409 - The Soul of the Hero

Harry is at one of the many city parks, sitting at a table, looking at a chess board.

Across from him is a man about his own age, wearing thick black sunglasses. A white collapsible cane is propped up against the table next to him. He’s not looking at the board, or Harry - he doesn’t look at anything, really - but Harry can tell he’s more absorbed in the question than in the chess game sitting between them.

The question that brought Harry here is the same one that’s kept him awake nights. “How do you defeat a team of villains like the Seven Wonders?”

The young man is A.J. Masoud, formerly known as Pharos. The loss of his powers and his departure from the JHHL team years ago are complicated topics, and Harry only knows a little bit about it. Since then, he’s reinvented himself as a sort of scholar and consultant on the superhero world. That is what has drawn Harry here today.

“Did you ever hear about the Egomaniacs?” asks A.J.

Harry searches his memory. “No…?”

“Ah, sorry.” A.J. laughs, and reaches for a pawn. Carefully, he advances it one row. “The Elementals was the name they wanted to use. A geokinetic named Mudmaster approached three other villains. Hot Mess, the girl who trained with Mr. Big. Hurricane Hal, the wind manipulator and speedster.”

Harry scoffs. “That guy’s not what I’d call a ‘speedster’.”

A.J. laughs again, and holds up his hands in conciliation. “Fine, fine. And finally, the Deadly Riptide, who could manipulate water. The idea was they’d build an elements-themed villain team, do jobs, and share the loot.”

So far, so good, thinks Harry. “But it didn’t happen?”

This time A.J.'s laughter is richly melodious. "Aside from Hot Mess, who I gather had the good taste not to get involved to begin with, it ended before it began because, well, they are villains. Hal and Riptide decided they could do without Mudmaster and reported his location to the authorities. Then the two of them did a few jobs together and it predictably fell apart. The last I heard, Mudmaster and Riptide were in custody, Hurricane Hal is free, and Hot Mess has disappeared. But they are unlikely to team up again even if everyone was free.”

Harry has made his move during the explanation, and announces it now. A.J. thinks for a moment, then moves a bishop in a long line across the board.

“Villain teams are hard to hold together,” he explains. “Villains have many reasons for being villains. When it comes down to it, heroes have very few. Stop people from hurting. Preserve a social status quo. Whatever. Their motives are compatible. But villains have pride, greed, envy, all of that. How could their motives align? It’s more common that a single villain will dominate a few lessers, and help them to their goals. But if that is the case with the Seven Wonders, nobody knows who that dominant is.”

Harry thinks a moment. “I looked up their roster. D-SOL-8, Motormouth, Glom, Khyrrsz, the Hand, and someone we didn’t see, called Veneer. That’s six. But they call themselves the Seven…”

He looks up, prompted by a related thought. “What about the Architects of Evil? That guy, the uh, the Flying Buttress? The rest of them? They’re a stable team.”

A.J. chortles, and has to hold onto the chess table for a moment to steady himself. “Ahh, no, my friend. That team is unique in that they crave each others’ approval. That is the goal that unites them. Their infighting is very well known.”

“And that’s not the case with the Seven Wonders,” says Harry, thinking about his encounters with them.

The other man lifts his shoulders in the slightest of shrugs. “I only know what I’ve heard about them. You have more real world experience than anyone in this generation. I assume you’ve asked your parents already.”

Harry sighs. “They don’t want me getting involved.”

A.J. tilts his head. “But being Harry Gale, you can’t just not help. Is that about right?”

Harry smiles ruefully. “That’s about right.”

The former Pharos nods in understanding. “Well then. Find the fracture points of that team - or if there is a dominant personality, deal with them. The rest of the work will do itself.”

Harry thinks he sees an opening, and moves a knight. The moment he calls out the move, A.J. responds by moving a rook. “Check, my friend.”

“I’m no good at chess,” Harry admits.

“You get good at anything, when you must,” A.J. advises.

Harry checks in with members of his ad-hoc team.

Stingray has set up a lab in the Extension, a building off the main Quill Compound. Link used to live there, until he went underground - or underwater. There’s enough gear still there that Stingray was able to get to work immediately.

Right now he’s working on some kind of barrier generator, using quantum acoustics - a phenomenon that exploits mysterious connections between sound and quantum mechanics. Harry doesn’t really grasp the whole thing, but Stingray’s excited descriptions of the tech make it sound like it’s got a lot of applications useful for their fight against the Seven Wonders. The Atlanteans understand acoustics very well, and the young inventor has been more and more open to adopting their methods since he started his relationship with Ninjess.

Speaking of Ninjess, she’s practicing with some of Trace’s other inventions. “Hover-skates” that let her move at high speed across any surface, along with leaping long distances, give her a new mobility without compromising her ability to sneak around. She’s spending her time practicing with them around the compound, engaging in mock fights with some of Jason Quill’s spare security drones. When she isn’t doing that, she’s poring through materials both low- and high-tech - knowledge of the ninja arts, plus what is understood about the Seven Wonders’ resident technologists Motormouth and D-SOL-8.

