Having no villains in custody at HQ (see last issue), the heroes enjoy a few weeks respite from supervillains and crazy relatives. Ernest completes the upgrades to the security system that Baron had suggested, including a state-of-the-art retinal scanner at both entrances to the building. Each team member in turn stares into the camera eye mounted next to the door so their retinal patterns can be logged.
Jack Jones (Baron Mind) continues to have disturbing dreams of Sri Lanka. One of them recurs several times: He's stumbling through thick, humid jungle, clutching to his chest an object wrapped in fabric. Arrows whiz past his ears and thump into trees on either side of him as he tears through the foliage. Finally he emerges onto a beach. A small boat sits in the surf, just a few dozen feet away. His escape! But as he dashes across the sand, more arrows find their mark. Jack is hammered to the ground, his back pierced by three shafts. The precious bundles tumbles to the sand. A large red jewel, his "Mind Gem":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/items/the-mind-gem, rolls away. He watches it come to rest near a pair of feet.
The Mistress of Gaia, Sophia Beaulieu, newly-recognized ruler of Sri Lanka, picks up the gem. In her other hand, a staff tipped with a sparkling stone of its own, glowing a brilliant white. "Thank you for locating the "Karma Gem":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/items/the-karma-gem as well," she says casually, staring into Baron's eyes (see Issue 33). "Now when I come to kill you, I'll have three of the four Stones. And when I finally gather the Heart Gem with the others, I can rule the cosmos!" Each time, Jack shoots awake sweaty and breathless.
He does get some good news: the hearing ordered by the State Department to review Sri Lanka's claim to his Mind Gem as a culturally-significant artifact has been postponed until the new year.
******* Lani Kaimana (Torrent) is at work in her engine design lab when the door bursts open. In the doorway is a man she doesn't recognize at first: dressed in an immaculate, tailored suit topped with a rakish scarf and a fedora, stands Mark Taylor, beaming. She hasn't seen him in weeks, ever since she caught him breaking into his old lab (see last issue). "Lani! Grab a coat, I'm taking you to lunch!"
"Mark! What happened to you?"
"You won't believe it! Come on, we'll talk while we eat."
She follows Mark out the door. "I would run us somewhere in the Maserati, but she's got leather seats and I don't want to…you know…get 'em wet."
Mark pays and they find a table. "So…things have been moving fast, Lani. I'm starting my own robotics company. I want to offer you a job."
"Slow down, Mark. How in the world did you get the money to start your own lab?"
"I got a call a few days ago. Someone who knows about my work with Raytheon, an industry insider. He offered to bankroll my research. He even found me a place!"
"What's his name?"
"He's anonymous. An angel investor."
"You don't worry about who's giving you the money? He could be up to something shady."
"Yeah, of course I wondered…until I saw my bank balance jump by ten million dollars! And got the keys to a building!"
"Okay, I guess…well, I design and build jet engines, Mark. Why do you need me for your robots?"
"I want to revolutionize propulsion. Use micro-engines. I've heard you talk about them before, and I figure you've had enough of working for Corporate America like I have. I'm offering you a chance to use your genius to make your own life better, not make a bunch of rich idiots even richer. Think it over. I'll call you in a few days."
Dallas Damon (Bantam) has been sharing a lab with his colleague, Felicity Hoffman, ever since one of her experiments destroyed hers (see Issue 33). It's not been easy: she's an intuitive researcher, but also the most disorganized person he's ever met. "Felicity, you really need to slow down," he told her more than once.
"I can't, Dallas. "Dr. Marsh":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/characters/dr-keith-marsh is breathing down my neck. Which he was doing already, but since my little accident it's been exponentially worse. I've got to produce results and I've got to do it fast."
"But that's why the accident happened, because you're in a rush…you're mislabelling things, you're skipping procedural steps…"
"All right, all right. Then you have to help me get organized, Dallas. Please? I'll buy you dinner tonight and you can get started fixing me."
He agrees. They leave the building together around 6:30. It's early December, so it's nearly full dark already. As they near Dallas' car in the parking lot, they hear footsteps behind them. "Stop!" When they turn they see five teenagers. Three appear to be unarmed. One aims a gun at them. The last one holds a large pistol in both hands. Dallas recognizes it as one of the "weird energy pistols":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/items/variable-energy-pistol they brought back from Chicago (again, see Issue 33 – you missed a lot, huh?).
"Where did you get that?"
"None of your business. Give us all your shit, right now!"
Dallas sighs. To Felicity, he whispers, "Close your eyes, tight, and keep them closed until I tell you."
"W-what? Dallas, what are you going to do? You'll get us both killed, please Dallas!"
"Just do it. Everything's going to be okay."
