The Amazing Captain Guardia [Ep 3]

esper_dimension
albrook
roxanne
the_shield
walter_glass
pyra_syndicate
coh
detective_bronze

#1

If you had asked Terence Shale what he thought a hero was back in High School, he would have conjured up images of things like magical Guardian knights clad in enchanted armor. Or maybe the legendary Heroes of Time from the Gate Dimension’s past. Or maybe the Restorer King, Doan Pendouris.

He had grown and seen and lost so much since then. He grew up, left childhood and became a man. He’d gained and lost phenomenal supernatural powers. He’d seen death and the face of true evil, personally doing battle with several of the Web of World’s most evil, most powerful and most omnicidal fiends and felons. He’d lost the love of his life and been exiled from his homeland, the nation that had once held him up as a symbol of all that was right, just and good.

One time, he also stopped a Dark Matter Missile mid-flight by punching it and absorbing the explosion with his body. That was pretty badass.

He glanced over at the clock. The bright red digital display read: 3:23 am. Another sleepless night… but, what did he need sleep for? He was in Albrook now, worlds away from everything and everyone in his life. He was sleeping on a fold-out twin in a spare room in Roxanne’s palatial, longhouse-themed apartment, flanked on either side by boxes of unpacked books and files and other assorted crap that the North Star had accumulated over the course of her immortal life and… had, presumably, been keeping in a storage locker somewhere before getting a place in Albrook?

Beside his bed, just beneath his eyeline, was a nondescript black steamer trunk. It was Terry’s, and it contained the only thing he had left that meant anything.

The Shield mk I Seraphim Power Armor. A prototype, the only one of its kind, designed and built for Terence Shale by Abdiel Zion himself. Wearing it, he could crash through walls, withstand enemy fire, lift a car over his head and even fly… but it all felt, somehow, empty. It wasn’t the same.

Nothing was the same anymore.

What was the point of any of it? How did Terence Shale even fit in anymore, palling around with an immortal valkyrie, a shadow-magic using ninja and the Mana Knight herself?

Where was his place in this city of heroes?


#2

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

A consequence of sleepless nights were late starts to the day. But Terry didn’t really view them as “consequences” per se: being able to sleep in was actually sort of nice.

Coming out into the living room, Terry found Osprey parked on the couch. His blanket and pillow were still bunched together on the far end of the couch that Roxanne had invested so much time meticulously arranging. And it would seem that this was all to the benefit of Osprey, the out-of-work spy, who had slept on that couch the night before and was now keeping it warm while he surfed through Roxanne’s 900 channels of premium Web cable entertainment.

“Morning, Os,” Terry said, as he unleashed his inner bachelor and reached down to give his belly a well-earned scratch.

“It’s no longer morning,” Osprey said, his eyes never leaving the screen. He had an old black-and-white Eblanese samurai movie on, and was fully engrossed. “Roxanne left a list, so I went out for groceries. There are croissants in the kitchen.”

Terry’s eyes lit up. Aside from soul-searching despondency and sound wave frequencies designed to shatter dreamstone, pastries were his only weakness. He turned on his heel and went into the kitchen to retrieve one or two of the afforementioned baked goods. “What else are you up to today?”

“I have many irons in the fire,” Osprey said. Even though he had no intention of changing the channel before the end of this awesome samurai movie, the remote remained clenched in his hand.

“What does that mean?” Terry called out, his mouth half-stuffed with croissant.

“I don’t know about you, Shale, but I don’t intend to be a career couch-surfer,” he said, from the couch, where he was surfing. “I will have a good job by the end of the month. I am very, very good at what I do. I am highly skilled. I am versatile. I am a commodity. Soon, very soon, I will hear back from someone. And that will be the first day of the rest of my life.”

Terry returned from the kitchen. (where, on the counter, he’d spotted a book entitled “Daily Affirmations: Be The You That You Deserve!” that Osprey must have been leafing through before he left to buy groceries) A half-bitten croissant was in his hand, and the flaky debris of the first two he’d eaten were sprinkled down the front of his shirt. “Must be nice to be so… affirmative about everything every day.”

“You had some stuff come in,” Osprey said, pointing at the table, where a plain brown-paper wrapped box was sitting. On top of the box were two letters.

Terry approached and looked down at them. One of the letters was in a pre-printed envelope marked with Kuat’s Egmont headquarters in the return address. It was marked addressed to “Mr. Terrence Shale.”

Terry grunted. He wasn’t pleased when people misspelled his name: it was “Terence,” just one “r.” How hard was that?

The other was a plain brown envelope addressed to “Terry” with no return address or postage. “Hand delivered?”

“The box was,” Osprey called out, after some delay (he was transfixed: the climax of the film was currently featuring a running sword duel, and Osprey was greatly impressed at the technique and choreography of the actors). “I think it had a card.”

Terry opened the card and read it. A smile came to his face, unbidden, and he sighed.

“What is it?” Osprey asked.

“You remember that tailor I saved the other day? Munro?” Terry said, as he tore into the box. Opening it, he pulled out a gorgeous brown suede jacket. “He sent me this to thank me.”

Osprey balked. He paused the DVR. “Wait. I thought you were suited up? How did he --”

“I went back later, in civvies,” Terry said. “Made like I was just a helpful passerby. Offered to help him clean up. Spent the day sweeping up, replacing glass, picking up debris… hanging his new front door…” He sighed again, examining the jacket, feeling it in his hands.

“Oh,” Osprey said at last. “So… looks like you made a friend in the Albrook small business community.”

“He’s not hiring, I asked,” Terry said.

“Right, of course, sorry,” Osprey unpaused the DVR and went back to his movie.

Setting the jacket down, Terry turned over the Kuat envelope in his hands. Opening it and reading it, Terry was a little taken aback to find that it appeared to have been a note written by Damien Gavalian himself.


#3

Mr. Shale:

I just wanted to check in with you and thank you, again, for your participation in the defense of my city. Many heroes from far and wide showed up on that fateful night, and I and every Egmonter remain eternally grateful for your bravery in the face of the threat that was levelled against us. Words fail me in expressing the proper gratitude.

To this end, I wanted to thank you again by having you drop by our Albrook offices to accept a personal gift. Kuat research is always on the cutting edge of military technology, and recently we’ve devised something that we think would perfectly complement both your current hardware loadout as well as your particular heroic idiom. You would also, incidentally, be helping me out: consider it an extended field test for a new technology that we would very much like to develop.

Sadly, I will not be in Albrook to meet with you personally, but my staff there are under instruction to assist you fully in this matter. Again, my thanks.

Regards,
-Damien Gavalian

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Dear Mr. Gavalian,

I recently heard from my good friend, Terry Shale, that you’d reached out and contacted him regarding our meeting you in Egmont during the Reklar invasion. I just wanted to write you in reply to express our thanks for your correspondence. For my part, I am happy to know that you are well, and that Egmont is still safe and Reklar free. I am very proud of the part I played in making this so.

If you don’t remember me, I don’t hold it against you. My name is Osprey, and for the better part of the Gate Dimension’s contact with the Web of Worlds, I have been known to be among my homeworld’s best and most skilled infiltration experts. It so happens that I have recently relocated to Albrook and am looking for new and exciting opportunities to apply my diverse skillset to the corporate world, and upon hearing of your recent letter to Terry, I thought of you fondly and considered, with no small amount of excitement, what a wonderful fit Kuat would be for me.

Enclosed is my resume and a letter of recommendation from the owner of the apartment complex where I am currently staying as the guest of a tenant. I have set down no real roots in Albrook as yet, so if you’d need me to move to Egmont, to serve at your pleasure at corporate headquarters, then I will be on the next bus quicker than you can say “Defense of Egmont”!

I await your reply.

Your servant,

-Osprey.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

Mr. Osprey,

I have passed your message and resume on to my human resources department. Unfortunately I am not aware of any openings we have in any departments where your skills would be of use. But I am glad to hear that you also helped to defend Egmont.

Please make sure to give Terry my best the next time you see him.

Thanks,

-D. Gavalian.


#4

::Carnelian Realty Heaadquarters, Albrook::

“Carnelian Realty, this is Jan.” The receptionist’s voice was pleasant. Perfectly modulated to be pleasing to the ear, just empathetic enough to suggest that she wanted to help you without yielding too much professionalism. Her appearance had been seemingly just as meticulously callibrated: she was young, blonde, attractive, but dressed conservatively and professionally. Every detail and design element of her, and the space in which she worked, were planned and executed with great precision.

She finished her call and turned to face the man standing at the reception desk. “Can I help you?”

“Edmond Calis,” the man said. He was dressed in a plain gray suit, complemented with a light blue tie. A pair of silver-rimmed glasses rested easily on the bridge of his nose, and he checked his wristwatch as he continued: “I have a 9:30 with Andrew.”

“Of course Mr. Calis,” Jan said. She smiled lightly, just enough to be warm without breaking protocol. “If you’ll have a seat I’ll make sure he knows you’re here.”

“Great, thanks,” Calis said, returning the smile and turning to have a seat on one of the reception-area sofas. From his seat, he heard Jan get back on the phone.

“Mr. Calis is here early. He has a 9:30.”

A pause, and then Jan hung up the line. She stood slightly, just enough to see Calis over the top of her desk, and said: “Mr. Cornell will be right out.”

“Wonderful, thank you Jan,” Calis said.

Jan paused. She blinked. Then, recovering, she smiled again. “You’re welcome… Mr. Calis.” She sat back down, and he could hear her typing away at something.

Calis glanced into the interior of Carnelian Realty. Cubicles and desks filled the space, and each one was occupied by an agent wearing a red blazer (or, if they weren’t wearing it, it was draped across the back of a nearby office chair). Carnelian had properties all across Albrook, and was easily one of the city’s top five real estate brokers. It had worked well enough as a cover… up to now, anyway.

Just then, a figure emerged from around a corner. Head first, the man’s eyes fell on Calis and his face lit up. “Edmond,” the man said, then stepping fully from around the corner. “Edmond-o. Ed-mon-do-ramaaaaaa.”

Calis pursed his lips and smiled. “Andrew. Nice to see you.” He extended a hand.

“And. It is good. To see you too,” Andrew effected this in a flat, robotic monotone, simultaneously moving his body in stilted, robot-like motions, before stiffly extending his hand to meet Calis’. Andrew stifled a laugh for as long as he could before he burst out into a muted guffaw. “You see what I did there? Multi-layered humor, see. Because of our secret.”

Jan’s eyes widened. Calis sighed and rubbed his temples.

“We should really go to your office, Andrew,” Calis said.

“Oh,” Andrew said. His mouth formed an “o,” and he pressed a single finger to his chin. “He wants to get me all alone. For sexual harrassment. Jan, you’re witness!” Andrew pointed at Jan, but she did her best to pretend she didn’t see what was going on. “Jan. Hey, Jan, can I borrow your rape whistle? I might have to fight off an attacker.”

Calis fumed silently. Andrew noticed the look he was getting, and his expression instantly changed. “Right,” he said. “Jan that was inappropriate. There are some topics upon which we do not joke at Carnelian Realty.”

Jan looked up, helplessly.

“You should be ashamed,” Andrew said. “In front of guests, whom are here… at our pleasure. How rude.” Andrew shook his head and smiled again, leaning in close to Calis. “Impossible to find good help these days. I’m seriously thinking about having her boxed up and sent back to headquarters for reprogramming.”

“Okay,” Calis said, “Enough. Your office now.”

Andrew nodded and, wordlessly, lead Calis back across the main room of the building and into his office. As the door shut behind them, Calis reached over onto Andrew’s desk and pressed a button. There was an electric hum in the air, and then silence.