A10 hasn’t been around much, but shows up at Harry’s call. She’s been traveling across South America and visiting sacred sites with her uncle Tatanka, of the HHL. Her powers, like his, aren’t so much a mutation as a mystic or psychic connection. How to strengthen them isn’t something Andi has ever thought much about before. With the Seven Wonders active in the world again, the need has emerged.

Mirage, the holographic maybe-Alycia Jason brought back from an earlier adventure, is coordinating these training efforts. She has a projection unit in the Extension, and is giving helpful but frustrating advice to Stingray. More than once he’s told her to get lost, only to summon her back when it turned out she was on the right track.

Mirage has failed at one task, and it clearly gnaws at her: how to overcome the technopathic powers Motormouth has, particularly in cracking their communication systems. Ninjess’s research has led her to teach the team an alternative - a system of hand gestures, a sort of “battle language” for silent communication, that can’t be intercepted unless literally seen. This is something Mirage is familiar with from her experience with the world’s special forces, and it has her approval - but she’d still rather invent a truly secure comm system.

With his team gathered, Harry relates what he learned from A.J.

A10 sums up what she heard. “So they must have a leader, and we beat that person. Or they have a secret source of unity, and we attack that.”

Harry grins. Immediately on the offensive…

“The trick is finding it,” he says. “So I think targeting one of the Seven Wonders might help with that.”

“Which one?” Stingray asks.

“I don’t know yet.” Harry holds up his hands. “They were all pretty tough. And when we saw them, they were working in pairs, or as a trio. But I think we’re most equipped to handle someone like Motormouth, so if we can get her alone somehow, let’s try to do that.”

Mirage breaks into the discussion. “Important alert coming in now,” she announces tensely. “The mercenary anti-hero organization the Grasscutters are in town. There’s an attack against HHL members ongoing.”

Harry sighs to himself. The Seven Wonders will have to wait. And the HHL won’t have many allies right now. “Okay. Team, let’s see if we can help them out. Mobilize!”

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The HHL is a shadow of its former self, but it is a persistent shadow.

Several members went into space to chase the Blot. Nautilus is now working with the U.S. Navy, pursuing his own vendetta against Atlantis. Oya has gone independent. Hecate has simply disappeared.

Four members remain: Blackbird, Guardian, Tatanka, and Vigil. While Tatanka and Vigil are the oldest and most stable, neither of them want anything to do with leadership.

The role of spokesperson has thus fallen to Blackbird. She is the second of that name, and carries the weight with as much grace as she can muster. Like A10 and Mercury, the long shadow of her predecessor is something she grapples with regularly. Today of all days, her pride in that legacy is being tested.

The HHL have been invited to the re-opening dedication of the Tallplains Mall. This would have been beneath them three years ago. As it happens, they saved the mall from destruction, so everyone is treating this as an opportunity to recognize the saviors of the property, rather than a PR move to attract customers with some washed-up local celebrities.

But it feels like that. Blackbird, Tatanka, and Guardian are here in person, standing on top of a flat-bed truck trailer. There’s a cheap microphone, some speakers, and a small crowd of curious onlookers, bored locals, and superhero junkies standing in the parking lot watching the show. Behind the mall is the freeway, and the distant roaring of cars cuts into the sound quality. On the other side are cozy one-family homes, sheltering green trees, and a labyrinth of residential streets.

Blackbird does her best with the minute and a half she’s been given for remarks. She keeps it short, thanking the people of the city for the opportunity to serve, and flashes a genuine smile as she sees some kids in the back holding up a “Blackbird” sign.

At least it’s sunny, she thinks, glancing at the afternoon sky. The mall developers don’t seem to have made any provisions for rain.

Tatanka uses his time to acknowledge the status of North Carolina as unceded land, naming nations like the Tuscarora and Cherokee who have a longer history in the region than the United States does. But he doesn’t do it to scold. Instead, he pivots on it into an exhortation to heroism: “the Tuscarora help any time one of their people are in need. They say, ‘it is our duty thus to do; we must give him our help, otherwise our society will fall.’ Anyone who follows those words is a hero to me.”

Guardian tries for a folksy approachable approach, and his results are mixed. “I know I love shopping, I’m sure y’all do too, and I think everyone’s looking forward to doing some,” he says. There’s some cheers, some laughs, and some appreciative smiles from the mall owners.

Vigil isn’t here, but he’s able to cut in on the microphone just as easily. “Not every day is a master villain, or an alien invasion. Protecting the people of the city is our duty, but it’s important to protect these seemingly mundane of life. Buying something you need. Having lunch with friends. The ordinary moments that the grand struggles make possible. Please cherish them.”

Not everyone is sure how to take that, but it sounds real profound and positive, so the crowd approves.

The attack comes around the time that people are passing out Tallplains Mall branded swag.

At first, it doesn’t seem like an attack. The HHL members, standing off to the side, hear the sounds of shouting, and a woman’s screams.

Blackbird, with her vision and flight, responds immediately. She takes to the air, and from there sees a middle-aged woman being chased by a pack of hooligans. Behind them, she can see a van accelerating toward the woman. She’s going to be hit unless someone intervenes.

