Chapter 66

                “Thank you for coming by,” Kaiju said, shaking the large man’s hand one last time as they stood at the door to the base.

                “We truly appreciated your advice,” Deadlift added.

                “It helps to know what we’re facing,” Juiced said.

                Owen smiled at the kids and did another round of handshakes. Maybe they’d manage to pull themselves out this, maybe they wouldn’t. All he knew what that it seemed like they were going to do their best, and that alone was something of a triumph.

                “Just glad to-”

                “Titan, you are being formally activated under emergency protocol Thirty Two C.”

                Owen wasn’t sure what was worse, the fact that Dispatch’s voice had spoken in his ear, or the fact that every member of the Wild Bucks had clearly just gotten a similar interruption.

                “Titan acknowledges. Wait, a Thirty Two C… that means I’ve got hostiles incoming on a base.”

                “Correct,” Dispatch confirmed. “The robotic hordes you’ve been interested in have resurfaced. Currently tracking one pack moving toward you, one moving toward Elemental Fury’s location, and one approaching what we’re speculating is Transcendental Justice’s base.”

                Owen wracked his brain on the last name; certain he’d heard it before. Finally it clicked: Aether, the woman who’d helped he and Granite with rescue work, was on that team. From the outset, it seemed to support Jeremiah’s theory that the bots were using Heroes for refining their abilities. After all, why not go against heavy hitters? The issue there was that he’d come to the Wild Buck’s home unofficially, so it made more sense if they were the targets. Plus, Transcendental Justice was a middling team in both power and popularity. The only one of the three that made sense to go after was Elemental Fury.

                “Do we have any clues as to what they’re after?”

                “The Subtlety Heroes have been contacted and are doing what they can; however, at the moment we must assume they seek more destruction and engagement. Assets are being redirected to you as we speak.”

                “Wait, how many are heading toward my location?” Owen asked.

                “We’ve been able to confirm that each squad is made of nine robots,” Dispatch said.

                “I took out four on my own last time, seems like nine is doable. Put the assets toward something more useful. Have them help Transcendental Justice, or keep watch to make sure this isn’t a diversion.”

                “There are already assets allocated to those tasks, Titan, and you receiving help is not optional. Every incarnation of these machines is exponentially stronger than before. While you might be fine, you are limited in your capabilities to contain damage.”

                “Sorry, sorry. I wasn’t thinking.” Owen was fairly certain he’d heard a slight tremor of annoyance in Dispatch’s usually calm and steady voice. Since she both a key asset and one of the few constants in his life, he saw no reason to upset her. “Can I get ETAs on the hostiles as well as back up?”

                “Certainly. Hostiles will be at your location in less than three minutes. Back up will arrive within seven. The Wild Bucks are being ordered to assist you, but you are to take the lead on engagement until the extent of the robots’ new abilities has been ascertained.”

                Even in a group of tanks, Owen was still the one getting shoved onto the front lines. He’d have been a bit annoyed by it, except that given the choice he would have made the same call. After all, he was the only least likely to be injured. That was why he’d become a Hero in the first place: to shake off the blows that would cripple or kill others.

                “Understood. I’ll have them hang back and focus on keeping the bots contained.” Owen swung his head around to tell the team to get ready, only to find they’d beaten him to it.

                Kaiju was no longer recognizable in his shifted form. Fourteen feet of red, scaly lizard towered above everyone. Just glancing at the thickness of his armor and sharpness of the claws made Owen feel sorry for whatever poor tin can the kid got into it with. There was going to be a lot of scrap metal when the day was done.

                Next to him, Juiced was setting down a milk jug full of clear liquid, her body already swelling with power as she picked up a second jug. Owen didn’t know how much she could put down before diminishing returns kicked in, but he was looking forward to finding out.

                Deadlift was the only one not changed physically, unless one counted the giant steel beam he was casually holding over his head. From the looks of it they’d salvaged the thing out of one of the abandoned warehouses. If his power let him swing that thing at full force even though it was weightless in his hands, it could turn out to be an interesting battle.

                Owen glanced down and saw the ground at Topsy’s feet had cracked, one of the telltale signs that his old friend was warming up. He walked over and calmly put a hand on Topsy’s shoulder. “If you can avoid going in, do. Obviously keep them safe as needed, but don’t jump in unless there’s cause for it.”

                “Afraid I can’t hack it anymore just because my body doesn’t ignore aging?”

                “My body doesn’t ignore aging. It just sort of…tunes it out a lot of the time. Anyway, no, that’s not why I want you to stay on the sidelines.” Owen lowered his voice a few degrees and hoped none of the Wild Bucks had enhanced hearing. “I just came through here and told them how screwed they were, after the DVA no doubt spent weeks grilling them about their mistakes. Right now, there’s no way they see themselves as anything more than fuck-ups. What they need at this moment, more than any nice speech or spark of hope, is to put one in the win column. They need to remember what it is they’re good at, and in a team like that’s only thing: kicking ass.”

                “I notice you still plan to go ahead and enter the fray,” Topsy pointed out.

                “That’s different. For one thing, I’m not their coach, so it feels less like a parent keeping them safe. Plus, Dispatch tasked me with handling this. I’m still active, after all.” Owen patted his friend on the shoulder reassuringly.

                “And last, but far from least, I’m fucking Titan. That means if there’s a fight, I’m in the middle of it.”