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Issue Twenty-eight, There's Smoke in Them Thar Hills

The Site

Ka-Sador flew high above the area indicated in PC's data. Nothing caught his eye. If the coordinates were correct, then the launch zone was just a forested area next to what looked like it might once have been a mine or quarry of some kind; there was a small gouge taken out of the mountain to expose bare stone and it was clearly man-made.

Something wasn't right, though. The patterns in the foliage below were too regular. He dropped lower. There was camoflage netting covering a clearing near the quarry. From that distance, too, he could smell woodsmoke and saw that a small shack near the quarry had a trickle of smoke coming out the chimney. He dropped just another few feet. A hint of human came on the wind, but no Krai.

Quickly he circled again before heading back to the Fortress to report what he saw. As Ka-sador returned, he was surprised to see PC still up. There she sat at the console, monitoring some broadcast from half way around the world scribbling notes onto a yellow legal pad. The winged alien tried not to startle her.

[LAWNCH ZONE OCCUPIED], he said softly; gaining her attention Ka-sador told her what he had seen and deferred to her judgment as to what should happen next. It was late and this could be no more than a hired guard, but it also could be Dr. Saruva's next base -- or worse.

PC was not used to being addressed as if she was the one in charge, so she paused uncomfortably for a second before responding. "I think" PC began, "that simply knowing that it's there will do for tonight. Of course, this is Defender's call, but I think monitoring the area for the time being and waiting until the launch date gets closer is the best plan of attack...catching them red handed will probably net us many big fish instead of the guppy standing guard now. Regardless, I think we definitely need to come together as a team to plan, and soon. Between this and the Krai, we need a plan to address the multiple issues."

Ka-sador accepted her explanation and thought it better not to awaken the other members for a raid. Everyone had been working so hard lately and these earthlanders were not as stout as other races. He resolved to keep a close eye on this base during his nightly patrols and report any changes. The alien decided to turn in for the night.

As Ka-Sador turned, PC spoke once more. "While you're here, there was something I wanted to talk to you about. M'Krell has been showing me how to use her blaster lately. One of the things I'm most afraid of is the Krai beaming in here while you guys are on a mission, so I've been trying to step up my self-defense training. It would be a lot easier if I were able to procure a blaster of my own. Would you be able to construct another?"

Crestfallen, Ka-sador lowered his head in shame. [KA-SADOR NOT GYFTED WITH SUCH SKILL, ONLEE IN AREENA], it pained him to once again prove useless in a task which could help them all. If only he had secured another blaster from the pod then the Krai invasion could be challenged with greater force, [MAYBEE THAT TVEET-SHAKRTA, CAN HELP US] PC's confusion prompted Ka-sador to reply [RAGNAR], fortunately she was not able to be embarassed by the vulgarity he used.

PC smiled cheerily. "OK, I'll talk to our resident techgeek about it. Don't worry about it too much. Everyone has gifts...and I think if there was a need for someone to fly, you'd be better at that than I am. We all have a role to play, and when it comes time to take down the Krai, you'll be needed critically for that. I've got a couple other leads, I'll figure something out."

PC stood up and stretched. "I'm gonna kick on the autoscanners and try to get some sleep. You should too...I think M'Krell misses you at nights." Not knowing alien physiology, PC wasn't sure how he's take that statement...but she knows how much she worries about her dad when he's on patrol.

	*		*		*		*
The next evening, the Protectors convened to discuss several matters at hand. PC had only informed the active team...Sting, Ka-Sador, Defender and Wanderer...about the meeting, but also had sent word to the Beggar King and asked that he and his protectorate (including Tatterknight) try and keep an extra watchful eye out throughout Port Alexander while they met, and he would be briefed later. She left it to Defender as to whether Flex should be given the same instructions.

Also, earlier in the day, she asked Ka-Sador to take another pass around the site, just after dark, to look for more activity. She notes "If Saruva knows we got those notes, they may try to move the site, so we need to monitor it constantly."

After dinner (PC was scared at how well she has picked up taking care of the little details of meetings, like food), the meeting began. PC asked to be the first to speak. She reiterated her recent findings as well as the scouting report Ka-Sador gave last night about the launch site.

"Granted, I've only been here a short time," PC began, "but I think we have a golden opportunity here. I don't know how populated the launch site is right now, but we do know that roughly January 1st it's going to be used, and I'm also betting that a lot of the big fish we're looking for may be there. Now, because we got these papers, it's very possible that Saruva may try to move the site, so is there a way that we can keep a more watchful eye on what's going on there?