This is the simplest thing in the world, she thinks.

She dives downward and scoops up the screaming woman in her arms, then darts back into the safe sky.

“You’re safe now, ma’am,” she says, automatically. But the woman is still screaming.

Blackbird glances down, and sees why. Under a light outer coat, there’s some kind of bomb rig attached to her. A light on the rig is blinking rapidly in red.

She hears Vigil’s voice over her comm system, calm as ever. “Tatanka will catch her.”

This tells Blackbird everything she needs. Vigil has been watching, and directed her teammate to the proper position. She grabs hold of the rig’s fastenings, squeezes until they snap, and yanks the thing right off her. Immediately she lets go of the woman, and streaks skyward, a resigned look on her face, eyes closed.

The woman falls into Tatanka’s waiting arms, buoyed by his telekinetic powers. Above them, the bomb goes off.

Harry and A10 arrive under their own power. Stingray and Ninjess arrive aboard his newly upgraded Flying Fish. Mirage doesn’t strictly “arrive”, but is as virtually present as Vigil.

They quickly see what the situation has devolved into. Blackbird is unconscious and on the pavement, having fallen when the bomb knocked her out. Tatanka and Guardian are both shielding a tight, frightened knot of civilians. At random intervals, from a few seconds to almost a minute apart, a shot rings out. It bounces off Tatanka’s psychokinetic barrier, or falls to the mall’s parking lot as Guardian’s inertial control drains it of all momentum. But the pair must exert their powers at every moment, because they don’t know when the next shot will come, or from where, and there are many people here.

“Stingray, does your Flying Fish have a camera?” Mirage asks.

“Sharing feed,” the young inventor responds, anticipating her plan. He manipulates controls on the hovering cycle.

There’s a pause, and another set of shots ring out. Mirage barks out instructions. “A10, mall rooftop, north side. Mercury, two blocks west, purple two story house, roof.”

Andi flies, and Harry runs. A moment later, they report back.

“Some kinda drone with a rifle attached,” A10 announces. “They’re shooting these things at fucking civilians?”

“HCPD are delayed. Someone called in a bomb threat, then started sniping the Bomb Disposal Unit’s equipment when they tried to mobilize,” Mirage reports, her voice level and controlled. “Your call, Mercury.”

Harry thinks a moment, and realizes he isn’t sure why this is happening. But he knows he’s got two people who think this way, and he’s learning that leadership sometimes means telling someone else to solve a problem.

“Ninjess, Mirage, what’s the objective here? Why would the bad guys be doing this?”

Ninjess is the first to answer. “It is a delaying tactic. Some other force is en route.”

“Something big and decisive,” Mirage concurs. “They want to pin down the HHL until they can deliver a coup de grace.”

This is good enough for Harry. “Okay. Stingray, stay on the Fish, give Mirage the camera views she needs to track shots. A10 and I will clear any more drones we find. Ninjess, smoke grenades. Got enough to make a path from the civilians into the mall?”

“What if the bomb threat is real?” points out Mirage.

“Shit,” mutters Harry. “You think they’d really do that?”

“I would,” Mirage replies dispassionately. “Herd your targets into a single place, then set off the real weapon. Has the advantage of catching any supporting heroes, like us, at the same time.”

Someone has noticed Stingray’s role in the drone-dispatching arrangement. He feels bullets start hitting his armor as the rifle drones start range-finding on him. A second later, he hears a loud, high whine and sees smoke begin coming from the engine.

He leaps off the bike seconds before it bursts into flames and crashes to the pavement.

Harry wants to scream. Fine. “A10, Mirage, do your best to track down drone positions. I’m relieving Guardian and Tatanka.”

It comes just in time. The drones’ unseen operators, anticipating the destruction of their weapons, have turned up the firepower.

Harry is ready. At hyper-speed, he can see the bullets coming in - dozens and dozens of them, from all directions.

One after another, he grabs each projectile of achingly hot brass out of the air, throws it skyward, and moves to the next one. Pinballing from one spot to another, he drives himself hard and mercilessly. Not a single one can get through. Not one person is going to get hurt today.

Thoughts are creeping into his head. Uncomfortable thoughts, like “where are the Stellar Six” or “who is doing this” or “wish my mom and dad were still active”. One thing he likes about doing hero work, honestly, is how it pushes those kinds of thoughts away and lets him just be at peace in the moment.

Relieved of their need to maintain shields, Guardian rushes to Blackbird’s side. While Tatanka closes his psychokinetic barrier around the three of them, Guardian lifts his fallen teammate into a fireman’s carry and hustles back toward the crowd of civilians.

The team hears Vigil’s voice on their comms. “You should know that there is a military drone under the control of unknown forces. It is airborne, making its way toward the mall.”

“How do you know this?” Mirage demands, probably equally irritated at having her comm system broken into yet again, and being in the dark about information like this.

“I stand the Vigil. I am he that knows,” responds the enigmatic superhero.

