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Issue Thirty-five, Crazy Man, Krai-zee

The gang had gathered in the residential dome after a workout in the research dome - what with one thing and another the refitting of the labs had never taken place, and with the scheduling of regular team workouts, the space seemed better used for that. All the equipment in the lab was moved to the empty room in utility dome where it awaited cataloguing.

This workout was the first that Merlynne had been able to attend after her return from her cross-dimensional adventures. (See Interlude 34.3) She, PC, Sting, Defender and Flex were kicking back with their beverages of choice and discussing the workout. The fastball special manouver was coming together nicely, and some more general team tactics were starting to gell as well. As usual, Sting was giving the post-game analysis.

"Overall, we did some nice work." Sting began. "Merlynne, you've really improved both your swordsmanship and the use of the shield in your time away...but the downside is that you're starting to show tendencies of relying on those things too much. You've got a wealth of abilities that I think you can channel more effectively. Still, that sword of yours is a very effective offensive weapon."

"The other thing I'd like us to explore is our stealth capabilities. LIke it or not, we lost a heavy hitter when Wanderer left, and although we're not hurting for power, we're shifting to more of a finesse team. Also, our ability to infiltrate and use stealth is at an all-time high, between my shrinking, Merlynne's invisibility, the fact that BOTH Merlynne and Flex can shape change. Defender, even your wallcrawling ability has been underutilized. We've been very lucky, but sooner or later we're going to hit something that our brute force can't beat, and we'll need to be ready to go guerrilla."

Sting looked up. "Anyone have anything to add?"

"Sorry, stealth's not my thing. As for my ability to cling to walls, almost all of our recent fights have either taken place in open fields or tight quarters. Last time I need to use it was on the spaceship when Wanderer destroyed the gravity generator."

"Stealth can *be* your thing, though." Sting replied. "In order to work more effectively as a team, all of us need to be able to leave our "comfort zones" and be prepared to fight in conditions that don't favor us. That's how I feel, anyways."

Flex ndded his agreement, "Yeah I know I've had to step out of a few comfort zones, since coming onboard. "Sting do you think that we are weaker from the air? I mean although we can infiltrate we don't have much altitude support. Do we need a strategy there?" Flex wondered.

Sting thought for a moment, then decided now was as good a time as any. "On an unrelated note, while you're all here, I've got some good news. For me, at least."

"Merlynne can fly but she's not an aerial combatant, per se." Sting said. "Between Defender's powers, however, and the slingshot attack we're working up, we can GET at people in the air, but it's a little trickier. Then again, we really haven't had aerial support since Ka-Sador left, so it's nothing new."

"We can always strap a jet-pack on you, Sting," Defender offered.

"Unless you can trick it up to shrink with me, I don't think that will work. Not that I haven't thought of it." Sting said. "What we need is some antigravity metal like they have in the comics. Or futuristic antigravity rings."

"Along with a man in a bright red cape! I guess your right we have managed up until now..."Flex trailed off as he thought back to when he first flew from America to rejoin his father in England. "What it must be to fly..." He mused out aloud.

"What stops you from being able to fly, Flex?" Defender asked. "After all, you should be able to morph yourself usable wings. Perhaps we should spend some time trying to work out the physics of getting you airborne."

Flex looked at Defender with a mixture of cynicism and awe. Finally he managed to say, "You think...? Come to think of it I don't know the full extent of this 'skins' abilities. Heck, I've not even stopped to think if the thing is healthy!"

Pausing to think for a moment, Flex finally made up his mind and added, "Lets get these other team tactics worked out first. I don't want to run before I can walk. Or should that be fly, without wings." Flex laughed, though he knew it was a real growner.

"Sorry I couldn't resist. But seriously maybe we could look into that. Changing to become like people is, well its easy together with my abilities to stretch...I guess it makes sense that I might be able to manage a greater range of shape changing control. I've never really thought about it, but it'll be worth having a look at later."

"Right." Sting said. "Oh, by the way, I'm getting married."

As if on cue, the police hotline tone sounded in the room.

"Wow, Port A's Finest is on the clock as usual." Sting said sardonically.

Flex found himself almost spinning from looking in amazement and shock at Sting to the Police band warning signal over on the control panel.

"Congratulations, but I guess details 'll have to wait. Duty calls, it seems." PC shook out the cobwebs caused by her dad's announcement long enough to walk over to the remote comm unit and flip the switch. "Protectors Central" she said.