“Edmond,” Andrew said, as he said down in his chair. “To what do I owe the pleeeeaaaaaaasure.” He laughed, seemingly at his own private joke.

“Cornell,” Calis said. “First off, you have to be more careful about what you say and how you act when you’re out there at reception. Okay? If I’d been an actual client, you could very nearly have tipped me off that not everything is what it seems here.”

“Actually Edmond,” Andrew began, then stopped. “I may call you Edmond,” he said, not phrasing it as a question, before continuing: “My presentation is, by design, a little theatrics…cal. I like to liven the mood with a little comedy. A little magic. I like to present an air of mystery… you see, that is what keeps our clients coming back to us over and over again.”

“Actually what keeps our clients – our real clients – coming back to us over and over again is pyra. Which we sell – which is now, by the way, illegal in Albrook. And you told me, out there at Jan’s desk, that you were thinking of putting her in a box and sending her out to be reprogrammed,” Calis said.

“Yes, I did. And if you were a client you would have thought it was a brilliant metaphor. That I had amazingly deconstructed the human condition, and said something profound about corporate culture --”

“Except that Jan and you and me are all actually androids, and so it was a little too on-the-nose,” Calis said. “So, it needs to stop. Okay? You need to behave more professionally. And I shouldn’t even have to tell you that, because you’re one of the League of Eight.”

“Okay, yes,” Andrew said. He cleared his throat. “How… may I help you today… fine sir?”

“It doesn’t help in here, Andrew. We’re shielded.” Calis said.

“First you complain that I’m too funny, now you want me to be LESS professional? Make up your mind, Edmond!”

“I never said that, Andrew,” Calis said, “I never said you should be less professional. Would you like to know why I actually came down here to see you today?”

“Well it had better be for professional reasons, or else I just don’t know what to do with you,” Andrew said.

“It is,” Calis said. He opened his briefcase. “Our surveillance teams were following one of Garlandini’s enforcers yesterday. Just some light reconnaissance, we’re still figuring out what the turf in Albrook looks like and where we can exploit weaknesses in the local gangs’ holdings, now that our main product is of the illicit variety.”

Andrew folded his arms and nodded approvingly.

“And we found this,” Calis drew a photograph out of his briefcase and set it on the desk for Andrew to see. It showed a man dressed in white power armor flying away from a ruined storefront.

“That’s a nice storefront,” Andrew commented. “Are we looking at any buyers?”

“… The storefront’s ruined, Andrew,” Calis said. “It’s not a Carnelian property. And that,” Calis put his finger on the power armored man, “Is the Shield. The Guardian hero who destroyed Yale’s factory in El Nido all those years ago. The one who’s persona non grata back in Guardia, and who Chalasser would love to get his hands on.”

Andrew nodded. “Yes. These are things I also know, well.”

“If he’s in Albrook this is trouble for us,” Calis said. “The Shield has been a thorn in our side for many years. And to top it all off, certain members of our organization killed his girlfriend. So this is very, very bad news and it’s cropping up in your back yard, and the other members of the League are probably going to want to know what you intend to do about it.”

Andrew’s face was blank. “Well. Obvious much? We’re gonna… do it to it. You know?”

“No. I don’t know. I’m asking. This is your call, Andrew: you’re of the League of Eight. Clotho’s chosen. What are we going to do about… this.” He pointed again to the picture of the Shield flying away from Klyde Munro’s storefront.

Andrew pursed his lips. He smiled. “Kill… him?” He said.

Calis sighed. He nodded. “You know… you may be right. I think we don’t really have any choice.”

Andrew blinked. “I know, right?”

“I’ll have the surveillance team see if they can figure out where he’s lairing. And I’ll come back and let you know more. You should probably inform the rest of the League, they’ll want to know about this.”

“Yes, yes. The League must know.” Andrew nodded.

Calis closed his briefcase. “I’ll get right on that. Walk me back out, Andrew.”

Andrew stood and opened his office door, escorting Calis back out toward reception.

“Well Andrew, I think this was really productive today,” Calis said, smiling. “You’ve given me a lot to think about.”

“I did,” Andrew said. “Let’s give 'em something to think about. Right?”

Calis extended a hand. “We’ll be in touch.”

Andrew shook Calis’ hand. “But only good touching. No bad touching.” He looked over at the receptionist. “That’s what we call a callback. Referring to that awful sexual harrassment joke you made earlier. I nailed it.”

Calis nodded and sighed. “See you.”

“Okay, later skater!” Andrew said, waving. As Calis walked away, Andrew turned back to Jan. “Jan, have you had lunch yet? Because you look like you could use a recharge.” Andrew laughed, but Jan only shook her head. “You don’t get it? You know, batteries? Recharge? Android humor – oh, Jan. Update your software, Jan!! There’s a security update you’re missing!”

Jan sighed. “Alfred called while you were in your meeting. He just closed the Del Norte Marquez Lane property and he needs you to sign off on his expense reports.”

“Oh Jan,” Andrew said, still laughing. “You take all of this too seriously.”

“Yes,” Jan said, “I take the cover of our secret identities that protects our continued existence and advances all of our interests and goals too seriously.”

Andrew laughed some more. “So, you need to have those forms on my desk for me so I can do that, Jan. Okay? We’re androids plotting against everyone in the name of our immortal mistress, but let’s please be professional about it and do some actual work today. Also, hold the rest of my calls, my guild is going to start raiding in the next… twenty minutes or so, and I will be incommunicado in my office until that’s done.”


#5

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

Terry came back out into the living room to find Roxanne facing her mantle. She was toying with the arrangement of the knick knacks on display there, making room for a prominent display for the Harp of Edward.

“Hey Roxanne,” Terry said, entering the room. He reached up and scratched his head, and pointed back toward the couch. “You seen my bird-man sidekick? About yea tall, covered in feathers. Usually holding a copy of his resume. He’s not where I left him.”

Roxanne’s concentration was fixed on rendering the landscape of her mantle into nothing short of perfection. She moved one piece – a priceless antique flower vase from the Xsian Empire’s Liang Dynasty, given to her by Genruo the Eternal Seer, author of the Canon of Changes, who had (or, at least, his ephemeral spirit-form had) once been a suitor for Roxanne’s hand – and then found she had to move another – an ivory carving of a senior behemoth from the Veldt tribes in Esper – to restore the balance. But then moving the behemoth carving meant that her 20th Anniversary Commemorative Space Battles plate (autographed by creator James Moldenberry and the entire cast of the original series) needed to be shifted, and moving that meant that the magicite remains of the esper Gruzarahn –

“Roxanne?” Terry repeated.

Roxanne took a deep breath. “Sorry!” she said, turning around and clapping her hands on her hips. “Our new houseguest, here, has thrown my entire front room display into chaos. I just can’t figure out the best way to arrange anything now.”

Terry took a step forward. “I mean, you could always box some stuff up to make room,” he suggested, trying to be helpful.

“Do you have any idea how long it took me to narrow it down to just this?” Roxanne asked, narrowing her eyes and looking sidelong at Terry.

Terry backed off. “Sorry. My mistake. It’s none of my business anyway, I was just looking for Osprey.”

Roxanne nodded. “He took off a bit ago. Not sure where to… maybe he had an interview.”

Roxanne and Terry both laughed for five minutes.

“Yeah,” Terry said, “He’s probably up standing on the roof wearing that cape you got him. It’s a nice and breezy today, perfect for cape-standing.” Terry sighed. “Well, I’ll head out on my own then. Not sure when I’ll be back… haven’t quite figured out the Albrook trains yet.”

“Isn’t it funny,” Roxanne said, looking back at her mantle, “How the smallest things can throw us?”

Terry stopped. “How’s that?”

“We spend so much time ordering our lives so meticulously,” she reached out and shifted one of the knick knacks on her mantle, “And it happens so often that, we get to a place where everything is exactly the way we like it… and then something changes. Something’s added, something’s taken away… and we just lose our shit.”

Roxanne threw up her arms and turned around to face Terry. “Do you have any idea how old I am?”

Terry laughed nervously. “This is a trick,” he said, “You’re not supposed to answer that question when a woman asks you that.”

“Well I’m way too old to let a mantle filled with junk to bother me like this!” Roxanne said. “So, I’m not going to let it bother me. I’ll tag along with you instead.”

Terry balked. “Wait, what? No, really, you don’t have to do that.”

“Nonsense,” Roxanne said, “I’m not teaching today, and you said yourself you’d probably get lost on the train… where are you going, anyway?”

“Uh, the Kuat building,” Terry said. “I have the… address right here…” He fumbled to fish the envelope out of his jacket pocket.

“It’s in the Corporate Enclave,” Roxanne said. As she talked, she moved: first grabbing Terry by the arm and hauling him toward the door, then snatching her coat off the rack. “C’mon. The K-train will get us there – did you know Gavalian actually paid the city planners to make sure the route that went closest to his building was the K-train?”

“That’s pretty cool,” Terry said. “You know, you have a car. We could drive.”

Roxanne stopped. She stood to her full height and regarded Terry the way she would Fara during her lessons. “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for the rest of his days.” She smirked. “Or, more specific to our situation: teach your houseguest to navigate public transportation, and you won’t be giving him and his man-bird friend rides for the rest of your life.”

As Roxanne and Terry left the building together, a lone figure watched them. Cloaked in shadow, he noted their movements, their speed. The direction they were walking. He couldn’t hear their conversation from where he stood, but occasionally when they turned their heads, he could read their lips.

The figure stood to his full height, just as the breeze kicked up. A long dark cape billowed out behind him dramatically.

“I am the night,” Osprey said.


#6

::The Streets of Albrook::

Roxanne turned and handed the foil-wrapped bundle of meats, cheeses and multi-colored vegetables and sauces to Terry. The entire affair within the foil was clad in a tortilla, which appeared to have been saturated with the sauces and the meat juices, and would not have been able to hold the meal together without the foil.

“So what’s our business at the Kuat building?” Roxanne asked, as she took a monstrous bite of her own food.

“Why don’t you tell me what this is I’m eating,” Terry asked, as the pair walked away from the stand and toward the train station.

“Well,” Roxanne said, “Fara’s recent adventure in Damcyan sort of made me realize I’d not come by this stand in a while. That, my friend,” she inclined her head to indicate the foil-wrapped bundle, “Is something that you’ve likely never had before: a genuine Damcyanese burrito.”

Terry scoffed. “What are you talking about? We had a Damcyanese place near my apartment in Arris.”

Roxanne smiled. “When I say ‘genuine,’ I actually mean ‘Albrooker style.’ Any Albrooker will tell you that food isn’t genuine unless it, first of all has an Albrooker style, and second of all is prepared in said style.”

Terry shrugged and opened his mouth wide, taking an enormous bite, as he had seen Roxanne do earlier.

“Yeah, you’re gonna want to start with smaller bites, Terry,” Roxanne said, as she stuffed a pepper and a wad of meat back into the bundle and took another bite of her own burrito.

Terry immediately began trying to swear with a mouthful of food, fanning his face. Here he was, once completely immune to the baneful effects of the element of fire, and his mouth was burning. He was convinced that Albrooker-style Damcyanese food was seasoned primarily with battery acid.

Roxanne quickly backtracked to the stand and picked up two cans of soda. She passed one to Terry, who opened it and then poured half the contents directly down his throat.

“Oh my gods that’s insane,” Terry said, laughing and crying simultaneously. “We should get more of these, to use against our enemies. These would be so useful if we could weaponize them.”

Roxanne returned the smile. “You know that’s something I don’t see you do a lot.”

Terry ventured another, smaller bite of his burrito. “What’s that? Nearly die while eating Crystalese food?”

“Smile. You’re kinda the Debbie Downer of the group lately.”

