The plumes began to slowly dissipate, replaced instead by hot, angry flames. And the noise they made, how they sliced the air with ever-increasing intensity. Everyone present around the outer ring of the facility could tell that they were getting closer with incredible speed. Between the missiles, their comms, and Atrum’s telepathic link, all those who watched and waited were treated to a cacophony of terrible noise.
“What do we do…?” said Angel, her eyes on the drone that seemed to be passively making its way off into the distance.
Behind her, Atrum tightened his fists and tried his best to summon his powers. His grunts indicated that he was not proving successful.
“I can’t reach him… the Captain and Tsunami. They’re too deep inside and I’m blind to them.”
Styka turned to him next. “Can you contact them?”
Atrum sighed. “I can reach Pax, but he knows the situation. He should be here – ”
A loud pop sounded. In an instant, Pax stood before them with Erotica, Panacea and Freedom next to him. He looked especially awkward with the three ladies clung to him on all sides. But then again, they didn’t appear to pleased either. The transportation process and the fact that they all needed to hold onto to him to experience seemed to have left them all rattled.
“What’s happening?” Atrum said to anyone who would answer. Pax, the least phased by their jump, immediately answered.
“Captain and Tsunami went on ahead to find the artifact. He got your message about something being wrong, sent us back.”
“What’s happening?” asked Panacea, prompting Atrum to point to the sky. A quick look was all the four of them needed to know that their mission was officially screwed!
“We’ve got to get them out,” said Pax.
“Nuts to that! I’m going to stop those missiles!” said Freedom, brandishing her sword and taking off before anyone could interject. Angel looked about to interject, but then shook her head and prepped for take off.
“I’m going too!”
Two booms sounded as the two alternately-colored streaks filled the air. Within seconds, Styka and Panacea were looking at each other, shrugging, and taking to the skies themselves. With the four of their airborne, a plan of sorts seemed to be taking shape.
“Okay… now what?” asked Atrum. Those who were left behind began to look to one another, each one thinking the same thing. After so many missions with the Captain providing their action plan, things felt a little awkward now that he was the one in danger. And yet, no means seemed to be available to reach them, and time was running out.
“No choice,” said Erotica. “We got back inside and get them out before it’s too late.”
The first explosion sounded overhead. All eyes turned skyward to see the small cloud of black smoke. Two of the missiles were dispatched, and then a third. That only left nine more, and they appeared to be accelerating…
* * *
They stood together, watching it with quiet reverence. They had reached the far end of the corridor at last and gazed on the only door they had encountered within. Buried this deep within the hillside, the room that lay beyond could serve but one purpose. The earth provided natural shielding, ensuring that whatever lay was safely shielded from any heat or radiation sensors.
The door was consistent with this appraisal, being made of reinforced steel and sealed by a biometric lock.
“This has got to be it,” he said, inspecting the lock. “Lead-lined door, coded access. No one but cleared personnel registered to gain entry.”
Tsunami took a deep breath. “Open it.”
Smackdown looked at her, noted how her stance had suddenly become rigid and inflexible. At this juncture, she was no longer able to contain her true feelings. Perhaps his little talk with her had something to do with that. Or maybe she really was more eager than he to see what lay within.
He took one more look at the door and gauged that it wouldn’t survive a blow from a powered kick. Taking a step back, he got as much room as he could need to power through it.
“Here goes!” he said, lifting his foot and feeling the servo mechanisms in his suit’s leg wind up and release. A loud clang sounded, and he was through, the door ripping from its hinges with a large boot-shaped dent in the middle. Gun leveled, Smackdown rolled into the room and scanned around them. Tsunami was close behind, her body poised in a fighting stance and her fists clenched tight. It took them but a few seconds to realize the obvious.
“There’s nothing here…” Tsunami said, her words wafting up to the far corners of the room and echoing softly. The room was darkened, light coming from above a central fixture of fluorescent bulbs that trickled down through a series of metal girders. Chains hung about the floor, looking to be part of some kind of pulley system. And the middle, there was a discernible absence made evident by a change in the color. A spheroid spot on the concrete appeared to be darker than anything outside of it, proof enough that something had occupied the center of the room until recently.