"Protectors, this is Deputy Comissioner Mischenko. We've got a bad situation here. Mayor Adams and most of his staff are being held hostage in City Hall. Definate paranormal activity. We've got bears with blasters, some guy in a jetpack and some weirdo on the roof tossing firebolts and anyone who gets too close."

Defender turned to Sting and raised an eyebrow. "Stealth, eh?"

"Tell them we will be there shortly," he told PC.

Since he was wearing a mask, no one saw Sting blanch. "Bears with blasters." Sting said as he turned to Defender. In a whisper, Sting said "I thought the Krai had left the planet."

PC was busily punching in the descriptions of the perpetrators in order to see what they could find out about them, both through IPAC's files and their own.

The only hit she got, other then their own report on the Krai, was about a villian for hire called Jet, who used a jetpack to avoid capture.

Sting looked back at Defender. "Jetpack, huh? Maybe I can use his after we kick his ass."

"So can we get a plan up of city hall and work out our plan of attack?" Flex asked, seeing as they didn't seem to have a lot to go on.

"Good thought, Flex. PC, how long will it take you to get us security cam feeds and floorplans?" Defender asked.

"Shouldn't be long." PC said. "I should probably do it from command central though, so I have use of all the toys."

With that, the team proceeded up to the command center where PC got to work.

Soon a composite map/video feed appeared on the screens.

"They are ready for an invasion. We need to be able to neutralize the men inside as we engage the exterior foe. That means stealth. If we can get in touch with Siberian Star before he shows up, we might be able to strike from surprise outside as our covert ops group is striking inside. I propose that Sting, Merlynne, and Flex sneak in through your various gifts. Siberian Star and I will wait a little way away until you are in place. At your signal, we hit the guys on the roof while you are taking out the targets inside." Defender paused for a breath. "Questions? Suggestions?"

Flex thought through the plan then added, "Sounds good, Siberian Star would be good at helping to neutralise those based on the roof. Yet, the whole thing rests on us being able to neutralise those who are inside. Which reminds me, before we charge in there, do we have any idea what they might be up to? I mean have they made any ransom demands or anything?"

Sting had a thought. "I read in the paper the other week about some summit meeting between Adams and Senator Page regarding some new astronomy laboratory. The fact that the Krai are involved in this may mean that it has something to do with that."

Sting thought for a moment. "Siberian Star would be perfect for the exterior attack for two reasons. One, he flies, going up against Jet and Fireball-boy on the roof. Two, he could possibly be appearing on his own accord, leaving the bad guys thinking that he's all they have to deal with. If we can get to Star first, we can play that to our advantage."

Sting started punching numbers in his comm unit. " As far as you, there MAY be a way to get you into the building as well.", he said, hoping that Max was willing to take a call at the moment."

There was no immediate answer. That was not unusual for Max, even before his disappearance. Sting had learned that he often did not carry the communicator with him, leaving it instead with a page. Of course, Sting had never gotten a straight answer why Max did that.

ting turned off the comm. "So much for that. We'll work with your game plan, then. If Jet decides to fly off, you may have to face off with Firelad since you can leap tall buildings in a single bound."

"In any event, we should probably try to raise Star," PC said, "so that he doesn't inadvertantly come in guns blazing smiling for the cameras. Flex, you're his contact, I had meant to get that information for our files anyways. Got a number for me??"

"I'll get on it right away." Flex said, as he pulled out his communicator and gave the contact number he had been given by the 'Russian super' before.

"Whilst we are waiting to see how we plan to high tail it over to City hall, PC can you get any info on people who might work there. It may help if I appear as someone they expect to be there," Flex said.

"I can try." PC said.

Within a few moments, PC had a match on a maintainence worker who had called in sick. She found a picture for Flex to work with.

"Great" said Flex, trying different voices to match the face of the man he now perfectly resembled.

While that routine was running, PC sent out the call, hoping to raise Siberian Star. "They've got a flyer, it makes sense for us to have one on site as well."

The whiteboard was nearly filled with formulae and smudges. Blue ran into green, and the ocassional red striking through various arrows and conclusions made it into what would be a masterpiece were it across campus in the art studios. Here in the engineering labs of Port Alexander University it constituted a potential disaster unless Oleg Gavrilov was able to salvage his dissertation research.

At the height of an eureka moment his communicator began to buzz. Fiddling with the unit, trying not to lose his train of thought he barked "Da!"

"Siberian Star, I presume. This is PC of the Protectors. We have a hostage situation at City Hall with the Mayor and his staff with a small army of paranormals involved. We could use your assistance. Are you available?"

A lengthy pause met PC, and then came the reply. "Da, where should I meet you?"