Terry inhaled. “Is that what this is, Roxanne? Checking up on me?”

Roxanne shrugged. “I’ve sort of gotten used to being a den mother, looking out for Fara. Besides, it does sort of come natural to me. You know… the whole North Star thing. I can’t help myself sometimes. And you definitely seem lost.”

Terry sighed. “I appreciate it, really, I do. I appreciate everything you’ve done for me, and for Osprey. Honestly I don’t know where he and I would be right now if we hadn’t met you guys in Egmont. But really, I’m fine.”

“You’re not fine,” Roxanne said. “Terry, come on, I’m too old and well-traveled for you to pull the stoic superhero routine on me. I’ve seen it too many times, and on people who were better at lying to themselves than you are.”

Terry took another bite and then quickly swallowed some more soda. He shook the empty can and sighed, tossing it in a nearby recycle bin – after which Roxanne handed him the second can. “All right then, North Star, you tell me. I’m lost, yeah? How am I lost? How do I get un-lost?”

Roxanne took another huge bite and finished her burrito. Terry marveled that she had put away the entire thing without getting any of the juice or sauce or other drippings on her hands or anywhere else; with well-practiced motions, she balled up the foil and jump-shot it back into the recycle bin they had passed moments earlier.

“That’s not how it works,” Roxanne said. “I guide, I don’t tell. Station’s just up here.”


#7

::Cristophe Springs Subway Station, Albrook::

Roxanne waited patiently while Terry finished the burrito. It was a serious undertaking: the second soda barely survived the first half of the monstrous bundle of spicy food. At several points Roxanne urged Terry to just toss the rest so they could get on the train, but Terry dutifully finished the whole thing. He then excused himself to the restroom to wash his face and hands.

The thing about public spaces in Albrook that most people noticed right away was the restrooms. All restrooms in Albrook were unisex, were generally much larger than restrooms elsewhere in the Web, and had a variety of accomodations within them. This was because, as the “capital” of the Grand Army, you had people and races and species from literally every corner of the Web of Worlds living in this gigantic cosmopolitan metropolis. You had species with binary genders, species with no genders, animalian species, plant-based species, mammalian species, insectoid species, avian and reptilian species, small species, human-sized species, giant species…

And all of them needed a place in the public sphere to go to the bathroom, and not all of them went to the bathroom in exactly the same way.

Even though Terry was used to lots of different types of people sharing the same public spaces (being that Gate is a fairly diverse world), this was still one of his first few times in an Albrooker restroom and it was difficult (and awkward) to take his eyes off of some of the people he saw moving in and out of the space to do their business (as it were).

As the tall, blue-skinned Matangan exited the special stall designed for fungoid spore-based waste removal (it looked oddly like a kind of stall shower), Terry shook his head and recovered himself enough to face the sink and mirror and do what he came here to do. His face was smeared with burrito sauce, and his hands were a slick, oily mess from the juices that had dripped out through gaps in the foil wrapper. He turned on the faucet and began to run his hands under the water.

That was when he felt, just before he saw, an arm slip around in front of his neck. Another arm came up the side and grasped the side of his head. Before he knew what was happening, Terry was caught in a choke hold.

“Good bye, Captain Guardia.” The voice was not one that Terry recognized, but this was clearly someone who knew him well enough to know his secret identity. Looking in the mirror, watching himself get strangled, Terry had no idea who this was that was attacking him.

He couldn’t breathe. He gasped and sputtered; his attacker’s grip was monstrously strong. His first instinct was to fly up through the ceiling, but he still had to remind himself that he wasn’t “super” anymore.

He wasn’t strong enough to break the hold. He was weak, he was mortal. He had not felt quite so powerless since that night he fought against Manta… the night that Shiru broke and he lost his powers.

He grunted, still struggling. He could feel himself getting dizzy, barely keeping consciousness. If he blacked out he knew that would be the end; he held on and his mind raced for a way out. Pushing his attacker back, he got up enough space between himself and the sink. Then, grasping his opponent’s forearm (and relying on the attacker’s superior strength to hold him up), he raised both legs off the ground, planted his feet on the edge of the sink, and pushed back with all the power he could muster.

Startled by the suddenness of the maneuver, the attacker stumbled back, slamming into a stall door with surprising force and power and breaking it open. “HEY!!” came the voice of the stall’s occupant, a large and burly Moblin: blue-skinned, dog-faced and very, very upset at being disturbed while sitting on the crapper. Pulling up his pants, the Moblin grabbed Terry’s attacker by the head and slammed him into the ground – incidentally releasing Terry in the process.

“THE HELL IS YOUR PROBLEM, PERV!?” the Moblin howled, standing up and hastily buckling his belt, kicking the attacker while he was down.

Terry wasted no time: rubbing his sore neck, he stood and staggered out of the restroom. Roxanne was waiting, leaning next to the turnstile by the train platform. She was about to make a wisecrack when she spotted Terry. Her smile twisted into a look of concern.

Before she could even ask, the Moblin came soaring out of the restroom, plowing into a small crowd of bystanders and bowling them over. The Moblin lay on the concrete, unmoving, while the innocents that he’d been thrown into coped with the shock, pain and confusion that resulted.

Out of the restroom stepped Terry’s attacker. He was human, with close-cropped brown hair and eyes and nondescript dark clothing: a tee shirt, dark jeans, rugged black workboots. His fists were clenched and there was a tear in the side of his shirt from the tussle with the Moblin, but he seemed not to notice or care as he scanned the crowd. Spotting Terry, he strode toward him confidently, determined.

Terry brought himself to his full height, and raised up his fists defensively, but Roxanne’s hand fell on his shoulder and pulled him back. “I’m tagging myself in, Terry,” Roxanne said, interposing herself between the attacker and his target. She bellowed: “Come, brigand! I am for you!”

Responding to the anachronistic taunt, the assailant turned his attention to Roxanne. Roxanne was tall, statuesque, clearly in fine physical form. But the attacker believed she would not prove to be much of a problem, and so decided to lunge at her directly. He swung out one of his fists.

Roxanne caught the fist and squeezed. This guy was strong, but Roxanne was stronger. There was a crunching sound… but, oddly, it didn’t sound like bone and tendons breaking. It sounded like metal bending; then there was a break in the attacker’s flesh, and a bright electrical spark.

Roxanne was startled for a moment: a robot!?

The attacker seized upon this opportunity and sucker-punched Roxanne with his other hand. Stunned, she spun round and released the hand she’d crushed. The attacker then spun his leg round and brought his booted heel down on Roxanne’s head, connecting with an audible crack. Roxanne fell to her knees and let out a cry.

Terry took this as an opportunity: he rushed forward, planted his hands on Roxanne’s sturdy back, and swung his own legs up and over, planting a firm kick to the attacker’s chest. The attacker barely moved; instead, he grabbed Terry’s ankle and swung him around, flinging him aside like a greasy foil burrito wrapper. Terry rolled, tumbled and scraped along the floor. He would have bruises for this encounter – bruises! – and he’d caused barely any damage at all in exchange. Groaning, he tried to stand, but the shooting pain in his side told him that he’d just broken a rib.

The attacker approached; one of his hands was now useless, but the other was balled into a fist. Terry had felt the strength of this robot-man’s grip earlier: one solid punch, well-placed, was all it would take to end his life. He had fallen so far from the days when he was punching Dark Matter bombs mid-flight, or flying at super-sonic speeds to deliver a megaton punch to the face of some super-powered badguy. No: now he was just a man, bereft of nation, bereft of powers and without his Seraphim power armor, who was about to be killed by a robotic man he’d met in a subway station restroom.

The attacker smiled as he stood over Terry. But then there was a loud pop, an explosion and shower of sparks, and a fist emerged from the center of the attacker’s chest. The man, stunned, looked down to see the fist withdraw, and turned just in time for Roxanne’s other fist to connect with his face. There was a loud snap and another shower of sparks as the attacker’s head spun clean round and broke off, flying like a soccer ball off into the crowd of onlookers.

The attacker’s now headless form crumpled to the floor, and Roxanne stood over it, victorious. The look of exhilaration and joy on Roxanne’s face, as she stood looking down on the broken form of her foe, disturbed Terry for a moment. She looked down at Terry, that look still in her eyes, and for half a second Terry was sure that Roxanne was going to try and mate with him right there.

Instead, she extended a hand and helped Terry to his feet.

“How about we make a stop at the ER before we go on to the Kuat building?” Roxanne suggested.

Terry smirked. “Thank the Gods for Albrooker healthcare,” he said.


#8

::Kuat Building, Corporate Enclave, Albrook::

“Mister Shale?”

Terry turned to see a thin man in a labcoat rush up to him. He was disshevled and bespectacled, with a mess of thinning black hair on his pate and five-o-clock shadow peppering his chin. His white button-down shirt was a size too large for him, and his bright red bowtie had what looked like an old mustard stain on it. The rest of his ensemble made him look like he was either a buffoon or incredibly colorblind: green courduroy pants, bright orange sneakers, and the rims of his thick glasses were either violet or indigo, depending on how the light caught them.

“How do you do,” the man said nervously, with an anxious smile and awkward chuckle. “I’m Dr. Glass, and really, really it’s an honor to meet you, sir.” He leaned in conspiratorially: “Your secret’s safe with me, The Shield!” He said, in a kind of audible whisper that made any pretense of secrecy seem a little ridiculous.

Terry smiled politely and shook the man’s hand. “I appreciate that, Doctor. It’s nice to meet you as well.”

Dr. Glass blushed. “Please, if you’ll come this way, I can show you to my lab. That’s where I keep the prototype.”

Together, Terry (trying very hard to ignore the pain in his side) and Roxanne (shouldering a curiously heavy cloth grocery bag) walked after the scientist as he lead them down a corridor. They got on an elevator and began to rise several floors.

“So… what is this gift that Gavalian has for Terry?” Roxanne asked.

“Oh, it’s my latest work,” Dr. Glass said. “Something very appropriate for our superhero, here. I really think you’re gonna love it!”

“You won’t tell us anymore than that?” Roxanne asked again. Something in her tone suggested she was, at once, protective of Terry and suspicious of Kuat (or, of Dr. Glass). Terry rolled his eyes. He turned to say something to Roxanne, but then winced as the pain in his side stopped him. He reached a hand to his ribcage, where the brace the doctors had put on it could be felt through his shirt.

Dr. Glass picked up on this immediately. His face was taken with concern. “You’re hurt, The Shield?” he asked, in as awkward a fashion as he knew how.

“Yes, but it’s nothing,” he said dismissively, sharing a meaningful look with Roxanne. The pair’s flight from the subway station had been so hasty that they didn’t have a chance to stop and talk out what had just happened to them. Even when they got to the hospital and had Terry bandaged up, the public setting didn’t make for an ideal spot for the pair of android slayers to discuss all the excitement. “Really, I’m fine, Doctor.”

Dr. Glass nodded. He wasn’t entirely convinced, but decided (reluctantly) to let it go.

The elevator stopped, and Dr. Glass excitedly lead his guests out into another corridor, then down a hallway and into a large research space. The entire lab was clearly Dr. Glass’ domain, and he’d been given leave to decorate it himself, apparently: there were several posters of the Shield, at various stages during his career. A bulletin board above a desk by the far wall had several pinned newspaper clippings and photographs.

“I’m a little bit of a fan,” Dr. Glass admitted, again blushing. “This is such an honor… I can’t believe Mister Gavalian himself gave me – me! – this task. Then again, it does sort of fall into my realm of expertise, as you’ll find out.” He lead the pair to a workbench, where he picked up an armored gauntlet.

