Grover

Once the Hero Part 13

Once The Hero
Part 13
By
Grover

Chapter 57

    James Farris swallowed hard, fighting the nausea from the stench of fear that filled the packed elevator. He could almost hear the thoughts on everyone’s mind, “Almost there, almost there, almost …”, urging the ascending elevator to go faster.

    Then abruptly the doors opened. Like starting gates at the horse races,  they ran down the hallway leading to the surface. Confusingly, military and medical people were still bringing wounded in, as those like James fought to get out and away from the impending self-destruction.

Once the Hero Part 12

Once The Hero
Part 12
By
Grover

Chapter 51

SRT-One approaching Area 61

    Sapphira kept a close eye on the in-flight repair she’d had to make after that last EM pulse. Despite the manufacturer’s guarantee that all the critical components were shielded versus EMP, one failed. To be fair, she didn’t think they were thinking about multiple exposures, but in any case she was able to jury-rig a repair.

    The good news was that almost twenty minutes had pased since the last high energy event. Above them the aurora was fading and that lightning barrage had spent itself. That was a really good sign that perhaps the worst was over.

    The bad news was, they were now of course behind schedule. An irate Major Thomas was breathing down her neck because of it. Unfortunately, the malfunction she planned for his aircraft had to be aborted, because of that shockwave and the EMP that damaged one of their V-22’s for real Unfortunately it was the wrong one. Getting them back in the air had thrown off her plans and now the UHAB was too close behind them to risk making a run for it. So rather than hijacking their own transport and heading south of the border, they were stuck carrying out this forlorn hope of a mission after all.

     That created another problem. Like all of his ilk, Major Thomas seemed to think he knew more about tactical operations from his time behind a desk than the ones that had the muck on their boots. She’d overruled his demand that they go in low and fast. This was a recon and rescue mission, not an assault, or at least that had been what she’d been told. In any case, she didn’t want the US Air Force, whose airspace they were violating, to get trigger happy. Besides, Sapphira wanted to get a good look before getting closer, considering her insider information from Inspector Imbert.

    Their V-22 aircraft possessed an excellent sensor suite, and she meant to make use of it. Multi-tasking as they approached, she used her powered armor systems to tap into that system.

    The still smoking crater where that nuclear device detonated loomed in front of them, clearly visible. Sapphira still didn’t know just exactly what kind of explosion that had been, since it lacked most of the radiation one expected of an atomic bomb. What she did know was she didn’t want to be anywhere nearby if it happened again. Scanning the area, she found a cluster of vehicles and personnel nearby. From what she could see, they were rescue vehicles and were busy with recovering their wounded.

    The crew chief gave her the thumbs down, that so far their communications request had gone unanswered. She shrugged, unsurprised. Whatever had hit this place knocked out power and services to the entire region. It wasn’t news that these people at ground zero was hit harder than the rest of the area. Giving that huge crater another glance, 'a lot harder,' she thought to herself.

    However, they were picking up the pieces down there, that by itself suggested that whatever happened was over. The good guys had won, or at least driven off their attackers. But not without casualties, she sighed, looking at the flashing lights of the military field ambulances.

    Sapphira was about to order their pilot to set them down to offer assistance when Major Thomas abruptly cut her off.

    “There!” he radioed, sending a blurry sensor image of two women dressed in black. “Do you see them? Those are the felons Kali and Tech-Witch! Arrest them immediately!” he demanded.

    She shrugged at the chief who had made a rather nasty gesture at their handler’s command. It seemed the Inspector had been correct yet again, and true to their MO, the two ‘felonious’ mutants were aiding mutants who were in trouble.

    She wondered if it was worth it to point out this was an American military installation and under Federal jurisdiction. By the terms of ULTIMATE’s charter with the United States, they had no power to conduct arrests without the accompaniment of US Marshals in these circumstances.

    However, what she could do was take Major Thomas temporarily out of the loop. “SRT One acknowledges,” Sapphira replied. “One to pilot! We’re deploying,” she said, gesturing to Bernado.

    Her second in command got the rest of their team ready to exit. By the time the V-22’s ramp lowered they were ready. A quick double check, and they dove off out their A/C. Sapphira as jumpmaster, waited a scant second to make sure all was well, before she too stepped off the ramp.

    Her suit’s jets roaring, she joined her team in their plummet to earth.

***

    Val watched as Ollie kept the Buggy in a watchful hover over the convoy of ambulances racing back to the medical facilities at Area 61. Alright, Gus and the kids were on their way to the hospital, and Maggie was going along to keep the docs honest. Josh and Malik had attached themselves as her body guards which didn’t bother Val at all. Between those two they had the brain and brawn angle covered.

    Amanda, Malak, and Billie had stayed topside with Lizzie. The six year old was far too young to be mixed up in this stuff and Val hoped all of tonight’s events hadn’t ensured the young girl a string of therapists in her future.

    A quick trip to the hanger area had confirmed her suspicions that whatever aircraft were there weren’t going to be usable. There was a certain point, that if you were close enough, no amount of shielding would help. The one plane that would’ve been suitable to take everyone out had all of its electronics melted down.

    It was up to Pyotr and his people now. The Kusbegi was exactly what she needed, but Val didn’t want her home at war with the good old USA any more than her brother did. She started thinking of just how they could managed the impossible.

    She didn’t doubt trying to use another vehicle as an intermediary, and transfer everyone from one to the other, would increase the jeopardy Max’s kids and Gus were already in. Okay, so how to get in close? Most of the electronics were out, and that just left the people. Just chase everyone away from the LZ perhaps, but all that had to go wrong was for them to miss just one person. Maybe if Josh used his power to mislead or hide the Kusbegi’s origins. He could blanket the whole area and … That was as far as she got before Bob, one of Pyotr's people warned, “Inbound. Two V-22s from the southeast at 4000 meters.”

     Recognizing Bob the intell expert and brick as one of those she and Maggie had rescued, Val asked, “ID?” At that height, someone was giving them the look over, but it could be the Air Force, ULTIMATE, or several others that operated the tilt-rotor. Which one, would tell a lot about the flavor of trouble heading their way.

    A heartbeat later, she was standing by his side as he observed their visitors. “Lead ship’s ramp is coming down. Looks like, yeah. We’ve got jumpers,” he reported.

    Looking up, Val couldn’t see much even with her visor. Visibility was still wonky with the fading radiance of the aurora, and the on coming dawn. Bob’s equipment was bulkier, but specialized for this kind of thing. She supposed that was a good thing about him having super strength because of all the goodies he could bring with him.

    “Five jumpers, plus one.” He paused. “I confirm the aircraft as ULTIMATE’s and jumpers as probably their SRT One.

    Val shook her head. It doesn’t rain that it pours. The Supra-Reaction Teams were ULTIMATE’s supra-heroes but were mostly useless. They were just the bureaucrats attempt to control every mutant they could get their hands on. The effective ones tended to be either real head-cases or just so damn good they could buck the system, teams like SRT One.

    This wasn’t a fight she wanted, since this was one group that was at least trying to do the right thing. “Pyotr we have a situation.”

    Her radio replied, “I’m aware. I’ve dropped off the last of the wounded and am en-route to you.”

    Their visitors were still drifting down when Pyotr landed next to her. “Well, they don’t seem to be in hurry to get down here are they? So what’s the plan?”

    The rest of Pyotr’s people were making their way to them, with the exception of Katrina who was laying out her arsenal of weapons, assembling something that was no doubt long range and deadly.

    Val cleared her throat as she watched Number One’s suit's jets burning bright as she kept pace with her descending team. “They seem to be cautious, so I thought I would try convince them that we have everything under control so they could go home.”

    Her brother grinned back her. “Baffle them with buffalo chips, yes?”

      She struck him lightly on his shoulder. After her secret came out to her adopted family, Pyotr had been mad to learn English while in his Rock music phase. His Americanese slang was as good as hers.

    Well two can play that game. “Da,” she said in a thick Russian accent, “Take this job and shovel it,” as SRT One members landed, taking in their chutes while their power-armor suited leader kept watch from above.

    Well this should be interesting.


<<<<>>>>

Chapter 52

Area 61

    Sapphira landed lightly, letting her suit jets whine down. She had taken the time to carefully examine the area as well as the people waiting for her to land. First her data link with her V-22’s sensors located the one Major Thomas identified as the Tech-Witch. She’d departed with the departing ambulances with the wounded.

    However Kali, if that was she, calmly waited for them. The slim woman matched the general description with her black streamlined full face helmet and uniform, but this one’s suit was of a different design. Instead of a form fitting slick wetsuit-like or the aerodynamic racing suits skaters use, this one had a pattern of thicker material on the limbs and shoulders. However, despite the differences, there was a really good chance that this woman was who Major Thomas thought it was.

    With her were four men and one woman in the all black military uniforms, festooned with gear common to special operation soldiers. They all carried weapons, and appeared to be normal humans, even if two of the men were huge and gave some doubt to that assumption.

    A little farther away were four girls ranging in age from their mid-teens to one who didn’t look more than 6 or 7. They were the only obvious supra-humans here dressed in uniforms that resembled the old Rocketeers’ who were once based here out of Area 61.

    Speaking of which, she also spotted the gaudily painted silver and red saucer that group had used as their team transport vehicle, The Rocket. Its pilot kept the silver saucer down low and mostly hidden but her sensors had located it anyway.

    Frankly, the Greek heroine hadn’t decided just what she was going to do. Thinking about it, her orders were to determine what had caused those power disruptions, and to prevent another. Since ULTIMATE seem bound and determined to begin an incident, she was predisposed to throw a wrench into their plans. Well, let’s try diplomacy, she decided, and signaled her team to back her.

    “I’m Number One of ULTIMATE Supra-Response Team One,” she introduced herself. “Earlier tonight, three high energy events disrupted power and communications from Reno to Las Vegas. Two of them were Electro-Magnetic-Pulses, but the other was some kind of nuclear explosion. Perhaps a frizzle with little radiation but still created a fireball and shockwave,” she said, nodding her head at the 200 yard diameter crater nearby. “We’ve been sent to investigate. Since your communications are out, I had no choice, but to violate your no fly zone given the seriousness of the events.”

    The woman in black took off her helmet. Sapphira with her perfect memory immediately recognized her from a series of television ads featuring outdoor activities and feminine hygiene products. Her dark hair and fine features were marked by the helmet’s padding, and she could see evidence of a battle from discoloration and scorch marks on her uniform.

    “I’m Valentina Zarya Savitskaya, one of these children’s instructors. If you look, you’ll see I’m registered in your files as Dixie Belle. Pardon my different uniform, but this one was designed by one of the researchers here, for my use while here.”

    “Since I have the courtesy rank of Captain, and Peters here is only a lieutenant, I must advise you that you’re on a restricted Federal military reservation and ask that you leave ASAP.”

    “On the other hand, you’re right. We did have a little problem tonight. One of our student’s powers ran out of control, and that was unfortunately the cause of those high energy events as you called them. We have regained control now. However things are still hectic. I must ask you again, to leave. Already once tonight we’ve had injuries because of jittery nerves, and mistaken identities. I very much don’t want another. Please tell your superiors to give us some time to sort everything out. I’m sure a statement explaining everything will be made as soon as possible,” the courtesy ranked Captain said.

    Sapphira’s onboard database confirmed Ms. Savitskaya’s identity, if not her instructor status. Her request that they leave was reasonable, and made sense considering that SRT One was trespassing. She’d already decided to burn her bridges tonight. Perhaps, she did have a chance to defuse anymore trouble. All the better if she could get her people out of here without a fight. They could then disappear on the way back to Vegas.

    She clicked on her radio to explain the situation to Major Thomas.

    A chance she wasn’t given. “How dare you cut me out!” he raged. “Arrest that woman at once! Find that other one and arrest her too,” he said, sounding as if he was foaming at the mouth.

    Once again she tried talking some sense to him. “We’re on a Federal military reservation, and we have been officially asked to leave. Besides we don’t have an arrest warrant nor the authority.”

    Brazenly, he shouted back over the radio, “I will not stand for this insubordination! If you don‘t carry out my orders ASAP I will activate your team's implants. Yes, yours too. I bet even with that so-called superior intelligence of yours you never knew even your team’s tracking implants had explosive charges,” he said snidely.

    Sapphira’s face went stony. “Major Thomas I really wouldn’t advise that,” she said. “Under the circumstances I can not obey your orders, which are clearly illegal. Threats of deadly force against my team and myself are uncalled for. I can however guarantee that if you try to carry out your threat you will regret it.”

    She hadn’t known that even her implant had been rigged, but that just made her certain her decision, to end her association with ULTIMATE, was the right one. However that also created a problem. Sapphira had thought it a cute touch to relocate all the implants to a rather sensitive area of Major Thomas’s Peacemaker powered armor suit.   

    Two firecracker sized explosives going off down there would be very painful but were probably not crippling or life threatening. Five of them changed the equation significantly.

    “Number One you have 5 seconds to carry out my orders. I’m not bluffing, you bitch!” their handler threatened.

    She simply listened to his countdown while she contacted the pilots of his V-22. “I think the Major is about to activate a function on his armor that is about to malfunction. He’s refused to listen to …”

    “Bam!”

    “Reason,” she continued. “Please inform the UHAB that I have met with representatives from Area 61, and they have informed me the emergency has been contained. The authorities on the ground have given us notice that we must evacuate the area. After you’ve sent that message, please standby while we arrange for a LZ for you to pick us up.”

    Valentina Savitskaya and the others with her were looking at her expectantly. “It seems our observer has suffered a bizarre armor malfunction that has driven him to believe that you, Ms. Savitskaya, are a wanted felon codenamed Kali. He demanded we arrest you, disregarding the simple fact we have neither the approved warrant nor the necessary accompanying Federal Marshall the treaty requires.

    “Unfortunately the malfunction became severe enough that it finally disabled his armor. I understand that his injuries are not life threatening, but perhaps this incident will motivate him to a more comprehensive pre-operations check of his equipment.

    “Be that as it may, if you would inform me where to direct my pilot, we will get out of your way. We don’t want any misunderstandings as to our intentions,” she concluded.

    It didn’t escape her how still they all got when she mentioned the word arrest.  However since Sapphira had just about had it with ULTIMATE, she really did not care that she was warning a wanted felon that her pursuers were closing in. Besides, seeing how Kali or Athena, as the inspector called her, helped mutants escape to safety, she and her people might very well need that kind of help before this was all over.

    Ms. Savitskaya gave her a mischievous smile. “I would suggest the base airfield. It is a short hike, but your pilot would be less likely to suck any of this glassy residue into a turbine which I’m sure wouldn’t do them any good at all. Please, under the circumstances, let us escort your team for we don‘t want any misunderstandings either tonight. Or rather should I say this morning?” the Acting Captain said with a tired sideways smile.

    Bernardo gave Sapphira a nod as he got the team moving while she made small talk with their hosts. Up ahead, she could see their V-22 descending for their pickup. Inwardly, she crossed her fingers that they would get away with this. Her powered armored suit could do many things but the simple act of crossing her fingers wasn’t one of them.

    In retrospect, her decision to deploy hadn’t been a good one since it separated them from their aircraft, as much as it let her ignore Major Thomas’s orders. Sapphira sighed. Some things just couldn’t be helped. Besides, it did let her hopefully smooth out the situation here.

    All the warning she had was a short radio message from her pilot. “Sorry Ma’am. We have been ordered to abort retrieval,” he said with sorrow. Their little party was almost to where their V-22 waited, but could only watch as it roared back into the sky without them.

    Anger touched her. 'If he’d really been sorry, the SOB would have ignored that order,' she thought to herself, until a pair of deadly shadows darted over them in a whistling howl. RAH-66 Comanches, stealth armed reconnaissance helicopters, painted in ULTIMATE dark blue. The US had sunk billions into the program for them until deciding they were too expensive and that its needs had changed. ULTIMATE however was only too willing to purchase the swift agile machines, now that someone else had gone to all the work of developing it. Okay, so maybe her pilot did not have a choice after all, with those two making sure their abort order was carried out at gun point.

    Turning to her hosts, who were looking on curiously as events unfolded, she explained, shrugging, “It seems headquarters disagrees with my assessment of the situation.”

***

    Cursing with a vocabulary learned in 20 years of military service, Colonel Randolph Hodges assessed his options. He had already sent his SPADs high to serve as interceptors and air superiority. The machines were re-engineered booty from the ’96 invasion and were formidable, but not so much in the ground attack role. They were of more use making sure no one came in, and more importantly, to make sure not a single soul got out, to spread the news as to what really was going to happen this morning.

    Damn that mu-taint bitch to hell, he cursed SRT One’s leader. It had been hoped that their own not-so-tamed mutants would be caught in whatever disaster was going on at Area 61. Not for her to turn around and defect to them! That fool Thomas had evidently blown his own balls off when he’d activated SRT One’s implants. The idiot hadn’t taken precautions against that gene tainted whore pulling a fast one.