Defender slid his hands over the keyboard and pulled up a street map of the area. He cross-referenced for building height and found what he was looking for. "There. Give him the address for that building and tell him to meet us on the roof. Get word to the police as well. We will need a liaison there with a radio. Someone who knows what is going on would be a plus. Keep watching the scene as best you can, PC. You are our eyes inside.

Quickly Siberian Star jotted down some notes in shorthand that would hopefully remind him later of the track he was on. Pushing his papers aside, Oleg Gavrilov pulled the curtains in his lab and grabbed his case.

"We will all meet with Star except for Flex. Unless I'm mistaken, you will likely need the extra time to get yourself into position to enter the building. Your job, Flex, will be to get yourself captured and taken to where the other hostages are. When everything goes down, you primary goal is to protect them and keep them from harm. Can you do that? Everyone who is going in, communicators on vibrate right now so you don't forget. We will be working on silent signals from here on."

The team headed down to the tunnels and took the high speed monorail line to the secret exit near the warehouse. From there they split up and travelled in their usual ways - Sting on foot, Defender making long leaps, Merlynne flying along near him and Flex doing his best to keep up with a combination of running and jumping and sticking to walls.

Flex left them near the City Hall to infiltrate the building while the others rendezvoused with Siberian Star on the nearby rooftop.

The Russian hero stood motionless with his arms crossed, waiting for the heroes to arrive. As they broke through the concrete and steel jungle he walked over to rooftop closest their landing.

"Protectors, we meet again."

"Siberian Star. Good to see you again," Defender extended his hand. "We've got a bad situation in the Mayor's Office and need all the help we can get."

A gloved hand met Defender's, "That is my mission, to help those in need and cannot help themselves." Siberian Star let his smug remark hang for a beat and then continued, "What is the trouble?"

"A group of superpowered individuals have taken control of City Hall. In the process, they have taken hostages including the Mayor and a Senator. We've got some intelligence from inside, but they were smart enough to disable the security cameras. There are two snipers on the roof, one with the ability to fly. There are others scattered inside, mostly on the second floor." Defender pulled a PDA from a shock case on his belt. He quickly called up the floor plans PC had downloaded.

"Our plan is to send an infiltration team inside to deal with the people inside. Once they are in place and ready to strike, you and I will engage the two on the roof. The interior teams primary mission is to get the hostages out. Our mission is to contain the villains on the outside. Does that sound agreeable with you?"

"Da," he agreed. "Do we know what to expect from these villains? our targets on the roof?"

Defender brought up the IPAC intel sheets on Jet. "This is our airborne opponent. We couldn't find data on his partner, but physical evidence points to fire generation in an offensive capacity. We are waiting on a liaison from the police department to see what info they have gathered. Once we have that, Sting and Merlynne are on their way inside."

"Sting, while we are waiting, do you think you could get to a camera shop and pick up a small, digital camcorder? Get one with a firewire connection and I should be able to quickly patch it into Merlynne's comm unit. It would give us a video feed from inside."

Defender made out a short list of items and synced it into Sting's PDA. "That should be what I need."

Looking at Siberian Star's shoulder plates, he tilted his head. "Have you ever considered... Nevermind."

"What?" he asked.

"Sorry. I was just noticing that your left shoulder pauldron would be a perfect place to mount a camera," Defender answered.

"I'm not much into television," he replied. "You want me to take the flying foe, I presume. When do we strike?"

Meanwhile, Sting raced off to a nearby upscale camera shop. Zipping into the alley, he did a quick strip of his costume to a T-shirt and spandex biker shorts, revealing Alex Crosby. Sting always kept a small amount of cash, ID and a credit card with him in the event of a necessary quick change. Crosby walked into the store and gave the clerk the list of items he needed. Once retrieved, he left the store and practically tripped over Max who was standing just outside the shop.

"Max!" Sting said. He had hoped Max remembered his non-costumed identity.

"You called?" Max asked.

Sting zipped off to the left, then returned in costume. "I did. The entire legislative staff of Port Alexander and one of our Senators is being held hostage by the Krai. I know you can fly, but it might be faster if I carry you. That and I can fill you in on the way."

"We should race some day. But, I have been following the story," Max said. He pulled a beat up personal radio from his pocket. It was the size of a deck of playing card, except it was twice as deep. Black electrical tape held the faceplate on. On a good day, it might actually pick up FM broadcasts. "Where do you want me?"

"I'll leave that to the boss. Follow me." Sting turned to head back.

"No, where do you want me?" Max asked.

Sting turned back to Max and looked at him. "I don't follow." Sting said.

