“How could you?” shouted Cori’s dad. “You let all those people in the mall die.”
Cori looked around. She was at home in Australia, a place that she hadn’t lived for years, but she was Rigel and in costume. “No, Dad, this isn’t you. I’m in my own mind being attacked.”
She felt a hand on her shoulder and turned. A black-gloved fist slammed into her jaw. She fell to the ground with the taste of blood in her mouth.
The Ace of Spades stood over her.
“You think I’m afraid of a fistfight?” she asked him.
“No,” he said, drawing a pistol from his belt, “but you’ll be traumatized by this.” He pointed the gun at her father and fired three times.
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Defiance turned his head toward the mayor.
Telepathically, Rigel contacted Matt, “Get the mayor inside the base, now.”
Defiance flew over to the mayor. “You are the one who did this to me! You can’t hide anymore!” he shouted.
The mayor’s eyes widened. He looked utterly terrified for a split-second, but then, there was a blur or a shadow, and the mayor was gone. Only a few singed grasses on the lawn indicated what had happened.
“That was Velocity,” whispered Rigel.
Defiance screamed incoherently and slammed a fist into the ground, shattering concrete and throwing everyone off their feet. “Where is he?” he said, turning to glare at Future Soldier/Nightstar. “I’ll tear you and your team apart if you don’t turn him over.”
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“Last night, Freedom Squad may have been saving lives, but this reporter wants to know where Protector and Rockslide were? Are they recovering from injuries in their battles with Defiance, Death Queen and the other villains rampaging through the city? And in the meantime, progress continues slowly on cleaning up the monument to the original Freedom Squad. But first, news from the Northwest, where the hero team Vanguard defeated one of our escapees…”
Rigel turned off the morning news broadcast and put her boots up on one of the consoles in the Monitor Room. She groaned softly. “Why does the press have to be so difficult?” she asked no one in particular.
Rockslide rumbled beside her. He sat down heavily on the floor.
“I know,” Rigel thought to the massive stone superhero, “And I’m sorry, but you are a little hard to disguise.”
“I know,” he sadly thought in reply.
“Besides, you’ll have Starlight around if things get out of control, and you know what you need to do,” she thought back to him.
“Protect the Protector,” he thought back. “And put on a good show.”
“Right,” she responded. “Now, remember, what we are about to do is rather mad, but I need you to make it look good. I’d also like you to trust me with something. I want to alter your brainwaves slightly. Basically, I’m trying to make you less susceptible to mental attack. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Ace of Spades tries to do something to you once he figures out my plan.”
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Protector was asleep. More importantly, he was alive.
Rigel knew that Dr. Lord was going to stay at his bedside, and that whatever the Ace of Spades had done, Alex’s mind was doing its best to heal. She wanted to try and go into his head, but she convinced herself that she needed to trust that the best thing for him was to let him heal.
Whatever the Ace had tried to do, it had failed.
There were other matters that Cori needed to address. She was determined that she was going to redo the code on the Freedom Squad servers and create the world’s greatest firewall. The Ace of Spades wasn’t going to get into their systems again. Afterwards, she was going to check every log file imaginable and determine how the Ace had accessed their systems. She sat at a keyboard with her hands folded under her chin as she watched code flash by on the monitor. The keyboard beeped as it tried to keep up with the speed of her telekinetic typing.
Daniel Hunter came up behind her. She mentally sensed him before she saw him. He seemed a little shaken by the attack, but he was otherwise okay. Like everyone else, he was more concerned with Protector. Though, at this point, she knew that he was worried about her. He had been a team leader in the past, and he had been the one who had supported her when she decided to join Freedom Squad.
Daniel put a hand on her shoulder. In a gentle voice, he said, “I can do that.”
“No,” she said. “This is my responsibility. The mayor even told me to do it. There was an error with our security system before the cameras showed Protector convulsing. I should have taken care of this. Someone’s been accessing our systems. I’ll let you follow up and check the log after I’m done. If there’s another crisis, I’ll even let you take over, but for right now, I’m going to catch the person who’s been causing all the trouble.”
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“Touchdown!” said Ion. “This is your captain speaking, the Freedom Flyer has landed. Please return your tables to their upright positions and deplane before the bad guys get here.”
Cori breathed a sigh of relief. The jolt was from the landing. The doors of the Freedom Flyer opened and the team quickly disembarked.
“We should hire a pilot,” suggested Ion.
Rigel was busy trying to watch the top of the Megalopolis Tower, seeing if she could spot Nightstar. There was a light flashing, which had to be his sword. The light suddenly faded as what appeared to be smoke billowed around the base of the restaurant.
Nightstar’s thoughts filled Cori’s mind. “Death Queen and lots of baddies… slicing out of here with Polt, hope he’s ready… oops… park’s a bit out of my range.”
Rigel saw Nightstar appear in the sky holding on to Daniel who was now in his gray and white Poltergeist armor. They were hundreds of feet up. Nightstar thought, “Need to adjust for altitude when I’m figuring out distances… Daniel!”
Poltergeist grabbed Nightstar by the arms and was carrying him through the air. A bright red and white comet streaked toward them.
