Vaughn traded strokes of lightning with Shock Jock, with the former rising higher and higher into the air. Shock Jock grinned, moving forward.
“I was hoping to see you again before we left,” he said. “I wanted to ask you a question.”
“Me too,” Vaughn replied. “Are you color-blind?”
Shock Jock extended his arms outward. Several generators shuddered and groaned, tearing their way off the ground and floating toward him. Tongues of electricity wove their way across the surface of the generators, licking any nearby metal surface in bright, violent strokes.
“Have you told your ‘friends’ yet?” Shock Jock asked.
“Told them what? That your costume qualifies as a national disaster? I think they noticed, dude.” Vaughn drew in wind from the open windows that lined the back-end of the room, pulling the gust around him. He eyed the floating generators warily, backing away.
“About what you really are,” Shock Jock said. “About what you really want.”
“I really want you to check yourself out in a mirror,” Vaughn said. The wind started to twist around him in a building cyclone–it devoured the contents of the room, sending dust and shattered bits of concrete spinning around him.
“Come on,” Shock Jock said. “You’re supposed to be my bizarro clone, right? Don’t tell me you didn’t give yourself your powers like I did.”
Vaughn froze in mid-air. The cyclone’s intensity wavered.
“Yeah,” Shock Jock said, “you did, didn’t you? Juiced yourself in that funky chair, just like I did. Just like gramps.”
“Shut up,” Vaughn said. The cyclone’s speed started to pick up. Bits and pieces of it clattered over the walls and roof.
Shock Jock grinned. “You know what I’m talking about. You wanted powers, so you took them. Nothing to be ashamed of. Gramps would have been proud.”
“I said shut up!” Vaughn bellowed, and then he sent the cyclone forward. It swept up through him and out of his arms, turning horizontal–aimed directly for Shock Jock’s head.
Shock Jock clapped his hands together. Both generators met in mid-air, smashing together–their bulk blocked the cyclone, sending the winds whipping harmlessly to the side. “Face it, dude,” Shock Jock said. “You’re just one bad comic book cliche away from being a supervillain. Only difference between us? I realized it sooner.”
“Besides,” he added as the generators lunged forward straight for Vaughn. “The ladies love bad guys.”
By the time they made it through the fourth wall, Commando had managed to get her arms underneath Nick’s shoulders, slam her foot into the floor, and suplex him straight into the ground.
The rocket on his back emitted a series of clacks as it added an extra half-ton of force to the hit, ramming him head-first into concrete. He felt something crumple beneath him; an instant later and he was laid out at Commando’s feet, struggling to get up.
Commando slammed one foot down into his stomach. Metal creaked. Warning signs flashed.
“You’re pretty flashy for a guy with no powers,” Commando said.
Nick lifted the sonics and fired. Commando almost crumpled, but then twisted her foot down harder. The metal creaked again.
“Fiesty, too,” she said.
“Why are you doing this?” Nick said. “If you’re at all like our Captain Commando, there must be some part of you that wants to do good–”
“Nope,” she replied. “I always wanted this. More strength. More power. Didn’t you?”
“No,” Nick said.
Commando grinned. “Who knows? Maybe there just aren’t enough people like you back home.”
Commando laughed. “About what? Not ‘being there’ for us? You’re making me blush, tin-man.”
“No,” Nick said. “Well, yeah, that too, I guess. But I was apologizing for the roachbots.”
“The roachbo–?” Commando looked up just as a dozen or more of the small mechanical machines dropped on top of her. They scuttled across her skin as she writhed, crying out in surprise; it gave Nick the opening he needed to key in the command into his palm.
The roachbots beeped before simultaneously overloading their ECM circuits, allowing each to produce an immense electrical pulse.
Commando’s entire body went into convulsions as she was electrocuted with enough juice to drop an elephant. When she fell, so did the roachbots–their circuitry had been thoroughly fried.
You’re still resisting, Paradigm said. His hand was extended toward Daniel’s forehead; his mind was steadily eroding Daniel’s defenses, creeping its way into the very core of his psyche.
“Have to,” Daniel said, clutching at his temples and struggling to rebuild the rapidly dwindling walls that surrounded his mind.
Why? You know how this is going to turn out, Paradigm said. I won’t lobotomize you. Just going to readjust your point of view. Make you better. ‘Fix’ you.
“Have to,” Daniel repeated, before saying: “Need more time.”
Paradigm smiled. More time? he said. For what? You’re too focused on defending yourself to do anything of use.
“Not me,” Daniel said.
Paradigm’s eyebrows pressed together. Wait, wh–
“Eat taser, fuckhead!”
Anna Spencer’s arm snapped forward to deliver the full voltage of the taser directly to the small of Paradigm’s back. The young psychic spasmed beneath the shock, his link to Daniel instantly severed.
Daniel took the opening and tore straight into Paradigm’s mind–penetrating his disrupted defenses and knocking him out.
