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Issue Thirty-six, Rock the Krai-dle

The Protectors began their investigation into the unsettling presence of Krai back on Earth. A news chopper had followed the fleeing Jet and Thermo for a short distance, until a near miss by a heat blast from Jet convinced them to veer off. The pair had then dropped low and dissappeared into Commerce City.

More information about Jet was discovered by PC from both IPAC and non-IPAC sources. Apparently he had designed the flying battlesuit for use by the British military, but felt he hadn't been offered enough money - so he took the suit out to show what it could do. His real name was Oscar Stevens, a name which Defender recognized.

No one seemed to have any information about Thermo, at least not that PC could find. Flex had some luck with his contacts. Thermo had shown up on the scene, stuck his head above water long enough to find and hire Jet then dissappeared again. That had all happened sometime around last January.

Then things were quiet for nearly a week.

PC had been working hard, trying to track down the Krai and Thermo. It had been mostly frustrating work, and she was taking a break. She considered what she had learned, and then shrugged and returned to work. A new email had arrived, looking like a response to a query she had posted. She opened it, expecting another dead end. Then leaned closer. Instead of vague hints and conspiracy theories, there was simply this.

"I can help you find Thermo and the Krai. Send someone, just one, to Pier 36, tonight, 12:30am. I'll find you."

PC punched some buttons and made some calls. The first one was to her father. "Yeah, I'll head in. Give me a bit of time." Sting said. How about you call the Boss, find out when he can chat, and then let me know and I'll be there."

"OK, see you then." PC said. If they were only going to send one person...she thought it might be prudent to consider sending two. Or 1 and 1/12, as the case may be.

She tried to get a hold of Defender.

Defender answered after two rings. "What's up?"

PC transmitted the e-mail over Defender's cellular to give him the idea. "The person asks for one person to show up. That should probably be you. However, I thought you might be able to take an extra inch or so with you, if you smell what I'm cooking."

"I won't want to risk an ambush without back-up. On the other hand, we don't know anything about our informant. He might be able to detect a second life form. Instant deal-breaker if he can. I think having Sting on station nearby would be a better option. He's quick, perhaps the fastest man in Port Alexander. Let me finish up with the team here and I'll be in the Fortress in an hour."

Roughly an hour or so later, Sting, PC and Defender had gathered at the Fortress. Merlynne was on site as well but working out in the gym area. "So as I understand it," PC began. "Sting will be at a location sufficiently away from the meeting place but close enough to superspeed it to where you are in the event of an ambush. Meanwhile, you" she said, gesturing to Defender, "will meet one on one with this source. I want to be clear, so that I can tell him who to look for when I respond."

"Sounds like the plan," Defender said. "I'll have my comm on live feed and record unless he's bright enough to figure that out."

"Right." PC said. She then sent a reply to the mysterious sender, of exactly six words. "One of us will be there."

At the appointed time, Defender arrived at the meeting place and began to pace the area. A few moments after the scheduled time , a match scratched on a wall in an alley a few yards away and Defender saw a masked face and a hand beckoning.

He went to join it. In the alley, with a lit cigarette was a lithely built man in a loose coat over some kind of dark bodysuit. A mask on his face had been rolled up to reveal the mouth and the man took a long drag. The mask was also dark in color, black most likely, covered with a tracery of fine silver lines. "Defender," said the man. "Have a seat." He pointed to a few boxes in the alley and plopped down on one himself.

"I seem to be at a disadvantage. You know me, obviously. Do you have a name I can use?" Defender asked as he took a seat.

"Several. The one you might know is 'Blackshield,'" said the man. "I'll cut to the chase, here. Thanks for coming." He took another drag on his cigarette. "You want information on the Krai and Thermo. I've got it. What I want is your help to get clear when it's all over."

"Blackshield, eh? Where do you normally operate? I can't say that your name rings a bell with me right now," Defender said. "When you say 'get clear', it makes me think you have been working with them."

"Well," said the man with a hard smile, "if you don't know, so much the better. Don't expect me to do your job. And yes, I'm working for Thermo right now."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to insult you," Defender said. "I was just letting you know that your name wasn't as known as you might have feared. Regardless, it seems we are in a position to help one another. You want out of the organization and we want the ring leaders. I'd say we are both in an actionable position. It sounds as if you have a stratagem prepared. So, what are you offering and what do you wish in return?"

"What I want is simple, I want a way back to Europe and to stay out of jail. What I've got is fairly detailed information on where Thermo and the Krai are, who else is there, and some idea of what they're doing," said Blackshield.

"I think we can do business," Defender said. "Can you give me forty-eight hours to make arrangements? Or do circumstances require you disappear immediately?"

"Take your time," said Blackshield. "They're not planning to take over the world tomorrow. How will we make contact?"

"You can use the 800 number or email as you did before. Control will be looking for your call in thirty-six hours."

"No direct line, eh? Allright. I'll call, and say that it's, umm, Simon Templar."

Defender stood. "I'll speak with you again in thirty-six hours. I assume air travel by coach will be acceptable? Or do you need to avoid security checkpoints?"

"I'll make my own travel arrangements. A few thousand in cash would be handy, but not necessary. Mostly I just need to be sure that when I walk, no one walks after me, if you know what I mean," said Blackshield.

"I understand," Defender said. "See you in two days."

"Call you in one," said the man, pulling his mask back down over his face and tossing his ciggie aside. Without another word he rose and headed back down the alley.

Defender waited until he was gone before giving the 'All Clear' signal. He slid onto the DefenderCycle and swung by to 'pick up' Sting on the way back to headquarters. Shortly, they were racing into the warehouse, with Sting holding himself back so the motorcycle could keep up. A few minutes later, they were in the Control Dome. Defender downloaded the audio and video saves from his DefenderComp and hit play.

After viewing the video, PC went to work trying to find out more about this mysterious stranger Defender had spoken with.

A few quick searches turned up some data. Blackshield, real name unknown, was a fairly well-known super criminal working mostly in England and France. There were rumours of a connection to the Net, but nothing solid. It was clear that he sometimes did work for other supervillians or teams on a for-hire basis, and some indications that he actually did straight-forward mercenary work mostly in South America and South Africa. Tough and durable and highly trained in the use of his shield, he probably couldn't go toe to toe with a lot of supers, but he certainly would be an effective leader of mercenaries or a welcome addition to a super strike force. PC also noted that there were some strange elisions in his records and timelines, which suggested to her that someone was supressing parts of his record.

PC dug deeper. Whoever or whatever was doing the coverup had been thorough. She was unable to find any more information about Blackshield himself, but she did find a few more tidbits about why. She was looking primarily at InterPol and IPAC records, and the gaps were completely ignored in the InterPol records but mentioned as confusing in the IPAC records. That, and a few others hints, suggested to her that the InterPol records were being supressed from above which meant either high level corruption, or influence from, in this case the English and/or French, government.

After towelling of and getting cleaned up from another training session, Flex wondered into the control room to see PC hunched over her console. "You know that isn't not good for your back." He offered in a good natured way.

After everyone present had seen the video, Defender motioned for them to find a seat. "It looks like we have a rather well established mercenary on our hands. He's willing to sell out his leaders in exchange for our protection from the law. Does anyone have any moral objections to this? I ask because it is vitally important that we nail this Krai before they cause too much damage. I'd also like to get the two humans they are working with. I don't like it when they get away."

After a short pause, "Of course, this whole thing could be a set up."

"If so, it's rather elaborate." Sting said. "Elaborate, to my experience, is not the Krai's style...but then again, neither is working *FOR* anyone. But yeah, Blackadder or whatever his name is isn't the immediate threat."

"What bugs me the most is what I found when digging the guy up." PC said as she shared her findings with everyone. "Whoever this guy is, he's got friends in high places. That means he's either working with his government's sanction or there are people high in his government in bed with some money's on the Net in that regard, as there's some tenuous things that link him with them. Part of me wonders that if he's important to them, why is he not going to them for help...unless there's been a falling out."

"If it's got something to do w/guvernment intel," Merlynne began, her accent givng a playful lilt to the words, "p'haps I kin do some diggin' for ye. We've got a day or so...lemme see what I kin come up with. Even as a Peacekeeper trainee, I've got clearances ye might not be able to hack."

"Not bloodly likely." PC said under her breath.

"I'm not overly concerned with the missing pieces of his background. Governments hire mercenaries. He might have rolled over on someone before. That might explain where Interpol blanked his record. The important issue is whether we should take his offer or not. He is under the impression that we will. If he is laying a trap, he expects me to walk right into it. It will make it simpler as I have no intentions of going alone next time." Defender straightened his mask.