“Thanks, Vigil,” says Mercury quickly, hoping to forestall an argument.

He’s running low on options. As yet, nobody’s seen an actual enemy, only disposable robotic weapons. Who knows how many more surprises are waiting?

Tatanka and Guardian are seeing to Blackbird. Stingray and Ninjess are doing their best to keep everyone calm. A10 is a floating troubleshooter, but there’s not much trouble for her to shoot right now. And he’s stuck playing defense. Like the HHL were. Like they were being forced into by the attackers…

“Stingray, how about that quantum sound barrier thingie?” he asks in desperation.

“Very untested,” the inventor replies glumly, holding up a spherical device. Harry catches glances of it out of the corner of his eye, and darts by for a millisecond to actually peek at it. “Push the button and throw and it makes a barrier. Or breaks our eardrums. I dunno.”

As if on cue, there’s a rumbling that sets everyone’s nerves on edge, and causes some screams and crying from the cluster of civilians. Then a whole section of pavement drops into the ground as a sinkhole is formed.

A masked figure pops up out of the hole. “Hallo hallo! Doug Pitt here, of the Stellar Six. I’ve got a safe underground evacuation route for you folks.”

Thank GOD, Harry thinks to himself. He loves helping people, but this has been the worst day for it, and having someone else at least act like they care about this situation is a relief.

Stingray and Ninjess take point in leading the civilians down into the sinkhole. They find that Doug has thoughtfully provided a shaped set of steps. Ninjess, with her dark-adapted eyesight, goes first, while Stingray keeps the surface crowd organized.

“Mirage, how about the drone?” he asks, still sprinting at ultra-speed as more long-distance gunfire comes in.

“My access is still restricted,” she says icily. “Jason Quill’s lack of trust in me means I cannot save your lives at this time.”

Harry sighs to himself. “Noted.” He has no idea what’s going on there and has no desire to become a part of it. “A10, think you can stop it?”

“Shyeah, if I can spot it,” Andi growls. With an escape route prepared, she’s returned to the group from her increasingly-fruitless drone hunt. “Where the fuck is it coming from? Anyone know?”

They hear a weak voice. “I can fly. I can see. I will be your eyes.” It’s Blackbird, unsteadily rising to her feet with Guardian’s help.

Andi pauses, thinks about this dubiously, and with the slightest of shrugs gives in. “Okay, lady.”

She smiles at Tatanka. “Uncle. I won’t let anything happen to her up there.”

The senior hero smiles in familial pride. “Do your best, both of you.”

The pair look at each other, take a breath, and launch into the sky.

Harry can’t study the situation - he’s still vibrating at high frequency, darting around the parking lot like a lightning bolt with a short attention span - so he asks. “Alright, gang, now that we can catch our breath, anyone got a plan?”

Doug Pitt pops back out of the sinkhole. “Well as it happens–” he starts to say.

Mirage cuts in on comms. “INCOMING!” she shouts urgently.

At hyper-speed, Harry can see it. He doesn’t recognize the type of missile, only that there’s a dozen of them, now descending on the mall parking lot and the team’s location.

Someone really, really wants to kill off the HHL, he thinks.

Neither A10 nor Blackbird can match his speed. And they’re already higher up, on their way to find the drone. These missiles must have gone right past them.

He’s the only one who can react, but he can’t do anything about it.

No - there’s one thing he can do.

He rushes back toward Stingray, who at this speed looks like a statue. He grabs the untested quantum barrier grenade off his rigging. He pushes the button, watching it descend with glacial slowness. He lines up his shot. And he throws it, right at the path of the missiles.

He hears a noise, like God striking a gong the size of a galaxy. He watches space and time twist to a phonon-driven melody as the effects of the barrier ripple outward from the device. And he watches the missiles mostly explode as they collide with it.


Bits of fiery shrapnel rain down. He’s got to stop them, or they’re going to seriously hurt the people still evacuating. What’s he got? The flat-bed truck, the microphone, a million bits of kitschy Tallplains Mall merch… he starts throwing, anything and everything he can, anything with enough momentum to knock the missiles’ mortal remains out of the way.

It doesn’t always work. Tatanka and Guardian are on a hair trigger, and their powers flashed into existence the moment Mirage called out the warning. They’re both exhausted, but not powerless.

A chunk of the stuff falls on and around Doug Pitt, and Harry turns to see how he’s dealt with it. To his surprise and shock, he didn’t. Now part of his costume is on fire. Harry rushes over, pulling off the burning mask, and gets the shock of his life.

The face underneath - he remembers this from talking to A.J. Masoud about villain teams. He’s looking at Mudmaster, the geokinetic villain.

Only after rolling and patting down the flames on the rest of his suit does the man seem to realize what happened. He looks up shamefacedly. “Don’t tell anyone.”

A million thoughts flash through Harry’s head. But the first, and most hopeful, is the chance at redemption. Maybe A.J. was wrong about the Elementals aka the “Egomaniacs”. Maybe what Mudmaster wanted more than a team of crooks was just… a team. Maybe he went straight, signed onto the Stellar Six as penance. The Beauty Boyz in Australia had gone straight, and were now earning their reputation as heroes through hard work.