But otherwise, the two of them stood alone in an empty room. The terrible truth finally hitting them with crushing force…
“There’s nothing here…” she said again, her voice sounding distant and mournful. “The damn bastards tricked us. The whole thing was a set-up.”
Smackdown knew what she would say next, and was quick to interject. “They must have known I was talking to him. He couldn’t have -“
“Dammit, Captain! Face it, you’re friend screwed us! He’s working for them!”
Smackdown shook his head. No, he thought. It couldn’t be. Years of working with the man had to be worth something. He wouldn’t have simply led them into a trap. Not unless they had something on him, forced him to comply…
But now was hardly the time to get into all that. If they made it out, he would be sure to investigate the matter fully. Until then, all that mattered was getting out. Their enemy, whoever they were, was no doubt preparing to spring their next move.
* * *
They were arrayed in the field before the warehouse, standing as close as they dared to the target while still being able to defend it. Freedom, Panacea, Styka and Angel continued to streak across the sky, intercepting missiles and taking them down as best they could. The first wave was all but gone, but the drone had filled the air with another volley before the last of them was even destroyed.
Judgement had been able to bend a missile back on its course to take out the UAV before it could fire any more, but they still had a good fifteen to contend with now. And all their efforts to remove the first had cost them precious time.
Down below, Judgement and Bonfire reached out and took hold of those they could with their telekinesis. Erotica, unable to fly to meet them or move them with their minds, had to resort to more creative measures. Taking hold of whatever debris she could find and that was large enough, she flung them into the air to intercept the missiles.
They were making progress, but some were still making it through. And they had very little time left…
Standing within their circle, Atrum continued to reach out to make contact with Pax. He continued to push inside, seeking out the last members of their group. Between his attempt to retrieve the Captain and Tsunami from within, and the rest of them trying to stop the assault, he figured they had about a fifty-fifty shot of making it out of this alive.
But of course, all it would take was one missile to hit their target. As the Captain always said, no one got left behind. If only one of them didn’t make it out, they would be counting this as a defeat. But as long as there was a chance, they had to keep fighting. As with everything else, it was just a matter of getting the timing right…
Why the hell couldn’t I see this coming? he thought. He had been cognizant of something that lay in their path, but it had been nothing more than a terrible, grey mark on his mind. And yet, he hadn’t really considered that much of a threat. How was he to interpret that, especially in light of the fact that he still felt, even in the face of this onslaught, the strangest feeling of intangibility/
As he tried desperately to remain in contact with Pax and bolster the others, a terrible feeling of deja vu came over him. Had they not seen this exact same thing happen before? The presence of another mind jamming them as they stood and watched their enemies carrying on before them. He couldn’t sense anyone out there, but knew that something had to be at the other end of that vague sense he was getting.
A well placed chunk of concrete slammed into another missile, causing it to break apart several dozen meters short of its objective. Freedom’s sword slashed through another, and a fireball from Bonfire sent another crashing into the treeline.
“Another one down!” he yelled.
“Not enough! We got to move faster!” shouted Judgement, stopping a fourth and pulling it apart in midair.
“This would be so much easier if they were heat-seekers! I could blind em all in one shot!”
“Don’t brag, it’s unattractive,” replied Erotica. Were it not for the fact that everyone was very tired and strung out, they might gave laughed. They were down to less than ten now, but
[Pax! You’ve got to hurry!]
[Moving as fast as I can!] he replied. [I can’t reach them and they’re all the way inside]
Atrum huffed. How he wished at times like this that he could fly, or possessed some more offensive abilities.
[Just hurry! You’re going to have enough of a time getting out of there before the place goes up!]
A loud crash sounded from overhead. Everyone in the grassy field fell to their knees as a powerful wave knocked them down, flattening the grass around them and making the trees nearby sway. He looked up to see a fireball erupt overhead, one far larger than anything they had been generating.
“Detonation!” said Bonfire. “One of the missiles went off!”
They all looked around desperately, noting that some of the silhouettes in the sky that represented their friends were now less in number.
“Oh my God… who was hit?”
They all looked on, no one able to speak and all feeling the same terrible sense that something terrible had just happened.
And then it got worse. From the dissipating fireball, two more plumes of flame emerged…
* * *
“Captain! Come on!” Tsunami yelled, motioning at him from up ahead.
