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Subject: "Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"     Previous Topic | Next Topic
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Gryphonadmin
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Mar-22-08, 03:20 AM (EDT)
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"Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"
 
   Monday, January 8, 2007 (The King's Birthday)
Federal Bureau of Superhuman Affairs Field Office #33
2245 Liberty Parkway
Founders' Falls, Paragon City, Rhode Island

The man in black fled across the office, and the Gunslinger followed.

The man in black was in fact a federal bureaucrat, one Anders Selzer, who rejoiced in the official title "Assistant Deputy Director for Superhero Licensing Affairs". The FBSA had several hundred people with this title, scattered throughout the agency's extensive system of field offices. They were the people responsible for approving or denying the vast majority of the applications for hero licenses the Bureau received.

Until a few minutes before, it had been a fairly ordinary day in Anders Selzer's life. He had spent most of the morning marveling at the audacity of, then summarily denying, the application of an entirely unsuitable candidate. He was lined up to handle the final interview and orientation of a much better one after lunch. Just another day as a cog in the federal bureaucracy that handled superhero matters in the good old U.S. of A.

Until these crazy men in tactical gear burst in and started trashing the place. Selzer had heard rumors about these people. They were supposedly operatives of a secret organization called the Malta Group. Selzer had always discounted the rumors. In his business, one was always hearing cockeyed stories of secret world governments. If he had a nickel for every applicant who claimed to be working for or against the Illuminati or what have you, he wouldn't have to be working as an Assistant Deputy Director for Superhero Licensing Affairs, that was for sure.

There was no denying that whoever these men were, though, they were rigorously trained, superbly equipped, and utterly ruthless. They neutralized the building's security force within seconds, and the people assigned to provide security for an FBSA field office weren't exactly shopping mall rentacops. Moreover, they'd disabled all communications as soon as they arrived, before anyone could send out a distress call. Now they were quickly and efficiently rounding up hostages and herding them into defensible areas - conference rooms, mainly - while a detachment locked down the perimeter and made sure that any wandering hero who might stumble across the incident in progress would get more than he bargained for if he tried to barge in and save the day on his own.

Selzer was trying to get to his desk, where, with a little luck, the special hotline to Washington would still be working. He almost made it, but just as his hand touched the telephone, he heard a gunshot and felt a terrible, searing pain in his hand. For a second he actually thought the man pursuing him, who had embellished his black tactical gear with a rather pretentious bandit-style kerchief mask and a cowboy hat, had shot the hand clean off. When he looked down, though, he saw that it was still attached - just frozen solid, encased in a jagged block of ice that also encompassed the phone.

"No outside communications," the man said in a smooth, almost toneless voice. His eyes, the only part of his face that could be seen between his hat and mask, were like chips of polished glass. Selzer had seen more expression in the eyes of robots. Looking into those eyes, he knew that the man who owned them would think no more of killing him than he thought of tossing out yesterday's trash. Any further thoughts of resistance disappeared.

He didn't even ask what the Malta operatives were doing in what was, after all, merely a bureaucratic office. For all that it handled superhero licensing, the office itself was no more special than a branch of the DMV. There was no really sensitive information on file here, as far as Selzer knew; everything classified was transmitted back to the central database in Washington. They just handled the paperwork and the interviews here, that was all.

Even if Selzer had asked what they wanted, though, the Gunslinger wouldn't have told him. Even some members of his own team didn't have that need to know, much less a hostage.


It was only pure dumb luck that Jennifer Rossum was still in the building at all. She'd spent the morning being contemptuously blown off by some government flunky in a black suit and, by all rights, should have been down at the Atlas Park Up-n-Away drowning her sorrows in a 2x4 Manimal style and a large Fury Fries. As it happened, though, she'd lingered, trying to figure out from the tenth floor's lobby directory whether there was any route of appeal or escalation here, or if she'd have to go to Atlas Park or Galaxy City to lodge an objection to her treatment. By the time she finished determining that yes, in fact, she'd have to go to Atlas Park anyway, the morning's trips to the water fountain outside the waiting room necessitated one more use of a building facility.

Strangely, for all that they took down the building with ruthless dispatch and efficiency, the Malta ops were either lax or reticent when it came to sweeping the ladies' room on the tenth floor. By the time they got around to it, Jen was halfway down the hall, using the drop ceiling for cover.

People never look up, she remarked wryly to herself as she crawled along one of the support struts, mentally comparing her best guess as to her location to the rudimentary map of the building she'd instinctively put together when she arrived. She thought she was now above the room not far from the elevator she'd seen on the way in, which she figured was some kind of storeroom. If so, maybe she could find a way from there into the ventilation system and get to another office, or possibly even the roof, and then find help.

Carefully, she slid the nearest ceiling tile a little to the side and peered down through the gap, wishing as she did so that she had her bionic optic module. With it, she could easily have seen in the dark, or even thermographically through the tiles if they were poorly enough insulated. She'd been forbidden to use any high-grade technology with a possible military application unless her bid to become a licensed hero succeeded, though. It was one of the terms of her pardon.

Through the gap, she saw that she was wrong: The room wasn't a storeroom at all, but a vacant office area, with dusty, disused cubicles and a few dilapidated cardboard boxes piled near the door. Well, that would do too, she supposed. She carefully moved the tile the rest of the way and let herself down, dropping to the floor. She rather wished there were some way of putting the tile back - its absence was awfully obvious - but there wasn't short of finding something to stand on and dragging it over here, so she gave up the idea.

A shadow moved past the frosted glass window in the door leading to the hall. Jen quickly ducked into one of the empty cubicles, crouching to make herself invisible from the doorway, and listened hard for the sound of the door opening. It didn't come. Whoever was out there hadn't seen her - probably hadn't even looked at the door - and was continuing on his way.

Okay, Jen said to herself. Think. The building's been seized by freak-job supercommandos. Same guys you saw a couple of times back in the Isles. They're armed to the teeth with the best tactical gear money can buy. You, on the other hand, have no gear at all. No robots. No pulse rifle. No force field pods. Not even a lousy web grenade. All you've got is your Leatherman and your brains. So think!