She squeezes her eyes shut, muttering, "Ohmygodohmygodohmygod…"
Thankful that he's taken to wearing his Bantam costume beneath his clothes, Dallas shrinks. He dashes from his discarded suit and runs to the thug wielding the energy weapon. Touching the man's foot, Bantam sends a few thousand volts through him. The energy weapon drops to the ground as the man's body seizes up. He screeches as sparks flow over his body. Smoke sprouts from his hair as he falls over, unconscious.
With lightning speed, Bantam grows to full height and grabs the pistol. He points it at the mugger with the conventional gun. "I know what this will do. You won't be here."
The four remaining teens glance at each other. One of them turns and flees. "Oh yeah, and I can dodge your bullet anyway." Still they stand there.
Bantam fires the energy weapon at the armed thug. A green beam lances out and suddenly the boy is surrounded in a glowing bubble of energy. The bubble POPS and he is flung two dozen feet through the air. That's enough for the remaining two, who turn tail and run.
Bantam retrieves his clothes and tells Felicity to open her eyes. "W-what happened? What did you do?"
Alyssia Masters (Fortress) receives a lunch appointment with her new boss, Dr. Ilyana Rasputin. She's a middle-aged woman, born in Moscow, who most recently was head of the Cancer Research department at the University of St. Louis.
The lunch is cordial, but it's clear that Dr. Rasputin has done her homework on Alyssia. She questions Alyssia's patent on the osteoperosis drug, the development of which was done while Alyssia worked at Lilly, but in her own home lab. Dr. Rasputin reiterates the company's policy on that: any new drugs created by Lilly employees are company property. She makes it clear that whatever lapses Alyssia's former boss may have made, Ilyana was going to run a tighter ship.
Jake Jensen (Kid Green) fixes his Mom's garbage disposal. For the third time. She's also called him to wind up the garden hose, replace her toilet, and caulk the shower. It becomes clear that she's just been lonely after her husband was convicted and then transferred to Stronghold (see this issues) and is creating excuses to call him for help.
He also has a run-in with his father's boss, "Dr. Stewart":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/characters/29541, at the IU Bio Lab, where kid has been allowed to use the equipment after-hours ever since his father started working there.
"I can't allow you to continue here. You're not a student, your father is disgraced…the board simply wouldn't stand for it."
Kid convinces Stewart to give him a chance. "Here's what I'll do: you can take the same test I give to prospective lab interns. Pass it and I'll hire you."
********************************** MID-DECEMBER WEEKLY TEAM MEETING
Team benefactor Arthur Donaldson walztes into the meeting about halfway through.
"I've got something for everybody…hey, where's the Witch and that gas guy?"
"I heard "Sid":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/characters/vapor got a little gassy so he couldn't make it," Kid Green snickers.
"Whatever. I'm docking their pay. For the rest of you, I have invitations to the company Christmas Party. Next Saturday, at the Eagle's Nest restaurant. You can bring a plus one."
The team all look at each other and in unison, shake their heads.
"Also, the FOX producers "Sam and Terry":https://new-guardians.obsidianportal.com/characters/sam-and-terry, and a camera crew will be there. The "Guardians" TV show is doing gangbusters and they want a Christmas special."
Most of the team arrives at the downtown Hyatt Regency at the same time (of course). Baron Mind, Kid Green, Fortress, Torrent, and Bantam step out of the elevator on the 22nd floor.
Donaldson has reserved the entire restaurant, and it's been decorated in festive Christmas lights. A long dinner table dominates the room. Along the far wall two Christmas trees flank a DJ table, behind which two energetic young men bob their heads and fiddle with controls. David Bowie's and Bing Crosby's "Little Drummer Boy" is the current selection. A large table filled with desserts sits nearby.
Already seated at the table are Donaldson and his date for the evening,Dr. Anagal (see last issue. Surely you've read it by now.). Next to them, smiling and waving, are Sam and Terry, the FOX producers. TF Washington, the team's pilot and mechanic, and Ernest the erstwhile villain turned techie round out the seating. John (cameraman) and Mike (boom mike) stand nearby filming for the planned Guardians Christmas Special.
Bounder rolls in, complaining about having to use the service elevator. With him is a woman he introduces as Destiny, who is obviously a prostitute, errr, escort.
Once everyone is seated, Donaldson proposes a toast to a successful year for Guardians, Inc. and announces a special bonus. In everyone's envelope is a signed 8×10 of Donaldson and a $25 iTunes gift card. After much haranguing, Donaldson assures everyone they'll also receive a bonus check.
Dinner and small talk commence. Mike and John slowly circle the table, recording. Just as dessert is done, Ernest's watch starts beeping at him.