"Regardless," she continued, "I would advise against raiding right now. Chances are all we'll do is snag a few guppies and lose whatever big lead we have." She looked toward Defender. "What are your thoughts, boss?"

"We need to scout the area as best as we can just prior to the launch date. Well, there goes my vacation." Defender smoothed his hand through his hair. It felt strange to be around these folks without a mask. He wondered if there would ever be a time when the public saw him like this. "Until then, we need to find someway to keep an eye on it. Oh, yeah. I agree that raiding now would be pointless. It's a shame we can't get close without blowing the whole deal."

Shaking his head in disbelief, he realized that he was not thinking tactically. "Sting, how would you like to go over the site?"

The Wanderer chased a french fry dripping with cheese around the plate he held and spoke up. "To offer the other side, I propose we move soon. This Net could very well have already begun to close down operations here in PA with the launch of this project, if we wait until that day valuable information could be lost or useless. We already know that Dr. Saruva is quite adept at torching his hideouts."

Rising, he countinued in dramatic fashion. "The really big fish will probably not be on site, choosing to use their disposible hirelings. If we act now, covertly, we may be able to surprise them and gain some equally valuable information. After all, we're only talking a matter of a couple of weeks. I'd wager that most of the equipment is already there in order to not cause displeasure with this Gauntlet fellow when it comes to missing a deadline."

Defender nodded then spoke. "Still, I think it wise to get a ground view of the launch site first. Ka-sador has given us some excellent aerial recon, but there are too many things that could be hidden. I do agree that we won't get the head of the organization, but we stand a better chance of grabbing inportant people if we choose the right time to strike. I'd like it if Sting could get a close look. Any objections?"

Ka-sador raised his hand, [WOULD LYKE TO GO WITH STEENG.] The alien understood that if Jackal and Cheetah were there, and they were as the others described then it would help Sting to have one who was familiar and comfortable in the wilderness area.

"I was hoping you'd volunteer. I'm lousy in the wilderness." Defender said. "Plus an extra set of eyes for this would be good."

Ka-Sador swooped high over the site with a shrunken Sting on his shoulder. When Sting had a good idea of the general layout, Ka-Sador withdrew a mile or so and landed. The two made their general plan of attack and then Ka-Sador took to the air as Sting raced along on foot.

        *               *               *               *
Back at the Fortress the two prepared their notes to brief the rest of the team. Sting sketched out a map and filled it the details. "There's a gantry like thing on the quarry wall, here, and the MUSE has a sled attached to it that looks like it would fit onto the track there. There were a bunch of trailers, but no truck and no roads which is interesting. A fuel dump of some kind. No sign of Saruva, but there were a half-dozen thugs and also four possible super-types."

Sting described the possible villians and the Wanderer quickly indentified three of them as The Three (see Issue Three: Too Hot to Handle). The fourth was clad in yellow with a white sunburst emblem, and the Wanderer commented, "I suspect he is our missing MUSE-V thief." He went on to speculate about the possiblity of doing a quick covert mission to try to grab whatever records were about before launching an assault.

Sting looked at the readouts before speaking. "I think we can do both at once...a covert op to get a better look before hitting them hard and fast. Wanderer and myself would probably be best suited for a covert...perhaps Beggar King as well. Once we get what we need, or if we run into trouble, call the cavalry in."

He looked towards Defender. "What's our progress in outfitting all of us with the headcams that'll allow PC to see what's going on? If I can get one of those and get a good look around, all we may need to have is a look, get some recorded video feeds, etc."

"Right now, only the camera on my goggles feeds back to headquarters. I could jury-rig the goggles to fit you, but a simple handheld video camera would suffice for info gathering. I think we've coverted about as much as we can covert. It looks like you've checked the place rather thoroughly." Defender looked over the map the scouts had put together. "I somehow doubt there will be much useful information on site. These trailers are personal living quarters and there's no central office except maybe this shack. The odds of finding major records of this organization are minimal. We'll have to secure the trailers quickly anyway, just to be sure.

"PC, we need whatever geological surveys you can get. If this place was a quarry then those have to exist. We need elevations, material compositions, general maps and any hazardous material reports that were filed. Once we get the elevations and general lay out, we can render a 3D map. There has to be a large access road of some sort, even if it is overgrown. I mean, the place used to have dump trucks and bulldozers and such."

The young computer whiz went to work and shortly there was a three-dimensional, CG model for all to see. Defender started again. "Nice work. I think with the Three present, we need to hit them hard and fast. The Beggar King will be a good asset in this, if he is available. With the current Krai situation, it would also be wise to leave Ragnar out of this. That excludes the Mystic as well.

