"To form a task force, you need seven or more heroes in your group."
That was all the short man in red spandex would say to the claws scrapper. No explanation. No clarification. Just the one statement, and nothing else, before he turned his head, looking past the scrapper as if he was no longer standing there.
Deliberate rudeness? A refusal to even speak to the scrapper beyond the absolute minimum necessary?
Burning with shame, Jon Smith almost left without returning. Almost.
But he'd come too far to back down now. And Manticore's enigmatic comment wasn't, strictly speaking, "no" or "get lost", he reminded himself.
Perhaps this was one of those "tests" Kip Cantorum had spoken of. To see if the scrapper would give up if the senior Hero was blunt and uncommunicative.
There could have been any number of other interpretations.
Jon sighed, squared his shoulders. That last mission with Giacomo, the Crey memory doctor, had gone so badly....it was hard to say if any of his usual contacts or occasional teammates would even speak to him. Was it even possible for him to find six other heroes who would volunteer to work with him on a task force?
He hadn't wanted to admit his failure to anyone except Kip.
It looked as if he wasn't being given a choice.
The Freedom Phalanx member glared through the eye-slits of his mane-shaped helmet.
Jon sat quietly on the nearby picnic table, his eyes fixed on his knitted fists. Around the red-suited archer stood several members of Starfire, chatting animatedly if quietly, trading barbs and battle stories.
"Of course, we'll help you out, Jon," Linuial had told him, when he had finally approached her. "We're your friends."
"I didn't know if you guys would even speak to me any more," he had admitted to her, his gaze downcast.
Kip had said that every Hero loses control at some point or another. From Jon's perch, he surrepticiously watched the others, wondering. The stalwart Blood Nut? The vivacious Pangea? Grim Maggot Man? Graceful Anya? Quiet Mathias? Spritely Eve? Droll Stray?
He couldn't imagine any of them becoming so caught up in vengence that they forgot who they were, and why they were heroes in the first place.
This was going to be hard.
An image formed in his mind of the one senior Starfire member who had been too busy to help, Linuial. She had sent on her best wishes, and helped draft the other Starfire members into the task force team. Jon asked himself if he could imagine the elfin woman losing control....and was rather startled to realize that he could. Not now, perhaps, but many, many years ago....
From the first grim words Manticore spoke, it was apparent that this would not be a standard job. "Task Force Indigo, I think. Yes, that's a good name. Listen, Task Force Indigo, I don't care what you read in the paper. Countess Crey isn't the humanitarian she pretends to be." Jon sat up straight and started paying closer attention to the archer's words. "I need you to help me find out what's going on behind Crey's closed doors. I've been contacted by a man named Drake who wants out of one of their facilities. Get over to this location, shut the place down, and get Drake to safety.
"If you walk this path with me, you may often find yourself in the shadows. I don't operate like Statesman and the others. I hope you're ready for it."
Startled, Jon looked full in the face of the archer, then looked quickly away. Was that last message just for himself, he wondered?
He began to relax. Perhaps it wasn't going to be as bad as he had thought.
Pulling Drake out of the Crey facility was difficult enough, but routine; there were no surprises. One of the Crey employees, a man named Simmons, tried to rally his co-workers, but they offered only minimal resistance to the team of heroes.
"Thanks for pulling me out of there," Drake told them, once they had found him and returned him to Manticore's side. "You would not believe the lengths Crey is willing to go to, in order to stay at the head of the research world. Their public relations department is brilliant, but their ethics are non-existent. If Manticore can promise me protection, I can divulge the location of another one of their facilities. I have heard that some very shady computer research is being done there." He and Manticore huddled together, talking quietly, for some time.
"At least you are as good as your reputations," Manticore admitted, once the informant had been escorted away safely. "Drake's grateful that you got him out of that Crey facility, and he's told me a lot about the sinister goings-on at Crey. I think we may be getting into deep waters here. Countess Crey won't be happy about someone coming after her."
You think? Jon thought to himself, but kept his sarcasm private.