"You called. I came. I'm here to help you. Do you want me in the building? What floor? Do you want me outside the building? In what capacity? Who do you want me to fight? Where do you want the fight? You are the one that I will answer to in this. You are the one that I trust. I will not follow the Wanderer. I will not follow Defender. But I and Gilngurn will do as you wish. Or we will go it alone." Max tightened his grip on his spear. "In fact, I'd rather avoid even seeing either of those two for a very long time."

Sting realized that this was a heavily complicated situation. Still, they needed all the help they could get, so he let it go for now. "How well do you know City Hall internally? If I told you to be *below* the building beneath a certain room, would you be able to be there? I anticipate that when blows come to blows, you'll be best served popping up from the floor and making Krai-kabobs with that spear. Until then, though, your most fortuitous position, I think, would be beneath Ciy Hall. Good by you?"

Max nodded.

"OK, I gotta head back with the tech stuff." Sting said. "We're on radio silence, so I'll text message you with my general location. When we strike, I'll hit the code alpha, but make sure you're on vibrate so we don't trip anyone up." Sting nodded at the Beggar King. "Be careful. Godspeed, my friend." Sting stopped for a second. "And something tells me it will be a long time before you have to deal with the Wanderer again. Just so you know." With that, Sting sped away.

"The Halls of Power shall run red with the Blood of the Vanquished!" Max said, clutching his fist in the air. He dropped through the pavement, disappearing.

Sting returned to the rendevous point with the equipment. "Here you go, guys. I hope I shopped well."

Defender took the bag and sorted through the contents. "Yes, this will do nicely."

Sting turned to Defender. "Boss, I need to talk to you for a moment. Privately. No offense to anyone else. And yes, it's pertinent to the case."

"One other thing you should know." Sting said. "I ran into Max coming out of the shop. He's here to help, but for some reason he wants nothing to do with you personally at the moment. We can sort all that out later, but for now, he's in position beneath city hall, awaiting our signal. I figure at the least he can help with the Krai, and since I'm figuring on being the one to make the call inside City Hall, it made sense to coordinate with him."

"Max is alive?" Defender's expression went from relief to anger. "Keep him under control. The last thing we need is for some half-crazed loose cannon running wild in a hostage situation."

"I think he'll be fine. There are...issues with Max, especially since his return,but he trusts me implicitly, as much as I gather. Of course, that probably results from the fact that I've tried hard not to make him feel like a 'half-crazed loose cannon', mainly because he's had a hand in saving lives, including ours." Sting said in a way that was matter-of-fact without being disrespectful. "Of course, I trust you implicitly as well, which leaves me in an awkward position. But we can talk more about this later after our governing body is safe and sound."

Meanwhile, as the other Protectors gathered on a nearby rooftop to meet with Siberian Star, Flex moved easily through the police cordon. Once around the side of the building he felt offered him the best way in, he changed once again, from cop to civic employee.

Knowing that the Krai had taken out the internal camera's probably meant, that they could only cover certain parts of the building with their hired bodies. Flex knew he still needed to be on guard and yet entry should be straightforward for someone with his abilities.

Sting and Merlynne, one shrunk and the other invisible, had little difficulty entering the building. Once there, Merlynne rested a moment and then she and Sting searched the building quickly. There were krai snipers in each corner office as well as more in the office with the Mayor and Senator. The rest of the hostages, including Flex, were under guard, in a small office which backed up against the Mayor's office. A pair of krai were near the top of the stairs covering the entrance.

Sting very quickly tapped out a text message to Defender: # OF KRAI: 3 W MAYR - 2 IN 3 CRNR OFF - 2 W HOSTG - 3 ROOF. TOTAL: 14. ADVIZ?

Defender replied: TAK OUT KRAI W MAYR MOVE 2 HOSTG

Flex looked around and thought out a plan as he waited for the silent signal from the others. When it came he felt confident that the could do quickly with the Krai guards.

Staggering over to one side, he allowed his face to begin to go blue as if he had been choking, for some time he had pretended to be chewing on a piece of gum. It was this that had given him the idea of pretending to choke. And so now he staggered about, forcing as he did the other hostages into one corner away from the guards even as he allowed his face to begin to contort and turn a slight bluish colour.

Defender tapped a few more buttons on his cell phone and all the Protector's communicators vibrated with the go signal. Defender pointed at the roof and leapt towards it. With a nod Siberian Star followed.

The Beggar King rose up through the floor in the middle of the building, appearing at the foot of the stairs leading up to the first floor. He saw two of the krai behind some makeshift cover at the top of the stairs looking at him in surprise.

