Moscow, Russia – Thursday, the 28th of June 2012. 02:19 AM.
In the heat of the moment, Emily did what she’d been conditioned to do at the first sign of trouble: she channeled her Lightshaper powers and raised her hand to shoot a single high-energy laser at the lump of flesh in front of her. The effigy burned up in an instant. In the blink of an eye, it was enveloped in a radiant white glow before collapsing, reduced to ashes which gently floated to the ground.
And not a moment too soon. Chris opened her mouth to shout something Emily couldn’t quite make out; her distorted hearing turned the words into a buzz of drawling noise. The door was open but nothing came through. The sight of the vacant tunnel on the other side of the doorway, barely illuminated by the golden glow of Emily’s Lightshaper wings, filled her with a vague apprehension. Just a minute ago, Dancer’s senses had shown her a large cluster of armed men outside the room. Why didn’t they come inside? Were they waiting for the heroines to come out?
And what was that weird clicky noise?
“Let’s get out of here,” she told Chris, her own voice a high-pitched whine in her ears. They had accomplished what they came for. There was no reason for them to stick around and pick a fight with the bad guys.
Chris nodded and turned to face the door, eyes wary and her posture alert.
Fingers drumming rapidly against her pant leg, Emily reassumed Dancer’s powers and a touch of her personality, just enough to attain the level of power functionality she needed for a quick escape. No one interrupted her transformation. The doorway remained perplexingly unused, staring back at her as she extended her will to the metro entrance and anchored herself and Chris there.
They leapt through reality together and landed near the top of the stairway, where Crashbang awaited them. He was munching on a half-eaten sandwich with a big grin on his face. “Hey,” he called out between bites. “That was incredibly fast, even for–”
Emily felt another distortion of reality, only this time, she wasn’t the one causing it. Her heart leapt into her throat when she realized what was happening: she was being pulled back down. After a second of startled disorientation, a familiar darkness unfolded before her eyes. Her small flashlight, not yet extinguished, cast a dim circle of light over the flesh idol she had destroyed only moments before. She heard the sound loud and clear:
“What the flying fuck?” said Chris from somewhere to her left. No, not somewhere. The Guardian was standing in the exact position as before. Both of them were.
A different sound – a sound of movement – came from outside the room. Too stunned to react in any other way, Emily swiveled to point her flashlight at the doorway. A human hand appeared. With a single flick of the wrist, it tossed three small objects into the room. It was a short throw, aimed not at the heroines but at the floor a few feet from the doorway. Short enough for the objects, metallic cubes of some sort, to hit the floor with a dull clattering noise. One of them glowed red on impact.
Click. There was that ominous sound again, accompanied by a wave of malicious anticipation so powerful it seeped through the stone walls.
“Chris–” Emily said with a start, but the Guardian had already sped up and dashed through the doorway in a blur of movement. Trusting her friend to take care of whoever was outside, Emily tapped into the fabric of reality and wished for the three strange cubes to go someplace far away. She couldn’t imagine they had been tossed into the room for no reason. Whatever the reason was, she assumed she probably wouldn’t like it, so it seemed like a good idea to get rid of them before doing anything else.
Since Tik Tok was both a Technician and Revoker, she half expected her powers to jam, but they worked just fine. The three cubes vanished before her eyes. She was about to think of a creative new way to permanently destroy Dollet’s meat puppet when she heard Chris shout from outside.
“Get us out!”
Without asking why, Emily extended her Healer senses to locate the Guardian a few steps from the doorway, toe to toe with Tik Tok’s flickering aura. He was wearing some kind of suit which appeared completely black through her life sense, though she didn’t take the time for a closer look. She willed herself back to the surface and pulled Chris along.
The two heroines materialized a short distance from the spot where they’d appeared the last time. Emily opened her mouth to speak, but Chris was faster. “His suit,” she gasped. “It’s some kind of Revoker power armor. I couldn’t even think about hitting him without my danger sense going off like crazy. Not just because of him, but–”
It happened again. Reality twisted and churned around Emily, responding to a power beyond her control or influence. She was pulled back down, and Chris was pulled along with her. They appeared in the same underground chamber yet again, assuming the exact same positions they’d been in the instant the metal cubes were thrown through the doorway. It was as if their bodies decided to react to someone else’s memory of the positions they should assume. The same was true for the Revoker’s cube grenades: they made yet another dull clattering noise as they hit the ground yet again.
