The team returns from Chicago (see last issue) with three villains in tow: Bobby Lucese, his right-hand man Carmine Infantino, and one of the Brotherhood of Senghala, Kasun Samaraweera. They’re tossed into holding cells. Also in their possession is one of the weird energy pistols that Marcone’s men were using. Baron Mind hands it over to Ernest, who takes it down to his workshop to dissect it.
Over the next few days, everyone enjoys his or her civilian life. Well, mostly…
Lani works late all week, tracing a wiring problem in her latest engine prototype. On one of those evenings she hears a racket in the lab down the hall, which formerly belonged to Mark Taylor, who’d been working on the Top Secret SENTINEL program until it was recently shut down (see back issues).
She quitely slips down the hallway and sees the door, usually locked, is ajar. As she eases the door open she sees the back of a hooded figure, using a flashlight and rifling through the drawers of a filing cabinet.
She casually flicks on the lights. The figure turns quickly, yelps in surprise, and heaves the flashlight toward the door. It splashes into and through Lani’s liquid body to clatter across the hallway floor.
Mark Taylor doffs his hood, saying, “Lani! You scared me to death!”
“Mark, why are you sneaking around in the dark?”
“They transferred me to another building, working on somebody else’s project. They wouldn’t let me back in here, even after the federal goons took everything. I had some hand-written notes in here, I didn’t have a chance to enter them into my database. I was hoping against hope that somehow the feds had missed them, but I guess not…”
Dejected, Mark retrieves his flashlight and slowly heads toward the exit. “Sorry to disturb you, Lani.”
Darlene receives a check-in call from the firm’s PI, Hugh O’Donohugh. She has him tracking the Wellington Special Needs Center (see back issues). He’s currently in Kansas City, having tracked the owner of Wellington’s listed address (which turned out to be a parking lot), Bell Realty. He says the Realty offices are open by appointment only, and the building has some top-notch security. He plans to pose as a real estate investor, but he needs more cash to work with. He also reports that someone might be following him, so he thinks he’s on to something.
O’Donohugh then calls Sid, asking for more time to find answers to Graviton’s disappearance. He says he’s going to look into the background of Grav’s brother, the villain known as Magnus, as soon as Hugh is finished in KC.
The next day, Darlene is called into an impromptu meeting with her fellow partners. There she finds a contingent of suits, all wearing American flag lapel pins. One steps forward and shakes her hand. The senior partner introduces him as AUSA Benito Martinez, newly-assigned to the Southern District of Indiana which is headquarted in Indianapolis.
“Your reputation precedes you, Ms. Weiss,” Martinez says.
“I believe in my job, AUSA Martinez, and I do it well.”
“I always enjoy a challenge. Of course these ‘paranormals’ deserve the same legal protection as anyone else, but I can tell you that I take particular satisfaction in locking them up. They’re dangerous, and the people who fight them, such as the Guardians, aren’t much better.”
“I’m looking forward to the challenge as well.”
Baron Mind returns from Seattle (see back issues). He flies commercially to Indianapolis, during which he finds it impossible to sleep thanks to a squawling infant. The thought drifts into his head that it would be quite easy to make the little monster’s head explode.
Exhausted, he’s picked up at the airport by T.F. Washington in the team helicopter. As they head across the city back to HQ, the hum of the rotors lull him to sleep in just a few minutes.
He dreams of the team’s trek to Sri Lanka, to face Sophia Beaulieau, aka the Mistress of Gaea (see back issues). As they approached the island nation a missile exploded next to their borrowed C-jet, but instead of blowing it apart, the plane was disassembled in mid-air, the parts all separating themselves in mid-air before everything plummeted. In the dream he begins to fall…
He awakes suddenly, immediately aware of a wind on his face that wasn’t there before. Looking around he sees himself and T.F., still in their seats, floating two thousand feet about the East side. The helicopter’s parts float around them, perfectly separated from each other, motionless. T.F.’s eyes are rolled up in his head.
Baron then realizes that his own telekinesis is what’s holding everthing in place. And with that realization, everything begins to shudder and drop. He tries to at least hold everything together, to no avail, there are just too many parts. He and T.F. also begin to plummet, so he changes his focus to keeping their seats aloft. Metal parts, wires, and hydraulic fluid rain around them as Baron flies them both to the ground. On the way down he manages to spot the ‘black box’ and grabs it.
