by Dan Swanson
The explosion triggered an automatic alarm in the ready room of the Citadel of Justice. One wall instantly lit up to display a blueprint of Council Complex, with the council chamber flashing. Batterstar, Collapsor, and Spectrum, the Justice Machine members not already involved in a mission, instantly launched themselves toward that wall, which barely snapped aside before Spectrum raced through. Behind the concealed door was a small spherical chamber lined with thick padding. This room was the interior of a capsule that would carry the Justice Machine at ultra-high velocity directly to the council chamber, automatically routed through a series of pneumatic tubes.
Before Batterstar could enter the capsule, the highest priority vidscreen came to life, showing a masked councilor (they always wore masks, so this wasn’t unusual). The heads-up display on the screen indicated that this was Councilor Seven. Batterstar didn’t question the identification, as only a councilor could access that particular communication channel. Councilor Seven didn’t say anything, but as soon as she saw that her call had caught Batterstar’s attention, she panned the camera to show the scene in the room behind her. The screen showed a figure in powered combat armor standing in the middle of the devastated council chamber. Batterstar begrudged the delay in responding to the emergency signal, but Councilor Seven might be sacrificing her life to provide the Justice Machine with important intel on the current situation. She figured it was worth a few seconds of delay.
The big room was filled with smoke and flames, sparks were shooting from severed cables dangling from the ceiling and sticking out of the walls, and the screams and moans of the injured could be heard even over the crackling of the flames and sparks. At least for a while, anyway. Star watched for several seconds as the armored trooper calmly turned and fired, turned and fired, and one by one, surely and quickly, the anguished voices were silenced. She joined her teammates in the capsule as the armored figure finally turned towards the councilor, and forty-three seconds later, the capsule slammed to a stop behind an armored door that opened onto the floor of the council chamber.
The Justice Machine hadn’t wasted those forty-three seconds. When the capsule came to a halt, they knew that the invaders had killed a dozen security agents wearing obsolete armor at a cost of two dead invaders. Batterstar was surprised at the ratio given the obsolete armor security had been wearing; the security agents must have been very well trained. Two of the remaining invaders were making a slow, thorough sweep through every room of the complex, apparently determined to wipe out everyone who still survived. The leader was still in the council chamber. And somehow the invaders had established a force-field around the complex. There would be no reinforcements until that field came down.
As they exited the capsule, Batterstar gave some quick orders. “You two take the marauders in the eastern wing. I’ll take out the boss in the council chamber.”
Spectrum looked at her incredulously. “You’re gonna take out a trained soldier in combat armor by yourself? Why don’t the three of us take down the one in the council chamber and then go after the other two?”
For an instant, she simply stared at him in disbelief. But she realized that he was used to taking orders from Lionheart. She wouldn’t rip him apart for his question — this time. “You forget who you’re talking to, youngster. I designed that armor. Now get moving; people might be dying while you’re jabbering. This is the last time I’m ever going to give you an order twice.”
Without another word, Spectrum grabbed the miniature Collapsor and flew off at high speed down the corridor to the east. Batterstar ran through a quick combat readiness checklist as she typed the Justice Machine override code into the keypad controlling the armored door to the council chamber.
Spectrum, still carrying Collapsor, flashed through a series of corridors in pursuit of their foes, leaving behind him the slowly fading multicolor haze that had given him his name. As they searched for their targets, they received a hasty radio message from their leader. “Officer Friendly™ has finally identified your foes. They’re a couple of independent mercenaries, ex-military, current employer unknown. No known prior contact with the Underground. Rated extremely dangerous.”
“No sweat, boss — just another pair of goons in armored suits,” Collapsor radioed back confidently. “Piece of cake!”
“Don’t mistake them for your average Terror Trooper, Lou. These guys are way better!” Batterstar signed off; she had her own battle to fight.
Spectrum’s electromagnetic senses soon located the mercenaries, and the Council Complex map on the heads-up display built into his goggles showed that they were in a VIP lobby not far away. This room had one wall made entirely of windows and looked out into a small, beautifully landscaped courtyard, totally surrounded by complex buildings. The two heroes entered the courtyard through another exit, and Spectrum melted the lobby windows with a low-intensity energy burst to get the attention of the mercenaries.