It was at about that time she realized that she wasn't alone in the cubicle. Sitting opposite her, on the other side of the cubicle's "doorway", was a teenage boy, wide-eyed with fear. He was drawn up into a ball as if trying to make himself as small as possible, which wasn't much of a trick, given that he was built like an inverted broom, right down to the brush of yellow straw on top. Jen couldn't be sure, but she figured he was probably at least a year younger than she was, maybe two. And, she realized with a surprise, he was wearing a costume, slate-brown spandex with white bits and a bold capital C on his chest.

"Shh," Jen whispered, putting a finger to her lips. "Quiet. I'm on your side."

The boy stared back at her for a second, as if paralyzed by disbelief or fear. He looked around, hesitated a moment longer, then suddenly lunged across the space between them, scrambling up against the cube wall next to her.

"Who are these nutcases?" he asked in a squeaky voice that sounded like it was constantly on the ragged edge of cracking.

"They work for a secret society called the Malta Group," Jen told him. "Shadow conspiracy, one world government, blah blah blah." She kept her tone dismissive, hoping to reassure the kid. He looked and sounded like he might freak and bolt for the elevator at any moment - a fatal mistake with triggerhappy Malta Tac Ops roaming the halls.

"This is nuts," the boy squeaked. "I just came here to get my picture taken for my provisional license."

Aha, thought Jen, he must be 15, then.

"I'm not even a real hero yet," he went on. "These guys are gonna kill me before I've even had a career."

"Relax, kid," Jen said, putting a hand on his arm and reflecting ruefully on the kind of life a girl had to lead where, at the ripe old age of 17, she was the voice of experience for scared 15-year-olds. "They're just thugs in fancy tactical gear. We can handle 'em. So what's your name?"

"Jimmy. Jimmy Briston."

Jen chuckled indulgently, shaking her head. Rookies. "I meant your superhero name."

The kid reddened. "Oh. Oh, of course. Uh, Cinderblock."

"Huh. Surprised that wasn't taken." She gave his forearm another decisive pat, noting as she did that he might be a weed, but the kid did have arms that felt like rock under that spandex. "Okay, Cinderblock, here's the plan. I'm gonna go out in the hall and get the attention of one of these Tac Ops. Play the helpless girl schtick, you know, I'm so scared, I don't have anything to do with this, can't I go home. When he comes over to rough me up, I want you to hit him as hard as you can."

"I - I... " Cinderblock stopped himself, swallowed, and tried to look fearless. "I can do that."

"Good deal." Jen peeked around the edge of the cubicle wall, saw no shadow behind the door glass, and stood up. "Okay. C'mon. Ready?"

Cinderblock closed his eyes in concentration for a moment - and suddenly doubled in size, not vertically but horizontally, changing from a skinny kid a little shorter than Jen to a bridge abutment a little shorter than Jen. Muscles bulged under his costume where before there had been little evidence of anything but gristle and bone. His buzzcut hair changed from hayseed blond to the same slatey color as his costume, and when he opened his eyes, she saw that they had changed to the same color from their original light blue.

"I am now," he replied in a voice about two octaves deeper than before.

Jen smiled. This kid might work out after all.

Opening the door carefully, she looked up and down the hall. Clear one way. The back of a single Malta Tac Op heading the other way.

Pitching her voice with just a hint of a quaver (which was not entirely manufactured), Jen said, "Um... excuse me? Sir?"

The Malta op froze, his shoulders hunching with sudden surprise, then whirled and barked, "What are you doing there?"

"I, um, I think I'm on the wrong floor?" Jen replied, tugging at a lock of her prematurely white hair nervously. "I'm looking for Senator Reed's office?"

The Malta op shoved the high-tech goggles he wore up on his forehead and strode forward, his eyes emotionless behind his balaclava. Jen shrank back, putting the open office door between them.

"What are you doing?" she asked plaintively. "D-don't hurt me! I'm not supposed to be here! I just want to go home!"

Pulling a small black device from his belt, the Malta op advanced, a faint spark of an actual feeling - and not a nice one - flickering in his dead eyes.

"It's way too late for that now," he said.

As he passed the doorway, the Tac Op thumbed a button on his device, revealing it to be a stun gun as an electric arc crackled nastily between two silver prongs at the front. Before he could attempt to employ the device, however, Cinderblock suddenly launched himself out of the open doorway, his fist covered in a substance that did, indeed, look very like concrete. The Malta op was completely blindsided. He didn't even have time to turn and see what was coming before the blow struck the side of his face with a heavy crunch. The impact dropped him to his knees; he tried to key his radio with his free hand, but Cinderblock belted him again with the other fist, putting everything he had into it, and the operative dropped face-first to the floor like a sack of flour.

Jen picked up the dropped stun gun, and then she and Cinderblock quickly grabbed the man by his tactical harness and dragged him into the vacant office, shutting the door behind him.

"Nice hit," Jen told Cinderblock appreciatively as he reverted to his normal size.

"Thanks," he replied, his voice cracking. "I've... uh... never hit anyone in anger before."

"Well, trust me, this guy deserved it. Now, we don't have a lot of time before his buddies come looking for him." With quick, sure hands, she stripped the operative of all the equipment she could find, piling it neatly beside him, then used a set of plastic zip ties she found in one of his tac vest's pockets to tie him up. It didn't look like he'd be waking up anytime real soon, but it paid to take no chances these guys.

"Oh, score," said Jen as she rummaged through the compartments of the fallen operative's vest. "This guy was an engineer. That means tools. That means we are golden."

"Where are a bunch of tools going to get us?" Cinderblock asked, confused.

"You just watch," Jen told him. "Now, if I'm lucky, these goggles have fully reprocessing optics... yesssss." Grinning wolfishly, she dismantled the operative's goggles, removing one of the external eyepieces - then reached up and flipped the eyepatch she wore over her own right eye up onto her forehead. Underneath it, her right eye socket was completely covered with a smooth metal plate that had what looked like a plug socket in the center.

