Hero Worship Chapter 4: Moral Panic


New chapter done at long last. I know this has been much delayed, but I have just finished a chapter for Hero Worship. This is now chapter 4, although previously the last chapter was 4, but while doing some edits and revisions to earlier chapters I consolidated chapters 2 and 3. Good news is I have a couple more nearly ready. This is something of a chapter where things start getting worse, and the second part is something of a media satire but don’t worry I don’t dwell on that too much past this chapter I just felt like I wanted to look at how things would get viewed in the world I’ve been creating.
Here is the link to the main document where you can use the table of contents to skip forward if you want, but I’m also including the first section of the new chapter. I’m a bit excited to have finally gotten something properly done after so many months of being sidetracked by work and getting stuck in editing.
About those revisions, nothing that changes the story, but I swapped out the fixer Lee Lawford from the first chapter with Michael Hunter, and added in a secondary member of the Six on that mission. There are a few more jokes in that part now, but nothing changed plot-wise.



Moral Panic

“There’s no such thing as the truth.” –

The motto of the Heroes from the Assassin’s Creed games.

Death had come to the Phoenix Clinic. The place looked more like a resort than a hospital, a little slice of heaven nestled into the foothills above the city, in part because its specialty—in treating emergent Supers—meant it needed space and a sanguine environment. Over a dozen stately buildings formed the main complex surrounded by shady trees and winding walkways and gardens. Several people lay sprawled about those paths and lawns, and from a distance, one would generally assume they were simply sleeping, but smoke billowed from multiple structures and gunfire crackled suggesting something ominous. The compound’s original structure had been built well outside of the city of Phoenix, whence it acquired its name, but suburban sprawl now threatened to surround the place in a tight embrace—although this had been partially headed off by adding more acreage to the grounds in a sort of gigantic game of Go. 

Several police cars had formed up on the main road, but stayed well back even from just the sign proclaiming “Welcome to the Phoenix Clinic,” and in smaller letters just below that “a subsidiary of the Wessex Foundation. ‘Discipline gives control, and control gives strength.’” It was an odd motto but was how the Foundation branded itself and it fit well with its highly successful methods. A smoldering and shattered security shack lay just across the road from the sign, it had been built like a concrete bunker and beautified with a red brick exterior, but it had done little to protect the two guards who’d manned it now reduced to almost completely unrecognizable heaps of smoldering and torn flesh. Blast marks led up to the shack and continued past it, the telltale marks of a strafing run by automatic cannons mounted on an aircraft.

Up the road the broad driveway for the main building showed further signs of battle, several cars with security markings lay burning and in some cases flipped over by the explosions that destroyed them. A couple more bodies in security uniforms lay by those, riddled with shrapnel, but nearby lay over a dozen more in worse condition: sliced and diced, smashed to basically unrecognizable pulps, or riddled with bullets was the fate of most—but two sat transfixed having been partially phased into solid objects leaving them unblemished except for the contorted looks of unimaginable pain frozen into their features. If the autocannons had spared them it was only to fire on the building as those patterns of blast marks had torn away a sizable section of wall along with two windows, and anything that had been behind them.

Death remained at the Phoenix Clinic and it stood around the main courtyard in the uniforms of a mid-tier superhero team called the Freedom Fraternity. Hovering just above that courtyard sat their airship, a craft which looked somewhat like an aircraft fuselage the size of a good-sized house, with the still smoking cannons that had already done so much damage mounted on a bubble turret and trained on one of the buildings. Its ramp sat in the down position just a few feet over the ground and about a hundred feet from the main team who had nearly forty of the clinic’s staff, mostly in medical scrubs or white coats, on their knees. A couple of those people sobbed, but mostly they sat silently in shock, and nearby stood a large gaggle of patients in civilian clothes. Most of those patients were youths, but a few were younger and several were proper adults of various ages. No one stood directly guarding them, but they fidgeted almost as fearfully as the staff while Kai the leader of the Freedom Fraternity savagely beat a senior doctor.

Kai wore what looked something like a ninja costume, only it showed much more skin and was made largely of red and black leather. Seeing the patients shying away he shouted in a voice curdling with rage: “NO DON’T LOOK AWAY. We’re taking out these pedophile fucks to protect you.”

A couple other members of the team stepped slightly closer, with a pack-like instinct, and out of fear the bystanders edged closer together. A nurse with south-Asian features cried out: “Please stop. We haven’t done anything to you.”

At that an extremely fat pubescent boy stepped forward speaking in a non-specific but very stereotypical African accent: “Not to them, to me they tor-r-r-tured me here, placing their peasant hands on my royal personage.” It sounded like drunken morons might sound while imitating Idi Amin.

While the Supers had mostly gathered up, numerous men moved about the place in a methodical search pattern. They mostly carried automatic weapons, but nothing too heavy all things you could purchase in most gun stores, although some had been modified outside of legal restrictions, and while not wearing official uniforms they all wore much the same brand of goon attire: jeans, boots, and off-black utility jackets. They herded small clusters of people to the courtyard, and one tougher looking guy wearing a headset stood just a little back from Kai as he coordinated their efforts. Superteams almost always had small support staffs, often of technical specialists, but including so many gunmen seemed unusual although it seemed necessary to control so much ground.

Despite being masters of much of the compound the Freedom Fraternity stayed wary of the last building from which a couple of people could occasionally be seen peeking through thickly armored windows. If the rest of the compound was strongly built, it could not disguise its strong walls, and vault-like doors and it even had a plaque naming it the Bastion. A voice came from it over loudspeakers: “Please listen to us, the boy Dindu was never abused, all treatments were perfectly in line with acceptable practices to help Supers learn to control their powers; however, he is a primary psychopath and master manipulator. He picked a fight with another boy, and stabbed an orderly with an improvised knife as part of living out some gangster-prison fantasy. He is extremely unstable and we had to restrain him.”