In the room with hostages, Flex got the signal. He pushed the hostages roughly to one side. His face now a putrid blue colour from looking choked and in distress. Then, with the hostages behind him, he leapt from where he was standing, into attack against their captors. A few punches and kicks later and the two krai dropped to the floor before they had a chance to damage the hostages.

Merlynne, carrying Sting, slipped toward the door to the Mayor's office. Sting dropped off and slipped under the door as she became visible, forming the Lakesword.

Siberian Star, taking advantage of his flight over Defender, intended to arrive slightly before the Protector. His intention was to get the flying villain airbourne and occupy the attention of the fireball throwing foe. Hopefully this would allow Defender an unexpected attack on the distracted foe. The young Russian pulled up into a hover around ten metres away and called out "Surrender. You are under arrest by the citizen Siberian Star!"

"Get him," shouted the one who must be Jet, firing his jetpack and rising to an equal height with the hero. At his order, the krai opened fire with their blasters. Jet added to the firepower with a blast of his own.

Siberian Star put on a display of aerial acrobatics that would have shamed Eddie Rickenbacker. He avoided three of the attacks but was nicked by one krai blaster.

As Siberian Star distracted the two villians and the three krai on the roof, Defender landed on the edge and charged at the unknown villian from behind. He landed a solid punch that knocked the man several meters away and off his feet. His foe was clad in a bodysuit with a flamy/wavy dividing line at the waist; above it it was white, below it a firey red.

"Fool," he shouted. "You dare to challenge Thermo?" He got to his feet and brought his hands together. Ice jumped from his hands to take on a roughly humanoid form in front of Defender. It started to advance on the hero.

"OK Folks," Flex said trying to reassure the hostages, as he reverted to his more usual image before the frightened staff. "The Protectors are here to get to get you, the Mayor and the Senator away safely. Now before I can get out I need to take care of the other Krai that our outside this door. I need you to pull a distraction whilst I am up there," Flex pointed to the old fashioned ceiling above.

"When they are both in, I plan to jump them. Everyone with me so far?" Flex looked around the frightened nodding heads. "OK, lets put these two out of the way so they are left wondering what is happening."

Looking around, Flex knew this was going to be difficult but he didn't have a lot to work with. He pulled out his communicator to alert Sting to what he was planning, just in case he wanted in on the fun. "Sting, 2 Krai down. Hostages safe. Will distract other 2 outside Ok?" he typed. There was no response and Flex decided to wait another moment, then one of the hostages screamed.

Flex spun around and saw a figure clad in motley and carrying a long spear passing through the wall like a ghost. In a bare second it stood inside the room with them all.

Defender stepped in as the ice thing smacked him, picked it and up and hurled it at Thermo. As the two, creator and created, crashed together, Defender closed in and landed another punch on Thermo.

"Damnation," said the groggy Thermo launching a misaimed blast of fire at Defender. The ice thing said nothing but got to it's feet and lumbered back to Defender.

The krai and Jet kept up their fire on Siberian Star.

In the office, Sting and Merlynne made short work of the krai on guard, dropping them to the ground in a few seconds with punches and blows of the Lakesword.

"Mayor Adams, Senator." Sting nodded to both men. "We've got the situation in hand, but we need to get you and the other hostages out of here. Merlynne, guard these men, I'll be right back." With that, Sting shrunk down to 1 inch and went under the door to where the hostages were.

There he found Flex and the Beggar King eyeing each other over the fallen krai.

Sting grew and nodded to both men. "Nice work" he said quietly. "Hold a moment." Sting then typed a message to Merlynne. COAST CLR --- BRING MAY & SEN WITH, STRT THRU DOOR

A few moments later, Merlynne came through the pathway with Senator Page and Mayor Adams.

Sting peered around the hallway before speaking softly "We need to get the hostages out. Max, can you head up to the roof and bat cleanup where needed up there? Flex, Merlynne, escort everyone out, be on guard for surprise Krai"

"Perhaps," Max said, pointing the spear tip at the first Krai. "Once I have finished off these Trolls."

"They're as finished as they need to be for the moment." Sting said. "Right now we have people in danger on the roof and you're the best candidate for immediate support." He looked right in Max's eyes, trying to head off an argument. "You said minutes ago that you trust me, therefore you would follow me. I am asking you to help our colleagues upstairs, my friend. We can deal with the Krai later."

"Bah!" Max pulled back his spear. "Girngrun does not cry for their blood at the moment. But Trolls are fast healers. They will return to waking and you will regret stopping me."

