Jon Smith took his cell phone from its pouch, checked the list of heroes currently on the grid. Recognizing one of the names from the previous evening, he punched the number on the keypad.
"Hello," Genie Pierce replied.
"Have any interest in helping me with a problem? There's a deadline on it....."
"Sure. How did the task force go?" she responded, referring to the mission which had introduced them to each other.
"It fell apart," Jon replied. "The tank quit, then Startle quit, then 2 more guys left saying they were coming back, and they didn't."
Genie's voice took on an edge. "...she quit?"
"Yeah," Jon told her, "....Jammer and I did two more missions for Psyche, but it got too late for us, we were exhausted from all the fighting, starting to make mistakes. It was pretty obvious that something was going to go wrong if we didn't get some rest. I went back to Psyche and did two more this morning by myself, but I couldn't do the next one alone, it really needed a full team."
There was a moment of silence. ".....eeeeerrr.....she kicked me off the task force team to 'help the group'. "
Jon's mouth dropped open. "You're kidding me! She kicked you?! I didn't know that....if I had, I would have quit."
"Yeah, I came back right after you went for those inspirations...went into the building and came out to find out I was kicked."
His mouth twisted in anger. "What ticks me off, is someone said 'what happened to the Peacebringer?' and someone else said 'she must have bailed on us' and Startle never said a word. Never told us she kicked you off the team. I didn't know she'd kicked you out....none of us knew. What a b....."
"It's okay, I'm over it...." Genie interrupted him. "I was really pissed last night, though. I wouldn't care if she kicked me at the begining but she kicked me after I worked with the TF team for 2 hours."
"Well, okay...." he said doubtfully. He continued: "Listen, Genie, I really shouldn't be standing around chatting. I'm here with Kirsten Woods in IP. She wants me to handle a rescue for her. Apparently, she's got inside information ahead of time on a planned raid on a Crey office building. She tells me we only have 75 minutes to get the office workers out. This could be trouble....so I'd understand if you wanted to opt out. I could use your help, though."
"Sure, I'm in. Is it in Skyway?"
"I don't know yet...let me ask Kirsten." He turned back to the CIA agent.
"I just heard the Sky Raiders are planning an attack on a Crey research lab," Kirsten told him. "The facility is working on new energy field stabilizers for Portal Corporation, and I think I know why the Sky Raiders are interested. It seems that one of these field generators could be used to override the teleportation grid the city uses to rescue endangered heroes. You've got to stop the Sky Raiders from tampering with the teleportation grid. Here's the address....." She handed him a wrinkled sticky note.
He glanced at the tiny square of paper, covered with neat lettering, spoke into his cell phone again, filled in the details. "Steel, that's lucky, easy to get to from IP." He read the address of the Crey office building over the phone. "Meet you there."
"....the Medicom grid.....that's bad....real bad...." was the Peacebringer's only comment.
All card-carrying Heroes went through an orientation class before they were issued their credentials. They were also given a thorough physical and had their DNA recorded. The final step of the physical involved the insertion of a tiny RFID transponder under the skin, what was colloquially known to the heroes themselves as "the patch", even though external patches had not been used for over a year. The transponder allowed them to be located at all times when they were inside the Paragon City safety zones. It was Genie's transponder that had appeared on the "on duty" list on Jon's cell phone screen, telling him not only that she had called in as being available, but also which zone she was in. When two heroes were in the same zone, the transponders would allow them to find each other quickly.
The transponder had a second, grimmer purpose, its primary one; when a hero's life signs were failing, it would connect back the Medicom grid. If the hero was conscious, it would offer him or her the chance to be teleported to the nearest emergency room. If not, it would transport him automatically.
Before the development of the Medicom grid, the death toll, particularly during the Rikti war, had been catastrophic. There was a reason that there were only eight in the "The Surviving Eight".
Jon triggered his hyperstride with a thought, and began the long run across Independence Port to the Steel Canyon tunnel.
On the far side of the tunnel, he worked his way around Platinum Lake. He knew he couldn't take the time to stop, even when he ran past an Outcast Torch threatening a citizen. He overheard snatches of conversation...
Torch: "You better hand it over, real polite."