Kai shrugged: “Of course we know he’s a psychopath, he tried to kill half my team on a whim, but the only way to cure him is to kill everyone he wants, so he knows someone will do anything for him!!

The loudspeaker buzzed for a few seconds: “…That, that’s not how psychopathy works.”

Dindu jumped up and down: “They admit to assaulting me, and r-r-r-aping me, do you see. Now destroy that building or else I’ll never believe you really hold love in your hearts for me!”

The second in command a small female with an oddly large forehead named Specter shook her head: “We can’t do that while these sickos are holding hostages inside, and even I can’t get through shielded walls.” She looked at the front of the building: “LET THEM GO, or else we’ll have no choice but to start taking people out.” She moved one hand to a heavyset man in a torn and bloodied security uniform, the hand moved straight through him leaving no mark but then she made a slight motion and he collapsed in pain and puking his guts out.

The nurse who’d spoken out cried as she watched: “They fled into there for shelter. You’re the only ones holding hostages here.”

Kai turned on the woman enraged, but then remembered that she was both female and an ethnic minority so he could not strike her without looking bad, so he looked at a nearby man for a few seconds but seeing that he was black Kai instead pistol-whipped the doctor on the ground in front of him to vent his anger: “DON’T CONFUSE ME, you sick demented bastard, we’re the good guys here.” Seeing the patients shrinking away he raised his hands, still waving around his pair of nickel-plated jade handled M1911s, in attempted reassurance but caused them to shrink away and duck down. His voice crackled with disconcertingly good humor: “Don’t worry everyone, we’ll get you out of here. You’re protected by your own kind from these NORMIE FUCKS. Get them on Freedom’s Way.” The name referred to his team’s heavily armed repulsor craft.

The small crowd continued to shrink away, but then a couple of members of the team stepped closer and without making contact herded them towards the airship which had just set down.

Another small group was herded towards the center with a few staff pushed one way while several teenagers were pushed the other; however the team’s brick named Steam Roller held a young man who gave off a burning aura as he struggled ineffectively against the enormous Super.

Kai’s eyes went wide: “What the fuck is this!? I just said fuck so you know I’m a serious person.”

Steam Roller answered: “Some kind of confused Lowbie. We found a bunch of them hiding together, and though they were all patients, but Kincaid suggested we check IDs and sure enough most of them were staff.”

The man with the earpiece had a look of distaste: “I told you not to use my real name while we’re here.” He motioned to a small group of youths held back just a bit by his men, they all wore polo shirts emblazoned with the Wessex Foundation logo. “They’d changed out of those uniforms, so my men had them change back so we could sort them.”

Steam Roller continued his explanation for the resistant Super: “He tried to protect that one when we separated them.” He indicated a very attractive girl who had not only mostly kept her own composure, despite some streaked mascara, but was helping to reassure a couple of the others.

The fire powered youth snarled: “They’ve got nothing to do with any of this, just let them go and I’ll come willingly.” As an apparent show of good faith, his aura shut off.

Kai looked flabbergasted by this turn: “What the fuck is going on?”

The nurse explained: “They’re just junior staff. They just teach music and camping and stuff.”

Kincaid’s eyes narrowed: “Why so protective of this one?” He asked the boy.

The boy looked nervous and agitated, but the girl took a step forward while looking at him reassuringly saying: “Because we’re having a baby.”

Kai looked back and forth even more confused than before: “What the hell is going on here?”

Specter suddenly appeared behind the girl and roughly forced her to her knees with an arm-bar: “Trying to control and manipulate him, aren’t you? How old are you, you sick bitch?”

The girl winced and gave a slight sob: “I’m nineteen. I’m only twenty months older than him. We…. we’re getting engaged once he finishes here.”

The boy started burning again, only this time it started getting hotter—much hotter—causing Steam Roller to lose his grip and shouting a warning to the others and several leveled weapons at the threat.

His skin darkening, and his eyes glowing as power coursed through him the boy motioned to Specter: “Me and you. Let’s see how brave you are against someone who can fight back.”

Just then Kincaid pulled a high-tech pistol from under his jacket, and let off a powerful stun-wave at the boy and when that wasn’t enough he followed it with two more that knocked the boy out cold and then at the instigation of one of the gunmen a couple of the patients carried the boy to their group.

Specter spat: “You’re lucky I don’t take your arm off, you sick pedophile bitch.” She then let go but pushed the girl to the ground. For those who knew anything about the group, the moral umbrage seemed quite out of place, as they were known to be a fairly libertine group. One of the others helped the girl get partially up.

Kincaid looked to Kai: “Your call what we do with them.”

Waving his pistols around Kai seemed to weigh the issue: “Dammit those shirts aren’t enough. Put them in lab coats or something so I can decide.”

People started checking around, and a call was put over the radio to find some proper uniforms. One member of the team wearing a leather bikini and chaps along with twin six-shooter pistols and bandoliers holding the wrong type of ammunition strode among the patients pushing people around. She had bronzed skin and acted like a thug but most people would have mistaken Sand Snake for just some stripper with a permanent scowl on her face, and a couple of overly ornate prop guns; however her suspicions raised she started checking the IDs of people in the patients group and found two of them as staff who she prodded with her guns over to staff while mouthing off at them.

Dindu looked irate and helped lead those people away competing with Sand Snake for shouted profanity. Once they were moved he shouted: “I’m bored of this. We need to execute the rest of the prisoners and bring that building down, RIGHT NOW!!”

