LAST EDITED ON Dec-01-12 AT 01:53 AM (EST)
[This came crashing out of my head this evening, and since the timing is tight for obvious reasons, it hasn't had a lot of polishing. Apologies for the sorts of things that would normally have gotten sanded off; that may happen later. --G.]
Friday, November 30, 2012
The Étoile Islands
50 miles off the U.S. Atlantic coast
The first clue Captain Photon had that something had gone terribly wrong in the Rogue Isles was the smoke. On previous flights through that part of the Atlantic, he had skirted the edge of Étoile airspace, so he knew well that the Isles weren't blessed with the clearest air around anyway - there was a constant pall of haze and smog over the archipelago, visible for miles - but this was different. This was multiple columns of thick, roiling smoke, most of them jet-black, rising into the sky from several different islands.
By now, he should have been challenged by the heavy cordon of Arachnos aerospace defenses that ringed the Isles specifically to keep flying heroes like himself at bay. No such challenge came, though, and as he approached Cap au Diable, Photon could see why. The airfield there lay in ruins, its fractured tarmac scattered with the wreckage of Arachnos's air force. Beyond, the central tower of Aeon City burned, the source of one of the black smoke columns he'd seen from further out.
Although, if he was being honest, all that rather paled in comparison to the spectacle in the center of the island, where Mount Diable was erupting, flinging red lava down its slopes and white steam into the sky. The steam almost seemed to glow with the orange light of the almost-setting sun, which painted the broken cityscape below with eerie, jagged shadows. It reminded Photon a little of flying over Faultline as a rookie hero, in the days before the repairs began.
Could this be a natural disaster? he wondered, giving the mountain a wide berth. Beyond the vapor column of the eruption, he spotted another pillar of smoke in the distance - not black or white, but a strange diffuse grey, with an irregular twisting shape that flattened as it reached the stratosphere. Behind his goggles, Photon blinked in shock. He'd only seen smoke behave that way in films before.
"Photon to Neutrino," he said, keying his Justice League communicator. "I think I've located what I came out here looking for."
"That's affirmative, Captain," the voice of Professor Neutrino replied in his earpiece. "Looks like you've found Marshal Blitz's missing nuke... for some values of 'found'." There was a pause filled with the faint sound of typing; then the professor added, "JusticeSat Four has just come into scan range. I'm reading minimal beta decay. The area's fairly clean for an atomic blast zone. You'll have no trouble."
"Roger that," Photon said. "I'm going in for a closer look."
"Be careful, Dan," Neutrino told him. "The locals aren't likely to be too welcoming after a day like the one they seem to have had."
"That's not the half of it," Photon said as he closed in on what had been the Isles' capital city. "Mount Diable is erupting, Aeon City is in ruins, and I can see at least half a dozen major fires on the other islands. I don't know what the hell's gone on over here, but it looks like the nuke was just the cherry on top."
"Strange. JS4 reads no sign of Rikti activity," Neutrino said.
"Well, we'll find out in a - ... oh wow."
"Say again?" Neutrino said; then he apparently looked back to the feed from Photon's goggles, because the next thing he said was a hushed, "Oh my."
Captain Photon hovered for a moment, not answering, and just took in the scene. Below him, where, in Longbow intel photos, he'd seen the weblike streets of Spider City surmounted by the sinister bulk of the Web and Lord Recluse's tower, there was... well, basically nothing.
The outskirts of Spider City were still there, more or less - buildings smashed, pylons and perimeter towers collapsed, with glass and rubble littering the streets - but the center of the sprawl had been completely erased, leaving nothing behind but a smoldering crater. Only about half of the grand plaza that had once fronted the tower remained, including the toppled, half-melted remains of the giant Recluse statue that had once lorded over the island.
Photon touched down a hundred yards or so from the wrecked statue and turned slowly around, taking in the whole panorama. He'd never seen any urban landscape so completely destroyed as this. When he had arrived in Paragon City, just out of high school and so wet behind the ears he practically dripped, the Rikti War had just ended and the city lay in what he had thought of at the time as utter ruin, but it had been a shining utopia compared to this. Only the meteor-smashed husk of Galaxy City could approach it.
What was more, it looked like someone had fought a war in this plaza before the bomb dropped. Amid the rubble and urban detritus, Photon's eye made out the scattered forms of dozens - no, hundreds - maybe even thousands of fallen combatants. Some were Arachnos soldiers, many of them beginning to stir and groan fitfully, as though just regaining consciousness. Many more were Arachnobots and various advanced forms of same, torn and dismantled by heavy weapons fire. Still more were the remains of what had evidently been the opposing force: non-aligned robots of an entirely different design.