Citizen: "Please, somebody! I need help!"
He had to trust that another Hero would pass by.
At the front door of the building, he stopped and keyed his cell to remove his name from the "on duty" list. He couldn't afford distractions.
He eased the door open, peeked inside, saw no one in the front lobby, slipped through the opening, stopped, swallowed, tried to surpress the rising panic. Crey. A Crey Industries facility. Biotech laboratories. The antiseptic hospital smell assailed his senses.
I have to do this, he told himself, already breathing hard. He gritted his teeth, crept slowly forward.
Cautiously approaching a corner, he peered around it, realized that Kirsten's information was old....there were five Sky Raiders visible, waiting for anyone who came inside.
No one else was visible. Where were the office workers, the technicians?
He slipped back outside the building, keyed his cell phone. "You coming, Genie?"
"On my way...."
The comm link they all carried chattered constantly, with reports of sightings, problems, requests for help, sometimes just idle conversation. He'd grown used to the noise, blocked it out most of the time, but this time a call on the broadcast channel caught his attention.
"Anyone doing anything that needs a healer?"
He made note of the Hero's call sign, checked the on-duty list, keyed the woman's cell phone number. Busy. He tapped a text message, "Team of 2 needs help. Office workers. Sky Raiders. Deadline." He sighed, hoping that it would be enough.
It was at that moment that Genie arrived, and they slipped into the front foyer together.
"Ready?" Jon asked.
"Yep," the Peacebringer answered. With a concussion of air, the tiny human-appearing woman changed into one of her true forms, the levitating Nova form. Vaguely resembling a floating five-foot-tall tentacled squid, the Novas, light and dark, had become a common sight around the cities of Earth after the blended hero Horus had reawakened from his shock-induced daze, and set out to free his kind from their slumbers inside human hosts.
Jon liked working with the half-aliens. They were often wiser, more mature, than some of the still-wet-behind-the-ears heroes that he had to work with.
They fell into their respective roles with practiced ease. Even as Genie assumed her true form, he popped his metallic claws into view through his metal knuckles, locked them into battle position. His role was simple....he was a "scrapper" in Hero terminology, a close-in fighter, running up to opponents, hitting them with metallic fists or extended claws. With his healing ability, due to his accelerated metabolism, he could take a lot of punishment, far more than even most Heroes could. It still hurt....but he was used to pain. He had a lot of practice by now determining exactly how much he could take....and when he needed to back up, let his body rest, let others carry on the fight for a while.
It wasn't a pleasant job. Because he could take so much more punishment, he often found himself acting as a shield for other, more powerful, but also more fragile, long-distance fighters. It had become almost a game, trying to draw the attention of gangbangers and villains to himself, distracting them from the heroes who were the real danger, the real damage-deliverers.
"...meat shield..." was the faintly derisive term he'd gotten used to hearing from teammates. Nothing personal; it was just what any tank or scrapper did.
The Peacebringers, like Genie, were not particulary fragile, and they had an arsenal of abilities based on their other-worldly origins. Still, when the Peacebringers had come to Earth, they had also brought their own enemies....the Nictus, Kheldians like the Peacebringers, but altered in laboratories. The Nictus had been slavemasters....the Peacebringers had been the slaves.
There was a second, more hidden war going on in Paragon City, and the other large cities of Earth, one not of the making of human-kind.
Jon ran straight into the group of Sky Raiders, spun in a practiced circle, dealing damage in all directions. He concentrated on first one enemy, then another. He tried to distract the Engineer, but the man crouched down, activating a protective force field generator from his pack. While Genie was making short work of a Porter, Jon downed the Engineer and his generator.
A sudden silence fell as the last Raider dropped unconscious....or dead. There wasn't time to check the bodies, the medical personnel would have to clean up later, after control of the building had been re-established, and any hostages freed.
"Nice," Jon commented, panting hard. Activity seemed to help the panic. As adrenaline rose and fell in answer to the battle, he found himself calming.
"Yep," Genie assented, once more standing on two human legs.
They moved down the hallway, found no more Raiders, but they did find the first bank of elevators. They were about to move to the second floor when his cell phone chiruped. He hastily pulled it out, put it to his ear.
