That felt like a gut punch even if it wasn’t quite unexpected. The one thing that you could know for sure about the Nine is that no one knew exactly who their leadership was. You could also guess from the name of the organization that there were nine of them.
It was a pretty good guess that they were all supervillains.
I’d only ever run into one supervillain that worked for the Nine personally—Rook, an inventor who constructed suits of powered armor themed after rooks. Rooks were corvids just like crows and ravens. Rook himself had been kicking around since the mid-80s, around the same time my grandfather retired.
Grandpa never fought him that I knew of—which would have been interesting since Rook admired the Rocket. You could even see it in his name. If Rook had any critique of him, I could only guess that Rook would be disappointed that Grandpa hadn’t murdered a bunch of people and stolen their stuff.
What he thought of me was anybody’s guess. On the one hand, we’d been mutually impressed by each other’s tech. On the other, when he’d kidnapped Cassie, we’d gone to get her, leading to the destruction of his base, and his hand.
He’d been about to fire off a nuclear missile at Haley who was flying the League jet at the time. I’d targeted his hand with an HE (high explosive) round or maybe several. I wasn’t completely clear on that. Visiting his base had been a long drawn-out fight that included nerve gas, a nuclear self-destruct, and my first encounter with Morgan Spitz-White, a mercenary that used eagle themed powered armor.
TLDR? Finding Rook’s crow bots in the middle of all this wasn’t a surprise at all. He probably wanted to kill me—if not because I’d blown up his hand, because I’d led the mission that humiliated him by rescuing Cassie.
Since we’d fought, I’d suspected that he might be one of the Nine’s leaders. You don’t give a base with a nuclear powered self-destruct to just anybody.
Without giving it another thought, I fired off bots that were later versions of the same design that blew up Rook’s hand, choosing my targets with the idea of maximizing the effect of the explosions.
One after another, Rook’s bots exploded into their component parts. It would be nice to imagine that they all went down, but they didn’t. The first bots hit the middle of the rooks’ formation, blowing up everything near them, throwing bits of burning wings and shattered beaks into the darkness of forest below.
With any luck, the rainy fall and swampy land below meant that I wouldn’t start a forest fire.
The bots aimed at the outside of the rook formation didn’t do as well. Rook’s crowbot swarm had adjusted, spreading out so that they weren’t close enough to be caught in a blast that hit the crowbot next to them.
Crowbot. I didn’t know what Rook called them, but I liked my name.
Vaughn’s voice sounded in my helmet. “Whoa! You think we can take these guys? I can call up some lightning, but it means letting go of the fog. And I’m going to need some help. I can’t see them much.”
I was going to have to put in some kind of night vision for him later. Maybe I could make one that he never had to adjust.
“No!” Haley pointed below them.
More crowbots rose from the forest below. I’d blown up maybe ten—twenty if I was lucky. This was a cloud of black, winged with rockets in the tail for assistance. I didn’t try to count them, but the implant did. It counted sixty-three, but didn’t rule out the possibility that there were more.
The last time I’d fought Rook his crows had ripped into the first version of my van. That one had been armored, but they’d pecked it with their beaks and ripped at it with their claws until they broke windows and tore the metal. I doubted that Rook had been idle since then. They had to be better.
I thought through our options, ruling out flying over Lake Michigan first because of Protection Force’s people on the beach, but also because of the possibility of drowning. If we went inland, we’d be heading toward farmland. It wouldn’t be great for hiding even if we hid in a cornfield. Beyond that, our only option would be to head back in the direction of Protection Force and Hardwick Industries.
Tara pointed backward. “We fly back toward Protection Force and when Rocket says we’re close, Storm King drops the fog. Record it and make sure they know it.”
I saw her logic. Rook and his murderous flying robots wouldn’t care about how it looked to be attacking the Heroes’ League, but Protection Force, even if it was controlled by the Nine, was also a company. Bad publicity could sink it.
“Let’s do it,” I said. “We’re going live now.”
Activating our live stream which connected to more than one online streaming service and the League’s social media accounts, I started to stream video. “This is the Rocket. Members of the Heroes’ League are in the air right now. We’re fighting Rook, a suspected member of the Nine, and experiencing a misunderstanding with Protection Force. They think we’re the bad guys. We’re worried they might have been infiltrated by the Nine.”
Checking behind me with my HUD, the crowbots were following. Ahead of me, my sensors showed Protection Force floating in the air as group on the edge of the fog.
Knowing that it would take time, I calculated the distance with the implant and told Vaughn, “Storm King, drop the fog.”