The snowstorm had started sooner than the weatherman reported. It made a dramatic backdrop for what was about to happen. Erin was nervous as she walked down the street lined with stalled cars. Her fists were clinched as she focused on staying invulnerable. Her father would probably chide her for that; showing her hand too early.
Time seem to crawl by at an agonizing pace, but it was still all happening too fast. Erin could hear him shouting now. In the middle of the intersection ringed with smashed and crumpled cars was a freak of a man. His skin was greyed and boiled, stretched to the point that it looked ready to burst. His limbs were out of proportion, twisted unnaturally by his powers. Most frightening though, was his height; he had to be almost three meters tall.
Erin hadn’t ever seen someone in the throes of meta-madness before. This guy looked utter insane. His slurs and angry ramblings had devolved into a frenzied screaming. Erin couldn’t help but look at the chaotic scene; people hiding behind the wreckage, waiting for the brute to turn around so they could crawl away—just like they learned back in school.
There was still time to turn back, he hadn’t noticed her yet. Erin came to a stop just before the intersection. Her heart felt like it might beat out of her chest. This guy was a tower of muscle, and she was…No! She had powers just like her father and grandfather. This is what she was training for.
Swallowing her fear, she called out: “Hei, ruma!”
The jättiläiset snapped its attention to the tall girl with red hair and a homemade mask. With a roaring bellow, the meta charged, and all Erin could focus on was the freak’s fist flying towards her face.
Erin jolted herself awake, but the noise didn’t seem to roust the rooms other unconscious occupant. Stretching, Erin tried to ward off the stiffness that seemed to set in. Maybe her invulnerability wasn’t so perfect. Or maybe it was just the cheap chair she’d been sleeping in. Erin looked over at Whitney in the hospital bed just to make sure she was doing alright. The doctors said her burns were healing faster than anything they’d seen before, but she still needed time regardless.
The boys had minor scrapes, bruises, and burns, but were otherwise unscathed. Of course, Erin wasn’t hurt at all. At least, not physically. Halcyon’s…hypnosis brought up a lot of things. Not all of them were bad, but it wasn’t a mystery to Erin where her nightmare had come from.
What time was it anyway? A glance at the clock on the wall revealed it to be a little past two-thirty in the morning. Going back to sleep wasn’t an appetizing, so she decided to stretch her legs. Erin didn’t know anyone who liked being in a hospital, but it was quiet and somewhat calming at night.
She walked down the hall to the waiting room the boys had crashed in. Adam looked like he was ready for a fight even while he was sleeping. Corey had wrapped up basically his entire body with his wings, and it honestly looked comfortable. Opposite him was Nate. It looked like he was having nightmares too; he was tossing and turning with faint blue light coming from his closed eyes. Ian was passed out with the glow from his phone screen casting strange shadows on his face.
Things could have gone much worse. Erin had only heard of metas as powerful as Aurora, but to be there was something else. Everything was on fire; the trees were like matches on some apocalyptic cake. And Erin felt none of the heat as she marched through it. At the center of the hellscape the ground was almost molten. Erin remembered her feet sinking slightly with ever step.
Aurora, or at least who Erin assumed had to be Aurora was standing in the center of everything. The heat rolling off them made the air swim and shimmer. Erin was ready for a fight—Halcyon had left her on edge, but Aurora just stood there.
They were clad in what looked like an armored hazmat suit built to withstand the heat. “Are you Aurora?” Erin yelled.
The figure standing there stopped shuffling forward and tilted their head to the side, almost quizzically. “Are you with Halcyon?” Erin yelled again. Yet again, no response. Erin crept closer, and the figure didn’t do anything. It was like there wasn’t anyone inside the suit. But the eyes of the helmet followed her as she approached.
“Are you okay?”
Erin wondered if the person she was talking to even spoke English. She repeated her questions in Finnish for the hell of it, but she wasn’t exactly surprised when there was still nothing but silence. Erin investigated the suit a bit more and noticed that there were controls built into the right arm.
Technology was really more of Ian’s wheelhouse, but when the screen said “Dampener Control” it wasn’t difficult to figure out what it did. Erin increased the power of the dampener, and he heat immediately began to subside.