    Right. He had gotten his advanced recon elements on the scene fast enough to make damn frakking sure his orders that SRT-One’s V-22s abort their pickup. His pilots reported seeing a nuclear ground burst crater, even if the radiation from it was abnormally low. They also confirmed an individual matching Kali’s description was on site.

    The report on her indicated that he would need the heavier ordnance carried by his dropships to put her down, so engaging with his recon element wouldn’t be wise. Besides that Greek bitch and her team were one of the targets now, and he had just the plan to take them out as well. Better he keep the RAH-66’s back, and have them keep watch for anyone trying to escape.

    Someone at Area 61 liked playing hardball judging from that nuke crater. Well he could play just as tough, and had just the right hammer for the job.


<<<<>>>>

Chapter 53

Area 61’s medical section

    Dr. Courtney Hathaway barely glanced up as the lights flickered again. Triage had rushed another patient in, and she was far too busy to worry about what else was going wrong tonight.

    The young man of 17 had third, bordering on fourth, degree burns across his back. A quick scan with her powers revealed a broken arm as well as a number of minor injuries. His ID revealed him to be Albert-2. She recognized him as one of the clones Saul Simpson made of Joshua Dean.

    Being very familiar with their mental processes, since she had been the one to reprogram them, she gently touched his pain centers to ease his pain when he eventually awoke. Guiltily, she reminded herself that he wouldn’t even be here if she hadn’t programmed him as she'd been ordered. Her loyalty brought her nothing. Dr. McClellan and General Laramie had still pushed her out of the program. Her drive to excel had accomplished nothing but to hurt these kids. Not subjects, nor Project This nor Experiment That Other, just children.

    Maybe it was the only way to stop that creature, but did they even really bother looking for another solution? She really didn’t know whether to hate Alan Glenn’s guts for destroying her illusions or to thank him for opening her eyes. At any rate, her so-call career here was over. After she’d managed to pull her fast one when she’d bypassed the program meant to erase Glenn’s memories, she had been shuffled away to another project, one of little importance and no chance of advancement.

    Courtney was certain her sabotage hadn’t been discovered, but that the move was simply a way of getting her out of the way. She had to volunteer, of all things, just to make sure she was here when the big event went down. Normally the Air Force doctors and medical staff would be alone in handling tonight’s crisis, but knowing something bad was coming, they were willing to accept help from the civilian staff. She, with her mutant talents and her education, made one hell of trauma surgeon, as Dr. Sinclair, the head military medical doctor, told her.

    Working quickly, she set the bones with her telekinesis, while her hands prepped his burn area for the application of the synthetic skin that would protect and speed the healing of the damaged tissue. In time, it would be absorbed by the new skin. It was an advance that’d been developed here and a reminder that not everything that came from this hole was amoral.

    She’d just carefully positioned the syn-skin when a disturbance caught her attention. A quick PSI scan told her that all of Hydra Team Two was being treated, and although hurt badly, they should recover. Courtney left the rest of the procedure to the nurses while she investigated this newest problem.

    Pushing her way through the curtains, she found a tall woman, dressed in black assault-like gear that was bulging in pockets and equipment, arguing loudly with Doctor Sinclair. A pair of MPs was standing nearby, but what caught her attention was the wounded man on the gurney.

    He wasn’t any older than young Albert, about 17, but while he’d been hurt in that explosion topside, this patient was injured by shrapnel. Her ESPER senses told her that although there were seven entry points, the razor bits of metal had continued to fragment after they had struck. In addition to the one he’d taken to the head, there was internal bleeding and one lung was near collapse.

    “Dr. Sinclair what’s going on out here?” she demanded, adding her old bitchiness to her tone as she hurried to the wounded teen.

    Grateful for the interruption, he turned to her. “This woman is demanding care for this man, but triage has determined that he is simply too torn up inside. Better we help those we can.”

    It was true that the facility was being overwhelmed with injuries that had hit down here and topside. While the Hydra Team had been more badly injured, they certainly weren’t the only ones needing help. However Courtney’s talent told her something else about this problem.

    It was in his eyes. Looking behind them with her powers, she learned the truth. Dr. Sinclair had been briefed that if this man was brought in here, he was to make sure the young patient never left. Unable to make himself simply kill the patient with an injection, the military doctor was rather relieved that the badly wounded young man would simply die of his injuries if unattended.

    Courtney knew this doctor was just another victim of the General and the Doctor’s ruthlessness and insistence on having Yes-Men here. As their eyes met, and he saw that she could see the truth, the Air Force surgeon dropped his gaze in shame.

    The woman hotly demanded, “Is someone going to help him or are you all just going to watch him die!”

    Courtney replied, as she quickly examined her newest patient, “I have just finished with Albert, and the rest of Hydra is stabilizing.” She sent a suggestion to him that he needed to make sure of the Hydra team’s condition.

    “If you can spare a nurse, I’ll handle this one, Doctor,” she said to him.

    Thankful to be let off the hook, he turned to say something but the woman in black interrupted, “I’m a trained medic. I’ll assist.”

    Raising an eyebrow, Courtney amended her request. “I need a trauma cart STAT!” All the entry points had been treated very quickly after the trauma, so there had been little external bleeding, but the material used on his uniform was something very different from what was usually employed by the military.

    Getting her first real look at the clothing he was wearing, it hit her. This was him, the Creature, Gus Glenn. Pushing past her shock, she looked at the woman in black for help. “We need something to cut this material. The normal shears and cutters won’t work, but he is shredded badly internally.”

    She was about to warn the woman that she was going go use her TK to lift him while they stripped the decades old bulletproof Rocketeer costume off, when to her amazement a device assembled itself from parts flying about madly until they suddenly all clicked together.

    “Call me Techie,” the woman said, as she ran the devise across the tough uniform‘s surface.

    The material parted as if cut by a knife which Courtney knew was flat out impossible. The metal-weave, reinforced Kevlar might be 30 years out of date but still was tough stuff.

    Techie smiled. “Sonics. I’ve adjusted the depth to disrupt only the fabric. Always admired that English doctor fellow with the nifty screwdriver. What’s next Doctor?”  Techie asked, as they cleared the uniform away.

    Courtney didn’t look up as someone pushed a trauma cart over. “Right, let’s get to it.” They had a life to save.

*** 

    Arghun Bagudur, son of the windswept steppes, ran at a pace the swiftest horses couldn’t match and one that no land bound machine would dare over the broken ground. He’d stripped off everything but just what he absolutely needed. This was a race that he would not lose. Too much was at stake.

    Years ago when he first showed up at that lovely valley, so full of ancient apples, that the Russians were so intent on turning into a city, he had been alone for so very long. For ages he’d spent his life away from others. He was just too different. Sooner or later suspicions would grow, and after that, hate came on its heels.

    For some, it was envy of his long life and youth, while for others it was fear and superstition. The result was always the same. With a ferocious longing, he missed the camaraderie of his fellow warriors who had long ago turned to dust.

    And so he spent his time as a hermit until that night when he dreamed true. It didn’t happen often but when it did he listened. This one told of a marvelous city to come. One of mighty warriors, but more importantly, one where perhaps even one such as he might find acceptance.

    A city that would be founded in the valley of the grandfather of all apples.

    His sharp ears heard the first roars, but he slackened his pace not at all. It was easy to alter his path just enough to most hide him from the sensors he knew aircraft like these carried.

    Looking up, wave after wave of armed aircraft thundered overhead. Counting his enemies as he did ages before, from horseback with a bow in his hand, his determination grew. There were sixty of the dropships, and within them rode hundreds of armored foes.

    Pushing himself even harder he ran to the rendezvous. Never would he return to that hellish loneliness of being a tribe of one. He would not fail his companions.


<<<<>>>>

Chapter 54
Area 61

    Val shivered as her Luck chanted softly. The ULTIMATE helos had backed off, but her Luck’s low ominous tone told of something nearly as bad as Kiloton had been. Seeing how their involuntary guests from SRT-One had warned them of ULTIMATE’s Heavy Assault Brigade thundering down upon them, it wasn’t hard to guess at the nature of the trouble.

    She sighed heavily. It seemed they weren’t going to get a break today. The blue suited ULTIMATE man on the street didn’t have a very good reputation for being kind to those he was charged with looking after. Everyone called them the Mutant Cops and it wasn’t meant in a good way.

    During the time she and Maggie fought their covert war, Val found a few of those 'cops' that were truly devoted to making a positive difference. They however were the exceptions, and as time passed, it seemed more and more were nothing more than thugs and bullies. Nowhere was that more true than the UHAB.

    In theory, these were the troops that were sent in after supervillain bases and other hard targets. In truth, while they were sometimes used for such, normally these so-called elite troops were nothing more than Brown-Shirts and Sturmtruppen. She guessed you had to be a student of history to appreciate the difference between soldiers and thugs. The UHAB just ‘happened’ to recruit the most mutant intolerant and bigoted asses into their ranks.

    Her brother Gus and the others who couldn’t be moved, were only some of those she now found herself responsible for because of promises and love. But of course the one group in the whole world that she most considered her enemy would come gunning for her. To make matters worse, her adopted brother and companions were here now dragging even more into danger.

    Time to make the best of it. “Ollie how are communications?”

    The Gray sent back to her, “Short range comms were and are still unaffected. Anything that is not line of sight is still out. Solar activity was very high prior to Kiloton’s breakout and perhaps even played a part in the early collapse of Project Looking Glass. In any case, we are not talking to anyone until after sunrise.”

    “Just great!” Val muttered sarcastically. “Ollie, I'm getting a really bad feeling here. ULTIMATE just marooned one of their supra-teams here after they refused to illegally arrest me. Added to that, their HAB is heading here, armed for bear and we can’t tell anyone about it.”

    Turning to Pyotr she asked, “Does that about sum it up?”

    Grimly her brother nodded. “That about does it. You do realize that if they are planning on what you think they are, that they will have to kill everyone, including all of the base’s personnel?”

    Bob the intelligence expert spoke up, “As well as making sure no one dares come in to investigate with modern forensics. Probably will seed a radiological or perhaps a biological agent to contaminate the area for years.”

    Looking at her, the big man asked incredulously, “I hope you’re not planning on fighting? The UHAB is primarily an air assault unit, but even with its lack of armored vehicles, it makes up for the lack in having over 100 aircraft in its TO&E. Every last one of them is armed, with two thirds being Dropships carrying 10 power armor suits apiece. If that wasn’t enough, they also have a sizable number of refitted alien air to space interceptors that are well able to engage our Kusbegi pickup aircraft.”

    Shaking his head, he finished, “Those are long odds for a half dozen of us and some kids.”    

    “That’s a dozen,” The golden armored leader of SRT-One spoke. “We,” she said, waving her armored gauntlet including her teammates, “find ourselves suffering a change of loyalties.”

    Everyone looked at the recently abandoned SRT-One, seeing nothing but resolve in all of their eyes.

    Bob took a deep breath. “Alright a dozen, but those are still odds no bookie would ever touch. I know you have your reasons, but sometimes you have to cut your losses!”

    Her green eyes looked into his but they were as hard as steel. “Never tell me the odds are against me!”

    Pyotr winced next to her, just knowing she was going to say that.

    Val ordered her friend, “Ollie you need to get the Buggy out of here. Peter here can give you the coordinates and codes to get you to sanctuary. You should have room to cram the kids in there too.”

    “No,” said a voice at his shoulder. All the girls stood there, Amanda, Malak, Billie and Lizzie.

    “You’re trying to protect us again,” Amanda said, her arms across her chest. “Stop sending us away! We care about you, and don’t want to see you hurt. Maybe we’re kids, but we aren’t just kids. If it weren’t for us, you never would’ve put Kiloton down.”

    Val gave the teens a considering look. “And what about Lizzie? Do you really want her in the middle of what is coming? ULTIMATE may be bullies, but they have a lot of experience dealing with people like us. Even she may not be safe.”

    The three older girls gave the six year old a stare, and then laughed. “She was bad enough before she got zapped. Lizzie is a lot tougher and stronger now, aren’t you girl?” she asked her.

    Looking up at the circle of adults, Lizzie said solemnly, “Don’t worry I won’t let anyone hurt you.”

    Peter and Number One’s people were amused at the little girl‘s solemn pledge, but Val was wondering. The force screen she had inherited from that clone of little Lizzie had been at her pre-zapped power levels. That had been good enough to protect her from being way too close to a nuclear fireball. Doc’s ray gun usually upped ones powers by a couple times, so maybe the girls had a point.

    Billie spoke up. “Besides where could we go that they wouldn’t eventually show up anyways? The only difference would be that you wouldn’t be there.“

    Amanda joined her. “Ever since I changed, everyone has threaten me with ULTIMATE even though I never did anything wrong. When I tried to defend myself from those that used to call themselves my friends, I was the one who got in trouble, not the ones that started it. If they want me, they can come get me. Besides you said they were flying.”

    With the air swirling around her playing with her hair, she grinned. “I’m really good with things in the air.”

    Val sighed again. “Peter would you mind having one of your people explain Density Altitude to Amanda. Better warn everyone what's going to happen too.”

    “Ok Ollie, new plan. Everyone stays unless any of Peter’s people wants to go. Bob?” she asked.

    The big man shrugged unhappily. “I still don’t think it is a very good idea, but I’m not leaving. Besides, I suppose it’s better to face down the UHAB here, where we might see help from the US military, rather than at home all by our lonesome. If we don’t get caught in the middle, this could backfire spectacularly in their faces.”

    Val grinned at him. “Good! Why don’t you make sure that you record the whole thing with whatever gizmos you’ve got there to make sure of that backfire you‘re talking about.”

    Number One from the SRT added, “I might be able to help with that since I have a recording of everything that has happened so far.”

    Turning to face her, the ULTIMATE supra said, “Since my team is now in the middle of this too, perhaps it would be best to let us have an area to defend since we are accustomed to working together?”

    Val looking over the team nodded. “Why don’t you defend the perimeter around the elevator shafts and I’ll have Peter and his people cover you since his team has more long range capability than your group. The girls will be at the center doing their stuff and will be our reserves.”

    Turning back to Amanda. “I want you all at the elevators, and you need to let Josh and Malik know what is going on.”

    Grinning again, Val said, “Since Josh already has an understanding with security, have him explain to them what is going on. If he has any questions, have him go through Ollie, who will be our coordinator.”

    She spoke to him, “That cool with you my friend?”

    The Gray acknowledged, “Yes Val. Just like old times with the Rocketeers.”

    A voice came over the radio that she recognized as the voder device that let the telepathic, though mute, alien speak aloud. “Okay Val. Should not we go to code names with battle in the offering? If so, what is yours?”

    Val closed her eyes and breathed in deep. Opening them with a smile she replied, “Why Ollie, is there any other one for me? Captain Vroom of course! Now open a comm line. I want to have a word with our unwanted guests.”


***


     The five men squad moved quickly into position. They'd already completed their primary mission of taking out the last of three secure land lines leading into the base. Those were supposed to be Top Secret but poor security on the part of the contractor gave them the plans and locations. Then all it took was the proper application of explosives and Voila! No more problem!

    The point man spotted the swiftly running figure who could only be a mutant. Just as they had been trained, they set up an ambush. That was their secondary mission. To help eliminate any runners the primary assault missed.

    With an experienced eye, the leader waited for just the right time to spring their trap. They needed to do this right the first time. Unlike the rest of their brethren in the UHAB, the recondo/scout teams didn't wear power-armor. Those suits might give one man the power of a light tank, but the damn things were impossible to move in as stealthy as the teams needed to be. 

Once the Hero Part 11

Once The Hero
Part 11
By
Grover

Chapter 47

    General Robert Laramie stared at his command center’s big board. Most of the gigantic screen’s sub-windows showed nothing but static snow. The majority of the outside sensors and cameras had been taken out by the successive EMPs and that nuclear blast wave.

    Above him the overhead lights flickered, and a few fixtures hanged dangling by their wires. He made a mental note to bring up that failure with his maintenance officer. Although they were within 5 klicks of ground zero, most of that distance had solid rock between his facility and it. Area 61 had been built to withstand nuclear attacks and in fact this was the second one it had survived.

Once the Hero Part 10 Addition

Hey I just noticed a section that should've been in Part 10. I've added it to near the bottom of the post to just after SRT-One's observation of High Energy Event Number 2.

It's just a few paragraphs but it needed to be included in this part.

Hugs!

Grover

Once the Hero Part 10

Once The Hero
Part 10
By
Grover

Chapter 42

September 31, 2008

    Staff Sergeant John Maus’s blood turned to ice as the klaxons wailed. The readings on his panel spiked so fast that mere human reactions were far too slow. Without thinking he whipped out his key, jamming it into the failsafe switch. A quick glance at his view screen  showed him their backup station had also gotten the containment failure message. This was no drill or false alert.

