B010.6 Falling Hearts

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Fletch Erring – better known to some as Razzle – didn’t like his new job.

As far as he was concerned, life had been perfect before. Him, Laura, Jimmy, Cad, Pete and then Linda. Especially Linda, even if he’d disliked her for intruding at first. But she’d been sweet, and confident, and really, really pretty; and she’d treated him really well, much better than his own family. He’d fallen for her, hard, though now that he knew her background, he was pretty sure she’d just seen him as a little brother, and not as… well, not as what he would have hoped for.

But all that was gone. Linda was dead, gone, for no reason at all but bad luck.

And then Terry had convinced them to go on that fool’s errand, and Laura (who had been his first crush) had almost died as well. He’d never have joined Dajisi, had Laura not desperately needed healing. He couldn’t lose another friend, and he couldn’t have abandoned them, either.

He’d never wanted to be a real supervillain. He’d been just fine having some minor turf wars, and doing small jobs, and just having fun with his friends (and being away from his family).

Now he was sitting on a bench, his ass on the back and his feet on the seat, watching over their hostages. Men, women and – this part really made took him to a whole new level of uncomfortable – children. Why the fuck did they have to keep the children here?

Well, there was actually a good reason, as Kudzu had explained. He didn’t trust the man, but his explanation had made sense – Lanning had rigged the system so that it required a certain minimal amount of people in the mall to open, and a minimal amount of women and children among them. He’d quoted some statistics about the ratio of men to women to children on average days in a mall, but what it boiled down to was that they had to keep the children along with their parents.

Which didn’t mean they had to make this a nightmare. Razzle had ordered the foot soldiers (if there was one upside to being a real supervillain, it was having minions) to get blankets, snacks and drinks for the people. He’d even had some of the hostages man their booths to serve ice cream, coffee and other treats.

Most of the children were acting more like they were having the time of their life, eating ice cream while drinking hot chocolate with extra marshmallows (Fletch had a steaming plastic mug of extra bitter chocolate and a strawberry scone).

It was thus that he was just taking a sip of his hot chocolate when the ear-piercing shriek came out of the shop the specialists had been working in (a bakery).

Fletch fell off the bench, spilling his hot drink over his chest, but he barely felt the pain from that (his costume was rather thickly padded, anyway), as opposed to the explosive pain in his head.

The world fell silent as he fought for composure and turned around on his back, looking around.

The hostages were huddled up, holding their ears – at least those who hadn’t been knocked out.

What was that?

He looked at the storefront as he immediately began to use his power. He drew on the store of power inside him, pushing small pellets of power outside. Each pellet exploded into light, sound and smoke (though neither affected him) and threw out more pellets, which also exploded into light, sound and smoke, quickly covering him and his immediate surroundings in his trademark firework-mist. With barely an effort, he directed the explosions once he was covered, spreading it towards and over the hostages as well.

And not a second too soon, as the entire front of the bakery exploded – soundlessly – as three burly men in eight pieces were thrown through the window and the wall.

Oh God. He nearly threw up when he saw the ragged edges of their torn bodies, the intestines that trailed after them…

And then the machine stepped out of the store.

Fletch hesitated to call it a robot because it looked nothing like what one would expect of a robot; it looked like it had been haphazardly thrown together out of countless other devices. It had five “limbs”, multi-jointed spidery appendages, really. Each was tipped by a slew of different blades, guns and… other instruments whose purpose the young boy didn’t even want to think about. Its core was made of bigger, more rigid devices, with a single large red eye built into a hole in the whole construction. The whole thing had probably originally been coloured like a patchwork art piece, but someone had taken red dye and just dumped it over the whole thing, making it mostly bright red like a stop sign.

The eye moved within its socket, left and right, up and down, as the whole thing left the storefront with slow, ponderous movements.

