The team locks up the captured villains (Blight, two Nebulas, and ten Graviguards) along with the two members of The Protectorate they already had in custody (Gigantor and Ram) and Dr. Anagal.
Only a few hours later, the doorbell rings. Admiral Keith Alexander, National Security Agency Secretary, shows up with a contingent of troops, helicopters, and modified, mobile Stronghold cells. He’s accompanied by two social workers from the Department of Child Services to take the Anagal children.
“I’m taking custody of the villains you captured,” he tells Sid (Vapor), who’s the only team member at home. As the villains are being rounded up, the other-dimensional Nebula protests. “I asked for immunity! I was coerced! I’m a good guy!”
Despite his anxiety dealing with authority figures, Sid confirms this to Alexander. “And exactly what kind of expertise do you have in extra-dimensional beings?” he asks Sid. “More than you!” “As far as you know,” Alexander replies. “He’s coming with me. We’ll sort it out.”
Sid walks away shaking his head. “There’s a lot of pressure living at HQ!”
During the following week, life goes on. Everybody has dates!
Jack (Baron Mind) and his girlfriend Sally wind up at the same restaurant as Dallas (Bantam) and his co-worker Felicity. Dallas recognizes Baron, but Baron has never seen Bantam without his mask.
Just after their meal has been served, three nattily-dressed men approach Jack’s table. One sits. “Mr. Jones, my name is ”/characters/dominic-parisi" class=“wiki-content-link”>Dominic Parisi. We have an acquaintance in common, Mr. Scarpelli. He’d like to meet with you in three days in Chicago. Here’s train fare." Parisi peels off a few hundreds and hands them to Jack (which Dallas notices).
Only a few minutes after the mobsters leave, shouts and breaking glass are heard from the kitchen. Suddenly the swinging double-doors burst open and two men in gang colors run through. A green beam of light splits the air between them. One of them lifts a weird-looking pistol and fires a green beam right back, blowing a hole in the swinging doors. They both eschew the front door and instead crash headfirst through the large front window, tumbling out onto the street.
Dallas tells Felicity to get out. “No, Dallas, we both need to go!” "Just get out of here, " Dallas yells. Felicity huffs at him, “Fine! I will get out of here!” and heads toward the door with several other patrons.
A similar exchange occurs between Jack and Sally, but rather than insist on Jack coming with her, Sally simply freezes, eyes wide with fear as three more thugs burst through the kitchen doors, two armed with energy pistols.
Dallas ducks under his table and shrinks to become Bantam. He speaks into his comm device: “Baron, I’m at the restaurant.” “Good,” Baron replies quietly behind his hand, “I can’t really act right now, I’ve got a…problem.” Looking at Sally.
“Can you use your TK to grab one of those pistols?” Bantam asks. Baron fakes a headache and puts his hands to his temples. One thug is surprised when his pistol is invisibly yanked from his hand. It skitters across the floor.
Bantam then dashes into the center of the room. “Hey guys! Down here!” he shouts at the three. As soon as they look down at him he hits them with a Bantam Flash, temporarily blinding them.
Well, two of them. The one who’d been formerly holding a pistol is still staring at his hands, unaffected by the flash. He now dives for the gun. He grabs it but Baron still has a mental hold on it. Smiling, Baron pulls at the gun and drags the hapless criminal around and around a table.
The guy finally gives up on the gun, stands, and flees the restaurant. Sally finally snaps out of her paralysis and bolts for the front door.
One of the two blinded thugs fires his pistol wildly, scorching the floor next to the tiny Bantam. He screams and fires again, this time hitting his friend’s foot. Bantam touches the leg of the injured one shoots volts through him, at the same time that Baron gives the other one a brain blast. The gang members drop, unconscious.
Bantam darts back under the table to retrieve his clothes and sneak out of the building. Baron stays to give an account to the police. The responding officers mention that gang violence is heating up in the city and they’re seeing more of these energy pistols.
Across town, Darlene (Dark Witch) is dining with the new District Attorney, Benito Martinez. Their conversation again turns to paranormals and justice. Martinez again talks of his contempt for all paranormals, and relates how his aunt and uncle were killed by Maelstrom‘s tornado ten years ago. Darlene takes offense, even calling him a bigot at one point. He responds by labelling her a collaborator who isn’t really interested in justice.
Just then he receives a call that a body has been found. Preliminary evidence and eyewitness accounts indicates it was a paranormal. “See you in court,” they say in unison as Martinez leaves.
Also across town, Lani (Torrent) is picked up by her former co-worker, Mark Taylor, for a tour of his new robotics facility. He’s laid a towel on the passenger seat in what he thought was a sensitive gesture, but Lani informs him that she has trouble with absorptive material. “Towels are bad.” Instead she retrieves her ‘travel bucket’ so his seats don’t get wet.
