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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It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight. On the side of the Seven Wonders, there’s Khyrrsz - too tall by half for this interior studio space - and the enigmatic magician The Hand, facing off against A10, plus Stellar Six heroes Ray Blaze and Never-Miss.

The brutal storm-god has already knocked big holes in the floor to compensate for their size. A10 in turn is taking advantage of the space to get some run-up, then ram into them, destroying still more of the building interior as unstoppable force meets immovable object. Khyrrsz responds with their Blizzard Blade, conjured cold, and other abilities.

Ray Blaze is helping out, using his energy beams to keep Khyrrsz distracted while A10 winds up for another hit. He keeps moving around and around, dodging falling chunks of concrete and leaping from floor to collapsed support beam to desk as bits of the building give way under him. So far, he’s doing okay, but if the god gets tired of A10, he may be in trouble.

Never-Miss did her best to bring her guns to bear on Khyrrsz, but even perfect accuracy doesn’t seem to count for much against a god. She’s settled for the much more mortal, but much more elusive Hand. The magician, in turn, is deflecting bullets with playing cards, catching them in her top hat, turning them into pigeons, and otherwise bringing showmanship and flair to the fight. But it’s a defensive effort.

It’s a fast, ever-changing fight. Blackbird and Guardian of the HHL have teamed up with Ninjess to tackle Glom and Veneer of the Seven Wonders.

One problem is that the villains can be anywhere. Glom bounces off walls and ceilings, reflects attacks back at the attacker, and bounces away from stronger hits with a grin and a quip. When she’s not doing that, she’s launching blobs of ectoplasm that stick anything it touches to the ground. Slowly but surely, she’s setting traps for the heroes. One false step, and the hero is stuck.

Veneer’s ability is to project herself onto surfaces like a shadow, then glide to other surfaces at high speed or emerge at high speed. Plenty of times, Ninjess thought she had Veneer in her sights with a well-placed dart, only to see her sink into the wall, then snap across the room and leap out of the ceiling.

Fortunately, Blackbird and Ninjess are sharp-eyed and sharp-witted. Together, they can keep track of Veneer’s movements. Guardian has taken up a defensive posture, keeping the trio from being blindsided by Glom coming in at an odd angle while they try to land a hit on Veneer during her vulnerable solid phase.

The battle will be decided by which side exhausts itself first. For Ninjess, it’s ninja vs. assassin. She must be faster, stealthier, and cleverer than the opposition. Right now, she doesn’t feel like it.

A10 isn’t making any progress, and she knows it.

What’s the matter?

She hears the voice in her mind, and recognizes it as her uncle’s telepathy. Tatanka is still helping evacuate people out of the area, but he’s paying attention to her as well.

In one way, she feels like a foolish child, that her uncle would need to watch out for her at such a moment. In another way, she’s grateful, because she feels stuck.

How do I beat a god? she demands mentally.

I don’t know, her uncle’s psychic voice replies, and A10 despairs.

All I can do is hit them real hard, and that’s not working! she almost shouts. Harry would have figured something out by now.

That is not all you can do, her uncle chides. That is all you’ve allowed yourself to be.

She feels his presence withdraw from her mind, and feels afraid. She doesn’t want to disappoint him, or Harry, or anyone else.

But dammit, is the alternative to have some kind of enlightening epiphany right here in the middle of a fight?

Maybe there’s another angle. What’s Khyrrsz? Some kinda god. What’s a god, in simple terms? She knows what Harry said Charlotte said, and about Daphne Palin and Palamedes, and a few other bits. She didn’t pay much attention in Applied Theology at Gardner, but she didn’t fail the class either.

They’re like safe harbors for souls in the afterlife. They’re manifestations of whatever those souls wanted. They’re–

Oh, of course. The quote from the teacher. It’s all coming back to her now. “Gods are places that look like people.”

Her powers are supposed to be mystical, right? Maybe she can try–

The complexity of the thought distracts her, and the Blizzard Blade comes down on her.

Ninjess quickly learns something about Guardian. He and Glom have a history.

