About four hundred some odd yards from the security gate between Galaxy City and Perez Park, the front doors of one of the area’s many abandoned tenements flew open with a loud crash. Two men suddenly tumbled out to the street as if the building had spit them out.

“C’mon, Tiger,” the first man, in soldier-green camo fatigues and combat boots grunted as he climbed to his feet. A green t-shirt hugged his muscled torso, over which bandoliers of machinegun ammo crossed his wide chest. Heavy black armored bands layered his right arm from shoulder to elbow. His left arm was thickly veined and muscular, and bare in contrast, with a U.S. Marine tattoo peeking out from under the t-shirt’s short sleeve.

Light from a streetlamp reflected off the metal faceplate that dominated the right side of his features. As the doors swung lazily closed, he dared to look back and saw a horde of piecemeal robots charging straight at them.

His glowing right eye registered weapons reaching full power and a damage assessment of each skeletal outline. His good left eye handled the sight in a whole different way, widening as a new dose of adrenaline urged him to move faster.

Those metal monsters were called Clockworks, self-aware androids that procreated like cockroaches, building new additions to their forces out of any piece of scrap metal and electronics they found. They hit like jackhammers, felt no pain, and generated enough power to light a city block or fry an elephant. No one knew where they came from, but everyone in the hero biz with any common sense knew to fear them.

The soldier quickly reached into one of the many cartridges on his tactical belt, tossing a thick metal disc inside just before the doors closed.

“Time to go!” He rose almost to his full 5’6″ height, servo motors whirring as he lifted the other man with his right arm. The second half of the duo would stand well over 6 feet if he could, dressed in form fitting, green tiger-stripped armor from head to toe.

Jade Tiger struggled to run on his own power as they hurried from the building. “I- I’m sorry, Max. If I had thought–“

“If you had a thought you might be dangerous,” Max interjected. He ran on, more like quickly shuffled on across the street under Jade Tiger’s weight and the strain of his own wounds. In mid stride, he reached down with his left arm and picked up his third teammate, his most trusted companion who had been by his side every day since the war, Josie.

From inside the building, the sound of clanking metal footfalls and turbines grew louder. With one last heave, Max threw Jade Tiger unceremoniously behind a concrete tree planter and dove after him, rolling to a hard stop against the wall that surrounded the park.

An army of robots burst through the doors with a thunderous slam. Crazed humanoid shaped collages of iron, copper, and steel filled the hallway behind them, pushing forward as a single entity.

Max grinned and hit the big red button on the remote in his right hand.

Fire blasted out the remains of the door, engulfing the robots before they knew what hit them. Max threw his arms over his head as twisted shrapnel slammed into the wall over his head. Barely a second later, more explosions fired off in a rapid chain reaction, shattering every window at once and rocking the entire street.

It took two full heartbeats after the ringing had subsided before Max looked up. Then two more long heartbeats of silence abruptly ended with the piercing clank of a Clockwork torso smashing into the pavement.

Max suddenly sprang to his feet screaming, “WAAHOOO!” More glowing shards of metal fell from the sky around him as he jumped up and down in triumph. “Burn you rusted out worthless sonsabitches!”

His celebration was soon cut off by a rustling of metal on stone. Several misshapen Clockworks lay strewn in an arc around the building. Most were smashed beyond recognition by the explosion, but a few scattered remnants showed signs of life.

Annoyed, he stepped around the tree, hoisting a massive assault rifle.

The surviving robots all turned in unison at the sight of the Crey JX-70 Omnigun, a marvel of Human/Ritki engineering. It boasted 3 barrels for 5 integrated weapon systems and an electromagnetic coil capable of launching over 1000 rounds per minute at just a hair under mach 1. Their combat computers analyzed it instantly and tried to compensate for the spike in threat level, oblivious to the name Josie painted on the barrel.

Armor piercing shells screamed through the air, reducing the crippled robots to so much spare parts.

The stocky man finally stopped firing, stifling his laughter as he tapped a receiver under his ear.

“Hardline. You rested up yet, chief?” he asked, pulling a cigar from another belt pouch.

“Yeah, Sarge,” the reply came over the comlink. “Granite is stable. I think I’m up for another port. Hey, was that you?”