"If he is telling the truth and wants out, we will have to go to bat for him with IPAC. This isn't a simple matter of making sure he is clear of the scene. He'll be expecting us to blank his record as well. He might be looking for a clean slate. I'm not sure I want to turn that loose on Europe."

"Shouldn't we clarify that with him before we go into this?" Sting said. "I mean, he might be expecting us to do things that we really don't have the direct cache to do, and even indirectly might be problematic."

Flex, who had up until now simply been content to listen, nodded his head. "I agree with Sting. Although we need his support he has a criminal record. Whether parts have been suppressed or not. Do we have the jurisdiction to dismiss that record, or ignore it?"

The meeting adjourned on that note.

The next at afternoon at 4:11, the Protector hot line rang and a man identifying himself as Simon Templar came on the line asking for Defender.

"Please hold." PC said, and then tried to either find Defender or to connect him to the line.

PC rang through Defender's phone and was mildly surprised when Karen answered. "Hey Lore... The boss is wrapping up some stuff with the financial department. Let me stick my head in the room. I'm sure he'd love a break."

A minute later, Defender was on the other end of the line, safely in his office and away from the penny pinchers he constantly had to remind himself were on his side. "Defender here."

"This is Simon Templar," said Blackshield's voice. "I've only got a few minutes so I'm going to toss you some stuff here as a gesture of good faith. Thermo's not happy with the failure of the City Hall thing, his new plan involves a lot of dead people. He's talking to someone called Saruva about some kind of chemical or biological weapon. He's also got some muscle from Saruva, two freaks called Jackal and Cheetah. There's also a kid called Frostbite. I think Thermo's got some hold on him, he doesn't seem like he belongs here. It's hard to get a headcount of the Krai, they all look alike to me. Maybe eight or ten. Thermo and Jet. To round out the motley crew he's got some hardcases from a Chinese gang in Chinatown, about half a dozen, and I think at least one's a para. That's the lot."

"We're gonna need a bigger boat," Defender said to himself. "You've convinced me that we need your assistance. We've got two alternatives. If you walk before the fight, we'll make sure you get clear and no one comes after you for involvement in this. If you stay for the fight and help out, we can go to bat for you with the authorities. The first is the easiest on you obviously, as well as on us. But for all I know you are looking to go straight and legit. So tell me which route you prefer."

"Look," said 'Templar', "I'm a crook, we both know it. I'm a bad guy. But these guys want to sell the planet to bunch of space bears. That's too much. I don't think you can do a lot with the authorities for me -- too much history. But, hell, it's my fight too. I'm here, just make sure I get away clean. I may not be standing at the end of it, and if I'm not, get me patched up and out of there -- and then away clean. Deal?"

"We have a deal," Defender said. "Do you still want to meet for details or is this fine?"

"I don't think I can get away again to meet, Thermo's getting antsy," said Blackshield. "If you tell me when you're coming, I can be expecting you and disable the alarms. We're at the old airfield," he rattled off the street and number. "Hangar 3 has been coverted to the base. A basement has been dug and some partition walls set up."

"We'll come in at fifteen minutes after two in the AM. Hopefully, we can catch a some of the folks sleeping. If something comes up, let us know if you can. Otherwise, I will see you then."

"Check," said Blackshield, then he hung up.

"Okay, PC. I assume you monitored that," Defender said. She could hear his smirk in the tone of his voice.

"Always." PC said. "Sounds like a small army. I assume you want all hands on deck?"

"No. I want more than that. I want anyone in this town who owns a set of tights on deck. Beggar King, Siberian Star, Tatterknight... The Mystic and Ragnar if they can be reached. This might be the biggest thing that has hit the city. I'll be in shortly so we can get Team D on line to pull all the info and start plotting strategy. We're going to war."

"I'll be on it as soon as you tell me a when and where." PC said. "If we're calling in a bunch of ringers, are we gonna bring them all inside or should we find somewhere else to congregate?"

"Siberian Star, Tatterknight, and Ragnar don't have official access to the base. We've got the visitor badges we can have them wear. Max can escort Tatterknight and Ragnar can come with the Mystic. That just leaves Siberian Star. Nothing says we can't pick him up in the mini-sub. Any sort of GPS tracking system that might be in that suit would be blocked once under about a hundred feet of water. He's already met Team D, so I trust him enough to bring him in." Defender paused. "Am I missing anyone?"

An idea popped into PC's head, based on discussions with her father. "Maybe, need to check with Dad on something. We may have a couple more, but they'd be coming with him. I've already tried Mystic and Ragnar, no joy, their manservent said they're out of the country. I still need a when."

Defender gave her the time and rang off. PC called Sting and the two conferred for a few minutes.

Sting decided that before he went to find Max he should see if his "partners" from the Ripper case were available and willing. He knew that they were good men, but had also kept a low profile...and there was nothing low profile about this case. He had found out that their offices had moved. Not far, a few blocks from their other location, in a small house, of which they converted the front of the downstairs into their office.

Upon entering the offices of Midnight Star Investigations, he actually found a comely young lass at the front desk working on the computer. The nameplate on her desk read "Serena Thompson". She looked up..."Can I You're..." She looked at a picture on the wall...the signed one Sting provided to MidKnight and Star Lad after their adventure together. In fact, as he looked around, the accomodations seemed nicer than his first visit, although still very modest and sedate.

"Yeah, I'm him." Sting said pointing to the wall. "Are either of the owners in?"

"Knight is. He's in the back." Serena said, as she got up to get him, tripping over a chair as she went. After a minute, MidKnight walked out into the room."

"Well, well, well." MidKnight said, playful smirk on his face. "Look who's slumming." He offered a hand, which Sting shook in a show of friendship. "I take it this isn't a social call."

"Sadly, no.' Sting said. "How does an alien invasion grab you?"

MidKnight arched an eyebrow. "Ususally with pincers, at least in the old movies. You serious? Who am I kidding, of course you are, Mr. Energy Vampire as Mortal Enemy Man. Lemme give a holla to my partner." MidKnight called the desk at the PA Town Scryer, where a receptionist said that Talbot Reckston was at lunch at the moment but was due back in a few minutes. Leaving the number, MidKnight hung up and turned to Sting, who continued to check out the place.

"Nice upgrades." Sting said. "Especially Ms. Thompson. I take it things have been going well for you."

"Well enough," MidKnight began, "but not enough for us to quit our day jobs. You helped out a lot, though. We had a friend on the force who tipped us off on this was a crackhouse before we busted it, got impounded by the Police and put up to auction. Amazingly, we were the only bidders." Midknight grinned. "Some elbow grease and about half your fee later, it's our offices, and my pad. Small, but serves the purposes. Since then, business has been steady, fees less so, but that's not why were in it. Still, various bodyguard jobs and a big overseas case while you guys were dealing with that magic stuff keeps letting us keep the 'Parts as clean as we can. Neither of us are number crunchers, so Serena helps us part-time."

"I'm glad." Sting said. "Lord knows this city needs as much of folks like us as they can."

MidKnight nodded. "So, details. And is this pay or gratis?"

"Well, I am here to appeal to your sense of civic duty, but if it costs me, so be it." Sting then went into specifics, with the gist being that we were dealing with a possible alien invasion bent on taking over the whole planet. As Sting finished, the phone rang once, stopped, then rang again. "That's Lad" MidKnight said as he picked up the phone. "Your dime."

"Talbot Reckston, Town Scryer where we see beyond the veil."

"Yo, its your Knight on the street. Listen, tell your bosses I got a great tip for what's sure to be your next headline. Two words...alien invasion. No joke, got a visit from our old friend from the Europe case. You remember...THAT one?"

"Uh yeah," he said lowering his voice. A telltale click told MidKnight that the recorder was off, it was standard for the Scryer to log every phone call as protection against civil suits. The squeak of his chair told MidKnight that he was leaning back nearly tipping over, "When and where? are they already here? We haven't gone to press yet."

Midknight looked at Sting, covering the mouthpiece. "When and Where?"

"When is tonight, late. But we've got a strategy session to going after the place that's before that. I could do with having you guys on the clock ASAP."

MidKnight nodded. "According to my source, they're here, and it's looking to go down late tonight, but there's a resistance movement mounting to *protect* us from the threat. They're meeting soon, and I don't think they'd mind some press coverage."

"Mr. Bee and the rest of his hive, eh?" Talbot said, driving his partner crazy with code words. "Photos OK? Nah, don't ask, I'll bring my camera. I'll meet you at checkpoint delta color blue." MidKnight instinctively reached for the code sheet to cross reference the letter and color of StarLad's map of Port Alexander which changed daily.

"Check." MidKnight said. "Bring your Sunday-go-to-meetin' duds, they like you to dress nice." More code, meaning come in costume.

