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Chapter: 32

Lying there in the hospital bed, Eric Stone shifted his arm, pushing against the sling that held it against his chest.

"Is everything all right, Mr. Stone?" asked the nurse, looking up from her clipboard with a concerned expression. Eric smiled—attempted to anyway. His face had the look of someone who was not used to smiling, giving his lips the appearance of a grimace.

"The dressing is well made," he replied simply. The nurse looked at him apprehensively before glancing back down at her clipboard.

"That's…good," she replied, scribbling a few things down before turning it over to him. "If you would please just sign here and here."

Eric nodded, accepting the pen in his free hand—his bad hand. Already he was wondering what his insurance provider would have to say about the matter, or if they would say anything at all beyond informing him that they were going to discontinue covering him. Incidents with heroi were covered, but only when they were incidents.

Eric's tapped the pen against the final line and clicked its button at the top to retract the tip. His signature was rough and choppy, looking more like a tangle of string than actual letters, causing him to wince. A child of six could have done better.

"Where's my gear?" he asked, returning the pen to its owner.

"Everything that wasn't dangerous should be available to you over there," the nurse replied, indicating the bag on the table in the corner. "We had to replace your shirt…"

"That's fine."

"…however, everything else was confiscated by PlanPol."

Of course, he thought, moving over to the bag and removing the most important article of clothing, his pants. Something else for me to purchase all over again. It took a week just to make the utility belt the way I wanted it.

"Um…sir?" began the nurse tentatively. "About your payment method…?"

"Is there something wrong with it?" he asked.

The nurse folded the clipboard against her legs and pressed her lips together into one thin line.

"Well…not necessarily, but the last time you were in here we noted that your credit score wasn't within optimal payment standards. Since you are a regular here, we have to be up to date on that sort of thing… Not to mention that you're still behind on your last bill…"

"It'll be paid off," Eric replied stiffly, pulling out his shirt and trying to think how he was going to get his bad arm through the sleeve. "It's all in my will. I'm surprised that you didn't just let me die to get at it."

"Sir!" the nurse gasped, shocked at his words. "That… Doing such a thing is against our policy!"

"Hmmm… Of course it is." Eric turned around and raised his clothes indicatively. "Could you give me some private time now? I'd like to get out of here soon."

The nurse's face became beat red and she rapidly rushed out of the room, closing the door behind her. Eric shook his head and returned to his clothes.

This won't be fun, he mused, pulling off his hospital gown and tossing it behind him. The whole of his right shoulder was a mass of itchy stitches and bruising. He scowled at his injuries. It could have been worse, he thought, picking at them for a moment before grabbing his shirt. I'll need to see about investing in better body-armor. That lizard heroi almost took my arm off. I'm lucky that the stitches and fractures were all I got away with.

Heaving a heavy sigh, he pulled the shirt over his head and pushed his uninjured arm through the sleeve. He debated for a moment making the same attempt with the other, less-able limb, but opted to just leave it as-is for the time being. For the moment, the arm was useless for anything but hanging.

After a bit of a struggle, he got his pants on and buckled.

Wish that my jacket made it through all right. Digging through the bag, he fished out a black mask. At least they didn't confiscate this.

That actually stopped him for a moment. Why didn't they take his mask?

The last time I ended up in here they made it quite clear that they didn't approve of my activities.

He gave it a moment's more of thought before brushing it off. Whatever PlanPol's motives, they did not concern him. The Midnight Defender had a higher calling than that government organization. He had a duty to the people he protected. As long as no one interfered with that duty, he didn't care.

Hmmm… They took my police scanner too. He resisted the urge to curse angrily at the extensive loss of equipment that he suffered as a result of yesterday's battle. This would certainly make doing his job harder. Well, I can get by without it for a while. Acquiring a new one will only be slightly longer than the time it will take for my arm to heal.

Going over what PlanPol left him with one more time, he tied the bag and slung it over his shoulder.

Time to go back to work.

###

This arm is going to keep me from riding my bike properly, he mused as he exited Troy General Hospital. I'm going to have to think of an alternate method of transportation. After I see Tony that is. If he fucked it up getting it back to my place I'm going to kill him.

