Dr. Theodore Schuler looked up from the work table in his lab. Annoyance crossed his features as he heard the clattering of a dozen pairs of boots moving at high speeds. Security Chief Miles was always performing some drill or another with his men, all in the name of efficiency. What Dr Schuler and the other scientists called it wasn’t printable in any report they passed on to their superiors. Sighing in relief that a “room to room sweep” was not part of this interruption of his concentration, he returned to his work.

Scant moments later he tossed his laser scalpel down with as much force as he could safely use without damaging it. The sprinting boots were returning. Striding to his door, he had every intention of delivering a sound lecture to these “boys with toys” and their all too frequent disturbances.

As the heavy door hissed apart to the left and right, Dr Schuler realized that something was terribly wrong. The sound of automatic gun fire reached his ears as the first security guard rounded the far corner, a mixture of anger and fear plain on his face. The guard was in the process of ejecting a clip and slapping a new one into place when he looked forward and saw Dr Schuler.

“Get back in your hole, lab rat! This is a serious…” Dr Schuler lost the rest of the guard’s imperative, as three more guards backed around the corner rifles blazing. Ducking back into his lab, Dr Schuler slapped the emergency locks in place and returned to his table wondering why he had ever accepted Crey’s contract.

*******************************

“Where’s our god-damn backup?!!??” Riley screamed into his throat mike. Summoned to Gamma Ward, his squad had been told to “contain a SPB threat with all prejudice.” Like the rest of the boys, it was assumed that Miles was running another of his freaking drills. Still, they were paid well to do just that, so the squad had double-timed it to Gamma Ward, the interrogation wing.

Riley was prepared for many things when he opened the vault-like door to Gamma Ward, but a naked man munching on a donught was not one of them. He and the rest of the squad had all taken a moment to blink and stare… squarely at the naked man’s face. Well, all of them except Jones and Wilkes. Assuming they had just been the victim’s of a prank, Riley had called in his report. Sec Central informed him that this was indeed the SPB in question. The naked guy just stood there calmly finishing his donught, and then asked, “Any of you gentleman have some coffee?”

Bucks had laughed then. The rest followed suit. This was a joke… it had to be. Squad 220 was getting them back for the glue that had amazingly gotten into their shampoo bottles last month. The naked guy was a stripper who had gotten carried away or something.

Then Riley saw the SPB’s ear. Blood had trickled down and was falling to the floor. Looking down the hall, he saw an open “voyeur room,” a room where Agents would sit and watch interrogations. The door wasn’t important. What was important were the bloody footprints leading to where this individual stood.

Snapping his gun to his shoulder, Riley had used his best command voice and bellowed, “ON YOUR KNEES, NOW!” The rest of the team snapped out of their mirth and followed suit in record time. Riley couldn’t help but feel a bit of pride. The extra drills they had put in showed well when needed.

The SPB calmly wiped crumbs from his hands, and then raised them to shoulder height, palms forward. “Look. I am leaving here. You may not care, but your employers are holding me illegally.” He looked to the team for any reaction. When he received none, he smiled and shook his head. “I didn’t think so. Shall we do this the hard way, or…”

Riley had heard enough. “Bucks, Wilkes, fry him!” The Zapper fire team triggered their tasers, fully capable of dropping a grown man in his steps, and known to bring down more than one super-terrorist. Riley had enough time to see the man back flip under the tasers, and then time became a blur.

The SPB was in the middle of them, crushed Bucks nose, and while using him as a shield, fried Eriksson with Buck’s own tasers. The next few seconds were a mess. Realizing that they were in over their heads, Riley called for backup and ordered his team to retreat while spraying suppressing fire in such a way as to force the SPB back into the interrogation room.

Four of his team were still with him. Out of a dozen men and women, four of them lasted longer than 18 seconds of contact with this SPB. They had leapfrogged back, covering each other and planning to make a stand at the entrance to Beta Ward. Sec Central should be able to scramble a HTR (High Threat Response) Team to meet them there.