It didn’t really matter that Erin managed to depower her; she disappeared in the same Euclid goo Halcyon had. But why was Whitney’s brother working with Kriegspiel? Argus knew he was powerful, but he was closer to his father’s power level than they thought, that much was clear.
It was hard not to feel sorry for Whitney with family like that. It made Erin glad she still had her father. Great, now she was homesick. She shouldn’t be surprised; she was already dreaming about her first real fight.
Content the boys were alright, Erin decided to go for a nighttime stroll. Jackson Wyoming wasn’t a large city by any means. It did have some nice views of the mountains, though. Almost reminded her of home. Maybe she could give her dad a call, she wondered to herself as she pulled her phone from her pocket. Doing some math, it was about lunch time back in Finland…
Her dad would forgive her she reasoned, dialing his number.
It rang exactly twice before her father’s voice answered. “Hei?”
“Hei isä,” Erin answered, switching back into Finnish.
“Erin? Is everything alright?”
“Yeah, Dad; I just wanted to call and see how you were doing.”
“Erin…” her dad scolded half-heartedly. “You’re not on a mission, are you?”
“No, no. You know I wouldn’t call if I was.” Her dad didn’t say anything, but she could almost see him nodding; forgetting he was on the phone. “We did just get back from one, though.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Not a scratch.”
“That’s my girl,” he said with a hint of pride.
“But what about you? Everything going okay over there?”
“Of course. You know nothing interesting has happened here since you left.”
Erin rolled her eyes despite her gin. Her father had made that joke almost every time he got the chance.
“What about your team? Are they performing well? Do they listen to you?”
“Well, we’re still getting used to each other. I honestly think we need more training.”
“So, they are insubordinate?”
“I wouldn’t say that. They listen, but I don’t know if its because they trust in me as a leader or another teammate. Does that make any sense?”
“I think I know what you mean. Just remember what your grandfather and I taught you, and you’ll do fine.”
“You’re right,” Erin said, her mind wandering back to her first meta fight.
“But if you ever need help, just bring them here and I’ll get them straight.”
“I’m sure you would!” Erin said with a laugh.
“It’s good to hear you laugh, Tättähäärä. But it’s late there, and I’m sure you need sleep.”
“Okay, isä. It was good to talk to you.”
“You too. Love you.”
“Love you too. Bye.” Erin said, waiting for her father to hang up.
The little talk with her dad had carried her a few blocks, but not far enough to let her old memories settle. What she really needed was something to hit. Starting back towards the hospital, she looked at her phone again and went to James’ contact.
Unlike her dad, the team’s liaison took much longer to pick up. “Hello?” came the sound of a groggy Argus agent.
“Hey, James, It’s Erin.”
“Is everything okay? Its…three in the morning…” James groaned.
“Yeah, we’re all good, but I was wondering if I could ask a favor.”
“That’s what I’m here for,” James grumbled, trying not to sound aggravated. “What do you need?”
“Are there any heroes in the area looking for back up?”
“Let me check.” Erin could make out faint typing sounds as James looked up something on a computer.
“Uhh, yeah, actually,” James said as he picked up the phone again. “I let it go by since I thought you all wanted some rest, but some old friends are about an hour or two from you. Paladin and Boondock were looking into something in Logan, Utah.”
“How far is that from here?”
“About three and a half hours by car.”
“Can you send directions to my phone?”
“Yeah. Do you want me to send you a car or a dropship?”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine on my own.”
“Anytime,” James replied. “But remember that Hollands is going to want a full debrief in a few hours.”
“I’ll be ready,” Erin assured him.
“Alright, just don’t say I didn’t warn you,” James said, hanging up the phone.
He’ll get over it, Erin thought to herself, looking at the route on the map James sent. This was just what she needed. After a little stretch, she tapped into her powers. The faint blue from her aura shed some dim light on her surroundings. When she used her powers like this, it was like she could see motion. Streaming ribbons of light left in the wake of cars, people, birds, dogs; everything.
Focusing her mind, she started drawing the ribbons of motion into herself. She could feel them coiling and winding up, getting ready to be unleashed. And then, as easily as exhaling a pent-up breath, she started running.
Only it wasn’t running, exactly. She was moving her legs, but only slightly faster than she normally did. The difference was in the length of her stride. It was an awkward gate, but with the force of her power pushing her along it was damn fast.