"Task Force Indigo, it's a privilege to work with you." The legendary bowman smiled for the first time. "That ex-Crey employee gave me one last bit of info before I shuffled him off to my version of witness protection. According to Drake, there's a Crey research facility that's trying to meld Rikti technology into a computer network. I'm not sure what they're trying to accomplish, but it can't be good. Shut down that research facility and bring back any records you can salvage."
"Security is bound to be heavy at this place, watch your backs," the archer admonished as they were leaving.
Deep in the bowels of the Crey lab, the team stumbled across a computer terminal that mysteriously logged itself on as the team approached it. Before any of them could put their hands on the keyboard, letters began scrolling rapidly across the screen.
"You may or may not have heard of me," the message that appeared on the monitor read. "I am sometimes called The Doctor, but my name is Friedkin. Let's just say I used to work for Countess Crey, and it didn't work out so well. I recently intercepted a file containing her itinerary. I am now burning an encrypted file onto a disc. It contains the location of a Crey facility where the Countess will be conducting an inspection. The facility is engaged in illegal genetic research; if you catch her there, she will no longer be able to deny her involvement in Crey's nefarious activities. I wish you better luck that I've had."
"So Friedkin contacted you through a computer, huh?" Manticore mused, when they returned with the data disc in hand to tell him what they had found. "I have to admit, I've heard of this character before. The most common theory is that she has become some sort of AI. Since I know her body was found in the sewers, it seems like the only possible situation. I hope you're ready to go after the big fish. Now that Friedkin's passed on Countess Crey's itinerary, we may be able to catch her while she's involved in one of Crey's illicit acts. According to the file Friedkin passed on, the Countess will be touring one of their illegal operations in Crey's Folly today. Get over there and catch her with her hand in the cookie jar.
"If she's on site, expect heavy security. Watch out for her personal bodyguard, Hopkins."
Things did not go so smoothly this time.
The Crey security teams, even the scientists themselves, fought to hold the heroes back with a ferocity that no one in Starfire remembered seeing before.
"It's the Countess," Blood Nut growled, midway through the building, as they stood taking a hard-earned breather. "You'd almost believe these goons are ready to die for her."
Jon was gradually coming to the same conclusion, particularly in the case of the Paragon Protectors, who fought viciously regardless of their injuries right up to the point of unconsciousness. Jon learned to fear the moment when one of them would suddenly raise a fist high into the air in open defiance of the heroes, daring them all to take him or her down, as if revelling in their own defeat.
It gave him the chills.
What had the Countess done to these people? He knew now that some Crey employess had sacrificed perfectly good limbs, just to be able to "serve" their employer a little better. At the time, "their employer" had meant to him only a huge, faceless corporation, not a single individual.
Were they actually ready to sacrifice even more? Just for the sake of one woman?
The mounted resistance delayed them precious minutes, then an hour or two passed....and by the time they had checked the entire building, it was past obvious that their quarry had had more than enough time to make her escape.
They returned to Manticore, tired and sore, licking their wounds, depressed for the first time. The banter had stopped.
"If you had caught Countess Crey at that lab," the archer told them, "we would have been able to get an indictment for sure. Don't feel bad, though. You came closer than anyone ever has to pulling her down off her ivory tower. Task Force Indigo, you have to press the advantage. She's on the run, and we're out of leads. You'll have to hit the streets, see if you can dig up any dirt. Brickstown is full of Crey these days. See what you can beat out of them.
"What's the matter, not used to the harsh language?" he continued, in response to the startled looks cast in his direction. "Get moving, it's your hide. But don't kill anyone. Even I can't make a murder rap go away."
It was grueling, almost as hard on the heroes as it was on the Crey employees.
For the first time in a long time, Jon began to see them again as human beings....flawed....possibly lied to, certainly not following their own judgement any more.
The men with the metal hands. The gun-toting women wearing headsets. The scrub-suited doctors and scientists. He even looked at the Paragon Protectors from a new viewpoint, wondering if any of them were truly free.
