Lung-clogging smoke obscured every inch of visibility. It lingered for several minutes before beginning to disperse. A vaguely humanoid shape slowly appeared through the smoke. The shape was a bodysuit complete with a helmet head. Cotton-white boots, gauntlet gloves and a belt accented the suit's cardinal-red form. A V-shaped stripe encircled the suit's shoulders meeting in a distinctive crest upon the suit's chest, marking this suit as the property of the enforcement division of the Unified Planets Helping Each other Live Democratically organization.
The humanoid raised her hand to her helmet but made no noticeable sound.
Inside the suit, Powie Zappa made a verbal report.
"As the data will show, Trinket's morbid toy –er- his "peek-a-boom Plushie" was a successful test. However, in observation, the explosion creates a large debris cloud. which would attract opposition attention as well as hindering an operative's mobility. Recommendation: Until a more effective smoke navigation system is created, the peek-a-boom would be better suited for use as a public demolition display rather than any stealth missions."
As the smoke faded down to a light fog, Powie started to move forward. Even before she entered the newly made opening in the rock wall, her ears picked up a sound. It seemed to be a mixture of a cough and a growl.
Powie sighed, "Just… like… that."
She cautiously crept through the opening and peered around the corner. A boulder sized creature was waiting there. Powie might have mistaken it for a pile of debris from the explosion if not for the long rectangular jaws wheezing like a stuffed pipe. Since the creature seemed preoccupied with its coughing fit, Powie thought that she might be able to sneak past it without being noticed. She decided to chance that option. After all, a decent runner like herself should be able to outrun something this big.
Taking a few deep breaths to ready herself, Powie quickly dashed past the beast. She felt something swipe her legs out from under her. Powie turned her fall into a quick acrobatic routine and tumbled out of the creature's reach.
Once she felt at a safe distance, Powie chanced a look at her assailant. Two ember-red eyes expressed surprise within a lumpy face full of displeasure. The creature's paw was still held out in a post-swiping motion. Powie ran her fingers along her boots to see if they'd been damaged. Luckily, the material had resisted the beast's claws. Realizing that the creature wasn't immediately leaping at her, Powie wondered if she was dealing with an ambush predator. If so, then the creature might not follow her past this initial capture attempt. Her pre-mission briefing had included a screenclip of this animal; a spineswayer. Unfortunately, there wasn't any real information about it beyond sight.
It coughed a few more times as the smoke continued to fade away.
With a swift head shake, the spineswayer cleared its senses. Powie was already on her feet and slowly backing away. Even an ambush predator could be lured into a second attempt if quick movement enticed it. To Powie's dismay, the spineswayer moved forward a few steps beyond her comfort zone with a beast of this size. It reared up on its hind legs. Spines along its back and hind legs swayed back and forth to help the spineswayer remain steady. With a deep breath, it let out a ground-shaking roar.
"Trust me, friend," Powie warned, "You don't want any piece of me."
A tooth-baring grin crossed the spineswayer's lips as it stepped forward. Its front claws were outstretched in shredding anticipation.
"Don't say that I didn't warn you!"
Powie reached into her backpack and pulled out one of Trinket's most deadly field test subjects.
The spineswayer took one look at the object aimed at it and began to… chuckle? Pointing a claw-ended finger at the object, the would-be predator fell over laughing as if it had just seen the funniest thing in the world.
Indeed, Powie did feel some self-consciousness about this particular object. After all, what warrior wants to be seen in battle with a baby doll?
Still, like all of Trinket's inventions, this doll was far more than what it seemed. It looked darling but Powie still held it as she would any pistol sized weapon.
"Laugh all you'd like, my friend. But I'd advise you to take your laughs and leave. I'd rather not test this on an organic being."
Although Powie meant it as a polite gesture, the spineswayer stopped being amused. Raising itself to its full height again, the spineswayer looked more menacing than before. It advanced upon Powie.
Powie's grip on the doll tightened. "Last chance to leave."
Unlike its spines, the spineswayer was not swayed. In fact, it looked like it was balancing itself for a pounce.
Without hesitation, Powie fired the weapon! The doll's mouth opened and emitted a high-frequency vibration. The spineswayer struggled to balance on its hind legs as it was being pushed backwards by the force of the vibrations. But the doll's mechanism wasn't finished yet. As the vibrations left its mouth, they were joined by a snot-green mist. The spineswayer found itself doused with a horrible haze of disgusting vapor. The combination was enough to knock the beast off its feet. As it hit the ground, the mist became a bonding agent that stuck the spineswayer to the ground. It bellowed several loud roars and growls as it struggled fiercely against the adhesive. All of its efforts soon exhausted the spineswayer. Soon it could only lie on the ground panting heavily.