Kai shook his head: “Not yet, but soon, don’t worry. We don’t know what they have in there, so I don’t want to attack while they have a shield up.” He spoke into a radio: “How’s that coming along.”

The team’s hacker, who remained aboard their airship, replied: “There’s no way into that system, it’s not networked to anything outside and even the power supply is isolated.”

Kai nodded along pretending to understand: “Okay great, just keep working at it.” He looked at the rest: “Any minute now!”

One of the gunmen brought out a bundle of labcoats and the younger staff members put them on, but as soon as they did Kai fired one of his pistols into the air and then kicked one of the males in the groin and shouted: “Get over with the rest you disgusting maniacs.” It was amazing how marking someone out made all sorts of actions seem perfectly normal, and maybe realizing there was no good end to this a young girl with dark hair made a run for it while people seemed distracted. Her fear inspired speed propelled her a remarkable distance in just a few seconds before Sand Snake saw, and leveled a pistol as one of the prisoners cried out in protest. The first shot hit the lower abdomen knocking the girl off balance, but she kept trying to run only to have more shots riddle her amid further cries of anguish. As if to emphasize the situation a few more gunshots could be heard from somewhere else echoing through the compound.

Despite being in a clearly painful hold the pregnant girl protested: “She didn’t do anything, she just came here because she wanted to meet Supers.” She started sobbing.

Sand Snake looked over as she struggled to find rounds in her gear that actually fit her pistol: “You might want to shut up till we’ve decided what to do with you.” She looked to Kai: “Isn’t this great. This’ll really take us to the next level. Audiences love heroes who are wantonly violent and cruel because they want vengeance at the world!” At the second line, some members of the team laughed and a couple even gave high fives, but others just seemed to stand by giving little reaction.

Kincaid stepped over and looked at the girl, his reserve actually providing something resembling reassurance: “If we’re going to sort this out, we need to know if you’re High-Born?”

She shook her head while still wincing from pain: “I don’t even know what that is.”

Specter let go of the arm, but then Sand Snake grabbed the girl by the neck and put a still hot barrel against her face causing a minor—yet still very painful—burn: “I see what this is. They put little putas like you around our men so the kids won’t can’t have any powers. This is sick and I should smoke you right now.”

The leading nurse shook her head: “No, she is High-Born. We profile all our staff.”

Specter looked excited: “I knew it. They want to breed more of our kind for their sick experiments.”

The patients had finally accepted that they were not the real targets of the attack, and a lanky thirtyish man among them spoke up: “You’re not making any sense, none of this does, you just condemned that poor kid for two opposite things. I used to live in your part of California, you’re supposed to be a team of good guys.” A couple more murmured agreement.

Kai looked confused yet animated: “You’re taking Their side!? But… but aren’t you all glad for our redemptive violence!? We’re doing this for you.”

Nyman Nottington stood back, not taking part yet unmolested: “Stockholm syndrome. This place treats Supers like they’re a disease, just look at it built like a disgusting asylum. We have people who can deprogram them and reverse the damage.” Up until that moment, it would have been hard to even notice he was there.

The nurse shook her head appealing to Kai directly: “Just let them go, please, above all they’re my responsibility. I had a brother who’s own powers killed him when they manifested and we didn’t get professional help. We trusted in some quack spiritual healer who couldn’t admit he had no idea what he was doing. You can’t just attack people without any real proof.”

He hesitated for a second, and then let his confusion turn into anger: “Attacking whoever we decide is evil is what superheroes do! And like I’d listen to anything you have to say Nurse Ratchet.” In his mind making a pop culture reference was checkmate in any argument, and to add emphasis he pointed one of his 45s at her causing her to shrink back and the others to separate themselves a bit.

Dindu sent out a shockwave knocking the woman down: “It’s an Asian and Asians are not permitted to speak in the presence of r-r-royalty. You came to build the trains, but those are built so now you have to leave!! Ha ha ha ha.” He parroted what had been said in his homeland before the expulsion of all people of Asian descent along with the expropriation of their property. Seeing a couple of the Freedom Fraternity looking shocked he recovered: “She abused me too, worse than anyone else!”

Specter moved in and waved a hand through the woman sending her into spasms of pain: “You deserve to be tortured to death for what you did to his beautiful soul.”

The lanky man shook his head: “Stop that, please. She’s a nice lady, and she just got back from visiting her family for a couple of months. She wasn’t even here when he came through.” Seeing Sand Snake leveling a pistol at him with a slightly more exaggerated sneer than usual he put his head in his hands suppressing a sob: “I shouldn’t even be here. I don’t have trouble with my powers, I just came here for the rehab program.”

Another voice shouted out from the steps of the bastion: “I never wanted any part of your world.” Everyone turned and saw a man who didn’t look like much. We wore the dirty coveralls assigned to the groundskeepers and a wide-brimmed straw hat, his skin was weathered and his face sported a prematurely graying short beard that didn’t really suit him, but somehow he projected a sense of threat and a closer look would have picked out his name tag as saying ‘Gabriel’. “Get out right now. It’s the only warning I’ll give you. I don’t want any part of your fucked up world.”

Sand Snake stepped forward chuckling: “Oh yeah redneck. What the fuck are you going to do about it!?” She jinxed herself terribly.