Would any of them have freely chosen to be where they were now, if they had known what was going to happen to them at Crey's behest?
Or did they truly believe so strongly in the righteousness of Crey's agenda, fighting with a fanaticism that bordered on religious zeal...or death wish?
To possibly even die for Crey, or more to the point, to die for the Countess.
Was that what it meant to be employed by Crey Industries?
Given sufficient "incentive", one of the Crey agents revealed the location of a secret Crey facility in Brickstown.
Manticore told them, "It's not much, but that location is the only lead we have. All right, I'm sending you in. Maybe you can hack into the computers there and get a location on the Countess. Get in and get out as fast as you can. More data is the goal here. We want to know where the Countess is and what she's doing; don't waste any time on the muscle she has working for her. Move as quickly as you can, Task Force Indigo. The longer the Countess is free, the more damage she can do."
Jon was turning to leave, when out of the corner of his eye he caught a sly smile on Manticore's half-masked face. "You are quickly becoming one of the city's favorite groups," the archer told them, before turning to walk away.
Jon stared after him, mouth agape. Favorite?
It was all too convenient.
Security was far more lax, and it didn't take them very long to work their way deep into the facility. As before, they found themselves greeted by an abandoned computer terminal that seemed as if it possessed a life, and a will, of its own. On their return, Manticore listened to this newest message with both pleasure and skepticism. "According to this, the Countess is about to take part in another shady deal. Make it fast, heroes. Don't mess around. Get to her and get out. And watch your backs; I have a bad feeling about this one."
Manticore's warning was prophetic.
It was nothing more than a trap. Even after checking out the entire facility, they could find no sign that the Countess had ever been close to the building.
Security, on the other hand, was as tight as anything they had seen so far, and the heroes found themselves fighting for their lives before managing to get out of the building again. For the first time, security seemed to be fighting to keep them *in* the building, not keep them out.
Once again, they returned to Manticore limping, with nothing to show for it beyond bruises.
"I have to admit, I'm impressed," the bowman told them. "That was an overwhelming force and they clearly knew you were coming. I knew something didn't feel right. Either Friedkin set you up, or someone else is pulling our strings. I'm going to get Bastion to analyze the disc with that last message from Friedkin. Maybe he can figure this out. Take a break, Heroes....you've earned it."
They were sitting around a cafe in Brickstown, sharing coffee and pie between the two tables they had taken over, not wanting to get too far away from Manticore's favorite haunt, when Jon's cell phone chirped.
They headed back to the archer at a dead run.
"...well, I had Bastion take a look at the disc with the last message from Friedkin," Manticore told them. "It turns out it was sent by a different person entirely, I'm assuming it was the Countess, or one of her people. The Countess lured you into a trap; now, the chess game continues. Apparently Crey isn't through with you yet. Ms. Liberty just contacted me. A member of the Paragon City Council has been kidnapped, and the following note was left: 'If Task Force Indigo doesn't respond to this threat, we will kill Councilman Birch', " he read from a sheet he held in one hand.
He passed over the neated typed note. It read, in part: "...we are holding Councilman Birch captive. If Manticore's puppets don't respond to this threat, we will kill him."
"Get that politician back safely, Task Force Indigo, or your reputation will suffer."
They wasted no time. Splitting up, as dangerous as it was for the team, offered them their best chance of finding Birch quickly. Jon activated his hyperstride, dashing past startled Crey employees before they could react to his presence.
It was Stray who actually found the hostage, flitting past all and sundry in her airborne Nova form. A call to the rest of the team, and Birch was released, thankfully unharmed, within seconds, once the now thoroughly angry team converged on his location.
Manticore was waiting for them when they returned, his demeanor even sterner than before, if that were possible. "I think Crey kidnapped the councilman just to make you look bad," he told them. "If you hadn't responded as quickly as you did, your reputation in this town would have taken a huge hit. I have the feeling things are going to get worse before they get better. Be assured it isn't over yet. Countess Crey's personal bodyguard, Hopkins, just contacted me. You are not going to believe this. He's issued a personal challenge to all of you, and to you, personally, Jon. He says if you can take out 40 of his men over in Crey's Folly, he'll take you on himself. Apparently he is taking your interest in his employer personally.
