I’d noticed clouds forming since the fight started, and as I was about to press Theo on exactly how bad he felt, lightning erupted in front of the building.
Travis had told the glass cannons (mobile artillery, if you wanted to be formal) to help us, and now they were. I’d have taken help earlier, but Daniel was in the group, and he’d probably been responsible for the timing. That meant that this was probably the best possible moment, whatever I might think.
Thanks to my observation bots, I had three different perspectives available. All of them showed essentially the same scene.
As our group dived behind the old factory to get out of the machine race soldiers’ line of fire, the remaining robots split into two groups, some of them heading for the building that we’d started at, and the rest spreading out as they aimed for our building. No matter what direction we turned toward we’d be in some robot’s sights.
At least that’s the way it would have gone.
As the groups began to split, and the group coming in our direction began to spread out, bolts of lightning struck everywhere, shattering pavement, and outlining the robots in bluish-white light. The sound of the thunder went on and on and on. I would have tried that old trick where you learn your distance from the lightning strike by counting the seconds between the lightning and the thunder, but they were practically simultaneous.
The robots didn’t fall to the ground smoking. That would have been too easy, but they appeared to be in the same position as Theo. Instead of continuing along their paths, many drifted, traveling loosely in the same direction after the strike, but not as quickly. Some turned sideways, tumbling in the air.
That wouldn’t have stopped them for long. A few leveled out, and began to aim toward their targets.
Metal objects began to appear in the air, aiming for the machines. I-beams impaled a few. Cars and pickup trucks flew through the sky to smash into the robots’ sides. Old machines from the factories flew out the windows, taking out chunks of the frame on the way, hitting the robots.
That wasn’t all.
Ice appeared around one of the robots, growing in size until the whole mass fell to the ground. Then ice began to grow on another…
The lightning didn’t stop either, and Vaughn added wind, blowing robots into each other in time to be surrounded by ice, or simply crushed when Jaclyn jumped into the air, smashed a robot to the ground and proceeded to flatten it in a blur of blows.
In the face of all this, the spaceship that hovered over Stardock began to float upward. It wasn’t racing away, but within a few seconds it had clearly created some distance between itself and us.
Could we actually have won?
Near me, Theo was talking to Izzy. “I make a kind of… casing… around myself. It protects me from my own plasma… and just about anything else. When they hit me, I made more of it–more than I’d ever made before–so I’m not really hurt. See?”
Izzy gave a quick, indrawn breath, and Patriot Jr. said, “Shit.”
Looking away from my HUD, I noticed Theo’s right arm and side. In the first instant, it didn’t look bad at all. In the second, I noticed that the red costume had melted to Theo’s skin. Where I could see bare skin, it was white, sometimes brown, and leathery.
The fact that he didn’t appear to feel pain did not bode well. On the other hand, he was conscious, and provided we could get him to Alex before he died of something, he’d probably be fine.
Considering his powers, I imagined it wasn’t his first third degree burn.
“The ship over Stardock is leaving,” I said. “Alex, also known as Paladin, can handle this.”
I hoped he could. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever seen him heal anything this bad–though healing Lucas last year had been close. OK, come to think of it, it may have been worse.
Over the Stapledon communicator stream, someone asked, “How badly is he hurt?”
“Third, maybe fourth degree burns,” I said.
“Get him back here. You might as well all come back.”
Lim’s voice came over the comm. “Get him back, yes. Send one person back with him if you can. The rest of you should stay ready to fight.”
It was good that he was being cautious, but the spaceship was even further away now–hundreds of feet in the air or more. All the same, it wasn’t leaving at the fastest possible pace. It hung in the gray sky.
I listened in on the Defenders channel. “Guardian’s taking care of the rocks. We’ll be back to Earth in an hour, maybe less if we’re lucky, and if Guardian’s not too tired. Knowing what’s going on on the ground, we’re scanning for a mothership. None of the spaceships sighted today operate solo.”
I’d kind of known that, but hadn’t had time to spend a lot of time thinking about it.
While I’d been watching the rest of the team fight the robots, we’d landed behind the factory.
We stood in a cluster next to Theo, and next to the factory’s grey brick.
In moments, Jaclyn appeared next to us, slowing down, and resolving into a person instead of a purple and brown blur.
“I’ll take him back,” Jaclyn said. “We may need you to respond as a unit.”
I thought Theo might resist, but he looked down at his right arm, and shuddered.
Jaclyn glanced down his body, and if she found the burns unnerving, she mastered her reaction before I noticed. “Can you fly?”
Theo said, “A little. I’ll be fast enough.”
Nodding, Jaclyn said, “Stay low. I’ll be right next to you.”
Theo began to float, staying with Jaclyn as she ran back.
I tapped into the Grand Lake Heroes League stream.
Haley said, “It’s just floating above Grand Lake. What do you think it’s doing?”
Chris Cannon’s voice came over the comm. “I don’t know. Scanning maybe? That’s what I’d be doing.”
An old man’s voice broke in. “Both of you, quiet! I’d be hacking into our communication system, and the more you talk, the better for them.”
I recognized the voice. It was Chris Cannon’s grandfather–Man-Machine. He was out of prison? He was helping?
I glanced over the Heroes League’s list. Man-Machine appeared next to the Shift.
How did I not know about this?
Isaac Lim’s dot began to blink in my HUD. “We’ve got a transmission coming in. It’s being broadcast everywhere a spaceship appeared.”
Video appeared in a small box on my HUD. A man’s face appeared. Thick featured, with heavy brows, and a prominent jaw, he wore a black helmet with a transparent faceplate.
I didn’t recognize the material.
In the background, humans and aliens (I was pretty sure I saw a Hrrnna) stood at stations on what had to be a ship’s bridge.
As the man in the helmet opened his mouth, I saw that he had a carnivore’s teeth–white, sharp and gleaming.
His voice was a little scratchy, and his accent was unrecognizable, but understandable.
“You will give us the alien devices,” he said. “They are not yours, and will only cause you trouble. Give them to us, and we will tell no one. Keep them from us, and we will burn your cities to the ground.”