Chapter 33:

Locked On

Code: Zero Defect

Amidst the chaos that has overtaken the Arch of the Immortals, a pair of soldiers stood in front of closed doors. One of them yawned to which the other nudged at him to quiet down.

"How can you be so relaxed when we're literally getting invaded by 'the' Calypso squad?" one asked.

"Well, what are we supposed to do about it anyway?" the other scoffed. "We ain't built to handle that kind of shit."

"True, but still. Keep your guard up. If one of them pops up, we need to be ready to run."

"Why are we even standing guard here if all we're gonna do is run if they come?"

"I don't know, man, just... keep watch over there. I'll look this way."

"Sure, sure."

The moment they turned away from each other, an unknown figure fell on one of them with a thud. Before the other could react, the figure quickly landed an uppercut below his jaws. As he was staggering back, the last thing he saw was the subtle gleam of a dagger.

As his body tumbled to the ground, the figure pushed himself against the door and reached for his ear.

"Strider to Holiday," he muttered quietly. "How copy?"

"Solid copy," she replied. "What's your status?"

"On the run. I lost Loki and Zephyr. What should I do?"

"Stay put, and don't get in their way."

"Huh? But-"

"That's an order, Strider. I'm sorry, but this mission has become too much for you to handle. To be honest, I don't even know what I was thinking when I allowed you to come."

Strider said nothing. Even though he knew it was the truth, it still hurt to hear.

"We're struggling as it is right now. There's even a chance that we'll fail here today. That should tell you a lot, so don't bother beating yourself up about it. There's nothing more you can do."

After a momentary pause, he replied. "Understood."

"Thank you. Now, go, and stay alive. Holiday, out."

With his back leaning on the door, Strider slowly slid towards the ground. He always knew that he wasn't enough. It seemed so obvious, yet he kept pretending like he was, and it got in the way of such a crucial mission.

"What was I thinking...?" he muttered to himself.

Suddenly, an ear-splitting pulse rang in the vicinity, and Zephyr appeared out of thin air.

"Zephyr?" he called out.

"Strider..." she answered weakly.

She then clutched her stomach and fell over.

"W-whoa, hey!" Strider yelped as he quickly ran to catch her.

Upon closer inspection, Zephyr's body was harshly wounded. Her once pure-white jacket was now stained with black markings. With just a whiff, it smelled severely burnt. Beneath her sleeves were visible patches of irritated skin.

"What happened?" Strider asked.

"Prostatis..." Zephyr coughed with heavy breaths. "He's coming. We need to go. Now."

Just as suddenly as when she appeared, the building behind them erupted in a pillar of flames. Emerging from the fire and smoke was the general himself with an outlandishly golden aura surrounding him.

"Found you," he smirked.

"Agh..." Zephyr groaned. "Strider, go!"

"B-but if I leave-"

"No time! Get your ass out of here!"

Ramses was already summoning his wings for a final attack while Strider hesitated. He thought back to when Zephyr once stood between him and Sigastiris, forever burdened by the fact that he could do nothing when she was ready to give her life for him. Even now, her resolve was the same, but he was not willing to allow her a second chance.

"Zephyr, close your eyes," Strider said as he reached for his pocket.

He then pulled out a cylindrical object and hurled it high into the sky.

"What kind of a stupid toy-" was all that Ramses could say before the object exploded in a sudden flash of light.

As Ramses began screaming in pain, Strider quickly pulled Zephyr up and helped her to run.

"What in the world... was that?" she asked.

"Neural disruption flashbang," he replied. "Long story short, I made it using Minerva's workshop without her permission."

"Fuck sakes... Minerva's gonna kill you."

"Just focus on running."

It took Ramses a while to recover, and when he did, he was much more enraged than before. With a disdainful roar, he gave chase once again.

"Shit... shit, shit, shit," Astrid muttered to herself back at La Senia's Memorial.

Using the surveillance system, she was watching all of it unfold. Those called the Argonauts were gaining on Loki. Meanwhile, Ramses was tailing right behind Zephyr and Strider.