They arrive at what looks like a typical warehouse if you ignore the chain-link fence around the property and the seemingly ubiquitous surveillance cameras. A numbered keypad and a badge reader get them in the front door.
They pass through two similar security apparatus and Mark announces, “This is the heart of the operation, the tech labs.”
The main lab room is filled with tables and monitors and snaking cables. Cabinets line the walls. Lani happens to notice on one table is a pistol which looks like the energy pistol the team confiscated last issue. “Where did you get that?” she asks.
“My investor brought it to me, wants me to incorporate it into my next design. I guess he has a military contract. He’s been so generous, I don’t ask questions.”
“But you could be working for a nasty person! You’ve got to ask questions!”
“He’s an angel investor, he’s very secretive. I haven’t even met him face-to-face yet. But I can’t risk losing this funding. This is the only way I can continue the work I started at Raytheon.
The tour continues, but Mark’s mood is decidedly less upbeat. He bypasses several doors and when Lani asks what’s behind them, he demurs. “That’s just storage.”
Finally she asks about the job Mark keeps offering her. “As I said before, I’m interested in your engine designs. Specifically, how we can miniaturize them for my robots.”
Lani is wary, but doesn’t let it show. She agrees to nothing.
Kid Green has been dealing with his mother’s increasing depression, since her husband was sent to Stronghold to care for her previously unknown son, Sam (see Issue 25). He writes to her frequently but she simply drops them on a table, where they’re piling up, unopened.
“Mom, you’ve got to get out of the house, you’ve been couped up in here for days.”
WEEKLY TEAM MEETING DAY
During the week, Ernest has been working on upgrades to the HQ’s security system. He’s enlisted the help of the building’s only permanent resident, Sid. They spent two days working along the perimeter of the property, burying sensors and placing cameras in trees.
“Sid, can I ask you a question? You were married to ”/characters/stiletto-3" class=“wiki-content-link”>Stiletto, right? How was that?"
“A continual nightmare.”
“Yeah, I can imagine. Do you remember when I first came to you guys, that she was after me?”
“She had sought me out for maintenance to her armor. Said she was having trouble with some Chicago mobsters. I guess it didn’t go well for her because the next thing I know she’s blowing down my front door, the armor sparking and smoking. Her exact words were, ’I’m going to kill you for this but I’ll let you live long enough to fix this piece of crap!’”
“That checks out.”
“So I ran, and managed to find you guys just as she caught up with me. I still can’t thank you all enough for saving my life.”
Just an hour or so before the meeting, Ernest is ready to test everything. He and Sid sit in the HQ control room as Ernest flips a switch. Instantly, klaxons sound and a red light springs to life. “Motion sensors are tripping all around the north end of the property, near the lake. I must have the sensitivity too high, this can’t be right.”
At that instant, on the north edge of the property near the lake, Lani is approaching the HQ in her car. Suddenly the front of her car is hit by a glowing energy beam from above. The car flips end-over-end and comes to rest top-down in the middle of the road. Unharmed, Lani gets out and sees a gigantic metallic-looking being standing yards away, holding a very large sword. She hears a whirring noise above her and glances up to see more strange creatures, these appearing to be six-limbed beings in armor but with huge dragonfly-like wings, hovering above her, each holding a rifle. She hits her signal device as she soaks bits of debris from her wrecked car into her body, readying for a fight.
The metallic being utters a string of gibberish, quickly followed by a computerized translation. “You’re under arrest! Get down on the ground!”
“What did I do?” Lani asks.
“You’re a stain on nature that must be erased!”
Fortunately, everyone else was also on the way to the meeting when their signal devices lit up. Fortress and Sid arrive at the same time. They see the large figure on the ground and the two hovering armored types in the air. Behind them is a small open-air lake house, which itself is bookended by picnic tables; at each is a couple enjoying the unusually warm late January air.
Baron has taken an Uber which also arrives at the same time. The driver’s monologue about his cats is interrupted when he rounds the curve. “What’s going on here?”
“Costume party,” Baron says. “Here’s an extra fifty bucks.”
Kid Green decided to leap his way across town and he slams down near the lakehouse. Dark Witch flies in trailing smoke.
Bantam skids his car to a stop near the metallic figure. He jumps out and shrinks just as the sword is brought down on his car, nearly bisecting it. He responds by firing an electrical bolt at one of the dragonflies which sends it spinning backwards through the air.
Fortress flings herself at the big guy and slams into him with tremendous force, but he doesn’t budge. More gibberish is translated as, “This is not your concern, human. Why do you defend it?”
“She is our friend!”