    “From three!” The so calm voice of the Major commanded.

    “Three”

    How the hell could he be so calm knowing that thing in the shaft was going to explode?

    “Two”

    Trying to swallow in a mouth gone suddenly dry, he prepared himself.

    “One! Enable!” The Major ordered.

    John confirmed, “Enabled!” as he and the Major turned their keys, praying it wasn’t already too late.

    “Firing!” The Major directed.

    Together their hands slammed down on their red buttons.    

***

    High above Area 61, a geostationary satellite relayed the image it captured to its masters. The ULTIMATE watch officer professionally notified the people and units on his alert roster. The analysts, sitting at the control panels behind him, busily replayed the footage of the jet of fire blasting up out of the small building housing shaft 6 at Area 61, searching for any clues to what caused the explosion.

***

    The explosive jettisoning charges had been set by the best. Additionally, the carriage and the rest of the fittings were specifically designed for this contingency. The instant the electrical supply had been cut, high capacity capacitors took up the task of supplying the Looking Glass Projector, buying a few more precious moments. Exactly as planned, the pillar of expanding gases shot the carriage and its payload into the desert night sky like it had been shot out by a cannon.

    As it reached the highest point of its trajectory and began to fall, an onboard GPS system kept track of its position. Once it hit its predetermined altitude, another charge deployed a steerable chute originally designed to give ejecting pilots the ability to maneuver in high threat environments. Another off-the-shelf-component, made to guide gliding smart bombs, directed the descending blast scorched assembly to the designated touchdown point.

    A journey it was fated never to complete. The wormhole grew more unstable by the microsecond and began emitting streams of particles across the entire spectrum. Despite being shielded, the electronics couldn’t withstand the assault as they shorted and burned. Without their guidance, the lack of direction would’ve carried it miles off course given time. Time it did not have.

***

    Malik jumped as the sirens howled! He and the rest of the guys gave each other a startled look before they started running full out down the tunnel.

    Josh seeing himself and Amanda falling behind yelled out, “We can’t keep up. Remember that sled maneuver from the sims?”

    Scared they were going to be caught, Malik gasped out, “Yes!“ His sister grabbed Josh and Amanda with her magnetic field while he pushed. Billie steered and acted like a rubber bumper, keeping them from hitting the wall.

    Just like they’d practice in the sims, in only a few breaths, they’d reached over 30 mph racing down the narrow passage.

    Billie yelled over the still blaring alarms, “Stop! This is it!”

    They both slammed on the brakes as Amanda sent a blast of wind into their faces to help bring them to a stop before the already open service door into the hanger bay.

    Malik grabbed for a wall as the whole place shook with a boom!

    Stumbling, he helped up Billie who was reeling in her arms that she’d extended helping them to stop. Together they ran into the hanger. He’d half expected to see guards pouring in, but there was only Ollie in the saucer’s bubble frantically gesturing for them to hurry.

    They’d almost made it up the ramp and on inside when a loud whooshing of wind blew out of the open service doorway. Malik blinked as the two women dressed in black suddenly appeared there with Lizzie.

    Between eye blinks they were abruptly beside him!

    The one Billie called Val grasped his shoulder. “Go get strapped in! Ollie, we’re here. Let’s burn some air!”

    The ramp started rising with them on it, while the silver and red saucer began moving to its launch cradle.

    Malik threw himself inside, as the launch alarm added their screams to the earsplitting clamor. Turning, he did the classic double-take on seeing that strange woman, Val, was already seated and buckled in, studying the instruments at the panel where Mr. Glenn usually sat.

    Twisting to look behind him, he saw that other adult, Maggie, and Lizzie struggling to get seated as the ramp was shutting. The deck started tilting under his feet reminded the teen that it’d be a really good idea to strap in.

    Ollie sent to them, “Something major has occurred that has nothing to do with our escape. Everyone hold on tight, we’re going to blast off, hard, in ten.”

    Malik remembering the first time they’d ridden with Ollie, had to keep his mouth from dropping open. “This was going to be worse?”

    Ten
    Nine
    Eight
    Seven. He got the harness latched as the saucer’s deck continued to tilt.
    Six
    Five. Val yelled over all the sirens and everything else that was shrieking, “Crew is secured.”
    Four.
    Three. “We’re a GO
    Two. for Launch.”
    One
    “Blast OFF,” Ollie said calmly.

    A giant slapped Malik down against his chair as the Rocketeer’s team vehicle earned its name, The Rocket.

***

    A lifetime of awaking at a moments notice, ready to handle whatever crisis at hand, had General Robert Laramie striding into his command center calm and collected. With this operation nearing its critical phase, he’d been living out of his office. Scant seconds had him dressed, and ready for action, while his aides were still half-dressed, trying to update him on the situation.

    His command center was in disarray as techs rushed to get to their stations in a half-asleep panic. Dr. McClellan and the rest of the eggheads were bent over their equipment trying to find out what just had happened. All in all, he was satisfied so far. The proof they’ve all done their jobs would be whether or not Area 61 was still here come sunrise, or nothing more than a radioactive crater.

    The Watch Officer ran to him, quickly giving him the latest information. “Sir, at 0930 hours Zulu, Looking Glass’s power requirements spiked and blew all the fail-safes. We ejected the core. After clearing the shaft, telemetry indicated that the emergency power supply and all other systems were functioning as designed.”

    “Everything was operating as expected until just after the para-wing was deployed. We lost the telemetry downlink as well as all our unshielded communications and sensors. Backups shows the Projector is now drifting unguided to the north. If it continues on its current trajectory, it will over shoot the target zone. “

    The General whipped out a cigar. “What is the status of Meridian? We’ll need them to lead the target back to the zone. Bring the Hydra teams to readiness and have them stand by.“

    Turning to the cluster of white coated scientists he bellowed, “Doctor McClellan what happened to my communications and telemetry?”

    The senior scientist spoke, “What caused the early failure is right here. A big charge of energized particles erupted from the Projector burning out its critical systems. Another occurred right after the para-wing started for the beacon. That one was much more intense and larger, particularly in the EM spectrum. The EMP was what took out our communications and sensors.”

    Grunting, the General turned as an aide reported. “Meridian’s dormitory is empty. Security found the surveillance cameras have been compromised.”

    His eyes bulged as his heart rate soared. He didn’t even have to guess who was responsible. “Glennnn!”

***

    Temperatures soared onboard the drifting Looking Glass carriage. The heavily shielded capacitors tried valiantly to keep up with the rapidly climbing power demands. They failed.

    The Looking Glass Projector was both a failure and success. It was simply too expensive to build one for each prisoner as well as the power requirements each one demanded. However, it had kept the monster that’d once been a hero safely imprisoned for thirty-four years.

    The old machine flashed into superheated metallic vapor as the wormhole finally collapsed. A tsunami of energy materialized back into existence. Racing away at the speed of light, the excited particles and ions from its emergence bombarded the upper atmosphere. Just like in the northern climes, an Aurora Borealis lit up the desert sky in a brilliant flare. For miles around, electrical power and cars failed as the accompanying powerful EMP fried them.

    An enormous white hot sphere, spitting blinding arcs, slowly drifted to the ground. Where it touched the desert sands, the silicates hissed and fused into glass.

    Kiloton had returned.

***

    Arghun was on his way back to his comrades when he saw the first explosion. Relying on instincts that’d served him well for far longer than anyone would believe, he took off sprinting back to camp. He could outrun most galloping horses, and could keep it up for far longer.

    He disregarded the other flashes of light and thunder behind him. It was imperative he get to the others as fast as possible. They needed him to lead them in. Everything else was unimportant. Whatever sensors he set off wasn’t an issue any more. He’d a feeling that the watchers had far bigger problems.

     Pyotr and the others met him near the border of the lands that Valentina’s captors forbade to others. They were watching the light show while waiting for him.

    Arghun stopped beside Bob, who was carrying his gear. Gratefully he took his canteen, taking a long drink. Looking at the dancing lights high above he shivered. His people had their own legends about such things and it was anything but good.

    “Your sister certainly has a way of signaling for help,” he told Pyotr.

    Pyotr clapped him on the shoulder and said softly, “I owe you more than I can say. I owe you all. We will go get my sister, and then we’re leaving as fast as we can. Our rendezvous is set and will wait only till sunrise. Now, I’ll carry us as far as Arghun deems safe.

    Arghun’s team leader lifted them all with his telekinesis, and they flew rapidly in the direction of the trouble. The small dark man dressed for battle swearing that girl owed him at least a kiss. Shrugging, he knew that no one could go into battle with better companions. He’d lived more lifetimes than he could count and wasn’t sure of his own age. If it was his time to die, then he would make sure that the last battle of Arghun Bahadur, warrior of the great Kahn, would become a legend.

<<<<>>>>     

Chapter 43

Above Area 61

    Val hung on as Ollie fought The Rocket as they shot into the heavens. Overhead a wild Aurora burned madly while lightning danced all over the Buggy. The rear view had them leaving a contrail of burning sparks that even a blind man couldn’t miss.

    She slipped lightly into Slow-Time, using their sensors to find the cause. The burning wreckage of what use to be the entrance to elevator six was easy to find. Looking skyward was harder with all the interference.

    Abruptly, they locked in on the source of the disturbance.

    From over her shoulder she heard Malik exclaim, surprised, “It’s Kiloton! It’s here!”

    Val could feel her face grow pale. She hadn’t wanted to believe it, but there he was, The Monster. The killer, who somewhere deep inside, held her last living family, her brother, Gus.

    Sending to Ollie she asked, “Can you drop me off behind that ridge behind him? If I can lure him back to that trap, we’ll see if Doc’s plan will work. You and Maggie can drop off the kids someplace safe and come back for me.

    The kids were looking around, wondering what was going on. The Buggy was still bucking as if it was alive as Ollie dodged through the storm of ions. Billie was the first to get it.

    “Oh my Gawd! That’s Captain Blazzar. That’s what this was all about. That’s why they brought us here,” she said.

    Ollie passed on to Val, “Maggie says she’ll do it but as soon as we get them to The Car, we’re coming back for you. She’s downloading the coordinates to your helmet GPS as we speak. She also says ‘Don’t you dare get yourself killed.’ I feel the same way my friend.”

    “Prepare yourself. I’m going in hot with a bootlegger reverse stop and then a Bat-turn, flat-hatting along the ridge till we’re clear of line of sight, flying nap of earth. Piece of cake!” Ollie said in pilot’s speak.

    Val hit her harness release. “Just like old times.” This should be a lot a fun, not, as she slipped to the exit in the crowded bouncing saucer. She saw in the kids’ eyes that they had figured out she was going after Kiloton.

    Josh yelled, “We’ve fought it in the sim. We can do this!”, as the rest of them echoed him.

    She smiled as her hands found the old hand holds. Strange that after over thirty years she could find them without looking. Looking up at the anxious faces she said softly, “No can do. This something for others to handle.”

    Maggie’s face was grave, but across Val’s HUD she wrote out, “I love you even if you are an idiot.

    Ollie warned them. “HOLD ON!

    She felt the Buggy viffed itself about in a 180, slamming them all back into their seats, as Ollie brutally applied full thrust. She took a deep breath. Here it comes. Locking eyes with Maggie and grinning jauntily she mouthed, “I know.”

    Now flying backwards the Buggy’s rear doors flicked open, and Val let the momentum fling her into the night.

***

    Maggie felt as if her heart had been torn from her chest, watching her love suddenly disappear into the blackness. It took a real force of will to keep her attention on helping Ollie by keeping a close eye on their sensors.

    He’d immediately spun The Rocket back around and was racing at breakneck speed, scant feet above the rocks. Behind her, she was vaguely aware that Val’s tattered secret was out of the bag. One of the guys had put the girl speedster and Alan Glenn the ex-speedster together and gotten the jackpot. Billie and Lizzie had come clean with them, and now they all knew their teacher was much more than he’d claimed.

    She tuned it out, too worried about Val to be concerned about the future. That was why the mutiny got as far as it did.

    Billie, using her stretching power, tapped her on her shoulder, “You have to go back. We can’t leave Val out there by herself. Besides, no matter where you put us, we’re going to be in some kind of danger unless you put us so far away you won’t be able to get back in time to do any good.”

    “We’ll be just as safe in The Rocket as we’ll be anywhere else. Please go back? Ollie, Maggie?” the teen pleaded.

    From the way they’d came an ominous glow of lights and thunder sounded. She so wanted to do just what their would be mutineers suggested, but they did need to get these kids to safety. Looking at little Lizzie, a would be powerhouse or not, she was still only six years old.

    Helplessly she thought to Ollie, “Help?”

    The second he touched her she knew he felt the same way. “Maggie, if we do, Val is going to be so mad at us.”

    Another thunderous volley of raw power echoed behind them.

    Making her decision she took a deep breath. For Val to be mad at them she had to first be still alive. She could live with that. “If we go back, you will stay onboard, you got me?”

    They all nodded.

    “Ollie turn this thing around. We’re going back,” she ordered.

***

ULTIMATE SRT-One’s field camp.
Outside Las Vegas

    Sapphira locked down her armor as the ramp on SRT One's V-22 rose. The rest of her team were still strapping themselves in as their pilot did a full emergency-power dust off. Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps, was completely dark. The EMP that’d struck just minutes ago had done more than that, with at least one airliner down so far and another coming in on a wing and a prayer.

    The UHAB was still coming active, but since SRT One was ready to roll they’d been given the honor of investigating the cause. It was easy to find where, with that aurora burning directly overhead, Area 61. Their mission was to recce and find the cause. They were authorized to take whatever action was necessary to prevent another Electro-Magnetic-Pulse.

    Sapphira traded a long look with Bernardo. This was happening precisely as the Inspector had warned. Never before had they been given leave to act with such extensive discretion.

    He simply nodded as he made his own last checks of his equipment.

    Her own shoulder twinged where he’d removed her tracking implants. She and the others now had small transmitters on their belts sending out the signal that their implants once had. Sapphira could only imagine what Robert and Mariko were feeling. Having the implanted trackers removed was nothing compared to the near brain surgery to remove their cortex-bombs.

    Bernardo had proved to be a skilled surgeon and their state of the art equipment certainly helped. Despite all that skill, she and he wished they’d all had some more time to recover. They’d just only got the last of her gone-to-hell preparations finished when that EMP had hit. That was why they’d been able to respond so quickly.

    Their handler/overseer, Major Thomas, was a completely unlikable bureaucratic ass, who was interested only in his own career. He’d come stumbling in half-drunk from the casinos from which they were barred. He demanded they hurry, only to find to his surprise they were waiting for him. He, of course, wasn’t going to ride with them but was going to be on their other V-22, well out of harm's way.

    The poor excuse for an officer was also the one that had the remote for their tracking implants and cortex-bombs. Sapphira had thought it only fitting where she had her little robotic helpers dispose of the nasty little things. Neither of the two cortex-bomb explosive charges were very large, being about the size of a firecracker. However that was more than big enough to outright kill just about anyone, mutant or not, considering they were placed right next to the gray matter.

    Now, if Major Thomas used that remote of his, he‘ll get one hell of a surprise, not to mention needing some reconstructive surgery. Besides, a good soldier always checks his own gear and never ever leaves anything to chance. He’d just be reaping the rewards he himself had sowed.

    As their aircraft raced towards the storm of lights in front them, she closed her visor. If they had a chance of living through whatever was capable of producing such a strong charge, she needed to be on top of her game. The people depending on her deserved no less and she demanded nothing but the best from herself.

***

Tonopah, NV

    Inspector Philippe Imbert stood outside his Tonopah hotel, watching the aurora and the sheets of lighting playing across the sky. He could but marvel at the dazzling display. Andrea had rattled off some figures of how much power it’d taken to cause what had struck this part of Nevada. It rivaled a solar flare or a very big nuclear bomb. No significant radiation had been reported yet, but the amount of static electricity was truly astounding.

    It had begun.

    His driver Rodger was working on their Hummer, and promised it wouldn’t take long to jury-rig it. Andrea was trying to communicate with headquarters, but what the EMP didn’t burn out, this storm of lights jammed. He was on his own, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.

    All his people were armored up, and had loaded everything that could prove of use into their two Hummers. He was going to drive straight for Area 61’s gates. If they wouldn’t let him through, Philippe would wait. All this was just the opening round in a battle of Titans. When the dust settled, someone would be needing their help because he expected very few to still be standing.

    Rodger yelled out, “Got it!” as the big vehicle’s engine started.  A scant minute later they jumped off their other Hummer, and they were ready to roll.