When she made it to the highway, it was even more extreme. She didn’t normally want or like to go this fast, but with the volume of cars that had traveled down the road in the past few weeks, it was harder to hold back. Everything she had was focused on not hitting the cars that flew past her.
The trip that would have taken more than three hours was whittled down to only a few minutes by the time Erin slid to a stop on Logan’s main street. Her trip had taken her through Wyoming and a portion of Idaho, but it was all a blur. The town itself looked like every other mid-sized American town she’d passed through. Kind of hard to tell them apart.
James’ directions led Erin down a few more streets; away from the more residential districts, stopping in front of what looked like a self-storage complex. That seemed a bit odd, but when Erin double-checked her phone, the address was correct. Deciding to put aside her doubts, Erin started walking past the rows of doors trying to find what she was looking for.
Right before she reached the end of the third row, one of the doors flew open. Erin threw up her defenses for a fight. It felt strange as her body became immutable, frozen between one heartbeat and the next. But she quickly realized that there wasn’t any need for a fight.
“Paladin?” Erin asked, noting the hulking figure crouched on the other side of the door.
“Oh, it’s you. Nice to see you again, Norn.”
“Yeah…nice to see you too…” Erin said, not trying to appear rude as she tried to peer past the giant hero to see what was going on behind him.
“Where’s the rest of the team?” Paladin asked, sounding a bit disappointed as he glanced up and down the empty row on either side of the Argonaut.
“They’re still resting up from our last mission,” Erin explained, rubbing the back of her neck. “I just needed something to do.”
She wasn’t feeling the desire to go into the nightmare that had unsettled her, but Paladin nodded thoughtfully, “I completely understand. Come on in and we’ll get you up to speed on what’s going on.”
Pushing the door, the rest of the way up, Paladin turned and moved back to his seat while crouched so that he didn’t scrape his head against the ceiling. Now Erin could see Boondock, in his signature jeans, boots, beat-up baseball cap, and sleeveless flannel tacking pictures to a cork board. What he, and presumably Paladin, had mad looked like something straight off the set of a conspiracy movie.
Erin quickly noticed that she wasn’t the only back up that had arrived. It took her a minute to place the face. He was a tall guy, just a hair shorter than she was, and handsome enough; maybe he usually wore a mask? No, that probably wasn’t it. If he was one of the masked heroes, his face wouldn’t be ringing a bell. Then he turned and smiled, and Erin’s mind immediately remembered him from the cover of a Chronicler magazine, an organization dedicated to telling the stories of metahumans. That issue had a large section dedicated to Albert Simmons, aka Colossus: the hero that had just bailed them out from their fiery predicament earlier. This guy sure seemed to get around.
“Howdy, Norn,” Boondock drawled with his usual hospitality despite staying focused on whatever he was doing.
“I don’t think we’ve met officially,” Colossus said, extending his hand.
“Uh, Norn,” Erin said returning his warm smile and shaking his hand. His expression shifted slightly when she said her name, apparently recognizing it.
“Uh, yeah. And I wanted to thank you for extracting my team back in Montana.”
“Oh, don’t mention it; it isn’t every day I get to use what I build,” he replied, appearing thrilled his actions were noticed.
“So, what are you guys looking into here?” Erin asked, promptly turning the conversation back to Boondock and Paladin.
Maybe it was the drawl, but the way Boondock said the name made Erin look over at him in concern. It was some uncomfortable mix of smug and scorn.
“I thought the investigation against them was dropped.” Erin said, remembering the news report she saw about the biotech company not too long ago.
“The FBI dropped their investigation, not Cypher or Argus,” Boondock clarified.
“Unofficially,” Paladin added.
“Yeah, ‘unofficially’,” Boondock clarified. “After Prophet’s debrief, real unfortunate business with all that by the way, Argus and the FBI both launched inquiries into any possible connections between Gencore, Shard, Morales, and Cooke.”
Erin only remembered the details of the team’s report from Chicago vaguely. And when they weren’t put on the case, she figured it wasn’t anything important.
“Due to how all y’all were wrapped up with that Prophet business, the higher-ups and Argus didn’t want you gettin’ involved, so they passed it on to Cypher, who passed this little mission on to us since we were in the area.”