She tapped one of her pistols against his forehead, but his mind seemed elsewhere as he looked down shaking his head like he’d gone into some kind of trance. Sand Snake laughed again: “You fucked with the wrong people puto.” and pulled the trigger, but as she did a slight bit of static electricity could be seen in the air and the bullet stopped in the barrel causing the gun to explode in her hand knocking her back in pain. The groundskeeper glared with an enraged intensity and blood started dripping from his nose and eyes and the ground beneath the garishly costumed ‘hero’ suddenly burned to something resembling boiling as it lost consistency sucking her down as she screamed in anguish before being cut-off as she submerged. Most normal people didn’t think dirt even could burn, but those who’d been around real wildfires knew it could and exactly how dangerous that effect could be. Bolts of telekinetic force flew from Gabriel right towards the team who ran for cover although two of their Caretakers were hit and knocked back, one unconscious sprawled across the lawn, and the other against a tree and folded against it at an unnatural angle with his head being inserted up his own ass along with all the painful ripping of flesh and breaking of bone that required. 

A maelstrom formed around Gabriel filled with burning dust and bits of debris and lanced with arcs of pure energy. Within seconds hundreds of bullets had already been fired at him, but nothing made it through the defense as the bullets were just added to the storm circling around him while losing little of their speed. One of the gunmen still held one of the younger prisoners pulling him along while using him as cover, but suddenly the goon convulsed with pain and his body seemed to open up and his skeleton, along with everything it contained floated free of it in one smooth and almost clean motion. Through it all Gabriel didn’t even look directly at his targets, rather he seemed like a man conducting a symphony of unseen yet terrible furries motioning his arms around while looking at things unseen by the rest. A couple of gunmen ducked behind a nearby landrover, but a wave of force knocked it aside like a toy car sending them scrambling away. For each person directly hit, a few more were knocked sprawling, and yet none of the civilians had received worse than a severe buffeting.

The groundskeeper looked to the hostages shouting: “RUN for it. Get the hell out of here.”

Seeming to not realize who had started the call Kai picked it up as he unloaded .45 rounds at the man: “Go, get past the buildings, we’ll cover you. Run for it.” He shouted emphatically. Both the two distinct crowds had already started picking themselves up and running while intermixing with the more level headed and generally older people directing and trying to help the others.

 Seeing an adorable red-haired girl no older than ten tripping as she tried to run Kai raced over holstering one pistol and hoisting her up and carrying her away from the battle while putting a couple more rounds in the general direction of the threat. 

Steam Roller charged through the storm straight at the threat, with several bullets and rocks deflecting off his invulnerable skin. The storm wasn’t all that large, and he could see through it to the monster facing them easily enough, but once he entered it the burning bits started blinding and choking him causing him to lose his direction and tumble over to the ground while several of the bullets circling through it pinged off him doing little damage. His first attack having failed, he grabbed a small tree nearby and hefted it as the creature, but the tree didn’t move any further than where he threw it; instead it swiveled as if on a hinge, picking up even greater speed and power, and knocked the giant man up into the air crashing into one of the walls. The impact dented the wall, but it was so solid that even the huge and resilient Super was stunned as he fell to Earth.

In the top level of one of the buildings on the other side of the main compound, but overlooking the courtyard, two of the goons had an observation position from which they saw the unfolding eventing with horror. Only after Kincaid gave them a radio call did they react, opening up a large plastic case they had with them and unveiling a huge Barret .50 cal sniper rifle which they quickly assembled and put into position. The huge rifle let off a great boom and explosion of flame from the muzzle as it sent its first round at the target, and even though it didn’t connect it seemed to send the Super off his balance almost like he’d been punched. They let off another shot and another at the very least providing some kind of distraction.

 Dindu shouted and launched a massive wave of rippling power which tore up the earth and concrete in their path from localized tremors, but the attacker met his aggression and the two locked their strength against each other for a moment. Dindu’s attack, having been launched first looked about to overwhelm the creature but then the two nexuses of power pushed against each other and Dindu’s was knocked back sending the boy himself sprawling. Having skimmed his elbow he started crying and ran off, or rather having suffered grievous injury in mortal combat with the ugliest beast ever unleashed upon humanity, Dindu tactically moved back while organizing his side to fight on and at the very same time summoning help. Tactically he moved off while shrieking mostly incoherence, but a couple of times something came out about his: “Royal Personage”.

Another loud crack of the big-boy rifle seemed to shove the telekinetic, but then several bullets from the storm flew at the window from which they fired. Mostly they hit around the sides, but two flew through it causing the team to duck down and scamper back through the door and look for another shooting position as yet a few more bullets smashed into the room’s walls and ceiling. Having put the little girl in a safe place Kai returned to the fight firing both guns and rapidly reloading them with a special harness which allowed for one-handed reloading on each. Despite an impressive volume of shots, it didn’t do all that much aside from motivating the rest of his team to keep up the pressure. 

Across the courtyard, the pregnant girl was trying to drag her unconscious lover away, but making poor time when suddenly a force lifted them both up and then set them down just a couple dozen feet outside the Bastion. That area showed a series of odd shimmerings in the air as the defense field deflected the larger particles in the storm which got too close. Gabriel looked at them seeming more in control of what was happening than he had been since the start and said: “Get inside.” The girl pulled the boy along, but then three men from inside opened up the fortified doors and helped them both, one of them carried a hunting rifle but did not take part in the current fighting despite looking at it for a moment before turning back and joining the others.

Racing in from another part of the compound the team’s archer, known as the Scythian, came vaulting himself over a bench in a display of simple and entirely unnecessary tumbling. He had earned his place on the team through a famous series of displays of trick archery; unfortunately having shown his skills around real heroes had puffed up his self-confidence too much as his archery tricks while requiring skill were primarily illusions: rapid shots at targets tossed into predictable patterns by his assistants, and rapid shooting all while extolling himself as having rediscovered ‘the lost martial-arts of the bow’ and insisting that ‘three shots in two seconds is the mark of a real archer’, but it had done little to prepare him for a real engagement. 