    Not wasting a moment, the inspector waved his people to mount up. They drove carefully to avoid all the people standing outside of the two powerless casinos, looking heavenward. The dancing lights were truly beautiful, but Philippe knew that most truly beautiful things were also deadly.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 44

Mohave desert outside of Area 61

    Val twisted desperately in the air as the rocky soil beneath her feet vaporized, spattering molten glass shrapnel all around her. She was as deep in Slow-Time as she’d ever been, and as fast as she might seem to someone watching, it wasn’t anywhere near fast enough to avoid the speed of light death flying at her.

    It was only by avoiding letting his vaguely arm-like appendages point anywhere near her that’d kept her alive so far. This thing that was Gus stood at about 10 feet tall, a blinding bright blob with lumps and bumps in about the right places for a head, arms and legs. Where it stepped, the very ground bubbled and smoked, as it moved in a floating bounce like that of a moon walker rather than actually walking.

    If not for the force-screen she’d inherited from that poor deceased clone of Max’s, she already would be shredded just from the shrapnel from the near misses. Still in mid-air, she calculated her next move, using her flight to help her cheat. She was much, much faster on the ground, but the bit of flying she did have now, helped. It would’ve been nice if she didn’t have to learn how to use it the hard way. One mistake and Maggie would be a widow.

    The moment her toes reach the ground she zagged hard to the right. Val hadn’t taken more than a few steps when her luck sang doom, despair and more doom. Almost skidding out of control she zigged back to the left as another exploding crater appeared where she would’ve been. Oh tricky! The critter had figured out he was telegraphing his attack, and used the other arm to guide his aim that time. Well, Gus had never been slow on the uptake.

    A check of her helmet’s HUD showed their progress to the range. Dishearteningly, they still had quite a ways to go. However she was making progress. The bad news was she had to provide something for him to shoot at for him to follow. If she got too far ahead he lost interest. Val had wondered if she just left him alone, Gus might transform back. He’d to have used one hell of a lot of energy already to light up the entire sky like he’d done. He had to be low on energy, power, or whatever he used to keep going.

    The thing was, she couldn’t risk him getting anywhere near a population center. Left to himself he might just fly off, and if he flew as fast as those death rays he was firing at her, she would never be able to keep up. She was fast, but the speed of light, not so much. So, for better or for worse, this was the plan she was stuck with.

    Whoa! She checked her six as the critter cut loose with a constant blazing torrent of destruction from both arms, one in front of her and one behind. Bringing his hands together he meant to catch her in the middle!

    Charging for the nearer beam, she leaped over it, using her flight again to cut it as close as she dared. Hadn’t it ever heard, “Never cross the beams?”

    The critter from Gus’s Id was getting way too cagey for her own good. Time to introduce some good old fashioned motivation. Scooping up a fist sized rock, she twisted backwards and threw it at gruesome. Using her old friend Doug’s talent for marksmanship, and the remarkable strength she'd gained, the projectile flew as if fired from a cannon, dead on target.

    Only to have the rock explode in a burst of fire into smoking shards as it reached Kiloton’s fiery corona. With a roar that was a bizarre combination of white noise and the weird music of a theremin, he threw an arcing splash of incandescent brilliance back at her.

    Val in a corkscrewing twist used every bit of acrobatic skill she had to dodge the plasma wave. Nope! This critter didn’t like that at all. It might attack anything that moves near it, but it really got pissed if you dared attack it, whether or not you managed to hurt it or not.

    Her luck warned her to stop just in time for her to let herself drop flat as he lazered another beam above her. She said yet another prayer for that poor clone of Max’s whose power she had now. Without it she could have been dead yet again.

    Pride goeth before the fall she quote to herself. It’d been a long, long time since she’d really been pushed this hard. With most of the powers from her friends from The Rocketeers, she usually, deliberately, did not use her full capability. Like the egotistical fighter who fought with only one arm to make it fair, so did she. However, Val did it to preserve her secret, and she admitted to herself, out of guilt.

    The more she used them the harder it was to stuff them back into their ‘genie bottle.’ She used what she had to and then pushed it back away from her. For years she’d depended upon training her base form and had refused to use even the talents that was originally hers as Alan Glenn. Maybe Ollie and Maggie were right that she’d been trying to punish herself for surviving when those so dear to her hadn’t.

    Her luck, moaning oncoming calamity, again brought her back to her present predicament. That was one of the problems with diving so deeply into Slow-Time, the whole world seemed frozen. It gave her the time to plan every single action, but it also let one wool-gather when she should really be keeping her mind on important business. Like staying alive for instance.

    Aborting her flip to her feet, Val flew into the air as a trench was carved where she’d once stood. Cartwheeling to the side she put on a burst of speed to give her some more maneuvering room. Yep, she’d made him mad alright, as he kept blasting away at her, seemingly determined to level the Nevada hills. Now all she had to do was stay alive.

***

    Staff Sergeant Green cursed silently to himself. They’d been in their sniper hide catching sleep in catnaps, when it’d all started to go down. So much for intelligence saying they would have some warning, he scoffed. They’d been told an attack by some kind of mutant terrorists were likely, but this thing seemed to have broken out rather than having been trying to break in.

    Radio communication was out, and even the landline that they’d laid was damn spotty. He was just damn glad that fancy frakking scope, the SRVS (Super Resolution Vision System), hadn’t packed it in too. He’d read about EMP’s, and what they could do to electronics, but he’d never heard or read anything about how bad the static electricity could be. He and his spotter had constant small cracks of being bitten by the sparks.

    He felt really uncomfortable with the 35 lb lightning rod his XM-111 had become. Strikes were hitting all over the place and unfortunately their hide was on a rise so they would have a good shot at the targeted range.

    The problem was he’d spotted what had to be their objective moving towards the ambush point. The thing was a nightmare of twisting blinding lashing energy, burning and arcing crap all over the place. Duty kept him in place even as he knew they risked getting electrocuted from the violent dry electrical storm raging about them.

    What he didn’t know was what to do about that ballsy dame playing tag with that damn thing down there. She was definitely trying to lure it to the range, and despite moving so fast she was a blur most of the time, she must have 9 lives. From what his experienced eye could pick out she’d already used up half of them and was working hard on using up the rest. And she still had a good half klick to go.

    His spotter, Lance Corporal Hennessy, was on the field phone trying to find out what the rules of engagement was in this Foxtrot Charlie, Fluster Cluck. That was if anyone knew what in the hell was going on. Both of them had been more than a little freaked that they had so much static crap running over them, the marine hadn’t even needed to crank the phone.  Assuming he lived through this, he was going to have a little talk with the gunny who’d volunteered him for this, ’sweet little’ assignment.

***

    General Laramie had nearly bitten his cigar in two in frustration. The desert landscape about Area 61 had turned into something out of a filmmaker’s fantasy. Bolts of lightning were raining down continuously from a clear night sky while that intense aurora above cast bizarre shadows on the desert below.

    This operation was already coming apart at the seams. Alan Glenn had broken out and no doubt had something to do with Meridian being missing as well. Security had reported that the old Rocketeers hanger doors were jammed shut. They had tried to enter when a guard had heard activity within, although the monitors showed nothing. Right now, he could not even confirm if Glenn and Project Meridian had flown the coop.

    He was glad he’d let Dr. McClellan talk him into initiating Project Hydra. That had provided a needed backup. Already the Hydra teams were riding the elevators up. That however didn’t answer his latest question. Who in the hell was that woman out there?

    She was leading Kiloton to the target area and he had to respect her reckless courage. However, what he didn’t need was more complications and problems. At the very least, she was trespassing on his Top Secret base, regardless that her actions were at the moment useful. At worst, she was a dangerous interloper playing her own game.

    “General,” Dr McClellan spoke. “My assistants are still trying to narrow down the database as to who she might be, but I think I might know who that is out there.”

    Robert Laramie barked out, “Don’t hold your tongue Doctor! Who is she and what is she doing here?”

    Pushing up his glasses the old scientist replied, “I recognize some of the design features on her surpra-suit. They’re the same as on the one I designed for Alan Glenn thirty-four years ago. More to the point, the one I showed to him for the first time not more than a few weeks ago. Additionally, look at the supra-speed she’s using. I have only a vague idea of how it might be possible, but that has got to be Capt. Vroom.”

    It was to his credit, that unlike everyone else who'd heard the Doctor’s theory, the General’s mouth didn’t drop open in disbelief. His flint gray eyes stared at the huge monitor’s image. He subscribed to the old adage, “When in command, command.” Living up to that ideal he ordered, “Get Saul Simpson top side. Tell him if he can stop that woman he’ll have a complete pardon.”

    Turning to the eggheads he asked, “Dr. McClellan, if that is the same suit, do you have the abort and immobilization codes for it?”

    The old scientist gave a conditional answer, “If it is an exact or near duplicate, yes the abort and/or the other codes might work. There was any number of backups and fail-safes included as a part of the design.”

    Grunting the General said, “Then we have nothing to lose by trying. The moment Kiloton is down. You send those codes.” Turning to his aide, he added, “That goes for Simpson too. He does nothing, you understand, until that monster is out?”

    Captain Syn nodded and passed along the orders.

    Standing tall while everyone nearby leaped to carry out his orders, he muttered under his breath, “I always knew something wasn’t right about that boy.”

    If anyone heard they diplomatically gave no sign.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 45

Area 61 Test Ranges

    Elisa-1 yawned despite herself. She knew she was suppose to be a good girl, and be obedient, but she was so sleepy. Their nurse woke them up and told everyone that they needed to get up, even though it was very early in the morning. She and her brothers and sisters got ready as fast as they could.

    Now they were riding the elevator up for the first time. Like the rest, she had her visor on, watching as it told them what they were to do. Go here, find Kiloton there, and attack.

    There was more but she’d learned how to find the important parts in the mass of instructions they were given. Besides, her job was simple – pick up her sister Carol-1 and fly to the attack site. Then protect her, while her sister trapped the target, Kiloton, in her magnetic field.

    Simulations indicated a high probability that the target, once caught, would lash out at the one generating the field. Delia-1, who would be super cooling the area would also be at risk, but this plan was centered around Carol-1. If she fell, the mission always was lost.

    Over the course of the previous week, their commanders discovered that they were more likely to be successful if her sister stayed operational. They devised the tactic of Elisa-1 using her force screen protected body to shield Carol-1. It seemed to be the most effective use of her talents given that not even her screen could withstand direct contact with the target.

    The elevator doors opened and they all hurried up the short hallway and stairs to the outside. The chill dessert air was alive with the smell of ozone from sheets of lightning bolts, and thunder rumbled in a continuous roar. High above them, strange dancing lights lit up the base’s airfield and support buildings, almost like it was day. The surrounding night time desert was alive with shadows cast from the shifting lights.

    Elisa-1 picked up her sister and followed the arrows appearing on her visor. Part of her felt she should be amazed by what she was seeing, but somehow she had the feeling that she’d seen even stranger scenes.

    Putting her thoughts aside, she concentrated on performing her duty like she’d been trained. The mission always must come first.

***

    Valentina Zarya Savitskaya dodged another inferno-like blast but the end was in sight. The sunken pool of  Doc’s goop was well camouflaged, but knowing what to look for let her see past the illusion. The last few hundred yards had been tough. Now that she’d made him mad, the critter had been tossing a near steady stream of destruction at her.

    Suddenly, a rocket of some sort raced at the blinding form of her brother. She was surprised, as for once something flew at the thing rather than from it. Instead of exploding in the corona like her rock had, it deployed some kind of net that arced and flashed with power before vaporizing.

    The monster of Gus’s Id really didn’t like that, making that hissing harmonic roar of his again. Another fiery stream of plasma poured out at where the rocket had launched.

    Val’s heart lurched in her chest. Maggie?

    “How had they gotten back so soon?” she thought, as the area exploded into superheated steam and razor sharp fragments.

    Across her HUD, a message slowly appeared, even though Maggie had burst transmitted it as fast as she could think it. With Val in Slow-Time it took forever for the letters to appear one by one. “Miss me?”

    “Don’t worry the weapons are remote fired. I’ll alternate with you to divide its attention. Love Maggie,” she had typed out.

    Not having any time to waste with using the touch pad on her gauntlets, Val simply hit the acknowledgment key.

    Scooping up another rock, she deftly skipped it across the battleground, showering debris at her foe. Like before, Kiloton unleashed a hurricane of blazing fire at her. Deadly though it was, it was also easier to avoid when Kiloton was angry than when the critter was trying to be clever. That gave her time to study the pit-like area in more detail and what she saw made her heart ache.

     There, making their way along opposing sides of the range, were the unmistakable forms of two groups of kids. They had to be Max’s clones.

    Damn Laramie and Hathaway to hell! Val had no doubts that these clones were mind washed into the perfect little soldiers Laramie always wanted. Whether or not they had Max’s homicidal instincts or not, they weren't expendable robots!

    Val sighed. She had no choice but to play this game out. Like it or not, Gus’s alter-ego was just too dangerous. They had to stop him. She just hoped that Laramie had worked them hard on those sims. Otherwise the old bastard was going to be responsible for  even more deaths. Not that she expected that to bother him, but sure as hell it bothered her.

    She watched as another of Maggie’s toys went off, causing another roar from the critter. As it obliterated another hill in a blinding flash, she lobbed not one but an armload of rocks at him. Val had carefully picked each location, using her nimbleness to strike. It was important that the critter try to follow her across the seemingly solid surface of the trap.

    Light footed, she ran across the gel filled pit. The instant her foot hit terra firma, she threw herself skyward, letting her flight redirect  her momentum upwards. A ball of incandescence erupted under her. Arcing backwards, she flipped herself behind the fireball, hiding from him.

    Steeling herself, now came the hard part. Val simply stood as the fireball climbing into the desert sky revealed her to the monster, her brother.

***

    Saul Simpson had to keep himself from laughing. As they rode up the elevator, his guards were pale and clearly frightened. They might think they hid it well, but he and fear were old friends. Although he didn’t have any better idea as to what was happening than they did, he took it in stride.

    Death had passed him by so many times, he’d grown somewhat jaded about the whole matter. If he died, no one would grieve. Hell, they would probably have a party and dance on his grave.

    What he did know was the Man had said if he put some broad down, he could go free. Nothing else was important. After thirty-five years, he was ready to go home. All they’d told him was that some monster was tearing up the place. After it’d been taken down, he was free to pound the chick. He’d been told to capture her, but how he did it was up to him.

    Cracking his knuckles just to needle his guards, he smiled knowing how much it would bother them. As soon as the doors opened, even he was surprised. The night sky above them was lit up by dancing lights as lightning was falling all about. Thunder from the bolts were rolling in a continuous roar. Looking around, he saw that one of the small buildings housing the other elevators going to Area 61 was completely blown apart.

    One of the guards waved, getting his attention. It was impossible to talk over the deafening ringing roar of thunder. Pointing to one of those funny looking trucks they called Humvees, the guard ran, praying under his breath.

    Saul just looked about wonderingly. He’d seen so many incredible sights during his life but none like this. From the surface of the moon, he’d watched the Earth-rise and gazed into the depths of space. He ran to the truck and hauled himself inside. His keeper drove white knuckled as Saul saw the fires and explosions coming from in front of them.

    Bouncing crazily after the short drive, they skidded to a stop in front of a low blockhouse, half-buried in the sand. Together they ran inside where an officer and pair of nervous sweating techs were staring at their screens. Curious, Saul looked over their shoulders. The thing was a big man-like blinding mass of crackling energy. Crap was arcing off of it, as the ground bubbled up underneath it into molten sludge.

    As Maxi-Bad he’d fought some real bad-asses, but this one was in a league all to himself. He couldn’t help but whistle as it blasted a small hill to kingdom come. Saul had to admire whoever was out there with that thing, as he watched the glowing fireball rising into the sky, as if from a nuke. They had some real brass balls to be flacking around out there.

    “There is your target,” his guard pointed out to him.

    Looking in interest, Saul saw the slender armored figure standing there with one hip cocked, waiting for the fiery fog to rise. He guessed she was about medium height, and off hand she didn’t look like much. Her black partial hard-shell armor didn’t appear to be powered and her helmet was kinda streamlined like a motorcycler’s.

    He blinked as she blurred to the side as the Thing burned a trench, just missing her. Saul’s eyes narrowed. He’d only known just one person to move that damn fast. As she did an impossible flip, avoiding another bolt of fire, he was almost sure he knew who she had to be.

    The monitors had the outlines of some trap outlined upon it. Rather than get some distance so she’d room to dodge, she stayed, trying to get the Thing to trigger whatever boobytrap it was. That was the final piece of the puzzle. It had to be Vroom, Alan Glenn.

    Saul wasn’t sure how it happened, but that chick had Vroom’s powers and sure as hell acted like him. Maybe the girl was Glenn’s daughter or something and he’d passed his powers to her. He’d heard of something like that before from his fellow inmates on the moon.