The irritated thought toward his day job coworker did little to distract him from his predicament. He wasn't going to be able to carry out his duties with his injuries, leaving him with…what, exactly? What was he going to do now that he was essentially crippled.

"Watch out for the Midnight Defender with the strong left arm," he grumbled to himself. "Check that. His only arm."

The heroi gangsters are going to have a field day once they see I'm not patrolling their turf tonight. Now there's a bad time waiting to happen…

"Mr. Stone?"

Eric turned toward the voice while simultaneously scolding himself for being taken by surprise so easily.

"Can I help you?" he asked, finding that the speaker was a blond-haired man wearing a suit. He frowned slightly. PlanPol?

"My name is Agent Coleman," the man replied, extending a hand to him, which Eric did not take. Coleman lowered his hand after a moment, not looking the least bit bothered by the lack of greeting, and he continued speaking without losing a beat. "I'm sure you've guessed that I work with PlanPol…"

"You don't exactly go out of your way to hide it," Eric said, turning away and heading down the sidewalk.

"If I could talk to you for a moment…"

"If you want to talk, you'll have to keep up. I'm on the job."

"Which one, if I may ask?"

"Why's that matter to you?" He frowned at Agent Coleman. "Look, I'm busy. If you're here to tell me to stop doing what I do…"

"Far from it, sir," Coleman replied, causing Eric to raise an eyebrow.

"Surprise me then," he said with a harsh chuckle.

"Very well, sir. The director of this jurisdiction has a request for you."

"A request?"

"Yes sir." There was a brief pause. "It concerns heroi… Two of them to be more precise."

"It's always about heroi. What? Do you want me to take them out or something? Is that it? Are you running out of your little eight balls?"

"We want you to raise them to your standards of being a hero."

That caused Eric to pause in his stride. He looked back at Coleman, who was watching him calmly as though he hadn't just said that the sky was purple rather than blue.

"What are you, crazy?" Eric asked, a nasty grin forming across his face.

"I have my orders."

"So your boss is crazy then." Eric resumed walking.

"What is your answer?" Coleman pressed, following him.

"I don't work for nutbags. I especially don't work for PlanPol."

"That is too bad," Coleman replied. "You are the cities only hero. We have to go south of the border to find the next one and at this point in time that is…impossible."

"I'd like to point out that I don't have any powers. I'm also sure that you have better people who can train your next generation of toy soldiers."

"None of them are off the radar like you are."

Eric's grin widened slightly, revealing a rather pronounced canine. Coupled with his disturbing grin and stubble, it gave him a very savage appearance.

"Your boss really is crazy. All the more reason to not work for you."

"Very well, but if you ever change your mind…" Eric felt something small and thin slip between the fingers of the only hand outside of his shirt and he looked down to find a business card in their grasp. He was about to growl an insult at the agent, but upon turning he found no one but the citizenry filing around him. He shifted in his place uncomfortably for a moment before pocketing the card.

###

The bus bumped, causing his feet to shift slightly. Tightening his grip on the handrail, he adjusted his stance.

Eric was already regretting not shredding the card.

What does a crazy director want with a pair of heroi? he wondered. The more he thought about it, the more he itched to call the number and find out what was going on. PlanPol's interest in heroi extended, normally, in how they could be controlled for the safety of the rest of society. Turning them into 'heroes', like the old stories said they were, was as taboo as one could get. What changed that?

Could it have anything to do with the attack at the mall? He shook his head, immediately dispelling the thought. Doubt it. They handled that well enough. Saw it on the news. Course, that might just be PlanPol spinning the truth… Around and around his thoughts chased, causing him to growl slightly and causing the girl sitting in front of him to look up at him nervously. He paid her no mind. Speculation would be no good for him without facts. Something happened recently…unless the director really was insane or was plotting a bloody revolution. If the case was the latter…where did his responsibilities lie?

To the people, he thought. Heroi are people too. The problem is, if I get mixed into this, I run the risk of dancing to PlanPol's tune instead of to what really matters. Is that risk worth it?

From out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of movement, and then there was a loud crash in front of the bus accompanied by the screeching of tires.