"If we can get Max and his new friend, they can handle the regular guards. The four of us will have to engage the heavies, with the reserves helping if they are able. We are going to need all the help we can get on this one, though I worry about bringing Flex in on this one. He might take the involvement of this Surava personal. He's already a bit of a reckless youth anyway.

"One more thing. We will need to bring some powerful fire extinguishers and have them just within teleport range. I suspect the flammable material is there for more than Feng Shui."

Defender took a long drink off of the Mountain Dew bottle before him. "Does anyone have any suggestions or comments?"

Sting piped in. "Yeah, lay off the caffeine, makes you hyper." The team laughed, knowing Defender's demeanor the way they do.

"Seriously," Sting continued, "as much as I'd like his power there, I agree that Flex probably wouldn't be the best bet for a covert operation. However, I do think he could have another use for us. With all of us on a strike mission, it would be our luck for the Krai to try something big. What would the general consensus be about Flex being on base along with PC, both as a failsafe in case the Krai manage to find us down here , and as an emergency backup if things go horribly wrong on the strike? I don't think Flex would cause too much trouble here...and if he observed with PC, it might help him get a better sense of how a team works in action." Sting paused. "I know, I know, famous last words..."

Sting asked PC to call up the dossiers on the Three to take a look over their powers. "OK, if I were making the tactical call here...and I'm not...but whoever this new guy is, we don't know what he can do, so it might be better off for everyone that he's dropped hard, fast, and unexpectedly. That lends to either me going in fast and small or Wanderer introducing him to the Masochism Tango out of a teleport. Gargoyle can fly." Sting looked at Ka-Sador and smiled wryly. "Guess who should probably get him?"

Sting continued on. "Radiation is a nasty nasty thing, so whichever one of me or Wondy that doesn't take Starman or whatever he's called should probably pick up this guy. Which leaves Mongoose. Not much on him or his powers, but I would think a feral, agile attack with claws and such, which would probably be well suited for you, boss. Secondary targets are probably whoever's defense, if you will."

Sting smiled at everyone. "I know I'm an amateur strategist, but does everyone like this?

Ka-sador softly cooed [GARLGOYLE] and touched the bolos at his side in acceptance.

The Wanderer looked over the map, "We'll need to know where everyone is before we attack if we have assigned targets. Maybe we can catch them snoozing," he said with a smile. "Firefist or Stardude are fine with me."

"OK, then I'll call dibbies on Firefist. My whole plan to take him out is on surprise, and with my speed he'll have a harder time drawing a bead on me. Since we don't know the capabilities of Starman, it makes sense to have our biggest gun trained on him.

"If we hit them at the right time, we can catch them unaware. In that case, we can concentrate on the first ones out of their trailers. Although I agree with Sting that we should each take responsibility for one of them." Defender looked across the table to Sting. "When Mara and I finally have children, you're elected to be coach and GM of their little league teams. Amateur strategist. Riiiight."

"What can I say, x's and o's are part of my life." Sting said. "And for the record, it would be Pop Warner, not little league. So, all we need to do now is set a date and time. Probably while most of them are sleeping."

"I imagine it gets very boring up there in the mountains," mused the Wanderer, "during the day they may come to town, unless their bosses are mean." The Wanderer popped over to other side of the map and rubbed his chin, "Perhaps they will have lost their edge with all this waiting." He checked his watch, "Let's do it!"

		*		*		*		*
Finally, all the planning was done and there remained only the execution. PC put calls in to Flex and the Beggar King. Early Friday night, the troops gathered, with Defender picking up Flex in the now functional mini-sub.

PC outlined the plan and showed Flex the basics of the Fortress'es security system. Then the group broke for dinner and a nap.

At midnight the strike team loaded the equipment into a van provided by Sting with the Dutchmen logo on the side. Quietly they rode to the old road that led to the quarry - PC had discovered the access road buried in the county records. They followed the bumpy and overgrown track until they could go no further then shared the load out among the party.

Ka-Sador took to the air while the main group moved overland. He returned a few minutes later to report that there was a little light coming from the quarry shack.

The heroes deposited rope and five large fire-extinguishers a few hundred yards from the enemy camp, and then moved out slowly to their designated targets.

Sting, shrunken to his smallest size, crept into the trailer he had identified as belonging to FireFist, then took up a position ready to strike the sleeping man.

The Wanderer, with a soft pop, appeared near the bed of the unidentified villian and made ready to strike.

Ka-Sador flitted softly to land gently above the trailer belonging to Gargoyle, while Defender was forced to trust to chance as he leapt to the trailer belonging to Mongoose.