    The big con sighed. He wasn’t going to enjoy it as much as he’d thought. Although Alan Glenn had been one of the team responsible for putting him in hell, the guy had also been one of the only ones to treat him with something like respect. Oh, Saul was still going do what he’d been ordered to do, but only because he had to, for Freedom.

    Then his entire world changed forever. There, on either side of the trap thing, were two groups labeled Hydra 1 and Hydra 2. His eyes bulged out. It was those kids he’d helped trained! His mind wrestled with what he was seeing. That General shouldn’t have them out there, but then it hit him - there were two groups of them!

    It was impossible!  A week had passed since he’d called on his Mojo. Any clones would be long dead, disappearing into nothingness. But there they were, his children.

    The big man almost dropped to his knees. They were alive! It had to be that Doctor. He’d somehow kept them alive. After all these years, here were children of his Mojo, alive. Children that he’d hadn’t murdered with the very act of giving them life.

    In growing horror he watched as the rampaging monster enter the trap set for it. The trap where perhaps the only things he, the destroyer, had ever created, waited.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 46

Area 61 test range

    Val somersaulted as the blast wave hit her at the speed of sound. Riding the wave, she twisted trying to see what had happened. Gus’s critter had bounded right into the middle of the pit and wham! It was pretty obvious whatever was in there had vaporized, explosively. A thick fog hid him from sight, but the bright lights shining inside let her know Gus’s monster from his Id was still in there kicking. The glare caused yet another layer of her visor’s filters to engage.

    In seconds, the miasma had burned away, revealing that at least part of Doc’s plan had worked. Lightning arced like wild living things from the critter to the cables lining the pit. He was roaring that bizarre wail and thrashing about in pain.

    Val held her breath, praying it would work, but slowly it rose into the air, pulling itself free. Then she saw the power that had been draining off the creature flash against the magnetic field of the Maxi-Malaks. They’d been holding it down while the Maxi-Josh’s had been blinding it. But it wasn’t enough. One by one the mad arcs sleeting downward stopped.  The monster started hunting for its attackers.

***

    Josh and the rest of his friends helplessly watched the battle as The Rocket kept its distance. He wasn‘t too sure how he felt about finding out their teacher was now a woman. Getting used to Bill being a girl now was hard enough, but the rest of the girls had made it very clear Billie was ‘hands off.’  What he did know was this: Val was down there fighting for her life.

    Looking at the faces of those who’d just a few short weeks before had been strangers, he saw their unspoken agreement. “We have to help, but you know Ollie won’t let us. Lizzie can carry me, and Amanda.  Malak, you get to carry your brother and Billie.

     “I need to get closer to make it see an illusion where everyone is 6’ to the left of where they really are. Amanda, I want you to super cool the area around Kiloton. Like in the sims, that should make Malak’s magnetic screen work better. Lizzie you’ll be Amanda’s wing watching out for trouble. Malik will be mine, and Billie will be Malak’s. Good?” Josh asked his teammates.

     They nodded.

    “Lizzie,” Josh reminded. “If that thing come anywhere near Amanda, you grab her and fly like a bullet the other way. Got it?”

    “Hun huh,“ she said, giving a thumb‘s up.

    “NO! You can not go. You promised Maggie and I you would stay onboard The Rocket,” Ollie commanded.

    Josh and the others looked up guiltily wondering how the Gray had read their thoughts.

    Ollie pointed out to them, “I’m mute not deaf. It is far too dangerous. Kiloton is far more dangerous than he was years ago. You must stay.”

    “Ollie they’re not strong enough! Let us go down. We can stop it!” Josh pleaded, as his teammates nodded him encouragement.

    The Gray replied, “I can not. You and I promised Maggie we would keep you here, safe.”

    “And where would we go?” The teenager tossed his head at Area 61. “You know they would look for us and where could we go anyways that would be safe from that thing? Look down there! They almost have it but it’s too strong. If we help we might make the difference.

    Looking defiant, Josh added, “What about Alan Glenn? I'm still wrapping my head around he and Val being the same person, but we can’t just leave him, her, or them. And what about those other kids down there?”

    “We have to help them!” he said, as his friends voiced their own feelings and agreement.

    Ollie was silent for a long moment and then sighed. “I have no choice but to agree. Please be careful and stay as far away as you can. No simulation is the same as real life. This isn’t a game where you come back to life after making a mistake. You die, and so do your friends, if you make a mistake.”

    With the assurance of youthful belief in his own immortality, the teen replied, “We know, and we will be careful.”

    The Rocket winged over, reversing its course, diving back into the wildly arcing storm.

***

    Val typed out a message to Maggie on her touch pad, “Try and distract it. Use attacks that’ll pass through the girls’ field.”

    Hoping the rocks in hand had little ferrous content so they could pass through the Maxi-Malaks' magnetic screens, she fast-balled the first of a nearly machine gun-like stream of stones. Like before, they hissed, melted and exploded well short of the critter, but they did get its attention.

    Soon more of Maggie’s energy disruption things were striking it too, and that caused it to slow its efforts even more as it turned to attack her.

    Again it reacted by throwing lightning bolts hotter than the sun at them. This time the energy was caught in the two Maxi-Malak’s magnetic field and channeled down into Doc’s energy draining web. The bolts arced into the ground causing more drains to the monster.

    Gus’s Mr. Hyde screamed its untuned radio screech of anger and furiously struggled to get free again.

    Val stepped it up to high gear, sending a hail storm of rocks at the monster.

    However this time, it wasn’t going let anything divert it from its attempt to free itself. Not even Maggie’s special little packages which caused it to roar each time one struck were slowing it. One by one the multiple arcing energy bolts draining into the trap failed, until just two remained.

    “Val and Maggie, Josh is going cast an illusion of you two being 6’ to your right,” Ollie sent to them.

    That baffled her for a long moment until she figured it out. “NO! Ollie don’t let them down!”

    Her friend’s voice was heavy with sadness. “I’m sorry but they talked me into it. Truly we have no choice. We have a chance to stop Gus here, Now. Doctor McClellan’s trap might work with more help.”

    Val held her breath as the critter almost yanked his self free, the girls’ magnetic screen was straining, trying to hold it. Just one thin arcing bolt holding it down. She saw The Buggy pop up over the ridge and the kids, her students, were flying towards them. Feelings warred within her. As much as her very soul rebelled at these youngsters being treated as she and her friends had been, she was also a pragmatic freedom fighter. Ollie was right. There was no other choice.

    Almost immediately, she saw the difference as Malak added her strength to her Maxi-clone's magnetic screen. The shimmering blue half-sphere of arcing sparks brightened and pushed Kiloton back down towards Doc’s web. The ruptured piping had partially refilled the pit and gel hissed as it boiled away. First one, and then another bolt of lightning shot out, draining the monster in a crackling fury of power.

    Amanda started chilling the area, hoping to help reinforce Malak's screen. The Maxi-Amandas' powers had been too weak to make a difference but theirs added to hers did as the blue shimmer of the entrapping screen grew brighter.

    It was working! By Gawd it was working!

    Val’s brow wrinkled. Her luck had begun singing low and now was building again towards another crescendo. Even a lifetime of trying to decipher her talent’s warning didn’t help much. The Monster from Gus’s Id was thrashing wildly as arcs of power poured off of him.

    Was its very center somehow even brighter? Like a sledgehammer it hit her!

    ‘Ollie!” she cried. “Patch this through to everyone, Stat! He’s going to blow up!

    “Done Val,“ her friend reported back. “Hailing channel open!“

    She warned, “Attention! Kiloton is building up to detonation!”

    “Everyone get to Malak or one of her clones! Malak, cover your teammates!” she ordered.

    As never before she pushed herself. In slow motion the kids leaped for cover of their screening teammate. However there was one person out here who had no protection, Maggie.

    Val’s visor’s HUD showed her where her lover was, and racing the colliding particles building to critical mass, she ran. She didn’t dare look backwards for fear the growing radiance would completely blind her. In a well practiced maneuver, she scooped up Maggie, and ran for the only cover she could find, a concrete blockhouse a short distance away.

    The flash behind her warned her time had run out. Expecting to be crisped by the fireball, she found it pushing her forward! Her force-screen from the Lizzie clone! She wrapped her screen around Maggie like she’d done with Lizzie. Sliding, swimming, flailing, she dived for the shadow of the blockhouse!

    In a bone breaking collision with planet Earth, they stopped! Next to her, Maggie struggled, trapped in Val’s form hugging protective cocoon. In an exhale, she released it, and a breathless Maggie rolled away gasping for air.

    They were lying in a shallow pit she’d plowed out by her out of control crash. Nearby a Humvee laid in a twisted burning wreck. Laying on her back, she saw the enormous nuclear fireball climbing into the sky where the aurora still danced. If not for that clone of Lizzie’s that’d died and passed on her powers to Val, she and Maggie would’ve been crispy corpses. The Kids! Her rattled brain’s screamed!

     Pulling herself up to see, Val saw a nearly perfect circle in the blast zone where Malak’s and her clone's magnetic field had protected their teammates. One of the clone teams’ Maxi-Malaks had gotten close enough to merge her screen with the more powerful original. Together their strength had been enough. The other team of clones, by themselves, hadn’t been. The fact that Maxi-Malak’s screen had almost worked was evidenced by the scattered bodies that were still moving, laid out as if thrown by the hand of giant, instead of just being incinerated.

    The 100 yard across crater burned into the Nevada desert, steamed and smoked as the Monster floated above. It showed the wounds of its battles.  Forced to expend so much energy, it was no longer giant sized, but nearer Gus’s own height of 6’. But now the web of cables and gel that had helped dampen and ground its energy into the earth was vaporized. Weakened, but still maddened, it turned its attention to those who would dare attack it.

    While everyone else were trying to recover, the monster mercilessly glided down to those who were closest. Unfortunately, it was also those who were the most seriously injured.

Tears. A Home That Love Built Story, by Grover

Not every tear is one of sadness and despair. For each one cried in sorrow, the ones that fall in happiness are all that much more precious.

Tears
By
Grover
Silently, Irene passed a tissue to her crying friend. She’d had one of her ‘feelings’ that more than a few would be needed today and made certain her purse was well supplied.

Although Cathilynn often teased her about being ready for anything, Irene did her best to stay prepared. She guessed you could take the girl out the Army, but not take the Army out of girl. Simply too many years spent training to stay ready for anything. Even that was easier than trying to take the girl out the boy.

Once the Hero Part 9

Once The Hero
Part Nine
By
Grover

    Malik screamed as his body arched in a bow from shock and pain. The heavy restraints groaned as he fought with all his strength to escape the agony that thundered into him from that machine suspended above him.

    It was just suppose to be another test, like so many others they’d all suffered through the last few weeks. They’d given him something that made him kinda floaty and relaxed, saying that it was better he be conscious than asleep; something about getting better results.  But by that time, the drugs were already doing their thing.

    He’d been feeling no pain when they’d wheeled him into that huge stadium-like room. Maybe this test was like a x-ray, he mused, as red lights started flashing and a voice started a countdown. At Zero the agony began.

    Conscious thought left him. It wasn’t like the pain from injuries he had while playing sports before his mutation. This was as if he was being torn apart and examined from his bones to the very thoughts in his head. Even the things he’d even hidden from himself or forgotten were all ripped to pieces and studied.  

    However the worse of it was that it went on and on, seemingly forever.

    The next thing he remembered was yanking himself upward, shivering in shock, the tattered remains of the bands and steel still fastened to him where he ripped them free when he’d awoke.

    Forcing his mind to work, he saw they were all still in the labs in one of the wards. He heard a girl’s scream that was lost in a screech of tortured steel being torn. Lizzie, his brains tried to tell him. A scared, frightened Lizzie who’d been through the same thing he had. Hands shaking he tore the remains of his own restraints from him. Malik wasn’t sure what had been done to them, but no one wanted that powerful little girl going into a berserk tantrum.

    Stumbling to his feet, he had to help her. He steadied himself as a wave of nausea passed though him. Fighting off the urge to gag he stood by pure willpower. Still shaking, he promised himself something afterwards. He would find out just what in the hell had happened, and perhaps he would be having a tantrum of his own.

***

     Amanda cried out, waking from the terrible nightmare that had no end. Her stomach was in knots, and she needed to void herself, now. However she was tied down. The constant light breezes that had bedeviled her ever since her change now howled around her like a tornado.

    “Hold on Girlfriend” a familiar voice shouted over the storm.

    Suddenly she was free and, appeased, the winds slackened. Limply she slumped to the floor, trying not to spew. On all fours Amanda weakly looked up. She saw, two of the scientists cowering in the corner. What in the hell had happened?

    Then Malak, supported by her magnetic power, eased down next to her. Sweat covered her friend and her pale face was even whiter. Whispering she suggested, “Let’s get to that sink before we both make a bigger mess.”

    Nodding, Amanda pulled herself up. Feeling her girlfriend’s power help support her she hoarsely gasped, “Thanks.”

    Malak weakly nodded back, obviously fighting off her own nausea, but somehow they made it before throwing up.

    She heard the other of her friends having their own problems. A glance showed Malak’s brother tearing himself free of the reinforced bed they had him tied down to. Even though he looked ill too, the muscular teen ripped the straps from him as if they were no more than wet paper.

    A scream and explosion of bed parts shifted her attention. Lizzie! She looked as sick as the rest of them. “Mr. Glenn, Vroom,” she cried in her misery.

    She gave Malak the same look Amanda knew was on her face. “Oh Shit!”

    Still bent over the sink trying not to heave again, they both knew that pint sized potential natural disaster had to be seen to now.

    Stumbling, the girls headed that way, using the other beds to help them stand. This was all humbling, given since her life had changed, this was the first time she’d felt anyway other than energetic and healthy. That thought brought back the Nightmare. Every nasty thing she’d ever done to anyone or anything had been pulled out of her and thrust in front of her face.

    Shaking her head, Amanda pushed those memories away. There was no time for that right now. Malik was already moving to help Lizzie like she and Malak were. Josh was still strapped down, but Billie had oozed out of hers like climbing out of a sleeping bag.

    “Shhh honey,” she tried to calm Lizzie.

    The smaller girl, crying and spewing, herself, had crushed one of those huge metal medicine cabinet things.

    Amanda stopped, unsure what to do. Lizzie needed to be hugged and consoled, but sick she might hurt them, as strong as she was.

    Billie solved that by throwing herself into the distressed 6 year old's arms. “It’s alright now Lizzie. Everything's going to be fine.”  

    Both she and Malak winced as the little girl turned and grabbed onto the stretchable teen with all her heart. Billie’s eyes bulged from those same arms that had trashed the heavy bed meant to hold the strongest people alive, but not once did she complain.

    Not wasting a moment they too were soon hugging and comforting the sick child.

    Malik seeing how the girls had everything in hand had found a small trashcan to relieve his own problem.

    She was half-aware that Dr. Hathaway had come in and was explaining something about bad drug reactions, but Amanda was too lost in her own and her friends pain and illness.

“Amanda,” Ollie sent to her, “It’s alright. Don’t let the Doctor know I’m talking with you all. I’ll explain what’s really happened.

    “What’s happened to Mr. Glenn? He wouldn’t let them do something like this to us?” she thought back at the Gray.

    Still in the group hug she listened to the castaway alien as he explained.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 39

Monday September 29, 2008

Area 61

“Alan,” a voice cried out to her. She didn’t want to listen to anyone wanting to talk to him. But the safe dark place was growing lighter now and the places to hide were growing harder to find. Val knew that she would need to wake and to be him again. She also remembered it’d been her own choice to go back to being him. It’d been the only way to try to bring justice to those who’d caused her such heartache and pain.

    “Alan,” it said again. The light was brighter now and the concealing shadows were fading away. He had always been something to hide behind. In her heart, she guarded her true self. When Justice had not been forthcoming, she’d taken it upon herself to help. To help all those, who like the ones she’d loved so dearly, had been besieged by the unscrupulous who twisted the laws for their own ends.

    “Alan,” thrice it called. Unwillingly she put herself behind The Him, and pulled herself awake. “Yeah, I’m awake Mom. I don’t wanna go to school.”

    Ollie replied dryly, “I’m not your mother, but please keep yourself calm. You must pretend to be still asleep while I explain what has happened. Your implants had some kind of fail-safe activation sequence. General Laramie used it to knock you out last Saturday.”

    “Well that explains why my head is killing me. At least I’m not the only one who underestimated Doc. How long have I been out?” Alan asked.

    “Two days,” Ollie answered.

    Remembering Saturday, a cold shiver ran down his back. Trying to remain still he asked, “The kids! Are they okay?