"Thanks, man. I owe you." Sting said, writing down an address. "Be here," he said, ripping it off the pad, "the time's on there too. We'll probably talk war inside the Fortress."

"What fortress?" MidKnight said.

"Oh, sorry. Protectors HQ." Sting said. "I've got one other recruiting stop to make before tonight. I'll see you then." He shook hands again.

"You get me killed I'm gonna kick your ass." MidKnight said laughing.

As Sting left, he tried to signal Max on the com system, while at the same time heading to the general area where his office was. Sting mused to himself that if the Protectors ever fell through, between him, Max, Tatterknight and Midnight Star, they had the makings of a great street team.

As Sting approached the area he normally associates with the Beggar King's turf, he began to notice less and less foot traffic. There were people present, to be sure. Street people. Having spent time at the shelters, Sting had unconditioned himself to tune them out. This was different. There were literally a hundred people on the sidewalks. Once he reached the park, he heard a series of whistles that was some sort of signal. The last was still echoing in the night air as a spear raced past him. It embedded itself in the ground just a few feet from where he'd instinctively stopped.

"I assume you have come looking for the Trollslayer?" Max said from the walking bridge nearby. "The beasts are back, aren't they? Told you you'd regret not letting me finish the job."

The Beggar King leapt from the bridge and drifted gently down to Earth. He moved over to where Sting stood. "I don't blame you, though I could. You only did what you felt in your heart. That's what puts you above those animals. You've come for me and you've come for my champion. You want us to help you against an army of villains? The Streets have spoken to me this evening. They tell me of Chinese gangs and Trolls and men with icy breath. There is a war. A war!"

The crowd of homeless let out a feral roar to accompany Max's own. That was when Sting saw it. Something had changed in the Beggar Nation. These were people who were no longer going to be pushed around and ignored. They had anger and frustration for armor and righteous indignation for shields. Many were armed with baseball bats, chains, and lead pipes. They grouped behind Max and Tatterknight.

"Tell us where to meet you and we will bring the fire and rage!" Max said. "I shall join you while Tatterknight leads my knights and marquises against their dark minions. We are invisible. We are the streets. They will never see us until it is too late!"

He let out a howl that turned to a chill in the night air. "You've not said a word. Have I guessed incorrectly at your purpose?"

Sting chose his words very carefully. When this was all done, he knew intervention?...needed to be done, as Max was clearly crossing the line from eccentricity to a dangerous level of delusion. And it had SOMETHING to do with that staff.

"I have come for you. And Tatterknight. Your army may well come in handy. But this is not a war for infantries and cavalries...not yet. Our warfare is guerrilla in nature. We feel that a quick, surgical strike with the finest and strongest heroes we have to offer will carry the day. Should the Krai rain their armies down on Earth, we will need every stout warrior in your Duchy. Tonight, however, our goal is not to meet their armies...but to prevent them." Sting stared at the Beggar King. "You thirst for righteous blood...and as far as the Krai trolls are concerned, at this point you may have it, if it will save our world. But you and Tatterknight, for now, are enough. I do not discount the bravery of your people, but believe me when I say that we can deal with this without a single drop of your Kingdom's blood being spilt."

Sting stepped back, hoping that what he said was enough.

"I fear you might underestimate your enemy," Max said. "We've been watching the gangs as they flock to this army of darkness. If you bypass them, yuo will have to worry about them as reinforcements. If you try to tangle with them, you will allow their masters the chance to strike or escape. You need my army, but we shall leave that decision to your commander."

Max held his hand out and the spear flew to him. He addressed his army, "Wait in that place where I hid that thing that time."

All of the street people faded into the shadows and were gone.

	*		*		*		*		*
So it was that by nine o'clock that evening the largest gathering or heroes that Port Alexander had seen in some time were gathered in the Residential Dome of the Protectors' Fortress. Those who had never been there before Ooo'ed and Ahhh'ed over the setup and the Wall of Heroes before settling down with drinks and snacks.

Despite the refreshments, the mood was somber. PC had donned a mask for the event, since there were some there who probably shouldn't put Lorelei Crosby and PC together. She looked around at the team. There were the Protectors: Defender, Sting, Flex, Merlynne and herself. There was the Beggar King and the TatterKnight representing the Beggar Kingdom. The MidKnight Angel Detective Agency contributed MidKnight and Star Lad. Siberian Star rounded out the company, bringing their number to an even ten.

She went over to Defender and told him that she had alerted the Round Table to their actions, although she had left Blackshield out of her report. "If we fail," she said, "someone needs to be the second wave."

Defender nodded and prepared to address the team.

"First off, I'd like to thank everyone here for showing up. It speaks highly of the quality of character each and everyone of you possesses that you would step forward to the defense of Port Alexander and the planet itself. I see before me the finest Port Alexander has to offer and I'm proud to be counted as one of you," Defender said. "I'd like to tell you this mission was going to be an easy one with all the heroes gathered here in this room.

"Instead, I've the unfortunate duty to brief you on what we are up against. In past, the villains we have faced either individually or as a team have been focused on a goal such as wealth, power, or media attention. This time it is different. Our foes want only one thing: to destroy as much of our fair city as is possible. If they succeed here, they will not stop. They will attract others to their banner and cut a swath of destruction across the face of our world. To do this, they have enlisted the help of a mad scientist named Saruva to make them a chemical or biological weapon."

Defender took a drink from his coffee cup before continuing. Meanwhile, a projection of a Krai warrior appeared on the screen before the assembled heroes. "The vicious creature you see before you is a member of an extra-terrestrial race known as the Krai. Their modus operendi is to invade and enslave. We have faced them before. The last time we crossed paths with them was on a ship orbiting the Earth. We thought we'd seen the last of them. I'm afraid we were wrong.

"A number of Krai are working with the villains we are set to face tonight. We've not been able to determine if they are an isolated group or the vanguard of another invasion attempt. Thus, there is a strong possibility that this is even bigger than a slash and burn spree. If they succeed in getting past us, the entire planet is in danger of alien invasion. There are upwards of ten Krai involved at this time. Our task is further complicated by the presence of a dozen or so misguided gang members from Chinatown. To me, this constitutes a small army.

"The parahuman head count is no better. The mastermind is Thermo, the man responsible for the recent attack on the mayor's office. In addition to his regular sidekick, Jet, he's managed to get assistance from a kid calling himself Frostbite and two animorphs named Jackal and Cheetah. One of the gangbangers might have abilities. Finally, there is one mercenary named Blackshield. He's our mole and is supposed to turn on them. Be careful around him though. I don't have anymore reason to distrust him as trust him."

"The odds are against us, but we have surprise working for us. If we attack in an organized, controlled fashion, we should be able to neutralize them in their own headquarters. Our primary objective has to be to capture whatever weapon they have. Second is to take Saruva alive if he is present. Thermo is villain number one and must not be allowed to escape. Then the Krai, the other parahumans, and finally the gangbangers. Our support team has constructed a computer model of the outside based upon public record. We have little to go on for the inside, so we will have to play it by ear.

"I propose we stay together for as long as possible, but that we form two effective squads. Squad Cloak will consist of those capable of some sort of stealth. Squad Dagger will be our more offense-oriented folks. We'll rendezvous at the airport and try to get some scouting in by Squad Cloak. Our main assault should be as one strike force. Now that I've put it all out there, are there any questions or comments? Does anyone want to back out now? I will not blame anyone who does not feel up to this task for leaving."

As he listened in, Flex naturally began to work through what he would need to do with the Stealth Squad.

Sting raised his hand. "Have you made decisions as to who would be on what squad, or do I have time for input on that as team tactician?"

"I'm unaware of the abilities of MidKnight Star, but I thought Cloak would be primarily you, the Beggar King, and Merlynne. While Flex would normally qualify as a stealth agent, I don't think his gifts lend themselves to this mission well. Did you have other ideas?" Defender asked.

"Not so much 'different' as 'expanded'." Sting said "With such a large mass enemy and a potential doomsday device that may or may not be on the premises, I thought it prudent to have a possible plan of attack once we were inside the base. First question; if there IS a doomsday device, I assume you're disarming it?"

"It depends upon the device, really. I know quite a bit about bio-mechanics, but that does not mean I'm going to be the man to defuse a bomb," Defender answered.

Taken aback for a moment by Defenders comment, Flex put his hand up and asked, "Err, sorry boss I don't follow! I thought my abilities would lend themselves more naturally to stealth. Did you have something else in mind for me?"

"You would normally be perfect for stealth, but these folks will know each other and are in an isolated location. Anyone who does not look like them will be an instant target and our cover will be blown. Both Merlynne and Sting can be completely unseen while Max can walk through walls. Frankly, I'm even concerned about having him on Cloak."

