Chapter 101

                In battle, everything was madness. Maybe it was different for other Heroes, the ones who could soar above and see the whole field, or those with minds quick enough to calculate every variable as it entered their awareness. But Owen wasn’t that kind of Hero, or Super, or man. He’d always been the type to have his boots on the ground, slogging through the blood and chaos one heavy step at a time. Only when guided did he have any objective beyond moving forward. There was no greater plan at work, or if one existed he hadn’t been let in on it. Owen didn’t try to calculate or scheme or even bother much with thought. He simply did what seemed most appropriate: destroy every robot he could get his hands on. And, much as he might be lacking in the grander abilities, when it came to that task, he was damned good at what he did.

                Two jumped on him from the left, one with an open mouth full of teeth like needles and the other’s arms crackling with energy. The designer had changed things up this time around, giving the robots different specialties instead of making them interchangeable. While it meant every bot wasn’t the best fit for every situation, it also made fighting them more dangerous, as one never knew what the next opponent was capable of. Case in point, the ones with needle teeth had managed to tear through the flesh of many a Hero’s armor, and extra-durable skin, already. They were probably some sort of high-tech gizmo specifically designed to cut through even the densest of materials.

                Owen threw his right forearm into the needle filled mouth as his left grabbed the energy wielder by the torso. If the thing was going to get a piece of him, better it be a non-vital chunk. As for the energy bot, Owen had taken every burn, disintegration, and jolt that the Super community could throw at him during his Hero days. Odds were good that this wasn’t so new that it would get past his existing defenses. The needles shredded through his costume easily, and while he could feel them scratching at his skin, they failed to actually pierce the barrier of flesh.

                “Too bad, looks like someone beat you to it.” Owen could have sworn he saw a look of surprise in the robot’s fixed facial features, but an instant later he’d whipped the needle-filled head into the bot crackling with energy, smashing both up and then tearing them to small chunks. The one thing these did all seem to have was the ability to self-repair, which not a single Hero present was giving them the chance to do.

                All around Owen, the battle raged. Beams of energy tore apart metal frames, explosions rocked the streets and buildings, and all manner of costumed combatant could be seen bounding to and fro as they spotted new targets or friends in need. The familiar form of a hawk made out of plasma caught Owen’s eye as it dipped and dove, carving through the robots like they were formed from wet sand instead of reinforced metal. Granite wasn’t too far off, tearing apart every robot that stepped near him while also protecting the summoner guiding the energy bird. In the center of the sky, surrounded by a hurricane of robot debris, was Gale, whose blasts of wind broke enemy formations before they could even fully form.

                There were plenty of others who Owen didn’t know, but were holding their own nonetheless. A Hero with red hair had pulled out a pair of swords and was slicing up her opponents without missing a step. A duo in matching costumes were taking turns throwing one another, leaving a smoking trail in their wake that reminded Owen of Bullrush. A woman in a green and black costume was somehow freezing clusters of robots in place, while a man wearing a purple suit calmly stepped through them and touched their torsos. The moment they unfroze, every bot he touched exploded into scrap, leaving charred husks behind.

                The Heroes were better, and stronger, there was no doubt about that, but the robots were seemingly endless. For every one they downed, three seemed to burst out of the ground. If they were being swarmed, that would be bad enough, but the situation was actually worse. Owen had personally seen several units split off and run away from the battle, which meant there were probably a lot more he’d missed. With so many Heroes just dealing with the horde, the ones that escaped were free to run amok and tear up the town. Of course, that was presuming that destruction was their end goal, which Owen knew was still making a pretty big assumption. They just knew too little, and it was getting very frustrating. Luckily, he had plenty of easy targets to vent that annoyance on.

                Three steps brought him to another robot, this one trying to sneak up on a Hero already dealing with two others. Owen grabbed it by the waist and ripped it neatly in half, then reached over to pop the head off another. The Hero, a short woman whose costume bore a skull on the mask, gave a quick nod of thanks before finishing off her remaining opponent with a single kick. It began to rust at her touch, corroding and collapsing into nothingness within seconds. She didn’t bother to talk, nor did he expect her too, as she rushed off to find more robots. There was nothing to be said, unless it was strategic. In a fight like this, everyone did their best, and looked out for one another when they could. Maybe later, when things were finally settled, there would be time for gratitude and buying each other rounds of drinks.

                Another robot stepped forward, but before Owen could so much as touch it, a breeze blew past him. Along with the gust of wind, a dozen of those needle teeth, crudely pried from their owner’s jaws, came zipping by, shredding the robot before it had a chance to react.

                “I’ve got to get a stockpile of these,” Gale said, floating down next to Owen as the needles made their way back around, landing lightly in her hand. “They cut through anything.”

                “Almost.” Owen held up his arm showing her the torn costume and the red, but unbroken, patch of skin.

                “Why am I not surprised?” Gale muttered. Around them, a new tornado began to form, whisking up all the chunks of beaten robot and turning them into projectiles that would smash apart anyone who tried to get too close. “Anyway, I wanted you to know that as soon as this wave slackens, we’re going to make the attempt to crack one of these things open. You need to start fighting your way north toward Jeremiah so that everyone will be in place when it’s time.”

                “That’s fine, but why didn’t he just tell me through Dispatch?” Owen asked.

                “Because at this range, he thinks the robots can overhear us talking, and are adapting their strategy based on what we say. Hence my noisy little barrier.” Gale held up her hand and gestured to the swirling storm engulfing them, as if there were any question of what she was talking about.

                “Got it. Anything else I need to know?”

                “You’ve probably already noticed, but the fucking things are spreading. Dispatch has already had to peel some Heroes off to deal with the ones that left this fight. They’re doing their best, but… well you can count. We can’t leave this scene, obviously, but if you see any trying to escape, do everyone a favor and discourage them.”

                “I like to think I can be an excellent demotivator, when the occasion demands,” Owen replied.

                “Then show them what you’ve got. I need to go find Aether and pass along the message. Remember, go north and stop the escapers on the way.” With that, the tornado suddenly came to an end and Gale was gone, racing through the sky as she searched for the woman darting through solid objects.

                With the wind wall removed, Owen could see how the landscape had shifted, and that new clusters of robots had gotten near them in the brief window of being concealed. Flexing his hands, he set his sight on the nearest ones and bolted toward them, not bothering to try and land properly. His body was a weapon in itself, and he planned to use it as one, leaving a trail of destroyed robots in his mighty wake.