Powie put the doll away. "Trinket may be a demented toy-making pervert. But he definitely knows how to make an effective, albeit gross, weapon."
She walked over to the restrained spineswayer. There was a plea for mercy in its eyes as it lay there quietly.
"Don't worry," she said, "I've been told that this adhesive dissolves in about ten to fifteen minutes. I'll try to stop back around this way once my mission is completed just in case it doesn't work right. Trinket did give me a dissolvent just in case I got sprayed with it myself." Powie rolled her eyes with that last statement. As if she'd ever be that dumb.
The spineswayer began to whimper as if begging Powie to release it now. She mulled it over as her captive's cries became more pitiful. Finally she leaned down to look the spineswayer in the eye.
"If I let you loose, do you promise to leave me alone?"
Pulling a can from her pack, Powie stood up and sprayed the contents on the creature. As expected, the adhesive immediately dissolved. The spineswayer slowly got up. Powie backed away a few steps half-expecting a betrayal. The spineswayer shook itself off, glanced at Powie for a long moment. Then it turned and trotted away.
Eventually the spineswayer disappeared down a slope. Powie's eyes followed the creature's progress until it was out of sight. Then she shifted to examining her surroundings a little better.
It was difficult to believe that lava was the life force behind this world. Like all places, it needed liquid to maintain the flora and fauna. Unlike most worlds, Kelvignius survived on lava.
From the distant volcanic mountains to the flat terrain under Powie's feet was all a result of lava in one form or another. Over the eons, layers of lava had flowed, lost its heat source and hardened into the ash-gray landscape which covered this world. It was even more amazing to think that such rock would have the nutrients fertile enough to allow various plants to grow.
In this immediate area, several bushes had grown large and lush. To the left of the mountains appeared to be a forest of sorts. Since it was quite a few miles away, Powie could only guess that these were trees. They did share that same hound-gray coloring as the leaves on the bushes around here. The main difference was a lava-red tint to these leaves. Perhaps the plants distilled the lava enough to make them ideal for hydration use to the Kelvignius inhabitants. Then again, these creatures had evolved here. Maybe they could stomach drinking lava directly.
It was an interesting theory. But Powie wasn't a scientist. She was a space agent on a mission for U.P.H.E.L.D. Her mind preferred to think of herself as a warrior instead.
Looking towards the right, Powie saw an unbroken desert full of ashy ridges.
Turning around, Powie saw similar scenery to that of the desert. A few trees dotted this side of the landscape. The main difference between this angle and the rest was that a misty vapor was visible over the hill a few miles ahead.
If lava on this world had similar properties to boiling liquid in other places, then that vapor meant an open lava flow somewhere. Powie had been instructed that her quarry would be found near an open lava flow. Maybe this mission wouldn't be as much of a boring rose-in-a-cornfield search as Powie had thought.
"If I wasn't testing the durability of these boots, I'd just wing it across this place," Powie said to no one in particular. Even as she spoke, her feet started towards the vaporous area.
As she walked along, Powie listened to Kelvignius's natural audio track. Against the beats of Powie's boot steps were various levels of bird calls mixed with the braying and bellowing of who knew what. A more familiar audio tune suddenly rose in Powie's ear. She switched back to her helmet's internal communicator to take the call.
"Hello, Powie. Have you reached Kelvignius yet?" came the audio reply. As these words were spoken, a holographic square appeared in a corner of the helmet's visor.
"Naturally! I've already been here long enough to test a couple of Trinket's latest creations. And I'm on my way to checking on a lava flow right now."
The face in the display nodded. "Too bad that you forgot to send an arrival notification… again."
Powie rolled her eyes. "Commander…"
"Communication is just one key of many in U.P.H.E.L.D., Zappa," the Commander said. "If something had happened to you, we'd have agents searching the galaxy for you and probably wouldn't reach Kelvignius until you were long dead. Do you have any idea what that kind of loss would mean to the organization?"
"It's nice to know that you consider me so valuable, Phylliena," Powie chided.
