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Subject: "Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2"     Previous Topic | Next Topic
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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 1 of 2 [View All] Gryphonadmin Mar-22-08 TOP
   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 BZArchermoderator 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_3 Mar-23-08 7
                  RE: Operation Starlight Black: Part 1 of 2 Matrix Dragon Mar-23-08 8


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