With the sweep of his coat, Max spun and walked through the door.

Sting exhaled. "I'm getting too old for this." he said under his breath before looking at the others. "Let's git er done." With that, Sting shrank and headed out

On the roof, Siberian Star was shucking and jiving as fast as he could, but was starting to be worn down. Defender grabbed the ice thing and heaved it off the roof where it fell to the street and shattered into thousands of little ice cubes.

Defender turned and charged at Thermo, pasting him with a solid punch and the icyhot villian slumped to the roof. His collapse drew the attention of the krai on the roof and they turned their fire on Defender. It caught Jet's attention, too, who fired a last blast at Siberian Star and then flew to land by Thermo.

Merlynne and Flex began to herd the former hostages out and down the stairs heading for safety as fast as they could. Sting raced across the hall and toward one of the corner offices as Max ghosted through a wall.

Siberian Star closed in on Jet fire blast after blast of ice at the flying villian. Defender stepped in close and made sure of Thermo, before taking a few swings at Jet himself.

Jet decided discretion was the better part of valour and scooped up Thermo before heading up and away from the building. The krai provided covering fire.

Sting, meantime, had slipped into one of the corner rooms covering the front of the building. A quick growth spurt into a punch laid one sniper out.

As quickly as he could Flex moved the crowd along. The last thing he wanted was for them to be caught in any crossfire.

"Merlynne I suggest we get the main doors open and get the our friends in blue to come and pick up and we can try and keep them covered, before joining the fray."

They passed by two unconscious krai at the top of the staircase and started down.

Sting stepped to the other krai and winced as a blaster bolt scored his side. Then he pasted that one as well.

Up above, Defender dropped one krai sniper as Siberian Star dodged blaster fire.

Jet and Thermo used the cover to make good their escape.

As they continued down the stairs, restricted in speed by the slowness of the hostages, Flex kept a careful eye behind their back, trusting that Merlynne was doing the same as she lead the way up at the front. Looking down the stairs ahead Flex could see the front entrance hall. "I will be glad when we can get these folks packed off and safe ,so we can get to the bottom of this." He thought to himself.

As he they descended the stairs, he tapped in a quick message to Sting. "Hostages nearing front entrance. Is the coast clear from above? Flx"

Frustrated at Jet's escape, Siberian Star took it out on the krai. Two ice blasts dropped the two bear-aliens where they stood.

Sting finished up the two krai he was working on, but must have missed the message in his haste. He sped toward the other front room to finish clearing the krai. Again, he shrank and slipped under the door. There he stopped in surprise, for he saw one krai down on the floor and the other was flying backwards out the window, propelled by a blow from the butt of the Beggar King's spear.

Flex and Merlynne halted at the front door, and twitched at the sound of breaking glass above them. Less than a second later the krai hit the ground near the corner of the building.

The sound of broken glass sent an alert to Siberian Star who went to investigate. Upon seeing the krai, he shooed away a crowd of onlookers and media and established a barrier.

Defender gathered the bodies and weapons on the roof. As he did so, he clicked on his communicator. "Protectors report. What is your situation."

Meanwhile, a floor or so down, Max spun his spear in a fluid pattern before coming to rest in a relaxed guard. "The varlets are vanquished! Victory to the righteous this day! Vivat! And to the victors, the spoils." He hefted one of the Krai weapons. "A trophy for my collection. A shame your hearts are a poison..."

He finally noticed Sting. "Are there more to deal with? I feel the battle rage still upon me."

Sting felt relieved when the communicator buzzed through. "It was slightly grizzly, but we took care of the Krai down here. Nary a hostage hurt, although Max nearly gave one a heart attack doing his Casper impression. I THINK we've gotten them all...the ones on the hostages, the corner rooms..." Sting thought. "We MIGHT have missed one corner." He pointed to the back of the building on the far side of where the Mayor's office was. "Max and I can clean that up. Flex and Lynne are outside with the hostages, should they send in the cleanup crew? One of the ones guarding the mayor looked like their leader."

"If he is the leader, handle him personally. Jet and Thermos escaped, so we need someone to interrogate," Defender said.

"Max, you ready?" Sting said.

The spear-wielding hero looked up with an unsettling smile as his body shifted. In a steady voice, "I shall remove the final pawns from the board." He was a blur as he disappeared through the door.

"Man, debriefing is going to be interesting." Sting said to himself as he returned to where the leader was hopefully still lying.

Sting rounded up the unconscious krai and was joined in the lobby by Max who added two more to the pile.