"Why?" Max asked.

"Same reason as Flex. You're ability to walk through walls is too valuable to not be utilized here, but if you are seen, you give away our cover."

Flex nodded, satisfied with the answer. It was clear to him that Defender and Sting operated on a whole other level when it came to tactics. Ordinarily he would have still tried to copy another gang member, whilst they were out for a smoke. Thats what he'd have to have done when he was alone with no one covering his back - take chances. Now he was part of a team. Knowing where best to place him in any operation, was the key to making that operation work. Flex smiled to himself, Defender clearly had thought ahead.

"I am going to watch these two. There is a lot for your to learn Flex" He thought quietly to himself.

Leaving his thoughts, he 'tuned' back into the meeting.

The scarlet and gold adorned Star Lad spoke up, "These Krai, what do you know about their abilities? Anything on Thermo and who he works for? I hate surprises, if an armada of spaceships come falling from the sky I'd like to know enough to go out blasting."

"As do we all, Star Lad." Sting said. "The Krai are a race of warriors, bear-like in form, and just as fierce. They wield blasters that are like the ones PC has claimed as personal protection." He gestured to the masked PC, who brandished one of her blasters for everyone to see. "Their squad leaders are enhanced to the level that they can go toe to toe with many of Earth's heroes. We don't know much about Thermo beyond his heat powers, although he has tenuous ties to a secret organization known only as the Net. We've been working on cracking that for weeks."

As he talked, Sting got an idea. "Defender, can you outfit me with a headset like yours?" He had PC toss him one of her blasters, then shrank. To the surprise of most who knew Sting, the blaster shrank with him. He regrew, then spoke. "I've been working on being able to shrink outside objects that are within my 'aura' since the Baba Yaga affair, and I've recently, I feel, mastered it. Give me a headset cam like you have, Defender, and I can give everyone a birds eye view of the complex while in there."

Turning to the tactical map, Sting continued. "One thing I've learned is that battle plans can go south really fast. However, it's good to have one. Therefore, I have this proposal.

"Our enemies: Thermo, Jet, Jackal, Cheetah, Frostbite, roughly a dozen Hong Kong gang members, roughly 10 Krai. It's almost impossible to prepick targets, especially because we have no idea what else is there. However, what we CAN do is buddy up and have a "best laid plans" approach.

"Although the metahumans are the bigger threat, the Hong Kong Phooiesde and the Krai will tie up much needed personnel until they're taken out. Therefore, Max and Tatterknight, given their abilities and their fighting style, I feel are best suited to take out the Krai. Meanwhile, Siberian Star and Merlynne can lock into the Hong Kong Express and mow through them. Once the masses are down, we can zero in on the others. Plus, given that there's at least one Krai leader and a possible Hong Kong meta in the mix, it's good to buddy up.

"Midnight Star, you'll be Defender's wingmen. Priority is taking out that bomb, and although Defender may not be qualified to diffuse it, he's the most qualified to get a first look, although I'm hoping he has that after I can get a good camera eye's view of whatever device their is. All else failing, Star, your danger sense may prevent someone from cutting the wrong wire. There will be no shortage of metas to deal with, but since both of you have ranged attack abilties, you're best suited to run interference for Defender, especially against Thermo, Jet and this Frostbite least until Siberian Star's done with the gang.

"Flex, that leaves you, me and Blackmask. You are buddied with Blackmask...meaning that if he tries to cross us, take him out, otherwise, help him out. I have a feeling Saruva's Zoo will fall to us. Suits me fine. I'll start buddied with you but I may need to lend support elsewhere - being the fastest in the mix means I can move around the best to help out.

"Sounds good to me!" Flex nodded, relishing the chance to get another crack at Saruva and his cronies.

"As Defender said," Sting continued, "our primary goals are to remove any doomsday device on the premises, take out Saruva, and, if there's some sort of starcraft on the premises for the Krai, take it and their communications out. And above all, as Michael Ironside said in 'Top Gun', do not leave your wingman."

Sting took a deep breath, then looked at Defender. "What do you think, boss?"

"That plan works for now, under the caveat that things may change once we get on site. Sting, I can't set you up with a camera like mine in the limited time we have. We do still have the modified camera we used at the Mayor's Office. You could carry that with you and the picture quality would actually be better. At least, in theory," Defender said. "There is just one other thing I need to do before we head out there. Everyone else limber up. PC, get Team D online and take your place. Max, I'd like to speak with you for a moment... in private."

The two left the room.

As everyone talked amongst themselves for a moment, once he was sure eyes were off him, Sting shrank to one inch in height and headed off in the direction Defender and Max went. If he was caught, he'd take the heat from Defender, but he wanted to make sure the two of them didn't kill one another, especially in Max's state of mind.

After five minutes and a few raised voices, the two men returned. Neither looked as if the conversation had gone well. Max rejoined Tatterknight and whispered something in his ear. Defender stepped over to an equipment locker and broke out the video camera and a small, portable monitor.

"Sting. Here." He handed the recorder to the speedster. "Everyone be at the rendezvous site no later than 1:55 AM. Team Cloak, that especially goes for you. Blackshield is expecting us at 2:15 AM and I want credible recon before me move an inch. Unless there are any further questions or comments, let's make it happen."

As Max and Tatterknight moved to leave, Sting took a step toward following them when MidKnight nodded at Sting. "Next time, we charge you double." He said with a grin.

Sting nodded grimly, then motioned over to PC. "PC, could you give Midnight Star a quick tour of the place? I need to check on something before I can escort them back out."

"Sure" she said, and Sting went to speak with Max and Tatterknight.

MidKnight's distraction was just enough. Sting watched as they ascended through the roof of the Command Dome. At the last second, Tatterknight tossed his Fortress security badge down to Sting. They faded through the ceiling and were gone. When he turned around, Defender had also left the dome.

		*		*		*		*
PC had provided maps for everyone and a rendez-vous spot was marked on each. The airfield was down in Commerce City, on the edge of Chinatown. It was surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire and had two access points, a front and rear gate, both large enough for vehicles. The front gate also had a smaller personnel entrance. The gates were all chained and locked, but there was no regular guard on the place. As a result, there were doubtless gaps in the fence at various places, for such a fascinating place would be irresistable both to children and the homeless. There were, depending on how you counted, only five buildings: four hangars and the terminal/control tower/ready room. There were two runways, arranged in an X shape, and a taxiway connecting the two bottom legs of the X. The hangars were all along the taxiway and the other building was near the intersection of the runways.

As the heroes gathered, something struck them as slightly odd about the place. Finally, they figured it out: there was no motion around the airfield. Even at this hour, they would expect to see homeless people milling about, perhaps a concealed trash fire, or something like that. They concluded that although there was no legitimate security at the airfield, the homeless knew better than to linger there.

As each approached the rendez-vous, they made a quick recon in their own fashion, not approaching closely, but getting a feel for the lay of the land. The rendez-vous was outside of the chain link, a hundred yards or so away from the front gate and facing the rear of the row of hangars. As they came, several had seen that the lack of activity in the compound was not total. In front of Hangar 3, the side away from the fence, an occasional figure could be seen sneaking a smoke. Aside from a very slight spill when the door was opened for a smoker, there was no light coming from the compound.

The hangar itself was several hundred feet long, and perhaps ninety wide. At the front, opposite end, was an airplace sized door, while the back had a smaller loading door. Both ends had personnel doors as well. There was a gap of about thirty feet between each of the hangars, and a space of about forty between the back of the hangars and the fence.

By 1:30 everyone had gathered; Siberian Star, of course, was the last to arrive. Defender had just began to count heads when TatterKnight spoke up. "I've got a ping on my radar, coming in fast and ..." he trailed off as a figure rounded the corner and pulled up short in the face of the readied fists, spears, guns and blasts of the assembled heroes. "Thunderbolt!" said TatterKnight.

Max, too, recognized the figure, and with TatterKnight's word, most of the others made the connection, too. Thunderbolt for his part recognized almost everyone standing in front of him.

With a courteous bow, Thunderbolt spoke softly "This is a surprise. I suspected something very big was to happen tonight, but this," he swept his hand wide. After a quick introduction, the Asian man began to fill in the heroes on what led him to the abandoned airfield and what he had seen over the last hours. "Black Lotus has hands everywhere, but this seems too big for them. And now seeing you, I am most glad I did not investigate closer."

"I've read about your exploits, Thunderbolt. Good to finally meet you. And your suspicions were correct. There is a small army in that hanger. What do you know about the area, those inside, or the situation in general?" Defender asked.