"Astrid to Holiday," she said. "Loki is on the run from the Argonauts, and Prostatis is chasing after Zephyr and Strider."

"Strider, too...?" Holiday asked.

"Yeah. Zephyr bumped into him at a bad time. Buddy threw a flashbang at Prostatis and ran off with our girl. They're on the run as we speak."

"Understood. I'm heading over now."

"Negative. You take any longer to get into the Spire, and the Queen's Guard will have fully mobilized. Grab Minerva and go. Loki can handle herself."

"But what about the other two?!"

Astrid looked away from the many screens that displayed her teammates on the battlefield. Her eyes trailed off to the left. Leaning against the table next to her was a dusty railgun, one that she had not picked up in years.

"... Leave it to me," she mumbled.

She was met with silence. That isn't just an augmented human they're running from. It is a general, those who are seen as worthy by the Queen herself, enough for her to bestow upon them a star-grade code.

Both of them knew what it meant to pick up that railgun again, but there was no longer time to think.

"Sharpen your eyes, Astrid," Holiday said.

"Will do, Boss," Astrid smiled confidently. "Over and out."

Astrid grabbed the railgun and stormed out of the office. She ran through the crowd and ran up a series of staircases that led to the roof of the ruined mall. l was a massive signal tower, one of many that overlooked the entirety of the Golden District.

She quickly made her way up the uneven ledges until she made it to the roof. There, she had a long climb ahead of her, so she hung the strap of the railgun around her shoulder and began her ascent.

After what felt like the longest few minutes of her life, she reached the very top and perched herself on the small platform. From here, she could see everything. The undercity and its beautiful lights, and the Golden District with its arguably brighter lights. However, unlike every other time, she was not here for sightseeing.

Her eyes shut. She took a deep breath. The railgun in her arm was heavy, but she lifted it nonetheless.

A sharp exhale. Breathe in. Breathe out. Her eyes reopened once again, and the singular diamond in her left eye began to shine.

"Code... All-Seeing Eye," she said.

A violent heartbeat forced its way out of her chest. She blinked once, then twice. On the third, her nerves began to shake as the diamond flashed brightly.

The city, its landscape, the buildings, streets, and all within—everything from every corner of the city was laid bare like a massive chessboard crawling with pawns.

Astrid held the scope of her railgun to her left eye, making the most subtle movement to adjust. Even though she could clearly see what was happening, she needed to pinpoint the exact location through the scope lenses.

Finally, she saw them. General Prostatis himself was cornering Strider. As a pure human, there was no way he could get out of there by himself, especially not with Zephyr's injuries.

Astrid sighed and took aim.

"Objective in sight. Enhancing vision. Target acquired."

She twisted the knob on her scope to reset the windage.

"Distance: Nine hundred and seventeen kilometers."

Through the lens was a clear view of General Prostatis.

"Obstacles: None."

A cold breeze brushed past her.

"Wind interference: Irrelevant."

She looped a finger around the trigger.

"Astrid to Strider. Get down."

When she pulled the trigger, an enormous shockwave shook the dust all the way from below. To all who saw, a radiant trail of silver bolted across the sky with a whistle that shattered the atmosphere. The clouds parted way in its presence, and a sudden blur left the stars indistinguishable.

As Strider held onto Zephyr, Ramses lifted his arm with a calm smile. This was the last strike, and right as he was ready to lower it, all eyes turned.

No smoke, no trail, no evidence was there to suggest that anything had happened. However, General Prostatis began falling towards the ground, the entire left side of his body having been blasted clean off.

As he shouted and cried in pain while lying in a pool of his own blood, Strider watched in awe with so many questions racing through his head.

Astrid threw her head back against the tower, her breaths heavy. She squinted, but it did not alleviate the pain that was now plaguing her reticles.

"Astrid?" Strider called through the comms. "Was that you?"

"Sure was, buddy..." she replied with an intense cough. "You... owe me."

"Wait... why do you sound so-"

"No time... Go. Get out of there... Now."

Reluctant as he was to simply leave her be, he complied. He pulled Zephyr onto his back and carried her all the way back into the Golden District.