    Alan could hear Ollie’s mental sigh, “With you unconscious, Maggie and I didn’t dare try to interfere. They were exposed to the Z-Ray, but have suffered no lasting ill effects. They have all recovered and are fine. What concerns us is you. They had you hooked up to a machine that was to erase your memories of the last few weeks. For some reason beyond us, Dr. Hathaway intervened. It is imperative that you play along and pretend you still think it is the first of September.”

    Alan gave a mental nod, sighing. They’d failed to save the kids from getting zapped by Doc, but at least it seemed they’d survived. Doc, had outwitted Maggie, but what galled him was that Laramie of all people had outfoxed him. “Alright what’s happening right now?” he asked.

    “Security is very unhappy my friend,” Ollie answered. “They found nearly every computer in the administration section stripped of parts. In our favor, no one has discovered that Big Mac has lost his personality. Apparently he started some kind of cover for himself by arguing with his handlers that if they just wanted him to be ‘a dumb, stupid computer so that will be what they will get‘. This is not the first time he has been difficult, so his ruse should buy us some time.

    “However once they start putting the pieces together it won’t take them long to figure out our little puzzle. Then we will have a problem. Big Mac’s escape will have them searching every square millimeter of this facility. My precautions and blinds have withstood many years of inspections, but a determined search will reveal the club house and my quarters,” Ollie pointed out.

    “Maggie is still upset at herself that she missed the 'backdoor' in your implants. She is working on what happened as well as something else, but is keeping it a secret. The Rocket is prepped and my remotes show that the silo is usable."

     "Big Mac’s portable rescue unit is functioning within tolerances, but was meant to be only an electronic lifeboat. It was never intended for long-term use. My parents’ bodies and matrixes are in perfect preservation in their vacuumed formed shrouds.

    “The children as I said before are in good health but confused. They all found the experience unnerving, and I’ve been helping them deal with that. Josh and Billie have already surmised what happened and are not happy. As you can imagine Josh is quite angry. At first, it was at you for failing to get them out in time, but now it is at our gracious hosts. Billie was very worried about you, and apprehensive of the Air Force’s plans for them.”

    “The immediate problem is finding the opportunity to attempt another escape, but this time without Big Mac’s help with the security systems. You’re under high security and is scheduled to be shipped out soon. The children are being watched very carefully as they are testing their improved abilities,” Ollie concluded.

    Aware of all the problems, he said, “I know Ollie, but we have to find a way. We, I, screwed up and we got beat to the punch. Whatever is happening with Project Looking Glass and Kiloton will go down soon. We have to get them out before then.”

    Ollie said back, “Kiloton? Not an inappropriate name for the creature. Don’t worry my friend we will find a way out.”

    Preparing himself for the role of a lifetime, Alan replied, “I know we will. I just wish right now that I knew just what in the hell it was!”

    With that, he opened his eyes and as precisely as he could remember, duplicated the same actions upon waking as he did those weeks ago when he arrived.

***

    Pyotr looked on rather amused as Arghun poured water over his head. The small man had gone out in the desert Saturday as soon as they had arrived at their soon to be base camp. They needed first hand information on conditions around Area 61 and the tough Kazakh was their best scout.

    Arghun reported, “The Inspector was correct. The Heavy Assault Brigade is training out here. More important to us is they are aggressively pushing at your dear sister's prison's boundaries. The place has sensors of every type, as well as being carefully patrolled, but with these incursions, their response teams are heavier and include attack aircraft as well as helicopters. They are good Pyotr, but perhaps rely too much on their technology.”

    “I think I can find us a path through, but it is going to take me two, maybe three days for me to do so. Our egress could also be a problem. Escaping through the desert would be difficult. It would be too easy for them to cut us off using the roads and aircraft.” Arghun finished, looking at the rest of the team as they worked on checking their equipment and other gear.

    Pyotr looked to Bob, who’d been listening. “This does confirm what you’ve told me. I think we will have to risk the use of the Kusbegi to retrieve us. Bob, you and Arghun confer and find us the best place for a Landing Zone, LZ.”

    Neither man looked happy because they both knew how chancy it was having a Zolotoye-Yablochko aircraft pick them up on American soil. Whether blessed or cursed, their nation had been involved with bringing down more than their share of the giant Alien Gray bombardment spacecraft. That even included one intact. Though perhaps relatively in one piece might be a better term. Something that big makes landing it a little tough. The good news was it had plenty of the smaller fighter sized saucers on-board.

    Much to ULTIMATE’s dismay they’d kept every single nut and bolt they could haul back to their little nation. After all, to the victor go the spoils.

    Other nations’ bounty of the Alien tech had been reduced, by one reason or another, as they discovered the myriad uses of having dependable spacecraft that could easily travel from the Earth’s surface to the moon with no more difficulty than a transoceanic flight. Every agency wanted a piece of the pie. The Americans, for instance, had space programs, the Pentagon, and many others all desiring a share.

    Zolotoye-Yablochko by contrast had none of those and consequently had more than they could make use of. Given the many geniuses and scientists of questionable sanity that lived there, many of the Alien craft were modified for special purposes. One of those was for special operations support, which was such a vital part of their nation’s defense planning. Naming them Kusbegi, after the renown Kazakh hawker/hunters, they were as stealthy as their re-builders could make them.

    As sneaky as the elite Kusbegi pilots were, if they were discovered then 'In the three-ninth kingdom, they would be shown where the lobsters spend winter.' Or as his sister would say, 'if they were found in the land of the free, there would be hell to pay'.

     He and Bob had talked about how to justify their actions to the international community if they were discovered, and none of their ideas were appealing. The best one was the truth. The Americans were illegally holding the daughter of the President of Zolotoye-Yablochko and they’d rescued her. That would mean giving up the carefully hidden lie that had protected Pyotr’s extended family from the public and harm. Still, if it kept the diplomatic disaster of being found out, down to reasonable levels, it was a price he knew his father would pay to have his wayward daughter safe.

    Still no need to “To make an elephant from a fly,” not yet. Picking up the secure sat-phone, he had some serious explaining and work to do.

***

    Bill slipped through a crack and turned around, marveling that his mutation let him compress himself so thinly. He knew full well what’d caused it. Just like with the Rocketeers long ago, he and the rest of his friends had been 'zapped' as Mr. Glenn called it.

    Dr. Hathaway had come in while they were still sick and recovering. She’d told them that they had a bad reaction to some medicine. He hadn’t believed it for a moment. Reading about the Z-Ray in that comic book had made the whole deal seem so corny. He sure didn’t think so now. How do you describe being pulled apart and yet crushed at the same time? And that wasn’t really even close what it’d really felt like. There simply weren’t words for it.

    When the Doctor said that Mr. Glenn had been paid and had gone home, Bill knew that once again she was lying to them. He’d been so afraid that something really bad had happened to his teacher that he respected so much. To his relief, Ollie had told them the whole story. That the Air Force had went back on their promise to Mr. Glenn to not use the Z-Ray, but had knocked him out as well as tried to mess up his memories.

    They’d all been warned that Mr. Glenn might have to pretend he didn’t know them. Ollie and Mr. Glenn were still looking for a way for them all to get out. He’d been worried that Lizzie wouldn’t understand but she’d taken it in stride. In the meanwhile, they were all being run to death in the labs being tested using that scientific stuff rather than Mr. Glenn's Dojo.

    Bill knew he preferred his sensei’s measuring eye over these bozos in the white coats with their clipboards. His friends looked like they liked Mr. Glenn’s way of doing things a lot better too. Lizzie, displaying a rare temper tantrum, had tossed a forklift into the observation booth, after they’d forced her to lift one heavy weight after another. She’d been strong before but now she was like something out of a comic book wearing red and blue.

    Considering what he knew about what had been used on them, he was thankful none of them had grown horns or something worse. The only one of them that looked different was Amanda. Her dark hair had grown even longer, all the way to her waist. Of course, like him and Lizzie, all of their powers had grown a lot stronger.

    Bill hadn’t believed his own abilities could be increased all that much. All he did was stretch after all. He’d been wrong. Before, he’d gotten harder the more compact he’d made himself and softer the larger. Now he could control how dense he was in any part of himself. He could even lengthen his hair and even change the color now, although he hadn’t let anyone see that yet. That was something he was still experimenting with in private, but he wanted to have an advantage if he needed it.

    Josh had a hole card too now. He not only could control what others saw, he now could also see through their eyes. Malik, while he’d not received anything like that, had gotten tougher, a whole lot tougher. The nurses tried to take blood samples and had gotten nothing but bent needles.

    He was sure that they would discover more things they’d gotten from the Z-Ray, but Ollie had warned them that the thing in the simulators that they‘d been fighting, Kiloton, was real. That was why Meridian had been brought back and they were supposed to stop it. Bill had turned pale when he’d figured it out. Capt. Blazzar had blown up like a atomic bomb, and he’d read about those guys who thought he’d been imprisoned in something called Looking Glass, like the Phantom Singularity from AC Comics.

    Kiloton was just the codename for the monster their teacher’s brother had become. It was kind of fitting seeing the kind of explosions it could make. Bill had kept that part to himself so far. He knew just how powerful that monster had been, but he was also aware that General Laramie and Dr. Hathaway were untrustworthy because they’d repeatedly lied to them.

    Moving on to the next test to see how far he could stretch now, he put his doubts aside. Mr. Glenn was still with them and so was Ollie. They would find some way out of this mess.

***

    Master Security Control for Area 61
    Location: Top Secret.

    All morning they’d been jumping down his throat. Why, the man known as Operative Number 11, didn’t have a clue. They could see the video recordings as well as he could. There was just no damn sign of how someone had broken into Area 61 administration section and ripped off a shit load of computer parts.

    Yeah, a couple of hard drives had come up missing, but most of it were memory modules and other components. Number 11 had a feeling that this theft was just a footstep and the real problem hadn‘t been discovered yet. However it was up to the tech boys to look at what had turned up missing and show them where to look.

    Their control area was set up much like the old missile silos from the cold war. Two men crews, each with a key, required simultaneous action to activate Wildfire. Screening for the position was tough, but you had to prove you had what it took to push that button if it looked liked the Pandora’s Box that was Area 61 was about to be opened.

    They’d been under a lot of pressure the last week or so because something Big was getting ready to happen. It was all too possible that glowing red Balrog eye would be needed. And if so, they would find him ready to do his duty.

***

    Maggie closed her tired eyes. She felt so guilty about her failure to catch that damn backdoor system hidden in her lover’s implants. That was why they were still trapped here. That was why those kids had been irradiated by Gawds knows what, but thank the same Deity that they’d all survived.

    The damn thing was devilishly clever. Maggie had went into the implanted device and decided that the best way was to simply bypass the power leading to the drug reservoir pump. That way no one would suspect the thing wasn't fully operational.

Once the Hero Part 8

OnceTheHeroCover5.gif

Once the Hero
Part 8
By
Grover

Zap Time is here Boys and Girls!

Once the Hero Part 7

Once The Hero
Part7
By
Grover

Chapter 31

September 22, 2008

ETWF: Minus 10 Days

Tonopah, NV

ULTIMATE Investigation Team Field Headquarters at the Valley Inn.

    Inspector Philippe Imbert rolled his eyes as he savored the perfectly prepared croissant. Perhaps it spent too long traveling in an atrocious brown bag, but all considered he was willing to make allowances.

    Suspiciously, he eyed his assistant Andrea, who was standing attentively nearby. Their hostel, turned team headquarters, was grating on them all. The previous week had been frustrating for his entire team as they searched fruitlessly for signs of their quarry. All of them had spent far too much time combing not just the town of Tonopah but the surrounding areas as well. The sunburns and squints were all they had gotten for their efforts despite generous helpings of sunscreen and the required dark sunglasses.

    Andrea and the more computer-wise agents had been working the Zolotoye-Yablochko angle, but it seemed they had exhausted that avenue. The Fedorovna family valued its privacy and besides a few tantalizing clues they had found nothing of value. For that matter, the entire so-called city-state of Mutant-stan was rampantly paranoid about security.

    Philippe finished the last bite of his tasty breakfast, but his suspicions grew as he considered the problem. For the last two weeks, he and the rest of the team had been surviving on the local restaurant fare. While even he had to admit there had been some exceptions to the rather bland greasy food, Tonopah was after all a fairly small city.

    It had surprised him that one of those surprising gastronomic delights had gone by the unlikely name of Dad’s. The old-fashioned American drive-in had been an accidental find while his agents had been investigating an UFO report. Along with the astonishingly good food, were the just as amazing news that it had been Alan Glenn and the students from Project Chiron.

    The old Rocketeers team transport had been easy to identify as the UFO since the inside of the classic drive-in had mountains of old photographs of the teenage heroes from the 70‘s. It seemed this was not the first time the bright silver racing-striped saucer had visited the old landmark restaurant. The owner had a wall of fame dedicated to the supra-teens, ranging from pictures with the present owner, who had been a youth covered in freckles, to newspaper articles of their adventures. However, the latest one, of an older Alan Glenn and this newest group of children, was taken only a few days ago.

    Looking over the photo-covered wall, another one that caught his attention was of young Glenn in front of a massive bowl of ice cream. His grinning teammates were holding up a newspaper behind him with the slogan ‘You Can’t Put a Speed Limit on Justice!’ The Air Force officer standing to the side looked particularly unhappy.

    That is when it drew his eye. Going back and checking the recent picture, sure enough there was the same 10 to 12 year old boy with a huge cup that was in most of the older photos too. The Inspector had shaken his head. Yet another mystery among the many that seemed to flock to their suspect.

    Which didn’t answer the question of how a nearly perfect croissant had appeared before him. Logic dictated that it had to come from that charming French restaurant in Las Vegas, but while that culinary delight had spent far too much time traveling, it was not three hours worth. Of that, he was certain.

    His requests for additional support had gone unanswered. Not even for so much as a single helicopter, so the mystery remained. Philippe could tell that Andrea and the rest of his agents were enjoying their little tweak of his deductive skills. He was rather glad that their spirits were still high after the latest rounds of frustration in their investigations.

    Theatrically sighing, he asked, “How?” as he spread his hands, indicating the just as delicious coffee and empty food wrappers. 

    The team of agents broke out into wide grins as Andrea replied, “I have an old friend from Office training that is assigned to Supra-Reaction Team One‘s support group. They’re doing desert training operating out at Nellis Air Force Base. I had him pick it up and fly it in this morning.”

    “He also told me another friend of ours was near here too. That one is part of the Heavy Assault Brigade driving a dropship.” She stopped, noticing his anger but not understanding why. There was no reason why she should. It was a matter of office politics.

    It was now obvious why his requests for support had not been answered. He and his people who had worked so hard on this assignment had been cut out of the loop. There could be many reasons why, but the only reason to keep his people here, rather than send them elsewhere, was distasteful in the extreme. It suggested that acts of dubious legality or risk were in the works and it was he and his who were going to take the blame if something went wrong.

    Inspector Philippe Imbert forced himself to smile, dispelling his agents’ sudden apprehensions. They were not to blame, but a cold determination filled him to make certain that those responsible for what he feared was going to be disastrous events paid for every drop blood they caused to be spilled.

***

Miami, FL

Beach Front Hilton

    Pyotr Savitskiy stepped out of his cool hotel room into the balmy air of Miami, Fl. They’d arrived in the States the day before and would be heading out today. His friends were waiting for him on the veranda. He grinned as he saw their various reactions to his loud Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts.

    All 160 kilos of Ivan dominated the table where they sat. He was huge in the way Japanese Sumo and American wrestlers were. Muscles rippled under his conservative polo shirt, and completely hid his gentle nature. Pyotr knew the huge man would much rather be gardening and tending to his florist shop back in Zolotoye-Yablochko. His ability to work with plants, while seemingly of little use in a military operation, had proven itself many times over. From fouling water supplies to causing seeds to sprout within the very bellies of their enemies, Ivan was much more dangerous than his obvious size.

    Katrina sitting next to him, stirring her StarBucks coffee, looked positively small and petite, belying her cliché Russian female body builder physique. Her short blond hair and fair complexion contrasted greatly with Ivan’s dark hirsuteness. Pyotr knew that the loose blouse and baggies she wore concealed a not so small arsenal of deadly weapons. Katrina was what the Special Forces community called ‘good with her hands’ which meant she was absolutely deadly with just about anything from knives to machine guns. As their weapons expert, you wouldn’t expect her to be the owner of her own shop and designer of jewelry.

    Then there was Bob. The rather overweight, atypical computer geek looked like the last person in the world you would find on a special operations team. He could and did keep up with the rest of them and had run normal humans into exhaustion. Rather like a camel or blubber on a whale, he stored energy as fat but that had nothing to do with his physical conditioning. In fact, he was their strong man, as well as native guide, since he was an American immigrant to Zolotoye-Yablochko. It was his computer and covert operations skills that’d provided them with ID, credit cards and all the other details of their covers, as part of his normal job in the Militia’s Intelligence branch.