Cinderblock recoiled in surprise from the sight, letting out (but fortunately managing to muffle) a shocked, "Aaaa!"

Jen glanced at him with her good eye. "Sorry. Left my bionic eye in my other pants. I think I can bodge this thing to work with my interface post... " She futzed with the connectors on the back of the eyepiece a bit. "Just... like... that." The eyepiece clicked home, locking onto the plate, then glowed faintly as it came online and interfaced with the bionic implant that linked the plate to her optic nerve. " Oh yeah," said Jen with satisfaction. "Depth perception. It's what's for dinner."

The rest of her preparations took only a few moments. She adjusted the tac vest to fit her as best she could and strapped it on; it didn't fit very well even with the straps taken in as far as they would go, but it would at least afford her more protection than the dress shirt she'd worn for the interview with Government Flunky Man. It took her no more than two minutes to cull through the operative's gear, selecting some items, rejecting others. Anything she didn't keep, she disabled so the man or his pals wouldn't be able to use it against her - including his sophisticated-looking assault rifle.

"What are you doing?!" Cinderblock asked as she set about wrecking the gun. "That could be useful!"

"I'm gonna be in enough trouble as it is," Jen said wryly. "They'd never let me hear the end of it if I started shooting people. Anyway, I don't plan to fight these guys - just get the hell out of here." She looked Cinderblock in the eye, her expression serious. "Remember, we're not licensed heroes. We don't have Medicom units. If these guys nail us, we're dead."

"... Oh. Yeah." Cinderblock swallowed hard. "I, uh, kinda forgot about that," he added with a weak laugh.

"Steady, kid," Jen told him. "We'll get out of this alive if we keep our heads and play to our advantages. Being scared isn't going to help us. We'll have time for that once we're in the clear. Just... be aware. This is the real world, muchacho, and these guys aren't going to cut us any slack just because we're not old enough to drink."

"How... how old are you? And... " Cinderblock glanced away, suddenly shy. "... What's your name?"

Jen suppressed a smile - this wasn't the time or place, but it was awfully cute - and said, "Old enough to know better, kid. The name's Jen."

"No hero name?"

"They denied my application," she said, getting up. "C'mon, we gotta move."

"Denied? But why? You're... well, you're a lot cooler-headed than I am, that's for sure. And I saw what you did with that guy's goggles. You could be one of those high-tech heroes, like Valkyrie."

"Uh, we really don't have time for my life story right now," Jen snapped. It came out more severe than she'd intended, and seeing the crestfallen look on Cinderblock's face, she made an effort to soften her aspect as she added, "But I promise I'll tell you once we get out of this. Now c'mon. With this optic I should be able to find us a vent shaft."


Finding the vent was the easy part. Crawling through the damn thing, on the other hand, was never as easy as they made it look in the movies. Jen could never keep from thinking of the MythBusters episode where Jamie had tried to use rare earth magnets to climb a duct. She'd built her own duct climbing equipment once, based on force field technology rather than magnetics, but of course she didn't have it, so instead she had to rely on ordinary muscle. Fortunately, she was in good shape. Three years of living hard, constantly on the run, had seen to that.

She was working her way up the second vertical shaft they came to when she noticed that the metal of the duct was getting cool to the touch. In her mind's eye, she saw the building directory next to the elevator in the lobby, at which she'd taken a cursory glance while waiting to go upstairs earlier.

This must be the 15th floor, she thought. Telecom room. Heavy-duty air conditioning. That's what that off-and-on humming noise is.

She was about to pass by when her ears caught the faint sound of speech beyond the thin metal of the duct. Pausing, she tilted her head, wedging herself crossways in the duct so she could hold up a hand and hopefully stop Cinderblock from asking questions. Even listening as hard as she could, she couldn't make out any words, just voices. The hum of the AC units in the room beyond obliterated any detail.

Then, just as Jen was about to give up and keep ascending, the AC cycled off - and what she barely heard in the next three seconds gave her a chill that had nothing to do with the cool duct walls. She waited for the AC to kick in again so it would mask the sounds of their progress, then climbed back down to the 14th floor as quickly as possible. A vent gave access to a vacant office where she could climb out and rest her aching body while trying to think what to do about what she'd just learned.

"What's the matter?" Cinderblock asked, his voice as low as he could make it. "Why did we stop?"

Jen sat with her back against the wall and put her head in her hands, pressing her forehead as if trying to squeeze an idea out. "This just got more complicated," she said.

"What do you mean? What did you hear?"

"That cold spot in the duct was the building's telecom room. I think one of the guys in there was the leader of this Malta cell. I still don't know what these assholes are looking for... but when they find it, they're planning to blow up the building."

Cinderblock looked aghast. "What?!" he squeaked, then caught himself and tamped his voice down again. "But - there are dozens of other offices in this building. Full of people who have nothing to do with... with anything!"

Jen shook her head sadly. "That's why we call 'em villains, kid." She sighed and got to her feet. "They're probably setting the bomb up on the ground floor, or maybe the basement. Most efficient way to take out the whole building. You better get out of here. Go back in that duct and climb up until you can't any more, then look for a service panel. You should come out on the roof. Get over to the building next door, make your way down as fast as you can, and run to Williams Square. Watch out for the Council. You've got to get to Infernal and tell him what's going on."

"What are you going to do?"

"Somebody's got to try and stop these guys."

Cinderblock shook his head. "You'll have a better chance if we stick together."

"Jimmy... do you remember what I told you earlier?"

He nodded, folding his arms across his skinny chest. "All the more reason you need my help."

Jen looked at him for a couple of seconds, then cracked a smile. "Heroes," she said, shaking her head. "Okay, back in the duct. New plan is to go down until we can't any more. Hopefully that'll take us to the basement."