“Hey,” Terry said, “That’s one of the gauntlets from my armor! How did you --”

Dr. Glass held up a hand. “It’s okay, Mister… Mister Shield, sir.”

Terry sighed. “Please. Call me Terry.”

Dr. Glass laughed nervously. “Okay… Terry. You can call me Walter, if you like… Terry.” He sighed. “Anyway… Terry… Don’t worry. I didn’t break into your house and steal one of your gauntlets. This is just a very, very accurately made replica. It’s not seraphim, of course, but it was a good enough model for me to use to build the attachment.”

“Wait a minute,” Roxanne said, “You made a replica? Based on what?”

Dr. Glass smiled and shrugged, pleased with himself. “The Shield is my hero. I’ve intently studied every bit of public footage of him since his debut. Some of the OmniNet forums for the Shield fan club have technical mock-ups of the various parts of the Shield’s armor… most of them are pretty shoddily done, but I actually think I managed to put together what I believe are the most accurate set of fan-made schematics that exist. They were good enough to make this replica gauntlet, anyway.”

Dr. Glass cleared his throat. “Anyway. This attachment here,” he indicated a small disc attached to the gauntlet, just above the wrist, “is the Vanguard shield module. Now, you may need to have your own repair technician handle linking the attachment’s electronics with those of your suit, but when you activate the module…” Dr. Glass slipped his own hand into the gauntlet, and pressed a button on the disc. Two arms extended out, and they began to spin around. As they did, they trailed a beam of translucent white-blue light; after the two arms had completed a full circuit, the beam of light had expanded into a large, round disc. “Ta-daaaa! You see?? It’s a shield!” Even Dr. Glass’ excitement was awkward and off-putting.

“… I have a fan club?” Terry asked.

“I mean, it’s not as big as the ones for various politicians and military leaders,” Dr. Glass admitted, “But that doesn’t lessen how devoted we are to you and your ideals, Mister Shield… Terry.”

Dr. Glass de-activated the Vanguard module, and the shield folded back up into its compact form. He handed the gauntlet to Terry, who felt the weight in his hands. “Thanks, I’ll… have my repair technician take a look at this.”

“You know,” Dr. Glass said, “If you like, I totally wouldn’t mind dropping by your place and hooking it up for you. I mean, I might have to move around some stuff on my social calendar… but for you, it’d totally be no problem, Terry.”

“No, that’s okay,” Roxanne said, quickly. “We… have someone we trust who can work on installing the module.” He looked at Terry, her eyes widening.

“Oh, yes,” Terry said, “Sorry, Walter… I wouldn’t want to be a bother, after all that you and Kuat have done.”

“It wouldn’t be a bother really!” Dr. Glass said. “Oh, I almost forgot. Here,” Dr. Glass dug into his lab coat’s pocket and produced what looked like a wristwatch. “The whole point of the Vanguard project was to produce a personnel-scale energy shield, which basically meant miniaturizing the Gnome Defense Field I helped design for the Emancipator and Erinyes mecha. But… you know, I’m so good at this that I actually went a step further, even after I built you the module for your suit.” He handed Terry the wristwatch. “Put it on!”

Terry looked at Roxanne, then put on the watch.

“Now, push that button right there,” Dr. Glass said, excitedly.

Terry shrugged, and pushed the button. Instantly, a small buckler-sized energy field sprang to life from within the watch. Unlike the Vanguard module made for the suit, the wristwatch version wasn’t round: it had the wedge shape of a heater shield.

“I even made it shaped like your old shield,” Dr. Glass said, pressing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and chuckling. “I figured, if you happened to be out and about without your full armor with you… you could use this to help protect yourself.”

Terry sighed. Given his recent encounter in the subway station, he genuinely appreciated this gift. “Walter,” he said, moved. “I don’t know what to say… Thank you. Thank you very much.”

Terry placed a hand on Dr. Glass’ shoulder, and he was just floored. This was easily the best day of his life. “You’re… you’re welcome, Terry. I’m so happy I… was able to do something to help you be a hero.”

Roxanne felt like she needed to intercede, before Dr. Glass started weeping openly (Terry was too nice a guy to just walk away). “We have to be going, Dr. Glass… but thank you so much for everything, and please be sure you thank Mister Gavalian for us…”

“OH!” Dr. Glass smacked his forehead, “I nearly forgot! There’s one more thing!!” He rushed to his desk and grabbed a laptop, opened it and brought it back over to the workbench. Opening it, a holoprojector built into the laptop’s webcam sprang to life, projecting an image of a seated Damien Gavalian that was several times larger than it should have been, dwarfing all other occupants in the room.

“Mister Shale,” the image of Damien said, smiling. “I’m glad you decided to drop by. How do you like your gift?”

Terry regarded the gauntlet. “You know, I was just starting to get used to dual-wielding my beatsticks… but this Vanguard thing is going to bring back memories. I really can’t thank you enough.”

“No thanks are necessary,” Damien said. “As I said in my letter, you’re actually helping us field test something that could become a new product. I’d like you to check in with Dr. Glass from time to time and report on how the Vanguard performs in the field. If you can do that for me, I’ll consider it thanks enough.”

Dr. Glass beamed and searched Terry’s face for a response.

“I… sure. I can do that for you, Mr. Gavalian,” Terry said.

“Excellent. I look forward to reading your first report, Dr. Glass. Mister Shale… again, always a pleasure to see you.”

“Likewise,” Terry said. “Even better when giant rock demons aren’t involved.”

“Indeed,” Damien said, as the image faded.


#9

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

The rest of the trip home, Roxanne and Terry hardly said a word to each other. Roxanne had a grocery bag slung over her shoulder, and it was heavy with a conversation that needed having. But between getting Terry checked out by a doctor, and then seeing to his errand at Kuat, the time and opportunity just hadn’t yet come up.

Finally, the pair walked into Roxanne’s front door, and she slammed it shut behind her.

“So,” Roxanne said. She reached into the shopping bag and lifted out the severed android head by its hair. “Robots?”

“Robots,” Terry said. He shook his head. “You know, I’ve only ever seen anything like that once before in my life. Right after I lost my powers and became a flying commercial for Diamond power armor.”

“Yes, it did seem like this guy didn’t like you very much,” Roxanne observed. “Or, at the very least, he was way more concerned with ending you than he was about me.”

“That makes sense,” Terry said, “Because I kinda blew up one of the factories where those androids make pyra.”

Roxanne pursed her lips. “Come again?”

“Well,” Terry said, folding his arms and shrugging. “Maybe that’s not entirely accurate. I mean, Manta was there too, and he did most of the actual ‘blowing up’ of things…”

“The same Manta who destroyed your shield and took away your powers?”

“Yes. Nothing in my life has been not-complicated for a good long while now.”

Roxanne nodded, and held up the android head. “I think it says something about us that the most boring friend we have lately is the magic-using bird-man ninja.”

“Yes,” Terry said. “Thank you, by the way. For the whole saving of my life thing.”

Roxanne shrugged. “Again, think of it as just part of the whole North Star thing. I guided you… away from being murdered by a robot.” She tossed the head down on the ground, where it landed with a hard metallic thud.

“Trophy?” Terry asked, indicating the head. He pictured her mounting it and hanging it up on the wall of her training room.

“More like clue, I think,” Roxanne said. “I figured we could… I dunno, examine it or something. Find out where it came from.”

Terry looked down at the head. Half of its face was caved in, and one of its eyes was shattered. It didn’t move at all, and there were scorch marks all along the neck, where several wires were exposed. Its jaw was open, frozen in a silent death-scream.

“Examine it how?” Terry asked.

“I don’t know. Hook it up to a computer… and… run a diagnostic, or whatever.”

“Yeah, I don’t know how to do that,” Terry said.

“Well, it’s what they would do on TV,” Roxanne said.

“Not everything in the modern world is like it is on TV, Roxanne,” Terry said.

Roxanne rolled her eyes. “Oh yes, please sir, teach me of your modern world and its modern ways. I’m immortal, not a luddite, Terry!”

The two stood there a moment longer, just staring at the android head.

“We could ask Violante to look at it?” Terry said.

“What, Fara’s friend? The Damcyanese terrorist?”

“Yeah, though I probably wouldn’t call her that next time you see her.”

“You think she could…” Roxanne paused and searched for another expression that sounded like what she wanted to do, but nothing else seemed to work. So she just said it again: “… Run a diagnostic…?”

“Well, from what we know about her… she custom-built her hovercraft out of a hodgepodge of various Web tech. She also managed to tune-up my armor, even though she said she’d never seen or worked on anything like it before. I think she’s our best bet.”

Roxanne nodded. “Well, we were going to call her to attach your new toy, anyway. Might as well have her take a look while she’s here?.. As long as she’s not out somewhere being a terrorist or anything.”

“You’re probably gonna want to be a little more diplomatic when we see her,” Terry suggested. “Might go a long way toward her agreeing to ‘run a diagnostic’ on our severed robot head.”

Roxanne lightly jabbed Terry in the side. He winced in pain. “You just do you, Shale,” she said with a smirk. “I think I’m old enough to know how to handle myself.”


#10

::Carnelian Realty Headquarters::

There was a knock on the door to Cornell’s office.

Cornell was a serious-minded man who knew how to separate business and pleasure. Unfortunately for those who had to work with him, he tended to be much more serious-minded about his pleasures more than his business. Case in point: he had switched his office phone to “Do Not Disturb,” locked his office door, and logged into “White and Gold Online” to join his guild in a heroic endgame raid of Grimstone Castle.

Cornell was honestly a little startled when he heard the knock. Since his guild was recovering from a total wipe anyway, he excused himself with a quick “afk bio” and bounded over to the door to see who it was.

Cornell rolled his eyes when he saw who it was. “Yes, Jan, what is it?”

“Edmond Calis is here to see you again.” Jan said this matter-of-factly, with a calmness that was hard-won after having worked with Cornell for so long.

“Jan, do you not see that I’m busy??”

“I see that you turned your phone to DND and put a sock on the doorknob.”

“Yes, Jan, and do you know what the sock on the doorknob means?”

Jan blinked. “Really, sir? You want me to believe that you have a girl in your office?”

“No, Jan, but you really should consider the possibility that there could have been a girl in here, since I’m an attractive elligible single bachelor who…”

Someone out of view pushed the door in ever so slightly. When Cornell could see who it was, he balked just a little bit. “Oh. Hi, Edmond. I was just explaining to Jan that next time you drop by, she needs to come and get me right away.”

Edmond Calis just pursed his lips and shut his eyes. The Goddess of Fate, in Her infinite wisdom, had allowed Her android children the same range of personality and free will that had long been afforded to the human species they physically imitated. And somehow, under Her watchful eye, that freedom had been so twisted and abused to allow a being like Cornell to think and behave the way he did.

Insult to injury: Cornell was one of the chosen leaders of their race.

“Andrew, we have important things to discuss. May I come – why are your shoes off? And where’s your other sock?”

Cornell offered no explanation, instead hurriedly waving Calis into his office and shutting the door. The sounds of combat blared from his headset, resting idly on the armrest of his chair, but Cornell swiftly looped round his desk and adjusted the volume control so Calis would be none the wiser.

“To what privelege do I owe… this privelege, of your visit again, so soon,” Cornell managed to say.

“Well, it’s not good news, I’m afraid,” Calis said. “Per our meeting yesterday, I spoke with the other League members and they agreed with your plan to try taking out the Shield.”

“Oh,” Cornell said, evidencing genuine surprise (since the other League members weren’t known for agreeing with Cornell’s ideas [example: throw the Web of Worlds into chaos by assassinating Bertha Javelins with poisoned Maranda Farms string cheese. Related: buy controlling interest in Maranda Farms dairies and allow Cornell to run their string cheese division]). “Well, that sounds like good news to me!”