###

Kira felt the car slam into her side, causing her to roll over the hood and crash to the pavement unceremoniously. She heard wheels screech as the car she just went over swerved, its panicked driver trying to bring his nerves and vehicle under control. Shaking her head, she picked herself off the ground and got to her feet, taking in the situation. She couldn't see Michael, but she could see the person that attacked them, calmly blowing on his fingers, a self-satisfied smirk on his face.

"So who's next?" the man crowed triumphantly, looking out over the crowd before him, many of whom were staring with shock burned into their faces.

A low, animal growl was the man's answer as Sparky leapt up, fangs bared.

"Stupid mutt," the heroi grumbled, pointing a finger gun at the animal and pulling the trigger. With a surprised yelp Sparky went flying backward as though he were shot out of a cannon, smashing against a car windshield with sickening force, sending spider webs of cracks splintering across its surface. His body fell to the side of the vehicle limply without so much as a sound. Kira, however, more than made up for that as she cried out in horror.

"SPARKY!"

Before she even knew what she was doing, her feet crashed against the sidewalk as she found herself landing just in front of where the animal fell. Spinning around in panic, she saw him lying on his side, eyes rolled up in their sockets and tongue hanging out his mouth, bloodstained. Her eyes wide, the dark-haired girl knelt down and placed her hands on him, massaging his smooth fur.

He's still breathing, she thought, but that didn't comfort her in the least. The blood coming out of his mouth was not a good sign, especially since he was so small. Collecting him in her arms she stood up and… rocked backward on her feet as an invisible force slammed into her skull, nearly upsetting her grip on Sparky.

"You're a tough one," Tank grinned as Kira blinked back white spots in her vision. "Multiple powers. You're…what? Invulnerable and super fast to boot? That puts you in the Beta class. Awesome." Aiming a finger gun at Kira, he mimed pulling the trigger, aiming directly at where the girl held her dog.

Seeing this, Kira pulled Sparky close to her chest and spun around, allowing her back to take the full brunt of the impact. Her F.S. Field flashed and she staggered forward, barely maintaining her balance. Her mouth twisting into a snarl, she looked to her side and readjusting her grip on Sparky, she grabbed hold of a parking meter and with her enormous strength ripped it from the ground. Swinging it around, she flung it without thinking at the man.

"Amateur," Tank said dismissively. Making a casual brushing motion with his arm, the parking meter jerked in its path and crashed into the store next to him. Taking aim with his finger gun again, he pulled the trigger, and a bright light crashed in Kira's head followed by a torrent of pain. She fell backward, this time losing her grip on Sparky.

Watching her lying there for a moment, he tilted his head to the side and aimed an open hand at a car. "Tough girl is out of play, but just to make sure…"

The car slowly rose into the air at his gesture, and with a twirling motion it spun over so that its roof was facing the pavement. He made another gesture and the car shook, but did not move.

"Hey now," Tank said, scowling. "What's going on here?"

Looking over his shoulder, he spied Michael, sitting on one knee with a hand outstretched.

"Another Tekker," Tank grumbled, raising another finger gun and taking aim. As soon as he started to pull the trigger, Michael swung his free hand up in a wild arc, and an invisible force caused Tank's arm to jerk to the side. A window shattered as it became the new target of his released power. Laughing, Tank stepped forward, almost completely forgetting about the car that continued to hang in the air.

"Looks like you've got the basics settled," he said, bringing his hands together and cracking his knuckles. "But what's your experience like?"

As he spoke, electricity crackled around him and cracks splintered along the sidewalk, causing Michael's eyebrows to rise in surprise. Tank grinned manically upon seeing his expression.

"What's the matter? First time seeing visible telekinetic juice? You must be a fuckin' virgin then. Allow me to pop your cherry."

Thrusting his hand forward, he pointed it at Michael, and light flared around his body. Michael jerked backward…or tried to, only to find himself frozen where he stood, his body completely unable to respond to his commands.

"Caught you," Tank smirked. "Guess you're not all that far along. Too bad for you." With that, he raised his arm and Michael lifted off the ground in time with the motion.