TO BE CONCLUDED


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  Subject     Author     Message Date     ID  
  Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 Gryphonadmin Mar-22-08 1
     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 O_M Mar-22-08 3
     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 BZArcher Mar-22-08 6
     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 MoonEyes Mar-23-08 9
         RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 Gryphonadmin Mar-23-08 10
             RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 Meagen Mar-24-08 12
             RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 illured May-21-08 13
                 RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 Gryphonadmin May-21-08 14
                     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 illured May-23-08 16
                         RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 BlackAeronaut May-25-08 17
     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 StClair Mar-23-08 11
     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2 BlackAeronaut May-23-08 15
  RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2 Matrix Dragon Mar-22-08 2
     RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2 Gryphonadmin Mar-22-08 4
         RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2 Matrix Dragon Mar-22-08 5
             RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2 Ash_3team Mar-23-08 7
                 RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2 Matrix Dragon Mar-23-08 8

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Gryphonadmin
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1. "Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #0
 
  

"Okay, too bad we couldn't get any lower with the ducts, but we're still in luck," Jen mused as she and Cinderblock crept around a corner on the building's warren-like third floor. "They must not have enough guys for proper security. And if they don't have anyone watching the stairs... crap."

She pulled back, motioning Cinderblock to do the same. He did, but not before taking a quick glance and spotting the same problem Jen had: one of the commandos at the end of the T-hallway, standing beside the door marked FIRE STAIRS.

"Okay," Jen murmured, "on to Plan D." She checked the pockets and pouches of her stolen vest, eventually selecting a couple of small, cylindrical grenades. "This'll work if we time it right." She crept to the edge of the corner, one grenade ready in her right hand, the other in her left.

"When I throw this," she said, "you beat it around the corner to the left. I'll be right behind you. Got it?"

Cinderblock nodded. "Got it."

Jen held his gaze for a moment, then turned and peeked around the corner. Then, with all the strength she could muster, she hurled the grenade in her right hand down the T-hallway to the right. A tactical entry flashbang, it went off halfway up the hall with an earsplitting noise and a brilliant flash of white light. The commando by the door instantly whirled and took a few steps in that direction, swinging his submachinegun to bear. Cinderblock lunged around the corner and ran for it in the opposite direction, behind the agent's back. Jen waited a beat, threw the grenade in her left, and then followed Cinderblock as a billowing cloud of black smoke erupted to surround the operative. By the time he got his wits about him and made his way back out of the cloud, the hallway behind him was empty again.

"Control, this is 3-9-3," he said into his tac radio. "I've got an incursion of some kind up on 3, Sector 4. I didn't get eyes on the intruder, but someone's down here throwing flashbangs and smoke. We may be compromised. Believe they're trying to make their way down."

"Roger, 3-9-3, remain at your post," the voice of the commanding Gunslinger replied crisply. "2-6-9, investigate and intercept."

Down the hall and around the corner, Jen and Cinderblock crouched behind a half-height cubicle divider, catching their breath.

"Think he saw us?" Cinderblock asked.

"No. He'd have shot us," Jen replied. "He knows something's up, though. We have to find a back way to the lobby. I wish I had a floorplan of this damned building. This is what I get for not preparing for contingencies." She was about to say something more, but then froze and held up a hand. She'd just heard the cheery ding! of an elevator in the distance, and now someone was approaching up the hallway, but there was more than just the sound of boots on carpet. This one was accompanied by a strange sort of low humming noise, like an old-fashioned radio warming up. Jen felt goosebumps rising on her arms. She knew that sound - and was suddenly aware of how meager their cover really was.

"Stay down," she whispered to Cinderblock - but he glanced up and caught a glimpse of the person approaching.

"It's just one guy," he murmured. "He hasn't even got a machinegun. I can take him."

So saying, he triggered the change to his slate-haired, muscle-bound form, raised himself up like a runner on the starting blocks, and sprang.

"Cinderblock, WAIT - " Jen said, but it was too late. Cinderblock had broken cover and was making straight for the Malta op, who spotted him instantly and paused, his body language evincing surprise.

Surprise, but not trepidation. Without hesitating, he drew a strange-looking rifle-like device from his back, leveled it, and fired. Instead of launching a projectile, this device emitted a beam of blue-white light that struck Cinderblock full in the chest, splashing off the bold C on his costume in a brilliant spray of sparks. Cinderblock checked for an instant, realized it wasn't doing him any physical harm, and kept charging.

This was a mistake.

Three strides later, he faltered, blinking in confusion, as he suddenly realized that his limbs felt like lead. A wave of utter exhaustion swept over him, causing him to stumble -

- and then, to his horror, he reverted back to his normal form. He looked down at his hands in astonishment, then back up at the Malta Sapper.

Who had put away his Bio-Emergy Feedback Inducer and drawn a plain, old, ordinary .40-caliber pistol. Useless against most supers. More than enough to make a very fatal hole in a suddenly un-super teenage boy.

"Bad move, kid," he said.

Jen didn't consciously think about what she was doing. Had she done so, she would have realized that it was suicide. She didn't even have any superpowers, and she was charging headlong into battle against a man who had just defeated someone who did.

She didn't think about that, though. All her attention, the full power of her remarkable intellect, was going into assessing her environment, identifying her assets, and figuring out how she was going to win.

The Sapper spotted the new threat and, judging it more immediate than the stunned, depowered kid in slate-colored spandex, shifted his aim. Jen hurled down a second smoke grenade, this one filling the corridor with a thick grey mist. The Sapper lost a half-second switching his tactical goggles to thermographic mode - just as Jen expected him to do.

Ducking off her direct course, Jen threw off his aim, making him put a bullet in the wall, and, without slackening speed, tore the bright red fire extinguisher off the corridor wall next to him. Swinging it to bear, she yanked out the safety pin, squeezed the trigger grip, and prayed the building's maintenance staff was good about keeping the extinguishers charged.

It was. The grey mist was suddenly split with a billowing cloud of white, spurting with a roar from the cone of the extinguisher. The Sapper recoiled, cursing, as his thermo goggles abruptly went featureless blue. Jen caught a lucky break, too: He was just on the point of inhaling when she blasted him, and carbon dioxide doesn't breathe very well. The Sapper staggered, coughing violently.