Sting and Wanderer counted down to the correct moment, then pressed the beeper button on their communicators as they struck, signalling the rest to strike as well.

Sting yanked his foe up and struk, the blow was a monumental one, blasting FireFist through the wall of the trailer and into the side of the trailer where the Wanderer was. His victim slumped to the ground, unconscious.

Inside that trailer, a similar scene was being played out. In fact, the body of The Wanderer's foe passed the unconscious FireFist in the air. However, after his man slammed into the wall of FireFist's trailer, he opened his eyes, saying, "What the hell just hit me?"

Ka-Sador kicked through the door of the Gargoyle's trailer and leapt in to take up a position next the monstrosity just awaking and Defender did likewise by Mongoose. The Beggar King burst in on his target as well.

The Beggar King drifted through the wall of the guard shack, startling the guards. "Bottom of the ninth and the tying run is on second. Max to the plate. He's swinging for the fences!" He punched the first guard, rocking him back, fired a snap kick into the second, then whipped a back kick that went over the first guard who was bent over from the punch. The second guard managed a weak punch in return, which Max easily sidestepped. A quick rabbit punch felled the man.

Defender was not a fan of the sneak attack, but reminded himself the villians would not have hestitated if they had had a similar opportunity. He gave a curt smile and wave then grabbed at the blankets and sheets on the bed, trying to wrap up the man. Then he blinked, the man had moved with such rapidity that it made Sting look like a man moving in slow motion. By the time Defender had raised the sheets, the man had rolled clear of the bed and onto the floor. Defender tried to stomp him, but the wriggling Mongoose was out of the way, already. As Defender reset himself for another attack the man rolled to his feet.

Ka-sador looked upon the stony skinned Gargoyle and unleashed an overhand two-handed chop to his head as the beast stirred. The stony skin didn't just look like stone, it felt like it, too. The beast opened orange eyes and spoke, "Nice try, but the hide aint just for show." He bounced to his feet, and swung, "I don't know how you found us, but you made a big mistake." In the darkness, Ka-Sador was next to invisible and the monster's blows missed their target, instead putting large dents into the walls of the trailer.

The Wanderer shook his fist and gazed at the far-flung villain, concentrating on his frame as it lay against the wrecked trailer.

Out the hole opposite the Wanderer, Sting appeared. He zipped up to unknown villian, saying "Shouldn't you be worried about what's GOING to hit you?" The man fliched and Sting's punch went high, taking another small chunk out of the trailer. Sting had punched on the fly and kept moving to where FireFist was lying sprawled.

"This doesn't look good," said the man in a surprisingly light-hearted sounding voice. "But the fat lady has yet to sing." From his prone position, he took flight soaring to a point equidistant between the two trailers and about six meters up. "Shouldn't you be worried about what's going to hit you?" he asked Sting before raising his hands and sending a jet of superheated plasma down at the hero.

The answer was apparently "no," since the jet was wildly off target, merely melting a hole higher in the trailer. Through the hole, the Wanderer was able to see the villian where a moment before his view had been obscured.

Ka-sador slipped Gargoyle's punches and snapped out two front kicks. Gargoyle barely moved as the blows slammed home.

The Wanderer grimaced in concentration again with no visible effect.

Sting paused for a moment by FireFist to make certain he was well and truly unconscious before turning his gaze skyward again. Sting turned his attention to the villian, looking upwards. "Not if you continue to aim like that. I don't know what was uglier, that shot or the suit you wore to the Vladistock party." On the last words, Sting's arms swung up and fired a sting blast straight at the man.

"The Vladi-whoof!" His target's response was cut short by the vibratory shockwave that slammed into him.

The Wanderer looked up at the foe a mere six metres from the ground and gave a glance over to Sting. "Going up?" he asked rhetorically briefly disappearing from view. Instantly he was eye-to-eye with the hovering villain reaching out with his left hand, right cocked.

"Wanderer! Now I recognize you guys, you can call me Solar," said the villian as he slipped back just out of the Wanderer's reach. "I guess we should feel honoured. Mostly, though I'm just curious." He flipped over into a dive toward Sting, "How'd you find us?" Sting said nothing instead shrinking to half-size in an effort to dodge the blow. Solar looked surprised but managed to correct and slammed into Sting, knocking the pint-sized hero to the ground.

Continuing the fly-by, he shot back up toward the falling Wanderer, but overshot and the Wanderer fell to the ground with an "Oof" and rolled to his feet.

Sting bounced back to his feet, and turned towards the yellow blur. "W, he's yours. I think I need to cover the boss," he called as he prepared to move out.