It was the errant healer, Lassun. "You still need me?"
"Sure," Jon replied, with relief. He spoke to Genie, "I'm inviting a healer to join us." He returned to the phone. "We have a hostage situation, Lassun, have to move fast. The first floor of the building is quite small, we're moving on to the second floor....join us as quickly as you can."
They only had time to take care of the first group of Raiders, a Wing Raider, an Inferno Raider, and another engineer with his generator, before Lassun joined them.
"Hi, Lassun, that was quick," Jon exclaimed, relief in his voice. If the Medicom grid went down, their chances of dying on this job skyrocketed. The presence of a super-powered healer in their midst could make all the difference between a successful mission....and a fatal tragedy.
"Yeah, I was in Steel," the tiny woman replied.
"Thanks for joining us. I saw your message on broadcast."
"No problem, I was between assignments. Always happy to help out other heroes on a job."
"If you can just stay close and spam heal me and Genie, this will go quickly," Jon told her.
"Sure," the empathy defender replied.
Jon peaked around the next corner, counted another knot of Raiders. "We who are about to die salute you..." he muttered under his breath.
The room was vast, perhaps half the size of a football field, the ceiling almost as high as the room was wide. Pale, pastel blue-white light filled every nook and cranny, giving an eerie science fiction feel to everything, not that it was needed; the arcane pieces of electronic equipment could hold their own on any Hollywood sound stage. Grids of lights beamed upwards through the sterile-smelling air.
Three distinct groups of Sky Raiders stood around the room, some watching doorways alertly, some deep in conversation, others examining the equipment. Many of them were wearing the flying harnesses and backpacks which were the Sky Raiders' trademark, Porters in particular, with their exquisitely engineered jet packs, their feet dangling a foot above the floor at all times. Some of the walkers were toting extremely large and dangerous-looking weapons.
Peering around the doorway, Jon noticed three garage-sized doors leading off toward the compass points. "...gonna be a big mission...." he commented to the other two heroes. He pulled his pocket watch from its pouch, checked it. They still had time, according to Kirsten, but, then, she hadn't known that the Raiders were already in the building. He put the watch away. There was no getting around it....if the Medicom grid was in danger, all bets were off.
"Ready?" Genie asked.
"Ready as I'll ever be...." he grimaced.
Genie switched forms to the floating Nova, the concussion of air and sonic boom that accompanied her transformation acting as announcement that the Heroes were present. Jon ran forward, straight into a knot of Raiders, his favored position, as it allowed him to spin in place reaching as many of their foes as possible with a single move. It was also the most dangerous position, as being in his arms' length of the Raiders also meant that *he* was in *their* arms' length, as well.
They fought, silently, all their attention on the Raiders. Lassun remained as far away as possible, trying to stay out of the actual fighting, lending assistance to the scrapper and the Peacebringer when it was needed.
When all of the Raiders in the room were lying on the floor, Jon took a moment to look around. Lassun was tending to some minor scratches Genie had sustained, but in all, they were in pretty good shape, especially considering the ten prostrate bodies.
"Very nice, good job, team," he commented. Lassun smiled in response.
The metal clawed scrapper ran to the left door, opened it, found nothing more than a closet area, the middle door was more of the same.
"Mmmmm...not as big as I thought...." he commented. "...small floors, many of them."
"Gather for Recovery Aura at top...." Lassun said as he stepped into the elevator for the third floor.
Despite the small size of each floor in the high-rise, the total area of the lab was gigantic, and each floor was laid out differently from all the previous ones. With no pattern to follow, they moved slowly, carefully. It was a massive stroke of luck that the Raiders apparently were still unaware of their presence in the building, as they met no ambushes at the elevators, a situation that could have had a tragic outcome. Surprise was still on their side, and Jon worked very hard to make sure that it remained so.
A darkened corridor between large, well-lighted rooms afforded him yet another opportunity. Peeking around the corner, he allowed himself to be seen, beckoned to a Raider standing off to one side. Foolishly, the man ran toward him as he jumped back into the shadows, no doubt images of reward filling his head, and Jon made short work of him.
He grinned wickedly. "I love getting a bad guy off in a dark corner for a little private mugging between friends...." he quipped. Genie and Lasson both grinned.