Filled with fury, the aches and pains of her long climb down the ducts washed away by adrenaline, Jen reared the extinguisher back and slammed the flat butt of the cylinder into the side of the man's head. The impact snapped the chin strap on his helmet and catapulted the composite armor shell clean off his head. He reeled, dropping his sidearm, and Jen hit him again, then again, finally swinging the cylinder low and bringing it up under his chin with a great hollow WHOP. The Sapper went up and over backward, crashing down on his back.

Cinderblock heard all this rather than saw it, thanks to the smoke, and for a moment he thought the man in black tactical gear had surely defeated his new friend - defeated her, and would now be coming to finish him off.

Instead, the mist cleared to show him Jen standing, panting for breath, over the flat and motionless form of the Sapper. She stayed where she was for a moment, collecting herself, then dropped the extingusher and grabbed the Sapper by his harness.

"I can't - I can't power up," Cinderblock said, his voice cracking with fright, as Jen quickly but methodically stripped the Sapper of his equipment. "I'm so tired. I can barely move. What did that guy do to me?"

"They're called Sappers," Jen said without looking up from her work. "The weapon they carry dampens superpowers somehow, I'm not sure of the exact principle. It's a temporary effect. You'll be fine in a little while." She shrugged into the strange-looking backpack she'd taken from the Sapper, made sure the straps were snug, and then tore the side access panel off his feedback inducer to bare the glowing blue innards.

"What are you going to do?" Cinderblock asked as Jen started adjusting the innards of the device.

"Well," Jen replied in a semi-distracted voice, "these guys don't have superpowers, so this thing won't be much help as is, but... aaahhh, excellent. It works by producing a phased plasma stream that - well, never mind." She smiled darkly as she kept working. "Point is, if I screw around with the guts of it a little, I can make it do something a lot more interesting."

"2-6-9, report," said the radio clipped to the unconscious Sapper's battle dress, making Cinderblock jump. A few seconds went by, and then the voice said again, in a more urgent tone, "2-6-9, report."

Jen considered for a second. Then, with her dark smile widening a little, she unclipped the microphone, popped the faceplate off, made a couple of adjustments, and then thumbed the push-to-talk key and intoned gleefully, "Now I have a jet pack. Ho ho ho."

Then, before the man on the other end could respond, she switched the base unit off, turned it over, and started dismantling it.

"Uh... won't he know who you are now?" Cinderblock asked hesitantly.

"Nah. If I did the mods to the mic right, I sounded like Darth Vader. And if I did them wrong I sounded like Elmo." She shrugged. "Either way he's in the dark." After a few more seconds, which involved putting the bits of the radio she's removed into the feedback inducer, Jen seemed satisfied with her modifications. She adjusted a couple more components and watched with that same not-entirely-nice grin as the device's humming deepened to a snarl and the bluish glow shifted to a dangerous-looking orange.

"Okay," she said, closing the access panel and standing up. "Stay here. You've already cheated death once today; don't get greedy."

"What about you?"

Jen shouldered her newly modified weapon. "I'll be playing a hunch. If you get enough strength back, head for the roof like I told you before. Okay?"

"Okay. ... Jen?"

"Yeah?"

"Sorry I didn't listen to you before," Cinderblock said with a wan half-smile.

Jen smiled slightly in return, but it wasn't the nasty smile she'd had before.

"Don't sweat it, kid. I've worked with way dumber help'n you."


Only part of Jen's plan was based on a hunch. The other half was based on an observed fact: This building had an atrium-style lobby. Jen had noticed that it reached up to the third floor when she came in, and now she found herself looking down over the balustrade to the inlaid marble floor below. There she saw that the rest of her hunch was on the money, too. The bomb was behind the reception desk, where, if it had as much explosive as she guessed from its size, the blast would cut through the building's central spine, where the elevator column was located, and bring the whole place crashing down.

There were two things that prevented her from just swooping down and taking the thing out. They were both wearing black tac gear, and they were both looking around the lobby with the furtive body language of men on edge. The loss of contact with two members of their squad obviously had them keyed up. Jen would have to be careful.

She knelt behind the balustrade, dug into the top pocket of her captured flak vest, and found a small stick of black camouflage paint. Unscrewing it, she drew a basic domino mask on her face. She wasn't sure why she was going to the trouble of doing that, but it seemed somehow appropriate.

Okay, she told herself. You're all alone with no backup, a captured flight pack, and a cobbled-together weapon that may not even work. You've got to get down there, take out those two military-trained killers, defuse the biggest goddamn bomb you've ever seen, and hope you can get that done and get out to find help before the rest of them swarm you.

No problem.

She stood up, gathered herself, climbed up onto the balustrade, and stepped off.

The Sapper flight pack was surprisingly smooth. She'd never used one before, but in these close quarters, it compared quite favorably to the Sky Raiders' rather unwieldy Raptor Packs, to say nothing of those goofy jet sled things favored by the Gold Brickers. With her experience with both of the latter, plus her lost, beloved jet boots, Jen quickly mastered the Sapper pack, getting it fully under control before either of the operatives down on the ground floor spotted her.

They never look up, she remarked to herself with grim satisfaction before diving on the one furthest from the bomb, leveling her jury-rigged weapon, and firing.

Instead of the stream of cold tuned plasma the normal feedback inducers fired, the one Jen had modified spat a bolt of... well, fire, more or less. Caught completely off-guard, the Malta Tac Op nearest the exit suddenly found himself engulfed in flames. Jen had to hand it to him: He was tough and well-trained. He didn't thrash, didn't make a sound - just spun in place, trying to figure out where the attack had come from. She vectored sideways and pumped another blast into him. This time he seemed to freak a little, flailing his arms. Then he slumped - not burned to death, his advanced combat gear would see to that, but knocked out by the heat and the sudden removal of all the oxygen from his immediate vicinity.

Before the other completely grasped what was happening, Jen darted across and blasted him as well. He had a little better situational awareness; ignoring the flames licking at his uniform, he pulled a grenade from his belt and threw it at her. Jen partially dodged, avoiding the explosion and shrapnel, but the concussion threw her for a bit of a loop, making her tumble almost completely end-for-end in mid-air. That gave the second Tac Op time to swing his submachinegun into position and let loose a burst.