"Hopkins is a tough cookie. Don't underestimate him."
How thoughtful, Jon thought, his face twisted into a sneer.
It had seemed almost too easy. Crey employees of all levels were just standing around inside the gate into Crey's Folly, exactly where they were not supposed to be. The Starfire heroes had no problem rounding up a large number of them, arresting them, and calling for pickup.
One of the unconscious Agents had a folded scrap of paper pinned to the outside of his suit jacket. Maggot Man unpinned it, opened it and glanced at it, then handed it to Jon.
It read: "You are good against agents, and brave enough to go after women. Let's see what you can do against me. I am waiting for you at Crey's import/export warehouse. Come find me, if you dare." It included an address, and was signed with a flourish in an exaggerated hand: "Hopkins".
Jon looked down at the unconscious man. Cannon fodder. No more important to your employer than a fax machine, he thought.
Jon stood, transfixed, unable to look away from the unconscious woman.
Around him, his teammates battled on, a maestrom of violence.
They needed him, his skills....but he stood.
She was tiny....no bigger than Linuial. She wore the same form-fitting blue uniform with yellow patches on the outside of the sleeves and leggings as all the other Paragon Protectors.
Her face, her hair, both were completely covered by the blue-and-yellow helmet that all PPs wore, along with her identity.
A half-formed desire to kneel and remove her helmet, gaze on her features, gave way to a sense of impropriety, as if removing her mask was tatamount to leaving her naked.
He resisted the impulse.
Lin, he thought, could this have happened to you? In another time, another place? Could it be you that I was looking down on now?
What *did* Crey Industries do to the people only known as the mysterious Paragon Protectors? And how much of that was under the orders of the Countess Crey? Or was she entirely divorced from her corporation and its decisions?
Somehow, he doubted it. He had sensed some deep connection between the actions of the Crey employees, and the presence, or the absence, of the owner of the corporation, and he wasn't the only one.
Unconscious, her extended claws, identical to Jon's own, lay exposed. As they had fought, Jon had been tempted to try to draw some connection between them, as he had futilely tried once before so long ago. Look, he wanted to tell her, we're alike. Two claws scrappers. Surely we can find some common ground....
But the woman had attacked him with a ferocity that left him fighting for his life, neither time nor energy left to spare for idle conversation.
She had fallen awkwardly, completely unconscious while still on her feet. It looked painful, the way her leg was twisted under her.
He leaned over and straightened her body, laid her out in what he assumed would be a more comfortable position.
Why? he thought. Why is Crey doing this to people?
Here was one more thing to hate Crey for, whoever was making the decisions.
They stood on the upper deck in the warehouse, looking across the bridge at the giant in the business suit and shades.
Jon reached out and beckoned with one metal hand. "We're Task Force Indigo. You wanted us....now come on and get us!" he yelled across the intervening gap.
Was it only coincidence that when the huge but agile man hurtled himself across the bridge at the heroes, he was intently focused on Jon and Jon alone?
In a heartbeat, Jon went down like a bag full of rocks, the Medicom computer singing its siren song in his brain.
Tossed to one side like a ragdoll, Jon lay twisted as Hopkins turned his attention to the rest of the team. Jon lay, stunned, for long moments, watching the battle rage, before he could rouse himself enough to slide an "Awaken" pill from a pouch into his mouth.
He edged his way away from the battle until he had recovered strength and wit enough to actually be helpful instead of a hindrance.
His teammates, in the meantime, swarmed around the giant man like so many fleas. They had worked their way through the warehouse complex through subterfuge, stealing their way past a small army of Crey security, until they had reached this monstrous and nearly-empty room. Here they had carefully subdued and removed one small group of Crey after another, working quietly so as to avoid alerting the head man on the other side of the bridge.
Still apparently unnoticed, they had dodged and whispered, trying to grab the attention of Hopkins' minions one or two at a time, without alerting the big man.
