Chapter 84

                While the rest of his team headed back to the Mordent penthouse, eager to relax and prepare for the next day’s activities, Owen took a quick jog across town to a different destination. The evening air was cool against his face as he ran, nodding his head to those who waved at his familiar costume passing them by. It had been near the day’s end when Dispatch passed on a message from Jeremiah that another meeting was set to take place, and Owen was surprised at how eager he was to attend. More than just because of his curiosity about what the hell these robots were up too, Owen was finding himself getting a bit of a thrill from the chase. Working with his team was great and rewarding, but Titan hadn’t been a legend for no reason. Deep down, Owen Daniels loved Hero work, and hunting the bots was reminding him why.

                Instead of a hotel, this time Jeremiah had them meeting in the upstairs of a store that seemed to sell nothing but smoked meats and whiskey. Owen circled around the back, climbing the rickety staircase and easing his way past the slightly-rotted wooden door. It seemed Jeremiah hadn’t been kidding about his team’s need to meet in different places; this was about as far from a five-star penthouse as he could get.

                Stepping into the surprisingly spacious room, Owen quickly realized that he was the last to arrive. Deadlift, Aether, and Gale were all sitting in fold-out chairs, staring at the projector’s screen that Jeremiah had positioned himself next to. The Subtlety Hero smiled as Owen entered, motioning for him to shut the door.

                “And at last, the great Titan has arrived to bless us with his presence. I’d offer you a seat, but the owners only had the three chairs on hand.”

                “Did you run all the way here or something?” Gale added. “We all got the call over half an hour ago.”

                “Actually… yeah, I just jogged over.” Owen slunk toward the back, towering over the other seated Heroes and positioning himself carefully so as not to block their view.

                “You’re joking,” Aether said. “I know not every team has a teleporter, but surely you’ve at least got a car.”

                “Well, the team does, but I let them take it back home,” Owen admitted.

                “Wow.” Jeremiah shook his head, half in amazement and half in disbelief. “That’s something one of us should do something about. If there’s a situation where we have to call in Titan, I doubt we’ll have time for him to take the shoe-leather express.”

                “It’s worked fine so far,” Owen said.

                “Ah, but I fear things are about to get more complicated, if not outright dangerous.” Jeremiah clicked a button on the remote clutched in his fingers, causing an image to appear on his projector screen. It showed a map of Brewster, complete with a dozen or so small red dots scattered throughout. “As you all know, the robots we’ve been dealing with broke their usual pattern last week, using decoys to attack us while they looted technology from a local company. Since then, there have been sporadic break-ins throughout the city, all at places specializing in either high-tech research or materials. No security camera footage has been recovered, not a single witness has come forward, and most distressing of all, the strikes have always come at times when Heroes are occupied or scattered.”

                “Hold on, if no one has seen the people doing the robbing, how do we know it’s the robots?” Deadlift asked. “All they did before was attack us, and now they turn to petty crime?”

                “I assure you, there is nothing petty about the sorts of things they’ve been stealing,” Jeremiah replied. “And as for why we assume the bots to be the culprits, I’ll admit that part is speculative. That said, it would explain the shift in their behaviors. What we assumed were attacks meant to test out new models may, in fact, have been intended to test us. Specifically, our individual response times and coordination. These robberies are hitting us in the metaphorical blind spots, which mean that either someone is using extensive surveillance and planning to estimate our responding abilities, or the Dispatch system has been compromised. The latter of which my team ruled out as soon as we suspected it.”

                “Wait, did you actually meet Dispatch?” It was Aether who asked the question, but everyone in the room, Owen included, leaned slightly forward as they stared at Jeremiah. Despite a long, prestigious career as a Hero before his scandal, Owen had never met, nor even heard of anyone who had met, Dispatch. Whoever or wherever she was, it was a complete mystery even from the people she talked with daily.

                “I… no, I did not,” Jeremiah admitted. “But people I trust went through the communication system and assured me everything was still secure. And if the actual Dispatch had decided to turn against us, we’d be in for more trouble than just dealing with some robot theft and assault. Thus, we assume they are attacking us through the other method, which points squarely at our mechanical opponents.”

                “What do you think they’re doing?” Gale asked. “It’s still a month out from the next attack in their pattern.”

                “Yes, and that’s part of why I gathered you all here.” Jeremiah clicked the button once more, and a diagram of a small device took the place of the map with the red dots. “Titan has informed us of a piece in the puzzle we were previously unaware of, a stolen machine that allows the machines to act as a single unit split into multiple bodies. That forced us to look at their attacks as being far more organized than we originally assessed, and from the new perspective my team has crafted a fresh theory.”

                Another click, this time showing a familiar model of the robots that Owen had fought on two occasions now. “At their last iteration, the bots were tough enough to injure multiple Hero teams and cause extensive damage. While we don’t know exactly what benchmark they were working toward, we do believe that in that attack they met it. Thus, having evolved to whatever necessary point they were aiming for, their methods switched into gathering experimental technology and equipment. Essentially the robots reached a baseline, and are now incorporating stolen assets into their already powerful forms.”

                “Damn.” Gale leaned back in her chair as Jeremiah’s words washed over her. “You’re saying this next fight is going to be a tough one.”

                “Worse.” Jeremiah made another click, and this time all that showed on the screen was a giant red question mark. “I’m saying that, now that their first pattern is broken, we have no way to know when or where the next attack will be coming from. Not only will these things be far more powerful than any iteration we’ve faced before, but they have already demonstrated the ability to blind-side us. Their next strike, the most powerful one yet, will likely come with exactly zero warning or chance to prepare.”