Monday, 11 December 2017 11:30

Vegas, Baby, Vegas! (Part 6)

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A Whateley Universe/ Loose Cannons Story

VEGAS, BABY, VEGAS!

by

Bek D Corbin

 

Part 6

 

EVAN

The debrief session the next morning was the usual weird blend of scream-in-the-face and actual useful tactical input. The instructors yelled at me that they wouldn’t stand for any more Gilbert & Sullivan, and I had the poor judgment to ask whether they preferred Rogers & Hammerstein or Andrew Lloyd Webber? Maybe some West Side Story?  I got 50 laps for that one.

But the real debrief happened at breakfast. I think that we should make the most of these sit-togethers while they let us do it. If Death Ghost killed Draconis on Vicious’ orders, as I’m guessing, then breaking up the ‘Loose Cannons’ is a logical next step.

Eddie was smirking at Roxie and saying, “Wow, and you give ME shit about how I treat women? I mean, *I* never just ripped a girl’s top off like that, in front of EVERYBODY!”

“Jeez, what a sleaze!” Billy agreed as Roxie did the ‘will you assholes just GO AWAY’ stone-face. “If I tried anything like that, I wouldn’t survive the night!”

“Y’know what your problem is, pretty-boy?” Rachel joined in with relish, “You don’t respect women.”


Even the other gladiators got in on the action. “SOMEONE thinks that he’s a big ladies man!” humpfed Barbie Q, a petite flame manipulator who was on the lower slope of the bell curve but not in the basement, as she minced past.

Oh well, at least the other gladiators weren’t holding what happened with the collars against us. Or maybe they did, but they felt that the blame really fell on Madam Vicious, especially after she sicced Death Ghost on Draconis. Okay, fun is fun, but Eddie and Billy have had their fun, so I pointedly dragged the focus off Roxie.  “Okay Billy! Brah-Vo and congrats and all that on how you stepped up last night. How’d you manage to turn the tables on the Great Trite Hunter?”

“Asshole picked the wrong squid to fuck with,” Billy said all badass-like. “It was those hounds. They scared the bejeezus out of me at first, but then when they had me cornered, I remembered Mike Kelso and his fucking DOG.”

“Mike Kelso was this big asshole in our neighborhood,” Eddie explained. Apparently, Eddie was from the same neighborhood in Sacto that Billy was. “He had this big, mean brindle mastiff named Logan; y’know the kind of dog he led around on a choke collar, with the teeth that dig into the dog’s neck? It was a coin-toss which of ‘em was meaner, Kelso or the dog. Kelso liked to let Logan off the leash and let him chase kids.”

“And I was his favorite squirrel,” Billy took the conversation back. “That goddamn dog chased me all over the neighborhood, and my Dad was too much of a wuss to call the Cops or anything. Then, one night, that stupid dog had chased me all over the place and got me cornered. But this time, I had a hammer on me, and I bashed that fuckin’ mutt’s head in!”

“That was you?” Eddie said, giving Billy a look of surprised respect.

“Yeah! Of course, I didn’t say anything about it. I mean, Kelso didn’t need that dog to be mean!”

“Go, Squid!” Eddie held out a fist for Billy to bump.

“Way to get your head in the game, Bill,” Mack said. “Hey, Rae… you wanna talk about what happened with you last night?”

Rachel grumped into her gruel. “That fuckin’ prick WarMech! He wanted to kill me, just to show off his fucking TOY! He was doing it as an AD! He wanted to show off how big and bad his rig was! He was gonna KILL me, for a fucking COMMERCIAL! So, I let him have his commercial- RIGHT IN THE FACE!”

“How’d you figure out that ejector thing?” Billy asked.

“What figured out? I was trying to get into his cockpit, or whatever it’s called, and I set that off somehow.”

The conversation sat there uncomfortably for a few minutes, so I tried to lighten the mood. “Well, this is the point where my Mom would make noises about not sinking to his level, and how violence never solves anything. But to be honest, Rae, I think you did just the exact right thing. Not only did you put him in the hospital without killing him, but you trashed both his rig and his reputation. Mercenaries like WarMech get jobs based on their rep. Which was sort of the whole point there last night. But now his rig is wrecked and he won’t be able to get any jobs until it’s repaired. But that’s gonna cost mucho bucks, and who’s gonna front money to a loser?”

“So, one less asshole with too much firepower out on the streets,” Marly said, holding out her glass of not-orange juice. “Good job, Rae!” With a reluctant look, Rae touched her own glass of not-juice to Marly’s.

“You want crass?” Chris snarled. “Y’now when that sleaze Star Falcon had me on the ground?”

“Y’mean just before you went ‘Dark Phoenix’?” Suzy asked.

“Yeah,” Chris grunted, not too comfortable with the comparison. “Get this: he has me on the ground, he’s standing over me, he’s groping my tit, and he tells me that he’ll let me live if I let him have SEX with me!”

There was a general ‘ew!’ reflex around the table.

“So, I kick his ass up around his little pin head, and not only does he walk out of the ring with his BALLS still attached, but he won the fucking match!

“Yeah, but only by 0.01 points!” Roxie pointed out.

“SO? I’m still at the same point in the rankings!” Chris snapped. “Even BILLY went up in the rankings! TWO SPOTS!”

“CHRIS, this is a GOOD thing!” I said, “You didn’t kill anyone, but you did so well that you didn’t go down in the ratings, and you didn’t DIE. So, you didn’t go up in the ratings- so what? At this point, getting bumped up the rankings just means that you’d get a nastier opponent next time! And Star Falcon won and looks like a badass, so he won’t be coming around again looking for payback!”

Chris saw my points but was still grumpy about something. Well, other than being a prisoner and slave-gladiator.

“Chris, I hate to tell you this, but yer just gonna have to get used to it!” Marly said. “I know, you used to be a guy, and all that, but now, you aren’t just a girl, but you’re the kind of girl who brings all the horndogs to the yard. I mean, I got some of that kind of action; not as much as Yvonne, but still, there were guys who would NOT take ‘No’ for an answer! And YOU? Honey, you are the kind of girl that Madison Avenue holds up to the rest of the world and says, ‘YOU WANT THIS!’”

I wondered whether Marly was trying to be helpful, or was venting, or what?

Roxie jumped in and said, “Yeah. I’m getting that too, Chris, coming and going.” This was met with barely hidden snickers from around the room.

“Look, I know Boolean Algebra, Inorganic Chemistry, basic Statistical Analysis, and Spanish, French and German- but I don’t know anything about how to be a glamour puss! It was never an issue before, but this is very complicated crap!”

“At least you get a break from it,” Chris growled, as Rae, Marly, Ginny and Suzy all did the ‘pretty people with pretty problems’ eye-roll.

“Yeah, that’s the problem,” Roxie growled back. “Like I said, I’m getting it coming and going! I don’t know how to be a GUY! Especially not a guy who gets the weird looks from girls that I do! I mean, it would be one thing, if I was still your basic default het chick that looked like a boy. But when I look at girls, my mind is going ‘meh. Girls. So what?’ But my body is going ‘GURLS! Yeeeaaahhh!!’” Roxie let out a lustful leer. “Guys! How do you stay SANE with that going on all the time?”

“Why do you think we play so many video games?” Eddie asked plainly.

“And that fight last night with that ‘Darkmoon’ bitch?” Roxie kept on, clearly upset about something. “I mean, how obvious! How Cheap! How Sleazy! I mean, a Witchblade rip-off bikini? Eewww! And that braindead ‘flirting’ she was doing? Yuuuhhhhk! But last night? RAWR! I mean, one look and I was going at it, hammer and tongs, and digging every second of it!”

“The flirting or the fighting?” I asked.

“Both,” she squeaked, sort of wilting into a sad, confused little mouse. “I don’t know which gets me more: the cliché Sex and Violence trope, or the fact that I was getting into it so much.”

Mack stepped into the sticky silence and said, “So, Rae- you’re in pretty much the same boat as Roxie. Any ideas?”

Rachel said there awkwardly for a moment and said, “Well… I get angry a lot as a guy… but how much of that is Testosterone, and how much is that I just got a lot to be pissed off about?”

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The man known to the Law Enforcement, Superhero, Organized Crime, Supervillain and Covert Operations communities as ‘Death Ghost’ stepped out of the elevator into the casino of the Venetian resort with the predator grace of a lion strolling onto a savanna. He breathed in deeply. Even the massive air conditioning units they had couldn’t erase the subtle odors of booze, pheromones, adrenaline, stress and despair; the heady aroma of Action. It would get old in a couple of weeks, but he’d be gone by then. But coming back to Vegas was one of life’s sustaining joys. Okay, making money, shagging beautiful women, getting paid to kill people with his bare hands, and increasing the baseline power of his dynamorph were all great too. But there was something special about stepping into a casino and knowing that one way or another, he was walking out better off than the schnooks.

Looking around the casino, Death Ghost was tempted. There were so many gorgeous women there, and he spotted a few tender young things who were obviously on their first week, if not day, in The Meadows. But this time, he was looking for one particular beautiful- and deadly- woman. It took him the better part of an hour, but he finally spotted her. She was dressed in a white silk dress that elegantly straddled casual and evening wear, and suited her ‘Grace Kelly’ blonde good looks. She was sitting at a blackjack table with the seat of someone who’d been there for hours. She was probably underwriting the costs of her suite by acting as a shill for the hotel. He watched as she talked an amiable-looking chump into putting up a significant portion of his vacation budget on a half hour of ‘helping’ her play blackjack.

When the chump scurried off, no doubt to try and find some way of digging himself out of the hole that she’d helped him dig, Death Ghost moved in. He smiled blandly at her, and lost a couple of hundred at the table. Then he whispered something in her ear, and her composure froze. The dealer alerted the pit boss with a silent buzzer, but she waved him off. She and Death Ghost left the table, only to go to the bar, where the dealer and pit boss could watch- but not listen in. “So. ‘Death Ghost’. You have a job you want me to handle?”

“Yes, no, kinda-sorta,” Death Ghost hedged, giving the bartender a brief ‘this is a private conversation’ glare. “You’re a dyna-host, right, Star Witch?”

“Yes. And?”

“How familiar are you with Madam Vicious’ ‘Real Mutant Death Match’?”

“I catch it every so often,” she admitted, leaving ‘when someone else is paying for the show’ left unsaid but clearly understood.

“I do more than just catch it,” Death Ghost said with an air of understated brag, “I go into the ring. And I walk out the winner often enough that my dynamorph is much stronger than when I started.”

“How wonderful for you,” the Star Witch said, carrying the subtext of ‘Get to the point, I’m on the clock’.

“I’m willing to pay your way into the ring for the next match.”

“Out of the goodness of your heart?”

Death Ghost chuckled and took a sip of his Manhattan. “You’ve heard about the kids who tried to knock over the Candy Store and the Discards Auction, and busted up the floating card game at Buccaneer Bay.” He didn’t phrase it as a question, but as a statement. “Right now, they’re the star attractions at the Death Matches.”

The Star Witch raised a single sculpted eyebrow, ‘And your point IS?’

“One of them, the ‘Hexblade’, is of considerable interest to me. In her short time in Vegas, she’s managed to take big bites out of the dynamorphs of operators like Darth Viper, Power Lantern- twice!- and Glitter, one of Vicious’ gladiators. She is VERY ripe for the plucking.”

The Star Witch nodded, ‘Go on’.

“BUT. One of Vicious’ more long-lived, but not high-profile gladiators, the faux-Injun Squaw they call ‘Wardance’ has taken Hexblade under her wing. Wardance is very tough, and worse for me, a very good teacher. And worse yet, I’m picking up that she’s been training Hexblade in how to fight ME. Specifically.”

“How Unsporting,” Star Witch drawled with amusement. “And you’re afraid of a fair fight?”

“I avoid fair fights as a matter of principle,” Death Ghost said sturdily. “Now this is why you should care. Besides Hexblade, one of the ‘Loose Cannons’- the leader of the Cannons, as a matter of fact- is a strapping young buck called ‘the Blue Max’. He is also a dyna-host, and a potent brick- and yesterday, he took the Golden Gladiator for a big slice of dyna-energy.”

“The Golden Gladiator?” Star Witch perked up with interest. But her greed quickly faltered and she said, “And why do you want me to go into the ring with this Blue Max?”

“Here’s the scenario,” Death Ghost set the tableau, “It’s a ‘Mixed Doubles’ match, Me and You versus Hexblade and the Blue Max.”

“The Death Matches do mixed doubles?”

“Not yet, but I have reasons to expect that Madam Vicious will allow the match.”

“Oh?”

“Last night, I took out a gladiator named ‘Draconis’ with Vicious’ express permission. You see, she was the ringleader of an escape group within the gladiators.”

“So why not just blow her head off?” Star Witch asked with sere simplicity.

“Because there’s nothing in doing it that way for Vicious,” Death Ghost responded with equal simplicity. “My killing her provides a spectacle for the fans, while sending the message to the gladiators.”

“And what have Hexblade and Blue Max done to piss Miss Vicious off?”

“Blue Max is the leader of the Loose Cannons, and Hexblade is his Number Two. Besides holding that team together- which is not in Vicious’ game plan- they were also part of Draconis’ escape plan. Vicious wants them dead, but she wants them dead in a way that supports her bottom line. She’ll let us call dibs on those two and allow the Mixed Doubles dodge, but we’ll still have to pay for our gate. I made a killing, betting on Hexblade against Power Lantern, so I can afford to pay your gate.”

“Okay, you get the Hexblade, and I get the Blue Max,” Star Witch nodded. “But what makes you think that just double-teaming them will make them easier to handle?”

Death Ghost gave her a smoldering smirk. “Not in a fair fight. But as I said, I avoid fair fights on general principle. No, I have two cards up my sleeve, plus any you might come up with.

“The first is that we go in with you taking on Hexblade and me taking on Blue Max. And then, once they’ve gotten their groove on against us, we-”

“Switch partners?” Star Witch said with acid sweetness. Well, it was Tactics 101.

“Far more to the point, it will set up my really dirty trick, which is the reason why I chose YOU out of my many lovely acquaintances here in Vegas.”

“I was rather wondering.”

“While your pet ‘stars’ are quite obvious, I understand that you can make them far more unobvious… even invisible?

“Yes,” she nodded, “AND?”

“There’s a dirty trick that Vicious will NOT allow, as it impinges on her complete control of the arena,” Death Ghost said with a deadly glimmer in his eye. “The slave collars. Both you and I have… arts… that will allow us to pull the collars on the other’s opponent.”

“But won’t it be a tad OBVIOUS if this Blue Max’s head gets blown off? Not to mention the absolute MESS that it will make all over me?”