Anna looked up to Daniel sheepishly. “Sorry,” she said. “But that guy’s–”
“Scary. I know,” Daniel replied. “I knew it’d take you a while to get the gumption to shock him, so I left an opening in my defenses for him to focus on.”
Anna stared at him. “You what?”
Daniel shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Others are in trouble. Calling the Rocket in to help Night Cat. We’ll help Storm King.”
Nick smashed his way through three more walls before he found an office that resembled the one Daniel had broadcasted into his mind. As soon as he arrived, he saw the signs of conflict–and what sounded like a strained battle.
Be careful, Daniel told him. Haley’s not in good shape. I can’t contact her. I think she’s gone feral.
Judging by the current state of Haley’s mind, there’s a fair chance she’ll attack anyone on sight. Including you.
It was at that moment that the far wall to the office exploded. Haley, streaked with blood, tumbled past–she was a bundle of taut muscles, claws, and fangs. Beast Girl was right on top of her, biting her with a blood-thirsty snarl; the two were tangled together, rolling through desks and cubicles.
Nick watched, mentally calculated the timing, then launched himself at them both and threw a punch.
He socked Beast Girl in the jaw hard enough to send her flying to the far side of the room.
In an instant, he felt Haley’s clawed hand wrap around his throat. She threw him into the ground with enough force to crack the floor beneath him; after that, he felt her claws raking against his chest-plate.
“Night Cat,” Nick said. “It’s me. Let go.”
There was scarcely a glimmer of intellect behind Haley’s eyes–they burned with the rage of a cornered animal. When she opened her mouth, she snarled–spittle rained down on top of Nick’s faceplate.
She lifted her clawed hand up over her head.
“Haley,” Nick said, speaking as low as he could.
Beast Girl batted her aside.
Haley yelped as she rolled past the floor and landed on her side, bleeding. Beast Girl’s arms–each nearly as thick as Nick’s waist–drove down to clasp Nick by his shoulders. Her claws were sharp enough to dig into metal. Nick felt something crinkle under the armor as she started to pull.
“Get the hell off him,” Haley said, except it was with a voice Nick had never heard her use–half-way between a growl and a roar, spoken around a mouthful of fangs and rage. Holding a large desk in both arms, she drove it forward into Beast Girl’s flank, drilling her back. When she hit the opposite wall, Haley tossed the splintered desk aside and grabbed Nick’s arm, pulling him up.
Haley’s face was still locked into an expression of pure rage, but there was something else there, struggling to surface. She looked to Nick, then to the still-recovering Beast Girl. “Fly,” she said, pointing.
Nick didn’t need any more encouragement. He threw himself at Beast Girl, kicked the engine to full, and slammed into her full-force. The wall behind them gave as they tore their way outside the dam, flying somewhere high above the lake.
Beast Girl clawed and shrieked, trying to get a hold on him. When they reached the center of the lake, Nick let loose with everything he had–pumping her full of sonics and punching her in the jaw. With a strangled groan, she relaxed her grip and fell from his arms, descending toward the water.
Nick turned around and flew back in.
Haley was still recovering. She was hunched over a desk, looking like she was ready to puke. A streak of blood was smeared down one temple–the way she was holding her left arm made Nick think it was broken, or at least sprained.
“Fine,” she barked, and then she shook her head. “Others. Trouble. Can hear. Go.”
“Come out come out wherever you are,” Shock Jock said.
Vaughn pressed his back against the wall and fought to catch his breath. Somewhere around the corner, Shock Jock was floating in the center of the room, with several bits of twisted metal circling him.
“C’mon, Vaughn,” Shock Jock said. “This is the part where I’m supposed to give you that whole ‘join the dark side’ speech. But the whole hiding thing is spoiling the mood.”
Vaughn bit down his tongue. His mind raced for a solution.
Daniel! Christ, thank God you’re okay. This guy’s gone all Magneto on me.
Anna’s got a plan. She needs your help, though.
What do I do?
Keep ‘Magneto’ distracted.
How? Dude’s throwing generators at me.
He’s a talker.
So you’re a talker. Out-talk him.
Vaughn took in a slow breath, steadied his nerves, and called out. “Shock Jock? Did you win that name in a radio contest or something?”
“There you are.” A three ton generator slammed into the wall directly behind Vaughn. Concrete buckled and cracked; Vaughn jumped forward and summoned up a gust of wind to fling himself into the air.
Lead him, Daniel said, and he sent Vaughn an image of the corridor to his left.
“Seriously though, this was your big plan?” Vaughn called out behind him, letting the wind carry his voice. “Tell me how I’m a supervillain and throw a couple of generators at me? Yeah, gramps would be proud. You turned out to be one hell of a bad guy, Shockster.”
“I’ll show you bad.” Electricity flowed up along the edges of the corridor as Shock Jock gave chase. He flew in after Vaughn, trailed by a wall of lightning; his expression was that of a maniac. The ground, walls, and ceiling above him started to bend beneath the sheer heat his power was generating.