The Scythian wore no quiver judging those as too cumbersome for his acrobatic routines, and launched all nine of the arrows he could comfortably carry in just a few seconds, all at a relatively low velocity and they just added to the storm as it turned out that stage magic was little use against a demi-god. Failing that he made his way around with elementary gymnastics moves while calling for someone to get him more arrows. Seeing his arrows fly by he had the idea to catch them and use them again. He often incorporated that in his routines, but there he knew his assistant’s timing and they flew slowly, yet he felt his team was counting on him so he had to try. Seeing one coming nearby through the maelstrom he grabbed for it only to have it impale his hand causing him to scream in shock. Suddenly he was pulled along by the impaled hand and forced against a wall and then one by one the rest of his arrows were slowly driven into his body in a pattern from certain old textbooks known as ‘Wound Man’, even as he screamed and coughed up blood and begged for mercy. As his vision started fogging he saw figures in the vortex, small and twisted goblin-like shapes which he could still not fully make out as they seemed more make out of wisps of smoke and darkness. It was those shapes that held him down driving in the arrows. Just as he passed out he could see a few others making their way around with impunity in the storm, or maybe they were the storm. The whole time the groundskeeper had not even noticed the Scythian, at least not any more than would an M1 Abrams tank might notice a ham sandwich left in its path.

Striding forward Gabriel’s face contorted with pain but he also smiled through it, more bullets flew at him to no effect, and seeing one of the invaders firing an uzi on full auto—and showing no self-preservation by just standing there brazenly—the groundskeeper glanced for a fraction of a second while motioning one arm in that general direction and the Caretaker’s head imploded in a burst of blood and brain tissue to something about the size of a walnut. 

At the outset the airship had lifted off, despite having been buffeted badly by the storm, but had steadied itself while gaining some distance and now swung around the turret mounting the automatic cannons, and started firing them towards Gabriel causing him to use all his focus and strength to stop those blasts detonating the shells in mid-air in rapid succession while driving him to his knees. His eyes had gone bloodshot and glowing burning lines started searing across his skin in strange patterns, and his face grimaced with pain, but still, Gabriel held on. 

The gunner called in alarm: “I can only keep this up for a few more seconds.”

At that the creature smiled, but then he felt something: a hand on his shin and he looked down to see it had come from the ground where he stood. And suddenly Specter pulled him into the earth leaving only a momentary distortion from his psionic storm and a brief shaking of the ground. 

Kai moved back out to the middle and found his slain teammate in a shallow hole which had been emptied out by the psionic storm. The body was burned black and shrunk to a fraction of its size. Kai shouted out: “Oh my god, they killed her. The murdering bastards, what kind of sick fucks kill a woman!? NOW YOU’RE ALL GOING TO SUFFER SOMETHING EXTRA.” At no point did he glance at, or even think about, the Caretakers who died in the confrontation. One of the other team members attended to Scythian and it seemed even though his injuries were bad, most of the arrows had not penetrated his ribs. Kincaid brought a battered doctor over and had him do what he could, although that was limited with the rudimentary first aid kit the doctor was handed he was motivated by the gun held to his head, and the assurance that if Scythian died so did he.

With the danger passed Dindu strode triumphantly back around: “The three-headed hydra is dead, and I Dindu the Stout am its her-r-roic slayer.” He punched his own chest with one hand at the end.

Specter looked perturbed: “I’m the one who took out that… that THING.”

Dindu squinted and looked like he might cry out of sheer anger: “Are you trying to belittle me and deny, my opinion, my existence, my truth? Do any of you even care!?”

Kai raised his hands: “No no-no. We all did our part, and I think everyone would agree that you stepped up for the team Dindu and did more than anyone. She’s just trying to say she did her part too. Right?”

Specter: “…Yeah, just saying it wasn’t a solo kill.”

Kai nodded to her: “Just try to be more thoughtful of other people in the future.”

A small group of the remaining Caretakers came around the corner of the Bastion herding a group of the people who’d tried to run. An older man in the lead announced: “They tried to get in there through a back entrance, but we stopped them just in time.” They immediately started separating the patients from the staff once again.

Another one of the Caretakers, had numerous bruises and deep scratch marks and he carried an unconscious boy.

Kai looked over wide eyes and shocked: “Oh my god, what happened?”

The big man answered: “These bastards were trying to force these hostages into their rape vans.” He motioned to a nearby motor pool which held several white vans, which contrary to the man’s classification as rape vehicles had nice broad windows. “A few of them even seemed almost like they were going willingly. This kid attacked us when we went to rescue them, turned into a bear cub or something, but we hit him with a stunner.”

A mustachioed orderly protested: “We didn’t force anyone. We just wanted to get the patients to safety.”

Kai pistol-whipped the man to his knees: “SAFETY IS WITH MY TEAM!! And nice pedo-stache asshole.”

The orderly looked down but still replied weakly: “They could have gone in any direction, they chose to run with us. We didn’t make anyone do anything.”

Kai stood over the man so as to straddle him, and then gave him a couple of dry humps whilst grinding the still hot muzzle of one of his M1911 against his temple: “If you don’t get around to confessing to forcing these kids to follow you somehow, you’re getting a round of point four-five.” He chuckled at his own pun at the end, and the team joined in with gusto even though it was a weak joke.

Specter looked closely at the boy: “Look at this mark on his neck. They must have Black Legion mind control implants! Oh, you sick bastards.” It looked like an ordinary mole, but nevertheless, she raced over and put one insubstantial hand into the mustached orderly’s gut and twisted it causing the man to spasm and collapse.

Kai’s eyes went wide: “That’s how they controlled that monster to attack us. He must have just been some innocent metahuman they ENSLAVED.”