Narrowing her river-blue eyes, the face replied, "That's Commander Phylliena to you, Zappa. And I was referring to the loss of time, resources and money spent in trying to locate your reckless carcass to get Trinket's prototypes back. If any of his inventions fell into the wrong hands, I shudder to think of the mass perversion that the universe would suffer."
'Yes because there's never enough cosmic freaks running around," Powie snarked. "Really Commander. Did you call just to chew me out? Because I'm a bit too busy here to be properly intimidated."
Closing her eyes, Commander Phylliena gathered her self-control. Opening her eyes once more, she said, "Since you had to leave so quickly, I didn't have enough time to locate a map for Kelvignius. Luckily one of our surveyors in the environmental department still had a digicopy of the map he made a few years ago. I'm sending it over to your ship's system right now. You… did remember to switch on your infowrist network connection with your ship's computer. Right?"
Again the young warrior rolled her eyes. "Commander, I'm not a rookie cadet anymore. I'm a certified field agent – a warrior."
"You're also reckless, Zappa. Even the warrior division doesn't have room for a loose canon. Luckily I've got five years to pound some sense into your head before you have any option to transfer."
"Lucky me," muttered Powie. She did check her infowrist to see if the map had downloaded yet. It had. She opened it as an enlarged holographic display.
"Oh, good! Looks like that vapor that I'm heading for actually is a lava river. But… which way is more likely to have the nest that I'm looking for?"
"Good question," Commander Phylliena admitted. "The environmental dept has only mapped the planet. They haven't been able to send anyone out there to really study the creature habits. We do know that the nest can be found near a good heat source. But we don't know if that just means a lake or an actual active volcano."
"Maybe I should get an aerial view to locate the nest more quickly."
Commander Phylliena shook her head. "No good, I'm afraid. The nest is below ground. So it's fairly unlikely that you'd spot anything from the air."
The vaporous area was finally coming into full view. It floated over a wide chasm between two separated cliffs. As she approached the edge of the cliff, Powie could look down into the molten flow of a lava river. Swimming through that was out of the question.
Oddly enough, several small platforms defied gravity by floating lazily in the vaporous air. Unfortunately, even the closest platform was beyond the best of Powie's leaping ability.
"All right! A perfect chance to use my Dragon Style!" No visual was required to hear the smile in the warrior's voice.
"DON'T YOU DARE!" Commander Phylliena's face smacked against the screen as she screamed into the headset. "Dragon Style is not something to be used like a plaything!"
"And internal helmet audio coms were NOT DESIGNED TO BE SCREAMED INTO!" Powie shot back. The ringing in her ears intensified. But it was worth it to see her commander's expression frizzle and back away from the screen. At least Commander Phylliena had the luxury of being able to rub her ears.
Soon regaining her composure, Commander Phylliena cleared her throat. "Anyway, this mission doesn't require transformation. It's a simple retrieval circumstance which gives us a chance to field test some of Trinket's latest equipment models. In other words, you have to use the tools given to you. Dragon Style is only to be used if the equipment fails."
Again Powie gazed out over the sporadic platforms. "Well, if I can't use Dragon Style here, then how am I supposed to get across this chasm?"
High-quality holographic displays are sometimes a bit more revealing than a communicator would like. The raging veins on Commander Phylliena's forehead bulged as she gritted her teeth. "USE YOUR BRAIN!"
Once more, that annoying ringing echoed through Powie's helmet. But this time, the Commander cut the transmission before any response could be made. Powie tapped her communicator button to dissolve the empty screen.
Looking around again, she noticed a long vine extending across the chasm. It appeared to be just one vine of many which loomed above the lava like a network of wiring. Perhaps instead of trying to jump between the platforms, Powie could glide along the vine system. Unfortunately, she faced two problems. Would the vines support her weight? How would she get the momentum needed to push herself along the lines?
Like always, Powie's mind was quick to respond with an idea. It most likely wasn't an intended usage for Trinket's toys. What better time was there for finding new uses than during a field test? Powie pulled one end of a grappling hook out of her belt and snagged the vine. She gave her line a tug and then dangled on the ledge to see if the vine would support her weight. It didn't sag at all which was a good sign. With one footstep, Powie took that leap of faith off the ledge. If she fell now, it would be an immediate cremation without ceremony for her.
She then pulled out her energy blaster. Aiming it behind herself, she clicked the trigger. A flare of laser energy burst from the barrel. That energy thrust provided just the right momentum. Her body moved forward, sailing across the vine. Her laser blasted along behind her like a rocket propellant.