“Red Lightning was in charge,” Vaughn called back. “He was like Lex Luthor, y’know? He ran the show. What’re you running, Shockster? Last I checked, you’re just some brainster’s lackey, riding on grandpa’s fame.”
A bolt of lightning scored the ceiling over Vaughn’s head, singing one of his eyebrows. “You talk too much,” Shock Jock said.
“I mean, he was a crazy meglomaniacal asshole, but even I gotta admit, grandpa was a bad-ass,” Vaughn said. “So what are you? Besides pink and fruity, I mean.”
“Shut up!” Another bolt ripped past Vaughn’s left, tearing a gaping hole in the wall. Vaughn flew low as Daniel broadcasted another image in his mind, along with a quick battery of instructions.
“Anyway, you’re right,” Vaughn said as he threw himself up to the roof of the hallway. “I did juice myself, just like you did. But you did it because you wanted to be like him.”
Anna Spencer stepped around the corner ahead of Vaughn, holding the particle beam in her arms. A roachbot was perched atop of it, its interior open and exposed–several of its wires had been rerouted into the particle beam’s circuitry and battery.
“But me?” Vaughn said as he landed besides Anna and brought both hands down atop of the roachbot–giving it all the juice he could manage. Electricity buzzed through the device as it produced a deep, throaty hum.
Anna pointed the jury-rigged high-powered ECM cannon directly at Shock Jock.
“I did it because I wanted to prove that I’m not.”
The cannon fired. Shock Jock managed a brief ‘urk’ before an invisible wave of electromagnetic force flowed across him–the metal bits and pieces around him tumbled to the ground as the wall of lightning behind him was immediately extinguished. He fell to the floor, landing in a roll.
The roll brought him directly in front of Vaughn and Anna. Lightning wove between Vaughn’s fingertips.
Shock Jock blinked. The ECM burst had temporarily shorted out his powers–when he tried to summon electricity, all he got was a fizzle. “Um–”
Vaughn opened both palms out toward him. “Besides, haven’t you ever read comic books? Good guys like Batman get all the ladies.”
Nick, Haley, Daniel, and Anna met in the main lobby. Anna was carefully removing the roachbot from the particle beam; Daniel was trying to get in contact with Lim. Nick was helping Haley, who still walked with an unsteady limp. Vaughn floated in a moment later, with an unconscious Shock Jock over his shoulder.
“That’s everyone but Beast Girl,” he said. “Commando’s glued up in the other chamber–couldn’t pull her off the ground. She’s pretty pissed,” he added.
“Yeah, but there’s no way to keep her unconscious,” Nick said. “As for Beast Girl, the authorities can pick her up. Dropped her in the lake. Pretty far out. Should buy us a few minutes.”
“Ugh,” Haley said, and she shook her head. “I’m sorry about–”
“Don’t worry,” Nick said. “She pushed you pretty hard.”
Anna looked up from her repairs. “Where’s the omnisphere?”
“Not sure,” Daniel said. “Been trying to scan Paradigm’s mind for more information, but he’s got defenses up even when he’s unconscious. I’m sure it’s here some–”
There was a slight click from behind them. All five turned at once–and found Paradigm sitting up, the omnisphere in hand.
He was grinning.
“Crap,” Daniel said. “He must have had some sort of trigger against being kept unconscious.”
“Don’t move,” Anna told Paradigm. “Whatever you’re planning–”
“I’ve had a brief conversation with my benefactor,” Paradigm said. “He’s made it clear to me that he wants to meet you all in person. So I’m arranging the meeting.” He pressed the pressure-sensitive plates on the sphere.
In an instant, Paradigm was swallowed in a brilliant, blinding light.
Nick moved forward to intercept, but Anna caught him by the arm. “No,” she said. “Remember Blur? Same thing could happen to you.”
The ball of light remained, swirling ever-brighter. As the colors started to build, Daniel crinkled his brows.
“Tried to read him before he left,” Daniel said. “Whoever this ‘benefactor’ is, it’s just the one guy. Apparently, he doesn’t even have any powers. Calls himself ‘War’.”
Vaughn stepped forward. “What are we waiting for?” he asked. “We just kicked all of our evil clones’ asses. We can take some interdimensional punk.”
The sphere of lights disappeared. A figure stood where it had once been.
He was seven feet tall, and covered in power-armor.
“That’s–that’s, uh,” Vaughn said. “That looks a lot like–”
“The Rocket suit,” Nick said.
“That’s an evil Rocket clone, isn’t it?” Vaughn asked.
“Probably,” Nick said.
A very large looking gatling gun swept up from War’s back and locked on top of his shoulder. A missile launcher swung up on top of the other shoulder, exposing nine separate miniature warheads.
“We should be running now, shouldn’t we?” Vaughn asked.
“Definitely,” Nick said.
The room erupted in a blast of ordnance.