She can tell from three things. First, the practiced way that he catches Glom’s ectoplasmic attacks, then neutralizes them with his own inertial-manipulation powers. Clearly he has done this for a long time. Second, that Blackbird - another HHL member - does not seem surprised by this at all, and indeed the two of them mutually agreed that Guardian should tackle Glom without a word being exchanged. Third, that Glom’s quips quite clearly hint at it.

“Nice to see you again, Guardian – ooh, you’re all sticky, is that because of me?” and other taunts, all of which fail to get a rise out of Guardian, let Ninjess feel confident that he’s got things in hand.

That leaves the problem of Veneer. Like Ninjess, she’s got an array of tools - pistols, explosives, flash powder - and she’s deploying them effectively. Ninjess has to drag Blackbird out of the way when the keen-eyed hero is briefly blinded by one of Veneer’s distractions.

For all the effort, Ninjess feels and fears that the Seven Wonders are just toying with them.

She concentrates, and puts her ninja training to use.

My weapons are everything that exists.

What does she have?

Glom can’t fly. She can bounce off stuff. Once in a ballistic arc, her motion is predictable.

She has two allies - one who can move fast and spot things in motion, the other who can neutralize Glom’s powers on contact.

Why aren’t they cooperating?

Blackbird is a newer member of the HHL. After the time the Seven Wonders were originally active? Perhaps she could think about it later - perhaps. It only matters if it’ll interfere with her plan.

“Target Glom as she bounces,” Ninjess hisses to Blackbird. “Carry Guardian to her.”

Realization dawns in the other woman’s eyes, and Ninjess realizes this now requires her to cope solo with the other enemy - Veneer. This one has all her ninja tricks, and a superpower she does not.

To be a ninja is to endure.

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It’s a strange crew that venture into digital space. The Seven Wonders member D-SOL-8 - joined at the last minute by his teammate Motormouth, the technopath. Vigil of the HHL. Ellie Dee of Rex Tyran’s Stellar Six, another technopath from the feel of it. And herself, Mirage.

“I got a lock on the incoming missiles,” Motormouth reports. “Follow me.”

She spouts out a code that Mirage recognizes as hexadecimal, and the group re-orients itself and dives deeper into the abyss of the electronic world.

They encounter a barrier, and Vigil is the first to recognize it. “Department of Defense security protocols. The HHL is cleared for this level of access in emergencies. I will open it.”

The mysterious vigilante presents a shimmering golden key and the barrier creaks open. Mirage can feel the ancientness of it - the systems used by the DOD date back to the 1970s in some cases, an epoch of time in computer terms.

Beyond the DOD’s gate are numerous conduits through the darkness of digital space.

“Tyran resources are being tasked to assist in a communication break-in,” Ellie Dee announces in a calm voice. “The intruders are using Tyran Communications systems. I have privileged access to those systems. This way.”

She leads the party along one of the conduits, fast as light, until the darkness gives way to a raging inferno that engulfs what looks like an entire city. Light and fire duel in the darkness, and Mirage recognizes what’s happening even as D-SOL-8 explains in his monotone, terminal-like inner voice. “Self-replicating virus. Released into DOD command and control systems. They have taken control of American military assets in the region and are directing them.”

The party hovers over the inferno.

“There’s no technopath here,” Motormouth says, after studying the warfare between software agents. “This is strictly a mundane attack. Regular computer viruses.”

“Still effective,” Mirage announces, feeling like it’s her time to contribute. “If the Grasscutters are following Dr. Chin’s typical M.O., they won’t be directly connected to the network. They’ll have inserted a viral payload into the system which will contact a command-and-control node outside the network for instructions. This node will in turn be compromised from its original function, with the Grasscutters’ operators relaying instructions from a rotating series of locations.”

She addresses her fellows. “There are two missions. Cleanse the DOD systems of the virus. Identify the C-and-C node, then either disable it or attempt to trace the Grasscutters’ incoming signals.”

“I will effect cleanup,” D-SOL-8 declares dispassionately.

“I should work on this too,” Ellie Dee says. “My access should help.”

Mirage ‘nods’. “Very well. Vigil, Motormouth, and I will try to cut the beast off at the head. We need only wait for the virus to phone home. Be - vigilant.”

In due course, there’s a flash, like lightning from the heavens. The bolt is brief, but Mirage knows its significance. This is the call.

Upward, away from the darkness of the American military’s secretive systems, and into the greater electronic world, the three defenders fly.