Jen gritted her teeth and suppressed a yelp of pain as the combat vest she'd taken from the Engineer stopped the bullets, but not without transmitting a feeling very like getting hit in the chest with a sledgehammer. Snarling, she raised her modified feedback inducer and let him have it again, then again. The third shot was probably not necessary - he was already going down as she fired it.

Wincing, she let herself drop to the marble floor and turned her attention to the bomb -

- and felt her heart sinking, for standing between her and it was an operative in the same gear as the others... except for his bulky field jacket, his strange-looking high-tech backpack, and his cowboy hat.

Arms folded, the Gunslinger regarded her with eyes like chips of glacier ice.

"I have to admit," he said in a soft, menacing voice, "I was expecting someone a little more... polished."

Jen fought down a spike of fear - these guys were tough enough with her old six-robot army backing her up, never mind all alone with an improvised flame cannon that could conk out at any second - and leveled her weapon.

"I'm not going to let you blow up this building," she said.

The Gunslinger eyed her. "I don't see where you have a choice," he said. His eyes flicked away from her at the same time that she felt a strange vibration in the soles of her Doc Martens. Spinning, she saw the hulking form of a Hercules-class Titan, one of the Malta's 12-foot-tall, heavily armored enforcer robots, looming up behind her...

... and smiled.

Holding up a hand, she barked, "Останови! Отвергную - Большая Патриотическая Война!"

The Titan paused as if considering her words for a moment... and then shut down, settling down on its suspension and locking into place as if prepared for transport.

The Gunslinger's eyes widened, even his arctic cool cracked by what he'd just seen.

"What th - What did you do?"

Jen allowed a faint smirk onto her face.

"That's what you get for stealing your robot technology from the Soviets," she said.

The Gunslinger gazed at her for a second, then nodded, his eyes - the only part of his face visible between hat and mask - taking on an air of satisfaction.

"It'll be an honor to kill you myself," he said.

Not quite the reaction I was hoping for, Jen mused ruefully as she jumped behind the deactivated Titan. The Gunslinger's first effort smacked harmlessly against the robot's armor. Jen quickly clambered up the back of the Titan, yanked open an access panel, and hoped she could quickly make sense of what she found inside.

Just as she'd expected, it was all very familiar-looking indeed. A few seconds' work with the miniature screwgun she'd taken from the Engineer, a couple of crosspatched circuits, and the Titan rumbled back to life - then pivoted and locked onto the Gunslinger.

That cracked his composure but good - he actually cursed as the Titan fired a swarm of missiles at him. With lightning reaction speed, the Gunslinger activated his teleport pack, blinking out of harm's way as the missiles exploded and set the far corner of the lobby on fire. Jen jumped down from the back of the Titan and prepared to get clear.

The Gunslinger materialized between her and the building exit, already shoving a new round into his high-tech revolver sidearm; he snapped the cylinder shut and sidearmed the weapon, blasting the floor just in front of Jen with an explosive round. She tried to trigger her flight pack, but an instant too late - the blast caught her and flung her backward to crash heavily into one of the columns that held up the lobby ceiling. She rebounded and fell to hands and knees, shaking her head to clear it. By the time she looked up, the Gunslinger was standing over her, thumbing another bullet into the top chamber of his sidearm.

The Titan took advantage of its target's distraction to fire its plasma blaster, but its aim was off; the blast clipped the top of the Gunslinger's teleport pack, not damaging the equipment itself but shearing away part of the armor. The Gunslinger turned, his hands a blur, instantly switching to an armor-piercing round. Jen shook off her disorientation, got her feet under her, and ducked past the back of the Gunslinger, reaching up as she did so to reach into the rent on his teleport pack's armor and grab one of the internal component. Before he could react to that, the Titan fired again, this time hitting him full in the chest and hurling him across the lobby.

Jen ran as hard as she could to the other end, reaching the bomb before the Gunslinger could recover his wits. Jamming more armor-piercing ammunition into his revolver, he fanned the hammer and unloaded a punishing fusillade that sent the Hercules-class Titan reeling in a hail of sparks. The robot tried to regroup and counterattack, but the Gunslinger's bullets had found vital components. The robot twitched, smoked, and then fell on its back.

By the time the Gunslinger finished reloading, Jen had a hand on the timing device atop the bomb's 55-gallon-drum main charge container.

"If you shoot me," she said, "I might pull the wrong wire - and I know you guys aren't suicide bombers."

The Gunslinger took a step toward her, snarling, "You're going to regret this so much."

"You'll never get over here before I can disarm this thing," she said. As he reached for the controls on his belt, she hesitated, timing her response to hairsbreadth precision, then said, "And I wouldn't try teleporting if I were you."

The Gunslinger's finger had already pressed the button. He looked up sharply as the pack on his back began audibly powering up - to see Jen grinning wickedly at him and holding up a small electronic widget in the hand that wasn't on the bomb.

"This is your Heisenberg compensator," she said. "Who knows where you'll end up without it?"

"Wha - NOOOOOOOO!" the Gunslinger cried, and then, in a harsh burst of blue light, he vanished.

Jen let out the breath she'd unconsciously been holding, sagging slightly as the adrenaline drained away, and shoved the compensator in her pocket, then turned to see about disabling the bomb.

Another Malta Tac Op stood in front of the elevator, his assault rifle aimed square at her head.

"Nice job taking out Starlight Black 1-3-1," he said. "I wouldn't believe it if I hadn't seen it myself. You've got potential, kid." Still keeping the rifle trained on her with his right hand, he took his left off the forend and drew his stun gun from his belt. "We can use you."

"The hell you can!" a voice boomed from above. Startled, the op looked up - just in time for about 300 pounds of mutant teenager to slam into him from the top of the atrium, smashing him to the floor so hard he made a crater. His tac gear saved him from a messy death, but he wasn't going to be making any more threats - or eating any hard foods - for a while.

Cinderblock got to his feet, dusting off his hands, and grinned.

"Aren't you glad I didn't listen to you this time?" he asked.

Jen returned the grin, reached to the bomb, and pulled off the green wire.