Ka-sador pressed his attack. This Gargoyle was a sturdy adversary, but Ka-sador had faced many like him in the arena and knew that the accumulation of blows would take their toll. The winged alien shot a right hand out to the jaw with a reverse left punch to the midsection. The Gargoyle absorbed the blows and fired back.

Defender decided he needed a bigger flyswatter and grabbed the bed, ripping it out of the floor.

"Nice idea," said the Mongoose, "but too little and too late." He blurred in to try to land a series of punches on Defender before burning rubber out the door.

Defender pulled the bed between himself and the buzzing Mongoose, then dropped it as the man sped outside. With a heavy sigh, he leapt to follow.

In the shack, the Beggar King blocked a punch by the remaining guard and fired back a punch of his own, dropping the man.

He stepped to the window of the shack and saw a faint yellow blur come out of Mongoose's truck and race around the front of the MUSE, toward the guard cabin.

He turned back to the two-way radio set and upended it carefully on the ground. Then, with a little grimace of concentration he ghosted it a few inches into the earth and left it there, secure in the knowledge that the bad guys wouldn't be calling for reinforcements that way.

"Would you believe there is no honor among thieves?" asked the Wanderer. Straightening his hat he continued talking to Solar, "You really should choose your employers better. I wish you had been fingered sooner, otherwise we could have avoided running the gauntlet." The Wanderer emphasized the last word for greater effect.

Solar dropped down as Sting turned to go help Defender. "Yes, 'W', I'm yours." From midair he launched a karate kick that somehow reminded the Wanderer of Ka-Sador.

Ka-sador pressed his attack. This Gargoyle was a sturdy adversary, but Ka-sador had faced many like him in the arena and knew that the accumulation of blows would take their toll. The winged alien shot a right hand out to the jaw with a reverse left punch to the midsection. The Gargoyle absorbed the blows and fired back.

Ka-sador barely saw the clubbing blows as he instinctively attemped to avoid their impact. A shattering blow landed on his armoured wings and drove him out through the open door. The Gargoyle followed him out and another blow drove Ka-Sador back another six meters or so to a point behind the MUSE.

The Gargoyle flew to where Ka-Sador lay and launched a vicous kick at the downed alien, missing as Ka-Sador flopped to one side. Gargoyle landed and punched directly down, "You may be hard to see in this light, but I know you're there!"

Defender came out of the trailer just in time to see Mongoose buzz around the MUSE toward the remaining trailer. He ran a loop around the trailer slapping it with his hands and shouting, "Wakey-wakey, alarm, alarm," then buzzed back around to the front of the MUSE as half a dozen sleepy looking thugs brandishing handguns spilled out of the trailer's door and around the side.

	*		*		*		*
The others had been gone some time and already the low hum of the Eagles base did not seem so strange to Flex as he made himself familiar with the former Eagles Nest.

Coming back into the main computer room Flex saw PC staring avidly at computer screens whilst monitoring several feeds into the base. "Any word yet from the team?" Flex said, as he allowed his face mask to flow back in order to drink from his coffee he'd left to cool earlier. He swung around to sit on a seat next to PC as he looked at the monitors she was studying.

The monitors showed a mélange of different scenes that to the unknowing eye seemed unrelated. On one screen was a panoramic view of the campsite that was currently becoming a warzone, on another, a view from the camera that was part of Defender's paraphernalia, giving her a "Defender's eye view" of what was going on. On several others were live camera feeds from various police helicopters, roof cams, etc of several areas of the city that were regular patrol sites for the various defenders. On center screen was the primary computer. PC's hands flew across the keyboard, adding information to the "Rogues Gallery" database she was building while at the same time trying to find new information about the foes that could help the team.

"Damn." she said to herself. "Mongoose is a speedster. I *really* wish we knew that before we handed out team assignments." As Flex sat down, she jumped out of her chair more in surprise than anything else.

"WHAT!" She yelled, then calmed down. "I mean, well, what is it, Flex?"

	*		*		*		*
The Gargoyle flew to where Ka-Sador lay and launched a vicous kick at the downed alien, missing as Ka-Sador flopped to one side. Gargoyle landed and punched directly down, "You may be hard to see in this light, but I know you're there!"

Ka-Sador tried to swing his armoured wings in front of him to prevent Gargoyle's bludgeoning fists, but lying on his back the armour was fouled on the ground. Then all was darkness.

Satisfied with his work, Gargoyle rose into the air casting about for another foe.

