Downtown Brewster, while not fully recovered from the most recent battle, was still in substantially better shape than Owen had last seen it. Whether it stayed that way for long would depend in equal measures on luck, and the costumed men and women who were already gathered in front of him, many transporting civilians out of the area in large groups. Seeing the humans being evacuated eased Owen’s nerves a touch, as he’d been in enough metropolitan battles to know that sheltering in place wasn’t always a safe strategy. With the normal people gone, the Heroes would be free to focus on neutralizing the threat, and that would be safer for everyone.
Most of the other Heroes were familiar to Owen in that he’d seen them in his research but couldn’t pair a name with a costume. Several, however, he was certain didn’t usually work Brewster. It appeared that someone, either Dispatch or in Modus Operandi, had decided to swell their ranks by bringing in a few ringers. Were he a younger man with a more vulnerable sense of pride, Owen might have felt a bit slighted at the idea that what Brewster had on hand wouldn’t be enough. Instead, he merely thanked whatever divine force was watching over them for the extra help. These robots could be a handful, and every able body present would mean less death and destruction.
Spotting his temporary team was easy enough, since Gale was hovering in place ten feet off the ground, eyes closed and hands lifted skyward. While he didn’t know exactly what she was doing, Owen could still read the mood well enough to approach slowly, lest he disturb something important. Aether and Jeremiah both turned as he approached; the latter holding up a finger to his lips, then whispering, “She’s trying to get a sense of where they’re coming from.”
“How?” Owen’s tone matched Jeremiah’s, as soft as he could make it while still being heard.
“Feeling the air currents, seeing if they hit unnatural obstacles,” Jeremiah explained. “Can’t do it for people, but a giant herd of robots would be distinctive.”
“You both know I can hear you, and that I don’t actually need silence, right?” Gale opened one eye and glared down at them before turning her face skyward once more.
“Huh, you don’t? I sort of just assumed.” Jeremiah shrugged and went back to a normal voice, forgoing the gentle whispers. “Anyway, Dispatch has been tracking the robots’ general movement, but there are limits to how much detail she can get us. Once Gale determines exactly where the attack is coming from, we smash up the first wave, because the damn things always come in multiple waves, but try to keep at least one functional. My guys are doing their best to track the signal, but if we can tap into one that’s still active it will speed things way the hell up.”
From his pocket, Jeremiah produced a device that looked roughly like a ballpoint pen someone had covered in glue and rolled in electronic debris. “If I can figure out which part of the robot is the receiver and jam this in, we’ll have our location in less than a minute.”
“Can’t you just sift through the wreckage of one?” Aether asked. “These things don’t go down easy, and keep fighting as long as they’ve got limbs and power.”
“Wouldn’t do me any good. As soon as the robot is down, it deactivates itself, burning out it’s receiver,” Jeremiah said. “We’ve gone through nearly a hundred and it’s the same every time, nothing but a burned out box of circuits. Hell of a self-preservation mechanism, I have to say.”
“Then how do you know it won’t self-destruct when you try and jam that pen in it?” Owen asked.
“We don’t. Shit, given how well they’re built, the damn things will almost certainly do just that. But if it does work, then it makes our job way easier and saves a lot of people. Seems like a gamble worth taking, don’t you think?” Jeremiah seemed oddly sincere with the question, as though he’d listen to whatever objections Owen could voice. The big man had none, however, because Jeremiah was right. Even if it would probably fail, there was little risk to trying, and the payoff was high enough that it justified the time spent.
“When the first wave is broken, I’ll snap the limbs off one and hold down it’s torso,” Owen offered. “It might still have some tricks up its sleeve though, so be careful.”
“Don’t worry, I’m a lot tougher than I look,” Jeremiah replied. “Might even be tougher than you.”
Before Owen could call into question the likelihood of that, Dispatch’s voice sounded in his ear. “Titan, I wanted to let you know that the first defensive teams are in place at the fairgrounds, and that Deadlift has begun heading in your direction. He’s being brought by a Hero with flying abilities, so arrival should occur in less than three minutes.”
“Thanks, Dispatch.” His team was safely under the protection of fellow Heroes, and the last member of their hunting party was en route. It wasn’t ideal, no situation where masses of destructive robots were about to attack could be, but it was as good as he could hope for. Part of him wished he could be with the PEERS, making sure they were safe, but they were in good hands. And, even aside from the Heroes present, they were plenty strong and smart themselves. He trusted in them, to survive, and to help where they were needed. If the tug-of-war had shown him only one thing, it was that none of those kids were the type to just roll over and die. Which reminded him…
“Hey Dispatch, you don’t happen to know who won that tug-of-war event, do you?”
“My understanding is that the Wild Bucks took the final win of the competition, although it was a tough one.”
“I’ll have to congratulate Deadlift when he gets here,” Owen muttered.
“Yeah, that might need to wait a bit.” Gale’s eyes were open again, and she was lowering herself to the ground. Cupping her hands to mouth, she yelled her next words, which were miraculously carried on the burst of wind she sent out at the same time.
“Everyone! Robots are approaching from the southeast, and will probably break into view around eighth street. If you’re a Hero, prepare for battle. If you’re a civilian still here, start running north. There’s a lot of them coming and they’ll be here in under two minutes!”
“That is a damn handy trick,” Owen told her, shifting his view to the street where robots would soon be appearing.
“It’s useful, but a little more imprecise than I’d like.” Gale, always confident and sure in herself, was chewing on her bottom lip and glancing at the sky nervously. “Dispatch, are we seeing any movement besides the robots? Something big, and coming from the east?”
Though he hadn’t been the one to ask the question, Dispatch’s reply still crackled in his ear. “Negative, based on our surveillance and satellites everything is clear. Do you have other information?”
“No, I just thought I might have felt something,” Gale replied. “It was only for a moment though. Like I said, trying to use air currents as a sensor is imprecise.”
A high-pitched whine filled the air, and the unmistakable sound of metal feet pounding on pavement began to echo toward them from the southeast. All eyes turned, as muscles tightened and abilities were made ready.
“Imprecise or not,” Owen said. “It looks like you got this part right.”
The explosion from behind him, to the northwest, took everyone by surprise, as a horde of robots burst upward from under the streets, immediately attacking the nearest Heroes to them. Seconds later, the wave they’d been expecting burst into view, and just like that the collection of Supers was flanked on both sides by their enemy.
No one had time to curse, or throw blame, or even try and understand all that had happened. In moments, their entire plan had been shot to shit. Now, all they could do was fight to survive.