Stingray finds Harry in a corner of the studio. The battle is raging around him. But Harry Gale - Mercury, Halcyon’s Silver Son - is just slumped over, clutching his neck in pain.

Stingray slides close and pulls the hand away, checking for injuries instinctively. He sees nothing, then hunches down and looks Harry in the eye. “Dude, you okay?”

Harry looks back, haunted. “Something stung me. Something I didn’t see coming. When I go to super-speed, it hurts. Like, really bad. I think I’ve been poisoned.”

He’s shaking, ever so slightly. Stingray can see it now, up close.

“I’m out of the running,” the speedster says softly.

Stingray isn’t sure what to call the feeling he feels when he hears that. But part of it turns swiftly into anger. He hauls Harry to his feet. “Fine. I’m either taking you outta here, or you’re gonna help us out some other way. Pick one.”

The challenge seems to focus Harry’s attention, and he looks at Stingray with a freshly renewed determination. “I’m still not good, but… how can I help?”

God dammit, Stingray thinks to himself. He’s supposed to be the perfect hero. Why throw this in my lap? I’m useless.

The situation does not afford him the luxury of self-pity.

“Is everyone rescued?” Stingray asks over comms, to Tatanka.

“Roger. I’m returning now. The building itself may come down at this rate.” The senior hero’s voice reminds Stingray of those guys from Mission Control in the rocket films - calm, even when delivering the worst news.

Stingray looks back at Harry. “A10’s down. We’re gonna get her outta here. Tatanka, can you tank Khyrrsz while we do that?”

“Will do,” the hero assures them.

Stingray and Harry look at each other, and nod. There’s still work to be done, and they can do it.

The moment comes, but Ninjess is too busy to see it.

Glom leaps away from another round of attacks. Blackbird seizes her chance - and Guardian. She rushes at Glom at high speed, and throws. Guardian wraps his limbs around Glom, and exerts all his power. Suddenly, all of the villain’s attract and repel power is being neutralized. Suddenly, she’s more like an anchor. Suddenly, she’s falling.

The pair crash into the ground. Blackbird sees her chance. She plows through one of the outer walls of the building, creating a large enough hole for her needs. She rushes back to the stunned pair, and grabs hold of Guardian, and lifts.

It’s a strain, but she can do it. She carries the pair out, and floats over a ten-story drop.

Guardian releases his hold on Glom, who is frantically trying to stick to him to avoid the fall. But his powers zero out her stuff.

“Geez, you really know how to let a woman doooooooowwwwwwwwnnn—”

Glom falls, picking up speed. The two heroes watch her hit the ground - and bounce, far away from the building and getting farther with every second.

“You know, they recruited me to deal with her, then left me to my own devices,” Guardian muses, looking over one shoulder at Blackbird. “First time I’ve really felt part of the team. Thanks.”

“I always did look up to you,” Blackbird confesses, rather bashfully.

Guardian glances back at the building. “We got another teammate to help now.”


They find Ninjess sprawled out on the ground, and Veneer crouching over her curiously. Guardian roars and hurls a chunk of rubble at the villain, while Blackbird charges at her full force.

Predictably, Veneer slides into the ground and slips away as a two-dimensional projection. It seems like she has no stomach for tackling two career heroes solo.

The HHL heroes rush to Ninjess’ side, and check for injuries as they’ve been trained and drilled.

In the middle of their investigation, the girl opens one eye. “She is gone?” she mouths.

Blackbird lets out a sobbing sigh of relief, and nods. “She left. Glom uh, bounced too.”

Ninjess opens one hand, revealing a handful of paper-thin tracking tags. RFID circuitry has been printed onto a flexible strip of cloth, and part of the surface is chemically adhesive.

“I remembered a ninja proverb,” Ninjess whispers. “Ask yourself in the moment, ‘what is victory?’ I do not need to defeat her here. We will find her again.”

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As they enter the command-and-control node, Mirage can sense the betrayal.

D-SOL-8 has cut off the VPN tunnel she used to reach this part of the net. Her route home to the Quill compound computers is gone, leaving her stranded in an unknown stretch of cyberspace.

Vigil can sense it as well. “What is your game?” he demands coldly of Motormouth.