Watching the battle, Jon wondered to himself if that had all been for show, anyway. Even alone, Hopkins seemed to be a match for the entire strength of Starfire. Had he only been toying with them, allowing them to lure his security guards away while pretending to be unaware?
Jon gathered his strength and threw himself into the thrashing pool of violence.
Calling on every ounce of strength he had, every Inspiration he still carried in his pouches, he attacked Hopkins, calling his name, trying to distract him yet again so that his teammates could connect a few more blows. If Hopkins had been paying particular attention to Jon for some strange reason, perhaps the scrapper had a better chance of throwing the big man off his guard.
"Hopkins.....!" he yelled, thinking of the fallen Agent with the pinned note, the Agents with the cut-off hands, the tiny fallen woman in the blue-and-yellow suit, "....you have a lot to answer for!"
He was beginning to despair, thinking that this was a fight they could not win, and he was responsible for getting his SG-mates and friends involved, when he noticed beads of sweat appear on Hopkins' clean-shaven scalp.
Was there a limit to this man's prodigious strength after all?
With renewed faith, Jon held his ground, trying desparately to keep up his attacks, despite growing fatigue. First he saw the big man turn his back for just a second, losing track of some of his attackers, then Hopkins' foot slipped, ever so slightly. Jon thought about trying to call to his teammates, rally them, but there didn't seem to be time. He threw himself at Hopkins with the last of his strength, and was rewarded with seeing him slip a second time. This time the giant man fell to one knee, and without need for a single word between them, Task Force Indigo threw themselves on him simultaneously, bringing the big man down at last.
Manticore waited for them on his favorite patio, a wide smile greeting them as they arrived.
"That's the best fighting I've seen yet," he told them. "I always knew Crey would be a tough nut to crack. You made a good start. You may not have taken down the Countess, but at least you got her personal bodyguard, Hopkins. With any luck, you've weakened the Crey structure substantially. I don't say this very often, but thanks."
Exhausted but molified, the team turned to head for their various homes. "Jon....a word," Manticore nodded once as he spoke.
Jon looked to his SG-mates, then back, then offered a half-hearted wave, before turning back to face the elder hero.
"Yes, sir....?" he couldn't stop himself from saying.
The bowman smiled, his eyes twinkling. "Don't worry, I'm not going to bite your head off. I just have a bit of advice for you, if you're willing to listen."
"Um....sure...." Jon replied, off-balance.
"Two things. I wanted to see what kind of person you are, and I agree with Kip's assessment. I'm sorry if I seemed a bit harsh at first, but I needed to see how you would react.
"Jon, it's very easy for a hero to get lazy, get greedy, get sloppy, and take the wrong fork in the road because of it. You're not that kind. You've already discovered just how easy it is to develop a taste for fighting for its own sake, especially if you think you have a justification for it. That's going to be your particular issue, now and for the future. As long as you stay on top of it, and remain aware of the danger, I don't think you'll have any further problems with losing your self-control.
"One reason for offering you this task force was that I wanted to see how you operate with others, and the fact that you brought friends, and such good people as well, tells me a lot about you.
"However, I had a second reason. The biggest issue was simply this....if you could handle it, and if I decided that you were the kind of person Kip said you were, I knew that this would not only teach you a lot about Crey, but it was very likely to put a stop to public speculation about your motivations. This task force has been widely covered by the popular press in Paragon, something that I was counting on from the start. It was a bit of a risk, for you, because if you had failed, it would have on a very public stage. But I was confident enough that you wouldn't fail, I was willing to take that risk. And if you succeeded, as you did, it would pretty much lay any doubts about you or your abilities to rest.
He nodded to the scrapper. "You did a good job, Jon. I deliberately put you in harm's way, and set you on Crey, which I know is your biggest problem. You passed the test, Jon. If you were going to fail, if you were going to lose control again, you would have done so here and now.
"Believe in yourself, Jon. You'll do fine."
Copyright terraforming.com, November 26, 2012