Now they were crouching in as defensible a location as possible and burning ammo down the hallway, hoping to keep this guy at bay long enough for the cavalry to arrive. Jones pulled her head back from around the corner where she had just burned a half-clip, a disturbed look on her face. “He’s wearing Bucks clothes now. Armed himself too.”

“Oh, that does it!” Mason grabbed both tear gas grenades off his belt, flicked the pins and tossed them down the corridor. When he didn’t pull back right away, Riley got a sick feeling in his gut. Mason hadn’t slumped as if unconscious or worse so that left one thing, “He’s right there isn’t he?”

“Uhhh, ya bossman. I’m looking at the business end of a AAR (Advanced Assault Rifle) right now. On the plus side, uhh, he doesn’t seem to want to pull the trigger quite yet.” The fear was plain in Mason’s voice.

Riley cleared his throat to answer when his mike squawked in his ear. As he listened he blanched. The orders he was being given were ludicrous! Still… if it got his people out of trouble… “Hey Mr.” he called.

The SPB answered smoothly, “Your boss just told you to let me walk didn’t he?”

Riley’s jaw dropped. “How’d… that is, yes, they have. I am to tell you that following the corridor you are on right now will lead you to a door marked ‘Exit.’ My boss would consider it a favor if you used it.”

A chuckle resounded from around the corner. It made Riley sick to hear it. Miles better have something up his sleeve. If this guy walked after decimating his team… he’d make sure Miles paid somehow.

“Alright, all of you, weapons on the floor and produce those cuffs I saw on your belts.” The SPB continued in such a manner and in moments the remaining four members of Sec Team 219 were on their knees, hands cuffed behind their backs, and their ammo strapped on Buck’s harness, which in turn was strapped on this SPB. Riley noted the practiced way the guy handled weaponry; obviously not used to handling Crey tech, he still quickly figured out how it all worked. Taking two pistols, a Tazer, an AAR, 6 knives, and more ammo than any three fire teams should need, the SPB trotted around the corner towards the exit. He returned seconds later, a quizzical look on his face. “By the way. Where am I?”

Riley blinked at the question, then answered, “Paragon City.” As the confused look didn’t leave the SPB’s eyes, he added, “Rhode Island… the smallest state in the United States…” The SPB finally nodded, eyes glinting in recognition of the sarcasm Riley laced his words in. He smiled good naturedly, and after looking back the way he had originally came for a moment, jogged off towards the exit again.

*********************

“No fuckin’ way, Miles! I want this bastard’s balls for dinner, and you are NOT going to get in my way with some beauracratic bullshit!” Agent Richards had been rendered temporarily unconscious by Bogey A29’s head butt. A lesser person might have a comma from the force of the blow, but Richards had undergone many improving surgeries since joining Crey’s Agent program. The loss of humanity bemoaned by many was a boon in her mind.

As her mind had registered consciousness’ return, she had ‘played possum’ long enough to get her bearings. What she heard sickened her. Agent Baker, her partner for the last 6 months, had put his best martial moves on the Bogey and received a cement facial for his trouble. The Bogey then tried to speak reasonably, urging Baker to stay down. It went to show how little this Bogey knew of Crey Agents. He may be hell on wheels in some corner of the earth, or hell, in his own reality, but here, he was going to learn how to respect those in authority, and here, that meant Crey.

The sound of Baker’s neck snapping wasn’t the worse thing Richards had ever heard. The soggy flop of his face returning to the cement didn’t drive her insane with anger. What fueled the nova burning in her gut was the casual manner this Bogey had paused to pick up napkins, wipe himself clean, take a donught, and then waltz out of the observation room as if this was beneath him.

Miles voice buzzed back through the internal commlink receiver she had installed in her ear canal. “Stand down, Agent Richards. I have received an Omega-Niner-Niner message that Bogey A29 is to be allowed to leave this facility. Its out of our hands now.”