“I didn’t say ‘Pull Off’,” Death Ghost tutted her, “just pull. Enough to trigger the Pain Inducer, but not enough to trigger the explosive.”

The penny clearly dropped for Star Witch. “So, we’re in the middle of the fight, and suddenly Hexblade or Blue Max suddenly keel over in agonizing PAIN….”

“Can you say, ‘Sitting Duck’? I knew you could!” Death Ghost said with snide amusement.

“If we do it right, even Vicious won’t be certain that we pulled anything!” the notion seemed to play to some twisted appreciation of a clever cheat the lady enjoyed.

“Besides your trick stars, another reason that I chose you is that ‘mist generator’ trick of yours,” Death Ghost smiled. “Just thick enough to open up interesting new possibilities for sneakiness, but not enough for Vicious or the Bookies to object.” Star Witch seemed genuinely interested. So Death Ghost played his trump card. “And besides the material shot in the arm for your powers, just think what the bragging rights will do for your job prospects.” He looked significantly at the blackjack table.

“I’ll tell Robbie that I can’t cover the swing shift for a few days.”

“A few days?” Death Ghost smirked.

“Well, we do have to thrash out our tactics and… other considerations,” she gave him a welcoming smile that was very much at odds with her ‘ice queen’ demeanor.

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EVAN

The Instructors made a point of being even more sadistic, seeing as how we ‘Cannons’ had enough energy to plan escapes. At the end of a VERY hard day, I managed to catch Chris in the showers. Chris was so tired that she didn’t get freaked out when I talked to her. Of course, the fact that it was the women’s shower, I was (currently) female, and the rules on washroom chatter are very different for women, helped a lot. “Chris, we gotta talk.”

“Can’t it wait until breakfast?”

“This isn’t something that I want to talk about in front of the others.”

“Oh?”

“Look, Chris, you deflected a bunch of Star Phony’s energy bolts back at him, right? You don’t just generate light, you control it, right?”

“Yeah, we thrashed this out when we were laying low in Truckee, remember?”

“Yeah, that’s my point- when you got knocked through some of those hard-light formations, sometimes you hit hard… but sometimes you just passed through them.”

“yeeaahh…” Chris nodded. “The times that I saw them coming. I hadda see them and think about not getting hurt.”

“Chris, I think that you can use your photokinesis- or whatever it is- to control the hard-light constructs.”

Chris blinked, and a glad look spread across her face. “Yeah! I can see that! That will give me a BIG edge in the ring.”

“That’s not my idea, Chris. Get into the hard-light, the really hard stuff, the stuff they’re really burning coal to power, wrap the force field around your collar- and pull it off.”

“And then what?”

“And then get the fuck OUT of here!” I said, trying to sell it as best I could without anyone getting interested. “Head right for the spectators, go through the restraining wall, get to the exit tunnels and LEAVE.”

“What?” Chris bleated, and then turned around to see if anyone was watching. “But what about the rest of you guys?”

“Chris,” I doubt that I said it half as bleakly as I felt, “we’re already dead. “There’s no way around Vicious. She’s too smart, too sneaky, she knows all the angles, and she holds all the cards. She’s been doing this for years, and the longest that any gladiator has held out is a few months.”

“Evie, if I just split, Vicious will just pop all your corks, even the gladiators who aren’t Cannons!”

“You think I wanna DIE?” I asked. “NO! But Draconis was our only shot, and Vicious played us all like fiddles! AND, on top of everything, now Vicious has another edge on us all.”

“What?”

“Not ‘What’- Who.”

“Who?”

“Think about it- Vicious knew exactly where everything was. She went right to Spring-heeled Jack’s computer. The only people who knew about that were Draconis’ escape committee, the Cannons- and Marly and Ginny.”

“Why would Marly or Ginny sell us out?”

“Why WOULDN’T they?” I asked. “Come on, if I was to design a snitch for this place from scratch, she’d look a lot like Ginny- timid, on her own before she was ready to leave home, isolated, a follower, vulnerable- and, let’s be honest, not as bright as she likes to think she is. AND she’s telepathic, on top of everything else. You don’t think that Vicious keeps her and Marly around, just to fetch coffee, now do you?”

“But why would Ginny turn on Eddie?”

“Maybe Vicious is holding Eddie over Ginny’s head. Ginny’s just naïve enough to think that Vicious will keep her word.”

“Okay, but what about Marly?”

“Chris, Marly doesn’t really know us, any more than Ginny does. Yeah, we got her and Yvonne out of Snowfish, but so what? And Chris, I get the impression that Marly would run her own grandmother through a wood chipper to save Yvonne. And Yvonne is firmly under Vicious’ thumb.”

Chris worried over this for a while, so I continued. “Chris, I’m already dead. Me and Mack. Vicious needs to break up the Cannons, and the best way to do that is to kill me and him. Like Draconis, she’s just gonna keep sending us out into the ring every match, while the killers who come to carve out a piece of us get bigger and deadlier. Power Lantern was only the beginning. Death Ghost is already sniffing around me, trying to figure out how to push my buttons. If he doesn’t kill me when he gets me, he’ll just keep coming back. IF, somehow, I manage to kill him, that just means that the next guy will be even meaner. And that’s if she doesn’t just decide to shove us both in the ring, like she did with Techno-Demon and Ogre, and tell us that if we don’t kill each other, we both die.”

“Yeah… but…” Chris frantically looked for an option. “You could slice the collar off Mack! And he could snap the collar off you! And you two could free-”

“Vicious has it covered,” I said, feeling the fatalism deep down. “I don’t know how, but it can’t be that simple. She wouldn’t have lasted this long, if she didn’t have every angle covered. The only thing that works, and I DO mean the ONLY thing that works, and I have driven myself crazy trying to find out another way- is to play the one card that she hasn’t covered, because she doesn’t know about it yet, and shoot the works. As for the rest of us? Well, at least it will be over, and like Draconis said, it’ll be the closest we ever get to an ‘Up Yours’ to Vicious.” Chris gave me a bleak look, so I summed it up: “Chris, go for it! Get away from here, get to Las Vegas, tell the cops where this shithole is, and GET THIS OVER WITH. The way that Vicious is going, if even one of us survives, it’s a victory.”

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The next morning, there was new meat. Three guys, all with these weird bulky black vests with hunchback backpacks. One was a big guy in his early 20s I’d say, who had all the earmarks of your basic brick. The second one had the wiry build of either a gymnast or a martial artist, and the eyes of a street punk. The third guy was a slightly stocky ‘Mr. Average’ type with a receding hairline and gave me the general impression of the kind of NCOs who really make the Armed Services run. He was tough, but he was also competent, and he knew it. Vicious gave them the ‘you’re my bitch now, so get used to it’ speech, and demonstrated her point by eliminating Ultiman from the roster. He was too tough to ‘pop his cork’, so she kicked in the pain inducer until he had a heart attack. Not as graphic as blowing his head off, but even more gruesome in its own way. Nightwitch got that tic she has every so often when she’s stressed, and Deathrace had this look like it just registered with him that he was at bottom of the ladder.

While the rest of us got on with the usual training, the Instructors paired the big guy up with Backbreaker, the street punk with Wardance, and the Maybe-NCO with Starstrike. Then it got interesting. When the collars let them, the ‘hunches’ on those ‘vests’ sort of melted all over them, covering them from head to toe. They were Symbiots, like that chick on the ‘Xora™’ show on HBO, or Venom™ and Carnage™ have in Marvel comics. The big guy’s symbiot formed into matte black rigid articulated plates, with a smooth insect-like ‘head’. From the way he was sparring with Backbreaker, he was indeed a pretty kickass brick in both the dishing out massive damage and taking it departments.

The street punk went for the classic ‘Venom’ look, only without the tongue. He affected a pair of forearm mounted spurs and his color scheme was a shifting mottled green. Powers-wise, he also went for the ‘Venom’ package: jumping, climbing, swinglines, tendrils, spurs, and a nasty caustic spray. Wardance did her usual efficient job of pounding into his head that he wasn’t the badass that he thought he was.

But it was the maybe-NCO who was really interesting. He was able to form his symbiot into jury-rigged equipment, like jetpacks, blasters and pretty much whatever he needed. I was sort of surprised that Vicious would let another tech-head into her manor, after what happened with Spring-heeled Jack. Screw it. If the ‘Sarge’ kept Vicious distracted, more power to him. God knows, I had enough on my plate.

But the thing that really got me was that there were still too many prisoners down here. Three new gladiators meant that three vacancies had to be arranged. And while getting rid of Ultiman took care of one redundancy, I don’t think that Nightwitch or Deathrace have that much to worry about right now.

But Mack and I do.

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BLACKHEART

DATE: April 18, 2007

Blackheart and his crew stepped off the shuttle into the disembarkation dock. The other spectators also got off that and several other shuttles like they were just showing up for a ball game or prize fight. “How do they do it?” Evil Eye asked, looking around the dock. “I mean, the Cops have got to be looking for this place, so how do they get all these people here two times a week?”

Blackheart shrugged. “Dunno. But whatever their gimmick is, it’s gotta be a hummer.”

“We gettin’ paid for this?” Rawhide rumbled.

“Nah,” Blackheart grunted with distaste as he lit up. “But after we blew gettin’ to these punks’ hotel, it can’t hurt to do The Guys a freebie. ‘Sides, Dugan’s paying for our tickets, and hell, I wouldn’t mind seeing for certain that it was them myself. If it ain’t, then we got another shot at ‘em.”

“And if it is them?” Prettyboy asked.

Blackheart shrugged. “Shit happens. We sit back and watch; with any luck, we get to watch ‘em get wasted.”

Then Evil Eye stifled a guffaw. “Hey, Blackie, check it out: yer gettin’ all trendy. Someone’s copping yer look.” He jerked a thumb at a guy who was standing a good thirty feet away, looking at a betting form. He was tall and athletic, and a little lighter than Blackheart, but he was working the same black-on-black look, with the leather blazer, slicked back hair, ‘Wayne Newton’ mustache and mirrored shades.

“Yer Trippin’, Eye!” Blackheart snorted, “He don’t look a thing like me! He’s just a greasy thug with no real fashion sense! I mean, just look at that cheesy mustache!”

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SWIVE

On one hand, Knight Commander Vernon Swive appreciated the hectic, gaudy atmosphere of the Xanadu resort as much as anyone else. But as a trained professional, he deplored the Xanadu having a ‘Mutant Death Match’ spectacle on the premises. He knew that the Resorts looked the other way when it came to the masked ‘gladiators’ that put on the staged shows for the tourists. It was almost a given that a good portion of them were wanted felons, simply using another name and tacky outfit. That was bad enough, and he had no doubt that the Las Vegas cops busted the casino operators when it came out that they were harboring fugitives. But what really galled him was the blithe glossing over of the very real danger that the ‘gladiators’ posed to the casino-goers. Even if they weren’t mutants, they were still dangerous freaks who were performing complicated combat maneuvers. If one of them went berserk- and it was only a matter of time before one of them DID lose it, one way or another- the layout of the casino and exhibition area almost guaranteed a bloodbath. If nothing else, the panicked crowd would trample dozens of their own trying to get away.

While Swive was reasonably certain that the ‘Loose Cannons’ were being held by Madam Vicious, his cover required that he put on a good show of looking for the ‘real’ mutant death matches. And, what the hell, finding them would both give him a shot at ‘Hexblade’ AND be a big gold star on his record. His story at the moment was that he didn’t buy the ‘slave gladiator’ story, and he was going to the resorts that had super-powered ‘gladiator’ matches, and rattling cages of various masks. His position with the KoP gave him just enough standing to pull it off, while the fact that his job wasn’t part of the Las Vegas power structure meant that he couldn’t get pressured from above. KoP Corporate would get a few calls, but so what? He was feeding Ranney at the Division of Paranormal Affairs information, so he was covered.

Then Sgt. Drassock strolled up to him. “The Mobile Trailer’s all set up, the suits are ready, and the Lance is ready to mobilize on a moment’s notice.”

“Good man.”

“Do you really think that any of these ‘Gladiators’ will give up any real information Sir?”

“They already have,” Swive said with a smirk. “’Lady Lancelot’ reacted when I showed her THIS,” he flashed a photograph of a familiar face. “This is a New Jersey thug who calls himself ‘Blackheart’. He’s your basic East Coast mook who busted his ass to get a dynamorph, so he could be a big shot supervillain. He has a small crew of three also bottom-rung nobodies, and they hire out to whoever has an errand that needs doing. They were in San Francisco during the Snowfish incident, and SFPD has passed along that some locals reported seeing them interacting with the Cannons. SFPD also says that Blackheart and his goons packed up and left right about the time that news that the Cannons were in Vegas became known. And the Treasure Island resort’s security cameras showed a group that match Blackheart’s crew almost perfectly, mixing it up with a group of super-powered kids, right after that cluster fuck at the Buccaneer Bay show.

“He’s been reported here at the Xanadu off and on. If we can get our hands on this Blackheart creep, we’ll know a lot more about what’s going on here in Vegas.”

Then a pleasing yet unpleasantly familiar face emerged from the crowd. “Why Knight-Commander SWIVE!” Danica Hanson greeted him as though they were bumping into each other at a cocktail party, “What are you doing HERE?”

“The same thing you are,” he replied crisply. “Doing my job.”

“Oh? There are rampaging supervillains running amok?” she looked around blithely.

“They’re minding their manners- for the moment,” he allowed. “And where’s your partner, Mr. Cummings?”

“Doing the same thing you and I are,” she riposted. “Looking for the Loose Cannons.”

“’Loose Cannons’?” Swive echoed with a pained tone.

“Hey, it was a throw-away line,” Danica admitted. “Who knew that it would catch on?”

“Is Mr. Cummings doing his footwork without backup?” Swive asked, noting the pair’s cameraman, McDaniels, standing a few feet away with his video camera slung over his shoulder.

“Dan wouldn’t go to the bathroom without a camera covering him, if he could get away with it,” Danica said candidly. “No, that great footage at Buccaneer Bay has green-lighted the Cannons. Now, we have three cameramen, two production assistants and-” her tone dropped, losing its relish, “-our very own producer.” But she bucked up and continued, “A producer who’d ream me out if I let an opportunity for a sound-byte go to waste. Care to make a comment?”

“You don’t have a microphone,” Swive pointed out.

Danica held out a cell phone. “Needs must as the Devil drives, and all that jazz.” She twitched a beckoning finger at McDaniels, who slung the camera onto his shoulder and pointed the lens at Swive. “So, Knight-Commander Swive, any comments on the development of the Loose Cannons being spotted in an illegal blood-sports venue here in Las Vegas?”