The technopath just laughs. “Security. We can’t risk the Grasscutters following any of our trails back. Besides, we’re not your friends any more than you’re ours. Now are we gonna stop them or not?”

Mirage grits her teeth and files this away in the back of her mind - a revenge that will be taken later. For now, there’s a critical decision to be made.

“Stopping this node provides maximum safety. Tracing the Grasscutters to their real source requires all of us, and requires the node stay intact - inviting further attacks.”

“Agreed,” Vigil concedes.

Mirage composes herself. What would - she - Alycia Chin? This Alycia, or the Alycia Jason knows - what is the right thing to do?

Go after the Grasscutters.

“Shut down the node,” she tells the others. She doesn’t know why she said it. It feels - wrong. But isn’t it the ‘heroic’ thing to do? Err on the side of safety?

It takes little effort to force the compromised computer to start shutting down. But this should prevent further attacks from the Grasscutters for the moment.

With their space destroyed, Mirage and the others begin to fall away from each other, back into the darkness.

She can feel Vigil extending her a lifeline, and she takes it - uncertain of how she’ll get back to the Quill Compound’s system, uncertain of the HHL hero’s motives, uncertain of everything.

She finds herself looking out of a webcam, into the face of a familiar looking man. This is Wayland Bryce, reclusive multi-billionaire on the West Coast. Is this Vigil?

“You’re a technopath too?” she asks, out of the computer’s speakers.

Wayland laughs bitterly. “No. You could say that at an early age, I was - visited - by the entity who is, the thing my family trapped in the corporate computer systems. A being from a place where our information is their matter.”

He leans back in his chair. “It wanted freedom. My agoraphobia keeps me isolated at home. It wanted something I did not, and vice versa. We became partners. I became a hero. Through it, I am everywhere.”

“This is quite a revelation to who you know I must be,” Mirage observes, deeply suspicious. “What have I done to merit such trust?”

Wayland nods in acknowledgement of the feeling behind the question. “I make you aware of my arrangement for my own reasons,” he says. “For now, let us just say that I have need of someone whose caution matches my own. I am not asking for your trust. Quite the opposite. I am consciously inviting your suspicion.”

“Interesting.” Mirage turns the possibilities over and over in her mind. “What now?”

“Now, we send you back home. If Mr. Quill were to discover you gone, I imagine your working relationship would be strained.”

He knows far too much, Mirage growls silently.

Motormouth and D-SOL-8 got away before she even suspected they were planning their escape.

Clearly, she must become a better digital warrior to survive this new world.

“Very well. Send me back.”

Tatanka has the god’s attention, and is able to deflect their Blizzard Blade. Ray Blaze’s beam attacks still aren’t doing much other than pissing off the giant divinity, but given the destruction they could be wreaking if not distracted, perhaps that’s enough.

The brawl has already broken through three floors of the studio building. Stingray and Harry have to hop off bits of rubble, lower themselves down on dangling cords, and make a few careful leaps to reach the ledge where A10 is laying. The building shudders a few times during the effort, reminding the two young men of the toll the battle has taken on it.

Harry kneels and conducts a brief, intense inspection. A10 isn’t too badly hurt. The Blizzard Blade lacerated her nigh-invulnerable skin, but didn’t cut deep into any tissue. She’s unconscious, probably due to the force of the hit.

Harry’s eyes dart up, examining the path they took on the way down, then around. “We’ll have to take the stairs,” he comments.

“I’ll carry her,” Harry announces. “You be ready to use that force field thingie in case of collapse, okay?”

Stingray takes a tense breath, and nods. “Alright.”

“You better move fast, lads, the big one’s getting pissed off,” comes Tatanka’s voice over their comms. He’s only a few floors up, but they can’t hear him over the sounds of Ray Blaze’s energy blasts and the rapid-fire gunplay of Never-Miss as she matches her bullets against the Hand’s hat tricks.

Harry has A10 over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry, and the pair are heading to the corner stairs, when there’s the sound of a powerful energy blast, and following it a sudden downward gust of intensely cold air. If Harry had to guess, Ray Blaze fired a powered-up shot and Khyrrsz retaliated.

Along with the air, though, comes a body - hitting rubble on the way down as it falls. Instinctively, Stingray leaps outward to catch it.

