It should have had a backup controller in the mouthguard. They’d taken the rest of Grandpa’s design. Sure, the mouthguard took a little bit to learn to use, didn’t give you the precision of hand controls, made the helmet design more complicated, and theoretically, all you needed to control the suit’s major functions was one hand, but what if you needed both hands for something complicated while flying?
Some things required triple redundancy and controlling what direction you were flying was one of them.
I wondered who the designer was. I didn’t think Rook would be that much of a fool, but there was no way to know for sure.
Of course, the way things were going today, I might get the chance to ask him.
Seeing no sign that he was flying out of the trees and not feeling the disquiet I’d felt as he came near, I stopped worrying about whether he was a threat. I also did my best to stomp down the small worry that I’d killed him.
On the one hand, I knew that he’d have killed me given the chance. He’d said so. At the same time, I also knew what I’d been told both by my grandfather and others in the Stapledon program. Superheroes didn’t kill for a reason. The reason was that if it became normal, some horrible death would bring the public to a point where they wouldn’t put up with it anymore. Then superheroes would be regulated and their power use restricted to those with an official license.
Putting that aside, I turned to the unit of soldiers who’d followed Jared into the fight. They’d caught up and hovered about fifty feet away from me.
Contrary to past experience, they weren’t charging in as a group to take me out or even spreading out and taking shots at me from a distance. Either one had a good chance of working. My armor wasn’t invulnerable, just tough.
Instead, they did nothing more than hover. When I turned to face them, a few of them backed up. Three of them peeled off to fly southward. Several of the others turned to watch them fly away over the trees.
I’d never been in the military and arguably they weren’t in one, but on a gut level, it seemed to me that discipline had broken down. When I’d been on Hideaway, we’d been in the middle of a siege that felt endless even if it had been maybe a day or two at most and during that time we’d repelled wave after wave of people trying to kill us. If we’d been doing what they were now, we’d have died.
It might be some kind of trick, but it didn’t feel like one.
One of them turned on his sonics, broadcasting his voice around across the forest. “We’re Protection Force as you’ve… uh… been told. Surrender, please. We outnumber you. You can’t win against all of us. Even now, we’re hunting down your friends in the forest. They don’t stand a chance either. You all need to surrender and wait for the police.”
A couple more flew downward. I checked the group in my HUD, seeing green lights for their presence and red for their status. “Is everyone okay? Two more of them just went down toward you.”
“We’re doing okay,” Haley could have been talking on the phone about a paper for class. “It’s like fighting you in practice except I think their suits are older–or maybe cheaper. They don’t regenerate and my claws cut through them. Are you okay?”
“I think so. I think I just took out Jared and now the rest of them don’t seem quite sure if they want to fight me. Do you need me where you are?”
Tara spoke. “No. If you come down, they’ll all come down here. If you stay up there, you’ll be the focus and we’ll be able to keep on taking them down one at a time. We should go. We’ve taken down three and we’re close to taking down another.”
As plans went, it made sense. I could be the distraction and let them gang up on anyone who makes the mistake of going after them.
Vaughn whispered, “Tell us if you need help.”
Then I heard the sound of wind blowing followed by a clang and the screech of metal—as if a metal covered man had hit a tree.
In the distance, the tops of tree branches moved. Two of the Protection Force people went to investigate, but they hovered above the trees, making a circle around the spot without going down.
A black bird made a circle around the spot and one of the two men pointed at it. They were right to. It didn’t fly like a real bird. It flew like a small jet—without flapping its wings.
Cassie’s voice came over the comm. “Hey Rocket, it sounds like you need a wingman. I told you I could arrange a teleport over to you. I’m just outside the guy’s door. Give me a second.”
Her voice cut off.
If that was one of Rook’s bots, I didn’t want Cassie here. The Nine were trying to get her. Rook had already kidnapped her once. To be fair, she hadn’t been carrying her gun at the time.
Now might be different and I hoped it would be because she wasn’t connected to the comm system anymore.
More crow-like birds appeared, flying in from all directions. As I got a handle on that, I saw bigger birds—at least five of them, all of them human-sized and human-shaped—except for the wings and beaked helmets.
Amplified over every other sound nearby, Rook’s uneven voice couldn’t be ignored. “Impressive, young Rocket. You beat someone I’d been told was unbeatable. I wonder which one of you did it? My bet is the original. What do you say? Am I wrong?”