“I’m afraid that I’m going to have to fall back on the old reliable ‘No Comment’, Miss Hanson,” Swive said with bland politeness. “I make it a policy to only speak to the Media when there are material developments, and there are no real developments to report.”

“That’s what I thought at Buccaneer Bay- before the ship blew up.”

linebreak shadow

BLACKHEART

‘A Grand a seat, in-house betting, and they still stick it to you at the snack stand,’ Blackheart groused to himself as he and his crew picked their way to seats with arms full of drinks and noshies that cost them $100 each. Still, the Scotch was good, the hot dog was a god honest frankfurter, and the popcorn was fresh. And the seats were comfortable, no plastic, real leather. And the floors weren’t sticky!

All the seats were on one side of the arena, with the gladiator’s entrance and the hostess’ viewing box on the far side across from the rings. Blackheart had heard that sometimes the audience had to shift their seats as to get a better view when the action moved from ring to ring. The ring on his furthest left was a bare open space covered with sand. Your basic no-frills fighting pit. But Las Vegas never left things at that. The center ring had two rows of columns of blocks stacked ten high. Hung over that was a pole that acted as a pivot for several swinging blades, each about ten feet or so apart, that were held up in place near the top, but could obviously be released to swing. They looked like they’d swing right through the spaces between the columns of blocks. The ring at his far right had a tall pyramid of loosely stacked boxes, and set around that pyramid were four steel latticework ‘towers’ that almost reached the roof of the arena. Blackheart chose the center section of the seating, figuring that they’d get a good shot of every ring with a minimum of shuffling around. So the crew moved themselves into some front-row center seats and settled in.

linebreak shadow

EVAN

With less than two weeks seniority (I’m guessing) it’s a little hypocritical to think of the three new guys as ‘rookies’. But the guy with the ‘Venom’ symbiot? The big guy was understandably tense and the ‘Sarge’ was stoic, but the ‘Venom’ guy was actually looking forward to it! I mean, you have to wonder about someone like that. Everyone in the Green Room was giving him the ‘WTF are you doing?’ glare, but he didn’t pick up on it, he was so psyched.

Even Tyrranex, y’know, ‘Tyro’, the guy who had to put up with Suzy in the infirmary? He was this big pseudo-reptilian guy who was rocking this weird Greco-Dinosaur look. Everyone else was giving him lots of room. But even HE was looking at Venom-guy like he was mental.

Then all the preparatory bullcrap was over, and it was game time. Time for me to go out and see how Vicious had arranged to get me killed for the pleasure of a bunch of high-rolling lowlifes.

Vicious did her big introductory spiel, rattled off our names and we filed into our niches by our standing in the rankings. Then when we were all accounted for, she introduced the three newbies. The big guy with the rigid plates, she dubbed ‘DEATHWATCH, the BLACK BEETLE!’ ‘Sarge’ she’d named ‘WORKSHOP’. And the nutcase Venom poser she furthered the copyright infringement by tagging him ‘TOXIN’.

As she went through all this, and then the braindead ‘interview’ portion of the program, I got a chance to check out the opposition. I couldn’t hear the names or their dialogue- for which mercies I’m duly grateful, Lord- I got a decent look at them. The first guy I got a look at was wearing a very practical set of stealth grays with some serious utility belt action going on. The only thing that wasn’t in the same pragmatic vein was the gleaming black metallic stylized wolf (I’m guessing) mask.

Then I spotted someone all-too familiar. It was Death Ghost in his copyright reversal outfit. He had a woman along with him this time, who was doing yet another ‘Witch’ motif (if they’re not careful, Witches may replace Cats as the new must-avoid trite supervillianess cliché) with a star-glittered, dark blue hooded cloak trimmed with silver metallic trim, a body-hugging halter-top gown of the same basic material as the cape, silver metallic opera gloves and matching thigh-high boots, a silver metallic full-face mask that was molded into a perfect image of an exquisitely beautiful woman’s face and moved along with the motions of her face, a large brilliant-cut blue stone fastening the cape, and a tall black staff that was capped by another brilliant cut blue stone within a silver filigree starburst. From the ‘tood that Madam V was giving her, our genial hostess wasn’t too happy about that arrangement. But then, from what Ginny had said, Vicious had taken Death Ghost into her boudoir for some more hot, sweaty, unprotected groin-grinding.

Fuck it. Not my problem. Hell, odds are that Death Ghost is the one that Bitcherella has picked to take my head. I hope that all three of them give each other STDs that make sensitive parts of their bodies rot and fall off.

The next guy in line was… how shall I put it? Badass Aquaman? Heavy Metal Submariner? He was tall and very buff, and cut like a true gym rat. He had long dark straight hair and beard that were both streaked with silver. He had an eye patch on his left eye. He was wearing a black sleeveless bodysuit that may have been latex, or really shiny leather, and was cut down to his navel, showing off those killer Pecs and abs. He was wearing silver bracers, and he carried a big gleaming steel trident.

Next was a woman who looked like she could tie ‘Badass Aquaman’ into knots. She was a tall strapping woman with roan-colored hair down to the small of her back. Her skin was fair-going-pale in the best tradition of redheads. She was wearing a dark red sleeveless minidress with a high mandarin collar, the hem of which barely covered her ass, and white boots, a black belt and bracers. She exuded a weird sort of extremely and uniquely feminine power. She was giving Rachel this weird look that was half hateful glare and half cold-blooded analysis.

Next was a guy who was in desperate need of being informed that the Nineties are OVER. In a lot of ways, his look was almost a rip-off of Badass Aquaman’s, only his beard was a goatee, he wasn’t carrying a trident but a nasty ‘scepter’ capped with a snarling wolf’s head with glowing red eyes, his skin was chalk white with black makeup around his eyes, he was wearing a weird sort-of crown of gold that had large red gems set in it, as did his bracers, and his bodysuit had red trim and batwing vanes stuck on the underside of his arms. And while Badass Aquaman was a solo act, King Goth had a trio of gothy chicks in gauzy gowns draped all over him

I vaguely remembered the Asian chick from somewhere. She was wearing this strapless sleeveless bodysuit with a luster like some black jewel, with matching opera gloves, and a silver-tone visor. Again, I’ve seen her somewhere, but I’m spacing on the particulars. Mind you, she did fill out that bodysuit VERY well.

The next guy also set off bells. He was tall, very broad, and very muscular. He was working a very Sci-Fi look, with a featureless full-face polished steel helmet with matching gauntlets, belt and boots over a dark green glassy suit that had ‘cybernetic circuitry’ patterns all over it. But instead of the glacial calm that such a look requires, you could tell that he was almost hurting himself keeping his temper under control. Like he needed that rage to-

-omigawd. It’s Congarr the Conquered. He’s come back for another try at Supervillain glory, under another name and motif. Please, please, God let THIS doink be Vicious’ chosen instrument of my doom? HIM, I can run rings around. Yes, I know, the odds are that Death Ghost got the nod, but I can hope, can’t I?

The next guy was almost a rerun of Star Falcon, only in earth tones, with a brassy bird mask and matching clawed gauntlets. I willed myself to remember that derivative doesn’t mean inept.

Then the bullshit was over, and Vicious announced that the first bout would be between NIGHTWOLF and TOXIN! Nightwolf, the guy with the dark wolf (natch) mask, declared that he’d face Toxin in Ring A, the one with the pyramid of obstacle blocks and the four towers. I numbly wondered what bells and whistles the reconstruction crew would add to that, once Nightwolf and Ven-er, Toxin got through trashing it.

There wasn’t any hard light overlay with this one. I got the impression that Nightwolf was a very barebones, no-nonsense, no-frills kind of guy. Nobody I’d like to face myself, but thinking about it, damn near the perfect person to send after a cocky punk like Toxin.

The second the Go klaxon went off, Toxin sent a swingline up to the nearest tower and hauled himself up pronto. He spent the next two minutes bouncing around the towers, trying to get Nightwolf to chase him. Instead, Nightwolf did hop around the towers, but he wasn’t chasing. From my experience with Darth Viper, I got that Nightwolf was herding Toxin. Then he got Toxin trapped on top of one of the towers, where not-Venom couldn’t get a shot to one of the other towers to escape. So, Toxin went straight for Nightwolf, spurs out.

He passed right through Nightwolf, and Nightwolf gave him a punch to the back of the head as he went. The punch knocked Toxin right off the tower. Nightwolf went right after him, pitching himself off the tower in close pursuit. Toxin managed to get a swingline out, but Nightwolf was right on top of him and grabbed him. The swingline couldn’t hold both their weight and snapped. Even from where I was, I could hear Toxin scream with terror.

They hit hard, and Toxin was stunned. But Nightwolf got right up. He calmly switched out some cartridges from one of his utility belts with ones on wrist units. When Toxin started to get up, Nightwolf sort of hopped up high and then came down hard, smashing Toxin into the concrete. Then he got Toxin in a head-hold and started pounding him with the other hand. Then he switched his grip and pounded with the other hand. Then he let Toxin go and switched out cartridges again.

Okay, what’s with the cartridges? I got the impression that Nightwolf was more interested in those cartridges than he was in Toxin.

Wait a minute. The Symbiot. He was gathering samples of the Symbiot, and he was making sure that he got as many viable samples as he could.

Toxin took advantage of Nightwolf switching out the cartridges. In true punk fashion, when it penetrated his pointy little skull that Nightwolf was both tougher and more ruthless than he was, his first reflex was to run. He got some distance, sent up a swingline-

-which Nightwolf cut with a throwing iron.

Toxin, totally rattled, hit hard and struggled to get to his feet. Nightwolf charged over and body-checked him into one of the obstacle blocks. He pressed Toxin over the edge of the block and did the pounding thing again, even switching hands again. Then, apparently satisfied that he had enough samples, Nightwolf got Toxin in a head-hold and snapped his neck.

There was no snippy comment from Madam Vicious. There was no roar from the crowd. This hadn’t been a fight- it had been a cold-blooded killing. There was a smattering of polite applause for a job well done. But Nightwolf simply stalked out of the ring without a word. The closest thing to any real interaction was a passing look between Nightwolf and the jazzy Asian chick in the jewel-tone bodysuit.

Madam Vicious wasn’t happy with how that went down; a bit too stark and cold; and worse, it hadn’t been spectacular. So she assured the crowd and web audiences that she was shuffling things around and the next bout would be something to remember! The Real Mutant Death Matches’ first Mixed Doubles fight!

Mixed Doubles? I shot a look at Death Ghost and his gothy girlfriend. He just gave me a smug chuckle.

Oh Crap.

This is it.

DEATH GHOST and STAR WITCH will face off against a pairing of our most illustrious newcomers, BLUE MAX and HEXBLADE!” Sorry, Mack; I didn’t mean to drag you down with me!

You always wonder what it will be like to face death. Well, I wasn’t the cold, flinty Clint Eastwood stoic, taking it all with a sneer, but I wasn’t pissing in my pants either. What was going through my mind was find a way out of this, ANY way. Still, I managed to keep some dignity as I walked to the far starting circle from Madam Vicious. As we got there, I spotted four guys, a chunky sleazeball all in black with mirrored shades, a big lunk in leathers, even a leather cowboy hat, a prettyboy and a weasel. They rang a bell, but I wasn’t coming up with any names. Still, they seemed to know me, and they were giving me these ‘MAN, are you gonna get it’ leers. Creeps.

Mack gave me a ‘got any ideas?’ look when we got to the circle. I just shrugged. I was stone-cold dry on any brilliant ideas. He let out a deep breath, and I got the impression that he’d come to the same conclusions I had. Then he looked at me straight on and said, “Kill Death Ghost. Focus on him. Even if we die, we can do it for Draconis. She was a right chick. She deserves some payback.” I nodded. It was probably futile, but when you’re heading to the Final Reckoning, a beau geste can’t hurt.

And I read Death Ghost as a sleaze; he probably brought that broad in on this figuring that we’d double-team her to make him try and rescue her. But he’d just use that to blindside me, and then take out Mack, once he was tired from putting her down.

Besides, she hasn’t done anything to me. Yet.

The countdown started, and instead of a Metropolis-type cityscape, or Roman ruins, or anything out of a Hollywood movie, the ring took the form of… Wonderland? Maybe Through the Looking glass? It didn’t look real. And it wasn’t stable. Forms just kept growing, moving and mutating into something else. It was all very pretty, in a Salvador Dali kind of way. Just… not very conducive to effective tactical movement.

And then the blades dropped, one at a time, forming a rippling cascade of crescent blades swinging across the scenery in a way that Edgar Alan Poe would have approved of.

“Mack? I asked as the countdown trickled out our allotted span on this veil of tears, “That hilt thing Vicious gave me isn’t working. How’s that Tac-Ops input about built into that mask that you talked doing?”

“Cut out,” he said simply. “So’s the force field booster in my belt.”

“Oh no, there’s no way the fix is in…” I drawled sarcastically.

Naaahhh…” he agreed in the same terms.

And then the Go klaxon sounded.

Death Ghost lifted off immediately and went invisible. And Star Witch, who had been whipping her staff around, leaving a trail of big bright sparks- or ‘stars’ if you absolutely gotta- switched to thrashing the staff around, lobbing stars in our direction. Mack grabbed me by the hand and lifted off, barely missing getting blasted when the stars hit our starting circle. “UP!” I yelled, pointing at the pivot shaft for the swinging blades. Mack got it and threw me up to the shaft. I hacked away at the supports for the shaft. I was getting some progress, when I got the weirdest hunch. Well, Death Ghost hasn’t done anything in the past few seconds, so I did a vaulting back-flip, just as the fink himself faded back into view ten or so yards away. I managed to get to the top of my jump when he let fly, his reflexes off a little, blasting the strut I’d been chopping at. He finished the job for me, and while he faded back into invisibility almost immediately, I’m sure that I caught a ‘FUCK!’ expression on the part of his face that his mask left showing.

The strut snapped, and I did another anime leaping strike on the part of the other strut that was just holding on, almost torn off its mooring by the stress. And for once, I didn’t knock myself out doing it. The supports for the other end of the shaft ripped out. The shaft itself snapped in two, and the blades scattered in all different directions, though the silly-putty setting of the hard-light setting kept them from breaking the protective wall for the spectators.

Even so, when Mack caught me on the way down, I yelled out, “HEY, VICIOUS! HOW’S THAT FOR SPECTACULAR?

Okay, time to put all that wreckage and Max Ernst background to use. Attaching my sash to Mack, I dropped a good 30 feet (I have no idea how it does that), let go of him, and dropped another 20 feet. That gave Mack the freedom to smack one of Star Witch’s battlestars, sending it spinning out of control.