"A few hours ago a van dropped off some more soldiers from the Black Lotus, and Black Dragon was with them. If he is involved it is bad news, he is quite skilled. We are fortunate that niccotine appears to be our friend this evening, they are nervous too," he thumbed back toward the hanger. "They wait; for what I do not know, but it is not us. They do not know we are here."

"Have you seen any sort of security measures on the gate or nearby? Was the van able to just drive up? How about when they enter and exit the building?" Defender's questions came quick and calm.

"Nothing out of the ordinary, I did not see any security. I chased the van and got its license plate, it was nothing special."

"We can run the plate while we are waiting. For now, sit tight and we'll see if our scouts can turn anything up. Team Cloak, do it." Defender activated his comm. "PC, we've got a plate number for you to run..."

The Beggar King floated high into the air then across to the hangar. He saw nothing below that he was not expecting to see and drifted slowly down toward the roof.

Merlynne waited while Sting shrank and grabbed onto her costume and then faded from sight. Oddly, Sting was still visible if you knew where to look. Sting then seemed to lift into the air and drift toward the hangar.

The invisible Merlynne landed on the far side of the fence and began to move toward the hangar on foot, unable to maintain both flight and invisibility indefinately. No one was smoking at the moment, and there was no sign of life outside the building.

Merlynne let Sting down near the back cargo doors. Sting ran up to the bottom of the doors were the rubber fringe hung down, forced it aside and slipped in. He was in an open area at the back of the hangar, in front of him was a space that had been furnished like and office with desks and chairs and so on. To his left was a storage area with boxes stacked up against the wall to what was labeled as restrooms. Partition walls had been set up on either side of the hangar leaving a wide corridor down the middle. Doors opened onto the corridor at regular intervals, although one door opened onto the office area. There was another empty space visible at the far end of the hangar.

Milling about in the office area were two men and a krai. The krai wore a blaster and sat quietly at a desk. One of the men was a young oriental, wearing a black headband with his loose pants and shirt; he was fidgeting with a triple-sectioned staff, occasionaly dropping into a stance and doing a few katas. The other man was big and bald. Sting had seen a few steroid abusers in his time, and this man had all the signs, combined with a dullness in his eyes that suggested a dim-witted brutality.

The personnel door was off to his right and opened directly into the open office area as well.

Sting zipped down the corridor and counted five doors on his left and three on the right as he went. At that end, there was a lounge and a kitchen set up in the open area and another krai, Black Lotus soldier and steroid freak. There was also a set of stairs in one corner leading down.

A moment after Sting arrived, a blue light mounted above the personnel doors began to flash. The three guards suddenly became alert. The krai drew his blaster and stepped clear to a position where he could cover both doors and the Black Lotus drew a pair of nun-chaku from his belt. The steroid freak was a few beats behind, but got to his feet and turned off the tv.

Sting froze for a few moments to see what was happening. In less than a minute two krai came up the stairs. One was larger than the others and carried herself with an aura of command. The krai snapped a salute with the hand not holding the blaster. The krai officer spoke, "The sensors have detected a presence, outside the rear door, not moving. You," she pointed to the Black Lotus, "wake two of your companions and come with me. You," she pointed to the companion who had come up the stairs with here, "stay." That krai saluted and took up a position as the Black Lotus ran up to one of the partition doors opened it and went in. The krai officer walked quickly down toward the back of the hangar.

He reached the back room a few seconds behind the krai commander who repeated her warning. He was back outside before the Black Lotus had returned with his comrades though.

Those remaining behind, Team Dagger, saw the small door in the back of the hangar open and three lithe figures move out of it quickly and begin to criss-cross the area.

Max reached the roof and stopped to watch.

Thunderbolt pointed at the figures, and whispered. "The worker ants are looking for danger, they will find us given time."

Defender signaled for everyone to fall back and take cover and the heroes did so. Thunderbolt seemed to be a little off base, though. The heroes were on the other side of the fence and the searchers didn't seem like they were going to come over the fence. They looked like Black Lotus Society members and they seemed to be taking their time looking the place over.

After a couple of moments, Defender's phone vibrated. It was a message from Sting: MRLYN TRIPD SENSOR...LOTUS LOOK 4 US. ADVIZ?

Defender looked at Flex. "You're up. We need your best homeless guy. Go get caught. Avoid conflict and flee when they see you. Can you do this?"

Flex simply nodded. It wasn't like he hadn't done this before!

Seeing how the gates were locked left Flex with a slight problem - namely how to get in without it looking like he broke in. Broke in though a perfectly good gate that is. Seeing little choice presented to him, he simply slithered through the chainlink fence then stumbled on.

A moment later, Flex now looking like a man who had spent fifteen years hard time with a bottle, staggered into the airstrip. As soon as he was in through the main gate he rolled over in the grass and anything that was to hand, that might cover the lack of any alcohol smell.

As he staggered about, he began to sing. Although he didn't have a bad voice, that was not what was called for. "Oh baby... babe my hearts in a commotion. I feel like I'm..." Flex paused whilst he dramatically sounded like he had just evacuated his stomach. Moments later when he was suddenly surrounded he looked appalling. Phlegm, Some unidentifiable goo and a great deal more of who knows what, was plastered all over his trenchcoat and smudge torn shirt. His trousers were similarly torn and wet. His shape changing power meant he could change the appearance of the clothes he wore as well as his general appearance. It wasn't so hard to take a jacket and make it appear dirty and then stained with all the sort of stains that quickly become socially offensive. Stains that would make even the most hardened human think twice about laying a hand on him.

Now he waited for them to make the first move. Nearby Merlynne and Sting waited invisibily, Max floated just above the roof and on the other side of the fence, the rest of the heroes watched.

Rapid-fire Chinese broke the night as one of the Black Lotus caught sight of Flex. In a flash, the other two had joined him and the three had surrounded Flex. They took in his appearance and one said something in Chinese which made the other two laugh. Then one spoke, "Get out of here, grandfather. If you leave now and leave fast you can leave with all your teeth and with your bones intact."

Flex coughed into his mac and said in a slurred voice, "Vic is that you? Buddy its been so long. I still remember that you owe me. Come on now, lets grab a drink together eh. "

Stumbling over to the closest Black Lotus, he made to put his arm around him. Then at the last moment collapsed on the floor, at this feet. "Something wrong with the floor here. Who put a step their? Watch out its quite a fall. Hahahaha" He tried to get up then lay there pretending to laugh and cough alternatively.

One of the men spoke again rapidly in Chinese and his two companions lifted Flex off the ground as the first ran back to Hangar 3. He slipped inside but was back out in just a few seconds. He joined the other two who had carried Flex to the small gate. He opened the padlock and they tossed Flex out and relocked the gate. They returned to Hangar 3 and silence again fell across the compound.

It was five minutes past two.

Flex got up quickly deliberately making as much noise as he could. He began singing badly an old Rod Stewert song, attempting to imitate his raunchy Scottish drawl. "I hope this has been worthwhile for the Team Cloak." He thought as he stayed near the gate, hoping to make the guards job harder inside the compound.

Unbeknownst to the rest of the heroes, Merlynne had managed to slip in behind the returning Black Lotus warriors and she and Sting were in the hangar.

Sting crawled up to Merlynne' ear and whispered. "Stay around here but keep moving. When the alarm goes off, take out the Lotus first, then the Krai." Merlynne nodded her head in assent.

Sting then went to the corridor at 1-inch top speed, looked for a door that led to a very large hangar, and went searching.

The Black Lotus in the office joined Thermo and the Krai commander and Merlynne slipped closer to listen in. The Black Lotus were reporting on the incident outside with the homeless man.

At 2:11 by the synchronized DefenderPhones, the lights in the hangar went out and a second later, the battery powered emergency lights came on.

Defender, monitoring the Sting-cam saw the dip in light level, and typed, "LGHTS OUT?"

A reply came back quickly, "LITEZ OUT - EVREBDY HME. TYM 2 PAR-T)"

Defender looked up at the assembled gang of heroes. "Go," he said simply.

Defender leapt toward the hangar, and MidKnight jumped off the roof and ran to follow, with Star Lad flying alongside Defender.

Flex saw the other heroes start moving and dropped the song mid sentence. He leapt for the top of the fence and clambered over, jumping from the top toward the door.

Siberian Star flew directly to the hangar, his mission along with that of Merlynne to deal with the Black Lotus first.

Thunderbolt ran to the fence in a blur and scaled it, climbing quickly down the other side and running to the hangar.

TatterKnight dropped down to the ground and ran to the fence. Looking at the climb, he shrugged and simply tore a hole in it.