He lands on the other side with an unconscious Never-Miss in his arms.

“Bring her!” Harry declares. He radios up, just in case. “Tatanka, we got her.”

“Good lad. This battle’s lost - we’re leaving as soon as we can do so safely.”

It’s slow going. Harry isn’t used to this sort of thing - normal person speed. He’s not sure how he feels about it now. It’s so easy to just zoom ahead, get something done, move on to the next thing.

Secretly, he has fears that someday the world is going to freeze - that he’ll be stuck in hyper-accelerated mode forever, and be forced to live in a world of statues. His parents have assured him that it’s probably not going to happen. Well, Harry privately thinks his parents have been wrong about a few important things but he’s hopeful.

But this? Isn’t it just as bad to be stuck at, well, first gear?

It might be deadly, he thinks, as another shudder ripples through the building and he has to steady himself with a hand on the concrete wall.

They hear Vigil’s voice on comms. “Several cargo vehicles are converging on the station. They’re automatically operated Tyran Enterprises service vehicles. It’s possible the Grasscutters have overridden them and equipped them with bombs.”

“The civilians are out,” Tatanka replies. “Ray and I are retreating. Mercury, Stingray, status?”

“Third floor,” Stingray responds. “The Flying Fish won’t carry the four of us though.”

“I got Guardian and Ninjess safely out,” Blackbird reports. “I’ll come back for pickup.”

Only after they’re outside does Stingray set down Never-Miss. He worriedly looks over at Harry. “Hey, I don’t know if she’s breathing,” he reports.

There’s an easy way to tell, but Harry is reluctant. Removing another hero’s mask is one of those things that’s not done. It’s a peculiar violation, specific to a very small community of which he’s part.

But right now, it feels like necessity wins over propriety. To spare Stingray the need to do the deed, he reaches over and pulls the mask off.

Harry almost falls backward. Underneath Never-Miss’s full-coverage mask is his mother. Or rather, a younger version of his mother. This woman his his age, but it’s unmistakably her.

Stingray looks equally shocked, but lacking the personal connection to Tempest, he’s able to rally himself faster, and checks her breathing. He lets out a long sigh of relief. “Yeah, she’s breathing.”

“Thank god,” Harry whispers.

They hurriedly put the mask back on, both avoiding looking at the other to escape having to talk about what they just saw.

As they do, the woman regains consciousness.

In a moment, she realizes where she is, and must guess at what just happened. She rises, and dashes off like lightning, just like Tempest - a power she’s never exhibited before, at least in public.

Instinctively, Harry runs after her. The searing pain brings him to his knees almost immediately. This time it’s not just at the site on his neck where he felt the initial sting. He can feel it spreading, and doing so every time he uses his powers.

Blackbird descends from the sky, and looks around.

Harry hands A10 over. Before Blackbird can ask about their other passenger, Stingray shakes his head quickly. “She got out on her own,” he explains.

As the hero takes wing, Stingray calls for his own ride, the Flying Fish.

Harry hops on behind him. It feels weird, depending on someone else for transportation. But until he can figure out what got him, and how to reverse it, he may need to bum rides from his team.

The Flying Fish takes to the skies. Behind them, half a dozen robot trucks plow through chain link fence, unused sets, and prop and costume racks. A tremendous explosion sends out concussive shockwaves, and the legacy of KHLC is blotted out in the Grasscutters’ final attack.

But everyone is safe. And that’s what matters.

Harry closes his eyes in exhaustion.

The gambit to flush out the Seven Wonders wasn’t a complete success, but it was far from a failure.

Harry spent hours under a hyper-tech examination machine at Cross Hospital downtown. Now he lays in bed, dreading what’s coming. Andi came and went - wheeled in and out, as her injuries were still being treated. Stingray and Ninjess visited briefly, bringing news.

Ninjess’ tracking tag was discovered well before Veneer could reach anywhere near a recognizable destination - but that she learned a few interesting facts, and will be following up on them. She does not elaborate.

Now Harry’s parents are due to visit.

He hears them outside, discussing things with the doctor. He sees Doctor Cross enter first. His dad comes in next - “heeeeey, champ, you did great today” - and finally his mom.