    The last person of his little command was ignoring him as he followed a bevy of bikini-clad beauties with his eyes as they sauntered to the pool. Pyotr couldn’t help but grin at his friend’s hopeless optimism. Arghun was rather unusual, being a Kazakh native in Zolotoye-Yablochko, while most of the other inhabitants were from literally all over. The small dark man carried himself as proudly as the Mongolian kings, he claimed he was descended from. Of course that may be because he was all but indestructible, and for that matter, no one was sure just how old the tough Kazakh really was. What was certain was he was one of the most deadly hand-to-hand fighters Pyotr had ever seen, which seemed so out of character, for a man always ready with a smile and good-humored jests.

    Looking up as if he had just noticed Pyotr’s arrival, which Pyotr knew was a complete lie because he was positive Arghun knew the precise location of everyone within 50 meters, the Kazakh grinned broadly. “Pyotr!”

    Inclining his dark haired head at the departing scantily clad American women Arghun exclaimed, “I know that I said after the last time you invited me along on one of your little jaunts, never to include me again. Your request for me to join you for a little vacation here in wonderful America as you visited your sister didn’t include telling me that it would involve pushing me out of our transport over the frigid seas.”

    Looking at his teammates for support, he continued. “Over 40km from land! Then we had to swim in, avoiding all those unfriendly drug runners and policemen. I tell you poor Bob looks positively famished,” he said, pointing at the intelligence operative.

    Bob nodded sagely in agreement, as he devoured another donut from the courtesy counter.

    Arghun paused for breath. “However after a good nights rest and seeing the marvelous scenery, I’m almost ready to forgive you. So where is this sister of yours? Is she good looking this sister of yours? Wouldn’t happen to live on the beach would she? ”

    Still grinning inside, Pyotr made himself give a sad shrug. “Now Arghun you’ve met Valentina before.”

    The smaller man made a show of thinking hard.

    Ivan rumbled out, helpfully joining in the game, “You know the one from the Christmas party.”

    Arghun waved his hands about in mock frustration. “Which party?”

    Katrina dryly added to the conversation. “How about the one where you drunkenly tried to bet a young lady that you could get her out of her clothes faster than she could?”

    The Kazakh’s eyes widen in denial. “Not the one where she stripped me bare in the middle of the party in front of everyone!”

    Bob shook his head in disagreement. “No, as I remember, she did leave you your boxers.”

    Arghun protested, “But those weren’t even mine! I’d never seen those before.”

    “Of course they weren’t,” Ivan agreed. “What kind of man would wear underwear loudly proclaiming ‘Hunk O’ Burning Love?”

    Looking forlorn Arghun asked sadly, “This is the sister we’re going to see?”

    Pyotr letting his grin show replied jovially, “I’m sure Valentina has forgiven you by now. It’s been 12 years since then and she usually doesn’t harbor grudges for more than 10. Although I don’t think she’s forgiven me yet for exchanging the labels of a can of purple hair tint with her hair spray on her first date.”

     Katrina looking scandalized demanded, “How could you?”

    Pyotr gave another expressive Russian shrug. “I was her older brother. Such things were expected. Besides I still don’t think the poor boy noticed what color hers was, but Valentina didn’t see it that way.”

    Interested Bob leaned forward. “So what did she do?”

    Pyotr made a big show of sighing. “All my underwear disappeared. Even several pairs of prized novelty boxers imported at great cost from America. To this very day I’ve no idea what happened to them.”

    His Kazakh friend sputtered playfully, “Well at least tell me she lives on the beach.”

    “No, I’m afraid I can’t,” Pyotr said, shaking his head slowly. “She’s incarcerated in a secret American military base in the middle of a forbidding desert. I’m sure its commissars won’t object to us paying her a visit. Can’t imagine what a sweet girl like her could’ve done to deserve such treatment.”

      Arghun looked as if his heart was broken. “No beach? A prison? No doubt full of unpleasant guards with bad dispositions.” He hung his head miserably. “How could it get worse?”

    Pyotr trying to cheer him up pointed out, “It won’t be that bad. We have a rental car and all of us will have a wonderful time on the four or 5-day road trip. What a wonderful way to experience America! See?”

    Looking even more horrified, Arghun sputtered again. “Four or five days crammed in a car with everyone?” he said, looking at the group whom each out massed him at least two to one.

    Ivan trying to help added, “It is a big car I’m told.”

    Unable to keep straight faces any longer, they all erupted into laughter. Pyotr was proud of them and thankful that all had put their own affairs on hold to help him. Like that old American spy drama, if they got into trouble they were on their own. While in many ways, this was a personal matter, there were also national security elements for their so small country.

    If the Americans were experimenting on mutants again, the only nation on the planet consisting almost entirely of mutants needed to know all the details. Whatever was going on had also caused ULTIMATE to reposition several of its more powerful assets nearby. Needing to know just what was going on had drawn Bob to join the team, and his very able assistance was much appreciated.

    Val perhaps wasn’t a sister of his blood, but was even more special being one of the heart. He knew of her strange and unusual past, but in Zolotoye-Yablochko being Weirdness Central as she sometimes called it, having a rather bizarre history was the norm. He’d conceded the point considering the aliens, mad scientists, mutants, and other oddities that called the city their home.

    Bob gave his disguised instruments one last glance and gave him the high sign that their little play done in Russian hadn’t revealed any listeners or observers. They’d been relatively sure that their insertion had gone unnoticed, but in this business, it never hurt to check. Casually, they all trooped off to the van the intelligence operative had arranged for their trip.

    There was an additional up side to all of this Pyotr thought as he climbed in to begin their long trip west. Finally, if he could pull her out of this new trouble she’d found herself in, maybe she would finally forget about that little incident with the purple hair.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 32

September 22, 2008

ETWF: Minus 10 Days

Area 61

Geode Cavern

    Alan smiled as his students boarded the small tram. He hadn’t told them where they were headed this morning but it seemed his good humor had infected them. Part of him was irrationally ecstatic; the woman he was so in love with was with him, while another was horrified, as it was he that had drawn her into the same dangers that threatened him.

    At least his feminine nature kept him from saying that to her. In the unspoken vows of their partnership, that all who really knew them knew was really a marriage, they agreed to share equally all hardships as well as the rewards. This woman had stayed at his side through such dangers as would boggle even an adventure novelist’s mind.

    Even now, she was hard at work in Ollie’s workshop, developing the tools they would need to break his oldest friend out of this self-imposed prison. Never once did she question why, but just got to work doing what she did best. Ye Gawds, how he loved her.

    The tram started its rumbling ride, angling deeper into earth. Behind them, Max and his keepers were uneasy fellow passengers in the next tramcar. The third and last car held yet more zoomie cops, but also Dr. Hathaway as well. It made sense because from there she could observe Saul Simpson’s every move but was also out of reach. It was nice to see that the big guy was being treated with more care and respect since Maxi-Lizzie had torn loose, nearly wrecking the place.

    Watching the mind-bending Doctor, he could see she had been missing a lot of sleep. Alan was certain that she had something to do with Val's very rude awakening while she and Maggie had stolen some time together. Despite his trying not to think about it, someone had died last night. Someone had been exposed to that damn Zap gun of Doc’s and it had killed him or her.

    It wasn’t as bad as when he’d felt Jeff’s passing from his suicide but bad enough. Although it’d confirmed that the damn thing was in use, it didn’t tell him on who. More of a problem was his inability to talk about it. No matter how close he and Maggie were, he simply couldn’t deal with more ghosts much less talk about them. Not here, not now with all the memories this place harbored. So he reveled in the golden glow of their love and did his best not to think about yet another death that had darken this place. There would come a reckoning but not today.

    Looking forward he could see the lights of the tunnel disappearing into the distance. He’d forgotten just how deep the Geode was, but it was well worth the ride. Alan found himself holding Lizzie as the tram neared the end of the line. Smiling at her, he reassured her and the rest of his students all were fine.

    With a soft jerk, the tram slowed, stopping at a rounded chamber with a large sealed door. Stepping aside, he gestured the tired Dr. Hathaway towards the keypad so she could let them enter.

    In spite of that, she noticed his good humor. “Why Alan, you’re awfully cheerful this morning. Do we need to search to find out what kind of mischief you’ve been up to?”

    Not wanting her to continue that line of thought he replied, “Ha! I knew that morning person zing of yours was a put-on. Now we’re seeing your real face and strangely, it’s just like ours. You’re human after all, imagine that!”

    Watching as she opened the heavy door, he went on. “For your information I slept the sleep of the just and righteous. What’s up with you? Out wearing that little red number I met you in? You do know red is your color right?” He turned, grinning to the zoomie cops and Max, rubbing his fingertips on his jacket making hot gestures.

    The former did their best to avoid getting involved in this, while the latter looked interested. The kids giggled and laughed, but Amanda gave him a reproving glance as she covered Lizzie’s ears.

    That bought enough time for the door to open, bathing them in a multitude of color and lights.

***

    Malik’s eyes widened as he saw the rainbow hues shine from the other side of the door. They got even wider as he and the others walked within, revealing a tremendously huge cavern. The entire inside was covered in crystals reflecting the lights set in the walls.   

    Mr. Glenn started lecturing. “Welcome to the Geode! As you can see, all the crystals make it look like you’re inside a really big geode. Now a real geode is simply a hollow rock with crystals, such as quartz, growing within.”

    With a sweep of his hand he presented the glittering cave. “This one is different. Back in the 50’s, when the boys in blue thought the Russians were going to attack them at any minute, they wanted a way to move as many people as they could underground where they thought they would be safe from the Bomb.  So they set off some kind of experimental bomb of their own to make this. I understand this one was different somehow because others they tried just caved in. What this one had in common with the rest was, it was still too radioactive for anyone in their right mind to take shelter in.”

    Grinning at their alarm, he calmed them. “Like I said, this one was different. It’s no more than normal background radiation now, after all these years. What no one’s been able to explain is why the crystal formations grew so rapidly, but you’ve got to admit it’s quite the light show!”

    Clapping his hands together, he ended the lesson. “And that is the conclusion of our geology and history class for today. It’s almost a mile across and is a near perfect globe. The lake at the bottom used to be only few feet deep but is over 30 feet now. Since we can’t go outside to practice flying, and other things that really need the room, here we are.”

    “We’re also at the start of our team exercises. Mr. Simpson is here to help us play a little game that’s a combination of ice hockey and touch football. First if you’ll duplicate Amanda, Max, then both of them can freeze that lake down there.”

    Malik looked at Amanda’s ‘Who Me?’ expression as she looked down at all the water down there in disbelief.

    Mr. Simpson got that really pained grimace he always got when copying one of the girls. In a flash of light, there was a Maxi-Amanda.

    The two girls stood there as a sudden bone-numbing chill passed around them. Malik pulled up the collar of his jacket as an icy fog sprung up around them. Normally, except for the AC down here, it was pretty warm. Not now. A brisk wind blew around the two weather controllers as they lowered the temperature between them. He could hear the creaking and cracking as the water flash-froze below.

    Finally, both Amanda’s opened their eyes, but he knew something was up since the girl from the great state of Maine was smiling. Sure enough, it started snowing!

    Obedient to her commands, a swirl of fat wet flakes flew to her hand. “How can you have a Hockey game without snow!” she said.

    Malik and his sister exchanged a shivering glance. They were both, despite all that has happened to them, Southern California kids. All that frozen stuff was just unnatural. Good at sports Malik might be, but never ever hockey or ice-skating. Maybe it was something in their genes since their mom had been the same. She’d given their father a flat every time he joked about taking them all on a ski trip.

    Malik found himself sneaking a look at Bill. During school, the boy from Wisconsin stayed a boy, but after school had taken to being Billie the girl That confused the hell out of Malik. It was bad enough he found Billie attractive, but couldn’t she please decide which sex she wanted to be and keep to it?

    Being from LA, he’d run across others like Billie and more. In the City of Angels, you could find boys who wanted to be girls, girls that wanted to be boys and some that wanted to be both at the same time. Malik dealt with it all by having a live and let live attitude. He couldn’t understand why someone would want to be other than what they were, but as long as they gave him his space he was willing to give them theirs.

    Then along came Billie. There was a enthusiastic happiness about her as if she’d kept it all bottled up for years and now could hold it inside no longer. Despondently he suspected his sister felt the same way about Billie. Glumly he decided it figured that he finds a girl who he was attracted to for other than  being shapely, and not only did she prove to have something extra, he was competing with his sister for her attention. It just wasn’t fair. Sometimes life just plain sucked, he decided.

    Looking up at the snow clouds above him, he muttered to himself about being two miles underground and getting snowed on. Could things get any worse?

    Mr. Glenn had been in a good mood all morning, and not even the freezing snow could change that, as their teacher urged them down the stairs leading to the bottom, dragging bags full of equipment behind them. Malik guessed the steps went all the way to the floor before it’d started filling with water. There were pipes where the excess water was pumped away, he supposed, looking around. He wasn’t looking forward to slipping and sliding on all that ice.

    As their teacher was passing out the long ribbon ‘flags,’ Mr. Simpson did his thing, copying everyone. Of interest was the helium-filled saucer shaped balloons that was the ball/puck. As Mr. Glenn explained the rules, the Air Force guys were setting up the field.

    The rules were simple, kinda like a cross between basketball and hockey. You couldn’t carry it, though you could push it along. There were three gates on each teams’ side of the field that were about 60 feet apart and 7 feet off the ground. For a goal to count, the ball had to go through each one even though you could go just as high as you wanted between each one. Missing one was the same as going out of bounds. This gave everyone who couldn’t fly a chance to steal the ball.

    Mr. Glenn still with that wide grin said, “Now anyone who destroys the ball commits a foul and the other team gets possession. Touching the other players is a big no-no. Only taking the flag of whoever is controlling the ball is a legitimate 'tackle',” he said, making ditto marks with his fingers.

    “Your superduper suits were whipped up by Doc and they’ll keep you warm out here as well as help protect you from the usual bumps and bruises. The sole of the boots will give you some traction but no doubt will still be rather clumsy. None of you able to fly has had much room to really practice and this should even the odds somewhat. Maxi’s clones are under the same handicaps you are. Although they all have that instinctive knowledge of how to fly, flying well is a skill they’ll have to learn, just like you do. Now get out there and have some fun,” he said, sounding like a high school coach.

    Their teacher had assigned them positions for this first quarter/inning, but Malik wasn’t feeling any too happy, slipping and sliding on the ice. Josh was the goalie while Amanda and Bill were the safeties. He and Lizzie were on the pointy end as forwards. Okay so maybe this was more like soccer, he thought, as they began.

    Despite himself, Malik found himself enjoying this weird game, whatever it was. It’d been ages since he’d played a real game, and it was like a breath of fresh air even if it was freezing. He and Lizzie had gotten the disk/ball through the last gate and Maxi-Bill was dead in front of him.

    Skidding to a stop, he spun the Disk to Lizzie, who barely caught it as a strong gust of wind from Maxi-Amanda blew both nearly out of bounds. Giggling the six year old sent it like a missile at the goal.

    Both of them blinked as the goal suddenly wavered and reappeared several feet to the left! Maxi-Josh shook a finger in No, No, as the Disk flew out of bounds. Tossing the Disk to his teammate, Maxi-Bill, the flexible teen sent it screaming across the ice at ankle level using his long arms like a slingshot.

    Like a shot, he and Lizzie were in pursuit. It was hard because they’re running against the wind blowing in their faces courtesy of Maxi-Amanda. Malik decided that some rule clarification was called for. Lizzie might’ve thrown the Disk out of bounds but that was caused by Maxi-Josh, and they were told they couldn’t pull the flags off anyone who didn’t have the Disk but Maxi-Amanda was definitely interfering with them. Didn’t that count?”

    Shouting up at Lizzie, he asked for help, “Push me!”

    She drove down and off they went. Malik couched down in a tuck the way he’d seen speed skaters do. Soon he was wishing he'd brought a pair of goggles as the chilling rush burned his eyes and he felt the vibration of their speed through his boots. In a flash they’d cut through the opposing stormy breeze as they thundered down the field after the Disk.

    Maxi-Malik had a surprised look as Malik whipped his flag away as he and Lizzie roared by. He could almost reach the disk when Maxi-Malak grabbed it and flew up just as they passed the middle gate on the home team side. Looking up he saw his sister’s clone climbing upwards.

    Lizzie left him to pursue, with him braking, and stopping at the last gate before scoring country. He, Bill, and Amanda as well as their doubles were there except his was still on the sidelines after having his flag pulled. Like in basketball, it turned into covering the other players while the flyers above tried to snatch ribbons.

    Running out of room to maneuver without going out bounds, Maxi-Malak twisted for the ground with the Disk riding the edge of her force screen like a surfer. Everyone crowded forward for the Disk as it came whistling down. Predictably, someone slipped and they all ended up falling, tangled and flying every which way.