Something was different, though. This time, none of the cubes glowed red. The one closest to her, however, was now emitting a constant, high-pitched hum that prickled her skin with goose flesh. Judging by the frown on the Guardian’s face, she was feeling it as well.
“I can’t move,” Chris groaned through clenched teeth. “Can you remove those things?”
No suspicious clicking sound came from anywhere in the room. Not pausing to wonder the sound had stopped, Emily focused her senses on the scattered cube grenades and made yet another wish for them to disappear. She also wished for the meat effigy to be crushed beneath a thousand tons of stone and concrete, but the idol defied her. It refused to move even an inch beyond its current position.
Realizing that this entire set-up was looking more and more like a well-designed trap, Emily made another attempt to escape the room with Chris in tow. Whichever effect had prevented them from moving didn’t seem to affect Dancer’s powers. The two heroines leapt upward through reality and back to the moonlit streets of a burning, bombed, and depopulated Moscow. This time, Emily chose a location a good hundred feet from the metro entrance as their first stop. After verifying that Chris had materialized there alongside her, the Empath decided to make yet another leap, then another.
Tik Tok’s range had to be limited. Everyone’s range was limited in some fashion.
The heroines had reached the mostly intact outskirts of the city when reality churned again. They were yanked all the way back into the same darkness and moldy, unventilated air. This was when Emily’s fear kicked in with full force. Her breath stopped, and her heart tried to stop with it.
We’re trapped, she realized. We’re not getting out of here if I don’t figure out what’s trapping us.
“I can move,” Chris reported, lowering her flashlight to the cube grenades and the open doorway which loomed behind them. “But our forcefields are weaker. I think the Revoker effects are random. They change every time these things hit the ground.” She pointed one of her sneakers at the humming cube.
As if on cue, another hair rising click came from somewhere in the room. Emily finally understood what it reminded her of: the sound of a photograph being taken.
It was then that something else dawned on her. Tik Tok’s unpredictability, and the fact that Kasparov hadn’t been able to predict how this confrontation was going to go down. Randomness. Why had the local villains not made a show of force yet? As she thought about it, Emily answered her own question: They’re rolling the dice until they know they can win. If this was true, it would explain the belated click after the cube grenades had already hit the floor. They want to keep the power effects that are active right now.
Which had to mean that whatever they were, the combined power of those active effects was going to be trouble. Something the bad guys wanted to happen.
“Chris, block the door!” Emily cried out, reaching into herself to grasp Dancer’s powers at the same time. Chris obviously hadn’t been able to locate the source of the threat – she would have said something if she did. It looked as if the responsibility for their safety, as well as the success of this mission, fell on Emily’s small shoulders.
She pushed her life sense outward with a frantic determination and scanned the room’s walls, boxes and shelves through it. The various structures and containers appeared as semitransparent, overlapping shades of black and gray, filled with a wide variety of suspicious objects. Many of them appeared to be made of metal. Fifty or more had the look of something built by Technician, but none stood out as the cause of the reality-warping effect which was trapping the heroines in the room.
Since she was out of clever ideas, Emily grasped each and every suspicious object through Dancer’s powers and shifted her focus to faraway places, preparing to throw every potential Technician gadget out of the room.
Except that she couldn’t. Try as she might, the physical reality of the room didn’t allow her to change it. It now seemed to have a muscle memory of its own.
What disturbed her more were the sounds of combat coming from right outside the room; the men who had been stationed in the nearby tunnels must have used Emily’s distraction to make their move. She whirled around to see Chris involved in a scuffle for control of the doorway, her fists flying out at armored attackers with superhuman speed. It wasn’t the Guardian’s usual speed, though. She was no longer fast enough for her movements to become a blur.