"Sting to Defender" Sting said as he hit his comm unit. "The Worlds Largest Fur Rug has been assembled in the lobby and awaiting security. There's about 10-12, not counting the one that got chucked out the window. Next course of action?"

"I'm signaling the clean-up crew to come in. Once you see them, go outside and take your bows with Siberian Star. Make sure Flex and Merlynne get a little spotlight time too." Defender clicked off his communicator and headed to where the hostages we being detained. Specifically, he sought the two politicos who had been held by the Krai.

Meanwhile outside, Siberian Star had secured the area around city hall and was talking to the officer in charge. A mobile new unit pushing its way to the police line and Siberian Star approached.

Defender found the Senator and Mayor in an ambulance being given the once over by the paramedics. Defender had no problem getting in.

"Senator. Mr. Mayor. I'm glad to see the two of you were unharmed," Defender said. "I hope it did not take us too long to get into position. These beings that held you hostage. Do you have any idea why they attacked? Did they mention anything or speak with you about anything?"

"Very little," said Mayor Adams who seemed remarkably composed about the whole situation. "Thermo seemed to be the leader, even the krai deferred to him. Frankly," he leaned closer to Defender, "I think they were planning to kill us. There was a tinge of anarchy to the whole setup."

"Anarchy? They were not working well together then?" Defender asked. "Or was it more a general sense of anarchy toward society?"

"Towards society, I think," said Adams. "A sort of general disruption seemed to be the plan."

"Thank you for your time. If either of you remember anything about the situation and think it is too much for the police to handle," Defender said as he handed each a Protectors business card, "Please give us a call. We'd better get out of here before we turn this into more of a circus."

As the "cleanup crew" made their way into the building, Sting turned to Max. "You care to face the cameras, or are you going to head back?"

In a moment of clarity, Max said, "I don't think the world is ready for Us." He ghosted out and dropped through the floor.

As Flex and Merlynne stepped out into the full attention of the Police, Medics and many camera men that had formed a human wall around the mayoral offices. It was easy to be overwhelmed, so Flex was only to glad that he was still at the back of the crowd. As they moved out and the Police took over, the hostages were lead away, much to Flex's relief.

Looking over to one side, Flex saw Siberian Star float down and begin to engage with the various members of the press. "Time to get a look at what's happening with the rest." Flex thought. Then shouting out to Merlynne he added, "Merlynne you take it from here, I give the others a hand." Then not waiting for an answer, he promplty slipped back into the building as quietly as he could. Later he would justify himself by reminding himself that, "He just didn't feel ready, not yet anyway."

As Merlynne escorted the hostages outside, Flex slipped back into the building. Leaping back up the stairs he had just descended, he changed back into this usual Flex persona and leant a hand with the mop up duty.

Sting came over to the press area where Siberian Star was holding court. Once the reporters turned their attention to him, Sting thanked Siberian Star publicly for assisting the Protectors on this case and then talked up Merlynne and Flex as the newest members of the Protectors. "No sense letting the press thing Star was the head of the operation" Sting thought to himself as he patiently answered reporters questions without giving away too many of the internal details of what just went down.

Satisfied that the Protectors were well represented with the press, Sting went to find Defender, who was still speaking with the Mayor and the Senator.

Leaving the two politicians, Defender met Sting halfway. "We need to get the team rounded up and out of here before we pull too much press. Star might crave the attention, but popularity is a dangerous thing. I'm sure he will learn that in his own time. Is everything wrapped up?"

"To a degree" Sting said. "I gave soundbites to the press welcoming Flex and Merlynne to the team and thanking Star for helping the Protectors crack the case. Maybe a little petty, but that 'helping the helpless' crack raised my gray hairs a bit. They're taking the Krai into custody right now, I'd love to talk to their leader, even though she probably won't say much. One thing I'm wondering, though...Ka-Sador swore that the Krai would be the end of our planet, yet we dropped a phalanx of them in under a minute. We had the element of surprise, sure, but I really thought they'd be...tougher.

"I have a nagging suspicion that these Krai may not be real Krai. Or at least not the militant Krai we have run into before. Once we get clear of the area, I'm going to contact IPAC and arrange an interview with their leader. We need to talk to them."

"Team worked very well, which it will need to. In roughly 2 months, we've lost Ka-Sador and Wanderer and replaced them with two capable but green heroes. Even with that, we've lost some firepower and will need to keep the teamwork rolling to compensate."

