vengeance.”
“I don’t need it anymore.”
Leader’s ears perked up.
“I might not look like it now, but I used to be a very hungry girl.” Her voice dropped to a near-whisper. Her meek frame pivoted towards Berserker, eyes burning with an unfound intensity. “Anger clouded my thinking. Rage drove my decisions. Uncovering that man’s identity… was all I wanted to do.” Her ever-present smile remained. “And when I found who he was, where he was… I decided to put my work into action.” She paused, her neck twisting towards Leader at an uncomfortable angle. “It’s the only reason we know who it is today, and why I live here and not with my husband.”
The room shifted palpably. The mild chinking of the ceiling fan. The uneasy hum of the kitchen exhaust. The monotonous drone of the news broadcast from the opposite room, slowly gaining volume, as if trying to fill the now devoid space. All the sounds previously, which went under notice, now seemed so irreparably loud.
The sheer austerity of the household. The distinct lack of windows and natural lighting. The uncanny way she could navigate the space despite being almost legally blind. Discounting the soup, the house smelt like chlorine and antiseptic. The incongruous outside of the building and its overly calculated, specifically manicured interior design.
Leader should have noticed it the moment he entered the room. It felt like a museum exhibit.
He turned to Berserker, who again brimmed with wicked anticipation. His first instincts were right. That immediate gut reaction. Gun aimed. Finger on the trigger. While she might not pose an imminent threat to them, this woman was clear peril to human society.
As if on cue, underscoring their surreal upiphany, the shrill alert of an emergency broadcast erupted from the television-next-door.
“Citizens, please stay in your homes. If you see any of these three men, please call your local police department and report their whereabouts. Do not interact with them. Do not be seen by them. Citizens, I repeat, please stay in your homes. If you see any of these three men…”
The old lady squinted at the screen, its hazy static waves reflected on the edge on her unblinking retinas.
“Those pictures are terrible.” She remarked nonchalantly. “How are we supposed to recognise anyone with such blurry images?”
Leader’s jaw tightened. The pictures weren’t great, but the blurry outlines were unmistakably the three of them, captured by grainy street cameras during their ill-fated chase.
The state was in total lockdown. With every eye and ear on the lookout and government agents on maximum alert, venturing outside was akin to a death sentence. Leader probed at his bowl - oil pooling up to the surface, vegetables floating disconcertingly, like bodies in a pool.
Raising his gaze, he met the eyes of his brothers, seeing his anxiety and dread mirrored within them. Their predicament was clear: stepping out was tantamount to self-destruction, but remaining inside, in the company of this eerie hostess, was like being trapped in a mausoleum.
Magician was on edge. He was not accustomed to this. This was his first proper mission. Every twitch suggesting he might break down at any second, hang his coat and never return to the force. Berserker, on the other hand, reverted to his instinctual state. Beneath the table, Leader sensed Berserker’s thick fingers coiling around the freeze-ray. Armed. Lethal. Set to kill.
Leader inhaled. He wished they weren’t cornered into making such a decision, but such things came with having a role of accountability. Desperate times, desperate measures - self-defence as a last resort. With a heavy nod, he signalled his approval. What followed was swift and silent. A flash of blinding light, a gust of icy wind, as Berserker ensured their guardian angel a serene and instantaneous end.