Please, God, don’t let it see me. He didn’t know how his smoke interacted with contrivances. It was real, physical, but it only worked on normal vision and hearing (as well as heat vision, as the pellets generated quite a bit of heat), so if that thing had some weirder contrived senses, he’d have to abandon the hostages and flee.

He really didn’t want that on his conscience as well.

The mechanical abomination turned away from them and shambled – there really was no other way to describe the lurching steps, each of which seemed to bring it dangerously close to just collapsing into its constituent parts – away from them, all without making any sounds at all.

The young supervillain didn’t dare breath until it had left the place.

Pushing himself up, he tried to whisper into his communicator – but he couldn’t make a sound. Confused, he looked for his minions, calling out to them – but there were no sounds, at all.

A flash of understanding made him reach up to his ears. His fingers came off with blood on them.

Could my day possibly get any worse?

And that was when the hot girl with the multi-coloured hair and the guy in the white coat dropped down from the second level of the atrium. Before Fletch could even react, the two were already inside his smoke cloud, with the girl moving straight towards him.

Oh, come on!, he thought as they got to within a few feet of him.

Tapping into his second power, he sped up, rushing at the girl to tackle her down – briefing said she was a gadgeteer, and she didn’t seem to be packing any tech aside from her glove, which he should be able to easily evade as long as he stayed inside the cloud – and slammed right into her steel-like belly, knocked out before he even realised that he was outmatched.

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B010.5 Falling Hearts

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My life sucks.

Basil blinked, trying to get the stars out of his sight as he lay on the floor, unable to move. What happened?

They had just descended to the ground floor, to sneak past more enemy troops (it would have been foolish to rely on open combat, even with Polymnia’s secret power), keeping an eye out for enemies, and then…

He had gotten the feeling that he was about to get attacked, a prickling sensation at the back of his neck, and since he couldn’t see anything ahead, and they were in a narrow hallway, he’d dropped, turning and snapping his fingers (the signal they’d agreed on) in the same movement – and then he’d blacked out.

There was the sound of flesh impacting on flesh, with a side-order of bone, followed by a pained groan. Basil turned his head just in time to see a young m- no, a seriously over-muscled teenager in military fatigues and face paint go down, his legs and wrists crossed over his crotch.

Polymnia was standing in front of the guy, and it was quite obvious what she’d done, making him wonder whether she was a pragmatic fighter or just had issues with male reproductive organs. Two more people were facing her, standing further back with a floating orb made of swirling colour. Even as he took the situation in, the orb shot at Polymnia – who simply punched it back at the two, even though she flinched after her fist made contact.

There was a grunt of effort, and the orb slowed, then stopped before it hit the people in the back. Polymnia began to advance on them, slowly, her body now obscuring his vision of the two enemies.

Get up, Basil. You can not count on her toughness and strength alone. He did a quick check of his body, and found that his legs did not respond, but his arms did, though the right one was sluggish. Fortunately, he’d fallen so his left side pointed towards the fight – Polymnia was fighting off the sphere, which was flying around, shooting at her at oblique angles, trying to circumvent her defenses – but she kept punching it away, even though doing so always made her flinch.

That sphere is probably what knocked me out, Basil thought as he slowly moved a hand towards his belt. The sphere darted up and down at Polymnia, who jumped back to avoid being hit on the head, and he got a look at their foes – a tall guy in a swirly outfit that hurt his eyes, and a shorter girl in a red-and-white bodysuit, with a Japanese fox mask. They were both standing, shoulder to shoulder (or rather, rib to shoulder) with his left and her right arm outstretched, fingers laced together and pointing forward. He could not see their faces, or even eyes, but they seemed to be tense. Are they heterodyning? In mid-combat? It certainly seemed so, judging from their stance and the fact that only one power seemed to be at work, but heterodyning was supposed to be extraordinarily difficult to do under stress!