“They have you two doing espionage?” Erin asked, looking between the giant and the guy that looked like he belonged at a rodeo incredulously.
Paladin laughed, “Not exactly. Cypher is positive there’s more going on than the FBI can find out, but that also means we don’t have any protection under the Accords to go and start roughing up their employees.”
“However, if they are doing business under the table, we can step in and link it back to them if we’re lucky,” Boondock continued. “Cypher was especially interested in the Creasomyaline Demevelam your team found in Morales’ apartment. He thinks it was what triggered Cooke and Morales’ power manifestation.”
“Cypher thinks Gencore has found a way to trigger power manifestations in sleepers?” Erin asked.
“Well, Gencore of course denied having anything to do with the bottle or the pills, and whoever made the drugs did a good job of making them decompose real fuckin’ quick according to Cypher and the people in the Argus labs. But, to answer your question; yeah. And Cypher doubts they will stop at just the un-manifested metas given their shady record.”
“Okay, but I’m still not sure why we’re handling it instead of people more skilled with spy stuff,” Erin wondered aloud.
“Cypher didn’t say,” Paladin sighed, struggling to move so he was closer to the board. “If I had to guess, it would be because I’m about thirty years overdue for retirement, and Boondock doesn’t have the biggest splash. Or it could be because he expects heavy resistance.”
“And you?” Erin asked Colossus.
“I answered the same back-up request as you; I wanted to try out something new I was working on,” he answered.
Boondock glanced at his phone and back to the board. “It’s almost time, we need to get moving. Gencore’s truck should be rolling into town in a few minutes. We’re gonna track that truck to their facility and see what we can turn up.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
Despite his size, Paladin could be somewhat stealthy when he wasn’t glowing like a lightbulb. It was impressive. Still, stealthy wasn’t a major skill in Erin’s toolshed. Every movement made her more worried about getting found out.
The quartet of heroes were camping out on a very small hill on the outskirts of town watching the armored truck drive innocently enough down the road. It turned out Colossus’ new project was a much smaller suit of power armor.
If she was being honest, it looked far less sophisticated than his massive suits. Still, he had advanced optics, so he was on lookout.
“So why do you think this is some kind of nefarious shipment?” Erin asked.
The truck didn’t have any identifying symbols or markings. If it passed Erin randomly on the street, she would probably just assume it was one of those trucks that moved money or valuable items.
“None of the local businesses hire from security companies that own that model of truck. None of the banks, jewelry stores, nothing. In fact, the closest security company that does use that kind of armored truck is more than six states away,” Boondock explained.
“So how do you know it’s an Argus truck?” Erin asked, still not seeing the whole picture.
“We have to trust Cypher on that one. Him and his big brain claims to have seen a pattern.”
“They’re turning in,” Colossus called out, synthesized voice coming from the suit’s helmet.
“Alright, I’ll make the call,” Boondock said, pulling out a cellphone and dialing a short number. “Hello, this is Boondock, badge number six three two six one, requesting confirmation of registered facility five-hundred feet from current location.”
Boondock went quiet for a moment as he waited for a reply from whoever was on the other end of the line. Then he smiled and hung up the phone. “No registered facilities in range.”
“What does that mean?” Erin asked, berating herself for not being as well versed in Argus jargon as she should be for the sake of the team.
“Since the advent of meta-tech, all companies and organizations need to register the locations of their sites with Argus. Those that do advanced research, or employ meta-tech are extra-obligated. If it’s not a registered site, we have probable cause to kick in the door.”
“Seem like a bit of loophole…”
“Paladin gave a slight sigh, “It can be, but criminals often use fronts to hide their activities. If no one registered this place, it isn’t that much of an assumption to say they could be hiding something.”
“Do you want to knock or should I?” Colossus asked, looking over to Paladin.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to take a crack at it,” The old man said with a growing smile.
“Not at all.”
“I’ll give you a little boost,” Boondock said as he apparently activated his powers. Erin felt the sensation wash over her in a wave of goosebumps. Everything seemed slightly sharper, and her powers felt like they were at her fingertips ready to go. She still wasn’t sure exactly what his powers were, but she knew she liked the feeling.