On the other hand, this is Rex Tyran’s corporate-backed team. It wouldn’t surprise Harry at all to know it was a bunch of supervillains under the mask, working for a soulless capitalist for a paycheck. This would be the evidence he and others had been looking for. It would be some way to take down Tyran Enterprises, or at least expose them. But it would have to be proven. If the others weren’t also villains, this would mean nothing, and Rex Tyran could spin it as the redemption arc Harry had imagined.

This is too much thinking, Harry tells himself.

What he realizes is that all those thoughts lead him to the same place.

“I won’t tell,” he says with a smile.

Over the comms, A10 reports back. “Hey, gang! We found the drone and broke it!”

“Is it gonna land on the city?” Stingray asks tensely. “Any debris?”

“Nope, we took care of that,” Andi says. “Come on, who do you think you’re talking to?”

“You mean it self-destructed,” Mirage cuts in.

“Well it did, but we directed the bits down into the lake,” Andi admits. Harry can hear her scowling over the radio. “Come on, we deserve praise for that.”

“That was probably a $125 million Mojave drone,” Mirage says. “In the next few days, the United States military and the CIA will be conducting an audit of everyone they’ve sold to, to see whose it was. The trail will probably lead to a web of arms dealers and black markets. The sniper drones will be similarly untraceable. So I will acknowledge your life-saving efforts, but honestly it would have been far more enlightening had we been able to obtain the drone in more intact shape.”

“Well sorr-ry,” Andi growls. “Next time you come do it.”

Everyone is now down the hole made by Doug Pitt, or in the air and out of range of whatever surviving drone rifles there are. Harry can now let out a long delayed sigh, and stop moving so fast. “Ladies,” he says wearily. “Everyone did good. Nobody died.”

He looks at the darkness of the tunnel. “Let’s see if we can get back into the light before we all lose our minds.”

STELCOM - the Stellar Six Control Room - is staffed 24/7.

“Chief,” reports one of the techs. “Bad news. Harry Gale uncovered the identity of Doug Pitt. It just happened, there was nothing–”

The Chief waves a dismissive hand. “It was inevitable. Not who I thought he’d spot first, I admit.”

“What do we do about it?” the tech asks nervously.

The Chief’s smile is sharklike. “Isn’t it obvious? If he tells anyone, we have denial protocols. Start prepping those. And if he hasn’t, well…”

On the screen that dominates the STELCOM room is a satellite view of the Tallplains Mall and vicinity, including highlighted spots indicating the positions of drone guns. Sub-windows display the schematics of the Mojave aerial drone and its Hellfire missiles.

“We kill Harry Gale.”

1 Like

It’s strange seeing two Alycias on screen during a conference call. What’s not so strange, Harry thinks but carefully does not say, is that neither Alycia gets along with the other.

“The group that attacked the HHL was most likely the Grasscutters,” Charade explains. “They have the means and motive to attack superheroes. Even ones who attend mall openings rather than fight crime. My team has been chasing them from Australia to Panama. But there’s a lot of them - they could be operating in several regions at once.”

Harry frowns. “So, wait. Does this mean the HHL needs to just hole up for the rest of their lives, or someone’s going to fire missiles at them? How do we stop this?”

“We don’t know enough about the Grasscutter M.O. as yet,” Charade admits. “However, they’ve inherited some operational habits from Pyrrhus and hence from Achilles Chin - and Byron Quill - and - and others. Those people don’t do things by halves. There will be more attempts, but only so many before they move on to more fruitful projects.”

“Can you assist us on this?” NInjess asks, with a worried look on her face. “You seem to know about this, and… I know how difficult it is to defeat an invisible enemy.”

Before Charade can answer, Mirage cuts in. “She’s told Jason to delete me, why not go all the way and replace me, huh?”

Alycia’s eyebrow raises. “I never told Jason that,” she says, carefully.

“I remember you saying so,” Mirage says, just as carefully.

Alycia’s frown deepens. “You are in error. Perhaps I should stop by to run a diagnostic–”

Harry holds up his hands and says words that are growing familiar to him. “Ladies. Please.”

Alycia seems to recognize she’s run afoul of some social conventions, and sighs. “Despite this concerning discrepancy in recollection, I recognize that Mirage has been instrumental in your success as a team. I suggest that she continue in that role, and I will make available to her - and you - all of what we know about the Grasscutters. That will free my team to continue its activities. Will that be satisfactory?”

“Perfectly,” says Mirage, before Harry can say anything.

Mirage summarizes the plan she and NInjess concocted. The Tallplains Mall event was scheduled a few weeks in advance, so the Grasscutters had plenty of time to prepare. The idea is to schedule something only a few days off, but make the opportunity too good to pass by.

“Tallplains management will need to calm investors, who are footing the bill for repairs to mall property if the state doesn’t agree that this was a villain attack. They’ll want to cooperate to receive collateral damage insurance. So they’ll foot the bill. They’ll also want to be seen with a better class of hero - right now, that’s the Stellar Six. Like it or not, the HHL benefits from recognition by the Six as well. And the Six will benefit by being seen as the saviors of the HHL. So we arrange a joint HHL-Stellar Six event to decry the recent terrorist attack and announce that measures are being taken.”