“No!” she said and launched herself in the air, hoping she could get close enough to telekinetically stop Defiance before he hurt Nightstar and Daniel. Unlike Nightstar, she didn’t have any issue calculating speeds and distances, and she knew that she wasn’t going to be anywhere close when Defiance hit them. Mentally, she yelled to them, “Activate Daniel’s force field or teleport or something… Defiance is coming!”
Nightstar’s thoughts flew back. “Not enough power. He’s going to hold me and I’m going to try and swing. Maybe my sword can take him out.”
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An afternoon of concentration had yielded nothing on Defiance. Cori sat in lotus position on the floor of her bedroom and continued to project her mind, attempting to sift through the thoughts of thousands of people at a time without disturbing any of them.
In many ways, the experience was similar to diving to the bottom of a pool and holding her breath. She would concentrate, telepathically send her thoughts out, shift through as many minds as she could, brushing against them ever so gently. When too many thoughts touched her mind, she’d have trouble sorting and discerning them. It would feel like she was drowning, so she’d come up for air and open her eyes.
A picture of Melbourne hung on her wall, or rather the Puffing Billy Steam Railroad, outside of Melbourne. Nightstar had once asked her why she didn’t have a picture of the Sydney Opera House on a wall or Uluru if she wanted something to remember Australia. She had finally purchased and framed a picture of the Sydney Opera House and put it on the opposite wall.
The truth was that though she had spent a lot of her life growing up in Australia, she was an American. Her father had gotten worried that one day his enemies might find out that he had a daughter, so he had spirited her off to Australia. She learned later that she had almost grown up in New Zealand instead, but apparently as a toddler had gotten very excited when she saw a kangaroo at the zoo.
Little Cori liked kangaroos, therefore, she had to grow up in Australia.
However, she had her US citizenship and had certainly spent a lot of her time in the States growing up at her dad’s house in San Francisco. She had always wanted to go to university at Stanford or Berkeley. Being a child genius, she had attended both by age 16. Now, all she had of Australia was a slight accent that she cultivated and the occasional “G’Day”.
She wondered if she sounded more like an American steakhouse commercial than an Aussie.
The picture of the railroad caught her eye again. It wasn’t really a picture of Melbourne or beautiful Victoria (because she would have chosen the beaches), but it was a picture about her father taking her to celebrate a day about a kid’s tank engine and riding on the train with his little girl. She loved her dad, and she missed him.
She was thinking about calling him and waking him in the middle of the night, when Starlight contacted her on the communicator.
“Rigel, I have received a strange message. Could you please come to the monitor room?”
“No worries, Starlight. On my way.”
She found herself wondering if Starlight was misinterpreting a news broadcast or possibly a mockumentary. She imagined that it would be hard to be an alien surrounded by modern American media sources.
Strangely, she decided that Starlight was growing on her.
When she reached the Monitor Room, she said, “So, Starlight, what is it?”
“That,” he said simply and robotically, pointing at a large monitor screen with the image of a playing card showing on it… the Ace of Spades.
“It appears to be a malfunction. I am unable to remove the image.”
Rigel felt her blood run cold.
A soft male voice spoke, “Hello, Rigel.”
“Fascinating,” stated Starlight. “The auditory message was timed with your arrival.”
“I don’t think it was timed, Starlight… G’Day? Is this the Ace of Spades?”
There was silence for a second.
“Such a poor question from such a brilliant mind. I suspect that you had quite the experience with our friend, Carlos,” said the voice.
Rigel tried to mentally contact Starlight, but she didn’t seem to be able to link with him. His alien thoughts were too strange for her. She wondered if he might be a robot of some sort or at least, some type of artificial being. She reached out to Nightstar.
“Nightstar,” she thought, “the Ace of Spades is talking to me in the Monitor Room. Make sure the team is ready.”
“Sure, JR was helping me with some engineering issues with the Night Cycle. We’ll contact Rockslide and Protector,” he thought back.
“Not Protector,” she responded. “Doctor’s orders for Alex.”
“I hope this will be the first of many talks for us, Rigel,” said the Ace of Spades. “But you need to leave soon.”
“What? Why do I need to leave?” she asked.
“Oh, I think you are going to want to visit your friend Daniel Hunter before Defiance gets to him. After all, maybe he’s me. Oh, but as Daniel says ‘The Ace of Spades doesn’t exist’, so I suppose you can ignore this warning if you’d like to… Cori. Goodbye.”
“Wait!” Cori said, but the image on the screen fell backwards and began spinning, flipping and growing smaller until it became a point of light in the center of the monitor. A second later and Doppler radar scans from the Megalopolis airport appeared on the screen.
“Excellent,” said Starlight. “I was hoping that a flying villain, such as Defiance, might display on your Terran radar systems.”
Rigel was barely listening. She knew Daniel. She could reach him telepathically. “Daniel!” she shouted.
“What is it?” came the return thought.
“Defiance is coming. Get your suit on. Now! We are on our way.”
“I’m at the Top of the World restaurant on the Megalopolis Tower having a late lunch/early dinner.”
“And I know you have your suit in your briefcase. Go. You don’t have much time,” she thought.
Telekinetically, she hit the alarm. Setting her communicator on full broadcast, she announced, “This is Rigel. Protector to the Monitor Room. Everyone else to the Freedom Flyer. Hurry!”
As she ran to the Freedom Flyer, she contacted the Megalopolis police. “This is Rigel of Freedom Squad, please evacuate the Top of the World restaurant. We have reason to believe that a team of super-villains is about to attack.”
