Chapter 103

                Something was wrong. Owen couldn’t quite put his finger on what, but as he smashed his way through the intersection stuffed full of robots, ignoring their bites, swipes, and blasts, he could tell that there was an element off about the fight. Another man, or a younger version of himself, would have shaken the feeling off as nerves or fear, but Owen had been in the fire literally countless times during his tenure as a Hero. He’d made a name for himself by being the one they could drop into any situation, and as a result had gained enough experience to learn the value of trusting his intuition, especially when it so boldly grabbed his attention. If something seemed off about the fight, then it was, even if he couldn’t put it into words quite yet.

                It certainly wasn’t that the battle was too easy, at least for the Heroes as a whole. Granted, nothing the robots had seemed able to hurt him, so on a personal level this situation posed little risk, but he was just one man. Containing this many threats required the coordination of dozens of Heroes, many of whom didn’t share his invulnerability.

                Owen grabbed a robot whose arms had turned into whirling blades and smashed it down over his knee, then stomped it to pieces on the ground. Maybe it was that these seemed easier to kill that the previous times he’d faced them. Then again, before they’d been in limited groups and focused on defense. Now, there were so damn many it was nearly impossible to stretch his arm out without smacking one. Perhaps the trade-off to creating so many had been that they were lower quality, the person in charge switching tactics and trying to overrun the Heroes. That seemed viable, though ill-advised. At the rate things were going, they’d manage this first wave in five more minutes, and by the time the next arrived they would have regrouped and prepared.

                A Hero in gray and crimson zipped past Owen, moving so fast they were an unrecognizable blur, leaving a trail of severed robots behind them. No, it wasn’t his imagination; these were definitely going down easier. But why? Numbers would made things more troublesome, and might bring down a few more civilians, but they were far less likely to kill actual Heroes. It felt like he was on the right mental path, however he had no idea where to go from here. So, he instead focused on moving his body, barreling through a set of robots hobbled by the gray and red blur to finish the job.

                Roughly a hundred feet away, he saw Gale settling down for a landing near a broken streetlight. Seemed like he was almost to his goal then. Whatever was hitting him as wrong, it would hopefully get resolved when Jeremiah got a lock on these bastards’ signal. If they could shut down the source, then the robots’ plan would be irrelevant. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling something was wrong, so as he punched his fingers through a mechanical torso and hollowed it out, he decided to check on the lone element he couldn’t directly influence.

                “Dispatch, this is Titan. Can I get a location and condition analysis for my PEERS team?”

                Even in the middle of this fight, which was no doubt only one incident among many she was dealing with across the country, Dispatch’s reply was instantaneous.

                “One moment, Titan, let me see what I can get for you.”

                Owen finished coring the robots in his hands and reached for the next nearest one, only to realize it was another Hero in a mechanical suit. He gave a small wave of apology, which the other Hero responded to with a curt nod. It was hard to blame them for being annoyed, there was no way Owen was the first Hero to see metal and assume it belonged to an enemy. He quickly turned away, grabbing a robot that was taking aim to blast another Hero with an energy beam and placing his hand over the weapon’s muzzle. In seconds, the laser gun had melted to scrap as the beam was unable to escape, and Owen quickly dismantled the rest of the bot before it could get it’s bearings.

                “Titan, your team successfully evacuated the fairgrounds under the watch of Kaiju from Wild Bucks. However, once they were out he lost track of them as there were other civilians to protect. Based on satellite imagery, they appear to have slipped away from that concentration of enemies and are currently working their way toward the Mordent Building.”

                Owen remembered his first day walking into Mordent, taking stock of the cannons disguised as potted plants, and knowing it was only the tip of their security iceberg. “Good. I know we’ve got a lot going on, but if you can, keep an eye on them for me. I want to know when they’re home safe.”

                “You will be kept abreast,” Dispatch assured him.

                With that as settled as it could be, Owen tore through a half dozen more robots before finding himself in what was as close to a clearing as he’d seen since the fight started. Gale, Deadlift, Aether, and Jeremiah were all gathered together, polishing off a few mechanical adversaries as he stepped into view. Aether finished hers off last, phasing her arms through its chest and coming out with several components that were, apparently, quite vital to its operation. It was easy to forget just how terrifying phasers could be, given the right talent and training.

                “There’s our big fella,” Jeremiah announced. He somehow still looked composed, barely a hair out of place as he whipped the cane-like object in his hand about. With a flick of his wrist it compressed down and he tucked it neatly away in a compartment of his costume. No great shock that a team full of Subtlety Heroes would have fancy high-tech weapons, though from the smoking remains around his feet it seemed the cane did far more than just make itself portable.

                “We clear enough to do this, or do we need to thin the herd a bit more?” Owen asked. The tide had certainly turned in the Heroes favor, but the battle was far from finished. He would be damned if he left people hanging when it could be avoided.

                “I think this is as good as we’re likely to get,” Jeremiah replied. “Sooner or later the next wave will show up, so better to be ahead of the curve. Gale and Aether, please maintain our perimeter. Deadlift, handle any who get past them. Titan, if you would be so kind as to grab me a subject.”

                Owen leapt out of the clearing, grabbing a robot that was already short one bladed arm and snapping off the other. He tore off its legs too, just for good measure, and then carried his prize past Gale, who was already calling a fresh blast of wind to surround them. Setting the torso, head still intact and somehow glaring at them, down on the ground, he motioned for Jeremiah.

                “You kept the head on?” He asked, pulling a large knife from another compartment. With a single touch of a button on the side, the blade began to glow a fiery red.

                “I don’t know what makes these things register as ‘broken’ but being decapitated seemed like a good bet.” Owen rested one hand on the metal neck, keeping it pinned just in case it had a trick or two up its sleeve.

                “You’d be surprised how many things that doesn’t work on,” Jeremiah muttered. As he spoke, his hands worked quickly, slicing into the torso with surprising delicacy, easily piercing the metal hide to reveal the robot’s inner workings. He may as well have cracked open a pinball machine for as much as Owen could tell, but Jeremiah seemed to have some idea of what he was looking at. After a few minutes of rooting about, he grabbed a dark box that Owen thought was identical to four others also in the torso, and yanked out his strange pen.

                “On the very likely chance that this blows us up, sorry about the costume.” That was all the warning Jeremiah gave before plunging his pen into the device. Owen tensed, not because he expected the explosion would hurt, but because it would still be a damn explosion. None came, however. Instead, the pen had a blue light near the top come on, and Jeremiah let out a long sigh of relief.

                “Did it work?” Owen asked.

                “Maybe, it will still take several minut- Hang on, what?” Jeremiah touched his right ear, the universal signal for being on comms, and as he listened his eyes grew steadily wider. Worse, the smug expression always present on his face vanished, and for the first time since they’d met Jeremiah looked genuinely worried. Finally, he dropped his hand, and with a single stroke of his knife carved up the innards of the robot.

                “Guessing something went wrong,” Owen said.

                “Not with the device, per se. With the plan as a whole. They saw us coming, the bastards. These robots aren’t being controlled by a central signal. There are six signals spread throughout the city, relays to act as redundancies and mask the real source.”

                “Well then let’s go find those.” Owen stood to his feet, ready to charge back into battle.

                “No need,” Jeremiah said, rising more slowly and pulling his cane back out. “According to what my team said, one of those signals should be landing right on top of us in less than two minutes.”