    Malik laid on his back as he spun slowly to a stop. No one looked hurt, but for a moment he was sure he’d ended up smacking into Lizzie. He’d bounced off her force screen thing protecting her more than a few times in the dojo and the feel of it was like nothing else. Yeah, sure, it was hard, but it was also very slippery. Trying to grab her was like that wet bar of soap you hear about.

    That was why he was so surprised when he turned around and saw he’d run into Mr. Glenn. It kinda helped the teacher looked as startled as he did. None the worse for wear, the teacher got to his feet, whistle blowing for a time out.

    Putting the incident behind him, he reveled in the sensation of being in a game again. Man, did he miss this! Mr. Glenn had kept him busy helping with Lizzie and everything from dancing to gymnastics, but none of it was as satisfying as putting out your best effort.

    Looking up as the snow continued to fall, he was glad that along with escaping from harm, they all were having good time judging from the giggles and laughs as Mr. Glenn held up the now flatten and tattered Disk.

    “All right everyone,” their teacher said. “You saw what just happened. Acting as individuals you mostly got in each others way. However, there were some good teamwork efforts such as Maxi-Amanda’s blocking Malik and Lizzie, and how those two fought their way past it. However you can all do better.”

    He took out a repair kit and began work on his patient, the Disk, as he talked. “We’re going do this again but this time we’re going to use radios, with me being the coach for the home team, while Max here coaches the Out of Towners.”

    With a pop, the Disk re-inflated as he pumped in more Helium. “Good as new!”

    An all too short time later for Malak, they were back in the trams heading back to the school. Mr. Simpson’s clones had all derezzed in a shower of lights so he guessed the Doctors weren’t interested in studying them anymore. He’s always got that thing, that guys weren’t sensitive about stuff, from his sister, but Malik could see just how tough it was on Mr. Simpson to see his clones just disappear.

    It wasn’t some Star Trippin’ TV show where the crew just beamed-out. These were kids he’d just finished having a good scrimmage with and he knew they weren’t coming back. Sensitive or not, that bothered him.

    Then there was Mr. Glenn. From the very beginning, the almost 50-year-old teacher moved like he was much younger, but being on that borderline between human and mutant could explain that. But what about that other stuff, like what happened today? Malak was sure that it’d been Lizzie’s protective screen thing he’d collided with.

    He guessed it could’ve been just these new suits protecting them. Nearly everyone had gotten creamed in that big crash, including some of the Air Force cops. All of them had walked away, even if a few had been limping some.

    Malik sighed to himself. He was beginning to learn that, just when you thought you had things figured out down here, something would turn you on your head. Putting his worries aside, he laid back enjoying the wonderful tired feeling of having fully exerted himself. Maybe someone knew all that was going on down here, but he wouldn’t place any bets!

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 33

September 22, 2008

ETWF: Minus 10 Days

ULTIMATE Field Camp SRT-One

    Sapphira Heron was definitely out of sorts today. Placing the voltage meter back in its cushioned slot in her toolbox, she knew it wasn’t her suit of powered armor that had her so aggravated. That customized product of her genius was in perfect operating condition.

    The bronze and gold high tech sculpture was a worthy successor to her Greek ancestors’ famous art works. Standing, the gleaming armor added a foot to her own 172 cm, but it was more than just size that made it so imposing. Its polished smooth curves conveyed an unmistakable feminine aura but also spoke of strength and power. Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but Greek philosophers knew it also had a formula, The Golden Ratio, 1.6180339887. Objects proportioned to this ratio, along with symmetry, seemed more attractive and beautiful. Sapphira had used that equation with ruthless efficiency.

     The sculptured beauty of its shell hid the real genius of her work within. Its miniature fusion plant let her power an astounding array of beyond cutting edge technology. An advanced sensor array; lethal and non-lethal weapon suites, as well as defensive systems and electronic countermeasures, made it a truly formidable machine. While dressed, she could dare challenge the strength of Hercules, swift Hermes, or fly like Pegasus.

    She knew that even before she’d been discovered as a mutant, she’d had that rare intelligence that made great intuitive leaps. Sapphira had her first patent by the time she was ten and had begun taking university level courses by her 13th year. Then everything changed. It was as if she’d been blind all those years and now could see.

    Her mutation had caused few physical changes, and those were mostly cosmetic. She certainly had no objections of her youthful attractiveness becoming goddess-like beauty. However, it was the change within that was life altering. Sapphira’s intelligence went clean off the charts, and she gained a multitude of useful intellectual talents. Complex mathematical equations were instantly solved. She had perfect recall and could visualize and manipulate sophisticated diagrams and images mentally.

    Sapphira slammed down the lid of her toolbox. Damn them! By all rights, she should be managing her own corporation by now instead of being harassed by petty bureaucrats whose ignorance was matched only by their bigoted intolerance. What was worse, it was her own countrymen who’d cursed her to this fate.

    She truly loved her home of Greece, but that didn’t blind her to the corruption of its politicians. ULTIMATE had come calling, looking for conscripts. Her family had tried to protect her but she’d been thrown to the ‘recruiters’ by Geek bureaucrats, like a virgin sacrifice into the volcano. They’d all known it’d been no accident either, for her to have been so honored.

    ULTIMATE was well aware of her talents and inventiveness. As a draftee, she had little in the way of any rights and anything she did produce would be the property of the greedy intolerant bastards. However, failure to comply could be just as bad. The term of her conscription was 3 years of her life and she had no desire to see it turned into life imprisonment sentenced to Dark Side Penitentiary.

    She bowed her head and got to work for her masters, but like the god of smiths, Hephaestus, for the high and mighty living upon Mount Olympus; it would be on her own terms. The actual suit design took her only a few days. The complex web and maze she wove within it took longer. Deliberately she made it aesthetically pleasing to the eye, not so much as to build a thing of beauty, although that was a bonus, but because it gave the onlooker a false impression of simplicity.

    When completed, it was a work of art and nothing but a huge deception. Yes it would give the wearer supra-human abilities and enable one to contest against the gods, but only if they happened to be Sapphira Heron. Every system was designed to mislead and confuse anyone trying to duplicate it. While any puzzle can be solved, those able to break this cipher weren’t willing to so for these masters.

    What’s more, the entire design existed only in her head. No blue prints, no records, no CAD files, just the surveillance coverage of her fabricating and assembling the bronze and gold masterpiece. That’s not to say they didn’t try. The look on their faces as screws were removed and entire assemblies collapsed into a pile of parts were priceless. They could have demanded she show them but that would’ve revealed their true purpose, as she could’ve asked for the process to be documented. 

    She had barely avoided a court-martial, but had succeeded in denying the goat-humpers the fruits of her labors. Angered, they’d assigned her as team leader for Supra-Reaction Team One, a supra-squad assigned to take care of threats ULTIMATE’s dropships and powered armor goons couldn’t stop.

    Inexperienced and lacking in seniority they expected her to fail, but she’d followed her the advice of her father, who’d served his time in the Greek military. He’d told her to follow the suggestions of her sergeants and others who did have the knowledge. Putting that wisdom to work, she picked the brains of all her people, as well as reading everything from Sun Tzu to Henri Jomini.

    Sapphira didn’t think it false pride to think that she and her people had done well. The individuals recruited for her team had been as fractious as they came, but despite all the problems, they had become a true team. Rarely used for their actual purposes, the Reaction Teams were more like chain-gangs of old, forced to perform whatever disgusting tasks their overseers could come up with.

    It was galling since most of the members had committed no crimes whatsoever. When the situation did demand their use, it was often long after it’d been prudent. The leadership of ULTIMATE did all they could to put Mutant-hood in the worst possible light. To have the SRTs come in and save the day, after the norms and all their technology had failed, was the last thing they wanted.

        While other supra-humans working in and with law-enforcement were allowed colorful code names, the SRTs were as de-humanized as possible. Like that old song, their names had been taken away from them and all they were was a number. Officially, Sapphira was Number One of SRT One. Their uniforms were as drab as possible, making only allowances for practicality.

    She still got the warm and fuzzies remembering when she’d been ordered to paint her armor in ULTIMATE blue. She wondered how even an organization like this one could take such a lovely shade of blue and make it so ugly. As simply as she could, Sapphira explained that her armored suit had a unique coating that let it reflect most energy based attacks and that its color was a property of the materials used, not any sort of pigment.

    Pig-headed, they refused to listen of course. Amused, she told them if they wanted it blue, let them figure it out. After wasting gallon after gallon of paint and high-tech infusers, they finally gave up. She had so much fun watching it bead and run off even if she’d just made more enemies.

    Despite all the odds against them, SRT One had beaten them every time. Struggling against the anal-retentive bureaucracy, and fighting some of the most dangerous criminals on the planet, was difficult but they’d been winning that two front war.

    For a brief time, Sapphira thought that just maybe SRT One had been making a real difference and starting to turn around some of the negative attitudes she dealt with day end and day out. That things were actually improving.  Then came the New Riverside Fluster Kuck.

    The whole truth only came out after it was all over, but it was a complete and utter screw-up from the beginning. A really nasty demonic thing calling himself Lord Corruption had been working at opening a gate for yet another, even more evil, supernatural creature. Lord Corruption had nearly taken over the entire city of New Riverside by forcibly impressing every supra within to his service to accomplish that goal. The local supra-group, the New Riverside Warders, were being overwhelmed and the ULTIMATE forces on site did their usual sitting on their hands thing before calling in help.

    When she and SRT One had been finally called in, Lord Corruption had already stacked the deck. He had turned, or as it was later claimed, took mental control of the ULTIMATE tactical commander, a Colonel Hostler. If SRT One had been free to act, Sapphira felt that even at that late date the oncoming train-wreck of events could have been avoided. However, all of the SRTs were under the command of the local office, and the one there was commanded by the traitor Colonel. He made sure all their efforts were not only wasted, but also offered up her people as scapegoats for one failure after another.

    What turned the tide was the simple fact that the Warders weren’t at all stupid and brought in outside help. She didn’t like to admit it but that decision probably saved them all. When they got help, they did not mess around. The Chevaliers were a group of unknowns that were brought together under the leadership of the renown old American hero Major Victory. The retired hero had been around long enough to have to be over 100 years old, but looked like a man in his prime. With  generations of experience behind him, he trained a team that when SRT One had been ordered by the traitor to attack, they’d gotten their butts kicked soundly, as Robert, better known as Number Three, had colorfully put it.

    True, some of the Warders had also been there, but considering the number of regular ULTIMATE combat units on the scene, both these Chevaliers and the Warders should have been defeated. Even worse, she and her armor were taken out without her firing a shot. Esper-anza, the Chevaliers’ mentalist, had attacked her with a projected blast of Psionic energy. Such abilities weren’t unknown in the world and her armor was designed to provided protection from its like.

    How Esper-anza had done it, Sapphira would never know, but the Chevalier had found a weakness in her suit’s defenses. What was different about this attack was it’d been directed against her armor and not her. The cyber-interface that allowed her and only her to control the complex suit was the real target. Normally such energies were harmless to mechanical and electronic devices, but this system's purpose was to link with the human mind and nervous system. Esper-anza’s blast set up a feedback loop that nearly fried her brain along with giving her stroke-like symptoms that had persisted for days.

    Ironically, SRT One’s defeat let the Chevaliers and the Warders go on to stop Lord Corruption’s plans. Not before open conflict had erupted between the Heroes and ULTIMATE though. In the confusing battle that followed, Lord Corruption’s own forces had attacked both parties. The Warders had held their own and willingly went to the rescue of their former besiegers, an action that galled ULTIMATE’s leadership to no end.

    In the aftermath, she’d awoken from her injuries to find that the craven bureaucrats were blaming her for everything that’d gone wrong! To her rather embarrassed relief it’d been the Chevaliers and the Warders once more to the rescue. Major Victory was a hero of the old school and was still held in high regard by many. He’d used that and the information provided by his staff to clear up the misunderstanding. Like an unstoppable force of nature, he was determined that the guilty would face justice.

    Heads rolled and she and SRT One was cleared of all charges, but like the movie said ‘Bastards had brothers’ or in this case ‘bureaucrats had special interests’. They’d made this last year most unpleasant, and she’d given up all hope of making changes to ULTIMATE from the inside. Perhaps someone else could make those changes but fighting the entrenched hostility she faced now was a losing battle.

    Sapphira had only a year remaining until she was free. Now, she was planning how to make those changes from the outside. Three times, her initial conscription of 3 years had been involuntarily extended, the maximum time allowed. After some thought, she also made preparations for what if her overseers finally crossed the line and tried to frame, imprison or do worse to her. She had no intention of going down fighting. Sapphira fully intended on living and let the other poor dumb bastard do the dying to paraphrase a famous fighting general.   

    Right at this very moment, SRT One was once again being screwed and not even getting kissed, another of Number Three’s colorful Americanisms. Here they were in Las Vegas, the American’s city of sin, but there weren’t any nice comfortable hotels for them. They were living out of tents, while playing rabbit for the Heavy Assault Brigade.

    The Brigade were ULTIMATE‘s premier thugs. Most large cities had what passed for a battalion of ULTIMATE troopers. Six V-33 dropships, a V-22c command ship, and 65 Peacekeeper Power Armored troopers, which was more than enough to take care of most threats. The Brigade had ten times the equipment and men as well as almost another fifty other combat helicopters, interceptors, and other aircraft. What’s more, instead of Peacekeeper armored suits, they had the more heavily armed Peacemakers. Its mission was simple. Go in, crush the opposition, and let someone else worry about collateral damage and casualties. It did not help that every one of them was a radical mutant hating ass. And those were the good things you could say about them.

    This was the wonderful group that their beloved bureaucratic overseers had them training with. That is if you considered being chased and shot at while trying to survive in an inhospitable desert, training. It was times like this that she missed her home in Greece with a fierce longing.

    At least SRT One’s support troops were having a good time. Since Sapphira and the rest of the supra-humans in SRT were being abused out in the Mohave, their pilots and crew chiefs had little to do. While ULTIMATE at large was turning more and more intolerant and bigoted, the normals in SRT One’s support group were a good bunch. Any mutie haters that showed up were quickly set straight by their no nonsense noncoms. They knew that their safety depended on all of them trusting each other and working together. Any man jack that couldn’t toe the line got shown the door.

    One of her pilots had found an old friend from his Officer Training Academy days involved in a surveillance mission nearby. She’d given her unofficial blessing that if he happened to run across his old friend while flying navigation training flights she wouldn’t see a thing.

    Imagine her surprise when the young pilot had passed on to her a request from his friend’s superior that the two of them meet in secret and away from prying eyes in blue. A discreet inquiry about this requester revealed he was a Frenchman of the old school, and was nearly as unpopular with the ruling elite of ULTIMATE as she was.

    Not being either slow or mentally deficient, Sapphira had suspected there was more to their being deployed here than some training mission. The fact that there were others here on the ’shit list,’ as Three called it, suggested they were all being set up as scapegoats. Add in the HAB, their masters’ favorite toy, made her certain, she knew who was suppose to charge in and save the day from their incompetence. There were more issues in play than she’d first guessed. Add in the HAB training to find and pursue mutants in a desert environment with the authorization for lethal force, and the answers were most unpleasant.

    Securing the last of her testing equipment, she readied her armor for more training. Sapphira had updated her own contingency plans, and warned her family of possible trouble. Tonight her armor’s stealth systems would get a comprehensive test and she’d find out what the questions were to her answers.

    No matter she was upset over what she suspected; that once more her masters and overseers were setting her up for failure. However, this time they might have finally crossed over the point of no return. Loyalty, like respect, was something to be earned and ULTIMATE had done nothing to gain either.

    Sapphira’s bared teeth couldn’t be called a smile except perhaps by fellow Greeks from another long ago time. Standing fast in a mountain pass known as the Hot Gates, they would’ve recognized and welcomed her to their ranks despite her sex. They would have known an Amazon warrior when they saw one.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter 34

September 22, 2008

ETWF: Minus 10 Days

Area 61

    Doctor Courtney Hathaway was tired. While she wasn’t the only esper talent on the staff she was the senior. She was also the only one with the knowledge and skill necessary to pull off Project Hydra. Often she suspected that the others were there just to keep an eye on her. It was just more of the paranoid check and balances Area 61 lived by.

Once the Hero Names

Hey everyone!  After having a chat with someone who knows Slavic/Russian naming conventions much better than I, there is going to be a name change. Federnova is going to be changed to Savitkaya. Silly me got things confused and this hopefully will fix my error. By the way this also means that Peter is now Pyotr Savitskiy. See the nature of my mistake. Family name of Savitskiy for the males but for the females it's Savitskaya. 

Hopefully this will be the last! Don't you just love works in Progress?  LOL!