As the team got into the Freedom Flyer, a terrible thought struck her. What if they were being set up and the real attack was coming to Freedom Squad Headquarters?
“Here we go. Hang on!” shouted Ion and they launched.
They soared across the city. “Using the hovering engines so we don’t crash into any skyscrapers,” announced Ion.
Nightstar activated his psychic blade. “So, how do we know there’s an attack coming?”
“The Ace of Spades informed Rigel of the attack on Daniel Hunter,” stated Starlight.
“Who’s Daniel Hunter?” asked Ion, as he made a left turn past a bank.
“He’s Poltergeist,” said Rigel.
Nightstar stood up.
“Nightstar,” said Starlight, “I wish to advise you, old chum, that you should remain seated while the Freedom Flyer is in motion and wear your seatbelt. I understand that they may be inconvenient or uncomfortable but they are one of the greatest safety inventions in the modern era.”
“Thanks, Starlight,” said Nightstar nonchalantly. “I figured it was the conversation with the Ace of Spades. Cori, how do we know that we aren’t being manipulated?”
Rigel stood up to face Nightstar. “We don’t, but how can I take that chance, Nightstar?”
“Excuse me, Rigel, but as I advised Nightstar…”
“Not now, Starlight,” said Rigel and Nightstar in unison.
Nightstar adjusted his mirrorshades. “Okay, we are about to engage in battle on top of the highest building in the United States.”
“My apologies, Nightstar,” said Starlight, “but both the Willis Tower Building in Chicago and One World Trade Center in New York are considered higher…”
“Understood, Starlight. Nightstar, what are you thinking?” Rigel asked.
“If they are after Daniel, we need to get him out and let them know about it. You locate him mentally, project the location to me telepathically, and I’ll teleport in, grab him and get out. I’ll head to the roof so the bad guys can see me. It won’t do us any good if the villains think he’s inside the restaurant. In the meantime, Cori, since only you, Starlight and Ion… wait, Ion, do you fly?”
“Only Freedom Flyers,” he said. “I can’t fly.”
“Right,” said Nightstar. “Everyone else, land in the… park I guess. I want to avoid as much collateral damage as possible. I should be able to teleport that far, though it will be a strain. Cori, make sure Daniel knows I’m coming too.”
“Talk time is over,” said Ion. “I’m hovering outside the restaurant.” Ion waved through the front windshield.
“Ion, waving is illogical. The windshield is tinted,” said Starlight.
Rigel sent out her thoughts to Daniel, explaining the plan as quickly as she could. He was in the men’s room trying to get his costume on. She projected the location to Nightstar, who wasted no time cutting a hole in reality with his psychic blade. In a flash of yellow and red light, he vanished.
“Don’t say anything, Rigel. I’m heading to the park,” said Ion.
Rockslide made a rumbling noise that sounded distinctly like a groan.
As Ion banked the Freedom Flyer, Rigel nearly lost her balance for a second. She telekinetically caught herself and levitated off the floor.
“Again, I recommend seatbelts,” stated Starlight.
Rigel shook her head as she watched the green of the park fill the windshield. She telepathically projected. “Nightstar, you will let me know what’s going on and if you and Daniel get into the least bit of trouble.”
“Will do,” responded Nightstar. “I’ve got him. We are outside. He’s getting his power packs activated, and I’m waving this brightly colored psychic sword of mine around and making it flash rainbow colors. Defiance is bound to see us.”
Cori felt a sudden chill. Something bad was about to happen. Nightstar sensed it as well.
“Something bad is about to happen,” thought Nightstar.
Rigel felt a sudden jolt.
When Rigel arrived at Freedom Squad Headquarters, she quickly checked the Monitor Room. Starlight stood in the middle of the chamber, his featureless white facemask reflecting the colors of the different screens.
“Greetings, Rigel,” he said without turning toward her. “I have something that I would like to say to you.”
Starlight made a strange noise. It took Rigel a second, but it seemed that he was imitating someone clearing there throat. “Rigel, with all due respect for the noble efforts of yourself and the rest of Freedom Squad in protecting the good citizens of Megalopolis, I believe that the vile stench of evil has arisen in this fair city and I wish to assist in refreshing it with the clean scent of justice.”
“What?” she asked.
“I’m sorry,” said Starlight. “I probably need to watch more television. The Protector has led me to believe that other television programs would help me assimilate Terran culture. Perhaps I should try another set of colloquialisms. Captain, despite my alien outlook and lack of emotions, I feel that it is only logical that I assist in the retrieval of super-villains from the planet.”
“Are you asking to join Freedom Squad, Starlight?”
Cori bit the inside of her cheek to avoid laughing. Starlight’s alieness somehow seemed much less threatening when he was trying to sound like a cartoon hero or a starship science officer. He had been the only one standing in the park after the fight, and the mayor had told her to augment the team.
“Starlight, welcome to the team.”
“Thank you, Cori,” he said flatly. “Live long and…” Starlight paused as he attempted to position his fingers.
“You are welcome, Starlight. Is Protector in the medlab?”
Starlight lowered his hand. “Yes, he is being treated along with Rockslide and Snowfall.”