Either they are professionals or they have some exceptional talent at it. His hand gripped a throwing knife from his belt. Their suits seemed to be armored, and were probably protected against tasers, but a throwing knife might punch a hole in them. Even if it did not cause much damage, it should disrupt their power combination…

The orb shot at Polymnia a bit too high for a good kick, a bit too low to be anything but awkward to punch – but she simply jumped in a graceful motion, jumping higher than a normal person could without taking a running start, leaping over the orb with her arms extended…

And the sphere angled up by ninety degrees, ignoring all laws of physics to fly straight at her exposed belly (her final choice of costume was made of two pieces) as Swirly Guy’s head moved to track her.

Basil did not stop to wonder whether he maybe had enhanced senses or some manner of precognition to keep up with that – all that mattered was that he was distracted, and Fox Girl did not seem to be nearly so quick. He threw the knife, aiming for Swirly Guy’s center of mass, just as the orb was about to hit Polymnia.

The knife sank into Swirly Guy’s gut – not very deep, he had designed it with non-lethal use in mind – and his legs gave out beneath him. The colours in the orb stopped swirling just as it was about to touch Polymnia, turning into a solid blue instead.

Fox Girl turned her head to see what had happened as her friend sank down on his knees, and her sphere flew straight back at her like a cannonball, switching from blue to pink to green to yellow.

And Polymnia completed her vault, rolling over the floor until she was right in front of the girl – whose orb had just touched her stomach and was now circling her body, as if in preparation of being shot off again – and came up with a punch to her chin.

Flawless Shoryuken – just needs some fire, Basil thought as the girl collapsed without a sound, her orb popping like a soap bubble. We can probably make up a gadget for next time, though.

Polymnia looked at the fallen girl, then at Swirly Guy, who had fallen onto his back and was staring with what seemed to be disbelief at the triangular knife in his gut. She quickly checked him over, told him to stay put and came over to Basil, kneeling down next to him.

<Thanks for the assist. That orb was a pain in my butt,> she said as she helped him sit up with one hand (and no sign of any effort). <Do you have something to treat Fulcrum with? And restraints?> She propped him up, sitting, against the wall.

“Numb, getting better,” came his clipped response. “Left big belt pocket, first aid kit. Restraints in pocket to its right.” She nodded, removing the items and rushing over to their foes.

Basil paid no further attention to them, and instead scanned the hallway in both directions. They were just outside the stairwell they had used to come down here and there were no other entryways between it and where the three supervillains lay, so they had probably come out just behind them. How did we not notice them? He looked the other way, and saw only the empty hallway. Sensation was slowly returning to his legs And why are we not getting swarmed by minions? Why is Kudzu attacking a mall in the first place, and during rush hour, as well? And how is he preventing the authorities from noticing anything off about the situation?

He looked at their fallen enemies. Polymnia had zip-tied them by wrists and ankles, then ankle to wrist and finally tied them together back-to-back. It looked like she had treated Fulcrum’s (How does she know his cowl?) wound, and was just coming over with his cleaned knife and kit.

Carefully, he stood up and put them away, mumbling a ‘thank you’ before he stumbled over to Fulcrum and their other two captives. “Fulcrum, right?”

The guy looked up at him, his facial expression hidden by his mask, but Basil could tell that he was… afraid? Unexpected, but I can use that.

“W-what do you want?” the young man asked, voice shaky. The pain was audible.

“I want to know what is going on. Why is Kudzu here, why are you working for him, who else came with you and what is he planning next?” Conveying a glare through a featureless black mask was hard, but Basil did his best nonetheless.

Fulcrum flinched, but answered, “He hired us through the Syndicate. I have no idea what he wants or what exactly he plans next – I just know we were told to patrol, and take you two down if possible. Didn’t expect her to be a freaking brick and you to throw lethal weaponry at us!”

Basil slapped him just as he was starting to get winded up. “Calm down. If you are not prepared to face lethal opposition, then you have chosen the wrong career path. Now, who else is here?