Ms. Liberty, Detective Murwell, and a detachment of Longbow troops and power-armored Paragon Police Department special weapons officers arrived within two minutes of Jen's call, made on a cell phone she'd managed to piece back together from the last Tac Op's top pocket. They cleared the building of the remaining Malta and secured the ones Jen and Cinderblock had left tied up on the upper floors.

The two teenagers, tired and sore but pleased with their day's work, stood off to the side and watched the proceedings. Members of the department's post-incident cleanup crew were removing the remains of the Titan and securing the bomb while Murwell and the armored PPD officers led the ambulatory Malta operatives out, hands on their heads.

"You won't get anything out of us," one of them snarled.

"If I want anything from you, creep, you'll be the first to know," Murwell replied in his flat, metallic voice.

"Hey, Jen?" Cinderblock asked.

"Yeah."

"How did you know how to hack that robot?"

Jen smiled. "My dad invented it," he said.

"... Seriously?"

"It's part of that long story I was telling you about earlier. My father used to design military robots for the Soviets, ages ago. Way before my time. He defected in the early '80s. I've always figured the Malta based the Titans on equipment they swiped during the fall of the USSR. Looks like I was right." Tossing the Gunslinger's Heisenberg compensator in the air and catching it again, she added airly, "That ought to make an interesting report for someone at Longbow to read... "

Just then Anders Selzer arrived in the lobby, escorted by Ms. Liberty and looking rumpled and out of sorts but unharmed.

"... still not sure what they were after, but all of our information systems seem to be intact," Selzer was saying. "Of course, we'll be getting a team of experts in from Washington to sweep the facility from top to bottom before we resume operations. In the meantime, our workload will be distributed among the city's other four field offices."

"Good," Ms. Liberty said. "You can never be too careful with the Malta Group." She and Selzer walked across the lobby, pausing in front of Jen and Cinderblock. "And these are the two who saved the day, I understand," she said with a grin.

"Jen saved the day," Cinderblock said modestly. "I just helped."

"'Jen'? Not much of a hero name," said Ms. Liberty with a questioning look.

"My application was denied," Jen said, shrugging.

Ms. Liberty's eyebrows went up. "Was it now," she said, looking at Selzer.

"Er... well, under the circumstances, perhaps we might... re-examine the particulars," the bureaucrat said.

"I think," Ms. Liberty said, "that might be a very good idea." Smiling at Jen again, she said, "Given any thought to what your hero name will be?"

Jen considered for a second - she hadn't, really - and then grinned as the day's events and a friend's nom de guerre came together in her mind.

"I think I'll call myself the Torch of Victory," she said.

"Operation Starlight Black"
A
City of Heroes story by Benjamin D. Hutchins
Linguistic assist by Dave Lieberman
2008 Eyrie Productions, Unlimited
City of Heroes NC Interactive


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O_M
Member since Jun-19-05
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Mar-22-08, 04:31 AM (EDT)
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3. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #1
 
   About the only way the Gunslinger's reaction could've been better is if they'd brought two Hercules along. Because I can just imagine the slightly malicious glee Jen'd take in subverting a Zeus.


-OM

"Crypto-lesbians? Sounds like someone threw a zombie movie into a blender with a porno."


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BZArcher
Member since Nov-8-05
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Mar-22-08, 10:19 AM (EDT)
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6. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #1
 
   *grins* That was fantastic!

---------------------------
Hope Rides Alone


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MoonEyes
Member since Jun-29-03
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Mar-23-08, 06:19 PM (EDT)
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9. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #1
 
   Two questions...


>Holding up a hand, she barked,
>"Останови!
>Отвергную -
>Большая
>Патриотическая
>Война!"

...means what, exactly? Or at least, what was it SUPPOSED to mean? *curious*

>The Gunslinger's eyes widened, even his arctic cool cracked by what
>he'd just seen.


And, is the Gunslinger part of the game, or home-made? *curious again* Haven't played COH/V more than 10 days, and that must've been a couple years ago.

Gott's Leetle Feesh in Trousers!


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Gryphonadmin
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Mar-23-08, 06:25 PM (EDT)
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10. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #9
 
   >>Holding up a hand, she barked,
>>"Останови! Отвергную - Большая Патриотическая Война!"
>
>...means what, exactly? Or at least, what was it SUPPOSED to mean?

"Halt! Override: Great Patriotic War!"

(The Soviet war robots on which the Titans are based had nothing much to do with the Great Patriotic War, having been developed in the late 1970s, but it was a handy override keyphrase.)

>And, is the Gunslinger part of the game, or home-made?

Gunslingers are a particular type of Malta Group officer. This particular one, Starlight Black 1-3-1, doesn't appear in the game, but they all have the same capabilities. Most named Malta officers (that is, ones who appear with unique names instead of just "Gunslinger" above their heads) have codenames following a similar convention, $NOUN $COLOR X-Y-Z, though there are some exceptions, most notably the one codenamed - I'm not making this up - "Kitty Kat Bravo". :)

--G.
-><-
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Admin
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/


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Meagen
Member since Jul-14-02
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Mar-24-08, 03:45 PM (EDT)
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12. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #10
 
   >Most named
>Malta officers (that is, ones who appear with unique names instead of
>just "Gunslinger" above their heads) have codenames following a
>similar convention, $NOUN $COLOR X-Y-Z, though there are some
>exceptions, most notably the one codenamed - I'm not making this up -
>"Kitty Kat Bravo". :)
>

I'm not sure where exactly I read it, but the line "Table Brown Ikea is still sulking about their codename" pops up in my brain every time Malta Gunslingers are discussed.

--
With great power come great perks.


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illured
Member since May-21-08
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May-21-08, 08:26 PM (EDT)
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13. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #10
 
   >>>"Останови! Отвергную - Большая Патриотическая Война!"
>>...means what, exactly? Or at least, what was it SUPPOSED to mean?
>
>"Halt! Override: Great Patriotic War!"
>

Uh, not that it changes much in an English-language story, but the correct translation is:
"Остановись! Отменить: Великая Отечественная Война!"