“I’m coming!” he yelled, moving his legs as fast as the exoskeleton would carry him. Of all the moments for his servos to experience a malfunction. Half of him wanted to tear the armor off and run without it. But he knew he would need the armored protection once they stepped outside. A single UAV was not the last of it, he knew. If experience had taught him anything, it was that an air assault was always just the beginning. Soon enough, they were likely to be seeing gunships and drop troops, the grunts who made sure that the place was “sanitized” after it got blown to pieces.
“Hurry! She yelled! We’re almost there!”
Another voice called to them from far off. Both looked ahead and spotted the face of Pax running towards them.
“Captain! Tsunami! We got incoming!”
“What?” yelled Tsunami.
“We got incoming! Missiles are overhead and -“
He never got he last of it out. The entire building felt like it had been lifted up out of the ground and dropped hard. The walls cracked and splintered rock flew, dust and debris kicked up in all directions. But none of them really witnessed it. It all happened in the space of a heartbeat, and time seemed to stretch on interminably afterwards.
Smackdown looked to the source of the voice and blinked several times. Eventually, he could make out the face of Pax staring down at him, his suit tinted to a dark grey. His hand lay over the Captain’s head, no doubt healing a gash that had been there seconds before.
“Captain? Can you move your legs?”
Smackdown frowned. The question seemed odd, until he looked down. A large chunk of debris lay across his stomach, his exoskeleton cracked and emitting sparks from several frayed connections. He looked to his left arm, the forearm section which lay open to show a small trickle of blood. When he tried to move, a terrible stab of pain shot through him. That quickly answered that question.
“I’m pinned!” he yelled. “I can’t move… I think my leg is broken… no… my hip…”
Pax began to fumble around. His hands could confer immediate healing, but only if he could achieve direct contact. He reached out to take hold of the Captain’s arm, and a thousand needles shoot through the flesh instantaneously.
“Oh! That’s not helping!”
“It will,” said Pax. “Just give it a second and I can get you free.”
Smackdown took another look at the slab that had him pinned. He quickly shook his head and looked up ahead. Tsunami was laying on the ground, but she appeared to be intact and unpinned. She was laying on her side with one knee propped up and her arm extended. Apparently, Pax had already administered her aid, but she remained unconscious.
“You can’t free me…” he said finally. “That cement is too heavy. And I think it might be the only thing holding my guts in.”
“Don’t talk like that! I’m getting you both out, Captain! You just have to wait…”
“No time,” the Captain replied. “You got to get her out while you still can. I’ll just slow you down.”
Pax shook his head and kept working on the Captain’s arm. It was starting to feel better, the bones, sinew and flesh coming together and the pain beginning to diminish.
“Pax, that’s an order! You’re not strong enough to free me. And even if you did, it would take more time than we have to heal me to the point that I could travel. You can’t carry us both, so carry her!”
“No, Captain! You can’t order me to leave you behind!”
“I just did!” Smackdown yelled, and then coughed. A small trickle of blood escaped his mouth and he pulled his hand away to cover it up. The site of it would only encourage Pax to stay longer than he could. “Don’t worry. Those bastards need me alive, they won’t let me die. And besides, there’ll be another time…”
“What do you mean?”
The Captain reached to his left hip to retrieve a small tube. The effort caused him terrible pain, but he managed to get it free and passed it to Pax. “Give this to Atrum. He’ll know what to do…”
Pax took the small tube and looked at it curiously. He wasn’t sure what he was being given, but the urgency with which the Captain was plying him was taking effect. His feet began to tremble against the floor and he looked back at Tsunami, still lying there quietly.
“Go on…” he said one last time. “I’m ordering you to get your kinsman to safety. Oblige this order, cuz it might be my last…”
Pax tightened his grip around the tube. Placing it in his belt, he reached down and put his hands on Smackdown’s head.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“Not your fault,” Smackdown said, patting Pax on the shoulder. “Just make you sure you all get out alive.”
Pax took one last look at his commander, and spun around. Scooping Tsunami up from the floor, he moved as fast as he could down the corridor, leaving the Captain in a crumpled mess behind.