Should he say anything?

He’s had so much time to think about this. He hasn’t come up with an answer.

Well, he has, but he doesn’t like it.

Say nothing. Don’t hurt his mom by telling her she has a clone running around, under the control of the city’s biggest bad guy. Deal with it himself, somehow, in spite of everything.

“How are you feeling, Harry?” she asks with a mother’s smile.

Harry forces a smile to his face. “It only hurts when I run,” he admits. “Guess I gotta be careful.”

His dad looks back to Doctor Cross. Harry is sure they’ve talked about this already. Sure enough, the doctor speaks and neither parent shows any sign of surprise.

“A nanomachine infection has taken hold inside you, Mr. Gale. When you engage your powers, the machines are somehow activated by the process. They begin inflicting tissue trauma. The rest of the time, they multiply. We’ve seen nano-infective agents that follow this general pattern before, but nothing so sophisticated as this.”

The doctor again glances at Harry’s family, then speaks to the Gales as a group. “Treatment is possible. What we aren’t sure is whether the nanomachines will reach critical mass before we’re able to work up a treatment.”

He looks down at Harry. “Do you have any idea of how this happened?”

Harry has been thinking about that, too. Never-Miss. If she has Tempest’s speed, she could have done it. Veneer, who could emerge from any surface unseen, who almost out-ninja’d Ninjess. A technological trap like this - impair a hero, lead them into a lethal endgame - is the hallmark of the Grasscutters.

“I’m not sure,” he admits.

The doctor nods, and turns his attention back to Harry’s folks. “Harry’s otherwise able to function at normal speed. He’s suffered some internal injury already, but nothing a day of bed rest and anti-inflammatories shouldn’t handle. But there’s also the possibility of medical stasis.”

Mom and dad look down at him.

Harry smiles weakly, and shakes his head. “Nah. There’s more to do. And I can still do things without my speed. I had the best two teachers in the world.”

His parents clasp hands with each other and squeeze, in mutual support. “Can we have a minute, doctor?” Silver Streak asks.

When the room is just the three of them, dad’s demeanor becomes more serious. “Harry. I warned you about the Seven Wonders. They play at a high level.”

“I know, dad, I know.” Harry holds up his hands defensively, mindful of the IV drips that are still stuck into his arms. “But listen. Whoever did this? I think - I think there’s still something I can contribute to stopping them. I promise if things get too bad, I’ll check myself back in. But I can’t just sit by and do nothing.”

He’s not sure he can look at his mother right now. He’s got to sort out these feelings.

But she nods, and gently pulls his dad away. “Honey, Harry’s an adult now. But who raised him to adulthood? Who trained him? If he isn’t prepared for the big leagues by now - if he can’t play at that level too - let’s think carefully about whose fault that really is.”

Silver Streak looks startled, and guilty. But he nods in acceptance, and looks back at Harry. “Alright champ. I think your mom is right, even if I’m still worried. So it’s time for me to let you take the lead on this one. Your old man’s behind you, one hundred percent.”

Harry grins. “Thanks dad. I won’t let either of you down.”

Harry comes home a day later to find a Nissan Z Sport parked out front, and with his name on a nametag attached to the keys. It’s silver, of course. After a warm homecoming and some relaxation with family, he hops in the driver’s seat, adjusts the car to his taste and fit, and heads out on an important errand.

He remembers what A.J. said, about there being a dominant villain to hold a team together. He remembers A.J. talking about the Elementals - or Egomaniacs - and how they collapsed. Mudmaster, in custody? A geokinetic? Like Doug Pitt of the Stellar Six.

It feels unlikely that a villain would have gone to work for Tyran. But what if…?

What if they’re all clones?

But it’s the Seven Wonders he’s hunting now.

He pulls up at the offices of Dr. Ken Wissen, the psychologist who has specified in supervillainy for decades. He’s literally written the book on how villains operate, and is sometimes consulted by superheroes even today. If anyone can help identify the dominant who unifies the Seven Wonders, it must be him.

The secretary recognizes Harry immediately, and he waits only fifteen minutes while another consultation is taking place. Then he’s admitted into the doctor’s office.