Max chuckled as he started to light the cigar, glancing up at the burning building. The smoke and dust was still settling. “Yeah that was me.” His gaze shifted back down, then left as a distant flash of silver caught his eye.

He turned, slowly walking toward the distant flashes. Dots of green now joined the growing cluster of fireworks. He chewed down on his cigar, focusing his electronic right eye on the source.

He took a few steps. “Hardline you got a lock on Tiger?”

“Yeah. What about you?”

Max started to jog, then run as information filtered in from the micro-computer behind his right temple. “Just get him to a med center. I’ll see you back at base.” Jade Tiger disappeared in the telltale blue light of Hardline’s teleport power. And with that he tapped his radio off and broke into a full sprint.

“Run,” Nightstrike imitated himself in a mocking tone. “I’ll hold them off.”

The martial artist leapfrogged over a Circle of Thorns mage with a one-handed vault, delivering a split kick to two acolytes behind him. He used his own momentum for a spinning crescent kick to another mage, procuring a bola whip in mid motion.

Nightstrike mused how expensive this selfless act of daring had gotten. Catching the whole group’s attention to allow the mysterious redhead and the little girl time to get away took almost everything he had equipped in his bandolier of tricks. Flashbombs and throwing blades weren’t exactly costly, but they weren’t a dime a dozen either.

The trick of keeping their attention was thanks to the art of Zanshin, a technique that Nightstrike learned in Japan through which he could react to any threat that moved into his sphere of awareness on pure instinct.

He was down to his last weapon, trying to look for any opening to escape himself before being overwhelmed. Ironically he had used his grapple gun to keep one mage grounded early in the fight, costing him his primary means of retreat.

A sword wielding guard stared in stunned disbelief as a black gloved hand moved, almost of its own accord, to catch his wrist. Locking the Thorn Warrior’s arm in an iron grip, Nightstrike spun the bola into a frenzy, using it like a shield to keep more would-be attackers at bay.

He knew the tactic would only work for a second at best with all those flying wand wielding mages overhead. And as if on cue, a silver bolt seared down from the night sky. Nightstrike let the bola fly and yanked hard on the hapless swordsman’s arm, blocking the energy blast with his body.

On the fringes of the battle, an archer yelped in surprise as a whirling cord struck from the shadows, pinning him so tightly he smacked his short bow against his head.

The black clad warrior tried not to think about how long he had been fighting or how long he could keep up this level of pace and focus. He clamped an incoming sword in his palms, but took a green magic missile to the back for the effort, in turn losing his grip on the weapon.

The sword scraped against the ceramic alloy covering his left shoulder, inches from his ear. The near miss jarred his focus momentarily, making him painfully aware of several bruises from other hits he had taken in the fight.

That was all the opening the Circle needed. A blast came from above, then a punch cracked across his jaw, then a sword bit into his armor. A mage flew head over heels from a leg sweep, but an arrow pierced through the melee and into Nightstrike’s leg.

He fell, catching himself arm’s length from the pavement just as a kick struck him in the abdomen. He braced himself for either a counterattack or the final blow.

Suddenly he heard a muffled blast and the sound of a heavy impact. The acolyte closest to him cried out, and a large bean bag half the size of John’s head landed with a ringing thud on the street right next to him.

Nightstrike found himself staring at it in disbelief when the sound of machinegun fire snapped him back to reality. He rolled to the side and kipped up in a singular motion. His eyes locked on a stocky man unloading an omnigun from behind the cover of a car in the parking lot across the street.

A quick cursory scan of the lot made John grumble angrily. Papa Pain was gone.

The street fighter’s Zanshin spurred a backhand blow to a mage behind him. He slammed his attacker to the ground with an arm flip as the soldier across the street screamed, “Time ta pay!” followed by another muffled burst and an explosion that scattered the panicked Thorns even further.

High above on a rooftop, a figure watched the battle with piqued interest. His eyes narrowed, focusing on the new arrival. After a few more moments of fighting, the mages and those guards who could still stand scattered like rats back into the park. The man offered himself the slightest of smirks and, with an approving nod, disappeared into the night.

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