Once again on terra firma, T.F. wakes from his trance, and stares at the remains of his chopper on the ground around them. “What the hell happened to my bird?”
Baron holds up the black box. “I saved this part.”
Alyssia and Reggie have a date night. They see “Guardians of the Galaxy 2” downtown at the Circle Center Mall. Arm in arm walking back to Reggie’s truck, they pass an alley. Suddenly a figure darts out and grabs Reggie’s arm, at the same time sticking a gun to his temple. “All your money, right now! Wallet, jewelry, car keys!”
Reggie, between Alyssia and the assailant, gulps. Alyssia easily wrests her boyfriend from the mugger’s grip, sending Reggie sprawling onto the sidewalk behind her. Beyond the mugger she sees two more dark-clad figures further down the alley, both pointing guns.
In one smooth motion she grabs the mugger with both hands, lifts him above her head, and flings him at one of the other two. He manages to twist out of the way, and the human missile slams into the side of a dumpster. Several loud snaps followed by a brief shriek of pain are heard, then silence.
“Reggie,” Alyssia says over her shoulder, “leave.” Then she strides into the alley. The two remaining muggers, still pointing guns at her, hesitate, glancing at each other, confused.
She moves on one of them, grabbing for his gun with the intent of crushing it around his hand. Instead he twists it away, so that it ends up pointing at her forehead at point-blank range, and pulls the trigger.
The report echoes loudly in the alleyway, followed immediately by the ‘ping’ of a ricocheting bullet. Alyssia glares at the gunman, unharmed.
“Aw hell no, she’s bulletproof!” Both men turn and run the other way, quickly swallowed by shadows.
Alyssia kneels next to the unconscious attacker. He’s hurt badly, bleeding from the nose and mouth, with at least one compound fracture.
“Wow,” she hears behind her. Reggie is there, offering her a hand up. She stands and says, “Better call 9-1-1.” Then, under her breath, “I really hate bullies.”
“What, uh…what do I tell them, exactly? I mean, I can’t tell them the truth.”
Until that moment she hadn’t been certain if Reggie really knew that she was Fortress, or if his hinting around about it was just a little game he played. There was no doubt now.
“Tell them…we just came upon him, heard him groaning in the alley.” Reggie frowns, then nods.
After the ambulance arrives and the police take their statements, they drive home in an uncomfortable silence. Reggie finally speaks up. "When I wasn’t completely sure, when it was just a titillating idea, that I was dating a superhero…the thought excited me, I’ll admit it. I mean, I know that you’re a lot stronger than I am, and a lot tougher. That you could take on a whole gang of muggers and I would be lucky to survive one, and that sounds pretty cool.
“But to actually see it, to experience it? I don’t…I just don’t know how to think about it now.”
“I get it. It’s also changed how I think about it. You’re in danger now, Reggie.”
“Seems like being close to an indestructable woman is the safest place in the world.”
“No, because I’m a Guardian, and Guardians seem to attract trouble. Paranormal trouble. The fact that you know who I am means you can be used against me.”
They both sigh and ride in silence. Reggie drops her off at her house and gives her a peck goodbye. “Call me tomorrow?” she asks. After a second he says, “I’ve got a lot to process.”
Wednesday rolls back around and it’s weekly team meeting night at Guardians HQ. Baron finds a letter waiting for him from the Sri Lankan embassy. On state letterhead he’s notified of a hearing in three weeks in front of the State Department’s Cultural Advisement Committee to determine rightful ownership of the Mind Gem. Sir Lanka claims the gem is a cultural artifact that was illegally removed from the country decades ago, and they want it back.
At the team meeting, Ernest reports on the pistol the team brought back from Chicago, that Marcone’s men had been using. “I recognize parts of the design because they’re mine! Somebody appropriated my ideas for this thing, and I think I know who. Back in my Stronghold days I had some contact with Simon LeBaron, aka Obliterator. He’s the guy who double-crossed Maelstrom during the Tornado Incident.”
Team benefactor Arthur Donaldson arrives a few minutes into the meeting, with AUSA Martinez in tow. Introductions are made. Martinez updates the team on Bobby Lucese and Carmine Infanto; both were extradited to Chicago, transported by DHS. The Brotherhood of Senghala member they’d also brought back was freed thanks to diplomatic immunity.
