A quick beep and a voice said, "Protectors' Central? This is IPAC Switchboard."
"Go ahead IPAC," said Lorelei.
"We've got a call from an off-duty agent, something's going down and she happens to be on-site. Patching you through now." There was a soft click. "Agent Browning is on the line."
"Great. Protectors, I'm downtown and there are a group of paranormals hitting an armoured car even as we speak."
"Give me the details, when, where, etc." PC scribbled down what the agent said. "Got it, you'll get whoever's available as soon as we can get there. PC out."
PC left money for her check and began to walk to her car. As she did, she concentrated on connecting with the mainframe back at base.
PC smiled - her new abilities never ceased to amaze her. She sent everyone a text message detailing the crime in progress and the location, and that she would meet them en route.
She then got into her car and drove to the destination. "Defender may not be happy about this." She thought to herself. "but I'll be there waiting."
Merlynne emerged from the secret entrance to the Fortress, taking care that no one noticed her. She then concentrated and lifted into the air, heading towards the coordinates PC generated to her.
Oleg Gavrilov moved his cursor over to the slidebar and re-ran his simulation. As he waited for the testing routine to execute he leaned back and nearly fell out of his chair as his helmet began to beep across the room. Regaining his balance he walked across to the awaiting message and put it on to access the transmission.
Once retrieved he removed his labcoat, handing it to a research assistant. "I have to go, keep an eye on the sim. If it approaches our target, log it and report to Dr. Walkins."
Minutes later he was in full armour soaring over the trees on his way to Port Alexander and the coordinates PC had transmitted.
As Jim walked in the park, he breathed deep. A day off, finally in how long. It seemed that between the Protectors, trying to get something on Saruva and his daily duty and the home, he hadn't had a moment to himself in ages. Making the most of his day, he'd spent some time with seeing mum and now was just walking off a well earned steak sandwich.
It was just then, when he was contemplating washing the whole meal with a pint at his favourite bar, when the his com unit went off. Making a mental note of the details he quickly, if somewhat reluctantly, speed off toward the nearest alley. Moments later a blue streaked Flex was leaping and bounding over rooftops, drawing stares and pointing fingers as he moved toward location PC had called him to.
Max lifted the communicator he had lifted from Sting during their last meeting f rom the cradle he had constructed for his desk. He gave the message two reads b efore placing the device back in its place of honor.
"Not my problem," he said to the room in general. He took up the paint brush an d returned his attention to the portrait he was creating from memory.
Alden Bryce tapped the projection with his pointer once again for emphasis. The numbers backed up his position, if only the executives before him would realize it. The Falcon's Bluff offices of Hope-Bryce were bringing in more money than they had estimated. Alden just needed them to understand the new expansion was not without cost to the company. Port Alexander's revenue growth had flattened out. Valuable members of his original team were now three thousand miles away. They liked it there and wished to remain. The company as organized was not rea dy for the logistics of this.
The conference room door opened and Karen stepped in. She held a silver and bla ck cellphone in hand, the look on her face urgent. Alden nodded to her. He mad e the usual excuse and broke the meeting. In his heart, he didn't want to. The issue was fresh in their minds and he needed to finish the presentation. Duty called.
In past he had welcomed these breaks from the rigors of running his company. Si nce Sting's death, Alden had really thrown himself into his work. Defender was becoming a distraction, a liability. The costume was a reminder of all the frie nds he had lost: Sting, Ka-sador, M'Krell, the Wanderer. He stared at the mask. "Will you claim me too before this is over?"
"What was that, boss?" Karen asked.
Alden looked Defender in the eye one final time before pulling the mask on. "No thing. Check that the parking garage is clear. I'm heading for the cycle."
Lorelei was the first to arrive. The robbery was taking place on a commercial street and most of the area had been emptied as people fled. There were a few exceptions; she noted a woman in a behind an overturned table and guessed that was the IPAC agent. There were three cars gathered around the armoured car and four security guards, unconscious or dead lay around the vehicle. The front end of the armoured car had been slagged. Six men were moving money from the armoured car into the other cars while three other people stood watch. The first was an asian woman dresseed in a black unitard, black boots and red sash like belt; she looked slightly familiar to Lorelei. The woman was in the street behind the car. On the other side was an athletic looking man in a black bodysuit with an arrowhead emblem in red on his facemask and each hand. He carried large and impressive longbow, and wore a quiver of arrows. On top of the car itself was a man in a gaudy candy-apple red bodysuit with a red visor.