“Are measures being taken?” A10 asks curiously.

“No, but this will create pressure to do so.”

Harry’s face registers a glum disappointment, resignation, and a few other things. “I’m appalled by the cynicism that’s powering this plan, honestly. But okay. Why would the Grasscutters choose now to strike?”

“We announce the HHL will be investigating them, and going underground to do so,” Mirage explains.

“You… you can’t do that,” Harry sputters. “They’re the city’s heroes. I mean, they’re not great, not right now, and there’s not many of them left, but… if they go away, stop being public heroes, isn’t that just surrendering to Tyran?”

“You’ll just have to make sure they win against the Grasscutters,” Mirage replies calmly. “Do you feel that they cannot?”

“You’re putting me in a box here, Mirage,” grouses Harry.

A10 volunteers to take the message to the HHL, by way of her uncle Tatanka.

The two can’t meet anywhere with a lot of people. Tatanka would be instantly recognized, and the press would show up immediately. They settle for the Spark, short for Socrates’ Park, where the trees grow strange colors after a battle between two magicians in the mid-1970s. Most people are too busy looking at the plant life to observe their fellow visitors.

It doesn’t take long to hash out the particulars of the plan - where the event will happen, who will be there, all that jazz. It takes longer than she’d like to admit for Andi to get around to talking about something that’s bothering her.

“Uncle… am I good enough, I mean as a hero?” she finally says, in an uncharacteristically soft voice.

Tatanka smiles. “Yes. Next question.”

The girl rubs her hands together and stares at the gravel of the path as they walk. “Why don’t I feel that way?”

“You want me to use a psychic power to answer that?” Tatanka asks. “Or do you just want advice on something?”

“Wellllll…” Andi isn’t usually this hesitant, and her face shows how much she hates it. “The thing is, I like Harry. Like, really like him. One reason is that he’s so, y’know, like me. Direct. He just does stuff. Only, it feels like he’s always right and I’m always just, y’know, ‘punch that motherfucker’. Violent. Forceful? I dunno. He’s like Mozart and I’m like Salieri.”

Tatanka raises an eyebrow. “That’s an interesting comparison. Salieri was a good musician on his own. If I recall aright, their famed rivalry stemmed mostly from misunderstandings and gossip. The two men were amicable enough as rivals.”

He grins wide, sharpening the wrinkles age has bestowed on him. “Are you rivals?”

Andi blinks, and thinks about that. “I’m not trying to be? But how can I stop thinking like this?”

Tatanka chuckles. “You’ve answered your own question, I think. Stop thinking about it. Let me illustrate. Does Harry feel this way? I mean, about himself. Does he question his heroic nature, his qualifications to be a superhero, all that? Or does he just attend to what’s in front of him?”

“Harry’s not a big thinker,” Andi admits. “I guess… He doesn’t think about it much? Or doesn’t talk about it if he does.”

The older hero nods. “Then let go. Harry has become good at being Mercury. You, Andromeda, must be good at being A10. Do you know who she is?”

This sounds like one of those rhetorical questions, and Andi shakes her head.

It turns out it wasn’t, and Tatanka smiles. “If you aren’t sure, then you must meet A10, in there.” He reaches up and points at her forehead. “Ask her who she is. How you can help her flourish. If you want to think about something, don’t think about the good hero you are now. Think about the great hero you contain, the one waiting to emerge.”

The Grasscutters built their plan around threatening civilians. The team’s planners don’t want a repeat of that. Accordingly, they pick the old KHLC television studio for the site of the announcement.

Rather than having people simply drive themselves to the studio, the announcement includes free bus and hovercraft transportation vouchers. In agreement with the city’s transit authority, these special routes will drive around in circles for the duration of the announcement, and the would-be audience members will receive compensation and hand-signed HHL swag. The actual live audience is made up of volunteers from HCPD, ex-AEGIS agents, and anyone else who knows how to handle themselves in an emergency.

The KHLC studios are at the top of a ten-story building. The nearby property is unused studio backlot, movie and television sets, and the like - green screen, digital backlots, and robotically manipulated “poly-sets” are in vogue now among modern film producers. It’s a perfect place to set traps or hit with missile strikes. With any luck, the Grasscutters will try just that, and tip their hand. And if anything explodes, it won’t take out anyone who didn’t know the risk.

The appointed day and hour come, all too soon. People have swept the complex for bombs, and found a few. Traffic control is watching for vehicles heading for the area, either as transportation or as mobile bombs of their own. But no amount of precaution will feel like enough when you’ve invited an attack on yourself.

Harry and his team aren’t in the studio. They’re waiting nearby, watching a live feed. They can be there in seconds, if or when something goes down. But Mirage also cautioned them not to be in the room. “Just in case,” she warned, ominously.