One of the others pointed out a small scar on the red-haired girl’s neck and something which looked like a birthmark on another patient’s neck. They were all in different places, but that did not dissuade the team’s absolute certainty and building outrage. A couple more patients were quickly singled out as obviously implanted one for an old scar and the other for the odd lack of any marks on his neck.

Nyman Nottington, who once again seemed to have just appeared, suggested: “The longer we wait out here the longer they have to activate more of their slaves, and just think of what they might be doing to their hostages inside.”

Kai looked around enraged, but confused: “We have to cut out the implants and bring that building down.”

The pilot spoke over his loudspeaker: “But they still have hostages inside.”

Kincaid started knocking out the patients they held with a stun rod, even as Kai pulled out a butterfly knife and looked at the mole very closely.

The orderly recovered enough to cough out a protest while rising to his knees: “You can’t do that, he’s just a kid. Think about what you’re doing. You’re… You’re not a surgeon.”

Kai glared at him: “You’re pure evil, and that means anything we want to do is fully justified!”

At that a winged member of the team, conveniently named Wingman, who had mostly stood by uselessly to that point, jumped into the air swooped down and picked up the orderly flying high into the air before hurling him at the Bastion where he splattered against the roof. The team cheered while the hostages, both the patients and staff, suppressed cries of anguish that they might be next.

Kai looked at the horrified reactions from the still conscious patients and hesitated: “What are you doing, we’re doing this to protect you. We’re here for all of you. They’re the ones who’ve hurt you. YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO BE CHEERING US ON.”

Nyman shrugged: “Stockholm Syndrome.” He seemed quite tired at having to bring it up once again.

At that mention, Specter nodded emphatically: “That’s right they’ve been brainwashed by these sickos, god only knows how many have implants in them too, but they’ll understand once it’s over.”

Kai nodded and carefully cut into the feral boy’s neck and pulled out what looked like a small piece of flesh, but he held up for his team to see: “Look at this, it’s the implant. Open fire on that building right now, we have to go in.”

Nyman looked at them confusedly and just stepped away in distaste.

Specter: “How will we be able to tell which ones we’ve fixed by this?”

Kai looked around: “We’ll have to trust to the deprogramming.”

Specter suggested: “But how will we be sure. Things might get bad if the wrong stories get out about how we did this from people who’re still brainwashed. That might be harder to fix than the implants which we can cut out.”

Dindu smiled: “I have an idea. When we leave we bring one of the staff for every prisoner we release. We can’t just make this about ourselves and our team, we have to let them be a part of their own l-l-liberation and prove they’re fixed by taking r-r-revenge on one of those demons. After my father freed our homeland he did much the same thing with the people who were disloyal to him, but who he hoped to redeem somehow. It was a great act of charity and mercy, letting them have a hand in achieving their own freedom.”

Kai’s eyes went wide: “Make them each execute a prisoner once they’re deprogrammed.”

Despite all that had already happened and all they had already done, this suggestion stunned much of the team who looked to Kai for some kind of direction.

 Kai nodded to them realizing he needed to take decisive action: “Don’t you all see what a great idea that is! Superheroes always do way too much for everyone when we should be helping them to help themselves: especially our fellow metahumans. Now you all see that his moral guidance is exactly what our team has been lacking to take us to the next level!!”

At that Specter clapped and the others quickly joined in, hesitantly at first but then with real feeling.

Kai looked over them: “Now let’s take that building down before they can hurt anyone else.”

The airship let loose with its autocannons, and a couple of pods filled with missiles came out of the sides and launched a couple of projectiles at the Bastion, but it all seemed to have little effect.

The team’s brick had recovered and shouted, so as to be heard over the noise: “Those won’t work through that, but a person can walk right through.” To demonstrate he stepped through the barrier well away from the barrage and started pounding on one of the walls. At first, it showed no results, but after several seconds cracks started forming. The airship stopped its barrage, and shouting in rage Dindu walked through the barrier and started using his tremor attack against the main doors causing the whole building to shake and then they flew inwards with a huge crash and shouts of alarm could be heard from inside.

Kai left the improvised surgeries to the Caretakers as he formed his team up for the attack.

Suddenly every loudspeaker, including the ones on the Freedom’s Way, sounded off in a stern voice: “This is the Interstellar Security Force, this compound is now under our protection. Lay down your weapons and surrender, you have twenty-seven seconds to comply.”

Kai looked around confusedly and then started making crotch thrusts towards the sky: “You want to protect these perverts, you no-talent SHAMS. Oh, we’re ready for you!”

Five seconds had elapsed when the pilot called out a warning: “We’ve got incoming aircraft!”

Specter answered: “How far out?”

Worry strained the pilot’s voice as he raised his craft up higher to meet the threat: “I can’t tell, it’s coming in too fast. The profile, I can’t get a lock.”

As they talked Wingman flew up holding a bo staff, which he guessed would be an effective counter against anything coming: Ninjas, Nazis, elder demons, flying zombies, spaceships, winged-monkeys, or even Nazis, it always worked so long as he could do flashy moves.

Twelve seconds had elapsed when Kai shouted an order: “Let them have it, lock or no lock.”

The pilot lost a couple of seconds looking over his panels before composing himself: “YES SIR.” The missile pods let off a salvo of one after another up into the sky shooting almost straight up, with great gouts of smoke and flame as they launched at great speed.

Their hacker announced from inside the airship: “Some kind of communications jamming going on.”

Twenty seconds had elapsed when the Supers cheered seeing their missiles shooting into the sky against the still unseen opponent. At twenty-four seconds they saw tiny flecks of light and a series of much larger flashes.

Specter jumped up and down: “You got them.” And a cheer welled up from the rest.

The pilot let off the last missiles and the gunner brought the autocannon to bear. Fear spasming his voice he warned: “No splash, they have point def….”