“It isn’t,” Calis continued. “The Z-Series we sent to complete the assignment failed to report in. Surveillance footage shows the Shield and an accomplice disabling our agent and walking away mostly unharmed.”

“Oh,” Cornell said, this time crestfallen, as he sat down in his chair. He swivelled around to his mini-fridge and drew out a fresh, delicious stick of Maranda Farms string cheese, freed it from its 100% recyclable wrapper and peeled off a strand. “Disabling, you say?”

Calis held up a flash drive. “You should see this.”

“Oh, okay, well, hold on,” Cornell set the Maranda Farms string cheese down on his desk and turned his attention to his computer. “I need to… save and close this important work document I had open before you came in… I’ll just do that first before I accept your drive and open it to look at… whatever it is you want me to look at…”

Calis sighed. “Okay. Please hurry and quit the important work document.”

“Yes, I am doing that,” Cornell said, “But it’s kind of slow because this computer doesn’t have a good graphics card… to handle… all of the graphics… of the work document.”

They waited another thirty seconds while Cornell’s “work document” closed down. Cornell peeled off another piece of wholesome, low fat Maranda Farms string cheese and remarked silently to himself how delicious and nutritious a snack it was. No wonder more moms choose Maranda Farms string cheese for an afterschool treat than any other snack food on your local grocer’s shelves.

Cornell finally accepted the flash drive, plugged it in and opened the video file it contained. At first he thought he was missing the audio, but then he remembered he had his headset plugged in.

“I had my headset plugged in,” Cornell explained, “So I could hear… my work document’s sound. And background music.”

“That must be quite a document you were working on,” Calis said.

“It is,” Cornell said. “I wish you could play it sometime. See it sometime.”

Cornell watched the grainy footage. First he saw the man identified as the Shield stagger out of a bathroom. Then, moments later, a huge moblin comes flying into frame, followed soon after by a figure that must have been the android assassin. A woman gets in the way and she exchanges blows with the assassin, but in short order the Shield is sent flying and bouncing across the ground. Then the woman, as soon as the assassin turns his back, punches her bare fist clean through the android’s chest, and then knocks his head off with a single punch just as he’s turning around to face her.

“Oh my Gods!!!” Cornell shrieked, as he saw the assassin have his chest-cavity hollowed out and his head removed. “Oh God!!!” He shrieked again, throwing his headset down and standing. He groaned audibly, shut his eyes tight and ran his fingers through his hair. “God that’s gonna give me nightmares. Oh god so many nightmares…” He began pacing anxiously; his artificial subconscious kept replaying the image of the android having its head knocked off over and over and over again. Not even the vitamin-D fortified taste of Maranda Farms string cheese could soothe him now.

“And it gets worse,” Calis said. “You see, our surveillance just before we sent out the assassin suggested to us that the Shield actually had no idea we were operating in Albrook at all. So… it’s possible this incident tipped him off to something he actually was completely unaware of before.”

“Oh, you think that’s how it gets worse!?” Cornell said, almost screaming. “You think that part’s worse than the killer decapitating bodyguard the Shield’s rolling with now!?” Cornell clutched desperately at his neck. He liked his neck. He didn’t want his neck to twist around, his artificial flesh to tear and his head pop off like that assassin’s did. If it were possible for androids to hyperventilate, then right about then Cornell surely would be. “So, what’s the plan? Is the League going to send me reinforcements?”

Calis sighed. “So, that’s the other bad news.” He clapped his hands together. “The other League members… they kind of view this as your fault. Since it was, after all, your idea to go after the Shield and try to eliminate him. So they’re actually pulling out some resources unless and until you clean up this mess you’ve made.”

Cornell blinked. “Mess I’ve made!? I didn’t send the guy! THEY sent the guy!! I’ve been in my office all day playing --” He stopped, and cleared his throat. “Uh, that is, playing… my work document, which I’ve been working so hard on and enjoying so much that it almost feels like I’ve been playing… a game. Of role-playing military historical fiction.”

Calis shrugged. “Doesn’t change the reality of the situation, Andy. The League is seriously considering pulling out of Albrook altogether. In fact I got orders myself to relocate. I’m no longer your liaison to the rest of the League.”

Andrew stood up. He fumed. “Edmond. I thought we were friends, man. C’mon.”

“Friends?” Calis said. “Friends?? I don’t even like you, Andrew. You’re a useless buffoon who, somehow, wound up in one of the most priveleged positions of leadership among our kind. And what are you doing with your position? Hmm? Closing yourself up in an office playing video games all day? Coming in to ‘work’ at this ‘job’ of yours, messing up every assignment the League sends your way… Failing, by the way, to produce results at the one task you were given when the League sent you to Albrook. You think we’re friends, Andy? No. We’re not friends. I was ordered to come out here and serve as your liaison. It has been my thankless duty to bring you the word of the League, and then to have to go back and explain to them how you took the simplest requests and messed them all to hell.” Calis threw up his hands and smiled. “So, I’m leaving. Orders are orders, my hands are tied.”

Cornell opened his desk drawer. He produced a device that looked like a TV remote control. “Tied, you say?”

Calis moved to stand up, but his wrists snapped back down onto the armrests, and his ankled locked together, as if by some unseen force. He struggled, but in vain.

“Andy?” Calis said meekly, suddenly shifting his tone. “What are you doing?..”

“You know… I get it,” Cornell said, as he walked around from behind his desk, idly tossing his remote from one hand to another. “I get that the other members of the League don’t like me very much. They think I’m a screw-up. That I suck. That I sometimes don’t actually know what I’m doing, or that I occasionally come off looking stupid just because I don’t know a lot of things.” He pushed Calis’ chair with his foot so that it rotated around to face him, then leaned down and looked Calis in the eye. “I know I was sent out here to Albrook because the other League members wanted to shove me aside. You think I don’t realize I’m the only member of the League of Eight based outside of Gate? Did you think that escaped me?”

Calis shook his head. He opened his mouth to say something, but Cornell pushed another button on his remote and Calis’ jaw snapped shut with a loud mechanical clank.

“But here’s something that maybe you forgot, Edmond. Hell, maybe the other League members forgot… but I was CHOSEN for this. The Goddess herself picked me. So, the ‘reality of the situation,’ Edmond… is that as far as you’re concerned, out here in Albrook – hell, in the entire Esper Dimension… I am the League of Eight. Is that clear?”

Calis made no move; his eyes were wide with some mixture of fear and defiance. Then, Cornell pressed a button on his remote, and, entirely against his will, with a forceful, jerking motion, Calis was made to nod in agreement.

“So let me tell you what’s going to happen next, Edmond,” Cornell said. As he spoke, he moved around behind Calis. He gracelessly tore out a fistful of Calis’ synthetic hair, revealing a smooth plastic surface beneath. Prying it open, he reached underneath the skin, and pulled out a small device with a short, black antenna coming off of it. A red light on the device blinked intermittently. “Nothing is leaving Albrook,” Cornell said, as he crushed the device in his hand. The red light winked out, and there was a spark. Calis seemed to feel it as this device was destroyed, and he struggled against Cornell’s technological ensorcelment. “Not me, not any of my personnel, not any of our weapons or assets or anything. In fact, this time I am going to have to clean up your mess by doing what you and the League were somehow unable to do in the first place. I’m going to kill the Shield. I’m going to show the rest of the League that they were wrong about me. And… I’m going to be sorry that you won’t be around to see it. Because you’re going to step into the stairwell and blow yourself up.”

Cornell pressed another button on his remote, and Calis awkwardly stood up. Cornell moved ahead of him and opened his office door, allowing the other android to walk out into the main Carnelian office space. His movements were halting; with every ounce of will he had, Calis tried to fight against Cornell’s domination.

But Cornell was a member of the League. Whatever else he might have been, however generally incompetent or inept he seemed, he had powers and gifts from his Goddess that were beyond Edmond Calis’ comprehension.

“Hey everybody!” Cornell said, clapping his hands and looking around the office. Distantly, Calis opened the door to the stairwell and it slammed shut behind him. “Quick announcement, I know it’s almost quittin’ time and you’re busy with stuff, but if I could have your attention for just eine minuten please. There’s gonna be a little bit of a change around here from now on. First, I’ve got some sad news: it turns out that our longtime corporate liaison, Edmond, has decided to move on. He’ll no longer be working here.”

Cornell held up the crushed antenna-device in his hand, and tossed it out onto the carpet of the main office floor. There was an explosion from the stairwell, startling everyone. A few faces went white with panic when they made the connection between Cornell’s speech, the crushed antenna and the loud bang they just heard.

Cornell laughed. “Oh, that Edmond. … He always wanted to go out with a bang.”

Now, anyone who hadn’t made the connection had realization suddenly dawn on them. There were gasps of horror among the other Carnelian employees.

“Sorry to have dropped such an explosive revelation on you,” Cornell said, through stifled chuckling. No one else was laughing. “I mean sometimes people just get to this point in their careers where they can’t handle the pressure, and they just suddenly blow up!” Cornell was racked with huge guffaws, so impressed was he by his own wit. “I mean, I guess he just couldn’t handle the industry… you know what they say about real estate, it’s boom and bust!!.. Wait wait, I got a couple more. ahem Looks like he wasn’t such a dud after all!! You know, I always loved hanging out with Edmond… we always had such a blast!!..”

Cornell looked up and noticed, for the first time, that no one was laughing with him. “Whoa,” he said. “Tough crowd. … So this is what it feels like to bomb.”


#11

::Roxanne’s Apartment::

“You want me to… ‘run a diagnostic’?”

Roxanne nodded. “Like… in the movies.”

Violante turned the severed android head over in her hands. “I mean, I know what those words mean, but that doesn’t help me understand what you want me to actually do.”

Terry and Roxanne looked at each other. They suddenly both realized that this idea might have been a little silly.

“We just thought…” Roxanne started.

“Well, it was mostly your idea, Roxanne…” Terry said, trying to distance himself. Roxanne glared at Terry, wide-eyed.

“I mean you’re good with machines,” Terry said, recovering so that Roxanne wouldn’t jab his healing ribs again, “So… we took the robot’s head… and thought maybe you could look inside. For the secrets.”

Violante just stared. “Wow,” she said. “Okay, you guys know that I’m a gearhead and not a nerd, right?”

“… Machines?” Roxanne said.

“You installed the Vanguard module,” Terry said, hopefully. “And you custom built your fancy smuggling hovercraft.”

“Let me make this perfectly clear. Your armor? Makes sense to me. Big thrumming engines, and hover jets and car axles… those make sense to me. But there is a whole wide Web’s worth of difference between restoring a vintage classic Damcyanese hovercraft with scrounged up parts, or fine tuning the elbow joints on a Diamond-made suit of invincible Seraphim power armor, and doing whatever it is you want me to do with a bashed up robot head.”

As if to punctuate her point, Violante tossed the head down on the ground. On impact, its one good eye lit up, and projected a beam of light onto the wall.

The three stared in silence.

“I told you she could do it!” Roxanne said.

“What is that?” Violante asked. The beam of light from the robot head’s eye appeared to be projecting something on the wall.

Terry turned his head sideways, looking at the projection. “… It looks like it could be a map?..”

Roxanne picked up the head, and turned it so it was rightside up. She moved the head around, carefully adjusting the projection to make it clearer. “It is a map,” Roxanne said. “That’s the Albrook Corporate Enclave. And there’s a building marked with an ‘X’.”

“Well, I think that’s your clue,” Violante said, as she moved to go start packing up her tools. “And that means this house call is officially over – Terry, enjoy your new Kuat toy. Roxanne, try not to decapitate anymore robots while I’m gone. Or do, maybe more decapitated robots will be a good thing. Right now, I have to go do some studying so I don’t completely fail out of college and blow my cover.”