In the dimness, Beggar King was able to drop down undetected into the room that Thermo had recently vacated. It was clearly his personal quarters.

Outside the door, he heard a shouted, "What the hell?" Followed by, "Get her!"

Max walked through the wall and hurled Girngrun, which became solid as it left his hand. It slammed into a krai butt-first burying itself in his stomach. The krai slumped to the ground coughing for breath and lay still.

Siberian Star dropped down to the back door of the hangar and waited from the rest of the team to arrive. Thunderbolt was there a moment later and paused, looking back over his shoulder. A few second later, Defender landed with Star Lad beside him and Flex a few feet behind since he slowed down to text message someone.

Defender glanced around, decided enough troops were here and grabbed the hangar door and yanked. The door came off its hinges with a squeal and Defender shoved it aside leaving a big gap.

Inside the hangar, dimly lit by emergency lights, the newly arriving heroes saw Thermo engaged with Merlynne as Max stood a few meters away from a fallen krai. As they watched his spear leapt from the floor by the downed alien and returned to his hand. Also in the room were four Black Lotus Society members, a large, balding, heavily muscled man, another krai and next to that krai a larger more imposing krai with the look of an officer.

As the door fell, Merlynne was swinging a vicious backhanded cut at Thermo with her mystic sword. Thermo raised his hands and a two-handed sword of ice grew from them to block the attack, but too late and Merlynne's blow struck him solidly.

With the door open, the heroes poured through.

"On the other hand..." Flex thought as he reconsidered his plan to go in from above. Seeing how there was now quite a large entrance to the hanger, he wasted no time and began running forward to join Sting at the other end of the hanger like they had planned. As he looked about seeing the other engage with the villains he kept an eye out for Jackal, Saruva and their ally Blackshield.

MidKnight ran toward the clump of villians while Siberian Star floated to the roof of the hangar.

Thunderbolt was a blur as he raced toward the Black Lotus gang and landed a flying kick on one who staggered and swung around and uttered a curse in Chinese before attacking with his three-sectioned-staff.

Star Lad said to Defender, "I've got Papa Bear," and launched a spray of energy toward the large krai, but missed as the krai spun toward the noise of tearing metal.

"Damn," said Thermo. "Everyone up!" he shouted. "We're under attack." A blast of ice shot from one hand at Merlynne.

All around, people were picking targets. One krai fired a blaster at Max, while the captain spun around and returned fire at Star Lad, blasting chunks out of the door frame. One Black Lotus ran up to MidKnight and attacked with his nunchaku, while another joined in attacking Merlynne.

The last Black Lotus ran toward Flex and the big man in the t-shirt lumbered after.

Not wanting to slow down, Flex kicked out at the Black Lotus guard as he swung past. Although he wanted to get to join up with Sting, in case he was in trouble, he didn't want to leave his team mates in trouble either. The Black Lotus fell and Flex moved on.

Merlynne took the ice-blast full in the gut, but even as she was doubling over she chopped out again with the Lakesword, narrowly missing Thermo. Thermo fired again, more ice, but the blast went wide, so he swung his frozen sword at Merlynne.

MidKnight leapt clear of his attacker and on the roll fired a laser blast which scorched the Black Lotus attacking Merlynne. Then he punched at his own attacker.

Down at the far end of the hangar, Sting erupted underneath a Black Lotus ganger, his punch flipping the man over and laying him out cold. He raced toward the big man who turned to face him, swinging hamlike fists at the hero. The two krai at that end responded like professional soldiers and turned their blasters on the hero.

Siberian Star looked over the fray, then fired a blast of ice at the krai shooting at Max. The blast rocked the krai. Max who turned desolid when the krai shot at him (but not quite fast enough - he winced as the energy blast struck) hurled Gringrun at the krai, and it struck butt-first. The krai dropped to the ground.

Thunderbolt swayed away from the blows of the Black Lotus and struck out with a sweeping kick that laid his man out on the floor. Continuing the motion, he punched the Lotus facing MidKnight.

Defender leapt toward the krai commander and Star Lad fired another blast of cosmic energy at her. Both of them missed. Defender followed up with a couple of punches. The captain displayed her alien martial arts skills in her defense.

The TatterKnight ran up to the steroid freak and punched him solidly, blocking the return blows easily. Star Lad abandoned the krai captain to the mercies of Defender and flew to TatterKnight's aid.

The doors to the partition rooms began to open. Out of one came the familiar horrible forms of Jackal and Cheetah. As they came out, they each smelled the air. Jackal howled and charged toward Sting; Cheetah, more quietly ,raced toward Flex.

From another door came a Black Lotus, and a man who must be Black Dragon. Black Dragon looked around, saw the fracas and hissed, "Thunderbolt," before running toward the Oriental hero.

Four more large men stumbled out of the doors near the heroes, rubbing sleep from their eyes. Seeing a fight a brutish glee lit their faces and they lumbered toward the heroes.

From behind one door came banging sounds and muffled curses, then an engine's whine and Jet rose toward the cieling.

A young man, perhaps twenty came out another door. He was wearing a cold blue outfit, and looked surprised by all the activity. He remained near the door.

Defender caught the krai commander looking, and although her armour seemed to take a lot of the sting out of the shot, she did stagger back a step. As she prepared to step back in, a block of ice materialized around her. She was, literally, frozen in place.

The Beggar King became solid once again and called for his spear which quivered and began to rise from the ground.

MidKnight fired another blast at Thermo who flipped over and went down. Merlynne shot him a grateful look before chopping Black Lotus nearest her with her sword. He tried to parry with his sai, but missed. His counter blow was far too slow.

Star Lad barrelled down the hangar at high speed, coming to Sting's aid. Flex was also moving that way on foot.

In a blur Thunderbolt rushed over to Black Dragon and stopped on a dime. Facing off, he bowed slightly and addressed the villain, "Black Dragon, our paths cross again. A man can be judged by his associates, you are a great disappointment to be friends with men such as these." He bowed again the spun around with a high kick, but Black Dragon leaned out of the way.

Frostbite weighed heavily in his mind whether the enemy of his current 'employer' was perhaps also an ally. He knew that Thermo and Jet had given his sister to Saruvo and was determined to use this attack to find out where. Rolling the dice in his head, he made a mental decision. Even if these attackers were not exactly friendly, they would provide an opportunity, and besides, the abuses he had started to see from the group he was forced to work with had started to sicken him. It needed to end here. He stepped behind Black Dragon and sent a jet of ice at him. Almost as if he had eyes in the back of his head, the Black Lotus Lieutenant swayed out of the way. "So," he hissed, "the stripling shows his true colours. Deal with the youth, while I deal with this." He turned back to Thunderbolt and launched a flurry of blows.

TatterKnight dropped the steroid freak in front of him and looked around for a new target.

Sting was hard pressed. He was under fire from two krai and beset by Jackal and a steroid enhanced goon. He could see help coming toward him and had to hope he could hold out.

The krai captain triggered her blaster and blasted a chunk of ice free, but couldn't free herself from the ice. "Help me, you idiots!" she shouted and the steroid freaks assumed she was talking to them. One lumbered over and shoved hard at the ice casing. It cracked around the captain's arm and she began to work her way free.

The others converged on Flex and fists began to fly. Cheetah joined them with flashing claws.

"Naughty, naughty," said Jet. "Freezing up the captain like that. Try this one for size." Jets of heat lanced toward Siberian Star.

Star Lad slammed into one of the krai shooting at Sting and knocked him down and out. Merlynne surprised her foe by just punching him in the face with using the sword, and he crumpled to the ground.

Siberian Star dodged as much of Jet's heat blasts as he could as he flew across the hangar toward the villian crashing into him at full speed. Jet rebounded from the impact and sailed a few meters away firing as he went.

Thunderbolt and Black Dragon continued to trade blows as Star lad engaged the last krai down by Sting. Sting had shrunk to avoide the blows being rained on him, but now shot back up to full height throwing a punch at Jackal as he did so, but the animalistic villian slipped clear.

As the other thugs began to close in on him Flex weaved and dodged as best he could. But his real worry was Cheetah. Caught on the defensive, he needed space to get a chance to turn the tables. Seeing Siberian Star high above Flex shouted to get his attention.

"Hey Star, could use a hand here, some hot tempers to cool, if you could spare us a moment?" He shouted hoping to pull in some back up. Suddenly running across the hanger to catch up with Sting as planned, didn't seem such a good plan after all.

Siberian Star couldn't hear him as he was tangled up with Jet, but MidKnight heard the call and fired two quick laser blasts at one of the steroid freaks on Flex, scorching his back but not dropping him. Then Flex went down beneath a hail of fists and claws.