Richards ground her teeth together. The override clearance came from Hopkins, Countess Crey’s second in command, and personal bodyguard. If she wanted to keep her job… hell, if she wanted to keep away from the tender mercies of Warden O’Malley, she had no choice but to comply… “for now.” she thought bitterly.

Resolving to see what manner of punishment Hopkins had in mind for this rogue SPB, Richards jogged towards the facilities exit. Passing the carnage at the entrance to Beta Ward, she quickened her pace till she heard voices. Bogey A29…Kane, as he called himself, was asking, “By the way. Where am I?”

“So he doesn’t know where he is? He really must be from another reality…” she mused, listening to the sec team explain where Paragon City was. The talking ended, and there was a brief pause, where she could swear she felt a predatory acknowledgement of her presence. Unsure of just what she was feeling, she crouched, ready to spring into action, then relaxed as she heard trotting footsteps headed the other way.

**********************************

Kane slowed as he approached the exit door. A large man wearing a very expensive suit flickered into vision before a pair of doors that could belong to a bomb shelter. Coming to a halt 30 feet from the figure, he shouldered the AAR and waited for the proposal he was certain was forthcoming.

The holographic image looked down at a clipboard he was holding. “Mr. Kane? My name is Hopkins.” he paused to allow the name carry its weight to this rogue. When no reaction was forthcoming, he added, “I am Countess Crey’s bodyguard and in charge of her security.” he paused again. Again silence was his only answer.

“It seems you have caused us no end of trouble, Kane.” Flipping through pages of the report on his clipboard, Hopkins continued. “Eight security personal in the hospital, a dead psychic, countless dollars in equipment destroyed… and now one of our agents murdered, and another seven security guards on their way to the hospital… What do you have to say to all of this?” Deep blue eyes looked intently at the intruder.

Kane shrugged. “It’s a good start?”

Hopkins gaped. Recovering quickly, he did his best to get pissed, but something about this SPB’s attitude struck a nerve in him and he slowly grinned, a deep rumbling laugh forcing its way to the surface. As he barked laughter, he nodded. “I like your style, Kane. That’s why it gives me pleasure to extend an invitation to join me here at Crey.”

Kane nodded, the offer not unexpected. Playing along, he asked, “What are you offering?”

Hopkins tossed his clipboard down, somewhere away from the holographic recorder’s view. Smiling triumphantly he pronounced, “Oh, I think we can skip on by all the standard Agent wages an move right on into Special Ops. I’m thinking as an opening bid… how about one mill’ a year, plus all the benie’s you could dream of, gear, toys, women, you name it, we provide it?” He waited expectantly.

Kane took his time, appearing to consider the offer. “And I would answer to you I presume?”

Hopkins nodded emphatically.

Slowly Kane shook his head negatively. “I’m afraid I don’t play very well with others, and I have never listened well. I’m gunna have to turn you down, Hopkins.”

“I thought you might say as much.” Hopkins sighed dramatically, then grinned unpleasantly. “Well, the door’s unlocked. I’m afraid if you wish to leave there are a few others that wish to speak with you about their buddies down in the morgue.”

Reaching for the release latch, Kane looked back over his shoulder. “Morgue? I didn’t kill anyone till today.” Seeing the huge shrug form the bodyguard he nodded in understand. “I shoulda known as much. Don’t suppose I need to worry about the authorities on this one do I?”

“Oh no… this is strictly between you and Crey Security. We will have this conversation again, Kane… and next time the terms won’t be as generous.” Hopkins image flickered away.

Shaking his head at the brutality all villainous black ops leaders seemed to feel they needed to utilize, Kane triggered the door, bracing himself for whatever might await him on the other side.

************************

The setting sun glaring in his eyes, Kane raised his hand to shield against its glare. The blast doors lumbered close behind him, the final clang of steel on steel ringing ominously. He allowed himself a moment of disbelief as he gazed about his surroundings. The high tech lab he had just exited existed in a false front cleverly made to look like an old warehouse. “Well, maybe not so clever,” he thought. The neighborhood looked horrible, like Armageddon had come and gone… years ago.