Just as she reached an intersection in the vines, a platform drifted under her. Powie released the laser's trigger and let the energy beam fade out. She then released the grappling hook and dropped on the platform. That couldn't have worked any better. Now all she had to do was repeat the process a few more times.
A sudden rumbling below the platform signaled the end of Powie's plans. Despite the platform's uneasy sway, she peered over its edge. The lava below was boiling over. Even worse, bubbles were rising through the liquid!
One of the lava bubbles burst, emitting a quake like vibration. The platform bobbed back and forth like a pendulum. Unable to brace herself in time, Powie flipped right off of the platform!
A notion of what her final words might mean for her afterlife later briefly passed through Powie's mind as she screamed, "OH CRRAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAP!"
Her eyes shut tightly as she awaited the singeing impact of scalding liquid fire to boil her life away. Instead, her body received the jarring impact of striking something hard. Powie's suit absorbed most of the impacting sensation. Yet the sudden stop left Powie momentarily stunned. Soon she realized that there was something else. She was moving!
Slowly, she opened her eyes. Risking a few quick glances around, Powie was both elated and displeased to realize that she'd landed on the back of the very prey that she was after – a discoball bug. In fact, she'd landed on the back of one of many in a long line of marching bugs. Their crystallized shells gave them the appearance of looking like disco balls with legs and antennae; hence their name. The bug that Powie had landed on didn't seem to notice her presence. A colony on the march paid little attention to things falling around or even on them according to the sparse information that Powie had received. Their shells also granted the little buggers immunity to the lava that they now sloshed through. They liked it hot. And with this much lava around, Powie had a feeling that the discoball bugs were nearing their nest.
Powie quietly placed her grappling hook and laser into her belt. Moving very slowly, she used the information deck scanner on her glove gauntlet to scan the bugs on either side of the one that she sat on. The more information gathered now meant a more reliable infowrist display for the scientists later. Powie stayed very still in case too much movement would make the bug think she was a shell irritant or a potential threat to its nest. If a free ride to the discoball bugs' nest was being offered, then why not take it?
Numbness slowly worked its way through the warrior's legs on this extended ride. She'd done her best to stay still all of this time. But maintaining her position atop a hard and curved surface was difficult. Powie quietly praised whomever it was that had invented the surface cling which all space footwear was coated with. Otherwise, the wobbly shell might have thrown her off instantly.
Falling objects didn't exactly help either. Branches, rocks and even a critter or two kept landing on the marching bug line. Some of it landed on various bugs. Some of it landed in the lava which responded with a spraying splash. Every so often a bug or two stepped out of line to pull a boiling item out of the lava. In fact, any bug which didn't have something on its shell would zigzag across the lava flow until it found an object. The bugs with passengers stayed in the marching line.
So far, Powie had been able to avoid the liquid droplets. She had caught a falling rock to shield herself against those splashes. Between the numbness in her limbs and the constantly moving surroundings, Powie was becoming a bit concerned that she might be burnt to a crisp before reaching the discoball bugs' nest. Her rock was a good shield. But every splash boiled a few more pieces off of it.
Dodging one more rock-made splash, Powie's body twisted enough for her to get a look ahead. The bugs were going through a cave opening in a sloped side of the ravine just above the lava flow. Perhaps this was the location of their nest! Even if it wasn't; the underground would provide relief from debris assault. .
A ledge above the opening would be a good chance to get off of this bug's shell. Powie could stay hidden until the last bug passed. Then she could follow the bugs home.
It was very tempting to just stay put and allow the bugs to take her into their nest.
Escaping from the bugs who worked with the incoming junk might alert the entire nest to Powie's presence. That would complicate her retrieval mission far more than was necessary. It was better to stay undetected until she located her target. After that, she could think about raising some action-packed chaos.
Just as cautiously as before, Powie rearranged her position to grab onto the cave's ledge as she passed it. Something fell into the lava just as Powie readied for the ledge. She sprang away from the lava droplets. Despite having jumped early, the warrior grasped the ledge and pulled herself over it. She climbed up the slope until she reached a crevice to crouch in. It was high enough to avoid the lava splashes but still in sight of the discoball bugs.
Looking down, Powie noticed that the line had stopped. Her discoball bug ride seemed to be looking around for something. Had it noticed her escape? Would it alert the other bugs to her intrusion?
The bug clamped its antennae around Powie's discarded rock. With a quick motion, the rock was returned to the shell and the bug started moving forward again. The rest of the discoball bugs followed suit, entering the cave one by one.