Merlynne knelt for a moment by Thermo to make sure he was truly out of the fight. Then looked around. Defender was closely engaged with krai captain and seemed to have the upper hand at the moment. Max had recovered his spear and as she watched he charged the steroid freak near Defender and whipped the butt end of the spear across his head. The big man dropped without a sound.

The young man, Frostbite, looked confused, but not so confused that he didn't spray frost over the Black Lotus fighting him, dropping him down to the ground.

Merlynne took a moment to catch her bearings. The fight with Thermo took more out of her than she had planned, and if she was going to be any use to the team, she needed to shake the fuzziness in her head.

Sting shucked left and dropped the steroid freak with a quick left jab, a roundhouse right would have taken Jackal's head off if the bestial creature hadn't ducked. As it was, his chimes were still rung a bit.

Siberian Star blasted Jet with a jet of ice and the villian looked pretty hurt.

Thunderbolt was being hard pressed by Black Dragon and was dodging up and down and left and right into a jet of ice from Frosbite.

StarLad blasted the last krai, then spun to fire at Cheetah.

"Aw man, I suck at this fighting stuff", thought Frostbite as he watched in horror as his iceblast hit Thunderbolt instead of the Black Dragon. Seeing the fury Black Dragon was unleashing on Thunderbolt, he didn't want to get too close. He sprayed ice at Black Dragon again, more carefully this time. He avoided hitting Thunderbolt but missed the Dragon as well.

Defender had the krai captain on the defensive, showering her with blows and forcing her to keep parrying.

Max saw Flex go down and moved to his aid, swinging his spear at the steroid freaks, who turned their attention to him. He went desolid at the first blow.

Siberian Star put on a display of aerial martial arts, landing a kick that almost knocked Jet off balance as the villian fired. The stray blast melted a hole in the ceiling.

MidKnight fired a short burst of laser light at the Black Lotus in front of him, who took it full in the chest and crumpled. He turned to survey the scene and saw TatterKnight charging toward where Flex had fallen. The freaks realized they couldn't hit Max and turned on TatterKnight.

Cheetah howled with frustration and raced madly across the hangar swiping with his claws at Defender and Merlynne in passing and ending up next to MidKnight.

Star Lad rocketed toward Jackal who ducked out of the way bending his spine in a way no human spine should go.

Frostbite started to close in on Black Dragon to get a better shot and got a close up view of the spinning back kick that Black Dragon used to put Thunderbolt down onto the floor. Dancing clear, Black Dragon turned to the youth, "And now it is your turn."

Frostbite rolled with Black Dragon's punch and kept moving in a smooth roll to the partition wall and then up the wall, leaving small icy patches where he touched. On top, he balanced on the framing 2x4s and looked around.

The remaining steroid freaks began to pound down the TatterKnight who absorbed their blows and lashed back with some of his own.

MidKnight backed away from Cheetah, who darted in to rake him with his claws and then backed out again.

MidKnight rolled clear of Cheetah's flashing claws and cut loose with a blast of energy that the bestial villian avoided with a leap back.

As Jackal concentrated on Sting, he didn't notice Star Lad, until the cosmic energy singed his fur. He howled insanely in pain and fury.

Enraged by the attack on his vassal, The Beggar King stuck his intangible spear through one of the steroid freak's chest. He announced loudly to all three, "Cease your hostilities or I will release the spear and kill you. The rest of you stop or you are next." Slowly two of the men let their hands drop to their sides, the other was too far gone in a 'Roid Rage to heed the threat. So, TatterKnight clipped him under the jaw and he collapsed.

Frostbite snapped a shot at Black Dragon below, who snarled and leapt back out the path of the blast.

Max and TatterKnight quickly bound the two other steroid freaks and turned to look around the battle.

They saw Defender throwing punches at the krai commander who was backing away and blocking, and saw Merlynne step in and unload with her sword catching the krai by surprise. The commander grunted in pain and spun around with a high kick.

Sting feinted with a left and then landed a huge sunday punch on Jackal that lifted him straight up in the air and then laid him out. Star Lad checked to make sure that Jackal was down.

Siberian Star continued to attack Jet who was looking pretty woozy.

Black Dragon looked around, cursed softly in Chinese and ran down the hall toward Sting and Star Lad.

Frostbite jumped down off the wall and checked on Thunderbolt's status, feeling for a pulse and then trying to revive him. "I hope this guy's got a thick skull..." thought Frostbite. Thunderbolt's eyes fluttered and he came awake groggily.

Merlynne threw her shield up and caught the krai commander's kick, giving Defender an opening for a kick of his own that the commander barely avoided. The Beggar King moved in to join the fight.

Sting noticed Black Dragon's approach but also glanced again towards the steps "There's something down there they don't want us to get to, Star. I'm going to check it out; you can either follow me or run interference with Black Dragqueen back there. Your call." Sting then headed towards...and down...the steps at top speed.

Star Lad took a tentative step toward Sting then turned back to Black Dragon.

Siberian Star put the boot to Jet one more time, who slumped in his harness which was set to hover apparently, since he did, unconscious.

Frostbite helped Thunderbolt sit up against the wall, and then followed Black Dragon down the hall. Star Lad had take to the air as Black Dragon approached. "Halt, by the authority of the United Federation of Planets you are under arrest. Surrender now." Star Lad called out to Black Dragon, both as a distraction from Sting's pursuit and because he really didn't know what else to say.

Black Dragon showed little interest in either Star Lad or Sting and headed for the door out of the hangar.

Star Lad pursued Black Dragon, catching him at the door. The martial artist fired a snap kick at the hero and then ran through the door.

Star Lad went through the door in pursuit.

"Here, kitty kitty." Midknight said as he continued to joust Cheetah, looking for an opening as the cat creature bobbed and weaved.

Above it all, Siberian Star took a moment to rest and review the situation.

Sting ran into Blackshield coming up the stairs as he was going down. He nodded, "Tell me what's down there, then tell me how to stop it. Sorry if I'm being short, but I just got the hell beat out of me up there."

"Three krai down in the generator room. Lab," said Blackshield.

Merlynne swung her sword as the krai commander tried to avoid the foes surrounding her. "The fight is over. Surrender," Defender said as he threw a couple of punches.

"Surrender is not a troll's way," Max responded as he spun his spear around for a couple of quick strikes.

"Surrender is not a warrior's way," snarled the commander, as she flipped the cover off a button on her belt and pressed it.

"Nothing else down here that I know ..." Blackshield was cut off by a whine from the generator room, a strange high-pitched sound that began to grow in volume.

"That can NOT be good." Sting said. "I'm headed for the generator, could use your help. Sting then headed towards the generator room, again at top speed, prepared to take out a Krai or three on the way in."

Under the assault by Defender, The Beggar King and Merlynne, the krai commander was unable to keep up her defense and began to stumble as blows landed.

Sting opened the door to the generator room. One krai lay on the floor with its neck at an unnatural angle, clearly dead, two more were sprawled unconscious. A strange looking device, fairly obviously of krai design took up most of the back wall. Presumably, this was the generator. It was from this the whining sound was coming. Lights were flashing, mostly bluish as was most of the lighting in this area.

Seeing that Defender and the King had things well in hand, Merlynne advanced to assist MidKnight as he continued to try to connect against Cheetah.

Defender fired a straight jab at the krai captain as she ducked to avoid Max'es spear. It connected and she fell slowly to the ground. A moment later, Cheetah, too, was overwhelmed.

Sting saw the setup and was totally lost. He turned on his com system and broad cast, not caring who heard. "Sting here. We've got a BAD situation. We've got a Krai generator down here looking to pull a Hiroshima on us, and I am FAR from the tech guy here. Downstairs." As he said this, Sting looked desperately for an off switch, a plug, anything to stop the generator. There was nothing that looked right to him.

Blackshield intercepted Frostbite at the top of the stairs and there was a tense moment before they decided they were on the same team. Thunderbolt stumbled up behind them and addressed Frostbite. "Thank you. But why? you were with them?

Frostbite turned to Thunderbolt, taking a breath to help calm the adrenaline still running rampant through his veins after the fight. "I'm not with anyone, especially them! They have my sister and I'm going to get her away from them, and find a place for us to start over."

Flex got to his feet as well.

Defender heard the broadcast from Sting. "Oh, not good. Not good. Very not good."

He bent down and removed the belt from the Krai captain she had pressed a button. Perhaps there were other controls. Afterward, he addressed the entire team through both the comm units and his own raised voice.

"Everyone. Get the fallen out of here. Now! If necessary... leave the Krai for last. Get as far from this warehouse as possible. Sting, get up here and help out. Does anyone aside form myself have a technical background?"

Siberian Star set down next to defender. "I have a technical background. What do you need?"