Donaldson then asks a favor of Fortress. “I actually wanted the green kid but he’s not here. Look, I have a college pal who needs some heavy lifting done tonight. Anya…I mean, Dr. Anagal…is firing up a cyclotron down in Bloomington tonight. Big important experiment. They’ve had a crane conk out on on them and they need something heavy moved. T.F. can take you down there in the chopper, won’t take but an hour or so. Thanks!”
After Donaldson and the AUSA leave, Baron stands. “On a minor note, I have to appear before Congress or something. But I’m not going to. I’m going on the lamb.”
Shocked, everybody rushes to talk at once. Baron quiets them with an explanation. “This stone in my turban…I stole it. Apparently from somebody who first stole it from the Sri Lankan government, I don’t know. They’re claiming it’s a historical, culturally-significant artifact and they want it back.”
“I luv it, mate!” Bounder grins. “Who knew the Guardians was a thieve’s guild?”
“I…I can’t believe it,” Fortress gasps.
“I know. I was selfish in the past. I’m a different person now.”
“Screw it, let’s invade ’em!” Sid pipes up.
The Dark Witch’s eerie voice cuts throught the noise. “No. I know a good lawyer. I’ll talk to her about your case and have her get in touch.”
The meeting adjourns. Fortress meets T.F. on the helipad and the two take off for Bloomington.
The Indiana University Cyclotron is one of the smallest, and yet most powerful, in the country. It sits in its own building just north of Bloomington, surrounded by forest. Fortress meets Dr. Anagal there, who introduces her two assistants, Drs. Trevor Moore and Yao Liang. She explains that they’re attempting a new method to create a microscopic black hole in the lab.
“We had to make some last-minute adjustments to some of the equipment, but when we were moving it back into place our crane conked out on us. We’re on a very tight schedule here and my first thought was that Arthur knew someone who could help. Thank you so much for coming, you’re saving the entire project!”
They enter the main accelerator lab, a multi-storied room filled with massive pipes and wires and monitoring equipment. Thirty or so people in lab coats bustled about. A huge projector emerged from one wall and pointed to the center of the room. There, a platform stood about four feet high, in the center of which was a smaller pedestal stuck up another three feet.
It was the conical end of the projector that had to be lifted into place and then secured. “Then we’ll place a strip of berrylium on that pedestal and bombard it with high-energy particles. Hopefully our monitors will be able to pick up a microscopic black hole, and our energy field will be able to keep it from winking out of existence.”
Fortress hefts the projector into place, signs a few autographs, and departs.
Two nights later, Sid takes his girlfriend Vicky to dinner. “Sid, it feels so good to be open about our relationship! Dinner in public!”
“I’m just glad I’m not on parole anymore.”
“And since you’re not, I was thinking…I think we should take this to the next level.”
Sid actually says the word, “Gulp.”
“We should move in together.”
“There’s plenty of room at Guardians Headquarters! You’ll love it there, I sure do!”
“No, Sid, we need something to call our own. I don’t want to move into a frat house.”
As they eat, Sid continues to resist the idea of getting their own place, and Vicky’s eagerness slowly fades. On their way out of the restaurant both admit to feeling a bit woozy. Maybe that’s what causes Sid to finally concede that he’ll think about it. It’s certainly what causes both of them to pass out just after they get into his car.
Sid comes to lying on his side, on a cold cement floor. He feels his hands bound behind him. Vicky lays a few feet away, wrists and ankles wrapped in duct tape. He takes in as much of the room as he can, seeing a dangling light and a workbench against one wall.
A door opens somewhere behind him and someone stomp down stairs. “She didn’t tell you about me, did she?” A man moves into Sid’s field of vision, and he recognizes their waiter from the restaurant.
“D-Darin?” Vicky mumbles.
“In the flesh, baby! No thanks to you. Did you know,” he turns to Sid, "that
she’s the shittiest parole officer on Earth?"
“Because you’re just another stupid ex-con who can’t stay out of trouble!” Vicky
tries to sound angry; it comes out as a series of gasps.
“A guy can’t be expected to go without having a little fun, Officer McVicker! But
you had to rat me out!"