Apart from them, the street was empty, although lined with parked cars, SUVs and the occasional van or motorcycle.
Lorelei's first instinct was to disrupt the robbery but remembered that Defender generally didn't like that unless necessary. Managing to get into costume befo re arriving, she took a nearby position out of sight and contacted the Fortress computer and database to try to get some IDs. That done, she made a call.
"Defender, P, err, Sandstone. On the scene, three obvious paras and some thugs. One I think is Python, the one that escaped recently, another's a longbow guy that may or may not be Sharpshooter in new duds, and a third unknown. How soon? They don't look like they're going to be much longer."
"Right," said Defender. "Stay under cover and we'll be there as soon as possible."
Sandstone kept her head down and checked the commlines at the Fortress. There was a message from Frostbite saying that MidKnight Star was out of town, but he was on his way. She scanned for him but saw nothing, so she returned her attention to the robbery.
A faint cry of "Last one," reached the hero's ears as one of the thugs tossed a bag of cash out of the armoured car.
Sandstone cursed under her breath, "Martial Artists are a pain in my tuckus." She said a silent prayer, thanked her father for raising her right, then launched a wave of earth and stone at an unsuspecting Python.
A wave seemed to rippled down the road, then broke free sending a showever of stone and asphalt at the asian woman. The villain was caught unprepared. She screamed as the rocks pummeled her, then caught sight of Sandstone. After an epithet in Chinese, she called, "We have company!"
The thugs ran to their cars and jumped in. The archer also ran to the cars and climbed into the back of one, while Quantam jumped down from the roof and ran to a second. Python, however, went racing toward Sandstone. "Python," yelled the archer, "Let's go!"
"I have business here," said Python.
Python vaulted over the rising pavement ... stright into another blast of stone. She landed in front of Sandstone with a glazed look in her eye, and slurred, "Now you ... shall suffer."
Siberian Star slid into view above the building to Sandstone's left and took in the situation.
Sandstone hit her com unit. "Star, please go after the cars. They have lots of money and two paranormals. I'll be along as soon as I take out the trash."
She then casually moved into a step kick right into the face of Python. "No, I won't." Sandstone said to her.
Even stunned as she was, Python was a highly trained martial artist. She caught Sandstone's leg and pulled the young heroine over in a takedown all the more startling since Python herself was clearly barely able to stand.
Python was woozy enough that she her follow up punch was far too slow and Sandstone was easily able to kip up and fire a snap punch to her opponent's chin. Python's eyes rolled back into her head and she dropped to the ground.
Siberian Star dropped down toward the cars, above them and out of their line of sight. As he did, two cars started in motion heading down toward Sandstone and the fallen Python, the third began to back and fill to get around the armoured car.
Siberian Star took aim and a might blast of ice shot down and completely destroyed the front end of the lead car, freezing it to the road surface. The trailing car swerved and managed to avoid rearending the wreck, but did clip it and lose a little speed.
Sandstone glanced over to where the IPAC officer was. "Please secure Python. I don't think this battle is done yet." Sandstone was tired from letting out so much energy at once, and although she needed time to catch her breath for more long distance attacks, she didn't think she was going to get that chance.
The doors to the crashed car flew open and three thugs popped out, leaned over them and opened fire. Bullets flew, bouncing off the ground around Sandstone. One struck her dead on and bounced off her silicate skin. "Crap," said one of the shooters. "She's bulletproof!"
Siberian Star floated above them unseen, as the second car, swerved and began to pick up speed, obviously intent on abandoning the first car. The last car finished pulling around the armoured wreck and began to flee the opposite direction.
The IPAC agent left her cover and ran toward the fallen Python as per Sandstone's request.
Siberian Star radioed to Sandstone that he was going after the fleeing car and accelerated toward the escaping villains.
Sandstone used a moment to insure Python was ready for the IPAC member, then closed in on the thugs, looking to do some hurtin. "Bulletproof, huh?" She thought to herself. "I could get to like this."
Siberian Star took off after the more distant car, getting into good position and then smashing it's hood with another blast of ice.
Hovering overhead, Siberian Star awaited for any activity from the newly stopped car. The impact had been pretty sudden so he expected whoever was inside could be injured, but discretion was warrented just in case anyone came out, mad.