	*		*		*		*
"Look, Flex, I know you're curious, but honestly, I'm too busy to narrate. In case no one told you, when we're active in the field, I do more than take messages. I'm cataloguing the action, trying to build a database on our foes, while at the same time trying to find things, see things, that the heroes may not be able to notice in the heat of it. My eyes, my focus, my concentration cannot waiver for a second. I don't have an issue with you sitting there QUIETLY, but please don't disturb me again when I'm working. Unless of course, we're being inva..."

She turned quickly to the one screen just in time to see Ka-Sador fall before Gargoyle. She didn't say another word to Flex as she turned back to her work.

Flex raised an eyebrow at the way PC had addressed him but then shrugged. Looki ng at the screens he could see it was all happening. Flex sat down trying to fo llow the action.

"Well at least I can take the opportunity to learn from the other guys as they a re in action. Flex thought to himself as he tried to settle into an easy patter n casting his eye between different screens.

	*		*		*		*
The Wanderer dissapeared from the path of Solar's kick, but a hair too late. He was still spinning from the impact when he reappeared. That didn't stop him from punching at the conveniently located villian landing a solid blow that sent the villian spinning away in his turn.

That was Defender's cue. He leapt from where he stood to try a mid-air tackle, but miscalculated and landed on the trailer roof. The distraction let the Wanderer close in and land another punch. Defender was close enough to swing, too, and Solar bounced around like a tennis ball between the two heroes.

"Whoof! No fair double-teaming boys," said Solar. "Time for me to fly," he hummed shooting ten meters straight up.

"Now now Solar, first you're betrayed by your cronies and now you don't want to play. Maybe they were right," the Wanderer taunted. "Nobody likes a coward."

A mostly transparent Beggar King flew through the wall of the shack and descended upon the six milling gunmen. "Your day of reckoning is at hand! So says the right hand of Justice!" Max yelled as he appeared before the guards. "I bring pain."

The guards shouted and gave up a series of oaths at the spectral figure before them, opening fire as they did so.

A burst of gunfire momentarily distracted the Wanderer, but a quick glance reassured him - The Beggar King was floating among the guards who were all firing at him and shouting as their bullets passed harmlessly through his intangible form. When he looked back, Solar was diving down at at him. With a pop, The Wanderer dissappeared from in front of Solar and appeared just off to the side. Solar pulled out of the dive and just avoided crashing into the ground. He saw the Wanderer out of the corner of his eye and spun around into a kick. The Wanderer popped again, but reappeared in the path of the kick and was struck anyway. He was punching even as the kick landed and a leather clad fist slammed into Solar's chin. The villian bounced back into the side of the trailer.

A miniature blur, Sting raced toward Mongoose hoping blindside him. It was a vain hope, Mongoose saw the mini-missile and stepped gracefully out of the way.

Mongoose turned gracefully as Sting whipped by him and then moved in to land a rain of punches on the hero. The first blow landed and Sting seemed surprised by how gentle it was. He casually brushed off the next two punches and reached out for Mongoose.

	*		*		*		*
M'Krell entered the room and stood next to Flex, laying a hand on his shoulder. "It is difficult to watch and do nothing. My father tried to teach me that this is the heaviest burden of royalty."

"What!" Flex looked startled by M'Krell. He'd seen heroes looking weird but M'krell's soft feline feminine features took a moment to adjust to. "Oh, yes, erm yes I see what you mean. Although I am not royalty...your highness!" Flex said finishing awkwardly sinc e he did not know an alien and a royal alien resided at the base.

"Oh let me introduce myself I am Flex." Flex held out his hand and hoped this w as appropriate protocol or at least appropriate enough. Right now the last thing he needed to do was upset another women, "And a right royal one at that!" Flex thought quickly.

"I see what you mean about waiting around. To be honest I am so new to this who le hero thing I was looking to pick up some tips by watching the boys in action. I have not love for bruises!" Flex finished with a nervous laugh. Thinking, " Humour, let alone my humour is no doubt wasted on this lady."

A few moments later, Mara came into the room, "Where is every ..." her voice trailed off a she saw her husband facing off against a monster. "Oh." She came up next to M'Krell to watch.

Flex stood quietly at that moment he found himself in that awkward place were a stranger intrudes upon a private moment. He realised that Mara must be married to Defender by virtue of the ring she wore on her left hand. The clear pained l ook of anxiety made Flex think of his own mom for a moment. "How she must have felt trapped in her own private bubble looking out a the world go by and feel he lpless to do anything about it." He thought to himself.

He quickly offered the ladies chairs, wanting to do something to replace the awk wardness he felt at being alone with so many ladies. Then not knowing what bett er to do he to grabbed another seat and sitting a little away watched the battl e on another monitor, lost in his own contemplation and not wanting to intrude upon the others.