And then at twenty-six and a half seconds the Freedom’s Way, the storied airship of the Freedom Fraternity and one of the best armed and protected of all Supers airships, vanished in a fireball as a craft angled almost like a bodkin arrowhead flew right through it. A few of the onlookers had seen a huge blast come straight off the front of the incoming ship just before the impact, and shooting straight through the airship before blasting open the ground, but to most, it looked like it had simply crashed straight through. Its speed and something about the angles of the hull let off a horrifying sort of shriek as it suddenly decelerated, and the sudden movement sent a brief galeforce wind through the huge courtyard knocking several of the stunned onlookers over and sending Wingman crashing into a nearby building breaking both his wings and one of his legs along with a few other bones. 

The assault ship smoked from the explosion it had just flown through giving it an even more fearsome appearance, and aside from a large fixed gun on the nose section it was studded with four turrets sticking just out of the hull and covering all directions including up and down. It was a simple yet predatory shape lacking the usual fins and other protrusions on aircraft, and especially Supers aircraft. It seemed built around the huge nose cannon and even the cockpit windows were small and looked several inches thick. It had flown straight past two of the missiles from the salvo, but the point defense system fired up at those anyways disintegrating them in sizable explosions which looked far more violent than the mere flashes of light they’d seen of the same result from a long distance. 

Before it even made it to the ground the lower part of the front opened almost like a huge mouth, even as it reared back to put the underside of the hull towards the ground even as it decelerated rapidly, and the craft did not so much land as smack at a bone-jarring speed into it, but before those vibrations dissipated a crowd of shapes flew from it at high speed: the much-feared Powered Dragoons. Thirty seconds had gone by since the warning, so by ISF standards, they were considered a little slow. To outsiders, they moved without betraying a trace of humanity, no shouts and no hesitation, a fearsome sight they started engaging with shimmering blue stun-waves the instant they left their assault ship dropping nearby Caretakers as they recovered from the sudden storm. 

On their internal communications, Guille Marchal called out: “Engage the threat, focus on any near the hostages but draw fire. Shuttle One, the building has been breached, come in through the roof and protect any civilians inside, multiple bystanders are down, we need medical down here right now.” Another call answered: “Medical shuttle five minutes behind the assault elements.” A female of the Freedom Fraternity let off a piercing shriek causing nearby glass to start cracking, but it had little effect on the powersuits and almost as a dismissal one of them knocked her unconscious with a stun shot. The remaining invaders scrambled to take positions and fight back, but the Dragoons struck down a couple more as they did.

Dindu turned with a look of pure rage: “You peasants are ruining everything, and are not permitted to interfere with the affairs of ROYALTY.” He then blasted at the assault ship, his unfocused anger making the ground in the whole area shake and driving debris along the wake of the shockwave, despite its great power the attack mostly dissipated against a defense shield but shook the craft violently and sent it drifting in the wrong direction even as it lifted off with its turrets trained outward as if in warning to the remaining threats. Firing his last pistol rounds futilely, Kai drew the pair of Ninja To on his back revealing wonderflonium blades that shone so brightly they almost seemed to glow. He threw them at the ship dozens of yards away and they passed through the shield, with barely a ripple, and piecing the hull near the cockpit and then the swords returned to his hands as if by magic. The power and effectiveness of the attack would have left an observant viewer wondering why he ever bothered with his pistols.

Five Dragoons engaged Steam Roller flying around him skirting in to strike with their force-staves, or showering him with stun blasts. Dindu turned his attention to them, letting off blasts his targets flew around when he was suddenly knocked out by another one passing by on his way to the melee. Steam Roller shrugged off the hits, and multiple times knocked down his attackers, but each time others would drive him back before he could press his attack. 

Two transport shuttles similar in general appearance to the attack ship, but smaller and much less aggressive in appearance, landed in the courtyard while a third had already touched down on the roof. Dozens of armored infantry rushed out of their ramps and into the fight. A female voice sounded over their comms: “Form a perimeter around the hostages. Look out for Specter, phase shifting powers, she could be anywhere. Shuttles two and three stay on the ground and push your shields as far out as you can, she can’t move through stabilized objects.” Another voice called: “Gunman carrying a hostage towards the motor-pool. Someone intercept.” The first team had already taken up positions around the bystanders, and most of the Caretakers were down. 

The sniper team had found a new position for their .50 cal as they pushed a desk over beside a window overlooking the fighting and setting up their heavy weapon in a rush, too much of a rush as they moved directly in front of an alert enemy. Another call went out: “Fifty Cal, Fifty Cal. Building four, northwest corner.” A few stun shots impacted around the window with no results. The big rifle boomed towards the melee where several Dragoons were overwhelming the brick, and the first round went wide but they swarmed around him thickly and one Dragoon flew straight into the second shot which knocked him to the side giving the Super a chance to recover and Steam Roller grabbed two of them and charged into the side of a building smashing them against it. One of the Dragoons started shooting red killing shots towards the window as he rose higher into the air, the solid building absorbed it but sending out shards of brick and concrete into the window and causing the team to rear back sending their next shot well above the fighting. The assault ship turned towards the sniper team just as a fourth shot boomed out: “I’ve got them.” And then all four of its turrets opened up on rapid-fire directly into the window erasing the team and much of that corner of the building from existence. Guille’s voice answered: “Excellent work, I’ll get you a case of beer for that one.”