“J-just the boss, my team, a few burly guys who’re working on some kind of vault, an-“

An ear-piercing sound, like a metallic shriek, interrupted Fulcrum’s answer, making Basil flinch and almost collapse. Fuck, Polymnia!

He whirled around just in time to catch her as she collapsed, unconscious. Drawing his combat knife, he looked around – but there was no other enemy around. What the hell!?


* * * 

“May I ask another question?” the cloaked girl asked as they watched the progress on the vault door.

“Me answering to your questions is part of the contract, so yes, ask,” Kudzu said as he looked over the other monitors – the hostages in the central atrium, a few of the patrolling teams looking for whoever had taken down team three. No luck so far, their quarry was good at hiding and sneaking.

“Why didn’t you pull this job after closing hour, when there’d only be a few watchmen around? You’re using that insanely expensive contrivance to hide this action, all these troops to keep the hostages in line, there is at least one hero or vigilante caught up who most likely wouldn’t be here after closing hour…” She let the sentence trail off, leaving the rest to him.

I was wondering when this question would come up. “The vault we want to get into was created by a particularly paranoid contriver. It can only be opened during opening hours, and only if there is a certain minimal number of people inside to suggest that the mall is operating normally.”

Her next question came fast, “That sounds incredibly inconvenient for him, unless he had a backdoor key.”

Kudzu shook his head. “No and no. He didn’t bother with a backdoor key, as that could be stolen and used against him. And as for convenience, he owned the shop it was built under, and could come and go however he pleased, simultaneously providing an alibi for himself. That’s why we need the hostages, and at this time. As soon as the vault is open and the security systems circumvented, we will grab the target item and bail out with escape plan number one, four or seven, depending on the circumstances. No civilians will be harmed, there won’t be any serious property damage and we may even avoid a serious fight with the meddler within, not to mention the heroes outside, if they even notice anything before we’re gone for good.”

The cloaked girl’s hood dipped in a nod. “May I ask how we’re going to circumvent a contriver’s security systems?”

“The men working on it specialise in circumventing contrived security, and they have pulled a job on an installation of this particular contriver before, so they know his style,” he explained. It was kind of fun, teaching this girl. Usually, he had to really push to get people to listen closely to what he was trying to tell them.

“Unless he changed things up for this one,” she replied with a wry tone.

A chuckle from behind them made both Kudzu and the cloaked girl turn around, looking at the raggedly clad young woman – Phasma – in surprise. “What’s so funny?” the cloaked girl asked, suddenly unsure (quite off-balance, as his power told him).

Ah, classic. The most common weakness of inexperienced thinkers – a single unexpected event could throw them off.

“He’s a contriver, greenhorn,” Phasma said. “They don’t adapt well, at least not where their style is concerned. Their whole power comes from their style in the first place, changing it up would play hob with the reliability of their creations, if they’d work in the first place.” She looked straight at him, a red flash beneath her hood showing him where her eyes were. “Who was this guy, anyway? And what happened to him – he can’t be dead, or his stuff wouldn’t work anymore.”

He shrugged in response. “His name is Lanning; one of the truly mad ‘mad scientists’. He was taken down and locked up in the Tartarus Star space station, two years ago.”

“I heard about that loony. Didn’t he try to kick off a robot apocalypse?” the cloaked girl asked with renewed composure. “The New Lennston team took him down.”

“Yes, it was quite a fight,” Phasma supplied. “An entire city block was levelled to the ground, and three of the heroes almost died; Lysander had to retire, afterwards.”

“Hey, boss, I don’t mean to interrupt,” Leet suddenly spoke up, doing just that. “But Fulcrum won’t respond to my calls, nor B- Foxfire or LagForward. Also, it looks like the specialists are about to open the vault.”

Everyone turned to look at the screens. “Can you track their location?” he asked the surveillance specialist.

“They’re in the west wing, first floor, a-“

The specialists opened the vault at that moment. The live feed from the room cut off as an ear-piercing shriek made Kudzu scream in pain.

And then everything went wrong.

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