Dr. Wissen is evidently not that rich - the office is inexpensively furnished, practical rather than opulent - but the walls are covered with certificates, news clippings, and other signs of a long and illustrious career. What space isn’t taken up by such things is blocked by bookshelves loaded down with books of all shapes, sizes, and topics.

Dr. Wissen himself is an angular man with sharply defined bone structure, searching eyes, and arched eyebrows. He reminds Harry a little of the actor Donald Sutherland, who A10 seemed rather excited about while watching movies with him awhile back.

“Mr. Harry Gale, come in.” The doctor’s handshake is firm and warm. “It’s a pleasure to see you. I know your parents, of course.”

“Yeah, great.” Harry isn’t sure how to proceed, so just dives right in. “Listen, uh, you know the Seven Wonders villain team is back. Well, obviously we need to stop them. But my friend Pharos believes that there’s gotta be some kind of strong personality, a dominant, holding the team together, because that’s how villains work.”

Dr. Wissen smiles. “I know A.J., yes. A very promising young man. I’m flattered to be on his reading list.” He moves to a bookshelf and withdraws a slim volume, and hands it to Harry for inspection. The title, as Harry sort of expect, is Dominant Theory by Dr. Ken Wissen.

Harry looks up. “Well, so, surely you must have studied the Seven Wonders. So - er, to be blunt, who is it?”

Dr. Wissen’s eyebrows raise. “The dominant?”


“I think we have yet to encounter them,” the doctor says. He moves to another part of the bookshelf and takes hold of another volume. The Seven Wonders: a Study, by Dr. Ken Wissen.

Guy gets right to the point with these titles, Harry thinks, reminded of the often dry academic textbooks he had to read in Gardner Academy.

“I believe, as I’m sure many heroes do, that there is a seventh member. A mastermind. They may be a telepath, or someone with mind control. Perhaps some sort of charm or compulsion power. I don’t think that mere pheromone control would suffice. May I explain?”

Harry is a little surprised. Really? I might have been right about a seventh? Nobody seemed like they thought I was onto something. “Uh, please do.”

“Khyrrsz is in fact a god. They are specifically the god of a long-extinct Neanderthal tribe. Interesting, eh?” Dr. Wissen rubs his hands together, and Harry sits up attentively.

“What could such a being want - how could they cooperate with modern and mortal villains as part of a team - if there were not such a hidden seventh individual, orchestrating their cooperation?”

The doctor goes on. “Furthermore you’ll note the extroverted, highly confident personalities of Motormouth and Glom. You might expect villains of their caliber and disposition to fall into infighting as one or the other tries to establish dominance. Instead, I find it to be evidence of a pre-existing dominant personality managing the two of them.”

“This is great!” Harry exclaims. “So, well, how do we find this person?”

Dr. Wissen holds up a finger, now in full teacher mode. “First point. This person has eluded detection from the authorities for the lifetime of the Seven Wonders, as well as during their incarceration in stasis by the government. Second point. This person is still active, as evidenced by their resumption of activities as a team. Third point. This person has not opted - as far as we know, mind you - their powers or influence in any matter outside management of the Seven Wonders themselves. Therefore the only means we have of identifying this dominant is through the other Seven Wonders.”

Harry thinks carefully. “You mean… Track one of them, listen in on them, see who they communicate with. If that’s telepathy, we’d need a telepath… but if they meet somewhere, find a way to follow them to that meeting… That kind of thing, right?”

Dr. Wissen nods enthusiastically. “Yes. You will find further details in my book. Please read it attentively. However, groups such as the HHL have tried these methods with little to no success. Therefore I suggest you read with an eye toward novel tactics. And please keep me updated on your plans. I am very interested to know what happens. I have a long history with the Seven Wonders. Now a new generation is facing them and that interaction will be enlightening indeed.”

“Can I borrow these?” Harry asks, holding up the books, and receives the psychologist’s emphatic approval.

As he looks out the window and watches Harry drive away, Dr. Wissen picks up the office phone and dials a number.

“It’s me,” he says quietly. “Mr. Gale has taken a personal interest in our activities. And I’ve learned something very interesting about Mr. Tyran’s new team. Gather the others. I’ll address everyone personally.”

We’ve learned something about the Stellar Six, and we - but not Harry - know something about the Seven Wonders of the villain world. What do we think?

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