Without any more fuss, Paladin got up from his prone position and started jogging towards the small steel and concrete building the truck had turned off the road towards. By now, the truck had pulled into an open garage built into the bunker-like building.
No one seemed to notice the well-over seven-foot-tall man as he jogged closer. Erin guessed one didn’t usually look for giants in the desert. Following Boondock and Colossus’ lead, Erin started to follow them from their hiding position just as Paladin broke into a sprint. His heavy footfalls pounded the ground with enough force to alert the small group of guards standing in front of the garage. A few of them trained guns on the approaching figure while one spoke into his radio.
All hell broke loose when Paladin lit up like the sun.
Suddenly, with a giant clad in glowing plate armor charging them, a few of the guards opened fire. They would have had a better time trying to stop a freight train by throwing pebbles. “Come on, let’s not let him steal the whole show,” Boondock said, scrambling to his feet and breaking into a headlong run into gunfire. Colossus’ external speakers crackled to life with the sound of laughter as his suit took off like an Olympic sprinter before jets of flame roared to life. With a burst of flame, Colossus shot forward like a rocket. Not wanting to be left behind, Erin flared her powers and followed just a few dozen feet behind in Colossus’ wake.
Seeing Paladin standing there as she rushed towards the fray made her mind drift back against her will. Her father’s words echoed in her head, telling her to be the one on the attack.
Suddenly, the coolness of the Utah night was replaced by the bitter cold of a Finnish day five years ago. Snow was whipping around her as she charged the rampaging meta. He was charging in turn, closing the gap between him and Erin in about two of his bounding steps.
“Drop blue, go red.”
Erin wanted desperately to make her father proud and follow his training but seeing the cinderblock-sized fist sailing towards her face instilled a primal panic. She didn’t duck out of the way and counter strike like she drilled over and over. Instead, her panic translated to her shell of invulnerability springing into place.
The fist connected, having no trouble with a now static target, and Erin felt the world go sideways as her spine bent dramatically, stopped from snapping only by the grace of her ability. Her upper body was driven down so quickly she lost her footing as the brute drove her head halfway through the blacktop.
It didn’t hurt. Nothing hurt her like this, but that didn’t stop the shock.
“Norn! Hey, you with us!?” Boondock yelled.
Snapping out of her trance just in time to see Boondock finish putting on of the guards in a sleeper hold.
“Yeah, sorry,” She said, trying to clear her head.
With the first segment of guards safely taken care of and restrained in some way or another—Erin spotted Paladin ripping up some hollow metal railing and wrapped it around some of the gunmen—it was time to delve a little bit deeper.
Boondock didn’t look convinced with Erin’s half-hearted assurances, but Paladin was already tearing through the garage door like it was toilet paper. “Don’t want to give them time to get rid of evidence!” Paladin reminded the group as he crawled inside.
Erin didn’t waste any time following the giant before Boondock could ask any more questions. “I think this is a job for you,” Paladin said to colossus, noting the empty interior of garage.
“Is there a hidden passage?” Erin asked, trying to think of possibilities as to where a multi-ton armored truck could have gone.
“I’m going to guess elevator,” Colossus said, aiming his hand arm at the ground. A section of armor near his forearm opened and a small rocket shot out. Its size was deceiving. Fortunately, Erin was already invulnerable. She’d probably would have gone deaf from the blast if she hadn’t been. Although, she supposed it wasn’t quite as bad as Whitney’s explosions.
It turns out there was an open elevator shaft just under the floor. The rocket had made a hole large enough for even Paladin to jump through. The hero didn’t waste any time in doing just that. “I’ll help Boondock down, you go ahead,” Colossus offered.
Erin nodded and stepped off into open air.
She was falling, but not down a hidden elevator; she was falling through open air. The brute had sent her flying again. It was like she was football getting slapped around every time she went near him. his arms were getting longer too. Minute by minute, his skeleton was changing. It was like he had three joints running down his arms instead of just an elbow.
Erin landed in a scrambled pile, the ground cracking with the impact. She tried to scramble to her feet, but all she saw was a flash of grey skin and she was launched skyward again. It was fast, too fast for her to dodge without using her other powers. But that would leave her open to being flattened with a single glancing blow.