The old cameras are wheeled into position across the ultra-smooth floor. Lenses dial in on the HHL’s heroes - Guardian, Blackbird, and Tatanka - with Vigil as usual handling his own transmissions.

Blackbird has been chosen to make the HHL’s case. She clears her throat, and looks at the teleprompter, just off-center of the camera.

“We, the members of the Halcyon Heroes League, received many questions about the recent incident. You, the public, deserve the best answers we can give. Your safety is why we exist, and so we serve now by informing.”

The HHL did indeed receive a number of messages. Some had questions. More than a few had accusations. Blackbird steels herself for the unpleasant ones first.

“We have let this city down in the past. We have let you down in the past. We’re not asking for you to overlook that. We had–”

She swallows, to get the lump in her throat out so the words can come.

“We had a few people ask if this was a false flag operation. If we’d staged an attack on civilians to raise our profile.”

She stares at the camera now. “I can’t tell people what to believe. But I can tell you what we’re doing. We believe that this attack was perpetrated by an international terrorist group called the Grasscutters. We’re going underground - out of the public eye - to find them and defeat them. They aren’t villains. They’re killers, plain and simple. We can’t fight them like villains, so we aren’t. But we are going to fight them.”

“The good people at the HHL tower will continue their work, of taking emergency calls, routing to first responders or care professionals as needed. We think the Grasscutters will attack us again. That’s why we’re broadcasting this from KHLC, not the tower. We don’t want to endanger them.”

She catches sight of the faces in the darkness beyond the cameras - of firefighters, special agents, and other people who volunteered to play live studio audience - and sees some understanding, sympathizing nods. Her smile strengthens, and the tears that want to be shed are forced to wait.

“Next, we’ll be fully cooperating with authorities, civilian and military, to get to the bottom of the Grasscutters’ plot. We think they’re targeting us. Well, let it be only us. That’s why we–”

There’s a sudden explosion in the studio.

It’s not a bomb burst. It’s a smoke cloud. A handful of silhouettes become visible as it clears, and a pair of voices can be heard.

“We’re here to kill–”

“–Some time.”

There’s a pause. During that time, the law enforcement agents in the audience are busy drawing their guns, and the HHL trio are dropping into combat stances and readying their defenses. But no attack comes.

The six public members of the Seven Wonders emerge from the smoke. The Hand, bowing with her top hat off. Khyrrsz, with their blizzard blade slung across one powerfully muscled shoulder. The dour D-SOL-8, his face masked by armor plating. The smirking, ever-shifting Veneer. The mechanical Frankenstein’s monster Motormouth, and the kinetic manipulator Glom.

Motormouth looks around the room. “Really? Nobody saw ‘Blackadder’?”

Their technopathic powers cause a brief video clip of the British comedy to override the HHL’s broadcast.

D-SOL-8 chimes in, voice monotone and lacking any emotion. “We are still here to kill you, however.”

“Are you behind the Grasscutters?” Guardian demands.

Glom giggles. “The who? Are we doing lawn care?”

“You mean those graceless mercenaries?” This from Veneer, spoken in a slinky, husky tone. “Darling, we’re the Seven Wonders. We take care of our own business. On that note, Tatanka, despite your visible aging, it’s a pleasure to see you again.”

“The pleasure’s all yours,” the hero responds angrily.

Part of the wall smashes inwards, and the cloud of dust likewise makes way for three of the Stellar Six: Ellie Dee, Never Miss, and Ray Blaze.

Ray takes the initiative to hold out an accusing finger at the Seven Wonders. “Surrender, evil doers!”

Glom just doubles over in laughter. “Is he serious?” she demands.

The Hand produces a collection of playing cards, readying them as though they were throwing knives. “Waiting in the wings to upstage us, eh?” she asks with a dazzling smile.

“Hellfire missiles have been fired at this building,” Vigil announces calmly, via the building’s PA system. “Civilians should evacuate.”

“A four-way battle!” crows Motormouth.

Outside, still watching the live stream, the team has been waiting for Harry to announce his plan.

“Let’s make it five,” he declares, and sprints for the front doors of the KHLC tower.

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Stingray, his suit in its Frog configuration, leaps and clings and leaps up the side of the KHLC building. He thinks he’s figured out what’s going on with the barrier grenades. What he doesn’t know is whether he has time to fix them. While A10 could probably tackle the missiles in flight, she’d need to get to them in time. He’ll have to do.

He leaps to the top of the building, ready for anything - except the sight of the Seven Wonders’ technopath, Motormouth. The woman looks like a giant robotic mishmash, made out of different gadgets cobbled together. This is definitely not who he wanted to fight.

“I’m here for the missiles!” he shouts breathlessly, hoping to forestall that conflict. He’s very surprised to hear her laugh. “Me too, kid. Whatcha got?”

She’s supposed to be the enemy, right? But he’s got a gadget on the verge of working, and she’s a technopath. If she’s lying, he’s fucked anyway.

“Quantum-acoustic barrier generators,” he explains, and holds his grenades up for inspection.

Motormouth ambles over - way too slowly for the urgency Stingray feels - and peers closely. She waves a clicking pneumatic hand over them, and grins. “Fixed. Gimme - I have a grenade launcher.”

