"Working for you?" A scientist stared up at Aldrich. Outside of her hazmat suit, her features were clearly visible. She had shoulder-length purple-tinted hair and gleaming lavender eyes. A young girl, around Aldrich's own age.
Though, not that surprising. With Alters popping up with superhuman intelligence, it was less and less surprising to see young people in higher and higher research-related positions.
The scientist pointed to the rubble around her. The remnants of the enormous underground lab that once was.
"But our whole lab's trashed. Everything we've worked for is all gone."
"Be quiet!" another scientist patted her shoulder. "He saved us! Be grateful and keep your head down for now!"
"No." The girl shook the other scientist off of her. "We were so close! So close to finding out everything! The secret to energy beyond possibility! Beyond the chains of Alter powers! And now-now it's all gone!
Without the ring, there IS no research!"
"Listen to him." Machine Mind spoke for the first time. They all turned their heads to listen to him, showing the deference that had been drilled into them from years of working together in the past. "I say this now as your team leader and an affiliate of the Trident. All of you are compromised. We were made targets the moment we came back under Thanatos's power."
"What do you mean?" said the girl. She stared barely concealed daggers at Machine Mind. "You know, you're the reason this all happened in the first place. I don't know why that guy was after you, but if you hadn't done whatever you'd done, this would've never happened."
"No. But what is done is done," said Machine Mind. "All that remains now is what will be. If you value your research, you will continue on with this man."
"He's right," said Aldrich. "If your research is most important to you, then I am the only chance you all have got. And make no mistake, though I am generous enough to give you a second chance, I will not hesitate to take it away if my hand is forced.
And besides, you have not lost everything."
Aldrich raised his hand and showed the scientists the back of his palm. The blue branch shone brightly against the black of his gauntlet.
"The ring's energy signature...but how?" began the girl.
"I trust that this is proof enough that your research is salvageable. We will speak on this matter more later."
The way Aldrich ended his words made it very clear that he would not tolerate more talking back. Not really because of a lack of patience but more because there was a more pressing matter at hand.
'Enemies inbound' stated Volantis telepathically. Three energy signatures. However, all of these three are formidable. Among the most powerful of foes you have faced so far.'
'Understood. Keep their energy signatures tracked on my minimap,' said Aldrich.
At the corner of Aldrich's vision, a rough map formed of his surroundings, and there, in the air, several blinking red dots started to creep forwards.
"Clint, any way you can take these people back to the group?" said Aldrich.
"Yeah, just give me a few secs to adapt. My evolutions ain't instant," said Clint. "But ya sure you'll be fine up there? Cause I'm sensin' some tough as-nails guys comin' down on us."
"I will handle it." Aldrich would have transported them all using Chrysa, but unfortunately, she was still resting back in the Necropolis. She had not woken up from returning to this reality, and the Death Lord had advised Aldrich to keep her there for her to recover.
Valera had also chosen to stay behind to take care of Chrysa. And also to find a new suit of armor from the Death Lord's armory after getting her hound set scrapped up by the other dimension.
Aldrich unfurled draconic wings from his back. They flapped once, powerfully, surging him upwards into the air, past the crumbling ceiling of the bunker.
He was still deep underground, at the very base of the bunker, and Ace's rampage had thoroughly messed up any proper exit out to the surface. He thus channeled his [Anti-Life Beam] like a drill, disintegrating the rubble ahead of him until he popped out to the surface.
There, on the surface, sunlight shone down on him. He basked in its light as he flew higher, hovering a dozen meters above the barren, rocky orange ground.
The crackling arcs of energy characteristic of geo-storm trails were gone from the environment. And with that, the countless backed-up distress signals from the lab had finally gone through.
And now, within minutes, reinforcements had arrived.
"Shit, finally back, huh." Stella squinted her eyes, shielding them from the bright sun as she took a look at her absent boss. "Been gone like an hour or something, but it feels like a million years."
"Apologies for the inconvenience," said Aldrich. "Something came up. I'll explain in detail later."
He looked at the rest of the group, checking if they were alright. Tox, Alexis, and Ace were fine with the two girls standing beside Ace in the midst of comforting him.
The newbies - Falco and Alan - were fine, if just a bit battle worn. Especially visible on Alan were burn marks on the dermal plating of his arm and chest from explosives, both from enemies and from the internal combustion of his own weaponry.
Diamondback stared up at Aldrich with crossed arms, as serious as ever. Beside him was Kris who stared through Aldrich with his goggles whirring and zooming in.
"My daughter! Where the hell is she!?" roared a tall, lavender-eyed man. His unruly, lengthy amethyst hair made him look as wild as a man could be, like a mountaintop caveman.
"Your daughter?" said Aldrich.
"That's right, you corpse-loving muck!" said the man. "She was part of the labs! Where is she!?"
Aldrich sensed that this man had a formidable energy level as well, but his power was being contained by a pair of null cuffs.
"This screaming lunatic here is Shuten Doji. Fifth Sword," said Stella.
"I see." Aldrich nodded. He had gotten here in a bit of a rush, so he was not entirely abreast of the situation. He did know, however, that it was entirely unexpected that a Sword would be here.
If he knew a Sword was here, he would have sent a stronger force out here.
But he could deduce that it made sense for a Sword to be here if his daughter was here.
It was obvious who his daughter was too. The lab girl from before. Aside from the purple eyes, their attitudes matched too.
"She's fine and currently under Clint's protection," said Aldrich. The fifth Sword's expression softened. "But make sure to keep this in mind: she's alive because I resurrected her.
I hope I don't have to explain the implications of what that means."
The fifth sword looked stunned, then grimaced. He did not say anything back because he already knew. Aldrich had full control over whether his daughter lived or not.
"Your absence? Can you explain it?" said Diamondback.
"Well, doesn't look like we're gonna be getting time for a nice coffee chit-chat anytime soon." Stella's eyes flashed bright orange as she spied the skies.
Aldrich looked back where he saw the three energy signatures Volantis pointed out from before.
"Shit...," said Kris, focusing fully on his goggles now. "Those are the first, second, and third Swords."