Kincaid was stunned by events, and it was hard to quantify what he saw to normal eyes. It did not look like a military unit with advanced equipment, but more like a pack of faceless demons that had descended upon his team, and his charges, with overwhelming force. There was no honor in any of it, even the Dragoons didn’t pair off against a single opponent but flew around scattering away from attacks and swarming against chosen targets. Those infantry should have attacked the major Supers with knight sticks, or just with their fists, in small groups and fighting like that—fighting properly—the Freedom Fraternity could have easily taken on that mob; however the resistance had already largely crumbled, and the fight had only just started, although Kai and a couple others continued to effectively engage multiple opponents. The team leader’s swords flashed in the sunlight and it took two Dragoons to even stand their ground against him but they still had plenty of others. 

Kincaid picked up the red-haired kid, as he ran for the motor-pool and saw the couple of lads they’d left guarding it standing by a line of three land rovers their team had brought in to help with the operation. Those men stood with Car-15s letting off the occasional shot past him at the ongoing battle, but seeing him run towards them one of them let his rifle drop to his side and jumped inside one of the vehicles. The intention to escape was obvious, and even if they rescued just one child, a budding metahuman with her full potential for good before her, something might come of the mission. Suddenly the man still engaged was knocked back by a stun-wave, and then so was the driver.

A Dragoon hovered just overhead, but it was different with crests protruding from its armor and an intricate staff all of which softly glowed giving the impression of power. For all the technological sophistication and functional design of the standard suit these differences, these embellishments evoked the ancient mysteries with their style and symbols. It spoke in an oddly soft feminine voice which seemed to echo in his head as if it was said several times nearly at once in slightly different voices: “Stop.” And he felt compelled to stop in his tracks, what did it matter, the fight was over. “Place the child down carefully.” After all the kid had been through it seemed only appropriate to put her tenderly down on the grass. They had knocked her out but the improvised surgery and sudden battle had woken her up so she sobbed softly and winced in pain from her neck. The man gave her a slight smile: “Don’t worry, we’ll get you a bandage for that.” And then he was knocked sprawling and unconscious from another stun-wave. The kid looked started and scared, but the Dragoon came up to her and a nearly perfect holographic image projected just in front of the face mask, it was of a beautiful young woman with soft half-Japanese features.

: “It’s okay baby, we’ll keep you safe.” Even through the filter of the hologram, her face emoted real empathy, and she then looked at the kid’s neck to the continued dribble of blood that stained her shirt. “We have an ambulance coming in, we’ll take care of that.”

The kid didn’t seem to be in pain anymore she just looked over the ornate staff: “You don’t need to worry. You’ll take me to the surgical center in the Bastion.”

“It’s not safe there. Our shuttle will be here any minute.”

Suddenly a call came over the radio: “Bastion secured. I don’t think any got inside.” Guille answered: “We have a senior nurse out here who’s hurt, but she thinks their surgical center can handle some of the wounded. Start taking people there while we mop up.”

The little girl winced from the continued pain: “We should go there Kelly.”

The Dragoon swallowed hard: “You know about… You’re like me.” Suddenly she could see through the telepathic suggestions, she’d assumed someone below ten and completely adorable, but the girl was more like thirteen or fourteen and misshapen with an a-symmetrical face and legs at off angles with must have made her slow on her feet if she tried to run. The suggestion had likely been put out as a defense measure, but with Kelly’s skill and the suit’s psi filters, it had not entirely worked even from the start.

“I warned them this was going to happen once they took in the Prince, but no one believed me. No one ever listens to me… If you kill that man who hurt me you’ll always regret it. He didn’t understand what he was doing and you won’t either.”

Kelly glanced at Kincaid and knew she had already considered killing him once the kid was out of sight, but she reconsidered: “I… I just wanted to make sure he wouldn’t hurt anyone else.”

“Wasn’t even his idea to carry me off. When you arrived I wanted out, so I put the idea in his head.”

 Kelly nodded as her hologram turned off and she picked up the kid and carried her to the Bastion.

In the courtyard, the fight wound down. A swarm of eight Dragoons stood all around Steam Roller raining blows down on him from all sides as if they were LAPD, a couple of them instinctively shouting ‘stop resisting’, and Kai had the honor of being the last man standing as he shrieked about them all being Nazis and pedophiles and hate-merchants. His opponents flew back from him and started a barrage of shots, but Kai flipped out of the way, yet more troops started shooting at him as well to no avail. Blasts seemed to land all around the Super yet nothing touched him as he cartwheeled and bounced, the assault ship added two of its turrets to the fire more than anything punctuating his skill by adding the occasional explosion, but Kai sheathed his swords and mounted a gymnastics horse which had miraculously appeared in the yard and he started into a routine on it. 

One voice called out on the radio: “Rapid-fire, overwhelm him. Something has to hit sooner or later, it’s just probabilities.” Guille answered: “Negative: he wants you to overheat your systems, go to sustained rate and get a couple more troops on him. It’s dramatically impossible to hit someone in the middle of a gymnastics routine.” As if to illustrate that point Kai did a perfect dismount from the horse just as turret shot exploded it into a cloud of flames and splinters even as the rate of shots markedly decreased while troops backed away. “He’s wearing leather and it’s already eighty-three degrees out here, he can’t keep this up for long.” Reaching to his back Kai pulled out a ribbon on a short pole and started into a ribbon routine which proved just as effective at avoiding shots as all the other maneuvers, it was an Olympic level performance, gold medal-winning, if not better: or it would have been if he’d finished it. But instead about halfway through he suddenly stopped, and looked unsteady and then a virtual geyser of vomit exploded from his mask directed by it to his eyes and forehead. At that he collapsed to the ground and finally lay still. At the demolished front door to the Bastion a gaggle of people wearing a mix of uniforms and civilian clothes and armed with everything from shotguns to fire axes and baseball bats emerged looked on in wonderment while trying to stay out of the way as the bulky faceless shapes of the ISF troops shifted into mop-up and recovery mode.