W-What's going on?! his mind screamed. He pushed past my shields! How did he do that?! Desperately, he threw all of his strength against the invisible force that held him, his F.S. Field flashing brightly. Try as he might, the only inch that he could budge was wherever his attacker wanted him to. For all intents and purposes, he was trapped. He rose further into the air, his speed increasing with every second. With one final push from the invisible force, he was flying free, flailing in midair while he careened toward an oncoming window. Tucking himself up into a ball, his F.S. Field flashed around his body as he thrust out with his telekinetic. The window shattered a fraction of a second before he fell through it.

Michael hit the floor hard, his right shoulder crying out from the impact. He attempted to lift himself up—slicing his hands open in the process with the pile of glass beneath him—but his arm collapsed beneath his weight, leaving him a groaning, bloody mess on the floor as surprised onlookers began to approach him.

Dislocation? Or is it broken? He tried to lift his arm but it refused to respond. Better assume the worst…

Darkness shrouded his vision, obscuring the faces of the crowd surrounding him.

"Kira…" he groaned, pushing the shadows back. Using his uninjured arm, he forced himself into a sitting position, causing the people to start backward, surprised.

"Oh gods," one of them, what appeared to be a thirty-something woman wearing a green, turtle-neck sweater, said. "We thought you were dead."

Michael mumbled something incomprehensible as he staggered to his feet. The woman who spoke to him took hold of him by the arm to help steady him.

"Someone call an ambulance!" she called out. Michael started forward, nearly pulling her off her feet, but she quickly held firm and kept him in place. "Mister," she said, her green eyes flashing warningly at him. "You just fell through a window twenty stories up; you need to sit down!"

"Can't…" he demurred, his words slurring as darkness threatened to crowd out his vision once again. His head was feeling stuffed with cotton now; his thoughts were becoming hard to put into order. Before he knew it, he was on his knees, one hand to his head as he shook it in an attempt to clear it. "Friend's daughter…in trouble…"

"I think he's about to pass out! Someone, help me catch him before he…"

That was the last thing that he heard as the mercy of unconsciousness claimed him.

###

Eric swore as he saw the heroi send the helpless man, flying through the air.

Of all the times to be caught without my gear, it has to be when some maniac goes nuts, he thought, tugging off both shirt and sling and tossing them to the ground.

"Uh…" began a bearded man next to him. "What are you doin', bro?"

Eric simply shot him a glare and brought his attention back to the heroi outside the window. He had simply chucked the man with a gesture. Looks to be a telekinetic. That…complicates things.

Ignoring the looks he was receiving, he flexed his cast-covered arm. His fingers twitched clumsily, but they were serviceable. Pain killers are still working, he observed. Good thing. Taking stock of the people around him he spied the young woman who sat in front of him. She was carrying a grocery bag, a box of tin foil. Reaching out, he snatched it up and immediately tore it open.

"Hey!" the young woman shouted, attempting to take it back, but a quick glare at her caused her to think otherwise.

"I'll pay you back," Eric grunted, measuring the tin foil around his abdomen. "Do you have any tape?"

"What the hell…?"

"Screw it." Grabbing the bag he upturned it and dumped its contents- onto the floor of the bus.

"You son of a bitch!" the woman screamed, leaping up from her seat. "What are you doing?!"

Eric didn't bother to answer her and instead continued to search through her things, praying that there would be something he could use. He quickly found tape—scotch tape, but for what he needed it would be enough—and he tore it free from its package.

"Hey! Asshole!" the woman continued, stabbing a finger in his face. "I asked you a freakin' question!"

"And my answer is hoping to survive," he replied simply, tearing off a large piece of tin foil and wrapping it around his chest.

"What kind of fucking answer is that?!" the woman demanded hotly. As if in response, the bus rocked and the windows behind Eric cracked as an unseen force struck it, sending the woman falling back down into her seat, striking her head against the seat with a cry—one among many. Eric continued taping off the foil undaunted—taking only a moment to make sure that the woman didn't appear to be badly injured—and he repeated the process around his head and shoes. It was far from perfect, and he had heavy doubts that the makeshift protection would succeed, but he had to make do with what was available.