	*		*		*		*
The Gargoyle turned and flew quickly towards Defender. "Solar, I'm here," he called as he came, warning Defender of his intentions as well. Defender turned, just too late to block the punch and slid back a few meters. He stepped back in, firing off a right and a left. Gargoyle shrugged off both blows.

Mongoose seemed a little off-balance after avoiding Sting's punch, and the hero tried to capitalize on it. His first punch was wide, but it set up a beauty that looked to be right on target. Mongoose managed to avoid it, but left himself even further out of position. He lashed out desperately with a boot.

The Wanderer pressed his attack hoping to take advantage of Solar's impact into the trailer wall. With two pugilistic sharp jabs, the Wanderer followed up with a well-aimed uppercut. "Tell me, does the Net have a good health insurance plan?"

Solar bobbed and weaved, "Wouldn't know, not my outfit." He suddenly cut loose with a plasma bolt at point blank range. The Wanderer popped out of the way of the blast, but that gave Solar enough room to fly back up to safe distance.

As Solar shot past the Gargoyle, Defender landed a solid punch on the man-monster. Then a second, "Nice try, but this skin isn't just for show," said the Gargoyle before cocking back and accidentally smacking Solar.

"Watch it," shouted Solar whose rise developed a pronounced wobble.

A volley of fire from the guards suggest that The Beggar King was still keeping the guards occupied.

The Wanderer turned to Gargoyle with a frown of concentration on his face. He watched as Defender tried to jump left out of Gargoyle's way, fail and get knocked back twenty feet. Defender leapt gamely back into the fray, the impact from the collision knocking Gargoyle back in turn.

Gargoyle flew back at Defender swinging madly. Defender blocked a high right and caught a stiff left to the ribs. He flew back off the trailer and landed, wobbly, but upright on the ground. He had clearly seen better days. Gargoyle closed in for the kill.

"Come on, you ugly mother! It ends NOW!" Defender let out and he put all he had left in his last two swings. He was so woozy that both blows were easily deflected by the Gargoyle. The Gargoyle took his time setting up his final blow.

Solar appeared to be trying to catch his breath. The Wanderer eyed him speculatively and ripped off a large chunk of trailer wall. He spun around once and launched it like a discus at Solar. Solar juked out of the way, shouting, "Hey!" then "Crap!" as the Wanderer's second projectile came screaming at him. He cut loose with a blast of plasma to try to deflect the trailer-chunk, but only singed a bit off one side. The trailer wall slammed into him knocking him a few feet up into the air, then both he and the wall plummeted to the ground, where he (and the wall, naturally) lay still.

Mongoose, still off balance, tried another kick. Sting took the impact as a sacrifice to enable him to fire back with an effective counter. Mongoose scrambled but managed to avoid the shot. Sting kept swinging, on the theory that sooner or later, Mongoose would walk into something.

The Beggar King solidified in front of one thug and punched him in the face and followed up with a belly shot and the man dropped. A kick sent another thug stumbling away. The remaining thugs opened fire and the Beggar King phased out letting their bullets pass harmlessly through him.

The Wanderer rushed to the fallen Solar and sang, "The sun will come up tomorrow." After a well placed backhand across the face of the groggy villain the Wanderer quipped "But you won't."

Turning, the alien in black turned his attention toward Gargoyle, racing around the trailer.

The Gargoyle continued to pummel the nearly unconscious Defender. Defender turtled up to try to protect his head and belly.

Sting kept up an unrelenting assault on Mongoose. Never laying a glove on the speedster, but keeping him too off-balance to attack or flee.

The Beggar King, resolidifed in front of one thug and put him down with a right cross. A solid kick dropped another. Then a flurry of blows put down the last three.

Gargoyle finally put Defender down and turned to look around. The Wanderer tore around the side of the trailer just in time to see Defender go down at the hands of Gargoyle. The man in black smiled at the beast and rushed toward him screaming "Have a nice trip!" The Gargoyle ignored the blows and took his time cocking back for a punch.

Mongoose finally zigged when he should have zagged. Sting's punch sent him flying back eight meters. With his head ringing, he still managed to execute a flip and land on his feet next to where the Beggar King was finishing off the last thug. Even though he was standing, he looked a little stunned by the blow.

Relentless, Sting charged right towards his foe, fist cocked for the knockout blow. "Obviously, chumpchange, you're too young to remember Ali...specifically, the Rope-a-dope."

Mongoose wobbled clear, "Yeah, but you can't hurt what you can't touch."

"Boo-yah!" Beggar King yelled as his fist connected with the speedster before him. "Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout."