Realizing he had stood still long enough for even a bad sniper to paint him in their sights, he took a few quick steps to his right and then forward. Instead of shots ringing out, he heard the sound of heavy footfalls and well-oiled pistons firing from various trajectories, and watched as his foe positioned themselves.

To his right, sliding into view were three red bulky armors, each one carrying what appeared to be a rocket launcher of some sort. To his left, three similar white armors wielding mini-guns stepped into view, the barrels already spinning to life with a sound akin to so many chainsaws’ buzzing. Taking the frontal approach were three differently armored forms, all similar in form, but none of them sporting obvious weaponry. All of them were spaced so that they had overlapping fields of fire, and none of them were in the other’s fields of fire. “Very professional, and all waiting for some sort of signal,” he mused. “Which means… ahhh crap!”

The lunging shoulder roll wasn’t fast enough to evade the energy blast from above. Whistling out his breath, Kane rebounded from the ground where his chest and face had left a noticeable indentation. Cursing to himself, he continued his roll, the sounds of inbound armament hot in his ears. Three more explosions impacted close enough to toss him in the air, and thousands of bullets chewed into his sides, shredding the equipment he had so recently acquired. Spinning, unable to get his bearings, he felt rays of electricity, cold, and energy hit him, sending him flying farther away from the building he had so recently exited. Finally he landed on his back, that impact the least of his pain.

As the smoke cleared, Kane rolled to his feet, hearing running footsteps approaching. From the haze one of the three…no, four…advanced armor forms leaped, electricity arcing all about his fists, clearly intent on ending this fight before it began. Kane smiled at the armor’s faceplate, the user obviously not grasping the lesson he had just seen so painfully inflicted on Kane. “Never let your feet get off the ground, son.” Lightning quick, Kane snagged the armor’s equipment belt by its buckle, then using the armor’s momentum, he swung around, and hurled the sec guard like a shot-put thrower… directly into his approaching team mate.

The horrible crunching sound as “electro-boy’s” helmet struck “iceboy’s” chest plate signaled an end to one armor jockey’s career and a sudden need for medical attention on the part of the other. Paying it no attention, Kane sprinted towards the mini-gun wielders. Obviously tracking him on sensors, they opened up again, spraying molten lead over the area, the sound of falling casings barely audible over the roar of their gun’s thundering reports. Dodging amongst them to prevent fire from the others, Kane spun with another blow from a hail of fire, and rolled into the left armor of the wedge. Smashing his hand through the armor’s faceplate, he left the wearer on his knees screaming about his eyesight. A roundhouse kick shattered the armor plating on the leader’s helmet and a driving right-hand dented the helmet of the last deep enough to drop the wearer unconscious.

Kane then looked to the remaining five troopers, and smiled savagely. “Last chance to run…”

*****************************

She was reaching for the outer door release when a deep voice spoke from behind her. “A moment of your time, Agent Richards.” Turning rapidly, her amazement at the silence of the speaker’s approach was replaced with awe at the form she saw holographically represented before her. She snapped a rapid salute, “Security Leader Hopkins.”

“At ease, Agent.” Hopkins had a thoughtful expression as he viewed her through electronic eyes. “I understand you wish to pursue Bogey A29, Agent.”

Richards forced herself to relax before answering. “Yes sir. I would… respectfully… request permission to end this miserable piece of…”

Hopkins booming laughter cut her off. She glanced to him, outrage and shock clear on her face. He held up his hands as if to ward of her gaze. “Easy, Agent Richards… I admire your candor. I would like to see him pay as well. What’s more important than your, or my, desires though, is the desire of our Countess.” he paused long enough for the Agent to absorb the weight of his words. Satisfied that she had, he continued. “Countess Crey would like to see how Bogey A29 interacts with the world around him before he is brought back within the fold. She is curious about where he is from and what friends he makes while he is here. She has requested…” his eyes burned into Richard’s, making sure “request” was interpreted as “orders”, “… that you follow him. Learn about him, and report back. She will then make what decision is best for Crey interests. Am I understood, Agent?”