"The generator is set to overload. We need to see if we can stop it." Defender smiled grimly. "You up for this?"

Siberian Star thought for a moment. "Alien technology, no schematics, dire consquences for failure, sounds like a challenge." The Russian prodigy strode forward and asked, "does anyone know anything about Krai technology?"

Blackshield spoke. "The krai do. And Thermo, some, I think." He turned toward the door. "But, I'm done here. Good luck with the generator." He made it to the door, then turned, "I think they said something about anti-matter, if it helps."

"Star, start with this," Defender said, tossing the belt to him. "Blackshield. You've proven yourself honorable. Be a shame not to build on that where ever you end up. Good luck and thanks."

Heading towards the stairs, Defender said, "Krai aren't likely to give up their secrets. That leaves Thermo. Since he is the wack-job behind this to begin with, I don't think he can be reasoned with. We are likely on our own. Suggestions?"

No one seemed to have any so Defender continued down, now he could hear the whining coming from the generator room.

Meanwhile ...

Star Lad chased Black Dragon, who quickly made his way across the compound and across the fence. Star Lad had a couple of clean shots but Black Dragon dodged them with preternatural skill. Once out of the confines the airfield, Black Dragon quickly dodged into a boarded up rowhouse.

Pulling up into a hover, Star Lad pulled out his communicator and dialed up MidKnight. "Agent Moon Man to MidKnight," he said upon answering.

A the hangar, MidKnight's communicator buzzed. Upon answering it, he heard the following, "Agent Moon Man to MidKnight ..."

"Here. What's up?" MidKnight responded.

"Tailed the Black D to a row house, wanna help me sweep it?" said the familiar voice of Star Lad.

"Check. Lemme see if Big Good wants in." Midknight went over to Thunderbolt. "We've trailed Black Dragon to a rowhouse. My partner is their now. He's your big bad, you want to come along?"

Thunderbolt stretched, looking around the warehouse at the bodies that lain motionless. "I am still weak, but Black Dragon should be pursued, I will come."

MidKnight looked around for Defender; not finding him, he went to Merlynne. "He y, my partner's got Black Dragon cornered. Thunderbolt and I are heading for th e collar. You think you guys got things wrapped up here?

Merlynne had enchanted herself with both enhanced strength and speed in order to evacuate the grounds more efficiently. Thing seemed to be well in hand, with o nly a couple other bodies still to go. "Yeah, I think so. Please check in with the progress, then, as he may know somethin that kin help." she said, hoping sh e wasn't overstepping her bounds.

MidKnight nodded, then turned to Thunderbolt. "Lets go. We'll get directions on the way." He turned to Merlynne and smiled. "Good job today. You ever get t ired of gratis work, gimme a ring."

MidKnight and Thunderbolt set out to join Star Lad, unaware of the drama being played out below the hangar. Star Lad talked them in and soon they had the rowhouse covered from both sides. Star Lad didn't think their quarry had come out of the back or the front, and the rowhouse was in the middle of the block, so there were no side exits as such.

"I don't know much about this part of town," Star Lad confessed. "But unless he went underground, he ought to still be in there."

"Any sense in being subtle, guys?" MidKnight said.

Thunderbolt massaged his shoulder, "Black Dragon is very skilled. If he is desperate, he will be very dangerous. We should not be careless."

"Didn't ask about carelessness, only about subtlety." MidKnight said. "I can h old my own in a fight, but I'm not skilled like he is. Neither's Star. I sugge st you and I each pick a point and head inside. Star Lad's backup...if Dragon g oes to bolt, he can fly and pick up his trail again or can come in if things are going badly. Sound like a plan?"

"It is as good as any," he reasoned.

MidKnight gave Thunderbolt and Star Lad a few moments to get in position, then went through the front door and hard and fast. He saw nothing of interest, but heard the back door go as the others entered.

That pair heard a noise off to their right and moved toward it quickly. They found Black Dragon turning away from a hole in the wall of the rowhouse, a hole not quite big enough for his powerful frame.

"It appears the coin is reversed, my enemy," said Thunderbolt. "This time, I have the superior numbers. Surrender and leave your honor in tact. You have many crimes to pay for."

"I do not think so," said Black Dragon, edging closer, then leaping forward in a flurry of fists and feet.

Thunderbolt slipped away from the blows and sent a spray of electricity at the villian, but his blast went wide. Star Lad absorbed the punch directed at him and retaliated with a burst of cosmic energy, which Black Dragon leapt clear of. Both men followed up with punches Black Dragon avoided most of the damage, but with the arrival of MidKnight the battle was a foregone conclusion.

Black Dragon stepped back, "There is no honor here for you, who attack in packs like dogs." He bowed, "I surrender."

MidKnight looked over at Thunderbolt. "Oh yeah, and I'm SURE you've never had t o mow through his minions. I'll call this into home." MidKnight hit the commli nk. "Merlynne, you there? We got Black Dragon. Standing by."

Meanwhile ...

Defender looked into the power room. Inside, Sting looked at the machine. It was giving off energy, to be sure... his comm unit was already fritzed, and he had no idea if his message even got through or how long they had until the generator did whatever it was going to do.

Sting stepped forward, laid his hands on the machine...and concentrated. He could feel the energy both leaving him and entering him ... whatever this generator ran on, it was powerful, and if it exploded it could level the city ... at least. The power of the stone that Sting had found so many years ago was protecting him from some of the alien energies now spraying out through the room, but not all. Behind him, one of the fallen krai began to dissolve, shedding sparks like a burning magnesium flare. "Come on, come on." Sting though. "Fourth Quarter, 1 yard to win. Damnit, Crosby, you can do this."

Finally, something clicked. The generator, easily the largest thing Sting had ever tried to affect, began to shrink. "Big explosion, big damage. Little explosion, little damage." The generator continued to shrink, and shrink, and s hrink ... now it was roughly the size of a Game Boy. Sting was drained, but he kept compressing the generator.

Defender came through the door and saw Sting holding and concentrating on what had to be the generator. Blood was coming out the eyes of the mask Sting wore. Sting glanced at Defender as he entered, and in the same moment the generator, now the size of quarter, vanished with a pop. Defender could see it shrink and vanish, but a shockwave erupted out from it at the same time. The good news was that the explosion was self-contained, and ultimately affected nothing and no one ... except for the man holding it. The shock wave threw Sting back aginst the wall, and Defender saw with horror that the antimatter reaction had completely annihilated Stings hands. Sting collapsed, most of his costume shedding a spray of sparks as stray antimatter particles reacted with the material. His face was scarred and the exposed skin burned. Blood seeped from the stumps of his hands which had been partially cauterized by the antimatter reaction which had destroyed them.

"IPAC Control, this is Protector One. We've got a pick up for you and an emergency medical evac. There is a radiation danger as well as fall out from alien tech. Locate on my signal. Homing signal activated." Defender's voice was even, emotionless. "Star, sweep the area to make sure Sting got the last of our problems. Please."

Once the armored hero moved away, Defender stepped over to his friend. He kept a safe distance, recognizing the danger that remained.

"Never pegged you for the reckless sort," Defender said. "I thought the doomsday device was my responsibility. Over achieving again, are we?"

"Didn't...know...if you heard me, boss." Sting said, with a weakness to his voic e that Defender knew didn't bode well. "Didn't know how,,,much..time..before ea rth...shattering...kaboom. Do'dve never made it. Do know...not much left...of me."

"They won't...make it." Sting said. "Too much of me...internally gone." Sting l ooked around, making sure no one else was in earshot. "Marie...was going to mar ry...please go gently, she was...afraid this would happen."

Sting managed a weak smile. "Come on, boss, you married...sci-fi sh ould appreciate...good Trek II ending...promise me...take care Lorelei...and hel p Max. That spear...has hold on hi..." Sting suddnely lurched and vomited away from Defender. For all the world it looked as is a piece of an internal organ came up. He then laid back and worked another weak smile. "Gwen too, k? Proud serve under you...Ald'n...m'frnd. Prtcktr....'ternal.."

There was another spark, this time from the chest area, and that was enough to r emove the last vestiges of motion from his body, save for the closing of his eyes.

Defender looked grimly upon what was left of his friend. It didn't have to end that way. Alden was angry. Angry at the Krai. Angry at Thermos. Angry at Sting. But mostly, he was angry that he couldn't have made it in time to save his friend. Time slowed down as he stood there. The sound of Siberian Star giving him the all clear. Rotors and jets outside. Booted feet on cement stairs. Defender waved Wilkins off and made one more communicator call.

"PC, this is Defender. Please meet me at Team D HQ. I'll be there in half an hour."

Last Updated 5 January 2005