Several minutes later, the last bug finally entered the cave. Powie waited a moment longer before dropping down to the ground and entering the cave as well.
As the surface light faded away, the bugs' shells became a light source. Thankfully their shells glowed like gentle reading lights rather than the discoball of their name. The tunnel was both tall and wide enough for two discoball bugs to walk side by side while carrying a standing human. The reason for such a large tunnel was evident in the sizes of some of the other bugs' passengers.
Without any stalactites to hide behind, Powie needed some camouflage.
"Suit concealment color #b2beb5," Powie commanded.
Her suit's cardinal red faded to the same ash-gray color of the tunnel. The color extended to the rest of her suit as well, making her one solid form which could blend in against the wall. She could only hope that the bugs didn't have other methods of detecting followers as she crept along. Powie made sure to keep two to three feet between the discoball bug and herself. The bug's pace was steady but slower than Powie's own jogging speed. So she was forced to wait for the bug to move forward.
Powie used one of those waiting times to check her location. She tapped her internal helmet com and requested the Kelvignius map to display on the visor. It did so while also showing her location on it. She was surprised to learn that the bugs were traveling through the desert area that she'd seen earlier. There were neither volcanoes nor lakes shown in this area. Commander Phylliena had indicated that a discoball bug nest was near a heat source. Powie wondered if she was in for a long underground march.
Noticing the fading light, Powie closed the map and hurried to catch up with the bugs.
Powie soon learned that a moderate walk was much easier to maintain than a start and stop jog. It still allowed her to stay within three feet of the discoball bug. Unfortunately the continued march dragged on. When things got dull, Powie's mind wandered. She willed herself to stay focused.
Thoughts of a fellow agent soon diminished her focus. She couldn't help but wonder what sort of exciting adventures Lyle Billidy might be having right now. Every time Lyle returned from a mission, he had so many stories of constant danger and excitement. Powie happily listened to him talk for hours on end. She wished that she could join him for those adventures.
Lyle had always had a daring spirit. Powie would never forget the night that the two of them had destroyed the academy's obstacle course over a challenge. Their latrine cleaning punishment had been absolutely worth it. He'd somehow made their boring chore a complete blast of a good time.
Now Lyle was off chasing space scum while she was out here playing fetch for U.P.H.E.L.D. It just wasn't fair!
"Zappa! Powie Zappa, can you read me?"
Powie's mind suddenly cleared as her visor displayed Commander Phylliena's face. "Wha-what?"
Commander Phylliena breathed a sigh of relief. "Oh good, you are conscious. I've been trying to reach you for the past thirty seconds. When you didn't answer, I opened the connection myself. Is everything all right?"
"Y-yes, Commander," Powie responded quickly. "Sorry, I was, um, busy."
"Thinking of someone?"
Powie's cheeks began to redden. "No! I was just – Uhoh!"
The warrior froze. The discoball bug had stopped. It was starting to turn around! Realizing that her visor's holo display may have given her away, Powie immediately ended the call. She quickly flattened herself against the wall.
The bug was now facing the way it had come. It twitched its antennae this way and that. As it tested the air around the opposite wall, Powie slipped back down the tunnel a few feet.
A few tense moments went by as Powie waited to see if the bug would follow her. Light started coming back down the tunnel! Every time it moved towards her, Powie backed away from it. Putting a laser blast into this bug might have been more fun than hiding. Experience had taught this young warrior that a laser gun wasn't the answer to everything. Finding the bugs' nest and the item that was so desperately needed from it was more important than "fun" right now. So evasion was Powie's best weapon at this point.
Finally the light began receding back down the tunnel. Powie cautiously moved forward to see what the bug was doing. Thankfully, it was heading back towards its associates. Powie breathed a sigh of relief as she followed the bug once more.
A tone in her ear indicated that the Commander was calling again.
"Switching to stealth audio com mode," Powie whispered as she answered the call. "Meaning you can't scream into my helmet again, Commander."
Powie didn't need a holo display to gauge the seething expression on her superior's face. But she was glad that Commander Phylliena couldn't see the smug little smirk that Powie's own lips carried.
'What's going on out there, Zappa?"
Keeping her voice low, Powie replied, "I've located some discoball bugs and am trailing them to their nest."
"Good timing," the Commander said. "I've finally managed to pull Juan Durar's report out of bureaucratic limbo. He had a bit of experience with the discoball bugs during the survey.
