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.”