Moving quickly through the LSD flashback underbrush- that is, when the hard light would let me, I wended my way to where I could bushwhack Star Witch. SW was making up for Death Ghost’s lack of spectacularosity by being as big and extravagant as she could, with a vortex of stars whizzing around her, and throwing one battlestar after another at Mack, who was slowly making his way towards her. Why he was doing that, I have no idea; Mack would rather lop off his good hand than hit a woman with it. I’m gonna have to do the dirty deed for him.

Then Star Witch dropped to the ground, and a thick mist billowed out from her cloak, filling the ring. Which suits me right down to the ground. Makes it easier for me to get my sticky little hands on her, and maybe that staff as well. Even if I can’t use it, if I’ve got it, she doesn’t, and that will slow her down.

As I closed on her, she was doing some seriously strange things with that mist, which were seriously messing with Mack. And I may have outsmarted myself (again); if she has that kind of control over this mist, then moving up on her in it may be like sneaking up on someone by stepping on their toes.

But there is an upside to almost everything, if you look at it right. Since in obscured combat Paranoia IS your friend, I looked around, just in case Death Ghost was playing the same gambit on me. And get this, kids- I saw an invisible man. Or, more to the point, I saw a big man-shaped hole in the mists. Somebody else didn’t think this through all the way either.

I gave him an opening for a cheap shot, and, Thank You God, my reading of his personality was on the money. He took the cheap shot, I twisted around, rolled past his guard, was right up against him, and drew my hexblade, right in his gut. Or, since he was so kind as to point it out, the solar plexus, which is apparent the sweet spot for Dynahosts.

Jackpot.

I felt a gush of sweet energy rush into me, and Death Ghost faded back into view, gaping at me with a ‘OMG, what did you just DO to me?’ look on the bottom half of his face. I kept draining, until Star Witch separated us with an exploding starlet. Death Ghost staggered to his feet and yelled, “You little BITCH! You’re DEAD!”

And just as the words were out of his mouth, Mack came shooting down out of the, well not sky, upper reaches of the arena, maybe. Mack slammed into Death Ghost like a blockbuster bomb and smashed him down into the concrete.

Okay, Mack has Death Ghost on the ropes, and double-teaming him would just get in Mack’s way. Time to get nasty, as only woman on woman can get nasty. I charged at Star Witch, blade out, getting my Starwalker on. She threw star after star at me, but the Force was with me. Wardance was right- there was some kind of targeting beam that I could just feel and use to deflect the incoming ‘stars’. If I survive this, I’m gonna owe Wardance HUGE.

I was on top of Star Witch so fast that she couldn’t take off, which she was trying to do. But I battered at her with my sword with an abject lack of technique that Wardance was going to make me pay for. Later. But it kept Star Witch concentrating on either parrying my blade with her staff or flying off, either of which would have been bad for me.  She must have decided that putting me down was more important, ‘cause the blue stone at the top of her staff started to blaze with energy, and she shifted to a more offensive posture, and showed that she’d had some training in it.

We went at it hammer and tongs, and the crowd seemed to like it. Witchiepoo was getting the better of me, and she took the initiative. She was rearing back for a big painful strike, when a hand came out from her blind side and grabbed the staff. That took Witchie by surprise, and Mack was able to yank the staff out of her hand. I went for a strike, but she parried with her cape and did a jump of her own over me. I was open but recovering. She went for this purse at her hip that I hadn’t noticed before, probably covered by her cape. Before I could do anything, she pulled something out of that purse and threw it at me. The something became a cloud of dust, but I was on the ball enough to duck it.

The same could not be said of Death Ghost, who’d been coming up right behind me. Ah, the tactical disadvantage of an invisible partner. Sleaze Ghoul didn’t like it, whatever it was, and while he was reacting to it, he was both visible and solid. Mack didn’t need to be told to take the opening, and flew into body check that would have done some serious damage if the Ghost- who- Slimes hadn’t been flying. As it was, Mack sent him sprawling into the shifting morass of hard-light.

Not that I was gawping, going ‘gosharootie!’ I jumped Star Witch and grappled her, using her own cape against her. I managed to get that purse and the fancy clasp that held that cape in place. The hood slipped, hoodwinking her. We grappled a bit, which would have been very fun, if I was still a guy and she wasn’t trying to KILL me. We broke and I was setting to take a shot at her solar plexus, when I was blindsided, and thrown to the ground. I have no idea how Death Ghost pulled that off. Well, he hasn’t racked up all the kills he’s credited with by being a pushover. I was getting ready to roll over and gut him again, when I felt something that almost made me piss on myself.

He grabbed my collar.

Are you allowed to do that? Fuck, what am I saying? As long as he doesn’t dance around waving the fucking collar, he can do anything!

Then Mack came out of left field again and tackled Death Ghost, knocking him off of me. There was a very unpleasant choking, near-neck snapping jerk, and I’m ashamed to say this, but my last thoughts were almost ‘I hope I get blood and brains all over her pretty outfit’.

But the collar didn’t explode.

After what I’m sure you’ll agree is a perfectly reasonable moment of pure crogglement, I put 2 and Pi and the square root of 19 together, and solved for X. The Hard Light would block the signal, so the Hard Light system must have its own signal emulator to prevent accidental interrupt, which doesn’t have the ‘Boom’ or ‘OWIE’ signals, for simplicity. It’s such a technical thing that Vicious just never heard about it. Then I did the smart thing and skewered Star Witch for a quick power-up. Just barely ducking under one of Star Witch’s retaliatory blasts, I dove for where Death Ghost and Mack were grappling non-homoerotically (I’ll give Mack the benefit of a doubt; he’s BIGGER than I am), and tossed some of that dust from Star Witch’s purse on the goon. Murder Spook reacted the same way as before, so I latched onto Mack and pulled his collar off.

Both Mack and Death Ghost looked at the collar flummoxed. So, being the good, clean-living, rules-abiding exemplar of decency and fair play that I am, I used that to gut Death Ghost again.

Then I held the collar up high and yelled at the top of my lungs, “GLADIATORS! GET INTO THE RING NOW! The Hard Light blocks the collars!”

I am gratified that the rest of the Cannons came running, and Wardance, Starblaze, Thundergun, Glitter and a couple others were also making tracks. Suzy was there almost immediately. Okay, she would have been there before immediately, if not for that stupid cast. She got shuck of the collar, and promptly went back and fetched Marly from her place next to Madam Flabbergasted.

But Vicious hasn’t lasted this long by being a pushover. When Suzy went back for Ginny, who was still wrapping her head around the situation, Vicious let off one of her green blasts. She pegged Suzy who went down for a moment. But Vicious lashed out and grabbed Ginny and got her in a headlock. Then she stood up and held her crop up high, her thumb poised over the pommel, where the control was (we guess). “STOP!” she screamed in a high, heavily Mittle European accented voice. “ANY OF YOU MOVE, AND YOU LOSE YOUR HEADS!” That stopped the Gladiators who hadn’t gotten to the ring yet, and a bunch that had but were still getting those damn collars off. “Now,” she hissed, looking around at the situation that she was still in control of, but only by her fingernails, “if you don’t want me to blow the heads off of EVERYONE, you’re going to put those dammt collars back ON, like the good little SLAVES that you are!”

“Slavery’s been abolished, Vicious!” came a loud clear voice from the audience. A guy with a mustache and mirrored shades, dressed all in black- but not the yahoo who’d been rats-assing us from the front seats- stood up and held out a handset. As Vicious tried to figure out what the hell HE was about, he pressed a plunger-

- and ALL the collars, even the ones around Ginny and Yvonne’s necks, just fell off. “Haven’t you heard?” He finished in a smug voice.

And the place fucking exploded.

The pillars around Ring A popped up, and all the machine guns dropped down. The pillars shot first, but Chris did something to the hard light, and the ‘background’ wrapped around us. It deflected the lasers (or masers or plasma or whatever they were using) up so that it sliced the HMGs off their mounts before they could load their first round. Workshop jumped on the HMGs as soon as they dropped, and before you could say ‘Rambo’, he’d done something to their firing mechanism, so they were now man-operable weapons- IF you happened to be able to lift over a ton. Which Mack, Eddie, Rachel, ‘Deathwatch’, Stonefist and Backbreaker could. Hefting the gun with over 4000 rounds in cylindrical magazines with one hand, Eddie cooed and said, “This is just… COOL!”

In the meantime the rest of them were taking out the pillars as quickly as they could. As for me, I raced Star Witch for her staff, and beat her to the punch. Or at least the staff. I didn’t beat Wardance to the punch; she took Star Witch out with a nasty combination. The staff sort of telescoped into itself, going from something that was at least 6 feet long to a little over a foot. Useful.

I ran my hexblade through the staff; either the staff will do something for the hexblade, or the hexblade will trash the staff. Either way works for me. It was doing something… what, I had no idea.

Of course, while I was doing this, there was a small war going on around me. Besides Vicious and her armed and armored guards, there were a bunch of ‘special guest gladiators’, who weren’t very happy that they’d paid 50 thou per to attend a slave revolt.

Oh, and there were those four guys out in the spectator’s seats, who I just recognized as the assholes we’d mixed it up at Treasure Island and killed Rick. Oh, Crap, they were the also the creeps we fought in San Francisco, who beat the crap out of ME! Looking around, I spotted that the sleaze in black had blasted down the restraining wall. They got us flanked!

Mack tried to step up and be the big leader. “LOOK, if we hang together-”But Nightwitch cut him off by straddling her staff and shooting up over the restraining wall. A couple of the guards tried shooting at her, but what few got near her just bounced off a PK force field (I’m assuming). And from that point, the rest of the Gladiators showed what they were made of by making an ‘every man for himself’ break for freedom. A handful- Wardance, Black Beetle, Workshop, Thundergun, Blood Witch, Diamond Girl, Vibrex, Glitter, Starblaze and Iron Tiger- hung tough with us, but the rest threw us under the bus, figuring that Vicious would focus on us, being both easier and more dangerous targets.

Chris used the hard-light to create a dome around us, but the dome would be a lot weaker than a simple wall. And even then that would only last as long as Vicious’ technicians kept it up.

Then behind us there was the sound of a fight, and there was another guy with a cheesy mustache wearing all black- yeah, right, he was the one who’d released all the collars!- but he was mixing it up with Sleazeball’s crew, and doing a very good job of mopping up the place with them. Then there was a crash- no, two of them, and from two separate doors, teams of heavily armed and armored troops came busting in. They charged through the screaming spectators as they stampeded for the exits, and started performing bounding relays to take positions and cover for each other. “TAKE OUT VICIOUS!” the non-sleazeball in black yelled.

Vicious’ response to that was to grab Yvonne and pull her over to form a double hostage barrier along with Ginny. But then Vicious flipped a cover on one of the arms of her chair and slapped a button, and the chair did a weird ‘expanding and imploding bulb’ move, and when the distortion resolved itself, the chair was gone, and so were Vicious, Ginny and Yvonne.

“GINNY!” Eddie roared and grabbed one of the swing-blades. He charged into the mass of supervillains, gun blazing and blade swinging. Let’s just say that it wasn’t pretty, and leave it at that?

When the mayhem died down, Eddie was squatting in the middle of a pile of thoroughly brutalized supervillains at maybe 30 feet tall, peeling the armor off one of Vicious’ guards like an orange. “WHERE?” he asked in the tone of totally out of patience, “DID? THAT? BITCH? VICIOUS? TAKE? HER?” By the word ‘her’, the guard was completely shelled, and Eddie was starting to bend him backwards.

“I dunno!” the guard screamed, “She never told us about that! She never tells us ANYTHING!”

EDDIE!” Marly snapped, running up to him. “He’s telling the truth! And Ginny’s okay- scared shitless, but okay.”

Eddie gave her a thundering glare, but nodded and threw the guard against the nearest wall, like he was throwing away a piece of trash. The guard hit the wall hard, slid to the floor, and didn’t move.

Mr. Mystery opened up a gate in the restraining wall and dropped a stairs for us. “Come On! We don’t have a lot of time!” Okay, I don’t know what he’s doing, but he’s making a lot of sense so far.

“But GINNY!” Eddie argued.

“We’re ON it!” Mr. Mystery said. As we hurried through the gate, Mr. Mystery tossed Wardance a small plastic bottle, the contents of which she dry-swallowed.

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Multivitamins, and a mega-dose of Vitamin D,” she explained. “I’ve been down here for months, and I haven’t seen sunlight in way too long.”

“Wait a minute!” Mack objected –though, like the rest of us, he didn’t slow down in the least- “Who ARE you people? What’s going ON?”

Mr. Mystery didn’t slow down, but he gave an amused snort. “How quickly they forget.” He stripped off his glasses, the tacky mustache and nose prosthesis.

“BRIGAND? What the fuck?”

“LATER,” he said severely as we rushed down a hallway, to where a much smaller, slighter figure in full-figure body armor was standing beside a door.

Oh, and another much, much smaller figure. “SPARKY!” Suzy gleeped as the Mutt Wonder himself jumped up into her arms and started covering her face with sloppy doggy kisses.

The smaller figure pushed a button on the keypad beside the door, and two 3-man teams went in. There was the sound of vigorous hand-to-hand combat, but no gunfire. Looking calmly at Sparky, Brigand commented, “That is one DAMN smart dog. He’s been looking for you kids ever since I dropped you off with Vicious, and he led my own search team right here. He even guided one of my squads here tonight.”

“Okay, and while we’re on the topic: WHY did you SELL us to Vicious?” Mack demanded, his face maybe an inch from Brigand’s.

Brigand gently pushed him away with one finger for a little personal space and calmly responded, “I had FOUR very good reasons, if you’ll hold off long enough to hear them.

“First, THIS is what I’ve been looking for, here in Las Vegas. Vicious’ death matches. That room is the cash room for the betting office. Y’see, besides providing sadistic thrills for the high rollers and high-end betting, Vicious provides a neat little money laundering service, specializing in payoffs for corrupt government officials at almost every level. Besides organized crime, she offers this service to various secret crime organizations, terrorists, and some very nasty secret societies, a few of which I am keenly interested in learning as much as I can about. And since Gangsters are as devoted as accountants regarding accurate counts of the take, the records we’ll find in there should give me a big leg up on my hunt for those secret societies.”

“You planted us in here, so you’d have heavy backup already inside?” I asked. “Then why didn’t you TELL us, fer the luvva GOD?”

“SECOND,” Brigand resumed, “while she’s gone to a lot of trouble to cover it up, when she first started as a supervillain, back in 1963-”

“1963?” Billy asked with a sick voice. “You mean Madam Vicious is over SIXTY years old?”