Willing herself to stay calm and keep looking for solutions, Emily swallowed her fear. She said the forcefields were weaker and I still don’t know where Down Under is. We have to…
Gunshots tore through the air and a deep rumble shook the ground, throwing her off balance and scattering her thoughts. Reacting instinctively, she reached out to Chris with her powers and made a desperate attempt to pull the both of them upward, out of the room.
Nothing happened. She felt a tremor in the fabric of reality, a clash of unseen forces as her power tried to make her wish come true, but her feet stayed firmly planted on the ground. Something beyond her control was keeping her rooted in place. By now she was too aware of the trap to pretend she’d be able to escape, and that awareness sent a shiver through her, making her legs tremble.
She grasped Radiant’s powerset and managed to activate it a split second before something large and vaguely humanoid broke through the ground, showering the room with dense, hard clumps of rock and soil. The seismic convulsion knocked her on her butt. The flashlight slipped from her sweaty hand. Something the size of her head, too fast and sudden to make out in the dark, crashed into her forcefield. Chris was shouting something she couldn’t understand over the sound of the ground caving in on itself.
Putting her trust in the fact that the Guardian had to still be blocking the door, Emily drew Radiant’s power into herself, absorbing as much of it as she thought she could handle. If she took too much, she’d lose herself and her humanity, possibly her life. If it was too little, she’d lack the strength she to overpower the bad guys. There was no doubt in her mind that whoever had just broken through the floor was one of them.
Myriad luminescent wing ribbons extended from her back and shoulders in a flash to flare with a near blinding intensity. She willed them to whip forward, into and through the flesh idol, burning and mincing it at the same time. Three or four of them intersected the hulking humanoid who was now crouching at the center of the room, but seemed to have little effect beyond the burn marks they left on her stony gray skin.
Yes, her. The human golem had a distinctively female shape. She was massive and grotesquely muscular, equipped with stony curves that looked like they could crush a person’s bones if she squeezed them too hard. Her eyes were pools of obsidian, utterly expressionless. When they fell on Emily, the cavernous mouth beneath them twisted into a semblance of a grin.
Emily stared back, more out of stunned confusion than confidence. Burn marks. Radiant’s wings were as powerful as his lasers and had melted stone before, but Down Under appeared unfazed. She can’t be that resistant. Emily shook her head, wanting desperately to deny what she was seeing. The movement helped break her daze and her thoughts fell back in place. Tik Tok did something to weaken our powers. It’s probably one of those cube things.
Down Under’s massive head swiveled to the left side of the room, where Chris was still struggling to defend the doorway. It could only be a matter of seconds before the she-golem made a move to attack. Considering the size of Down Under’s massive stone fists, Emily wasn’t sure the Guardian’s weakened forcefields would hold. They had already absorbed multiple melee attacks and bullets from the men who were trying to storm the room.
Even though she was sprawled on the ground, Emily’s wings were still active and provided enough illumination to see the three metal cubes, now covered in dust and bits of earth, about seven feet from her outstretched arm. She sensed movement from Down Under and quickly fired a red-hot laser from the tip of her finger, aiming at the cube closest to her.
But the laser didn’t connect. It vanished before hitting its mark, its energy fizzling out as if it had been sucked into an invisible black hole. Emily blinked hard. Tik Tok must have used Revoker powers to shield his technology from attacks. If the cubes couldn’t be destroyed and the room itself resisted her attempts at changing or removing anything from it, how was she going to escape? No matter how many options she considered, nothing seemed to work.
In the meantime, Down Under – who was too large to stand upright – had decided to ignore Emily and twisted on her trunk-like knees to face Chris instead. The room was small enough and the villain’s arms long enough to throw punches with minimal movement. The first of them was aimed straight at Chris.
Alerted by her danger sense, the Guardian evaded the attack with the ease of a trained boxer shifting her upper body backward in a fluid movement. Her attacker’s stony fist hit the wall with enough force to send a shockwave through the stone and rattle Emily’s bones.