Out of the lake come two large black orbs. They roll across the snow-dusted ground toward the melee. A small window seems to open on each, in which the team can see water. The water seems to coalesce into a pair of eyes inside the orb. “Apprehend it!” the large one orders them. Another insectoid shoots out of the water and flies toward them.
One of the insectoids fires its rifle at Kid but misses. The second one opens up on Fortress and hits her. She stands her ground, but it hurts.
The big one’s arm points toward Torrent and a rocket launcher appears. It tries to fire but something goes wrong; an explosion blows the arm clean off and reveals it’s a robot! Stupid thing rolled an 18 – GM Tony Its two-handed sword drops to the ground.
Dark Witch entangles one of the insectoids which sends it thudding to the ground. She and Bantam then both fire at a second one but miss.
Fortress and Kid Green look at each other and nod. Fortress wraps her arms around the robot’s waist while Kid grips its remaining arm and pulls. It doesn’t come off but sparks spit from the shoulder as metal bends and wiring tears. The robot tries to wrench itself free but the two of them are too strong.
A tendril morphs out of one of the black balls and flings what appears to be a grenade at Kid Green. The explosion tears a hole in the ground but doesn’t affect him much. It also nearly tears Fotress away from the robot but she hangs on.
Another orb lobs a grenade at Dark Witch. She swings her broom around and swats it right back. The explosion sends the orb spinning right back into the lake.
Vapor gets out of Ernest’s car and despite the fact that the insectoids doffed their helmets once they were out the water, he’s pretty sure they have some kind of life support, which would render his powers largely useless. He scans the area for Bantam, hoping to coordinate with his propane attack.
Fortress is grabbed from behind by tendrils from another black ball and pulled away from the robot. Kid still clutches its remaining arm.
Torrent shoots debris from her body at one of the insectoids and hits it squarely; it spins out of control.
Bantam fires at the ball that grabbed Fortress. A bolt of electricity strikes it just as Vapor creates a cloud of propane around it. The resulting explosion tears the ball apart; black shreds fly everywhere as water bursts forth from it and puddles in the snow.
The robot stops and utters urgent gibberish. The translater squawks: “Soldier down! These barbarians! Retreat!”
Baron Mind engages the Mind Gem and telepathically reaches out to the entangled insectoid. To his own surprise, he finds he’s conversing in its native language. “A human who can speak Hyland?” it asks back. “Doesn’t everyone?”
Bantam shocks an insectoid, sending it careening into the nearby forest. Dark Witch clobbers another one, sending it splashing into the lake.
Figuring the robot is the leader, Fortress grabs it again. She and Kid pull in opposite directions. Already damaged, the other arm comes off in Kid’s hands. Sparks fly, smoke spews. Gibberish is heard, then the translator: “This isn’t over! You will be cleansed!”
The robot then stands rigid and seems to power down. Fortress and Kid hear a faint beeping from somewhere inside of it. “Self-destruct!” someone yells.
Quickly, Dark Witch englobes the robot in her eldritch tendrils. Kid Green re-grabs him and leaps far out into the lake. The ’bot is deposited at the bottom and Kid leaps back out.
The expected explosion never happens. Instead, seconds later a large ship rises out of the water and jets into the sky.
With one insectoid missing (a cursory search of the woods turns up broken branches but no other sign of the one blasted by the Witch) and one captured, Torrent then searches the bottom of the lake. She finds the area where the ship had rested.
The bits of the robot that were left topside have melted into sludge.
Back at HQ, Fortress takes advantage of Baron Mind’s ability to understand the insectoid language to interrogate their prisoner. At first he gives up only his name, rank, and serial number, but then Vapor hits him with laughing gas which lowers his resistance to questioning.
“Where are you from?”
“The planet Lyr.”
“Why are you here?”
“A holy mission to seek and apprehend treasonous A.P.s and their progeny.”
Further questioning reveals that A.P.s are Aqua-Puras, a native oceanic race of Lyr who are essentially colonies of sentient water molecules. They cannot survive long outside of water and they can’t assume humanoid form, they mainly appear as nebulous areas of discolored water. They can mimic facial features to facilitate communication, but that’s it.
The insectoid’s race is called the Kahleccent, also native to Lyr.
Fortress decides the best way to get more info is to have Baron Mind use his powers of illusion to make himself appear as another insectoid. They leave the cell, Baron massages the alien’s mind, and he re-enters.
The captive asks, “So the other strike team was defeated too?”
“What other team?”
“The only other one on this planet.”
“Shouldn’t they be leaving?”
“No, the mission isn’t accomplished yet. The abomination is still free and breathing.”
“Are there other A.P.s here?”
“According to the broadcast transmissions we’ve been monitoring, the only known creature here is the one we failed to capture today, the thing they call Torrent.”