She was safe like this. And as long as she was being knocked around, other people weren’t. It wasn’t exactly the idea of heroism she had when she had set out, though.
Erin’s senses returned to her just before she slammed into the bottom of the elevator. Craning her neck up, she saw jets of flame from Colossus’ suit as he lowered Boondock down.
Boondock’s voice was like a wake-up slap to the face. There was indeed no seven-foot tall glowing man waiting at the base of the elevator. Erin looked down the only way forward to see a set of massive metal doors that had been pried open with strength that was still beyond her own. It reminded her how Paladin came to still be an effective hero past eighty years old.
“Looks like he ran ahead,” Erin called back, breaking into a run.
She heard Boondock swear aloud, but it didn’t register once she saw what was inside. The truck was there, partially unloaded. It was the contents that floored her. People…
Different ages, ethnicities, genders…They were packed into the truck like sardines. Handcuffs kept them restrained while masks kept them quiet and blind. “What…?” Before she could fully comprehend the scene in front of her, a scream flew towards her as a man was launched out of a side passageway with alarming speed. Paladin came storming after him. She couldn’t see his face behind his glowing helmet, but his body language made it easy to tell he was pissed.
The man got up quickly, but it was clear he was injured. In an instant, a glowing sword appeared in Paladin’s hands, and he struck the man with the broadside of the blade. Before anyone could get a word out, more armed men came storming into the room. “Keep them safe!” Paladin roared, charging to meet the gunmen as they opened fired.
The truck was armored, and the men were approaching from the front of the truck. They were safer from gunfire where they were, at least for the moment. An alarm blared to life as Erin ran to help Paladin. Everyone seemed so focused on the giant, they didn’t notice as Erin ran up and glowed a violent red before decking on of them in their helmets. They had good armor, but Erin’s strength sent him flying back into several more of his friends.
Now they were torn, should they deal with the glowing girl in armor, or the giant in glowing armor? Their window for choosing rapidly dwindled as Paladin’s weapon became a massive hammer, knocking down most of them with a single sweep. Two more fists from Erin sent two more sprawling.
Deciding they were grossly outmatched, the remaining five or six turned and tried to run, but Paladin gave a mighty stomp, sending a wave of sheer force outward. The building shook, and the men were knocked off their feet.
“Who’s in charge here?” Paladin asked, his voice enough o make even Erin flinch.
“Holy hell,” Boondock said as he and Colossus stepped into the loading area. “William…” Boondock cautioned, looking worriedly at Paladin.
“I’m fine!” Paladin spat back, taking a threatening step towards the few still-conscious guards trying to crawl away.
“Standby, I’ll get an echo reading,” Colossus said, putting a hand on the wall. There was a muffled thump and a second later Colossus pulled his hand back and held his palm facing up. The suit projected a blurry hologram of a series of rooms and hallways centered on their position.
“This place is huge, how the hell are we supposed to search it all?” Erin asked.
“If I had to guess, I’d say this would be out best bet, but without better resolution, I can’t be sure.”
“We can ask the locals,” Paladin growled, still stalking towards the guards.
“That’s not how we do things, William,” Boondock said forcefully. “It looks like there’s maybe one more entrance to this place. Colossus and I will hold down the fort here and get these people to safety, you and Norn go cut off anyone trying to get out the other way.”
Paladin was silent for a moment, but eventually he let out a breath and nodded. “Let’s go,” Paladin said, taking off with determination.
“Leave it to Gencore to constantly raise the bar for least humane villains.”
While Paladin muttered to himself, Erin was growing increasingly worried. “Don’t you think a place like this should have more guards?”
Paladin shrugged, “It’s difficult to find that many people with erasable identities. They can have all the money they want, but even then, it’s sometimes a challenge. But you’re right; keep your eyes peeled.”
The pair grew silent after that, watching for any signs of an ambush as they crept through the subterranean hallways. Rooms passed by every now and then. A quick glance inside didn’t reveal much; they were filled with an assortment of equipment one might imagine taking up space in a secret laboratory. Overall, however, they seemed relatively empty.
“Maybe they were just starting to move in,” Paladin said, slowing his pace slightly as they rounded a corner. They had to be close to the outer range of Colossus’ scan by now. Erin remembered there were a few of the largest rooms in this area. If there was going to be a place for a fight, it’d be better for them to do so in an area they could move around. Paladin needed the leg room, and Erin wasn’t a small person either.