She thanked Starlight and headed down to the medlab. She wished that she knew what to do. She wasn’t sure where Defiance could be. The team could go out on patrol, but she wondered if a team of villains would just attack Freedom Squad Headquarters.
“Nightstar,” she thought, “I’m back at the base. Any ideas on how to find Defiance?”
“Hi Cori,” he thought back. Nightstar had a natural affinity for telepathic communication even though he couldn’t initiate it. “I do have an idea.”
“Great! What is it?” she thought back with a touch of excitement. Nightstar did have the most experience of anyone on the team, she reminded herself.
“Orion, your father, was known as the greatest tracker of villains that ever lived. I’d have you reach out telepathically until you found him.”
Cori felt deflated. “Nightstar,” she thought, “I’m not as good as Dad. He had years of experience.”
“So,” thought Nightstar, “Hmmm… Death Queen would need bodies… oh, sorry, studying some crime files while I’m thinking with you. Anyway, you need to get years of experience yourself. It can’t hurt to try while we are waiting for something to happen.”
“You are right. Okay, I’ll try, but first, I’m checking on Alex, Rockslide, JR and Snowfall,” she thought.
“Who’s JR?” he asked.
“Ion. JR is his real name, remember?” she replied.
“Oh. I like Ion better.”
Cori shook her head as she ended her conversation with Nightstar as she walked into the medlab. Dr. Jake Lord, a middle-aged former superhero once known as Dr. Hurricane, was monitoring a console next to a clear tube filled with red liquid. Alex floated inside.
Although she knew about the healing tubes, it still surprised Cori to see one of her team members suspended inside one. Ion was sitting on a metal table, shirtless, with white medical tape wrapped around his torso. He was watching Alex’s tube, but also kept checking another one which was filled with stones. Cori realized it was Rockslide.
Ion looked over at Rigel, “Hey, Cori, isn’t this alien tech cool? Apparently Starlight’s predecessor gave it to us before he went loopy and got recalled. It’s like a bacta tank.”
“Yes, JR, it is.” She tried not to sound worried, but she didn’t like this. They didn’t fully understand how the healing tubes caused cellular regeneration. “How are they doing, Dr. Lord?”
“They should be fine, but I’m ending Protector’s session,” he pressed a button and the red liquid drained out of the tube. Cori could see that Alex was held in a harness and had a breathing mask over his nose and mouth. “Starlight said that he was concerned that a normal human might not be able to endure the process.”
“Why?” asked Cori.
“He couldn’t explain, but he told me that he would watch some medical shows on television to help him with the language. He kept quoting or paraphrasing DeForest Kelley while we were talking. It was amusing.”
Ion hopped off the examination table. “I’m going to have so much fun with him. Can you imagine him going up to a villain and saying ‘Make my day?’?”
“No, I can’t,” said Cori, trying not to even smile at the thought, “And we need to make sure that he doesn’t do that.”
“Okay,” said Ion sulkily.
“How are you doing?” she asked Ion.
“I’m fine. Doc Ex-Hurricane thinks I should find some time to rest. He says the ribs are bruised, but otherwise, I’m okay. I’m staying on duty.”
Cori smiled. “Thanks.”
“I’m staying on duty too,” gasped Protector as Dr. Lord helped him out of the tube.
“I don’t think so,” said Cori, walking over to him. “I saw you after that fight. You took on Defiance, and you have no powers, remember?” Her voice softened. Alex needed to be okay.
“But I’m the Protector,” he coughed.
Dr. Lord stood between Rigel and Alex. He guided Alex over to one of the examination tables. “I’m the team doctor, and I will decide who is cleared for duty and who isn’t. Ion is fine. Rockslide is fine as far as I can tell. Furthermore, he can stay in that regenerative fluid longer than a human.”
“Am I cleared? I need to help stop Defiance. The last Protector did,” said Alex.
Cori folded her arms across her chest and waited. Alex had been the first person that she had met when she had joined Freedom Squad. She guiltily remembered thinking that since he had no powers that he’d be a liability. Of course, that wasn’t exactly true, even if he believed it.”
Dr. Lord pressed a stethoscope against Alex’s chest and made him take several breaths. Cori watched Dr. Lord shine a light in Alex’s eyes. The pupils dilated.
“He’s not cleared. I want him to wait a few days.”
“I feel okay, Doc,” said Alex.
“His medical readings look fine,” offered Cori, who immediately regretted speaking up.
“He looks fine, but he’s only fine because of this technology which Starlight told me was risky for normal humans. I want to reassess him after a few days, Rigel. Protector, that means no crime fighting and light workouts only.”
“Alex, you should listen to the doc. I saw how you looked at the end of that battle. Those zombies the cops shot looked healthier. Please,” said Ion.
Alex shrugged. “I’ll obey doctor’s orders,” he said reluctantly.
“Good,” said Dr. Lord, “Now I only have one patient to worry about. You two can go.” Ion and Protector got up and left. Dr. Lord turned to face Cori.
“Me?” she asked, pointing at herself.
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Rockslide. I want you to telepathically check on him to make sure that these readings showing me that he’s getting better are telling me the truth. Quite honestly, there was nothing in my anatomy class to prepare me for him, and I didn’t take geology.”
Cori concentrated. She could feel Rockslide’s thoughts. He seemed quite happy. “Are you doing well in there?”