He says, “Something's setting off the motion alarm at HQ.”
He activates the watch's viewscreen to see a yellow-skinned woman in a frilly dress, sporting huge butterfly wings. Next to her floats a writhing purple cloud. The woman puts her eye to the retinal scanner and a second later Ernest sees, “Dark Witch – Access Granted” pop up on his watch. She and the purple cloud enter the building.
Before anyone can react to that, one of the restaurant windows is smashed in by a gargantuan fist. It withdraws and through the window come the villains. First, a completely naked man. Next in is a tall woman with ram's horns and hooves. Next is what appears to be a tall, thin ambulatory tree trunk. Finally a bald woman in sunglasses and a leather duster steps into the restaurant.
“Happy Kringlemas, Guardians! We already know who you are so I'll get our introductions out of the way. The naked guy is Spacebot; the 'lady' is Ram; woody there prefers to be called Blight; and the very large fist that gained us access belongs to Gigantor. And I am Queen Cranium!”
Baron, by now loitering at the dessert table, uses his TK to send a slice of apple pie flying at QC. The slice stops suddenly just in front of her face. She eyes it for a second, then takes a bite out the end. The rest drops to the floor.
“Mmm, thanks! Nice to know this world has some hospitality!”
Gigantor, now back to normal size, hops through the window to stand with his team.
Baron ducks behind the dessert table and whips up an exact Image of himself. They both stand.
Torrent feels a weird sensation, and she instantly knows that Queen Cranium is reading her mind. She says to Spacebot, “Interesting…as far as she knows, she's human.”
“That can't be!” Spacebot replies. “I'm clearly and irrefutably human and they're supposed to be opposites!”
Fortress moves from the table to stand in front of QC and prepares a Haymaker. Bantam shrinks and dashes to a nearby wall, zipping up to the ceiling. From there he sends an explosive electrical charge into the midst of the bad guys. Blight staggers a bit and Ram drops to the floor.
Kid Green leaps from the dessert table and over the dinner table to the other side. In mid-air he shoots out a stalk and grabs Bounder. As he lands the stalk whips Bounder through the air and he slams into Blight. Bounder bounces off of the villain and rolls away toward the elevator. Blight sails backwards back out of the smashed window, but immediately stretches out wooden limbs and grabs the ledge to keep from falling.
Gigantor begins to move into the room, and begins to grow. From a height of about five-and-a-half feet his body seems to inflate; almost immediately his head crashes through the ceiling. He finally stops growing, chest-deep through the ceiling tiles and lights. A muffled “Huh” can be heard.
Torrent absorbs as many dinner utensils from the table as she can, then turns and spurts a butter knife at Spacebot. He watches it whizz past his head. She gets a better look at him now; despite the fact that he appears to be a very naked and very anatomically correct human male, she sees what look like seams at his joints. Just as she realizes he's a robot, he confirms it by snaking out an arm to the ceiling and swinging closer to her.
“Put down the cutlery!” he says, but doesn't give her time to respond before firing red beams at her from his eyes. She pivots slightly and the attack scorches the wall behind her.
Ram regains her feet … make that hooves and yells at Fortress, who's readying to punch Queen Cranium. “Get away from her!” The horned villain charges at her, striking her squarely with a headbutt. The impact sends her flying backwards but she's able to right herself as she hits the floor and skids, backwards, stopping only a few feet away from colliding with Mike and John, who are still rolling.
“Thank you, Alyssia,” QC says to Ram.
Just then the tinkly Christmas music (“Jingle Bells”) still pouring from the DJ stand screeches to a halt. The drum intro to Sweet's “Ballroom Blitz” starts up, and it's on.
Destiny, now standing next to two Baron Minds (Barons Mind?) asks one or both if this is the typical Guardians party. Baron's image assures her that he'll keep her safe.
Bantam, from high up on the wall, targets Ram but his sapping power misses.
The threat of Fortress less immediate, Queen Cranium turns her attention and telepathy to Kid Green. He can feel her presence in his head and he doesn't like it. A stalk extends, grabs QC, and yanks her back into his other fist. This sends her careening halfway across the room to land in a heap.
“You hit me in the face…” she mumbles.
Torrent misses Spacebot, her fork sticking into a support column.
Baron shatters the window behind him and TKs the shards toward Spacebot, but he's out of range.
At this point the FOX producers snap out of their shock and scramble toward the back end of the restaurant. Dr. Anagal remains seated, looking terrified. Mike and John continue filming, trying to catch as much of the action as possible.