“Closer to Seventy,” Brigand sighed, “her dossier says that it’s believed that she was a 8-year-old war orphan in Vienna following WWII.” Billy, Eddie and Iron Tiger all made squicked noises. “Anyway, when she started in 1963, Madam Vicious openly admitted that she was a TELEPATH, and used that to play mind games with her opposition. Then she figured out that she could be a lot more effective if she was on the down-low about that, so on her next capers, she bitched about how she’d lost her telepathy- no doubt, while she was using it left and right- and just never brought up the topic again. While building up a reputation as a very clever and savvy master criminal type.”

“Yeah, well, Vicious hates to miss a trick,” I groused. “So that bit about turning Marly or Ginny traitor was just one more string on her bow of mindfuck, hah?” I glared at Wardance. “And why didn’t you tell Draconis about that?”

Wardance shrugged. “I couldn’t. I gave Draconis- and YOU- tons of hints that it was a bad idea, but you were all so eager to get out that you weren’t listening.” She sighed, “AND, I figured that my tips and hints on how to beat the crap out of Death Ghost would have kept her alive, at least until this match.” She let out an aggrieved sigh, which is the closest to genuine grief that I think I’ll ever see out of Wardance.

“And your escape attempt wasn’t a complete failure,” Brigand said. “When you gave Irena here,” he cocked a thumb at Wardance, “the codes for the collars that you’d thrashed out, she passed them along to me.”

“Passed them along? HOW?”

“Hand signals.”

“HOW? We’re talking Megabytes of Code! How do you stealth hand-signal megabytes of computer code over a webcast?”

“Do you really expect me to tell you?” Brigand smirked. “I want to be able use that gambit again. Anyway, that’s why I couldn’t tell you. Vicious needed to think that I’d just sold you out, and I needed a Casus Belli to act against Vicious. I hold to the Code of the Honorable Outlaw, and I needed Vicious to go back on the deal we cut for you all- which she obligingly did.

“Third, directly involves all of YOU kids. Look, I can’t be there for you after this, and the best thing that I could do for you after you leave Las Vegas is to arrange some very hard-knocks level training in fighting and staying alive. And after the fiasco at Buccaneer Bay, you needed a place to lay very LOW, while I arranged for your ticket out of Nevada. So, I managed to fold my two agendas together very neatly. The Mob thinks you’re as good as dead, you got some serious training in how to fight, and most importantly, I think that you kids have learned a valuable lesson: namely, that this is for REAL.
You can get KILLED if you run around like chickens with your heads cut off!

“Fourth- and this is the real kicker- it was the best thing that I could come up with on the spur of the moment. When Blackheart- that’s him over there- killed your buddy Rick at Treasure Island, they took his body- and his backpack- with them. Say what you want about the Mob, they are VERY good at finding people. I was barely able to get you kids out of that hotel before Blackheart and his crew came kicking in your door. Hiding you at that storage yard was strictly stopgap. And even then, the people over at Straylight were getting very suspicious of us. I know that it sounds harsh, but with the way that Vegas was at the time, having you guys stashed away here was the safest thing I could come up with!”

“That’s still fuckin’ COLD,” Rae snarled.

“TELL me about it!” said the slight figure who’d opened the locked door walked back out, holding armfuls of paper bags. She removed her helmet.

“MEGAN!”

“Yep!” she gave me a big ‘thank god your alive’ hug and then passed out hugs to the others. Then she handed me one of the paper bags. It was full of cash. “I opened the safe while the guys were taking out the bean-counters. These should have about 100 K each, which will go a long way towards greasing things over on our way… to Denver.”

“Y’know, Meg, there’s still a place for you in my organization,” Brigand said temptingly.

“Sorry, Mr. Brigand, but you play too hardball,” Meg said. “At least with these guys, when we get where we’re going, we can stop running and live our lives. You? You’re a nice guy, Brigand… but you’re gonna be on the run for the rest of your life. I want a chance to sit down and figure out what I want to do, not what’s forced down my throat by circumstance.”

Brigand made a ‘pity’ noise, but perked up when one of his men handed him a leather satchel, which I assume were full of the betting office’s records- written on flash paper.

“Okay, so much for that,” Brigand said. “NOW we get around to tracking down your girlfriend, Link,” he said to Eddie. He pulled out a cell phone and flipped it open. “Summer-” he started, but then his eyes popped and the smug slid completely off his face. “ooohhh… _fuck_”

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DANICA HANSON

“Hello, Therese? Danica. Get Elvis and Loreen over to the Xanadu Resort, STAT. Tell Loreen to bring a videocam with her. Elvis is with Brett? Fuck. Montoya? nnnrrggg… If Montoya asks, I’ve got a KoP Knight Commander pushing around a bunch *ahem!* ‘Death Match Gladiators’, the bogus Pro-Wresting type, trying to rattle their cages about the real thing. Like Vegas Metro hasn’t been doing that for years. But something’s going down. McD says something’s wrong at the Xanadu, and I’m with him. And I think I just figured out what it is: There’s like TWO security guards covering the casino. Where are the rest of them? Therese, get Loreen and Elvis here, and if he has to bring ‘Mister Gloryhog’… well that’s the way the cookie crumbles.”

Danica let out a martyred sigh and hung up. Well that was the way the cookie crumbled. If nothing happened, Brett would beat her over the head with it for a week; if anything happened, he’d try to hog as much of the spotlight as he could. But the alternative would be to try and handle it with only one camera, and she’d had more than enough of that crap at Buccaneer Bay. She watched Swive hector one of the ‘gladiators’, who were hanging out in their fighting togs, letting the guests see them and possibly get het up about the matches. ‘Well, Swive was doing a pretty good ‘Bad Cop’, Danica thought to herself; ‘let’s see how good a ‘Good Cop’ I can be.’

Looking over the available pigeons, Danica dismissed both Lady Lancelot and Tempest; they were both pretty stock Las Vegas bombshells. And in her experience, the last thing that a beautiful woman who depended on being beautiful wanted was to let her hair down with another beautiful woman. Buck Starr, the bogus ‘Cowboy Hero’? Nah, she had him pegged as a womanizing horndog. Trying to get close to him would only go off on an all-too predictable tangent that she couldn’t afford at the moment. She couldn’t see enough of either the Human Laser or Cyber-Samurai to read their reactions, which was what she needed. Blackskull obviously dug being a ‘bad boy’ too much. But Gigantic? Now he struck her as maybe not prime chump roast, but still a nice slice of beefcake.

Gigantic immediately trotted out the ‘It’s all staged, we’re not real-life supervillains picking up a paycheck between rampages, yada yada yada’, line. But he didn’t sell it very well. Or, more to the point, he tried to sell it too hard, which pricked up Danica’s ears something fierce. When she asked about the lack of Security guards, Gigantic tried to cover it by saying that the gladiators were covering for the usual guys.

Oh, there was SO something going on. Danica just hoped and prayed that Elvis and Loreen got there before the shit hit the fan.

Then the shit hit the fan.

A woman dressed as some sort of witch, wearing the stock black hooded cloak (albeit with a nice purple trim) over a spider-webby gown with a purple satin corset, seemed to pop out of nowhere on a broom? No, staff. The cloak was closed by a clasp with a large purple crystal, and the staff she was riding like a broom was also capped by a purple crystal. The woman let out a barbaric yawp of victory, and then dived down to one of the carts that was collecting cash from the various tables to be deposited in the accounting office. She shoved the security guard aside with a sparkling hand, sending him flying. She opened the hatch of the cart, which had serious locks on it, and yanked out three canvas bags, each of which would have anywhere between 10 and 30 thousand in it.

“What are you doing, just standing there?” demanded one of the regular Security guards, “STOP HER!” But the Human Laser was powered down (SOP, for safety), and Buck Starr wasn’t hitting for shit.

The woman, who Danica recognized as one of the Real Death Match gladiators (she wasn’t clear on her name), lifted off. “McD! GET this!”

“On it!” McD said. “You just do your thing!”

Danica remembered her cell phone, hit the ultra to synch it to McD’s camera and started talking: “This is Danica Hanson, for HeroWatch, at the Xanadu resort in Las Vegas! A woman who I recognize as one of the slave gladiators for the infamous Real Mutant Death Matches has somehow shown up in casino of the Xanadu resort! She just stole bags of cash that I estimate to be worth at least 50 thousand dollars! The In-House Gladiators are trying to stop her, but she’s out of Lady Lancelot’s reach, Buck Starr doesn’t seem to be able to hit her, and Tempest is holding back out of concern for the resort guests. And there goes Knights of Purity Knight-Commander Vernon Swive and his aide-de-camp, I’m not sure what they intend. Now the Witch is making it ever harder for the Gladiators, by levitating cards, chips, coins, whatever she can lift in a spinning cloud of confusion. But Gigantic has found a place where he can grow to his full 35-foot height. Gigantic is moving in on this witch, being very careful of the guests who haven’t been able to get out of the way. But the Witch just blasted him with her sparkles, and Gigantic doesn’t seem to like it. He wobbling, trying to keep his footing and-

-and down he goes. Gigantic isn’t unconscious, but he’s out of the fight for the moment. Cyber-Samuari has gotten the hang of the swirling cloud of debris and is getting himself prepped for one of his trademark jumping sword-strikes… but the Witch just headed for the front doors, and blasted them open. She is OUT of here!”

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NIGHTWITCH

Molly rose up into the neon-lit night sky. She had NO IDEA as to how the hell she got to Las Vegas… but who gives a shit? She was FREE! After weeks of constantly being afraid that some freak was going to rip her heart out, or that bitch Vicious was going to blow her head off for shits and giggles, she was FREE!

She’d grabbed all the cash pretty much on sheer reflex. She had only the vaguest idea as to where she was, she didn’t have anywhere to go, but she had money, and she was FREE! She wasn’t going to die, just for the amusement of a pack of sadistic creeps! Molly let out a loud joyous laugh that was almost, but not quite a cackle.

She could get back to her life- what there was left of it, lay low, and use the money in those bags to get back to something like sanity. She’d live a nice, quiet, peaceful life.

AFTER she found that lying, cheating, back-stabbing, good-for-nothing, lazy, sociopath compulsive gambler Brother of hers! The one who sold her to the fucking gangsters who’d sold her to that bitch Vicious! The house and the car were probably already gone- he’d probably taken out as many loans as he could in her name, just for a few more nights sitting at the fucking card parlor. But she’d find him. And then, promise to their mother or no promise, she’d reduce him to a red smear. And THEN she’d get back to a nice, normal, SANE life!

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DANICA

“Well, the Nightwitch is gone, and there’s nothing to do but- OH CRAP!” Danica was cut off as a man in a lurid green-and-white speedsuit with a speed-skater’s helmet trimmed with a skull mask zoomed through the casino. Where Nightwitch had gone for a single, juicy target, this one sped all around the casino, taking in every loose dollar he could find. Oh, and he rummaged around in the collections cart for another bag as well.

By this time, the Human Laser was charged up, but Tempest stepped in front of him. “NO! The guests!”

“The Xanadu Gladiators are doing their best to nail down this renegade gladiator, whom I recognize as ‘Deathrace’, also from the notorious ‘Real Mutant Death Matches’, but they’re putting a premium on protecting the guests. Deathrace appears to be from a harsher school, as he’s blatantly exploiting the cover provided by the guests. But the Gladiators-

“HOLY CRAP! There’s a frickin’ Sleestak in the casino! er, A humanoid reptilian in vaguely Greco-Roman bronze armor has appeared and is tearing into Buck Starr! No, wait a minute, he’s put Buck aside and now he’s tearing into the casino’s buffet!

“And now a woman who is literally on fire is running through the casino. Man, Family Standards is gonna have a field day with this footage….

“GUNFIRE! We have Gunfire in the casino! Give me a second… yes, I can see them. Two very large men, one in a sleeveless unitard that looks like uncut stone, and another in a black-leather-with-silver-cyberware outfit, both carrying what look to be heavy machine guns are holding down the Xanadu security officers and the Xanadu gladiators with gunfire. And now, more of what I’m guessing are gladiators from the Real Mutant Death Matches, are going for the main gates and-

“Omigawd, McD! GET this! Standing at the doors! It’s the Knights of Purity! Knight-Commander Swive has come with the cavalry!”

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STONEFIST

Stonefist looked around the table he was using as cover at the sight at the door. Five large figures in white cerametal compound armor stood in position with a sixth behind them. A voice spoke through the PA systems in all of the suits, blaring out, “WE are the KNIGHTS of PURITY! This is a CLEAR and PRESENT danger to unarmed civilians! Terrorists! If you put down your weapons and surrender now, you will be taken into custody unharmed! But if you resist, and persist in endangering civilian lives, we have grounds to use whatever force is necessary to bring you to JUSTICE!”

“CRAP,” Stonefist said in a flat disgusted voice. “Y’think we can trust them to not just shoot us down, Marty?”

“Are you kidding?” Backbreaker hissed. “You remember what they did to me?”

And Stonefist remembered. It was Marty’s big story, about how he’d manifested as a mutant, and got recruited by a street-level crime gang. And how his boss had pretty much fed Marty to the KoP so he (the Boss) could get away. And how the KoP had made Marty the same offer, and just shot him to hell anyway. About how he’d barely gotten away alive, and crawled to a black clinic he knew of. And how the clinic had saved his life, but had loaded him down with more cyberware than he knew what to do with, let alone wanted. And how that clinic had, to pay for gear he never ASKED for, sold him to the death matches. To be honest, it had gotten kind of boring for Stonefist to listen to this. But now, it was FAR too real and pertinent to him. “So, y’think we should just, y’know, make a break for it?”

Then a man in a red-and brown near-copy of Wolverine’s outfit bounced over them and tried to achieve a runaround the Knights. He took three rounds, which staggered him. The ‘Batter’ caught him with that club, which set him up for the ‘Runner’, who body-checked Mad Dog into the clutching arms of the ‘Catcher’. “So much for that,” Stonefist sighed. “Let’s try a retreat into the resort, using staggered reinforcing rebounds.”

“That’s playing their game, by their rules!” Backbreaker snarled. “And they’re BETTER at this Small Ops crap than we are!”

“Oh crap, the gladiators?” Stonefist yelped.

“What about the others? They’re probably trying to find a hole they can squeeze through!”