Terry and Roxanne said nothing as Violante gathered her toolbox and left, shutting the door behind her.

“Well, what do you say, Shield?” asked Roxanne. “Shall we suit up and head out?”

Terry looked at her. “I mean, you know that this is probably a trap, right?”

Roxanne shrugged. “Here’s what I know. You are a hero: that hasn’t changed just because you’re wearing a mechanical suit. I know that our friend here,” Roxanne held up the android head, “Was a badguy, and whether it’s a trap or not, this map might be showing us where the rest of his badguy friends are hiding.”

Terry sighed. “I’m not a hero, Roxanne. I’m not the Shield anymore. The only reason I was able to even be the Shield to begin with was because Bekkler chose me. I was a hero because I represented Guardia – not just the nation, but the ideals of Guardia. I was a symbol, I stood for something. And somewhere along the way, that symbol stopped meaning anything and Guardia decided their ideals had changed. This isn’t just about the powers, Roxanne, it was never about the powers. It was about Guardia, and Guardia’s belief in me. I don’t have that anymore. I’m a wanted man in Guardia – a criminal. So the Shield is gone, probably forever.”

“When we were fighting this guy,” Again, Roxanne held up the head, “You threw yourself at him when you thought I was in trouble. You knew you weren’t even half as strong as him, but you leapt into the fray anyway. That is rare courage, my friend. You think I don’t know it wasn’t about the power? I do. But here’s something that maybe you don’t know: it’s not about Guardia either. Sure, they made you the Shield. They made you a symbol. But when you left it was because, even if that symbol didn’t mean anything to them anymore… it meant something to you. You didn’t change when Guardia did. Through your loss of powers, your loss of Guardia, your loss of everything else, the core values that made you the Shield are still there. And here’s a bit of news for you, Terry: people do still believe in you. Were you even paying attention in Doctor Glass’ lab earlier? The man is obsessed with you… granted, in a totally unhealthy way. Okay, maybe that’s a bad example… What about Osprey? He’s always had your back. He would follow you to every hell there is and back again. And Fara? She looks up to you – I don’t know if you realize that, but she does. You’re like the crimefighting older brother she never had. She believes in you. I believe in you, Terry. I wouldn’t let you sleep in my spare room if I didn’t.”

Terry sighed. He folded his arms and thought for a moment. “Tell you what,” he said. “How about, for now, we agree to disagree. And then maybe we discuss it again after we go check out the building marked on that map.”

Roxanne smiled. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Right. I’ll go suit up, you get ready.”

Terry moved off to his room. He turned from the door, and there, waiting for him, was the steamer trunk. He heaved a sigh. He’d only worn the suit a few times since the defense of Egmont, most recently to rescue a helpless tailor from a gang of Garlandini thugs. Roxanne’s pep talk aside… was he worthy of whatever symbolism was still left in this suit?

Terry lifted the chestpiece out of the steamer trunk. The entire suit was white, just like the uniform he used to wear when he was super-powered. And the chest was emblazoned with the silvery image of a heater shield; also an emblem he wore on his old uniform.

Worthy or not, this was a tool he knew how to use, a weapon he knew how to wield. And if these androids were here to spread pyra to Albrook… Roxanne was right: Terry couldn’t just stand aside and let that happen. Piece by piece, he put on the armor. He slid the helmet over his head, then turned and looked at his bed. There, the last piece: the left gauntlet, onto which Violante had just secured Dr. Glass’ Vanguard shield module.

Terry slid the gauntlet over his hand, and flexed his fingers. He then closed his fist, and the Vanguard shield unfolded, becoming a brilliant pale-blue disc of energy. It hummed slightly, as Terry regarded it through the visor of his helm.

It wasn’t quite the same as Shiru. But, for now at least, it would do.

The door opened, and the Shield emerged from the spare room. Tall, shining and clad in Seraphim, he was a sight to behold. On his left arm, the Vanguard shield blazed brilliantly, casting a faint blue light all around him.

He stopped in his tracks when he saw Roxanne, and quickly averted his eyes. Roxanne had looped her long, twin blonde braids around her neck, and in her hand she clutched the spear Daedalus.

Also she was completely naked, as was the Alte Taznikanze style.

“… Roxanne,” Terry said.

“You ready to go, Shield?” Roxanne asked. She was proud: here she was, Roxanne the North Star, mentor to the Mana Knight, mentor to the Shield… mentor to powerful heroes everywhere, in every age! This would make a fine addition to her resume.

“… I would really prefer it if you weren’t completely nude for this little field trip.” Terry said. You couldn’t tell because of the helmet, but he was, in fact, blushing.

“It is my way,” Roxanne said, “It is the Taznikanze way. This is how a Daughter of Zahd shows the enemy what contempt she has for his meager fighting skills. I fearlessly face my foe in naught but the bare skin I wore the day I tore free of my mother’s womb!”

“You remember earlier how you suggested you didn’t need me to lecture you about the modern world, and its modern ways?..” Terry said, still averting his eyes.

Roxanne paused. “Fine. If it will help you stay focused I’ll go throw something on.” She stormed off. Then, stormed back for one last thing: “But it will be very revealing.”


#12

::The Corporate Enclave::

With practiced ease, the Shield landed on the rooftop. Before he could do anything else, Roxanne, spear in hand, leapt free of his arms and sprinted stealthily toward the roof’s edge. As promised, she was clothed, but just barely: a form-fitting two-piece suit comprised of little more than a sports bra and a bikini bottom. She wasn’t even wearing shoes, though she had chosen to accessorize with a pair of golden bracers.

The Shield crouched down next to her. He pressed his fingers to the side of his visor.

“Heat signatures,” the Shield said. He paused. “But not human. Temperature’s off just a degree or two in each bogey.”

“Androids?” Roxanne asked.

“Oh yeah,” the Shield said, adjusting a dial on the side of his helmet. “Lots of them. The building’s three stories, but has several basement levels. I can’t even see the bottom of it from here. You know anything about this place?”

Roxanne shook her head. “I don’t hang out in the Corporate Enclave all that often. Pretty much only when I’m out with you fighting robots.” Roxanne hefted her spear and did some quick stretches. “Hey, I’d been meaning to ask you… There’s one thing I’m not clear on.”

The Shield was still scanning the building intently, so he didn’t turn his head, but still answered: “Yeah? What’s that?”

Roxanne considered how to phrase what she had to say. “I know these androids are bad news. Don’t get me wrong: they tried to kill you, so I’m totally down with standing at your side in the coming fight. No question. … But…” Roxanne resisted the urge to call him “Terry”; he had made it clear during the flight over that she had to use his hero name while he was suited up and they were out in public. “Shield… in Tasnica, most recreational drugs are completely legal. Including pyra. I know that in Guardia and Albrook this isn’t the case… in fact Albrook’s only recently illegalized pyra, but–”

“Let me stop you right there,” the Shield said. He wasn’t mad, but he’d had this conversation with Fara already. The Tasnican and Guardian mindsets on narcotics were different enough to begin with: pyra was a whole other kettle of fish, though. “Pyra isn’t a drug.”

Roxanne paused. “Come again?”

“It replicates the effects of narcotic addiction,” the Shield said, “But in actuality, a dose of pyra is really a colony of specialized nano-machines. The same conspiracy that killed my girlfriend and ran me, Osprey and Norstein Bekkler out of Guardia is responsible for pyra. Long story short, the end goal is mind control on a massive scale. Everyone who gets themselves addicted becomes a slave to the conspiracy and its masters. If these androids are successful establishing a foothold in Albrook, they’ll have access to the portal cluster as a new distribution hub.” The Shield turned and looked right at Roxanne. “So this isn’t just about revenge on these guys for attacking me in the men’s room, Roxanne. We’re kinda here to save the Web.”

Roxanne smiled. “Well, look who’s back to sounding all heroic, all of a sudden.”

“Heads up,” the Shield said, as he adjusted his visor’s scanner. A security guard was rounding the corner. He had one hand resting on a holster at his side, and in the other hand he was holding a walkie talkie. “Android,” the Shield said.

The security guard looked up as if it had heard him. He raised the walkie talkie to his face, but quicker than anything the Shield had seen before, Daedalus was in the air and sailing toward the guard. With a metallic ringing sound, the spear impaled the android through its face, pinning him to the side of the building. Sparks flew up from the android’s obliterated head, and his body first went limp, then rigid.

The Shield, stunned, turned and looked at Roxanne. She relaxed her stance, and held her open hand above her head. As if answering a wordless call, the spear extricated itself from the wall (and the android) and flew back, returning to Roxanne. As it arrived she closed her hand around its shaft.

“So back to this running conversation we’ve been having about the modern world,” the Shield said, “You know that Tasnica, Guardia and the Alliance Congress all view robots as living sentients, right? The whole killing thing still applies here, I think.”

Roxanne frowned. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a real square, Terry?” she said. Clutching Daedalus in both hands, she leapt down off the roof toward the ground below.

Firing up his gravitic repulsors, the Shield flew after her.


The wall blew inward in a shower of concrete and dust. The Shield spun his gravitic baton around in his hand, then holstered it on his side. While nothing could ever quite replicate his former ability to create powerful shockwaves by clapping his hands together at twice the speed of sound, he had to admit he really really loved some of the tricks he could pull with his beatsticks.

As the two stepped inside the building, the Shield shook out his head. He reached up a hand to the side of his helmet.

“Scanners are being jammed,” he said, “They know we’re here. We’re blind now.”

“Not blind, Terry,” Roxanne said. “We’ll just have to rely on our natural senses.”

Two more security guards emerged from the end of the long corridor. They drew their weapons and fired. These were energy weapons: beams of dark purple energy that somehow glowed lanced at them.

The Shield, knowing that Seraphim plastic didn’t hold up very well against energy weapons, took cover. His Vanguard shield deployed, and its shimmering pale-blue disc absorbed several of the shots that were meant for him.

Roxanne, however, stood her ground. She crouched low and ran down the corridor toward her attackers, dodging and weaving through the beams of energy. As she neared her prey, she ran up the side of the wall, back flipped and rolled behind her targets. With a swift stroke, Daedalus’ blade severed one of the guards’ gun arms, while the blunt haft of the spear thrust into the face of the second one, shredding artificial skin and denting the metallic skeleton beneath.

As the Shield stood up, a third figure emerged from the darkness. Before the Shield could react, its fist had made impact with the side of the Shield’s helmet. The Shield staggered back, then turned to face his assailant. The face he saw stunned him almost as much as the sucker punch had.

“Remember me?” the android said. It was the same android as had attacked him in the subway station. “I owe you for the body you and your girlfriend destroyed.”

The Shield recovered, and brought up the Vanguard just in time to block another attack. Doctor Glass certainly knew his stuff: even though the Vanguard shield was made of projected energy, it stopped the force of the android’s punch as if it were reinforced steel.

“First of all, we’re just friends,” the Shield said. He shifted his stance and blocked another attack, this time a high-kick that could easily have knocked off his helmet. “And second of all, she destroyed your first body.”

One of the neatest things about the Shield’s seraphim armor were some of the things he could do with it with little more than a mental impulse. For instance: by just opening his right hand and willing it to happen, he could call one of his gravitic batons from their holsters on his side right into his waiting hand.

A quick jab forward, and an application of gavitic force through the baton, and the android attacker was slammed with the impact strength of a runaway truck. Travelling mach two. The android flew backward like a ragdoll, smashing into the far wall. Embedded in plaster, electrical wiring and drywall, the android just hung there, motionless.