A very familiar design.
Captain Photon went to the nearest of the non-Arachnos robots and turned it over. It was dead, its power core destroyed, but enough of it remained that he could clearly make out the insignia on its plastron: two interlocking gear wheels, painted in stark white on the black armor.
Straightening, he looked around the battlefield in disbelief. Apart from the live Arachnos personnel, some of whom were conscious now, he saw nothing but rubble and smashed robots -
A little way off to his left, near what had been the center of the plaza, a small heap of wreckage shifted, then collapsed, sloughing away from the armor of a robot that had been hunched there. Servos whining, it straightened to its full height, shedding more debris. This was a much larger specimen than the one whose wreckage Photon had examined, with a great turret of a head surmounting a powerfully built chassis that stood a good 20 feet tall and bristled with weapons. It was dented, battered, its armor partly melted in a few places, but it still looked fully operational.
Huddled on the ground at its feet lay a much smaller form. As Photon ran toward them, the robot turned its massive weapons to bear on him, paused briefly as its scanning optic swept back and forth, and then stood down, declaring in a metallic voice,
"Match: Captain Photon. Clearance: White. Approach."
Photon skidded to a halt next to the crumpled form the robot had been protecting and dropped to one knee. As he expected, the shape was a woman, dressed all in black; she had white hair, but her face was youthful as he gently turned her onto her back. One of her eyes was covered with a cybernetic optic mount, its darkened lens staring blankly upward; the other was closed. She was bruised, bloodied, her black leather uniform tattered, but she was all in one piece, though unconscious. He felt for her pulse and found nothing - but she wasn't cold or stiff, so there was still a chance.
Reaching to his utility belt, Photon unpacked his MediMate, switched it to resuscitation mode, and applied it.
With a sudden, convulsive intake of breath, General Jen Rossum sat up, her good eye opening wide as her cybernetic one blazed back to life with a red internal glow.
"Wha!" she declared, then blinked, shook her head, and looked around. "Dan! Hey!" She frowned, touched her chest, then looked from the MediMate's extended probes to Photon's face. "Was I dead?"
"More or less," Photon replied. He packed up the device, put it away, and got to his feet, then reached down and helped the General up up.
She rose, still a little unsteady, and braced herself against Universal Robot #76's leg for a moment to catch her breath. "Whoo," she said. "Forgot what a rush that is." Stepping out of the assault droid's shadow, she put her hands on her hips and looked around. "Well!" she said with satisfaction. "I'd call that a solid day's work." Noticing that some of the Arachnos troopers in the area were struggling to their feet as well, she pressed a couple of keys on her wrist computer.
For a moment nothing happened; then the smoky sky above the ruins of Grandville suddenly filled with dozens of parachutes, each one carrying a metal crate. As they touched down, each crate fell open, its sides dropping away, to release a brand-new, factory-fresh Rossum Industries battle droid. Any Arachnos personnel who might've been thinking about renewing hostilities reconsidered quickly and put their hands up.
General Rossum contemplated a rapidly scrolling status report on her computer's holodisplay for a few moments, then nodded and looked up to survey the ruins of Grandville again.
"Looks like 82B and 94 have things under control in sectors two and three," she said. "The Rogue Isles are secure... what's left of them. Hang on a sec. I'll be right back."
With Photon following perplexedly behind and 76 looming in their wake, Rossum limped past the fallen Recluse statue to the edge of the blast crater, then skidded down its crumbling, glassy wall and made her way to the middle. The glass was still hot and vaguely plastic, but she didn't seem to care as she stooped and picked up a small item near the Ground Zero. Only then did she fire up her sputtering, battle-damaged jet boots and fly unsteadily back to Photon's side.
Before he could comment, Professor Neutrino's voice said in his ear, "Heads up, Cap. You've got company coming in."
Moments later that company arrived, in the form of a flotilla of white-and-red Freedom Corps choppers, taking advantage of the collapse of the Arachnos air defense net. Even before these were on the ground, they were disgorging Longbow troopers by the score, fanning out to secure the already-secured scene.
From what had been the lead helicopter in the formation came two figures even more distinctive and colorful than their troops, figures who strode across the rubble-strewn plaza and stopped directly in front of General Rossum and Captain Photon. 76 covered them warily as they came within threat range, but Rossum raised her free hand, making a small gesture, and the robot did not attack.
"Captain," said Statesman with a cordial but not particularly warm nod to the younger hero.
"States," Photon replied. "Ms. L."