As she struggled to get back on her feet, Emily saw that the tightly packed mass of oncoming attackers were pressed up against an invisible barrier, unable to pass through the doorway. Chris must have sealed it with forcefields. However, itwas obvious that the barricade wouldn’t hold for long. It buzzed and sent sparks flying whenever it was hit by a bullet or a melee weapon.
Given her sheer strength and body mass, Down Under could most likely have broken through the force fields in an instant. Fortunately, the she-golem looked much more interested in her duel with Chris, who evaded a jab aimed at her head with superhuman nimbleness. She ducked low and swiveled to shoot Emily a troubled glance. Why are we still here? Her eyes asked.
Emily’s gaze fell on Chris’s belt and the Revoker grenades attached to it. An idea formed in her head, and she heard herself call out to her friend before she fully understood what it was. “Grenades! Revoke his tech!”
Since Emily wasn’t a very skilled or reliable thrower, she only carried one of the power-suppressing grenades that New Data – she couldn’t for the life of her remember his real name – had equipped most of the heroes with. Their area of effect was relatively small, but if one of them hit Tik Tok’s toys head on, there was a chance the trap’s effects would be mitigated long enough for the heroines to escape.
But… what, exactly, was she aiming at? The strange objects she’d seen hidden among other mechanical parts in boxes and on shelves? There were a lot of them, and they were scattered all across the room.
The cube things are right there, she reminded herself.
As if she’d read her mind, Down Under grabbed the nearest shelf and tore it off the wall with one hand. As the rusted iron structure hurtled toward her, Emily dove for cover, boxes overturning to send a hailstorm of old nails and bolts onto her. Instinctively, she enveloped herself in her luminescent energy and flashed across the room to materialize behind Chris. She was still collecting her senses when the shelf crashed against the wall where she’d just stood.
Someone’s forearm, holding what appeared to be a machine pistol, broke through the forcefields blocking the doorway and the room erupted into chaos. The deafening barrage of bullets being fired and ricocheting off the walls made it near impossible to think. Emily saw Chris take one of the Revoker grenades from her belt, but she didn’t see what exactly the Guardian was doing with it. Down Under had picked up a huge iron barrel and hurled it at the two heroines. Convinced that her forcefield wasn’t going to hold, Emily used Radiant’s powers to beam herself across the room yet again, away from her friend and behind a pair of large boxes that still looked intact.
She ducked into cover and grasped Dancer’s powerset while reaching for her grenade at the same time. The instant she stopped borrowing Radiant’s light, the room fell into murky darkness again, lightened only by Chris’s flashlight and the one Emily herself had dropped. Someone yelled for the men to keep shooting.
No longer able to keep track of what was happening, Emily corralled her thoughts to focus on the options she had available right that moment. The grenade in her hand. Dancer’s powers, their potential still tangible, coursing through her mind. She was protected but Chris needed her help. They had to get out of here. There was no way they could fight their way out with their weakened powers. Chris was smart, though; she’d find a way to drop a grenade on those cubes. But until she heard the distinctive bang of the grenade going off, the Empath had to find other ways to help. Throwing her own grenade carried the risk of hitting her friend by accident. On the other hand…
He was still out there, just barely within her reach. And the guy was a living grenade whose explosive aura had messed with Technician equipment in the past. He’d blind and stun everyone nearby on impact, but if Emily ducked low, maybe she could avoid getting knocked out.
I can’t take something out of the room, but maybe I can bring someone in.
“Crashbang,” she said through her armband. The gunshots and the sounds of fighting nearly drowned out her voice. “Charge up and start running down into the metro. Don’t ask. Just say when you start moving.”
“What? Okay… now.”
Remembering where she had last seen him, Emily extended her reach as far as she could and grasped his life light, pulling him down into the room while ducking behind her cover at the same time. She felt his presence, and a split second later everything became a brilliant, blinding flash of white. The flash was accompanied by a thunderous roar and a shock wave that rattled everything and everyone in the room, knocking them out.
Except Emily. Protected by the pair of large boxes which had shielded her from the blast, she was still conscious but barely. Still, she remembered what to do.
She pulled the three of them out of there.