“Not OUR gladiators, THEIR gladiators!” And sure enough, when Backbreaker looked, the ‘gladiators’ in their Disney Channel super suits were squaring up to take them from behind, and probably screw the Knights out of a little glory. But then Techno-Demon loomed up out of the depths of the Xanadu like Chernobog out of the mountain in Fantasia. He grabbed Cyber-Samurai from behind and smashed him into the back of Gigantic’s head, and it was all downhill for the home team from there. Techno-Demon put them down with quick and brutal efficiency. Then with a fulminating fury (that probably just rocked on the footage that camera guy was getting), Techno-Demon stalked towards the Knights. The Pitcher opened up with a blaster, but only got knocked out of the air with a slot machine that Techno-Demon ripped off its base and chucked at him. The Runner tried to trip him up, but only got knocked half-way through a wall for his troubles. Then the Batter stepped up, and the fight got serious. As the Batter managed to hold his own, the Shortstop unlimbered a pair of electroshock prods and built up a charge. The Pitcher and Runner each grabbed a prod and waited for their opening. The Runner managed to catch one of the metallic horns and attached one prod. The Pitcher attached the other prod to the steel brace for one knee. Then the Runner attached an unwinding power cord to a major power transformer for the light show. There was a moment as the Shortstop built up a charge, and then over 450 kilowatts coursed through Techno-Demon’s body.

And even then, Techno-Demon didn’t drop, or give up. He shook his head, and then spread his wings and roared insane defiance. So, the Knights switched over to the .30 caliber machine guns they carried as backups and opened fire, all six of them. Techno-Demon just waded through the heavy gunfire, and swatted with futility as the guns tore away at his hated, ‘augmented’, ‘upgraded’, ‘improved’, ‘weaponized’ body.

Until finally he dropped.

Of course, by this time, both Backbreaker and Stonefist had managed to use that distraction to get past Security to a corridor that they were reasonably sure would get them out of the resort, or at least out of the casino. Looking back, Backbreaker said, “Y’know, TD may be a headcase, but he is, er, WAS a better fighter than THAT.”

“And?” Stonefist said as he kicked a hole through a corridor wall, just because he didn’t trust obvious exits. “You’re surprised? You know what he was like after Vicious made him kill Daisy. And when he ripped Ogre apart, he killed the only person on this planet who gave a rat’s ass about him.”

“Still, it puts a whole new spin on ‘Suicide by KoP’.”

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DANICA

Danica didn’t care if it was practically a commercial for the KoP. That footage ROCKED!

“KNIGHTS!” Swive’s voice boomed out, “Secure the area! Xanadu Security and… otherwise… personnel, escort the civilians to safety! The situation is dangerous, and until official Law Enforcement personnel show up, the Knights of Purity are stepping in to prevent any more threats, and to capture any remaining meta-human threats!

“As for the rest of you super-powered PUNKS out there, we have this exit covered, the MCO and Las Vegas Police and other emergency responders have been alerted and are on their way! Surrender NOW. This is your last chance!”

“Was… that supposed to be intimidating, or something?” sneered a deep but feminine voice that came from off to the side.

Danica turned and whispered, “McD, GET this!”

The speaker was a tall, even by Las Vegas showgirl standards, statuesque redheaded woman in a red high-collar miniskirt with white boots and a general sense of ‘I’m here to kick ass and chew bubblegum, and I’m all out of bubblegum’. “I am MAGNA, ROBOT-KILLER!” she announced. Eight other figures stepped forward to back her up: a man in a very efficient looking covert-ops rig with only a black wolf mask as an ornament, a muscular man in a sleeveless black bodysuit toting around a very large trident, a pale going on white muscular man working a more ‘Vampire Lord’ motif, an Asian woman in a lustrous black strapless bodysuit, a very large guy in a glassy green cybersuit with a featureless steel helmet, a man in, well, a bird suit, a man in Romanesque combination of white linen and brown leather with an odd pair of bracers, and a guy wearing what you might call a ‘cyber-gladiator’ outfit. “I came here to kill that punk Robo-Thug…” ‘Magna’ sneered. “But you tin-can pissants will just have to do.”

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EVAN

“The Knights of Purity are at the casino, and that bunch of your fellow gladiators who lit out are in a stand-down with them,”Brigand said with a ‘wtf?’ look on his face.

“Wait a minute!” Mack cut in, “‘Casino’? There’s a CASINO up there? What’s a CASINO doing out in the middle of the desert?”

“The same as the rest of Las Vegas, raking in the cash by the barrel load,” Brigand said. “Vicious’ big sneaky secret is that her disgustingly well-hidden base isn’t out somewhere in the desert, it’s right under Las Vegas, specifically under the Xanadu Resort, which was completed less than two months after Vicious’ first match. That’s what I was doing at the Discards auction and Buccaneer Bay- I was trying to nail down how Vicious got her ‘special guests’ and spectators here and back without anyone following them. I still don’t know how- the only reason I got my troops down here is that dog of yours.” Sparky just gave a ‘well YEAH’ woof.

“YOU MEAN,” Glitter almost screamed, but then choked it back, “you mean, we could have just LEFT at any time?”

“What can I say? Vicious hates to miss a trick,” Brigand said with a shrug. “It’s a lot more involved than that. And speaking of Vicious, she’s got to be in full flight mode at the moment. Unfortunately, those idiots upstairs are holding a full-fledged firefight with Swive and the KoP right at the exit point!”

“Swive?” I cut in. “Swive’s up there?”

“Yeah, from what Summer tells me, he’s in the thick of the battle, and doing a very good job of shooting up the place on live TV, and looking like a hero while he’s doing it.”

“If I had that dyna-gem, or any of the UNITY toys we had, I could lure Swive away,” I said.

Megan made a happy noise, and pulled a case out of a satchel she was carrying. In the case were the four dyna-gems. Taking the gravity gem, I said, “And the UNITY devices?”

One of Brigand’s guys produced a case, which had the UNITY devices in their trademark white boxes with only the cryptic logos. “You’re just giving us these back?”

“It’s tempting,” Brigand said. “But when you shave it as close as I have on this one, it behooves you to make a show of good faith, both for you kids, and my own people… and to be honest, for myself.”

“Okay, far be it from me to complain about abject shows of honesty,” I said. “Gimme one of the Psychic Invisibility dingbobs, a Force Field dingie and a cell phone. I don’t wanna do this, but the sooner we get out of this hole, the sooner I can have a claustrophobic breakdown.”

“Hey, what about ME?” Suzy asked, “Even with this cast, I can still run rings around those yoyos!”

“Yeah, but there are three things wrong with that idea, Suze,” I said. “First, you’re so fast, they won’t bother chasing you. Second, if you take a single spill at the speeds you’ll be traveling, one SINGLE accident, and you’re helpless. And third, Swive won’t bother chasing you. BUT he will chase ME.”

“Why you?” Brigand asked.

“Because, back in Sacramento, I scared him. I really put the fear of God into him.”

Brigand raised an eyebrow. “And Swive’s the sort to hold that against you?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t as big a thing for him as covering up the fact that he shot Shawn Turner in the back,” I said.

Then Brigand got a strange look on his face and touched his ear. “Summer says that the two guys who were holding off Swive and his knights have shown something curiously like common sense and broken off. But a bunch of the ‘Special Guest Gladiators’ are facing off against the Knights now. From what Summer said, there are even a couple of the escapees, who you’d think would be heading for the hills, backing up the Guest Gladiators!”

“Five will get you twenty, one of them is Spartacus,” Wardance drawled in a tired voice. “Sparty always did take the whole ‘Gladiator’ thing way too seriously.”

“Are they mixing it up yet?” I asked.

“Tearing up the place.”

“Perfect! Gimme the gizmos, and I’ll get my Bugs Bunny on!”

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McDANIELS

“Loreen, get over there and start shooting,” Danica ordered.

“Are you fucking KIDDING?” Loreen gasped. Loreen had degrees in History and Journalism, not Cinematic Arts. She was a researcher and puzzle-solver for HeroWatch, not a camera dog, and she was painfully aware of it.

“Okay, McD, get over there, both sides are regrouping and the angle should be killer.” McDaniels nodded and scurried for the filming spot. He lived for these tense, go for the gold moments. And besides, whatever else she might be, Danica had a good eye for these things; the angle would be a killer. As he set up his camera, McDaniels noted that the Knights looked significantly worse for the wear. That ‘Magna’ chick may have had a hate on for robots, but she was absolute murder on power armor as well. On the flip side, the Knights were a team, and while they had a rep for not being very effective against targets they didn’t have backgrounds and analyses for, they were still kicking some serious ass. And the other side was quite pointedly NOT a team; the Knights had done an excellent job of getting the Supervils to get in each other’s way. The glitzy black-energy chick in the fetish fuel bodysuit and the merc-looking guy with the wolfshead had taken advantage of the chaos and split, but the remaining seven supervils were hanging tough. If anything, McDaniels got the impression that they were working it for the camera.

Then, as he swept his viewfinder over the gathered supervillains, the big goth guy, who’d told everyone who’d listen that his name was Vivamort, the Vampire King, (and did everything but spell it for them) spotted McDaniels, and hissed into the camera. And McD was sure they were working it.

Then a beam of pale purple energy came out of left field, hitting ‘Voldemort’ or ‘Vivalasvegas’ or whatever, square in the chest and knocking him for a loop. Everyone, McD included, turned to the source of the blast. McD got a great shot of a hawt slinky teenage chick in a red biker jacket with a bunch of steel do-dads on it, with a bushy ‘Joan Jett’ hairdo and a major snotwad ‘tood, who was straddling a muscled-out motorcycle. She gave everyone a big ‘I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation’ sneer, and shouted so loud that Elvis could have heard it, “HEY! SWIVE!” Then she gave Swive (and everyone else in the viewing world) a big One-Fingered Salute, which that white gauntlet she was wearing made stand out.

She revved up the motorcycle, did a donut and peeled through the casino and out the portico into the Outdoor Recreation part of the resort.

“GO! GET HER!” Swive thundered, “Forget those nobodies, SHE’S the one we have the contract for!”

The rest of the supervillains sort of stood there, torn between making a clean getaway and ‘Nobodies? Did he just call us Nobodies?’ But the big green goober, the guy who called himself ‘Synturion’ yelled, “NO! That smartass little bitch is MINE!” He hunched over in her general direction, the metallic pack on his back fired up, and he jetted after her. “

“What are you waiting for?” Swive demanded, “Let’s go GET her!” The Pitcher and the Runner went off in the same direction, and the rest sprinted after them at a speed that put the lie to the ‘slow lumbering power armor’ image. McD may not have had a souped-up bike or a jetpack or any of those things, but he was more than willing to burn burritos to keep up and get some of the killer footage that he just knew was bobbing to the surface.

There was a ton of bullshit connected to it, but there were times when McD loved his job.

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CHRIS

Wardance tisked, “Crude, crass and juvenile.”

Brigand nodded, but pointed out, “But effective.”

Wardance nodded, “True.”

But the four of the ‘Special Guest Gladiators’ (plus Retarius and Spartacus), were all just standing there going, ‘So, what do YOU want to do, Marty?’ Brigand, Mack, and a fourth guy on Brigand’s team whose name Chris never caught, all had one of those silent but very communicative conversations with just expressions. It was decided: given the number of people that they’d be moving through that area, psi-gadgets or no psi-gadgets, the odds were that at least one of those clowns would spot them. And then it was on. So, get them while they were confused, and get it over with.

Silently Mack looked at Billy, pointed at the two big guys holding things in their hands, and mimed taking something from a hand. Billy nodded, went low and crept forward, blending into the rubble of the lobby. Then he sent out all four of his tentacles, two toward the big Vampire guy and the other two at the guy in the Heavy Metal wetsuit. One set grabbed the vampire-guy’s ‘scepter’ (or whatever) and the other two grabbed the Trident. Billy managed to snatch both the dinguses away from their owners. Billy pulled them to himself, and tossed the trident to Mack. Marly zotzed the big redhead with the ‘Hypnosis’ gun, and Megan got the Bird-guy with the gadget that was supposed to induce dizziness and make it impossible to stay upright. The Wetsuit guy and the Vampire guy reflexively went to get their things, and they walked right into a dazzling burst of light from Chris.

As the two reacted to being blinded (the Vampire guy especially didn’t like it, and hammed it up bad), Mack, Rae and the Beetle stepped in. Mack took the Wetsuit guy, the Beetle took the Vampire-guy, and Rachel really tore into the big redhead. “Okay, you want to bite a piece out of me, bitch?” Rae snarled as she opened with a roundhouse to the jaw that would have decked a T-Rex. “Let’s see how you chew without any teeth!

It was fast, brutal and nasty. Vicious would have deplored the lack of any spectacular moves, and the minimum of bloodshed. When the Birdman went down, Wardance strolled over to Spartacus and Retarius, who were just standing there. She leaned into their faces and growled, “Piss Off.” They looked at each other, then looked at Wardance, and then at the pile of misery on the floor. Then they pissed off. After all, Hell, they were FREE.

Eddie shrank down to about 10 feet, giving up shielding Marly, Megan and Suzy with his body. “Okay, this is all just great,” he said in an impatient voice, “But what about GINNY?”

“She’s close,” Marly said. “She’s scared, and confused, and she’s trying to take care of Yvonne, who Vicious is fucking with for some reason.”

“Close,” Megan said, looking around, not really using her eyes. “But up on high.”

“Fun Fact:” Brigand said in a dangerously level voice, “no matter what you see on Star Trek, teleportation systems do very poorly unassisted through the air. They do far better through very sturdy dedicated power cables. Since running such a cable from the Xanadu to another resort would be both expensive and awkward, that suggests that going UP, to a suite or even a penthouse, where a receiving unit is set up, would be cheaper, safer and more expedient.”

“And HOW would Vicious get around hiding that from the owners of this resort?” Roxie asked.

Brigand smiled. “I happen to know that in her cover as Maria Sheffield, the trophy wife of construction mogul Brighton Sheffield, Madam Vicious is a ¼ owner of the Xanadu. She can have anything installed in this complex this side of an atomic bomb.”

“Makes sense,” Rae said. “There’s no way that Vicious would leave her prize slaves alone for very long. But that doesn’t mean that she’d settle for living like Colonel Klink. No, she’d have her very own palace up in the sky.”

“But we have to get up there quickly,” Wardance said. “She may not have another teleporter up there, but this place is too much like a James Bond movie set to not have an emergency escape plan. But we’ve only seen a handful of security and a few of the In-House Gladiators. Simple tactics says that she’s got them covering the stairs and the elevators. If only to slow us down while she packs her bags.”

Brigand smiled. “What? You’ve never seen the old Sixties Batman TV show?”

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BRETT CUMMINGS

“This is Brett Cummings for HeroWatch, LIVE in LAS VEGAS! I’m at the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department SWAT barricade for the northeast side of the besieged Xanadu Resort complex at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Tropicana Avenue, where our own Danica Hanson is reporting from inside. I’ll try to get a word with the SWAT commander on this section- wait, what’s that? Loreen?

“Commander! I’ve just received word from inside that someone’s trying to escape, coming this way at high speeds!”