“I think I hear something.”
Erin stopped dead in her tracks and listened. Sure enough, she heard muffled voices. One of them sounded distressed. Wordlessly, the pair pushed forward coming to a metallic door. Without even checking if it was locked, Paladin sent it flying, sheering it off its hinges.
Two figures were near the rear of the room, one slumped in a strange kneeling position while the other vigorously typed on a keyboard. Erin swore internally yet again for not being tech savvy, but she knew enough to recognize that they were typing some kind of instructional code into the terminal.
Six large cylindrical tanks with large glass viewports built into their side flanked either side of the rectangular room. Dark yellow liquid bubbled inside the tanks, casting an eerie, putrid light into the room.
“Shit!” The man at the computer swore when he whirled around to see two heroes storming his lab. With one last panicked keystroke, he broke away from the terminal at a full sprint. His white coat trailed behind him as he made a mad dash for the door.
Paladin’s weapon changed in his hand again; this time taking on the form of a javelin. He hurled it at the man, but the glowing weapon just missed, striking the side of the far tank. To Erin it seemed like a glancing blow, but the contents of the tanks had to be pressurized. Gallons of the yellow liquid splashed over part of the man, as he disappeared through a door, screaming in pain.
Resummoning the weapon to his hand, Paladin made his way towards the figure still slumped to the ground. “Hello? Are you alright?”
“Look at the needle,” Erin warned. The older hero turned his attention from the woman for a second to see what Erin was pointing out. A few feet away, there was a syringe fitted with a hypodermic needle. There was still a bit of the dull yellow residue dripping from the tip.
“Ma’am…?” Paladin said carefully, trying to walk around to see her face.
Dark veins suddenly became visible when she snapped her head up to look at Paladin. The hero took a step back in alarm. Her face was contorted into an inhuman scowl accompanied by a terrifying screech. Paladin tried to raise his shield, but whatever the woman was injected with made her faster.
She latched onto Paladin, scratching and tearing at his luminous armor. When beating him with her fists didn’t seem to work, she tried to pull his helmet off. Something else was wrong; she seemed to be growing…
Erin tried to get close and pry the woman off, but before she could, Paladin’s shield vanished. A golden barrier suddenly appeared around the woman, forcing her just far enough away from Paladin that she lost her grip. Paladin’s weapon shifted into the form of a hammer as he wielded it like a golf club to putt the still-encased woman across the room.
A moment later, and the shield re-formed on Paladn’s arm. “What the hell are they working on here?” Paladin said aloud.
“You two run into trouble?” Boondock’s voice spoke from her ear.
“We have someone exposed to an unknown bioweapon; likely mutagen,” Paladin said, as Erin noticed there was still yellow-brown liquid pouring from the container Paladin hit.
“We’re on our way.”
“No, stay back, some of it is leaking, and you don’t have protective wear!” Erin called back over comms. The whole time, she was looking warily at the woman as she picked herself up off the ground. Paladin’s shield had made sure she wasn’t injured by the hammer or the wall, but she was clearly suffering from whatever was coursing through her veins.
“My suit has atmospheric filtering; I should be fine for a few minutes,” Colossus called out.
“Negative, you know the protocol, we’re already at risk, but my armor and Norn’s powers have a better chance of keeping us safe.”
The woman was definitely growing unnaturally. Her skin seemed to boil and swell, warping grotesquely into discolored masses of flesh. Then there were several audible snaps and pops. Her back was arched as her arms bent and twisted. They were longer now and tipped with wickedly sharp-looking talons.
“We need to incapacitate her, now!” Paladin roared, charging the mutant. Instantly, she snapped out of her daze, and launched herself at Paladin. She clamped down on his arm as he swung, using his moment and combining it with her new strength to hurl him into the wall.
Her frenzy then locked onto Erin. The woman’s mutation seemed to be nearing completion. Her skin was a rotten, brown color, making her almost unrecognizable as human. The woman charged, but all Erin could see was the meta from five years ago stomping towards her…
He had been pummeling on her for what felt like forever: he didn’t like how she kept getting up and now he was pissed. All his burning rage was raining down upon Erin, who couldn’t think of anything else to do but stay invulnerable. Their fight had taken the dueling duo out of the denser populated portion of town towards the local lake.