“Oh, yeah. This is wonderful!” he thought.
Cori chuckled. “He’s fine, Dr. Lord.”
“Good. I’m going to let him out. Oh, and Rigel?”
“Call me Jake. I was a big fan of your dad in my hero days. That and Daniel Hunter always spoke highly of you.”
For the briefest of instants, Cori wondered if Dr. Lord could be the Ace of Spades. In the next instant, she decided that she was getting way too paranoid for her own good. And in the instant that followed, she had an idea.
“Sure, um, Jake, do you mind if I ask you a question?”
“Rigel, you are the team leader of Freedom Squad. I’m the team doctor. You can ask me anything you want.”
“Did you know Defiance?”
“Sorry. I knew of him, but I never met him. Why?”
“Just hoping that I can learn more about him, possibly telepathically locate him.”
The healing tube containing Rockslide swung open, and the hulking member of Freedom Squad reassembled himself. He took a few steps and looked around the medlab. “Better,” he rumbled.
“Wonderful,” said Rigel. “Well, if you gentlemen will excuse me, I’m going to be concentrating on finding Defiance.”
(Just more of this year’s Nanowrimo Story – very raw, but still enjoy!)
About a hundred yards away, Ion was dodging missiles and doing his best to exchange fire with Barrage. She was a high-tech villain, and Ion kept hoping that somehow his bolts would be able to fry her circuitry. Golem and a pair of zombies shambled after him. Death Queen would raise her hands and launch a bolts of some kind of cold darkness at him, but up to this point, she hadn’t hit him, and he’d managed to keep everyone busy.
Ion could see Protector struggling against Defiance, but he didn’t have the ability to get over to help Alex. Poor Rockslide had come back down to earth and was lying in a heap near a pond. “C’mon big fella,” said Ion, “don’t lie there until a bunch of kids start climbing on you.”
The police had tried twice to start advancing on the villains, but they didn’t have the firepower or the armor to stand up to Barrage and Golem. The Death Queen was protected as well by some kind of mystic force field.
However, Ion gave the cops a fist pump as a few of them took down the zombies. “Great job, Megalopolis’ finest.
Unfortunately, Ion was getting tired.
He glanced up at the sky, hoping to see a blaze of light. Maybe he’d see a shiny Freedom Flyer racing to land. Instead, he saw what looked like a rogue fogbank flying down at him.
“Aaahhh!” came a man’s voice from within the cloudbank. Then, the fog crashed in front of Ion.
“What is the world is that?” asked Barrage , who stopped firing at Ion in her surprise.
Ion couldn’t blame her. He wasn’t sure what to make of the mysterious cloud.
A man in a blue and white costume with snowflake patterns stumbled out of the cloud. It was Snowfall. “I don’t really fly well. I’m still working on it.”
“Too bad you’re not going to be around long enough to learn,” said Barrage.
Snowfall raised his hands and ice coated Barrage’s armor, snuffing out her rocket jets. She fell onto the grass with a thunk.
“Hi, Ion, sir,” said Snowfall, “I am very good at putting people in their own personal ice cubes, however. Maybe you can teach me to fly.”
“I can’t fly,” said Ion.
Golem was running at them.
“I can move out of the way of big things. What about you, Snowfall?”
Snowfall extended his hands and the ground in front of him was suddenly covered in ice. The ice patch spread out growing larger and larger. “How’s that?”
“Um, not bad, but it makes it hard to run.”
Golem hit the ice and slipped, falling forward and sliding toward Ion and Snowfall.
“Uh oh,” both heroes said at once.
“Ice Wall!” said Snowfall, furrowing his brow as a wall of ice grew into the air to block Golem’s sliding body.
Ion tried to run, but the ground was too slick.
With a crash, Golem went through the newly-formed ice barrier, shattering it, before knocking Snowfall and Ion sideways.
Ion moaned as he picked himself up off of the wet ground. Barrage was standing beside him, steam coming from the surface of her armor. “Snowfall’s not really with us. He’s just trying out. Maybe we can talk?”
“Fortunately, Ion, you have two things going for you,” she said.
“Oh?” asked Ion. He tried to summon up enough of a charge to zap Barrage, but the steam, the water and his general fatigue were making it difficult. He needed to stall. “What are they?”
“First, my primary weapon systems are offline. Second, you make me laugh. So, I’m not going to kill you,” she said.
“That’s reassuring,” he replied. There still wasn’t enough charge, just a few sparks on his fingertips.
He saw her armored kick coming, but there was nothing he could do about it.
To his surprise, Ion realized that he was still conscious, though he was having some trouble seeing and could easily imagine little cartoon birds flying around his head. Pain ripped through his insides, but he could still move. “Something to be said for electrically-enhanced physiology,” he muttered. “Okay, Ion, remember, Protector said to keep them busy. Solaria should be coming, after all, Snowfall’s here, right? The cops are around. Somebody’s going to turn the tide of battle.”
With a thump, Snowfall landed beside him.
“Looks like you are out cold,” said Ion, who realized that he was on his hands and knees. Despite himself, he chuckled. “Out cold, get it?”
“These two are done,” said Barrage. “Shouldn’t we help Defiance?”