Give him his due, the Honcho was sharp, and he gave a series of orders with the barest effort in words and gestures. The SWAT cordon snapped to and aimed a variety of firearms in the general direction of the Xanadu. A headlight came towards them, and there was the sound of a souped-up motorcycle revving. The SWAT honcho hit the incoming cyclist with a spotlight. “The SWAT commander has given the rider orders to stop his motorcycle and surrender, or his men will open fire,” Brett reported portentously into the camera.

But the ill-seen rider just flared his lights and gunned his engine toward the barricade. The SWAT honcho raised his hand, but at the very last second, the rider pulled his bike down into a skidding stop under the Police guns. But before the SWAT guns could react to that, a gleaming- steel and glassy-green figure rocketed over the prone cycle and slammed into the heavily reinforced car. “There is another combatant here,” Brett announced. “He is a massive brute wearing a green vitreous outfit with silver cybernetic printing, with brushed steel helmet and gauntlets and boots.” As though the viewing audience couldn’t see that. “This Cyber-Savage is tearing into the SWAT officers, ignoring-”

I! Am Not! Cyber-Savage!” the huge man broke off fighting the Police, and roared into Elvis’ camera, “I am Synturion the Living Weapon! I am here to destroy the Hexblade! I will annihilate her! I will eviscerate her! I will-”

“ah, Dude?” Elvis interrupted him. “You just missed her?” He pointed at the tail lights of the motorcycle as it hauled for the MGM Grand.

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CHRIS

Chris and Roxie flew up the side of the building on their flying disks (which Brigand had returned, along with Chris’ power gem). Mack, Glitter, Starblaze, Bloodwitch and Workshop flew on their own power. Billy, Iron Tiger and Wardance scaled the building at speeds that rivaled flight. But Brigand and the rest crowded onto a window-washer’s gurney, which was surprisingly fast for something so overloaded. The second the gurney got up to the penthouse, Vibrex touched the thick armored glass with his hand, shattering the glass and sending the shards into the penthouse. Using the reflex to see what had happened against them, Chris, Glitter and Starblaze sent dazzling bursts of light into the open area. Blood Witch flooded the area with a dense fog of her manifested ‘blood’, but almost immediately let it condense into a slick surface on the floor.

Unfortunately, while that last ploy may have been very effective against the predictable number of armed goons that Madam Vicious had stationed in her penthouse, it was far more effective against Eddie, who was the first off the gurney and into the fight. He thrashed around, trying to get his footing back, which neatly kept the others from entering the luxurious living area, even as he took five large caliber bullets. But Eddie was so furious that he couldn’t be bothered to complain about the pain.

Mack swooped over Eddie’s body and took heavy machine gun fire as he took in the tactical situation. There were at least a dozen men dressed as Xanadu Resorts security carrying personal energy weapons, 8 or 9 more men in Vicious’ own power armor carrying heavier energy weapons, 4 drop-down heavy machine guns, and 3 very familiar pop-up pillars that Mack suspected were warming up. Ignoring the heavy machine guns, which hurt like thrown baseballs, but at least weren’t blowing holes in him, Mack opened up with his own HMG on one of the pillars. But he only wasted maybe 50 or 60 rounds on their armored carapaces. “ENERGY WEAPONS!” he yelled back. “LOTS of Energy Weapons!”

Brigand slapped Vibrex on the shoulder, and then, looking intently at Blood Witch, pointed at the opposition. Vibrex sent a vibrational burst at one of the pillars, which caused it to give out the magic blue smoke. Blood Witch sent out another wave of blood-mist, which only lasted long enough for Wardance, Iron Tiger and Workshop to break past and get behind their line of fire. Wardance went at the ‘security guards’ with enthusiasm and Iron Tiger kept the power armor units off balance as Workshop did strange and unkind things to the armor units themselves.

“Marly!” Brigand yelled over the sounds of gunfire, “Are Ginny or Yvonne or Vicious here?”

“Yes!” Marly yelled back as she broke off from trying to figure out who she could zap with the hypnosis gun without making things worse. “They’re all here! And Vicious is pulling something!”

“I think I know what it is!” Brigand said, “But I don’t know enough about architecture, and the blueprints for this penthouse are complete hogwash! Megan! Can you find where a hidden hangar for some kind of airship would be on this floor?”

“How would I do THAT?” Megan yelled back. Brigand started to respond, but you could see Meg’s point sink in.

Then Eddie, with more bullets in him than John Dillinger, finally got his footing. He reached up and tore two of the heavy machine guns out of their brackets. The two remaining laser turrets opened fire, but Chris deflected them with ease. With that opening, Black Beetle and Rachel waded in and took out the laser turrets by the simple measure of tearing them out.

“Roxie!” Brigand commanded, “Find the main power box for this floor and trash it! Starblaze, Spotlight, find the elevators and stairwells! Blood Witch, go with them, and coat the stairs with your blood. The manifested kind, I mean.”

“Man Down!” Megan yelled. She was squatting over Glitter’s body. Glitter looked like she’d taken a few bullets to the chest and she was heaving badly. Vibrex was also down. Starblaze and Rachel had also taken wounds, but they were still combat ready. And Eddie was all shot full of holes, but they were closing up already.

Squid!” Brigand snapped, “Get the wounded down to the north terrace! I’ve got people with a stealth MASH unit ready there.”

Billy nodded and picked Glitter up, being as she was the most grievously wounded, and a lot more fun to hold onto. He fumbled with the vampire-guy’s stick, which he was still holding onto, but figured out his grip, took her up into his arms, and simply jumped out the window.

Vicious’ men were good, but Brigand had himself on one side of the battle line and Wardance on the other, and a handful of semi-trained metahumans who were good and PISSED. As the last of the opposition dropped, Brigand looked around anxiously. “Stay Sharp!” he said. “Vicious hasn’t stayed alive this long by not having a spare deck of cards up her sleeve! Even taken totally flat-footed, she’s got to have SOMETHING cooked up.”

“Of course, I do,” Madam Vicious’ gooey voice said from a door just off the living area. Madam Vicious stepped out with a pistol in one hand and her other hand on Yvonne’s shaven head. She had the pistol trained on Ginny, who was standing there, ashen-faced, with two bulky boxy cases in her hands. Chris didn’t need telepathy to know that Ginny was scared out of her mind.

“GINNY!” Eddie surged forward, but Vicious just quirked that smartass smirk on her face, and suddenly Chris felt like her brain was full of that ‘electronic snow’ that you see when a TV fries, complete with the grating hiss.

An unknown time later, Chris woke up with a weird aftertaste in her mouth, a tingling in her fingers and toes, a ringing in her ears, and a general sense of queasiness that she thought must be what a hangover was like.

When Chris came to, a timeless time later, there was an ear-piercing mechanical scream, and the ground was shaking like an earthquake. “She’s taking off!” someone screamed, barely audible over the racket.

“But she’ll kill her own men!” someone objected.

“Do you honestly think that she CARES?” a third person pointed out.

“SHIELDS!” Brigand’s voice carried over the screaming, “We need SHIELDS, and I don’t care where they came from!”

There was a general scrambling. Chris snapped to completely and dragged her flying disk to herself. Using that she created a force wall as wide and thick as she could between herself and the source of the noise. She saw Roxie doing the same with his disk, and she saw Workshop cobbling something together from the wreckage of one of the laser pillars.

Then the penthouse exploded.

When the debris settled and Chris could see, there was a truly amazing assortment of makeshift shields.

Where the bathtub came from, she had no idea.

Chris spotted Brigand standing at the edge of the floor, which was completely open to the Las Vegas skyline. “SHIT!” he screamed in the voice of exasperated frustration, a man who’d overcome incredible obstacles, only to lose in the very last seconds. An airship was wobbling in midair, as though getting its balance.

“Not a problem,” Workshop said, stepping up right next to Brigand. He raised up a knocked-together projector built around that big Trident that Mack had been carrying around. There was an electrical zap noise, and the trident shot out, trailing a cable behind it. The trident hit the engine cowling just above the right hind jet or thruster or lift thingie or whatever it was, and dug in.

“EDDIE!” Brigand snapped. Eddie didn’t need it spelled out for him. He grew as large as he could, grabbed onto the steel cable and sat down. He braced his legs against an exposed support beam each and pulled. The airship bucked like a hooked marlin. Not needing to be told, Chris launched out at the airship, with Mack and Roxie and Starblaze in close pursuit.

Chris blasted at the wing, but she was shocked, going on horrified, when the body of the aircraft separated and fell away from the entire wing-and-engine part. She was caught completely flat-footed until Brigand yelled at the top of his lungs, “DON’T LET IT FALL INTO THE POOL!”

Sure enough, there was a really BIG faux-natural pond swimming pool directly below, glowing in the darkness like some strange irregular jewel. But why not let it fall into the pool? A pool would make for a perfect landing place and-

-and that was exactly what Vicious was counting on. Chris had no idea what Vicious had up her slinky sleeve, but it had to be nasty. Chris, Mack and Starblaze dived for the falling pod and caught up with it. They weren’t able to get it away from the pool, but they shifted the drop into lateral motion so that it skipped three times, and then came to a rest on the ground about 5 feet from the edge of the pool.

When Chris landed near the escape pod, Brigand and the rest of the Cannons and Gladiators were with him. Chris had no idea how they all got down from the 60-story penthouse so quickly, especially Eddie. “Come on out, Vicious!” Brigand ordered, “You know what I want, so just give it to me, and I’ll let the Las Vegas Police deal with you! Otherwise, I just give you to any of the dozen people here who’d love to mash you into red paste!”

A door jumped off the escape pod as though blown off by explosives. “NEVER!” came Vicious’ voice, her normally almost unnoticeable Germanic accent now making her almost comic, if not for the concentrated hatred in her tone. “I always have something left for emergencies!” She appeared in the hatch of the escape pod, one hand on Yvonne’s head, and another holding a handset. Yvonne allowed Vicious to steer her around like a puppet. “And I have THREE,” Vicious said with a big leering grin of pure undiluted evil on her face. “I don’t care if I have to crush every last remaining thought in this little schvartze’s head to do it. I don’t care if I have to bring that shithole of a hotel down to do it! I’m-”

BAM!

Ginny came up from behind Vicious and nailed her in the back of her head with a champagne bottle. Vicious reeled and dropped both Yvonne and the handset. But Ginny was just getting started. With a look of blazing rage on her normally affable face, Ginny continued to bash in Vicious’ head and face, screaming only semi-coherently in snips about a long laundry list of snubs, insults and offenses, not the least of which was the whole ‘Big Gay Stonewall’ act.

Ginny battered away at Vicious, with no one willing (or possibly daring) to stop her. Finally, Eddie, down to 10 feet tall, grabbed her arm with the bottle in it, and lifted her off Vicious. Putting her down, Eddie said in a voice of pure adoration, “Baby, you’re the greatest.” Ginny gave a delighted squeak, her fury completely snuffed, and threw herself into Eddie’s arms.

Then Brigand broke it up, saying, “I love a happy ending as much as anyone, but we have things to take care of.” With a gesture to Wardance, he hurried into the escape pod. A moment later, he started handing out cases exactly like the two they’d seen Ginny carrying for Vicious.

“What’s this?” Mack asked. Even with his superior strength, he realized that each case had to weigh at least 100 pounds. It said something about the intense terror that Ginny had been in the grip of, that she’d been able to carry two of them.

“LATER,” Brigand said firmly. “Now, we get the hell out of here, before the Police- oh, that reminds me.” Brigand pulled a cell phone from his pocket, flipped it open and hit speed-dial. When he got an answer he said, “Okay, you can stop screwing around now. Meet us on the roof of the Walgreens at the corner of Las Vegas Boulevard and Harmon Avenue, next to the Harley Davidson Café.”

When the Cannons and Gladiators all looked at him with disbelieving eyes, Brigand said simply, “What? Everyone goes to Walgreens.”

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DANICA HANSON

“This is Danica Hanson, LIVE from the MGM Grand resort!The mutant killer known as the HEXBLADE, after evading the Knights of Purity, and blowing past a Las Vegas SWAT cordon- not to mention Brett Cummings- has entered the luxurious MGM Grand resort. Currently, she is trying to get away from LEO the LION, the MGM’s in-house superhero, and they are giving each other a truly memorable run for each other’s money.

“Toto, I don’t think we’re in Kansas anymore- thank GOD!”

“Let me guess- you love Rock ‘n Roll- and covering old songs without anything new of your own.”

“I’ll bet that you just can’t wait to be paid.”

“By the way, do you have your Elvis Impersonator’s Union card on you?”

“Puttem up, puttem UP!”

“I see you’ve studied your Agrippa!”

“Hey, Simba, I hear that Disney is saving your old outfit from the theme park for you!”

“Obi-Wan Kenobi called- you have no hope!”

“Will someone get this Walking Rug out of my way?”

“So, which Musketeer are you supposed to be? Athos, Porthos, or Annette?”

“Oh, if you only had the noive!”

There was a crash at the front doors. “OH!” Danica cooed, “The Knights of Purity have arrived, and they are loaded for BEAR!”

“HEY!” the Lion yelped, “You just trashed our front doors! And put those guns away! There are CIVILIANS here!”

“SURRENDER THE MUTANT!” Swive blared through the collected loud speakers.

“I thought that was ‘Surrender Dorothy’,” Hexblade muttered drolly.

“Get OUT of here!” the Lion roared (almost). “This is MY gig! You have no authority to come onto these premises without express permission!”

“Yeah, Swive,” Hexblade said pettishly. “We were having a perfectly civil duel to the death here, until YOU barged in and ruined it for everyone.”

“I will NOT let you idiots bring a small war into MY Turf!” the Lion growled.

“ah, Swive?” Hexblade gave the Knights a snarky grin. “Since this is Las Vegas, let me make you a wager…”

“This is very puzzling,” Danica murmured into McD’s camera. “The Hexblade is taking off her white glove. Now she’s licking her right thumb. Now she’s walking over to one of the walls. And now she’s… rolling her thumb on the mirror, leaving an excellent fingerprint on the pane. But why would she leave proof positive of her identity where the Police could get it?”

Then the Hexblade loudly addressed everyone, though she clearly was giving the camera precedence. “I’m willing to bet you a MILLION BUCKS that that fingerprint over there doesn’t survive for an hour! Well, Swive? You sport enough to cover my bet?”

There was no answer from the Knights of Purity. The Hexblade folded her arms over chest and grinned. “Tell you what, Swive: I’m willing to stand here and not put up a fight, as long as I’m arrested by Las Vegas PD or the FBI- and THAT FINGERPRINT right over there is checked on the DoD database.”