“Crap — what did you do that for, you big dim haze?” a disgusted Collapsor asked his teammate. “Now they know we’re here. We could’a ambushed them when they came out.”
“What if they went into another office first, itty-brain? There might still be people alive in there,” the aetheric avenger said, sneering at his teammate.
“Oh, yeah, right,” Collapsor replied in a voice that was even smaller than his current stature. There were few things in the world he hated more than admitting that Spectrum was right about anything. “What say we dump ’em in a puddle?” he spoke more brightly. He was a better strategist than the wavelength warrior, and they both knew it.
“Sounds good,” Spectrum replied grudgingly. “As long as you don’t screw up!”
The minute mammoth activated his electrostatic compressed air ramjet and zoomed away, straight down. Spectrum’s powers currently shielded the two heroes from the sensors in the armor, and the mercenaries were cautious about entering the courtyard to face an unknown foe. Then Spectrum became visible directly in front of them and attacked with a tightly focused beam of high-intensity red light. The sparkling beam bounced from the armors’ shields, and the two mercs responded by blasting with their plasma disintegrators. The quantum crusader was driven backward by the plasma beams, though his powers protected him, and the mercs confidently rushed forward. They knew that other than his electromagnetic powers, Spectrum was a normal human, and they could easily tear him to shreds with the enhanced strength of their armor.
When the miniature marauder reached the ground, he used his power to compress a chunk of dirt to submicroscopic size, dropped into the hole he had created, and repeated the process. In only a few seconds, he’d dug down about a foot and excavated a cavity about the size of a volleyball. He dropped a small pellet from his utility belt, and then zoomed out of the hole. At maximum acceleration, he zoomed across the mercs’ field of vision before they could focus on him. This pellet had originally been a boulder about the size of a reclining chair, currently collapsed to about the size of a terrestrial flea. It was going to do more than create an itch, though, in just a few seconds.
Just before the mercs reached the prone figure of Spectrum, it disappeared. It had been an illusion projected by the photonic phantom. They were blasted from above by a powerful energy blast, which didn’t affect them in their armor but vaporized all of the vegetation and the foot of soil in the courtyard, turning a big section of the paving material beneath the dirt into a deep pool of lava. Boot jets in the armor automatically flared to life, temporarily preventing the villains from falling into the puddle. Collapsor let the collapsed boulder expand instantly to its full size. The fist-sized cavity the mighty mini had excavated couldn’t contain the suddenly full-sized boulder, and there was a terrific explosion just behind the hovering mercenaries, knocking them off balance, and they fell forward into the lava.
Their boot jets couldn’t help them escape this trap, and there was nothing to grab hold of. The armors’ combat computers automatically sealed all external ports, but the suits were so heavy, they continued to sink more deeply into the lava. The gyroscopes in the suits struggled to return them to a vertical position, and as they sunk, they sluggishly rotated upright.
From above, Collapsor threw a handful of small pellets into the lava puddle. These pellets were originally large aluminum cylinders. Collapsor had filled them with thousands of gallons of a collapsed super-coolant fluid (like freon on steroids, thanks to Georwellian technology), then collapsed the tanks (doubly collapsing the fluid). He now allowed the fluid to return instantly to its normal volume. The collapsed tanks vaporized in less than a nanosecond from the growing internal pressure. Since expansion was a cooling process, when the highly compressed cooling fluid instantly expanded to several thousand times its previous volume, the temperature in the small courtyard plummeted, and the lava puddle almost instantly solidified. This left two armored mercenaries buried neck deep in what was now a solid glassy substance similar to obsidian.
In the more than sixty years the Georwellian military had been using armor, no one had ever captured an armored warrior in a vat of obsidian before. Undoubtedly, given time, the mercs could have escaped, but the Justice Machine teammates didn’t give them time. Spectrum aimed an arm at one of the mercs and focused an intense green energy beam on a small section of the force-field surrounding his head. The field near the focus point became visible, and started turning gray, then continued to get darker and darker.