Fortress does her own rush at Ram but runs right by her, skidding out the smashed window and coming to a stop on the ledge. She peers 22 stories down at the ground. Behind her, Blight reaches out and his root-like arms grow out and envelop her. In a second she's nearly entombed in a wooden cocoon. Thorns sprout and prick her skin, all over body. From the wounds, blackish veins creep across her skin. She can feel her energy, her very life essence, slowly leaking from her body.
Spacebot again attacks Torrent, and this time she can't avoid the laser eyes. The energy strikes her watery body and she's flung backwards into a wall, stunned.
Bounder whacks Ram with a refrigerator-sized fist at the end of a roundhouse, sending her smacking into (but not through) a window across the room.
Suddenly Kid's ex-girlfriend Amy floats into the room in a crimson bubble, in costume as her alter-ego, Scarlet. “What are you doing here?” he asks.
“Helping these fine people beat your ass, that's what.”
Kid pleads. “Amy, we had nothing to do with your father's death.”
QC snorts. “Wow, you killed her father?”
Kid doesn't like this either. He snatches up QC and flings her at Blight. They both tumble backwards and smash through a window.
Blight is forced to release Fortress as he sails outside and over the ledge. QC comes to a stop just at the precipice. Amy disappears, as if she were never there.
Baron attempts to squeeze Spacebot's brain with an Ego attack but finds there's no brain there to squeeze. When he mentions this, Spacebot again insists that he's human, gesturing to his genatalia.
Bantam fires an electrical blast at the confused robot, missing again. Kid Green shows them how it's done, catching Spacebot with a stalk and pulling him into a fist. Kid angles his punch so that the knockback sends Spacebot right into Gigantor, still twenty-five feet tall with twelve of it buried in the ceiling. Spacebot falls to the floor at his feet.
Gigantor then decides to move, tearing through the ceiling in the process. He finally smashes both fists down through the tiles, tearing out an entire gaping section. He can finally see the room again.
Torrent picks that moment to shoot a spoon at Gigantor. The mundane utensil strikes him right on the kneecap with such force that he yelps and stumbles backwards. Losing his balance he turns, stumbles, and finally falls onto his rear, cushioned only by Spacebot's body.
The FOX producers and Ernest finally get untangled from chair legs and dash from the room. TF pulls a pistol, looking for a good shot at somebody. Dr. Anagal, glancing around at the battle, gets up clutching her purse and moves toward the exit.
QC sits up, rubbing her head. “Idiots,” she mutters, “you're all idiots,” and she disappears with a flash of light.
Gigantor, feeling Spacebot beneath his bulk, begins an apology. Baron interrupts him with a blast to the cerebral cortex and topples over. Unconscious, his body shrinks back to normal size.
Spacebot, now freed, starts to get up but Bantam finally lands an electrical blast. The robot twitches as sparks dance over his body.
Fortress steps over to Ram. “Stay down.” She does not. But just as she gets to her hooves, Fortress punches her midsection and Kid Green brings both fists over his head and pounds her into the floor.
Spacebot stands and uses his laser beam eyes to deflect another projectile from Torrent and another bolt of electricity from Bantam. That's when Baron telekinetically hefts one of the nine-foot Christmas tress at the end of the DJ booth and drops a Tanenbaum on Spacebot's ass.
“He is now covered in the holiday spirit.” Fortress walks over and lifts the tree, only to find a hole in the floor and Spacebot gone.
Kid Green had noticed Dr. Anagal acting strangely all through dinner. Then, she didn't try to flee when everyone else did, she sat and watched, a harried look on her face. Maybe she'd been paralyzed by fear, but he thought not. Now he spies her trying to surreptitiously find the elevator.
“Hey Donaldson, stop her!”
The team benefactor was just about to launch into a tirade about not paying for any of the damages. “What? Why? What's wrong with you?” Baron Mind stops her with a blast to her brain.
It's agreed that Kid and Bantam should head back to HQ right away to check on the intruders. The rest of the team stay to talk to police and secure the captured villains, Gigantor and Ram.
Finally together again back at HQ, Kid reports that he finds nothing missing, but Ernest's secure room had been broken into. Gigantor and Ram are placed into cells.
They want to put Dr. Anagal in one of her own but Donaldson objects. After a heated exchange they agree to allow him to question her. Bantam slips into the room with them, the size of a flea.
At first she denies anything, but finally her college friend gets her to admit that she's been working with the supervillain Nebula. Just after the collider accident (see last issue), Nebula had approached her one night at the ruined lab. He kidnapped her twin sons and forced her to help him rebuild the collider into a portal. Over the next two weeks his hired crew rebuilt the lab and he began testing his theories. Her children are at the lab in Bloomington.
Meanwhile, Ernest reports that their computer's been hacked. He doesn't know what data was taken, but it could be anything. Or everything.