"We may have another long-term issue." Sting said. "That lunatic comment about Max may have got my dander up, but in working with him, I think something's seriously happened to him in his absence. He's got this spear as a weapon now, he talks and braids his hair like Thor. But what got me the most is that Max is a lot more bloodthirsty...he talked about "killing the trolls"...and referred to himself as "we". I still don't think he in and of himself is the lunatic you seem to, but there's definately something going on there that we probably need to investigate."

"Perhaps you are only now noticing what the Wanderer and I saw earlier. Max's grip on reality is tentative at best. He has been harmless up until recently. And I don't question the good work he does with the homeless. But why do I always see a cult when I look at his followers?" Defender ran his hand through his hair. "I'm not trying to be harsh about the man, but 'right thing done for the wrong reasons is still wrong.' Or so Delenn says. We can talk about this at the Fortress. Besides, we have two villains to find."

Defender tapped a couple of buttons on his communicator to signal the team to return to base.

Soon, the Protectors were back in the Fortress'es residence dome, favorite drinks near to hand.

"Okay, team. This one is going to be a little difficult to debrief as we were scattered to the winds, but best we hit it now while the memories are fresh. Sting, would you like to start your post-game analysis?" Defender asked.

"Thanks, Boomer." Sting deadpanned, wondering if Defender watched ESPN at all. "Primary goal - Save Hostages. Rousing success. No one hurt, everyone safe, including the bigwigs. Secondary goal - capture bad guys, only moderately so. We tagged 14 "Krai", and I use the term loosely because neither Defender and I are convinced they were true Krai, or at least true Warrior class Krai. However, the two paranormals apparently ringleading things got away. From talking to Defender, that could be seen as our one major strategy flaw - one other person on the roof might have been able to get the Krai off of Siberian Star's back. However our experience with the Krai had them tougher than they actually were, so we had the numbers inside we thought we needed, and Star had his hands full getting into a 3 on 1 sitch in the first place."

"Strategy wise, the inside work played to perfection. That's the dividends of teamwork drills. Plus we had some help from the Beggar King, although with his situation we can't always count on that. Overall, this scenario played out about as well as it could with the bad guys still hitting the road. One thing I'd recommend to our current it possible to cobble together small tracers we can tag the bad guys with at some point in the event they try to escape again? Might help in herding them in at some point. That's something PC can monitor from here so we know where to head if we lose track of 'em"

Flex listend in intently. In Sting he recognised not only an experienced hero, but one who clearly had the big picture in mind. A strategist.

Defender turned toward PC for her reaction. When he realized Sting was waiting on him, he shrugged. "Don't look at me. I'm up to my armpits in building a nursery for the Baby Bryce. Do you know how hard it is to hang wallpaper when you have the strength to lift a ton? It can get expensive."

"Fair enough." PC said. "I don't think I've got the tech smarts to do it. I'd be happy to hang wallpaper if the boss wants, though. In any event, it's a good idea but may have to wait until the 'blessed event'...unless you think Team Defender might have the skills to do it."

"If you can build communicators, you can build tracers," Defender said. "All they are are batteries and transmitters."

"If you say so, boss." PC said. "I just hope I have the tech knowhow to make them small and relatively unnoticeable. Plus figure out a way to get them to attach. Even after that, I can imagine that these things will need to be on more or less constant supply, as we have no idea if we can get them back once we catch the bad guys. And as much as I love to work for the team, I don't have the time to devote to anything approaching mass production."

"This is something we can talk about later." Sting said. "Let's get the rest of the debriefing done."

When his turn came, Flex offered what happened with him. It was as they planned it so he didn't need to elaborate as there was nothing further to add. Although he was glad to have the rest of the mission laid out, to fill in what happened around the rest of the building, whilst he had been with the hostages.

When everyone had finished reporting, Sting turned back to Defender. "Defender, you wanted to try and find these guys. Any idea where to start?"

"At this point I think they might be lying low somewhere. Maybe the 'Parts. How are we set for information contacts as a group?" Defender asked.

At this Flex piped up. "I'd be your man for that." He offered. "I can ask about. See what I can turn up by way of info and let you know if I find anything out."

"Depending upon the technology used in the jetpack, we might be able to trace that. A large amount of fuel purchased, or stolen parts. We can also check with the local office of the FAA to see if they have cleared any recent testing areas for jetpack research. The Krai would stick out like a sore thumb, so we could maybe track anything that might point to where they were hiding. If I remember correctly, I recently saw a newspaper article about 'werewolves' and 'vampires'. That would be a good place to start." Defender rubbed his hands together. "I'm thinking it is time to stop reacting and initiate some action of our own."

To be continued ...

Last Updated 15 June 2004