“Yes sir! I am to tail the bogey through his interactions and make a full report. No aggressive actions are to be taken unless specifically ordered to do so. When do I begin?”

Hopkins gestured to the door. “Now would be nice. Gather supplies from any safe house you need. You have been granted Omega clearance on this mission.”

Richards turned to slap the door release. Partially in eagerness to follow the bastard she wished dead, and partially to cover the surprise that flared on her face despite years of careful training in covering emotion. Top level clearance was not given lightly or often… If she handled this well, she may be on her way into management. That she could step up on the body of a man she was rapidly learning to hate was all the sweeter.

*****************************

“…and that’s why you should always take the advice of the wild-eyed super who just… beat…your…buddies…senseless.” Kane emphasized the last four words with repeated strikes to the helmet of the Crey armor jockey whose chest he was straddling. Satisfied that the armor’s occupant was unconscious, he stood, looking about the scene he had just painted with a smile. Every fighter knew the glow that combat brought, and right about now he was feeling pretty good.

Looking down to his torn clothing, he kicked the armored form once more. “Look what you did to my new threads… where am I going to find a retailer in this mess…” A moan answered him from the surrounding area. Shaking his head in mock disgust, “You guys are no help whatsoever.”

With a final sweep of his surroundings, he sighted on a tower in the distance, squatted down and then hurled himself into the air.

******************************

From inside the rusted out water tank he had crashed through, Kane considered what had just happened. As he sailed through the air, he began feeling ill. Vertigo crashed down on him the higher he went, and then suddenly he was spinning in mid-air, fighting for consciousness. Instead of the graceful landing he had planned, he had struck the side of the water tower with enough force to burst through its weakened sides, and now lay in a foot of fetid water, gnats buzzing angrily about his face.

He felt awful. The only other time he had felt this bad, he’d… had… “Ahhhh, no! No way!!!” Memories of losing his powers, even temporarily, were some of the blackest times he could remember. Of course, back then he had deserved it… Now… Kane wondered what the hell was happening as he pulled himself to his feet.

Guiding himself by what little light filtered through the hole roughly sized to meet his mass, he shuffled over to a ladder and tried to pull himself up. Waves of nausea rolled over him, indicating that something else was wrong as well. Fighting the bile down, he reached the hole he had created and looked out. Seeing no pursuit, he reached over and grabbed a handhold, digging in till he felt the metal give with his strength. “Well, that’s something at least.” he thought as he pulled his weight through the hole, dangling from one hand.

Punching his other hand through the metal, he winced as the ringing inside the water tower sounded like a deep bell tolling to his enemies where to find him. Easing his weight from handhold to handhold, he made his way 30 feet down the tower. Looking down, he struggled to focus his vision, and as he did so he felt the ground rushing up to met him. It took him a minute to realize that he was actually falling, and the ground really was rushing to meet him. Blackness washed over him like a comforting blanket and he passed out.

***********************

Blinking awake, Kane sat up quickly, instantly regretting the decision. The room he was in swam about him, refusing to completely focus. He settled on the figure leaning against a far wall.

“Glad to see you are awake, though I’m sure you feel otherwise right now.” the figure spoke with a guttural growl.

Kane found that his vision was clearing as he concentrated on one thing. The…man?…continued.

“Don’t worry, you are safe for now. I’m no lover of Crey either… and when you are feeling better, I’m looking forward to hearing what you were doing inside that facility over in Crey’s Folly.” Obviously sensing the questions struggling to emerge, the figure added, “Rest more for now. There is plenty of time to talk.” Moving to the exit, the figure pronounced, “Oh, my name is Manticore, you are with the good guys now.”

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