“That field’s going to overload and collapse, pal,” Collapsor, now returned to normal size, said gently to the pinned mercenary. “You know what happens then, right?”
“Maybe he doesn’t, small fry! That would be pretty funny, wouldn’t it?” his teammate chuckled. “Why not let him find out for himself?”
“C’mon, you pastel punk! You know the boss wants us to bring back something we can at least identify. If that field collapses, what’ll we tell her? We’ll end up with extra duty again, like the last time you had a little fun.”
Neither merc said anything, but they both knew what would happen if the force-field failed. The field was currently absorbing the energy of the quantum crusader’s beam, and the suit’s power supply was storing that absorbed energy. Normal activity in the armor (particularly firing the weapons) could use that stored energy, and after a battle, there were a number of ways to release extra safely. But the storage capacity of the power supply wasn’t unlimited, and if it overloaded, it would fail and release all of the stored energy inside the armor, crisping the wearer and even melting the incredibly durable ceramoplast shell. The changing color of the force-field was a visual disaster warning mechanism, and if it turned black, it was too late.
“We just tell her these two guys were too stupid to give up. She’ll never know. We won’t even have to wipe the videos. That explosion when their boss blew up the council chamber wiped out the security computer.” Spectrum aimed the other fist, and another dark spot blossomed. Not a peep from either of the mercs.
“Well, since they helped us out, I guess you’re right.” Collapsor shrugged, his face again screwed up with the pain of agreeing with his teammate. “We got our rep to consider, don’t we? Bring ’em back alive too often, and the rest of ’em start thinking we’re soft.” He enlarged an item from his utility belt, which turned out to be a laser pistol. A bar of energy flashed from the barrel of the gun, and a third dark spot flowered on the merc’s force-field. The gray areas started to run together.
“You know, we’re gonna have to kill the other, too, if this guy won’t give up,” the Little Leviathan said his partner curiously. “Can’t take a chance of him talkin’.”
“That’s what makes it so much fun!” the aetheric avenger laughed again. “Won’t be long now!”
“I surrender!” The endangered merc had his suit’s PA volume set to maximum — not a bad idea, actually, as it used up a little bit of energy. “I’ll shut down the field if you guys stop blasting!”
“I thought you might,” Spectrum chuckled. One of his beams stopped, but the other remained at full intensity. Collapsor stopped firing as well. Two of the dark spots vanished. The third one dimmed, and then began to advance again. Collapsor expanded another item from his utility belt.
“Here’s what we’re gonna do,” the diminutive defender told the merc. “You’re gonna turn on your disarm receiver. When you do, Pastel Pete, here, will stop blasting you.” He held up the box he’d just expanded. “I’ll send the deactivate code. If your suit shuts down, you live. If it doesn’t, we start blastin’ again, and you get fried.” A combat suit could be shut down by a coded radio signal received through a special receiver inside the suit. The receiver was automatically activated if the body in the armor was unconscious or dead, and a conscious occupant of the suit could activate it manually. “Got it?”
“How do I…” the merc said, starting to ask how he could trust the two heroes, but then realizing he really didn’t have any choices. He concentrated, and a mental command activated the disarm receiver. The box in Collapsor’s hand beeped, Spectrum stopped blasting, and Collapsor sent the code that shut down the combat suit. He then touched the back of the merc’s helmet and collapsed some of the control circuits. With one suit of armor now impotent, they turned their attention to the other mercenary, who quickly surrendered and had his own armor deactivated.
Collapsor used his power to dig the depowered mercenaries out of the obsidian, totally destroying both suits of armor in the process. He expanded some more items from his utility belt and slapped manacles on both prisoners. One of the captives was complaining about the pre-mission intel they had been given.
“It’s not fair! They told us that you aren’t powerful enough to overload our force-fields!” he whined to Spectrum. Collapsor roared with laughter.
“And they were right!” he crowed. “Ol’ partially cloudy, here, could barely give you a bad sunburn!” He ignored the deadly looks his teammate was giving him. “But he’s pretty good at illusions — like the illusion that your force-field was turning black! Bwa-ha-ha-ha!”