* * *
The stood before the treeline, all eyes focused on the single patch of burned greenery where their friend had landed moments before. Angel emerged from the patch, smoke rising from around her and the body she carried. The flames were beginning to catch at her feet and it looked like a forest fire might ignite at any moment. But right now, the thing everyone seemed focused on was the body that lay limply in her arms.
“Is she okay?” asked Erotica. Angel’s head hung low. The body she carried seemed intact, but the blood and burns were apparent for all to see.
“She took the hit,” said Angel. “I was closest, but she pushed me out of the way.”
“It was her choice,” said Panacea, stepping forward and placed both hands on Freedom’s body. “She’s unconscious. But she’ll live. And she’ll live knowing she saved a friend’s life.”
“I didn’t ask her too!” cried Angel. “She could have died, and then neither you or Pax would have been able to save her.”
Panacea seemed to ignore her as she moved her hands over Freedom’s wounded flesh. In time, the burns began to heal and her breathing became more quickened and audible. But she remained unconscious still, the shock of absorbing such a blast having put her into a deep coma for the time being.
The low noise didn’t last long. Behind them, they heard the sound of rustling as several pairs of feet came running forward. They spun around to see the faces of Judgement, Bonfire, and Atrum coming, and Pax carrying yet another body in his arms.
“Oh my God!” cried Styka. “Tsunami?”
“She’s okay,” said Pax. “Took a serious hit inside. But I’ve stabilized her. We need to get her out though.”
Angel nodded from her spot. “Sounds like a plan. Where’s the Captain?”
A dark ripple seemed to run through their new arrivals. All at once, they hung their heads and looked overcome. Judgement’s teeth were born and the gold streaks on his flesh seemed to grow, the terrible knowledge feeding his frenzied powers.
“He ordered me to…”
“Wait a minute, he’s still alive?” Angel demanded. Pax nodded somberly, which made her angrier. “We have to go back in!”
“We can’t!” cried Pax, finding his voice again. “He’s trapped deep inside, and we need to get our own back to base before the others arrive.”
“Screw that!” Judgement said. “We can take them! Let’s face what comes and get him out ourselves!”
“No,” said Atrum, causing all eyes to turn on him.
“You better explain yourself, Auditor,” said Angel, finding herself of one mind with Judgement. Even with Freedom in her arms, she would be damned if they chose to cut and run now, while the Captain still languished within.
“Look, people, we’ve been had. We all know that. But there’s something else going on here. There’s a darker force lingering out there, and it’s been jamming me the whole time. Whatever else they got planned for us, I can promise you it’s going to be worse than tanks and missile drones. We might not be able to stop it.”
Several voices rose at once, all of which objected to his assessment of the situation. He raised his voice quickly to cut them down. Debate was not something they had time for.
“We all knew there was something wrong here, people! The fact that I couldn’t sense there was a trap before it closed shut, that’s indication enough that whatever these people got on their side, its more powerful than us. We got three people down already. The longer we stay, the more we’re likely to lose.”
Angel scoffed, but looked back to Freedom. Sticking around was not something she could advise while her friend lay strewn across her arms. Judgement, Erotica and Bonfire were far from convinced, but none wanted to argue the point further. Atrum felt the time was right to show them the special object he now carried.
“They won’t have him long. He passed this onto us, and we’ll be able to find him with it.”
“What is it?” asked Angel.
“It’s a tracking device wired to a GPS chip in his suit. Wherever they take him, we’ll be able to monitor him to within a distance of a few meters. We might not be able to get him out now, but there will be another chance…”
“And there’s another thing,” Tsunami said, looking up from Pax’s hold. “The Captain ordered us to get out. I’d go back in myself if I could, but the only reason he’s staying is to give us a fighting chance of making it out in one piece.”
Just about everyone gasped as the words escaped her lips. Pax was sure to follow them up with some of his own.
“Besides, it might be the last order he ever gave. We have an obligation to carry it out.”
A dark consensus fell over them. Facing each other, the ten remaining Revengers nodded and set their sites for the treeline. They had some distance to travel before they would be out of the area, but knew that they could make it if they left now. All at once, they broke into a sprint or took to the air, flying and fleeing into the distance, the sound of rotors and vehicles sounding in the distance…