Sandstone reached the nearest thug and launched a kick and punch combo at him. He ducked the kick but bobbed back up into the punch and let out a whoof.
Sandstone fired a snap kick at her foe who grunted and swung back using his gun as a club. His comrades moved around the car to swarm the heroine.
The doors of the car Siberian Star had just totalled swung open and three thugs staggered out, as did Quantum. Quantum caught sight of the hovering hero and shouted,"There!" Pistols were produced and fired, although one of the gunmen was so woozy that the recoil made him slip. Quantum raised a hand as well, and a bolt of crackling red energy roiled toward Siberian Star.
Sandstone took the punches from the thugs, and they hurt, but not as much as she thought they might. She punched back and landed a couple of blows which felled the thug facing her.
Flex assessed the situation and ran to help Sandstone, leaping into the fray as he drew close. The attack nearly bowled the thug over, but he managed to keep his feet. "Cripes! Another one," he growled.
Siberian Star dodged out of most of the energy blast Quantum had sent, which sent him into the path of the bullet. Blood sprayed from the flesh wound. He turned the dodge into a dive, pulling up in front of Quantum and launching a modified Flying Dragon Death Kick. The blow landed solidly.
Seeing how the thugs clearly seemed to be 'on something' Flex grew suddenly expanding in mass and size as he aimed a punch at the nearest thug.
"Flex, go help Star. He's got a meta on him in addition to the 'roid boys. I got these two, and we can't let the meta get away." Sandstone said as she fired another set of kicks at the nearest thug. Flex could have sworn he recognized the voice behind the mask, even though it was the first time he had ever seen Sandstone.
Sandstone went wild on the remaining thug, launching punch after punch after kick. The thug ducked and covered and was looking pretty woozy. Sandstone heard a strange zapping sound and the thug stiffened a glazed look coming into his face. She looked and saw the IPAC agent bracing her arms and aiming one of their Taser like guns at the thug.
Siberian Star was showing Quantum how to have a punch up Moscow style, or rather trying to. For some reason he was having problems with his gyros and was rather unstable. Quantum took advantage of the opening and SS was smashed by crackling red energy. A second, much smaller burst followed the first. So did another round of fire from the thugs.
Seeing that the new kid had things under control, Flex turned and leapt toward Sibarian Star and Quantum.
Siberian Star got his gyros under control and avoided all the incoming fire as Flex ran toward him.
Sandstone set up a leaping spin kick and the last thug went down in a heap. The IPAC agent started to come forward, so Sandstone could review the situation.
Siberian Star was subjected again to a hail of gunfire and crackling energy, although one thug cursed a jammed pistol.
As he dodged, Siberian Star found himself in a position to return fire and a blast of ice lanced out at Quantum who rolled clear of some of the attack.
Sandstone left the cleanup to the IPAC agent and gestured. The road, literally, rose to meet her feet. A wave of earth lifted her and propelled her along the ground toward the fray, startling Flex as it nearly ran over him.
Flex, after being surprised by Sandstone, used the "wake" of her movement, leap at Quantum, smashing into the villian and knocking him to the ground.
Flex didn't wait for Quantum to recover, using his superior strength and height to his advantage. he pummelled the villain mercilessly, in order to encourage him to stay down.
Quantum tried to roll away, but the Mouldable fist of fury prevented him.
At Sandstone's command a wave of rock struck at two of the thugs, they grunted and ducked, Siberian Star slammed a cage of ice down over one of them, and the three took stock of their situation before dropping their guns and raising their hands.
"Good boys." Sandstone said as the rock refuse began to disspate around them. She turned to Siberian Star. "Any way you have to trace or track the third car, or is this as good as it gets?" she said.
Siberian Star paused for a second trying to place the voice. "Nyet, these were the lucky ones, they do not get to be hunted. I am sure they will cooperate," he said loud enough for the caged man to overhear.
After making sure that Quantum was staying down, Flex returned to his normal siz e. turning to Siberian Star he nodded his greeting before turning to Sandstone, with a slightly quizzical look. "So, to coin a phrase, I don't think I've seen you around here before. I'm Flex and who do I have the pleasure of addressing? "
Sandstone chuckled slightly. "Nom de guerre is Sandstone." She said as she was punching some buttons on her cell unit. "Fairly new in town. Heard about this brouhaha on the radio and thought I'd join in." She looked up and turned to Si berian Star. "I recognize you from the media. You're with the Protectors, righ t?"