A second later, as if it were by fate, the twice-thrashed assailant’s head just sort of fell off of his neck in a small plume of sparks and smoke.

“… Thirdly, I just wrecked your second body,” the Shield said.

The Shield turned his attention to Roxanne, who was still fighting the two security androids. It was taking her longer because she was respecting the Shield’s moratorium on robot killing.

“Roxanne!” the Shield called out, “They don’t die when you kill them! Forget what I said earlier!!”

Roxanne smiled. Two brilliant showers of sparks later, both androids tumbled to the ground in a heap and their heads rolled back down the corridor toward the Shield.

“So,” the Shield said. “You good?”

Roxanne was beaming; a Valkyrie in her element. She nodded. “You?”

“I’m fantastic,” the Shield said. “In fact, I just got some much-needed closure. So, what do you think: basement or offices?”

“You’re the flyer,” Roxanne said. “You go up. I’ll go down.”

“They’ll have a pyra matrix down there, and you’ll know it when you see it,” the Shield said. “It’s a big machine that looks sort of like a pyramid.”

“Big machine pyramid, got it.” Roxanne made for the stairs down. “Anything special I’ll need to do to break it?”

“I found hitting it really hard to be most effective,” the Shield replied. “Roxanne… if we do nothing else here tonight, we have to destroy that machine.”

Roxanne nodded, and, wordlessly, bounded off toward her objective. As she descended the stairs, the Shield pressed a button on the inside of his left gauntlet. His Vanguard shield module began to glow very brightly, and it hummed with increased power. Holding his energy shield over his head, the Shield fired up his gravitic repulsors and shot straight up, crashing through the ceiling.

“Stairs are for suckers,” he thought.


#13

Roxanne was disappointed to find that most of the basement levels of the building were empty: literally completely empty. Many of them were brand new and still had some fixtures of construction in them – floodlights, worktables, the odd power generator or two – but no people, no pretenses of walls of floorplans, no furniture.

Deeper down, at the lowest level, however, there was a huge, cavernous chamber containing pretty much what Terry promised would be there: a massive, room-filling mechanical pyramid, surronded by various networks of conveyor belts, thick cables suspended in a web across the upper portion of the chamber, and a swarm of robotic drones buzzing to and fro.

Standing near the entrance of the room, between Roxanne and her ability to hit the mechanical pyramid really hard (as Terry had instructed), was a huge robot. Not android: robot. Its body was roughly cauldron-shaped, with two large legs protruding from its lower quarters and a pair of great arms sprouting from its sides. Its head was a squat dome atop the whole affair; from it, two bright lights betrayed the location of its eyes.

The little Roxanne knew of robots in the Web told her that this was a C-Series droid, a specialized design of sentient robot originally built for physical labor. Large, strong, and with presumably very thick armor on that chassis. This would be not quite so simple as smashing those androids in the lobby had been.

“Greetings and salutations!” the robot intoned, its synthetic voice oddly cheerful. “I am C-51M, but my friends call me Mike! The entire building has been alerted to your presence, intruder. But you needn’t worry about that, because in a few short moments, I will be using my prodigious strength and combat protocols to end your life!”

Roxanne took this to be some manner of incarnation of the sacred ritual aristeia. She obliged in kind, levelling her spear at her opponent.

“You stand before Roxanne, Daughter of Zahd. The North Star. The hand that wields the lance of Daedalus. Know you that even though I have been forced by my boon companion’s modesty to wear this fetching sports bra and bikini bottom into combat this night, it does not in any way lessen the visceral contempt I hold for you and your vaunted ‘combat protocols.’ Know you also, as you look upon my beauty, that it shall be the last thing in this world that you see before you are slain, and that this shall be a privelege you have shared with many other foes over my exceedingly long life.”

“You are talking a great deal more than I would have expected for an intruder,” Mike the robot said.

Roxanne leapt into action. She hurled her spear at Mike, who took a calculated step aside and took the spear in the upper left of his huge, spherical body. Roxanne jumped into the air and caught Daedalus with her hands, flipping herself up on top of the robot and simultaneously pulling the spear free. She raised her weapon above her head and then brought it down, aiming to plunge it into Mike’s head.

Sensing Roxanne’s intent, Mike twirled around on one foot, with the grace of a ballet dancer. The sudden movement threw off Roxanne’s attack, and the blade of the spear merely glanced off the dome-covering that protected Mike’s head.

The fingers on the end of Mike’s right hand retracted, and were replaced by a long length of tubing that vaguely resembled some sort of gun barrel. Mike raised his hand toward his head, aiming the tubing in Roxanne’s general direction.

Suspecting what was about to happen, Roxanne leapt high into the air, catching one of the thick cables and flipping to a high catwalk. Confirming her guess, the weapon that now replaced Mike’s hand turned out to be a flamethrower; an intensely hot gout of white-blue flame sprang out of the barrel mere seconds after Roxanne had vacated.

Mike turned his attention to where Roxanne had landed.

“Oh my! You’re a spry one, aren’t you!?” Mike said, his synthetic voice bellowing laughter. He raised up his other hand, which shifted into something that distinctly looked like an RPG launcher. He levelled it in Roxanne’s direction and fired.

Roxanne began to run. Behind her, the RPG exploded, taking a section of the catwalk with it. Still, Roxanne ran. She leapt from the catwalk and swung away on another of the dangling cables, but as she was in midair she half-turned and hurled Daedalus in the direction of Mike’s grenade launcher.

“Oh fiddlesticks!” Mike could be heard to say, as the spear impacted the launcher’s spare grenade cartridge and caused them to detonate. As the smoke cleared from the explosion, Roxanne landed on another, lower catwalk, and recalled Daedalus back to her hand.

Mike stepped forward, his bright searchlight-eyes finding Roxanne in the darkness. His left arm was demolished, gone but for a small mechanical stump. The rest of his body seemed untouched by the blast, although the bright lime green paint of his chassis now evidenced some scorch marks.

“I see you are too fast to be taken at range,” Mike said. “But I suppose you prefer it up close anyway, don’t you Valkyrie?”

“You know my kind?” asked Roxanne.

“Some days I have very little to do but surf the OmniNet. I have read about you extensively North Star. I have to say, I never expected to test my combat protocols against a mythical creature before… but, we live in a Web where magic is real and half of my homeland’s royal family is from a parallel timeline. My suspension of disbelief is, at this point, remarkably forgiving.”

A door in Mike’s belly opened up, and a third arm emerged. It was holding a thick metal riot shield. The flamethrower on his right hand retracted, and was replaced by a long, broad bladed weapon which began to hum and shimmer faintly. Mike pointed his sword-arm at her, and waved her to come down and face him with his new shield-arm.

Roxanne smiled. With a flourish, Roxanne leapt down from her perch, landed on the ground, and then sprang up into a charging run, her spear levelled at Mike the robot.

This was not Roxanne’s first encounter with vibro-weaponry, but she had never had to face a foe wielding quite such a large one before. Mike’s blade was massive, nearly as long on its own as the full length of Daedalus, and the droid was able to use it one-handed. Each parry Roxanne feared she was at risk of losing a few fingers; indeed, if Daedalus had not been the artifact-level weapon that it was, she was sure that Mike’s vibro-blade would have melted right through it. Similarly, Daedalus found an exceedingly difficult time landing a meaningful hit on her opponent. Mike was very big and couldn’t help taking a hit from the highly-skilled Roxanne, but his casing and shield were both so thick that her blows couldn’t penetrate them.

Somehow, in the midst of the dance of battle, Roxanne found herself with her back to the pyra matrix. She was on the defensive: Mike’s assault was unrelenting. He knew that he could fell Roxanne with one well-placed hit, but Roxanne’s speed, reflexes and skill all combined to make that a next-to-impossible task. Mike calculated that his best chance was to exhaust her: keep attacking and tire her out. Eventually fatigue would keep her from evading his attacks, and victory would be his.

Of course, Roxanne wasn’t planning on maintaining this engagement for that long.

She continued the exchange, waiting for just the right moment to strike. That moment came when she parried and pushed up against Mike’s sword, throwing the robot off-balance. Quickly, she lunged forward, her spear striking past the shield and into the compartment where Mike’s third arm was housed. She felt the blade wedge into some piece of machinery within.

Curious, but recovering, Mike moved to attack again. But it was too late: still holding the spear, Roxanne slid under the robot, between its legs. Daedalus’ lance had some flexibility to it, allowing for this maneuver; but eventually it (and Roxanne’s strength) caused the spear to spring back. A little shocked (and never having been thrown before), Mike found himself being flipped forward, crashing face-first into the side of the pyra matrix.

Standing up on the other side, Roxanne recovered her spear and leapt high up into the air. Mike struggled to extricate himself from the shattered machinery all around him, but it was too late: with all of her weight and strength and the power of her leap, Roxanne brought Daedalus fully into the back of Mike’s head, with force finally sufficient to pierce the robot’s thick armor.

There was a shudder, and some sparks, and then the droid’s body went completely inert.

Roxanne took a breath and smiled. The last two days had been really combat-heavy for her, and it felt GREAT. Victoriously, she pulled her spear out of Mike’s head, and regarded the great vastness of the pyra matrix before her.

“Let’s see what we can do about breaking you,” Roxanne said, addressing the matrix.


#14

The Shield crashed up through the floor, finding himself in an office space.

Nearby, there came a shriek.

“Oh no, you’re him, aren’t you?” a man in a business suit was standing there, and he crumpled to the ground as the Shield stood up to his full height. “Oh god oh god, please! It wasn’t my fault, he made us!!”

“Who? Who made you? Who’s here?” the Shield asked, approaching the man.

“There, over there, in the manager’s very tastefully-appointed office, you’ll find him in there, oh god please help me!!”

The Shield turned to face the manager’s office. The cowering man in the business suit smiled, stood up and drew a TV remote out of his coat pocket. He pointed the remote at the Shield’s back.

“You know, the inner workings of a Z-Series android are far more complex than any other machine known to the Web of Worlds,” he said. “I wonder how your suit will hold up against a device that can manipulate them?..”

The Shield stopped mid-step. His suit froze all around him: his joints locked up. Nothing obeyed him.

“What is this?” the Shield asked.

Cornell chuckled. “Oh, this? This would be me stopping you from invading my home and wrecking all my stuff!” He waved the remote in the air in front of him. “Handy, isn’t it? Put it together myself… Originally it was gonna be solely for practical joke usage. You know, prankin’ people around the office, locking up joint servos at innopportune times, making the copy machine go wonky at just the wrong moment… I’ve even got this one function programmed in that makes car horns blare out the chocobo music from that one commercial – gods, such an annoying tune… it was everywhere for a couple months there, you remember that?.. Of course, I realized how handy my little remote could be to me in other areas of my life when my subordinates started stepping out of line, and when I learned we had a powersuit-wearing superhero gunning for my operation.” He walked around to face the Shield, took a step closer. “I don’t believe we’ve been formally introduced, have we? I’m Andrew Cornell. Of the League of Eight.”

The Shield struggled, but his suit was entirely locked up. “You’re a robot, a drug-pusher… and a criminal.”

Cornell smiled. “Actually, if you wanna be technical about it, I’m an android. Z-series. My kind isn’t supposed to be invented for another hundred years at least, but… let’s just say I work for a gal with connections, and, uh… she got an advance copy of the prototype.” Cornell shoved his hand in his pocket and began pacing, the way badguys sometimes do. “As for the ‘drug-pusher’ bit… Well, I can certainly see how it might look that way to you. But trust me… you have no idea what you’re mixed up in when you mess with me and my organization, let me tell you. Hoo boy! No you don’t!”

Klaxxons began sounding, and the speakers blared out a warning of a “breech in the factory level.”