“A coke-fueled bender with hookers isn’t ‘a little fun’, Darin! I couldn’t just
overlook the drug test!"
Sid tries to buy some time until his head clears. "Say, do you have super-powers?Control over duct tape or something?"
“Yeah, I control the duct tape, asshole.” Darin rips off another strip and smacks
it across Sid’s mouth. Feeling better, and taking advantage of Darin’s proximity,
Sid unleashes a cloud of knockout gas in his face. Darin coughs and stumbles
backwards, tripping over Vicky and slamming backwards onto the floor.
Sid crawls over to Vicky and revives her with a puff of smelling salts. She comes
to and they manage to extricate each other from the tape.
“Oh Sid! If you hadn’t been with me…this is just another sign that we should be
His Guardian’s signal device picks that moment to start beeping. "Sid, there’s
been an explosion in Bloomington," Fortress tells him. "We’re on our way to pick
you up in the chopper."
Vicky, still trembling and terrified, stares at him. "You can’t just leave me
here, after all of this!"
“Sorry, baby. Give the cops a call. Here are the car keys. I’ll call you!”
On their approach to the cyclotron building the team sees police cars surrounding it. Most of the building’s lights are out, but still a pale bluish glow coruscates from somewhere inside.
The team disembarks and approaches a group of police behind a barricade, where they also find Dr. Anagal, looking disheveled and upset. “Trevor and Yao are still in there!”
She explains that a power surge blew relays just as the charged stream of particles began impacting the berrylium. An explosion followed, and when she came to moments later she couldn’t believe here eyes. “A hole appeared, a portal, in mid-air! On the other side I saw these…creatures…like humanoid dinosaurs…I panicked, some of us who were still able ran outside. But they’re still in there, with those…things!”
The team decides to walk in the front door. Main power is out. They follow the doctor’s directions and descend three levels via the stairs, to the projector room. Everyone breaks out their IR goggles.
Taking the lead, Fortress carefully opens the stairwell door. It opens onto the main floor of the room. A catwalk rings the room a floor above her, another one a floor above that.
The center of the room is the source of the strange, flickering light: the portal Dr. Anagala described, floating in mid-air where the berrylium pedestal had been. On the other side they see a room that looks exactly like this one, but peering back at them are two sets of creatures: lab-coated figures with smooth greenish skin and elongated necks with reptilian faces; and another group that resembled the velociraptors from “Jurassic Park”, but these wore helmets and armor and weilded large rifles.
The soldier-saurs were forming into lines on the other side, and two-by-two, leaping through the portal. Surveying the rest of the room, the heroes see several groups of them already on this side, fanning out across the lab.
Fortress emerges about halfway from the door and sees one of the soldiers heading toward her. Baron believes his gem will allow him to communicate with them, so he steps out and says, “Greetings! Welcome to Earth!”
The soldier stops, and in mostly-understandable English says, “We thought you were all gone.”
The whole team moves into the room now, behind Baron. “Why are you armed?”
“It’s an invasion. Shut up and stand over there.”
“An invasion? We’re the Guardians, you idiot —” At that last word the soldier squawks and fires his rifle at Baron.
With lightning speed, Dark Witch leaps onto her broom and swings the bristled end around to swat the glowing white energy right back at the soldier-saur. The impact knocks a grunt out of him and he tumbles across the floor. “All units! Under attack!” He screeches.
Fortress immediately leaps to the center of the room, passing some incoming soldiers, landing at the foot of the humming portal. The small berrylium pedestal has been blown to bits; the dimensional hole floats where it once stood, atop the raised floor. She glances around for a second and then begins pummeling some of the large cables connected to the base, hoping that disrupting the power flow will close the portal.
Vapor causes much of the room to fill with gray smoke. At the same time, the felled soldier rolls to his side and flings a black orb toward the heroes. This time it’s Baron Mind, with his telekinesis, who swats the grenade back at the soldier. It hits the floor just behind him and erupts, spewing an oily, gooey substance. Again the soldier-saur yells, “Under attack!”
Torrent moves toward the center of the room, sucking up debris through the bottom of her feet. She moves a twisted metal bolt up through her body and into her arm. “Cease and desist!” she yells, then squirts the bolt out of her hand at a soldier. It strikes his armor like a bullet, knocking him onto the floor.