Mind you, you _have_ to be wearing a superhero costume to actually say something like this out loud, and it's still incorrect grammatically, but it's short enough.

While Russian name for World War II is indeed translated into English as "Great Patriotic War", the literal translation is "Great Fatherland War". You know, those darn computers are so particular about passwords...

My 2 cents worth of trivia...


Alec


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Gryphonadmin
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May-21-08, 08:38 PM (EDT)
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14. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #13
 
   >While Russian name for World War II is indeed translated into English
>as "Great Patriotic War", the literal translation is "Great Fatherland
>War".

You know, I mentioned that to our linguistics guy, because I was seeing a different rendering in what little of various Russian-language pages that appeared to be about the war I could figure out, but he said no, this is the way you say that. And I figured, well, believe the guy who did the translations in Apotheosis Now, believe the wikipedia... you make the call.

Ah well. Can't win 'em all.

--G.
-><-
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Admin
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
Ceterum censeo Carthaginem esse delendam.


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illured
Member since May-21-08
2 posts
May-23-08, 07:33 PM (EDT)
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16. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #14
 
   LAST EDITED ON May-23-08 AT 09:14 PM (EDT) by Gryphon (admin)
 
[Fixed the incredibly long wikipedia link, which was breaking horizontal scroll. --G.]

>You know, I mentioned that to our linguistics guy, because I was
>seeing a different rendering in what little of various
>Russian-language pages that appeared to be about the war I could
>figure out, but he said no, this is the way you say that. And I
>figured, well, believe the guy who did the translations in
>Apotheosis Now, believe the wikipedia... you make the call.
>
>Ah well. Can't win 'em all.
>

Indeed. Besides, it's not like the language used in Hunt for Red October or other high budget productions was much more accurate. Even Wikipedia:
here says "liberated encyclopedia" while I always thought it was free as in beer.

Anyway, it doesn't detract from the story in any way.


Here's an interesting memory that floated up in my mind. A couple of years ago there was this exhibition of Soviet art in the Guggenheim Museum here in the city. I got a private tour with my MBA class, so there were 20-something of us in an empty museum, which was kind of cool. We got to this enormous painting of the battle of Stalingrad with the Russian and the German soldiers running towards each other bayonets first, over a barricade. And then I realized that right next to me was a German classmate whose grandfather was one side of this barricade while my grandfather was on another. Funny how this world works.


Alec


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BlackAeronaut
Member since Oct-21-05
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May-25-08, 07:49 AM (EDT)
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17. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #16
 
   >Here's an interesting memory that floated up in my mind. A couple of
>years ago there was this exhibition of Soviet art in the Guggenheim
>Museum here in the city. I got a private tour with my MBA class, so
>there were 20-something of us in an empty museum, which was kind of
>cool. We got to this enormous painting of the battle of Stalingrad
>with the Russian and the German soldiers running towards each other
>bayonets first, over a barricade. And then I realized that right next
>to me was a German classmate whose grandfather was one side of this
>barricade while my grandfather was on another. Funny how this world
>works.

Tell me about it. My own grandfather was in the Pacific during WWII and now look where I am. I keep on wondering if I'm gonna wind up dating a girl whose grandfather was involved as well. I dunno if it would make for an awkward moment or not.


Black Aeronaut Technologies
Creative aerospace solutions for the discerning spacer
"To the commissary we should go," Yoda declared firmly. "News of this kind a danish requires."


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StClair
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Mar-23-08, 08:43 PM (EDT)
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11. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #1
 
   Awesome.


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BlackAeronaut
Member since Oct-21-05
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May-23-08, 06:06 AM (EDT)
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15. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 2 of 2"
In response to message #1
 
   Good lord... Both you and Bob Shroek are conspiring to get me to start playing this game! Though I might just actually do it since, unlike WoW, doesn't seem to suck your soul away. Seriously, every time I come to the fleet rec center there's at least ten people here staring dully at their laptops as they make the most minimal movements to play WoW. And that's when most of the fleet is out!


Black Aeronaut Technologies
Creative aerospace solutions for the discerning spacer
"To the commissary we should go," Yoda declared firmly. "News of this kind a danish requires."


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Matrix Dragon
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Mar-22-08, 03:53 AM (EDT)
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2. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"
In response to message #0
 
   Fun story. Trust Jen to put together her superhero gear while running about getting in trouble... Given that's how she ended up as the General the first time, if I remember right. Nice to see her lucks going better here.

Cinderblock was fun. Another new character of you or a friend, I suppose? The Die Hard reference had me giggling, and the twist with the robot made me laugh as I guessed her dad designed the original.

Fun story all round.

Matrix Dragon, J. Random Nutter


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Gryphonadmin
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4. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"
In response to message #2
 
   >Cinderblock was fun. Another new character of you or a friend, I
>suppose?

No, just invented for the story. (Jen's reaction aside, c'mon, that name is sooooo taken. :)

I did bodge up a couple of pics of him with the costume tool, though.

His powers don't exactly correspond to anything in the game, but basically he's an Invulnerability/Stone Melee Tanker.

--G.
-><-
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Admin
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/


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Matrix Dragon
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Mar-22-08, 05:41 AM (EDT)
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5. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"
In response to message #4
 
   >No, just invented for the story. (Jen's reaction aside, c'mon, that
>name is sooooo taken. :)

Yeah, good point. That, or he hadn't gotten his picture taken yet, and was about to fall victim to 'you should have checked that name' syndrome (Which has happened to all of us a few times :)

Matrix Dragon, J. Random Nutter


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Ash_3team
Member since Dec-30-03
15 posts
Mar-23-08, 07:07 AM (EDT)
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7. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"
In response to message #5
 
   At least now they have the Check Name button.


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Matrix Dragon
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Mar-23-08, 08:39 AM (EDT)
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8. "RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"
In response to message #7
 
   >At least now they have the Check Name button.

Yeah, but I'm a victim of picking a power set, messing around in the character designer for half an hour (It's one of the best things about the game, I swear!), then coming up with a name based off that :P

Matrix Dragon, J. Random Nutter


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