Instead of using a natural heat source, they create their own somehow. So their nest could be anywhere underground. Who knows how many twists and turns you'll be taking to get there."
"Gee, that information might have been more useful a few minutes ago," Powie muttered.
"Because, I think I've just found their nest."
Illumination slowly came into view as the tunnel went on. Bright light shone on the ground like a welcoming mat. The bugs' shells and items on them blocked Powie's view into the next area. So she stayed in the darker edge of the tunnel.
Once the last bug entered the light, Powie slowly inched her way along the wall. Her muscles tensed as she leaned up against an extended edge on the side of the opening. Powie's heart leaped at the hope of seeing some real action at last!
The warrior risked a quick glance into the lighted area. It was a very wide cavern with a crowd of the creatures wandering around. Some carried items. Others seemed to be wandering without purpose. In the center of the room stood a large pedestal with an even larger disco ball on top of it. Every so often, it released a beam of energy. Most of the beams were absorbed by the individual bug's shells. Powie leapt back quickly as a stray beam smashed against the wall corner shielding her. That energy beam definitely wasn't harmless with proof being a small, smoldering hole in the wall.
Powie carefully peered around the corner again, taking note of the damage that beam had caused. Something else caught her eye as she did so. Across the room, a large discoball bug rested upon some kind of raised surface. It didn't look like any throne that Powie had seen. But the decoration on the discoball bug's antennae made it clear that this was the queen. Her crown shimmered in the pulsating laser lights. But what mattered more to Powie was the large gem nestled in that crown. It was exactly the item that she'd been sent to retrieve!
"A Durar Jewel!" Powie noted. "Now, do I rain utter chaos on this nest or do I do this the dull fashioned way?"
"Don't get cocky, Zappa," the Commander warned. "There are a lot of people depending on the antidote that jewel contains."
"Which wouldn't even be known about if that surveyor hadn't given his chemist friend one as a souvenir," Powie retorted.
"Exactly! That's why you need to get a Durar back here safely and quickly."
"Oh, come on!" Powie scowled. "The Durar's lasted this long. A few more minutes while I have some fun won't hurt."
"I'm serious! If you don't make it back here with that jewel, your father and countless patients will die."
"Look, I heard you the fir- What did you say?!"
There was a long pause before Commander Phylliena made a reply. "I-I wasn't supposed to tell you this. But, Doctor Zappa fell ill shortly after you left. We didn't want the knowledge jeopardizing your ability to complete the mission."
"Daddy…" Powie's voice was small as tears glistened in the corners of her eyes.
"Powie!" Commander Phylliena's stern vocals barked through the audio com. "We NEED you to stay strong!"
A helmet stood between Powie's hands and her tears. So there was little chance of trying to wipe her eyes dry. Her left hand instinctively reached down and clutched a small pouch on her belt. Meanwhile, she quietly tried to will herself not to cry. This was not the time or place for such a thing.
"I'm here, Commander," was the warrior's reply.
There was an audible sigh through the communicator. "Powie, I'm sorry. But you have a job to do! And don't forget that Trinket gave you more than enough test equipment to get the job done."
"The backpack full of items given to you for this mission. Remember?"
Silence filled the helmet as each woman awaited the other's reaction. Powie's own gaze turned very stern. Her tears receded as if cowering away from the eyes which had released them.
Finally, Powie responded, "You're right, Phyl. It is time that I got serious about this mission."
"Ex-excuse ME? What did you-"
"I'll call you once I'm back on the Space Streamer. Zappa out."
Powie ended the call without waiting for the Commander's reply. All thoughts of battle left her mind. With Dr. Zappa now among the stricken, the situation had changed. Powie would do whatever she had to in order to save her father.
She yanked the backpack off of her back. Powie was through playing with these idiotic toys for Trinket or anyone else. As she lifted the pack to hurl it, there was a realization that she might need the pack itself to carry the Durar Jewel in. If nothing else, the test equipment could serve as packing to protect the jewel with. So Powie reluctantly returned the backpack to its former place.
Taking a quick glance into the cavern again, Powie realized that her suit would not be able to keep her hidden. It was just too bright in there with too many eyes – or at least antennae – looking around. There was still another stealth option for the warrior to take advantage of. All field agents were equipped with a disguise module within their infowrist gauntlets. Powie was glad that she'd had the foresight to scan a couple of the bugs earlier. Unfortunately, there was not much data for the module to work with to create the most reliable disguise. Even a flimsy disguise was better than nothing right now.