If only I had an entire evening to put this together, then I'd be able to stop him from affecting me directly. He grabbed his own bag now and produced a lighter. Oh well.

Looking back down at the grocery-strewn floor he spotted a can of hair spray. Grabbing it, he flicked open the lighter. The invisible force struck the bus windows again, this time causing them to shatter. Eric waited but a moment for the glass to fall before rushing forward, fire flickering in front of the aerosol cans nozzle. Upon reaching the window he hit the cans spray button and sent a torrential fireball blazing out in front of him.

###

Tank ducked away in surprise at the fireball that roared toward him.

"Sweet thunder," he breathed collecting himself. "A sheep wants to fight?"

Looking back at the bus, he saw a grizzled-looking man covered in tin-foil and one arm in a cast hop down from the bus. Bringing a lit lighter and aerosol can to bear, he took aim and pressed the nozzle once again, sending another stream of fire at him.

"Shit!" Tank swore, backing off. Someone's done their homework! My power doesn't work that well on fire! He swung one arm wildly as the fire died back, hoping to knock the makeshift flamethrower out of his attacker's hands. The man's arms were shoved to the side, but his grip remained solid. Cursing once more, Tank thrust a hand forward, trying for a more direct approach. The man staggered, but a stream of fire shot out toward him, forcing Tank to jump out of the way once again.

Sweet thunder, whoever this bastard is he really did his homework! The tin foil was throwing his powers off—not a whole lot, but just enough to cause problems. I'll need to be more surgical about this. Reforming a hand into his standard finger gun, he took aim at the lighter in the man's hand and fired.

The lighter exploded, sending burning fuel spilling all over the cast of the hand that held it. The man flung his arm to the side reflexively.

Chest and head are out, Tank thought, noting the areas that the tin foil covered. He lowered his hand and fired at the man's stomach.

This time the man flew backward into the bus, hitting it with ferocious force. His cast still burning, he slid to the ground and was still.

"All right," Tank breathed with a relieved smile. Looking up at the sky he saw the expected swarm of Guardian Spheres rapidly approaching. They were fewer in number than normal, but that was fine. Just as long as he was able to take some of them out before making a break for it.

"Come and get me," he chided, firing off his finger guns to his sides.

He only got a fraction of a second to notice the shadow of a car over him before its owner crashed down on top of him.

###

Kira stood there for a moment, the body of her dog lying on the ground. His breathing had stopped sometime between when she unconscious and when she awoke to find a car hovering over her. Taking a deep, shaky breath, she swallowed, trying desperately to restrain the rage that threatened to break loose. The car she threw shifted before rising onto its rear.

"No…" she whispered, the word coming out almost as a hiss. "Damn it… Damn it… Damn it!"

"Nice one," Tank rasped, getting to his feet, one hand pressed against the small of his back. "But like I said…you're an amateur. Half a seconds warning is all I need. I'll give you credit for hurting me though. Some of that got through." As if to give concrete evidence for his words, he gave a strained expression and looked behind him. His hands shook noticeably as he took in the ever-closing swarm of Guardian Spheres. "This isn't going the way it was supposed to be. Looks like I'm going to have to quit the game early."

"You're not going anywhere!" Kira shouted, starting forward, only for a heavy force to crash down around her back and force her to collapse to the ground.

"Sure I'm not," Tank said, bringing his still-shaking hands together until his palms were only two inches apart. Electricity sparked between them and began to flow up his arms. His clothes melted away as it continued to spread across his body. Turning so that he was facing the approaching swarm, he grinned.

"Just a little closer you sons of bitches," he whispered, a crazed light dancing in his eyes. One by one, the orbs took up station around him, all targeting him with their electric eyes.

"Heroi," one of them intoned. "You are to stand down immediately and surrender yourself to the authorities. You will submit yourself to immediate suppressant or face termination."

"That would mean that I have a choice in the matter," Tank laughed as the electricity flowed over his face. Bolts of lightning lashed out as a scream was ripped from his throat. The field of energy brightened before exploding outward, engulfing the Guardian Spheres and shattering the street.

The news would report nineteen fatalities the next day.

8