"Hey, Cap," said Ms. Liberty, a little more cheerfully.
"What happened here?" Statesman inquired.
"I happened," General Rossum said flatly; then she gave a wry smile and added with a gesture that vaguely encompassed her robot army, "Well - me and my boys."
Frowning behind his mask, Statesman glanced around at the devastation, then fixed the General with a sharp look and asked, "What did you do?!"
Rossum didn't look particularly cowed. "Well... not to put too fine a point on it, Marcus... your job," she said, and then tossed the object she'd gone into the crater to retrieve at his feet. It rolled once on the cracked concrete pavement, bumped against Statesman's boot, and came to rest.
Blackened, fractured, and empty, it was still instantly recognizable as Lord Recluse's helmet.
"Turns out e=mc2 even applies to an ego as colossal as his," she went on. "Who knew?"
Statesman stared down at the only mortal remains of his oldest foe for a few long moments, then met the young woman's eyes, bionic and organic, with his.
"Recluse was technically a head of state," he said. "That's why we could never touch him here. This will have serious international ramifications."
Rossum shrugged. "So what do I care?" she asked. "Ask your courts back in Paragon City. I'm a supervillain." She chuckled darkly. "And I've just brought down the most evil organization on Earth. How's that taste, heroes?" Folding her arms, she went on, "Also, if you check the protocols of Recluse's goofy 'Destined Project', you'll see that now he's radioactive water vapor, I'm technically a head of state. So, you know." She gestured to the plaza in general. "You can get your Longbow guys off my lawn any time. Feel free to take the Spider-Jerks with you."
Statesman stared hard at her for a moment, but she didn't seem impressed. Then, sensing that the situation might be about to go from Awkward to Very Awkward, Ms. Liberty put in,
"So, uh... what do you mean to do now, then? I mean, the Rogue Isles are in ruins."
"So was my life, when I came here," Rossum replied, then shrugged. "So I'll do what I do - rebuild. It took me seven years to pull together everything I needed to make today happen - and that was while staying under King Spider-Jerk's radar and yours, and dodging every other power-hungry psycho in this shithole." She folded her arms again and leaned back against 76's leg. "Compared to that, making the Isles a decent place to live should take us, what - six, eight months?" She patted the robot's leg and added, "Robot army can wreck stuff, robot army can make stuff."
"Benevolent dictatorship," Statesman said skeptically. "That's how Recluse got his start, too."
Rossum shook her head. "Nah, not really. I mean, yeah, in the short term some of these people will bow to me, but I'm going to need that for a while, until we can get the decent people who live here back on their feet. I'll have to watch my back, but I'm used to that. Eventually, most of those people will weed themselves out, and when they do, the rest of the Isles will be ready."
Statesman stood regarding her for a few moments, then sighed. "I hope you know what you're doing, General," he said, then turned and started walking back to the lead Longbow helicopter.
"I don't think States is very comfortable with your plan," Ms. Liberty confided.
"I don't think I give a damn," Rossum replied.
Liberty smiled. "Fair enough." Then, sobering, she added, "I hope you don't let us down. We'll be keeping an eye on you."
Rossum nodded. "Just watch me work," she said. Then, as the choppers began spooling up for takeoff, she turned to Photon. "How about you? You think I'm dictator material?"
He answered the question with one of his own: "You really think it can work?"
"Sure," she said. She started limping away from the crater. "Look around, Dan. Past the rubble and smoke. We're on a chain of islands just off the Gulf Stream, so it's always warm, but far enough north that we're not in hurricane country. If this place wasn't run by an international terrorist syndicate it'd be paradise. And now it isn't." She gestured to the wrecked buildings around the edge of the battle zone. "We get some decent buildings put up, turn the power and water back on, get the decent people some work to do and the rest a boat ticket out of here, and we'll be the 51st state by 2020. Étoilia, the Atlantic Hawaii."
"You're going to need help," Photon mused. "A lot of it. And not just for the heavy lifting."
"I know some people," Rossum replied with an airy gesture. "One guy in particular, I'm going to be relying on to keep me honest. He'll be able to spot it if it's all going to my head. I fully expect States to pull him out of the Phalanx Reserve and assign him as Paragon's watchdog here... " She paused, turning to face Photon, and smiled a little shyly, pulling off the remains of her mask. "... and it'll be nice having him around."
Captain Photon tried to regard her sternly, but failed; as they reached the top of the stairs out of the plaza, he put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed her gently as they stood and watched the sun set behind Mount Diable's pillar of steam.
"It'll be tough," he said, "but I do love a challenge."