Death Queen gave an evil laugh. “Help him? He should be finished with that fool with the shield any moment. However, the mystical protections that are keeping the police at bay won’t last forever. I think the mayor has escaped us. Still, we’ve sent a message. Golem, if Ion keeps moving, step on him.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” said Ion. “I’d leave a big stain.”
Ion considered several things, including the chances that Rigel and Nightstar would appear, where the heck Solaria was, whether he might be able to come up with some crazy plan like using whatever ice was left on the ground to send electricity cascading in all directions without killing Snowfall, and how if he survived this, he would definitely design a utility belt. He took a little solace as none of the options except the utility belt seemed to have a chance that at least he really did make Barrage laugh.
“Would you let me surrender?” he asked, risking a glance at Protector.
Alex was still standing, gripping his shield. Blood was coming from his nose, and he could taste it in his mouth. He was determined to keep standing. Defiance paused.
“Why don’t you fall down?” Defiance asked him.
“I told you,” said Alex, as he stood on legs that felt like rubber. “I’m the Protector.”
“Perhaps you are. Your predecessor would be proud. I’m sorry about this. One day, you will understand. Still, you impressed me. You don’t have his presence or experience, but you have the same sort of heart.”
“There’s something that I have that he didn’t,” said Alex, “something that might make me better than he was.”
“What’s that?” asked Defiance incredulously.
A blast of energy struck Defiance with enough power to send him flying in the direction of the other villains and Ion.
“I have a team,” said Protector.
Starlight was at his side. “My apologies, Protector. I had not properly compensated for his initial attack,” said the alien.
“Stop them, Starlight.”
“Are you certain that you do not require immediate medical attention?”
“Stop them,” spat Protector, as he did his best to remain on his feet. He was determined not to fall.
Starlight flew over to the other villains, a radiant light shining from him. “I apologize if this is not communicated correctly. Attention, villains, criminals, arch-fiends and evildoers of Megalopolis,” he said in his flat robotic tones, “Please surrender yourselves to the nearest Terran authority.”
“Who is that?” asked Barrage.
“Powers of Darkness, I command you to snuff the light of life from this… Starlight,” said Death Queen. Black screaming tendrils snaked up toward Starlight.
Ion took a deep breath, then made his move. Rather than risk a blast, he grabbed Snowfall and ran with every bit of speed he had over to Protector.
“Whoa,” he said when he reached Alex, “you are a mess. Can you still hold that shield?”
Protector straightened up and raised the shield to defend Ion and Snowfall as well as himself. “Yes,” he said in a tone that scared Ion.
The tendrils swirled around Starlight.
“Quantum flux detected, indicating power recognized as magic by Terrans. Compensating with quark emissions,” he stated. He emitted a glow from his hands and the tendrils vanished.
Ion had just breathed a sigh of relief with the tendrils reformed.
“Difficulties in compensating for quantum fluxes noted,” said Starlight.
Defiance suddenly flew into Starlight striking him with a thunderous impact. The alien hero crashed into the ground, digging another crater into the soil of the park. This time, he flew back into the air.
“Compensation protocols successful,” stated Starlight.
Barrage had apparently fixed her weapons systems as she unleashed a hail of laser bursts into Starlight. Her attack seemed utterly ineffectual. “I repeat, please surrender yourselves to the nearest Terran authorities, or I shall…” he paused, “… find one of the good citizens of this fair city to conduct a citizen’s arrest, as being an alien, I do not have the authority myself to arrest you. Rules are rules, as you know.”
Ion laughed and held his ribs in pain as he did. “Next time, remind me to show him something different.”
Protector didn’t look amused. “See if you can wake up Snowfall. Where’s Solaria?”
“I have no idea, and I will. Has Rockslide moved?””
“I think so,” said Protector, “but I’m not sure how well he’s going to be able to fight.” Protector swayed slightly and then caught himself.
Defiance floated in the air in front of Starlight. He looked in the direction of Protector, Ion and Snowfall, then over to the rubble of Rockslide, which was definitely reforming.
“It’s time to kill them and make them into my undead slaves!” shouted Death Queen.
“No!” said Defiance. “No killing. You all agreed. The mayor isn’t here. We’ve made our point. Let’s go.”
He flew down next to the other villains. Death Queen gestured and then all of them were shrouded in dark mists. The mists dispersed and the villains were gone.
Police poured into the park, followed by a platoon of reporters and cameras.
“We did it,” said Ion.
Protector looked around at the shattered statues, “I don’t think we won.”
“Alex,” said Ion softly, “We survived.”
Protector sat back and watched the monitors in Freedom Squad Headquarters, his shield leaning against the console. He tried to stay focused and keep a constant check on the graphs and displays that would alert him to the city’s emergencies. Currently, the city was quiet other than a few fender benders suffered by commuters. It disturbed him. Over a dozen super-villains had escaped Megalopolis Penitentiary, and yet, none of them had made an appearance.
The phone rang. It was the mayor’s office.
“Freedom Squad Headquarters,” said Protector.
“Protector,” said the mayor, “where is Rigel?”
“Uh… sir, she went to New York.”
“What is she doing in New York? I need her here in Megalopolis. Did she miss the fact that we had a prison break? I’ll have words with her later. Put Nightstar on.”
Protector cleared his throat. “Um… she took Nightstar with her, sir, to visit Psionicist in the hospital I believe. Ion’s here with me though. And we have Rockslide of course. Oh, and then there’s Starlight.”