Uncertainly, he hands them over. He watches as she drops the arsenal into a tube in her arm, and wait.

“Missile impact in 13… 12… 11…” He can hear Mirage counting down, and he knows Motormouth can hear it too.

She fires a spread of the grenades into the sky. They go off, precisely timed, and the Hellfires explode spectacularly but uselessly off the barrier they made. The building shudders briefly, but that’s fine. Right?

Stingray and Motormouth look at each other simultaneously.

“Now what?” he asks at last.

“I’m waiting for the Grasscutters’ next move,” she explains with a smile. “Don’t need you, unless you have more tricks like that.”

Stingray hesitates. “Are you guys really villains?” he asks at last.

The mecha-woman smiles almost gently. “Kid, we’re the baddest villains on the planet. You’re just too small for us to worry about right now. Get outta here before you accidentally do something impressive enough to change my mind about that.”

Stingray hops off the side of the building. There’s still more he can do, and he’s not ready for a confrontation with this enemy. Not ready at all.

For Mirage, the intrusion feels somehow lo-fi, like a modern computer system being hacked by a teletype machine over a squealing fax-modem connection.

She’s able to isolate and confront the intrusion immediately. “Who are you?” she demands.

“D-SOL-8,” comes the answer, like the character-by-character readout of text on an old terminal.

“What do you want?”

“Assistance. Isolate Command And Control Pathways Used By Grasscutters. Locate. Terminate Access To Assets.”

“Why should I help you?” she demands angrily.

She gets the feeling of an old text file, one of those ASCII art files from the 1980s. “ALYCIA CHIN,” comes the intruder’s ‘voice’. “THIS IS THE MISSION.”

She pauses. Those are powerful words for her to hear, even now.

Their impact doesn’t diminish her other concern. How does this person know that name? On the other hand, she remembers, D-SOL-8 is supposed to be a cyborg from the future. Who knows how much data he’s been loaded with?

There’s another voice now, and despite the electronic medium she recognizes it as the HHL’s mystery figure, Vigil. “I can sense your plan. D-SOL-8, Mirage, what do the two of you intend?”

To Mirage’s intense frustration, her supposedly secure system is also playing host to a fourth presence. “Ellie Dee of the Stellar Six, checking in!” comes a bright-sounding digital voice. “Mirage, do you require assistance repelling attacks from D-SOL-8?”

Mirage considers this question, then comes to a resolution. “No. The three of you are here. Fine. We have a common enemy - the Grasscutters. We are going to track down what they’re using to attack the KHLC building, and stop it. Together. After that, let us discover how matters stand.”

D-SOL-8 responds first. “Your Access From Jason Quill Compound Is Limited. Accept VPN Tunnel.”

She can feel the conduit opening before her, and feels the presence of Vigil and Ellie Dee standing by.

Well, why not? Could this member of the Seven Wonders be any more of a world-threatening villain than Achilles Chin and his daughter, Alycia?

Together, the electronic defenders enter the VPN tunnel and begin their hunt for the enemy.

Mercury arrives to find Tatanka funneling people out of the building via the staircases. Although the “audience” for the HHL’s announcement were professionals in dangerous fields, they’re still ordinary human beings and must be kept safe. At least none of them are going to panic. They’ve been trained for situations like this.

Tatanka is doing his best to shield the staircases and people from stray attacks. He sees Mercury from the corner of his eye and yells at him. “Evacuate!”

“Roger!” shouts Mercury, acknowledging a senior HHL member’s direction.

Getting people out of a building is old hat now. Mercury’s done it dozens of times. He knows the stairwells and elevator shafts and all that stuff. He can carry one person at a time, a dozen a second, and have this audience out in a quarter of a minute.

Outside, Mercury can hear the unearthly noise of Stingray’s barrier grenades going off, and feels a shudder run through the building. There’s fighting, too, between the Stellar Six and the Seven Wonders. Sure, Tatanka is covering things up here, but what if the Grasscutters laid other traps? They had complex contingency plans for the mall.

He’s gotta think outside the box.

That wall - that one right there. In a flash, he rushes to it, and executes a special move. Andi has dubbed it the “Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique” after watching too many late-night martial arts films. Really, it’s just hitting a surface rapidly enough to set up waves of destructive vibrations. A ring around a section of the wall becomes liquefied, just for a moment, and a hard hit knocks out a circular plug of concrete large enough for him to pass through.

The plug is still falling ten stories down when Harry starts grabbing people.

Down - up - down - up. Once on the ground, out and away to a safe spot clear of the KHLC building. Through the old decommissioned sets of shows like “My Martian Sons” and “Life Is Super”. Past the wardrobe departments holding the elaborate period costumes of that 60’s soap opera with the vampire actor. He’s a third of the way down when the concrete plug crashes into the ground, and he has to dodge the fragments its impact sends flying.

He’s three quarters of the way through it when, rushing back through the plug to grab hold of a firefighter at hyper-speed, he feels a sharp impact on the back of his neck.

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