That was one good thing.
Slowly, Erin started to notice that the time between his strikes was growing. Was he getting tired?”
That was five years ago!
Before the woman reached her, Erin flashed blue and instantly closed the distance between them. Then, she threw a right hook, bringing out all her strength with a glowing red fist.
It had all been a farce; as soon as her first punch landed, the giant closed a massive hand around her neck and leapt into the air. A second later, they came crashing down into the lake—deep enough so he could hold her under.
She couldn’t breathe…
Desperately, she became invulnerable, locking her physical state. That was the worst mistake she’d made so far. She didn’t get her breath back; now she was locked into that instant of panic and suffocation. Her powers replaying the last nanosecond over and over and over. It was like she was drowning a million times at once.
But if she let her powers go, she would get a lung full of lake water.
History repeated itself in the most terrifying way for Erin. Again, she was dying from a million instances of suffocation at once. The woman was faster than she looked. Out of the corner of her eye, Erin saw Paladin getting up.
NO! she shouted mentally, dropping her invulnerability and letting her throat be crushed. She dug in deep, channeling her strength once more. She wasn’t going to be saved again; she could get herself out of this.
With a strangled yell, she clenched her fists as hard as he could, crushing the mutant’s arm with several nauseating snaps. The mutated woman screamed an unholy bellow. Erin pushed with her left arm, breaking her opponents at the elbow, making her release her grip. Pivoting, Erin drove an elbow into the mutant’s solar plexus before revolving all the way around and delivering a brutal upswing to the woman’s jaw.
She hit the ground, motionless except for a very shallow breathing. Erin dropped to her hands and knees, taking in massive gulps of air. It hurt to breathe, but at least she still could.
“Norn! Are you okay?” Paladin asked, coming over to check on her.
“I’ll be okay,” Erin said with a pained grin, wheezing the words out.
Paladin frowned and hovered a hand near Erin’s shoulder. A glowing light shone from his palm, and Erin felt the discomfort in her neck pull away. Suddenly, she could breathe normally and painlessly.
“Thanks…” Erin said, remembering that he’d done something similar for Nate when He’d first met the team.
“Least I could do,” Paladin wheezed, sounding just like Erin had a moment before.
Erin then realized how Paladin’s healing power worked with surprise, but before she could admonish him for hurting himself, Boondock and Colossus came storming in.
“Get out of here! It’s a bio—”
“—It’s not airborne,” Colossus cut the old man off. “It has to be injected intravenously.”
“How do you know that?” Erin asked.
“I got access to their computer system while you two were screwing around in here, but we’ve gotta go, this place is rigged to blow on a delayed timer.”
Paladin quickly pulled Erin to feet, “Everyone get out of here. Are the civilian’s safe?”
“Yeah, we moved them to a safe distance,” Boondock said, helping Paladin walked slightly. For the first time that evening, Erin could see his age through his bravado.
“What about her?” Erin asked, pointing at the woman.
“Too far gone,” Paladin said mournfully, “Trust me.”
“What were they doing here,” Erin asked as they ran through the hallways.
“Making bioweapons alright. I pulled everything I could, but they were smart with partitioning where they stored classified data and then they purged their systems when I couldn’t trick their security protocols. I don’t have everything. But whatever this stuff is; it was designed to make monsters like that lady turned into,” Colossus explained as they reached the elevator.
Boondock pressed a few buttons on a panel, and the platform they were standing on started to ascend. Looked like they figured out how to operate the lift.
Once they reached the surface, Paladin hastily pushed them away from the bunker just as the first tremors came from beneath. The group of heroes made it a few dozen feet away when a torrent of flame erupted from the elevator shaft with a thud and a whoosh.
Erin glanced around at the petrified people standing in a small huddle. Their eyes were wide as they watched their near ill-fated end go up in flames. And not more than fifty feet away; their captors lay tied and bound on the ground.
Erin took a deep breath and sat down on the dusty ground as Colossus and Boondock made more calls to Argus.
This probably wasn’t what she needed tonight, but she still felt a little better, somehow.