“She took Nightstar to see Psionicist in the hospital,” restated the mayor, “Fantastic. There’s four of you. Well, if she’s not there, and Nightstar’s not there, who do you think I should speak with?” His voice dripped with sarcasm.
“I guess that would be me, sir.”
The mayor sighed. “Good job of guessing. Listen, Protector, I’m going to have a press conference with the police commissioner in half an hour at Freedom Park, in front of the statues of the original Freedom Squad, the World War II team.”
“Yes,sir,” said Protector, knowing full well where the statues were and that the original Freedom Squad had fought in World War II.
“I need you there to stand behind me and look impressive. Make sure the shield is shining. Understood?”
“Yes, sir. Do you want me to bring Ion or Rockslide?”
“No, someone’s got to watch the base, and I doubt Ion would cause any harm checking the monitors. In the future, you let Rigel know that I want to know if she’s leaving the city.”
The monitors suddenly flashed red. Protector felt the ground shake.
“What was that?” yelled the mayor. “An earthquake?”
The ground shook again.
“Sir, I need to go. We have a situation.” Without waiting for a response, Protector hung up the phone and grabbed his shield.
Ion was already beside him. “Hey, Alex, did you feel that? I think it was seismic.”
“Possibly,” Protector grabbed his communicator. “Rockslide, head to the Freedom Van.”
“The van?” asked Ion. “How about the Freedom Cycles?”
“Rockslide won’t fit on a cycle.”
Starlight walked in. “I have been monitoring the television as per Rigel’s request. There are super-villains smashing the statues in Freedom Park.” Starlight glanced up at the monitors. “It seems that the alerts in this room are validating those reports.”
The large monitor screen showed a man a white and red costume with a mask and a cape lifting the thirty foot high statue of American Eagle over his head and then throwing it hundreds of yards through the air into the park. A moment later, they thought they felt a faint tremor.
“We need to go now,” said Protector.
“I’ll have it running when you arrive,” said Ion, disappearing with a blur.
Protector activated his communicator. “Protector to Rigel…”
A modulated voice spoke back to him. “Communications software test started. All communicators will be offline for the next hour or until server reboot is completed.”
“What?” he said, staring incredulously at the communicator. Still, there was not time to worry about it. He ran as fast as he could to the underground garage, nearly vaulting the stairs. The van doors were open and he could see Rockslide in the back and Ion at the wheel.
Protector leapt into the passenger seat and heard the back door close.
“I am ready to assist,” said Starlight from the back. He had entered the back door as Protector had gotten in the front.
“Is he supposed to come?” asked Ion, looking to Protector for an answer.
Alex steeled himself. He was the Protector. He was in charge. “Yes. Starlight’s coming. Let’s go.”
Ion drove the van through the underground garage out to the rear exit outside of Freedom Squad Headquarters. “I’m activating the siren.”
The siren blared out as they pulled onto the road. Cars and buses moved to clear the way for the van.
“I could get used to this,” said Ion, as a taxi pulled out of his way.
The tires squealed as Ion made a hard right toward the park and then slammed on the brakes. “Oh…”
Protector held up his hand.
“Right,” said Ion, “We’re superheroes. No saying bad words. Still, troubling traffic, Protector, no one’s getting out of the way. Golly gee, now what?”
The traffic had completely stopped in front of them. Horns blared, but no one was moving. The man in the car in front of them got out and shrugged apologetically.
“I understand what Ion is saying,” said Starlight. “May I attempt to respond in the proper Terran vernacular?”
“Sure,” said Protector. Alex wasn’t sure what they should do. Get out and walk? He wished Rigel were here.
“Now, now, Ion, old chum, there’s no need to get vexed about the good citizens of Megalopolis having trouble with their commute, after all, they need to be able to get back and forth from their jobs so they can put food on the table,” said Starlight in his flat voice. “No, I have a plan for exactly this situation, and it doesn’t even require a utility belt.”
With that, Starlight opened the door of the van and stepped out, closing it behind him.
Protector looked over at Ion, who was laughing. “Where did that come from?”
“Oh,” said Ion, “Starlight told me he wanted to watch television. I put on some old Adam West and Burt Ward superhero shows. However, you know, a utility belt is a good idea.”
Suddenly, the van rose in the air and went soaring over the stopped cars in the direction of the park.
“I think he’s carrying us,” said Protector.
“I think you’re right,” said Ion, nervously. “I’m turning off the siren and the light. We don’t need to be but so obvious. Any idea on how many villains we’re facing?”
Rockslide rumbled in the back.
“Defiance for certain,” said Protector.
“Right. He’s invulnerable, you know. I had a poster of him up in my room as a kid. He stopped a meteor once,” said Ion, “when he was a hero.”
“No, he didn’t,” said Protector. “Let’s not make this any worse than it has to be.”
“So,” said Ion as the green grassy park filled the windshield, marked with several discarded bronze statues. “I count 1… 2… 3… 4… 5… plus Defiance, and look at all those cops. Okay, what’s the plan?”
“I’m going to talk to Defiance,” said Protector.
“What?” said Ion. “Alex, I mean Protector, are you crazy?”
“He used to be a hero.”