As she said that, both Siberian Star and Flex received notification that they ha d received text messages.
Siberian Star shook his head, "No, I'm an independent. Flex carries membership, I believe." The young Russian checked out the fit of Sandstone costume and excused himself as the text message indicator in his helmet went off. Stepping aside, he accessed the communication keeping an eye on the newcomer and the captured thugs.
The message read:
"GUYZ ITS PC. I'M SNDSTN. EXPLN L8R AT BASE. PLAY ALONG 4 NOW, PLZ."
Doing a doubletake, Siberian Star looked at Flex and said, "Take care of our guest, I'm going to talk to IPAC." With a mini-salute to Sandstone, Siberian Star jetted over to the IPAC agent.
Likewise Flex pulled to one side, pulling his communicator as he said, "excuse me while I get this." The message was the same.
"Also not knowing quite what to say or do. Flex looked closer at the mask, as if he might gain some added insight by staring hard enough. Then he managed to mouth the words 'PC'. "I am looking forward to your explanation."
The IPAC agent looked up as Siberian Star landed nearby. "The PNDF crew is on the way," she said without preamble. "I hope these will hold," she indicated the plastic cuffs she'd strapped around the thugs' wrists. "These boys look pretty buff."
"I assume they have been apprised of the situation, they should be able to restrain them. We'll stay here until they are neutralized. How did you happen to be here?" he asked.
"I'm off duty," she said. "I like that place, Antonelli's," she pointed at a restaurant down the street. "They make their pasta fresh and do their own sausage. Maybe sometime when *you're* off duty, we could do lunch."
"We'll see," he said coyly. "You know how duty is, always calling. I'll check the calendar and be in touch, Agent....?" he trailed off.
"Browning, Janis Browning," she said.
"Then until next time Agent Browning, do svidaniya," he replied before jetting back over to Flex and Sandstone.
Sandstone nodded at Star on his return. "Did you happen to get a contact name? I'm sure Defender will want to speak with some of these gentlemen eventually. With all the robberies going on, I have a feeling this has something to do with Saruva." Sandstone said.
"Da, she appears to be cooperative," Siberian Star answered. "If cash is this important to Saruva then missing out on this haul will turn the heat up some. Anything from these..." Star gestured to the captured thugs.
Sandstone shook her head and lowered her voice. "Didn't want to take the chance of voice recognition just yet. Although I'd be glad to stand back and look imposing if you wish to use your own powers of persuasion." Star could have sworn he saw a smile in the creases of Sandstone's mask as she said that.
Standing back from Sandstone and Star, Flex kept a wary on the thugs as he mused over the shocking news that PC was Sandstone.
Siberian Star smiled at Sandstone and approached the caged thug. "Tell me who you work for," he stated calmly.
"Him," he pointed at Quantum.
"Where were you to take the money?"
"We weren't," he said cooperatively. "Each car would go somewhere, we'd get our cut on the spot and the supers would take the money to its final destination."
"Your cooperation is not helping your fate," he said nonchalantly. "Looks like he will be getting the gift," Siberian Star said turning toward Quantum. The Russian turned to Flex, "he is yours."
"Care to assist me?" he asked Sandstone as he walked over toward Quantum.
Sandstone nodded towards Flex. "Thanks, Flex. We'll be back in a minute."
As they walked over towards Quantum, Sandstone whispered to Star. "You know, you could stand to be a little less curt with Flex. I know you owe no allegiance currently to the Protectors but I was under the impression you and he were partners, my friend."
"We have a working relationship," he explained, "that is stronger than my association with the Protectors. Mainly because Flex has asked me to join him in keeping Port Alexander safe." They had arrived at Quantum and Sandstone detected a hint of hurt feelings from the Russian.
Sandstone replied softly. "Thing have been too chaotic as of late on personal matters, Sting's death chief among them. Believe me, it's nothing personal on your part. I'm glad you and Flex are working together, he really took Sting's death hard." She paused, just outside of Quantum's presence, trying to recompose herself.
Siberian Star approached the limp form of Quantum and bent down, "Let's see what sleeping beauty can do to save himself."
Suddenly a flashbulb went off in Sandstone's head. "Star, don't. He's a teleporter, we'd run a real risk of him bolting on us. Maybe we need to get your IPAC friend to get some restraints on this bozo before we chat with him.