Lacking further opportunities to separate the knot of Raiders they faced next, they checked with each other on readiness, and stormed their way into the room. As he ran forward, Jon saw a beam of purple light shoot past him on his right. Far from being relieved at the near miss, he jumped forward, frantically trying to find the source of the beam, finally saw what he was looking for.
"Quantum!" he yelled a warning to Genie, referring to the Wing Quantum Raider he had spotted.
The Peacebringers had come to Earth in peace, and found war instead, the Rikti war, an alien species here-to-fore unknown to either man or Kheldian. Close behind the Peacebringers had come their hereditary enemies, the Nictus, who, in their turn, had armed some of Earth's more unsavory criminals with Nictus technology, such as the Quantum weapon that the Raider carried. Damaging to humans, they were finely engineered to be even more deadly to Kheldian physiology, often bringing them down with a single shot.
Teaming with Kheldians had taught Jon that part of his job was protecting them from Quantum technology wielders, and their first cousins, the Voids.
Ignoring all the other Raiders, Jon made a dive for the Quantum gunner, allowed himself to be attacked by the surrounding enemies while he threw all his strength against the gunner. A split second later, it was over, and Jon yelled "Down!" over his shoulder to the Peacebringer, returned his attention to defending himself.
It was fortunate indeed that the Nictus weaponry was so complex and difficult to use that it required months of training to use effectively....once the gunner was down, he didn't have to worry about another Raider simply picking up the weapon from the fallen man.
"I think that's it for this floor...." he commented a few minutes later, as they were checking corners for any hidden Raiders.
They had no sooner stepped onto the fourth floor than a large group of Raiders ran around a corner, pulled up abruptly, shock written plainly on the faces of those that were not wearing flight helmets.
"Patrol!" Jon yelled to the other two, as things got very busy again.
At the top of the elevator shaft, they found another large laboratory complex at the end of a long corridor, stairways and corridors surrounding the main multi-leveled room like a bullseye. Glancing around the corner, Jon reached into his back jeans pocket, pulled out a bent photo, compared it to a machine he could just barely see to his left. He was sure it was the same machine, the one that Kirsten Woods had sent him after, and the actions of the Raiders standing around it, apparently trying to take the machine apart as if to carry it somewhere else, confirmed that for him.
He and the Kheldian woman pounced.
They made short work of the fight that ensued, and the last of the Raiders threw up his hands in surrender, collapsed to the floor, exhausted.
Jon heaved a deep sigh of relief.
It's all right, he told himself. We found the field generator.....the Medicom grid was safe.
"....still some Raiders back over here," Genie commented. "Want to finish the job?"
"Sure...." he grinned, the earlier stress suddenly gone. He had seen some Crey employees fleeing the building, but hadn't spoken to any of them. As far as he knew, no one working for Crey was even aware that he had been in the building. Now that the Medicom grid was secure, the added worry of fighting while wondering if the grid would go down was over....and habit could take over.
He peered around one final corner, recognized a Jump Bot Incinerator. Even the usually dangerous battle robot couldn't sour his mood, he was grateful to be alive.
Just then the robot looked up and spotted him. "Target acquired. Neutralize all hostiles," its metallic-sounding voice belled.
Jon smiled as he jumped over a railing to reach the robot.
One more fight....one more day in Paragon City.
Kirsten Woods was waiting for him, a smile welcoming him. "You really performed under pressure, Jon. I don't want to think about what would have happened if the Sky Raiders had managed to access the teleportation grid. Instead of the hospital, injured heroes might have found themselves in a Sky Raider brig!
"I have arranged for you to meet someone," she continued. "Lorenzo Tate, the arms dealer. Have you ever bought anything from Lorenzo? He can help you against the Devouring Earth and the Rikti. He has Training Enhancements. Lorenzo is a character, but he gets the job done."
"Thanks, Kirsten," Jon smiled. It was unimportant....another contact, another move up the ladder, another opportunity. Words, names....just more of the same.
Kirsten herself would never know how significant this mission had been to the scrapper known only as Jon Smith.
The ice was broken. Crey waited.
Copyright terraforming.com, November 26, 2012