Very hesitantly, Swive stated, “You are not in a position to-”

“Hey Everybody!” Hexblade jeered loudly, “The Knights of Purity are willing to recklessly endanger innocent bystanders, rather than comply with accepted arrest procedures!”

Leo the Lion was standing there, looking with puzzled curiosity between the Hexblade, the Knights and that one blemish on the otherwise immaculately clean mirror. The thing was, other than ride a motorcycle stolen from the Evel Kineval Experience™ through the MGM Grand lobby, the Hexblade hadn’t really DONE anything that villainous, while the Knights were packing serious MilSpec firepower that technically they weren’t supposed to be using in high Civilian Density areas. Danica, uncomfortably aware that anything she could say wouldn’t add to the situation, made sure that McD kept his camera trained on the tense tableau.

Then there was a roar of jets, and the Knights went sprawling. “_I_ AM… Synturion the Living Weapon! And I am here for the HEXBLADE!”

“JEEZ!” Hexblade said confidentially to Leo the Lion, “Some guys! ONE DANCE, and they think they own you!”

“One of the alleged bloodsport ‘gladiators’ that faced off against the Knights in the lobby of the Xanadu resort and spoiled Las Vegas SWAT’s attempt to arrest the Hexblade has shown up here at the MGM Grand!” Dancia gushed into the camera. “The KoP Shortstop has opened up with what I think is a heavy machinegun into ‘Synturion’, but the *ahem!* ‘Living Weapon’ is just shrugging it off. Synturion just picked up the Batter and is literally batting the Shortstop with him!

“Leo the Lion, probably to remove the bone of contention from the immediate situation, just shoved the Hexblade through the doors into the MGM Showroom. But one of the Las Vegas trademark floorshows is going on, even as we speak! Leo is running to try and break up the fight, but Synturion is getting the better of the Knights. No, Synturion has just kicked in his jetpack again, and he is rocketing into the showroom!

HeroWatch is going in to catch the action!” Danica hurried out from cover, with McD close on her heels. After all, if the glamour puss was willing to risk it, how could McD refuse?

Bursting into the showroom, McD caught a scene of abject confusion.  The show, a tribute to the classic MGM musicals of the 1940s and 50s was in complete disarray. Synturion was thrashing around, trying to swat the Hexblade, who was springing, leaping and dodging around, using an extending staff of some sort to give her leaps height and distance. Synturion was smashing the stage trolley (it was probably a rendition of ‘The Trolley Song’, from Meet Me in St. Louis). Hexblade was clinging to his back, hitting him on the head with the brass bell, singing loudly in her best faux- Judy Garland voice, “Clang, clang, clang, went the trolleeeyyyy… Ding, ding, ding went the baaaattt…

Then a tall, trim, very well-conditioned woman in a very nice mid-40s, wearing leggings and a hoodie from UNLV stalked out from the wings and demanded of both of them, “WHAT do you think you’re DOING? This is a Las Vegas FLOORSHOW, and you’re RUINING it! Have you no respect for TRADITION?”

Synturion paused in pure reflex to matriarchal authority. But before he could recover from that, Hexblade pulled out a phone and put it to her ear. “Oh! Finally! It’s about TIME!” She climbed off Synturion and handed him the phone. “It’s for you.” Caught flat-footed, Synturion took the phone and put it to his ear, oblivious to that he was wearing a helmet. As that registered, Hexblade lashed out, extending her energy blade at the very last second and burying it in his chest.

Synturion froze, and even through the distance and that featureless helmet, Danica could hear a panicked squeak. Synturion teetered, Hexblade took her phone from his hand, and she sidestepped him as he fell. Hexblade copped a pose, as though ready to break into song. She threw back her head spread her arms, and caroled, "Goood Eeeeveniiinnnggg FRRRIIIEEENDS!" With that, she hand-sprang off the stage and into the wings.

Watching Hexblade exit, the woman in the hoodie pulled out a phone of her own and punched a code into it. “Bunny? It’s Mom. Oh, it’s 1 in the morning there? Sorry, forgot about the time difference. Well, sweetie, I think we just had one of your schoolmates blow through here, and she simply TRASHED the Ten o’clock show! When she shows up at school, I want you to have some WORDS with her!”

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EVAN

But when I got back to the motorcycle, it was pretty much trashed. Really! Some people have no respect for stolen property!

And far more to the point, how am I supposed to get to the Walgreens, to meet up with Brigand and the others? I mean, the only problem with saying that we have to get out of here is that it’s ridiculous understatement. And Las Vegas PD and the KoP and the MCO and the various House Superheroes, and the Nevada State Troopers and maybe even the local National Guard are going to be crawling all over the place. Even with the motorcycle, it would have been a little hairy. But now all I have are this gravity gem and Star Witch’s witch-staff.

Wait a minute… Gravity Gem? Witch-staff? Two great tastes that taste great together?

I fit the gravity gem into a socket in the staff. Then I focused on the gem.

Normally, when I try this, the gem lifts, and I’m kind of dragged along with it. But this? With this, both the staff and I were just floating there. With a big smile, I assumed a ladylike sidesaddle on the staff and shoved off. It was like sliding down a banister, only sideways. With a big whoop, I lit out for Walgreens.

Wait a minute- where’s Walgreens?

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HAINES

MCO Field Operative Haines strolled into the lobby of the MGM Grand, and despite himself, was very impressed. Even as the Police CSI unit was going over the place, the MGM staff was going over how they were going to clean the place up and get ready for the next day’s shows. No hysteria, no finger-pointing, no grand drama. Apparently, the Show Will Go On; Sam Goldwyn and Louis B Meyer would be proud. It was a stark contrast to the scene over at the Xanadu, which was in full End of the World mode.

Then Haines noted the figure in the slightly silly lion costume. He stood with his Lion headpiece off, propped against one hip, as he looked at a panel of mirror. Haines strolled over to stand next to ‘Leo the Lion’. He stood there without comment for a moment, and then asked, “Does it mean anything?”

‘Leo the Lion’ looked glacially at a spot on the shattered mirror. With modern fingerprinting techniques, it’s almost impossible to remove a print so that a decent technician can’t lift a viable print. Practically the only way to remove a print from glass these days is to completely destroy the glass itself. Like the track of bullet impacts on the mirror panel; especially the one where a large-bore round had perfectly hit the spot where the Hexblade had so pointedly left her print. “Yeah,” Leo said with a grunt. “It means that Swive owes Hexblade a million bucks.”

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EVAN

I finally found the Walgreen’s. Don’t Ask.

When I touched down, Chris and Megan gave me big hugs. Brigand merely sniped, “What? You traded your motorcycle in for Samantha’s broom?”

“Well, I decided to go Green,” I breezed. Then I looked around. “Okay, why’d you have us meet up here? I mean, we’re in the very heart of the strip!”

“We’re waiting for your ride out of town,” was all he said.

“Okay, then while we wait, I’ve got a few questions for you,” Mack said looking Brigand straight in the face. “First of all, what were in those cases you took from Vicious’ escape pod?”

“Escape Pod?” I asked.

“Later.”

“Blackmail,” Brigand said with smug satisfaction. “LOTS of blackmail.”

“What?”

“Kids, has it ever occurred to you that even in LAS VEGAS, a to-the-death gladiator ring is a little over the top? As in nobody in their right mind wants to even admit that it exists on their jurisdiction, let alone that they’re involved in it? And yes, there was a none-too-minor fortune in bribes being paid out regularly, but even that isn’t enough to get a televised human bloodsport off the ground.

“A quick History lesson: in the early 1960s, when Madam Vicious was just getting her start, one of the most powerful men in America was J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI. The cornerstone of Hoover’s power was his legendary Private Files; it was common knowledge that Hoover used the FBI to collect damaging information and evidence on practically everyone in Washington, and more than a few in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. Now given Vicious’ powers and disposition, it was exceedingly unlikely that she wouldn’t see the advantages in having a similar set of private files of her very own.”

“Those cases were blackmail?” Roxie asked. “Why bother lugging all that around? Why not just keep it online somewhere?”

Brigand shook his head. “Vicious doesn’t understand or trust computers or the Net. Remember, under that luscious veneer, she’s really just a mean old lady, who shells out a small fortune to a secret clinic every year to keep that luscious veneer, and whose only real pleasures in life are watching people beat each other to death and playing nasty mindgames with her prisoners.”

“Yeah, that, and adrenaline-charged SEX,” Ginny grumped.

“I was trying very hard to not think of that,” Brigand said dryly. “Anyway, I figured that if those files kept an unlovable character like Madam Vicious at large and in charge, just think what I could do with them.”

“Okay,” Mack nodded, carefully not thinking about the implications of that. “And what happened with Glitter and Vibrex?”

Glitter? Vibrex? Something happened to Glitter and Vibrex? Okay, I barely knew Vibrex, but Glitter is a right chick, and something happened to her?

“Well,” Brigand said with a heavy voice, “According to your buddy Billy,” he pointed off to where Billy was curled up in a ball, sitting next to a wall; He even had his ‘Squid’ mask still on, even though I know that he hates it, “she took three heavy caliber bullets to the chest. He tried to get her to my mini-MASH on the terrace, but she died in his arms before he could get her there. And Vibrex? He also took a few bullets, but we couldn’t get him medevac-ed before Vicious took off in her escape pod. We couldn’t find him- or his body. We think that he was blown out of the penthouse by the lift jets when Vicious made her big break for it, along with most of her enforcers.” ‘Blown out of the penthouse’? I looked over to where you could just see the Xanadu: the top floors were on fire, you could see that a big chunk of one corner had been blown off, the air was buzzing with helicopters, and there were Fire and Rescue vehicles all over the place. Jeez, go off and do your own thing for five fucking minutes, and you’re completely out of the loop!

“Crap,” Mack said heavily. He shook his head and then got off that dark, cold, nasty tangent. “Okay, then why were you so hot that Vicious’ escape pod not get in that swimming pool?”

“Because, if you’d LOOKED at it, while the airwing section of the thing was very aerodynamic, the main section of it, the part that Vicious herself was in, was very hydrodynamic.

“Hydrodynamic?” Roxie echoed, “You mean it was really a submarine?

“Or something like that. You see things like that in my line of business. Now think about that aircraft as an escape vehicle: wide wing surface, big noisy very hot jets. You couldn’t get five miles in that thing without Nevada Civil Air Patrol siccing Blue Thunder on it. BUT, if the main body separated from the wing, then the wing would make for an excellent decoy.”

“You mean… you think there was some kind of underwater escape tunnel in that swimming pool?” Rachel asked.

“There might be!” Brigand hedged. “But at that point, did you really expect me to risk losing those files- and Yvonne and Ginny-on the chance that Vicious didn’t have that pool- and every other decent-sized artificial body of water in the area- kinked?”

“Okay, then why did Vicious wait until the very last mind to do that mind-scramble thing on us?” Mack asked. “Okay, I can see that she didn’t want to blow her secret in front of the spectators, but why didn’t she pull that the second we went into her penthouse? With her enforcers there, she could have put us down and kept us there!”

“It wasn’t Vicious who did that,” Megan answered. “Well, not directly. It was Yvonne. She’s a Cannon. That’s what UNITY calls the people they do that to. I don’t understand everything about it, but for some reason, UNITY wants really kickass ‘mind weapons’, and Yvonne is just psychic enough for them to do that to her. She’s a lot more powerful than the brain-boxes, but she requires a telepath.”

Marly, who had been fussing over Yvonne all this time, turned to us and said, “She’s out of it again. She was… she was coming out of it. A little at a time, but she was becoming aware of what was going on around us. But she’s completely locked away again!”

“I think that’s a side effect of doing the mind-blast,” Megan said. “I don’t know if it’s part of UNITY keeping their weapons controllable, or if it’s just something that’s part of the whole ‘overload people’s minds’ thing. But I think that every time Yvonne does that, she’ll retreat back into her shell.”

Mack shuddered. Not wanting to deal with that anymore, he turned to me and said, “The other Gladiators have already gone off on their own, but Black Beetle- or whatever his name really is- and Blood Witch, Thundergun and Diamond Girl want to hitch a ride with us for a while. You see any problems with that, Ev?”

I just shrugged. ‘Wonderful,” Eddie grumped, “Four more mouths to feed.”

Then Brigand pulled out a phone and took a call. “Longhaul says that he’s in position and getting ready to land.” Longhaul? “In that case, here!” He handed Mack an overnight bag.

“What’s this?”

“Roughly three and a half million, in $5, $10, $20 and $50 bills,” Brigand said. “About what you’d get for selling seven Maltese Falcons.” Then he added, “Yes, it’s less than their market value, but it’s a lot more than you’d get from any fence who’d take them, and this way’s a LOT safer. Besides, wherever you’re going, it’ll be a lot easier and a lot safer if you don’t have to steal to make money.”

Then Brigand looked up, and a vaguely space-shuttle appearing aircraft appeared right over the Walgreens building and lowered in complete silence. Brigand handed Mack something about the size and shape of a paperback book and a handset. “What’s this?”

“A demolitions pack and a detonator. Longhaul’s a reasonable sort, but with the kind of heat that’s following you kids, it’s best to be safe.”

As Longhaul’s shuttle lowered, I looked at Wardance and stuck out a hand. “Well, Wardance, thanks for everything you’ve done for us. I’ll think of you every time the ribs that you almost broke keep me awake. By the way, I never asked: what are your super powers?”

She just gave me a disdainful snort. “Please! Super powers are for weenies! I’m just very good at hurting people!”

And on that note, we all climbed up to the comparative safety of an experimental craft piloted by a mercenary.

 

FINIS

 

But the Loose Cannons will roll again in

ROCKIN’ THE ROCKIES!

 

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EPILOGUE

The man known to the Law Enforcement, Superhero, Organized Crime, Supervillain and Covert Operations communities as ‘Death Ghost’ dragged himself out of the wreckage of Madam Vicious’ ‘Real Mutant Death Matches’ with the frantic haste of a coyote digging himself out of a collapsed burrow. He breathed in deeply, even though it pained him to do so. Even the stench of the burning furnishings couldn’t overcome the smells of blood, fear, pain, stress and despair; the disgusting reek of failure. It would fade in a couple of weeks, but those weeks would drag. The only cure for failure was REVENGE!

There was nothing for getting your game back than finding the person who shanked you and making them pay for it. And besides recovering his prestige and self-respect, there was the none-too minor fact that he’d paid over $100K for a shot at draining the Hexblade’s dynamorph. The major problem was that the Hexblade wasn’t alone. She had a gang backing her play.

So, she had a gang?

HE’D get a gang.

Read 2421 times Last modified on Saturday, 21 August 2021 01:51

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