“Okay, and he was defeated by the guy who used to be the Protector. I mean, what about the other villains? They weren’t heroes.” Ion gestured. “Oh and…” He rolled down his window. “Um, Starlight, old chum, I think you should put us down before the bad guys shoot us out of the sky.”
The van suddenly dropped before coming to a gentle rest on the grass. They were close enough that Protector could make out Death Queen in her barely-there black costume, displaying her pale white skin to the world, floating over the massive broken head of the Light of Liberty statue. Barrage was hovering over the scene in her bronze power armor, massive guns visible on the arms of her suit. He wondered how they all managed to get costumes so quickly after they escaped. Defiance seemed to be yelling at the police. He also recognized the massive magical creation called Golem, towering at 12 feet tall over the others, as if he were one of the fallen statues come to life. A few figures shambled near Death Queen, and Protector assumed that they had to be some of her zombies.
This was going to be tough.
“Hang on,” said Ion. “I’m calling backup.” He pulled his personal cell phone out of his belt.
“Who?” asked Protector, “Wildside, Inc.? I don’t think we can afford them. Rigel doesn’t have her cell on her when she’s in costume, just her communicator.”
Protector looked down. The communicator screen said “Software test in progress.”
“Hi,” said Ion with a big smile, “it’s Ion. Remember when I asked for your number in case of an emergency. Well, Solaria, Freedom Squad needs backup at the park. It’s going to be rough. Get here fast… oh, Snowfall? Sure, bring him too. See you soon.”
Protector was going to say something about the protocol of getting the personal number of someone who was trying out for the team, but this wasn’t the time. Defiance had seen them.
“Out of the van, now!” ordered Protector.
Ion and Rockslide didn’t question him, and Protector dove to the side, just as Defiance crashed into the van, knocking it across the park into a large tree. Defiance floated over them, his red cape billowing back behind him. “Freedom Squad,” he spat.
“Ion, Rockslide, go deal with the others. I’ll handle Defiance.” Protector raised his shield.
Electricity crackled around Ion’s fists. “Yeah, Protector, that’s a great idea. How about we stay here and take advantage of our local numbers instead?”
Rockslide slammed a granite fist into his hand in agreement with Ion.
“Fine,” said Protector.
Suddenly, Starlight floated down beside Defiance, his own black cape billowing in the breeze. “Excuse me, but do you have car insurance? If you do not, I will inform you that in fifteen minutes, your insurance could be compared…”
Defiance punched Starlight in the chest hard enough that Protector felt the shockwave. The alien flew backward dozens of yards until he finally crashed into the ground, spraying dirt into the air.
“Where is the mayor?” he demanded.
“Defiance,” said Protector, stepping forward. “I’m the Protector, and I’m asking you to surrender.”
Defiance landed in front of Protector. “I knew the Protector, and you are not worthy to hold that shield.”
With that, Defiance pulled back his fist and struck the Shield of Justice. A ringing noise filled the park, but Protector held his ground.
Ion unleashed a blast of electricity. Sparks flew over Defiance’s body, but they seemed to have no effect.
Rockslide made a scraping, grinding noise and threw himself into Defiance. The former hero fell backward, buried by the earth elemental. Rockslide reformed and smashed Defiance over and over. For a moment, Protector thought that Defiance might be defeated.
Then, Rockslide went flying straight up into the air.
Protector held his shield more tightly. “Ion, try to distract the other villains. Run around them. Make something up, but I’m going to try to convince Defiance to help us.”
“That’s a terrible plan,” Ion said, looking at Barrage, Death Queen, the zombies and the massive Golem, “although, only Barrage looks fast. I’ll do my best.”
Defiance pulled off his mask and wiped dirt from his face. He looked angry. “Do you know who you serve? Do you know who is pulling your strings? Did it ever occur to you that there is a reason that your team was assembled?”
“I know why my team was assembled. We are going to protect the citizens of Megalopolis.”
“No!” said Defiance, smashing the shield again. A feeling of déjà vu came over Protector. He wondered if Defiance might get tired like Uberdude had.
As the former hero continued to swing, Protector somehow found a way to block each blow with his shield. He wasn’t sure that Defiance would tire. The power behind each of the blows was staggering. The Shield of Justice dispersed such impacts, but Protector still felt the shock of each of these punches pass through him. Though the shield was obviously protecting him, it seemed to have reached its limit.
“You aren’t worthy to hold that shield,” shouted Defiance. “You were put up to this, weren’t you? It’s all part of his plans. You are a fraud.”
Alex tried not to listen and think about what he could do in between impacts. Defiance was a brawler with exceptional speed and power, but he wasn’t a martial artist.
Protector turned his shield as he was hammered with yet another blow, and he managed to throw his powerful foe off-balance. Protector risked a quick leg sweep, and Defiance fell even if only for a moment.
“We don’t have to do this,” said Protector. “Listen, I don’t know what you are talking about, but if we could discuss it perhaps I could help.”
Defiance responded by rising in the air and hurling himself at Protector, who somehow managed to dodge the attack. Defiance stopped in the air and turned back to his opponent.
“You can’t keep this up. You can’t win,” said Defiance.
Alex checked his grip on the shield. Defiance was right. Alex couldn’t keep this up, but he was going to try.
“I’m going to keep this up,” Alex said. “I have to. I’m the Protector.”
Defiance roared at him.