Dark Witch flies toward the portal, blasting the edge of it with her wand, to no apparent effect.
Having fogged the room, Vapor now targets another soldier with a burst of tear gas. “Gas! Gas!” it yelps before collapsing in a coughing fit.
Baron turns away from the entangled soldier, toward the portal. He projects an illusion at the center of it, making it waver and appear unstable. “The portal is closing!”
In response to this they all hear a transmission coming from each soldier’s receivers. “Form that beachhead and don’t let it go!”
Soldiers continue to leap through into the room. Fortress grabs one and throws it back. She watches it fly past the long-necked lab coats and more soldiers, and hit the far wall. There she sees one soldier wearing an officious look and a lot more medals than the rest of them.
A group of four soldier-saurs coordinate an attack on Dark Witch. Still, only one of them manage to hit her with a rifle blast, but that’s enough to hurt. She wobbles on her broom but stays aloft and in control.
Another group of four target Torrent. This time all four beams meet at her midsection. Water sprays from her body as she sails backwards and slams into the wall.
Baron with his Ego Blast and Vapor with his tear gas continue to pick off individual soldiers. Bounder enlarges a hand and swipes at an entire group of them, making them scatter.
Fortress throws caution to the wind and leaps through the portal. She sticks a superhero landing on the other side, slamming into the floor with such force she knocks all the dinos down.
Pointing at the General, she says, “Stop this now!”
Reptilian eyes look her up and down for a moment. To one of the dino-scientists he says, “How do we close this?”
“I don’t know, sir,” he replies. “We were just trying to create a miniature black hole! This was an accident.”
Meanwhile, a squad of soldiers turns on Vapor. Four more rifles fire, two beams hit him. That’s enough to drop him.
A few yards away Baron Mind is hit with a tar grenade, covering him in goo up to his chin. Another lone soldier fires a rifle at Bounder, who puffs up his chest and deflects the beam. “Shoot me, will ya?” he grunts, and slaps a giant hand down on his attacker.
“Fortress, I’m on my way!” Dark Witch yells, turning toward the portal. “No!” Fortress calls back. “I’ve got this!” So instead, the Witch points her wand and wraps a soldier in black magic.
On the other side, the General continues to stare at Fortress. “What manner of creature are you? Is everyone like you, over there?”
Trying to whisper, the scientist leans toward the General and says, “If I could dissect it we could learn a lot about these things.”
“No,” Fortress replies. “No dissecting. And no invasion. We’re going to say there, you’re going to stay here, and we’re going to close this portal.”
“Close the portal? But there’s so much to learn!” The scientist protests.
“You lie,” the General says. “I can’t trust an alien, not one with your power.”
Meanwhile— Torrent and Vapor have both recovered and are again picking off individual soldiers. Bounder is taking out three or four at a time. Dark Witch blasts the sticky prison from around Baron Mind, and he targets another soldier.
“Sir,” one of the remaining soldiers radios frantically, “we no longer have numerical superiority! The aliens are driving us back!”
Fortress says to the Guardians, “Hold!” The General glares for a second, assessing the situation. He finally utters a resigned, “Cesae fire.”
Everyone freezes in place.
“There is no reason we can’t have peace between our worlds,” Fortress says.
“No. There can be no peace,” replies the General. The Guardians and the soldiers brace to resume combat. "And that’s why this portal must be closed.
“Company, pull back!”
Fortress asks the heroes to help the injured soldiers back through the portal. They overhear two discussing how the Witch with her green skin and hairy mole is pretty good-looking, for an alien mammal.
Fortress brings in Dr. Anagala. “How do we shut this down?”
“Well, I…I think if we recreated the experiment, but recalibrated the particle charge in the stream…that might do it. But our containment chamber is gone, there’s no way to hold the berrylium in place.”
“I can help with that,” Baron replies with a smile. Using his TK to keep the target in place in the center of the portal, Dr. Anagala makes her adjustments and fires up the cyclotron. They watch the dinos watching them back as the particle stream starts. The portal flickers and wavers and then with a loud POP it implodes, and is gone.
The heroes help the wounded out of the bulding to waiting EMTs, promise a statement to the police, and bid Dr. Anagala goodbye.
As they climb back into the chopper for the ride back to Indy, Baron fingers the tar grenade in his pocket.