Cornell looked genuinely worried. The Shield smiled, even knowing his smile was hidden behind his helmet’s visor.

“See, that’s the thing, Andy,” the Shield said, “Turns out… I brought backup. And from the sound of things, she’s the one gunning for your operation.”

Just then several androids from the lower levels burst into the main office from the stairwell – clearly they’d been alerted by reports of the Shield crashing up through several floors to reach the main office suite.

“Factory floor!” Cornell yelled at them, “Factory floor! Protect the matrix at all costs!”

As the androids dispersed, the Shield chuckled audibly. “Sorry. I’m being rude. I’ll shut up now, I’m sure you’ve got more villainous monologue coming my way.”

And Cornell did, in fact, have more to say. Lots more. But Terry wasn’t listening to it. Instead, he was focusing. Focusing on his suit. It turns out the remote could lock up his servo motors easily enough, freezing him in place, but the remote didn’t know to look for the mental impulses that he had learned how to use to control certain parts of the suit’s functions.

Like how he could call his baton to his hand with nothing more than a thought.

So the Shield waited, concentrated and watched Cornell’s movements, watched his pacing. Waited, patiently, for him to move to just the right spot…

“… would not believe how hard it is just to get to know people in the big city! Gods, the standards Albrook women have are just insane! I mean, look at me! Here I am, ostensibly I’m doing very well for myself in the real estate biz, and yet my game is just at this plateau and I just cannot --”

There was a crack and then a small burst, and it took a moment for Cornell to process what had just happened. But before that, he needed a couple of additional moments to recover from being smacked upside his head by a flying gravitic baton. Which had, somehow, just zipped off the Shield’s belt, entirely unbidden, shattered the remote in his hand and then clocked him in the side of his face.

When his vision cleared, the Shield was standing over him. For dramatic effect, the Shield clenched his left fist, and the Vanguard shield deployed with a whirr and a hum.

“Ah, dammit,” Cornell said, reaching up with his hands to feel at his face. “Be honest: my skin didn’t tear, did it?.. This stuff is a real bitch to replace…”

The Shield bent down and lifted Cornell up by his lapels. He considered smashing the android’s head in, but then the loud speakers came to life again:

“Shield.” It was Roxanne’s voice. “If you’re there and you can hear me… we should go, now. I think I’ve hit this thing in a way it doesn’t like, and now it appears to be counting down.”

Cornell blinked. “Ohh. Her instincts are on point. That’s not a good sign at all, let me tell you.”

“Hold on,” the Shield said, as he raised his shield arm above him and pulled Cornell in for a tight embrace. Then, with as little warning, he shot up through the ceiling. Cornell’s scream could be heard from blocks away.


#15

::outside the ruins of the Carnelian Realty Building::

Smoke. Sirens. Flashing lights.

The crater where the Carnelian Realty Building once stood was surrounded on all sides by emergency vehicles, first responders and the APD. Miraculously, there was next to no damage to the surrounding structures: the explosion of the pyra matrix several floors down had had the effect of harmlessly imploding the Carnelian building – as if that had been in the design all along. The disaster took with it all evidence of the conspiracy: the pyra manufacture, the computer records of correspondence with the rest of the League…

All evidence, except for one thing.

“Come on, please? Just smash my head in.” Cornell pleaded. “I really really think I deserve to be smashed up good for all my crimes!”

“Look, I’m not going to smash your head,” the Shield said. “I know you’re just going to pop up again somewhere in a fresh body, so the answer is no.”

Cornell sighed, crestfallen.

“I mean, if you’d been smart you would have given yourself a kill switch,” the Shield said.

“Don’t think we didn’t think about it,” Cornell said. “But, no, it was more trouble than it was worth. … Certain prank-loving androids would run around hitting other people’s kill switches, and… I swear, I thought they’d never forgive me for that one.”

Just then a man clad in a khaki trench coat marched up to the pair. He was flanked on either side by uniformed APD officers.

Out of respect, the Shield stood to attention, and pulled Cornell (by the scruff of his neck) up onto his feet.

“I’m Detective Lieutenant Rodric Bronze of the APD,” the man in the trench coat said.

“Pleasure to make your acquaintance, sir. I’m… well, the Shield.”

Detective Bronze arched a brow. “I know. And I also know the Kingdom of Guardia would pay out a hefty bounty for information on your whereabouts. Were you aware of this?”

“I was,” said Cornell, smirking. The Shield shoved him.

“Be that as it may,” the Shield said, “I think you’ll find this man most useful in stopping the flow of illegal pyra in your city. Carnelian Realty was a front for their operation, and while nothing survives inside the building, if you come carefully through the rubble, your forensics teams will find trace amounts of pyra in and among the debris.” The Shield also held out his hand. “He also had these in his coat pocket.”

Detective Bronze took the items from the Shield. “Flash drives?”

“Oh no,” Cornell said, shaking his head.

“Yes,” the Shield said. “Whatever’s on those is likely the only data that survives from Carnelian Realty’s computers and internal communications.”

“Edmond would be furious with me. If I hadn’t made him explode,” Cornell said.

Bronze signalled to his men, who took Cornell away.

“I’d watch him carefully,” the Shield said. “Those are special cuffs he’s wearing; he’ll break a standard set easily. I’d also be advised that he’s a particular suicide risk.”

“You don’t say?” Bronze said.

“Yes, sir. You see he’s an android. And if he dies, he’ll just respawn somewhere else… I assume they must still have a secret base somewhere nearby.”

Bronze folded his arms, and regarded the Shield with a skeptical eye. “How do I know any of this is on the level? That you’re on the level. Why shouldn’t I just take you into custody myself?”

The Shield nodded. “Well, you could try, Detective. And I wouldn’t blame you. I am a wanted man, currently. But I’m also trying to do the right thing. I hope you can see that.”

Bronze’s lips tightened. He sighed. “I’ll be honest with you, I couldn’t care less what the Guardians want you for. All I know is… I have a niece who was messed up on this pyra shit. I’ve seen what it’s done other places where it’s spread. It’s broken up families, destroyed lives. If what you did here tonight, blowing up this building… if that stops it from coming to my city… well, Shield, you’re all right by me.”

The Shield nodded again. (the visor really inhibited his ability to emote) “I’ll be in touch, Detective. We might be of use to each other again later.”

“That all depends on if I like what I see on these flash drives,” the Detective called out as the Shield flew away.

Just then a reporter, with a cameraman in tow, managed to break the police line and ran up on the Detective just as the Shield was flying away.

“Detective Bronze,” the reporter said, “Corrie Katic, Tuna 6 Action News… Was that the Guardian superhero, the Shield, I just saw flying away? Is the APD working with vigilantes now?”

Bronze’s brow furrowed. “Miss Katic, the APD barely tolerates the local newsmedia. What in all the hells makes you think we’d work with vigilantes?”


#16

::a nearby rooftop::

Dodging helicopters all the way, the Shield doubled back and made it to a nearby rooftop. Roxanne was waiting there, leaning against a water tower support beam.

“We about ready to go home, hero?” Roxanne said, smirking.

The Shield shook his head. “I don’t get why you were so keen on getting clear without being seen.”

“Because I don’t have a mask or a helmet,” Roxanne said. “I’m a respected academic at a place of higher learning. I can’t have people think I’m moonlighting as a vigilante.” She gave a playful mock gasp.

“I guess that makes sense. And I know a thing or two about how useful a mask can be.”

Roxanne took a step closer to the Shield. She placed a hand on his armored shoulder.

“You did good today, Terry. On all fronts. I think you’re going to be all right.”

The Shield sighed. “It’s still not quite the same… but, today… I feel good. We did some good work.”

“We sure did,” Roxanne smiled.

“But it’s not like the old days. I ever tell you I used to be able to shoot heat-based laser beams out of my eyes?”

“Only a thousand times.”

“… what about the time I stopped a Dark Matter missile by punching it? Did I tell you that one before? Roxanne?..”


#17

::somewhere…::

This place was massive. It looked like it could have been a series of storerooms for a very wealthy, very ostentatious museum: various artifacts and objets d’art stood in pristine display cases in dark, empty chambers. Some of the pieces were covered in plain white sheets; others were on full display. Some were protected by glass cases, others out in the open, inviting – no, daring you to touch them. Most of the pieces had identifying brass placques near to them, telling of their names and times and places of origin. To tour even one of the rooms, and examine the diversity of places and times from whence these artifacts were culled, you would think you’d stumbled into one of the most expansive museum collections in all the Web of Worlds.

This was, of course, not a museum: museums are public spaces, open to the people, whose displays are for the enjoyment of all.

As a matter of fact, all of the artifacts kept in this place were largely for the benefit of one man.

The old man with the fu-manchu mustache sat resplendently enthroned in the largest and most well-lit of these rooms. His seat was at once both throne and altar, golden and glowing, and orbiting all around him, the stars and planets of his universe, were small fragments of each of the four cardinal elements: a ring of flame, a ring of water, several small chunks of earth and wisps of what appeared to be pieces of clouds stolen from the heavens themselves.

At either side of the old man’s throne were two figures: to his left, a woman, clad in a well-worn leather duster. Her face was obscured by the shadow cast from the brim of a Western-style cowboy hat, into whose band was tucked a bright green cockatrice feather – the singular splash of color the woman appeared to afford herself, with the rest of her ensemble being an artful combination of browns, grays and black. On the old man’s right was a youth clad in scarlet robes, whose regalia marked him as an Initiate. At his side, the scarlet-clad youth fingered the hilt of a rapier. We’ve seen this youth and his rapier in action before: the sword is magical, and bears within it earth elemental magics that can render flesh into stone.

With a flourish of his golden robes, the old man with the fu-manchu mustache waved a hand, beckoning his retainers to step forward. On either of his aged hands, his pinky nails were overgrown and decorated with golden embellishment, and he wore a ring with a different gemstone on each of his ten fingers.

Both the woman in the duster and the red-robed fencer stepped forward.

“What do we think of our little girl?” the old man asked. “She has several boon companions. Her mentor, the Valkyrie, whom we knew of before… outcast spy, the fallen Guardian hero, and a Damcyanese smuggler.”

“Reckon they ain’t worth much more’n a damn put together,” the woman in the duster said.

The fencer nodded in agreement. “I concur. Nothing we’ve learned changes anything. These friends of the Mana Knight are no threat to us.”

“And yet, just two of them – the Valkyrie and the Guardian – alone faced this army of synthetic men, the ones who make ‘pyra’… defeated them, and took their leader captive. All without injury or incident… and, to boot, they now speak of brokering an alliance with the Albrook police force.”

The woman in the duster scoffed. “Local law’s a joke.”

“Do you truly fear them, Master?” the fencer asked. “This gang of androids, the pyra peddlers… they are nothing compared with your might. Do you think this is really so noteworthy?”

“You have much to learn, my young Initiate,” the Master said. “I quite agree, the synthetic men are insignificant next to the forces of Mana we command… Their defeat does not have me shuddering in terror at the prospect of meeting the Mana Knight’s mentor or her Guardian friend in battle. Likewise, Albrook’s police officers stand little chance, on their own, of hindering our plans. But take these moves more as a measure of our enemies’ potential. Alone, each is weak. Banded together?.. Still quite weak, but less weak than before. The Mana Knight does derive a certain strength from numbers, as she gathers more friends to her side, like the Damcyanese smuggler who tinkered with the Guardian’s armor, or the rumpled police detective the Guardian seeks to befriend.”

“Then what have I to learn, Master?” the fencer asked.

The Master smiled.

“The friends the Mana Knight believes are her strength,” the Master explained, “May yet prove to be her greatest weakness before our plans have borne their final fruits.”