She then looked over towards where Python was. "Maybe our other dance partner might be more forthcoming. Shall we? Maybe you can introduce me to your lady friend."
Siberian Star pulled back from the unconscious form of Quantum and stood. "Perhaps you are right." Leading Sandstone over to Agent Browning, Siberian Star made the introductions. "Agent Browning, this is P...Protector Sandstone, she is a new affiliate with the team. Quantum is a known teleporter, so your agents need to be aware of that and provide a Mark V Molecular Scrambler for his restraint."
"Or just keep him out until we get him back to the PNDF," she countered. "Nice to meet you Sandstone."
"A pleasure" Sandstone said, again lowering the pitch of her voice subtly. "We have reason to believe that this heist has ties to Dr. Saruva. We asked about the restraint because we would like to question both Quantum and Python about their involvment." Sandstone looked to see if Python was still nearby.
"It's not standard equipment for a pickup team, so he'll be out until we get him back to the PNDF. Sorry." She looked over at Python. "I'm not sure what she's got, though."
Sandstone checked her database, "Looks like superstrength is the main thing."
"Well, she'll probably make short work of my plasticuffs, then, but the team has heavy shackles. Or you could just point a rock or an icicle at her head."
Siberian Star nodded and raised his hands. Python was thoroughly iced up and then brought round. She looked at her captors in turn, finally letting her gaze rest, full of loathing, on Sandstone.
"Oh goody. I have an archenemy." Sandstone said smirking. "Your flunkies have already sung what they know, it will probably help your chances of getting out of jail at some point before the next century if you follow suit. Once your flunkies got their cut, where were you supposed to take the remaining money to?"
"When someone has need of my services, they will find a way to acquire them. After that has happened, we shall meet again," said Python with disdain dripping from her voice.
"And how often will that be when word gets out that you couldn't get the job don e?" Sandstone countered. "My experience is that potential employers don't use their time and resources to break someone out of a maximum security paranormal d etention facility when they drop the ball like you did today. Your chances of g etting out of a long stretch at PNDF are a lot better in cooperating with us tha n with your sugardaddy breaking you out, especially since if he's who I think he is, he has no tolerance for losers."
"They have before, and will again, and besides," she smiled an evil smile, "you could halve my sentence and I would still be dead long before I could serve it."
Sandstone rolled her eyes. "Some people are simply truly beyond redemption. " s he thought to herself. She looked towards Siberian Star to see if he had anyth ing to add.
"Perhaps IPAC can extract the needed information," he said calmly. "You had your chance Python, and there will not be a second escape."
Siberian Star turned away from Python and began to walk back over to Flex, "Have you heard anything about large amounts of cash being spent in Port Alexander?" he asked Sandstone.
Sandstone walked over with him, speaking quietly. "Yeah. And it's being used t o buy various kinds of tech equipment. Although it's nothing that would hold up in a court of law, I'm convinced Saruva's getting ready for something big."
"He has greased many palms then, I have some feelers out for Saruva but I'm not sure if any will pan out. I'll be in touch if I hear anything, until then your resources are the best lead we have. Perhaps we could try to trace some of the equipment when it arrives here? things that require this kind of cash must demand some special care when delivered."
"Good plan." said Sandstone. She was really starting to wonder where the rest o f the team was at this point, especially Defender. "We should probably talk abo ut this in a more private setting? Are you available tonight to come in for a d ebriefing? I can only assume Defender's going to want to talk about things and your thoughts could be beneficial to finally nailing this maniac."
Siberian Star paused in thought for a beat, "I am available. What time and where should I meet?"
"Not sure yet." Sandstone replied. "Not really my call. Have anything you could be doing that you could be pulled away from? Defender will probably set the time."
"I am always working, but I will make time." Siberian Star looked to his left and saw television crews beginning to set up live feeds and excused himself. "I await your leader's call," he said lifting into the air toward the reporters.
Sandstone formed some earth beneath her, and it lifted her into the sky with Sta r. "Actually, I'd like to meet the press too, this time. I'm sure they're goin g to want to know who the new kid is." she said before pausing briefly. "That i s, unless you hate to share."
"Not at all," he said with a smirk.
While Sandstone and Siberian Star met with the press, a pair of unobtrusive vans pulled up and the IPAC clean-up crew began to do their work.