Incredibly, Mongoose almost evaded that blow as well, but now his eyes were really crossed.

The Gargoyle's blow landed solidly, sending the Wanderer crashing back and down. He looked around and seeing no one near, rose into the air and flew toward Sting. "Allright dwarf, time to face the real muscle."

Sting did his best Mongoose impression and ducked clear of Gargoyle's punches, although he left himself no openings.

He did see, dark against the darkness, the form of Ka-Sador rising from where he had lain. The Orionid flew closer then launched a bola toward the Gargoyle. The bola encircled the Gargoyle's wings, the Sting squinted as electicity arced around the device. Gargoyle screamed and fell the few meters to the ground.

That gave Sting the opening he needed and he cut loose with a full power sting. "Ex-CUSE me, Notre Dame wannabe, I was in the middle of whipping your pal's buttock," quipped Sting. The Gargoyle rocked back and looked a little stunned.

The Beggar King lined Mongoose up and punched again and again. Barely able to stand, he still almost avoided the punch. The glancing blow was enough and he fell to the ground.

"Rule one, never cut in on a dance, Gargoyle. Rule two, NEVER turn your back on an opponent," said Sting lashing out with another punch.

Ka-sador cut a sharp arc and zeroed in on the downed Gargoyle whose wings were tangled in the bolo. With a piercing scream the bird-like alien rotated in midair to stomp down on his thrashing target.

The combined blows were enough to drop the man-monster. He slumped down, and Sting delivered a coup de grace.

The Beggar King stopped racing in that direction and turned back to do the same for Mongoose. Across the dark camp which had been a battlefield, silence reigned.

Without a pause, Ka-sador took to the air to scout out the area.

As Ka-Sador rose, Sting turned to the fallen Gargoyle. "And rule three, when you face the Protectors, crime doesn't pay...but you will."

Sting activated his comm unit. "PC, come in."

PC responded. "Gladly. Nice work out there, you had some of us a little jittery."

"You weren't the only ones." Sting said. "Call IPAC and get a cleanup crew out here, if you can, make sure Wilkins gets out of bed for this one."

"On it." PC said as the commlink went down.

"Max," Sting began. "Check on Wanderer, please. I'll look into our boss." Sting went over and looked over Defender's fallen body, trying to awaken him while waiting for Ka-Sador to come back with his report. Sting stayed alert, wondering if the hills had any more surprises.

Defender came around quickly, a little jittery, but that was to be expected. After Max had tried to rally him for a few moments, with no apparent effect, The Wanderer's eyes suddenly popped open, he spouted some gibberish, then he shook his head and recognized his comrade-in-arms.

The Wanderer sputtered "I coulda been a contender" and rose to his feet a little unsteady. "You sir, are not St. Peter therefore I assume I am alive and we were victorious."

As the duo rallied back with the others, the Wanderer proposed. "Maybe we should keep this hush-hush incase the Net decides to send someone else to implement this plan. None of these seemed like the rocket launching type to me."

Ka-Sador returned to say that the area looked clear.

Sting looked toward his friend and said. "As a wise man on TV once said...'I love it when a plan comes together'"

Sting turned back to the Wanderer, "Well, IPAC is already en-route, and we do need to get the MUSE-V back to where it belongs. I suppose we could try to keep the press out of this, but I'm not sure how successful we would be."

With a mischevious grin the Wanderer offered, "Well, the MUSE-V *could* stay lost for a few more days, don't you think?" The Wanderer placed his hand to his brow and feigned looking high and low, "I don't see it anywhere, but I'm sure it will turn up the day after its proposed launching."

Max zipped off to the guard shack and returned with the two-way radio he had partially sunk into the floor. He pointed to it and then gestured that two more guards were in the shack. Defender looked at the radio while shaking out the cob-webs.

"I don't think that will work," he said. "If they had radio communication, the folks you might hope to snare will know within a day that this operation has gone south. We might catch whoever is sent to check on it, but I doubt they would be that important either. We have a lot to work with here. Determining the purpose of the modifications on the MUSE-V alone will give us a really good idea of what they were up to.

"No. I don't think a stake out is the way to go. I'm torn though whether our best weapon against this shadowy conspiracy is utter silence or a big public announcement of success."

While Ka-sador retrieved his weapon from the unconscious Gargoyle, the Wanderer scratched his head "That does throw a monkey wrench into our advantage. Maybe there is something we can learn from them," he thumbed over to the guards being rounded up by an IPAC detail as they scoured the campsite.

The heroes huddled together to plan while they waited on IPAC.

Interlude 28.1: A Day to See Mom
Issue 29: It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas

Last Updated 23 October 2002