There was still the matter of those energy beams. A bug dodging the beams might arouse the suspicions of the nest. Powie had no time or desire for a fight at this point. However, getting hit by one of those beams could mean the end of her life let alone her father's cure.
The warrior's solution lay in a gift which Dr. Zappa had given on Powie's academy graduation day. She carried it with her at all times even during the most basic of tasks.
As Powie pulled a jeweled brooch from her belt pouch, her mind uttered a small prayer.
Papa; your gift has gotten me through more situations than I care to remember.
Please – This time too! Then I'll finally be able to save you for once.
A soft glimmer darted across the brooch as the disguise module activated. A second later, Powie and her brooch were hidden beneath a holographic shell of a discoball bug.
An alarm tone sounded in Powie's ear. Her heart skipped a beat before she remembered that her suit was still in stealth audio mode. So the sound would not have been heard outside of her helmet.
It didn't take any real looking to see the alarm's cause. The holographic discoball bug was shorter than Powie was. Everything from her chest on up was visible above the shell. In order to disguise herself fully, Powie would either have to crouch down or bend over. Both options lacked appeal since they hindered the warrior's movement.
Suddenly, an image flashed in Powie's mind. She remembered how important it was for each bug to have some kind of item on their shell. The line was even willing to stop and wait while a bug picked up a fallen item. Powie made some adjustments to her infowrist's display of the disguise. A second glimmer darted across Powie's visor as a large rock was added to the top of the shell. Powie made sure that it was tall enough to conceal her fully. Considering the size of the tunnel, Powie was fairly sure that the size of the rock would be believable.
With a deep breath, Powie Zappa entered the discoball bugs' lair.
Just a few steps into the nest, the new discoball bug was greeted with a bright blast of energy into her shell. Powie's brooch easily reflected the beam. Too much damage to the cavern walls might cause unnecessary problems. So she was careful to aim the beam into another bug's shell. If the bug noticed the beam, it didn't show any reaction to it.
None of the other discoball bugs showed any notice of the new bug either. Powie was vigilant as she moved forward. Several steps further put Powie directly across the nest from the queen's throne. Although Powie could easily close the gap in a matter of seconds, there were far too many moving obstacles in her way to be worth the risk. There was also the fact that a bug stood on either side of the queen's throne. Since they didn't move around as the rest of the bugs did, Powie assumed that these were guardians. Now was not a good time to find out what sort of defense methods these creatures used.
The disco ball on the pedestal appeared to be a dividing line of sorts. On the front side, bugs wandered aimlessly. Not one of their shells bore items. Behind the pedestal appeared to be the working area. Nearly every bug on that side either carried items or headed towards the front of the pedestal. Four more tunnel openings lined the wall opposite of Powie's entry tunnel. Discoball bugs entered and exited through them in no particular pattern. Every bug that entered carried some sort of item. Powie shuddered as she noticed a few odd looking shell passengers still moving a bit.
Each item carrier headed for a tunnel opening about three yards from the queen's throne. Powie slowly began a long arc around the pedestal to follow these bugs. Her plan was to make a mad dash for the queen's crown once she got near that tunnel opening. Maybe the element of surprise combined with Powie's speed would be enough to avoid the guardians' attacks. Powie doubted that the rest of the nest would simply allow their queen to be assaulted. Plus there was still the issue of these random energy blasts. It wasn't exactly the most strategic plan. So what was the warrior going to do?
As Powie pondered her options, a bug walked straight up to her! Unlike the earlier encounter, this bug's antennae weren't twitching. They were stretched out towards Powie. The warrior had no idea what this bug wanted. All disguise modules were equipped to mimic the senses of sight, sound and scent. Was the combined sensory information of only two discoball bugs not enough?
Two more energy beams burst from the disco ball on the pedestal. Like she had before, Powie used her brooch to reflect the beam. It went into the bug in front of her along with the other beam. The bug instantly dropped to the ground. Its antennae drooped down slowly. Oddly enough there was a serene look upon that bugish face. It reminded Powie of various feast days where someone had eaten past their fill at a meal.
Powie finally understood the purpose of these beams. They were the food source of the bugs! She was suddenly very glad that she hadn't used her laser gun on the bugs earlier.
A new plan formed in Powie's mind. If she added some extra heat to the disco ball's fuel source, maybe it would emit more energy beams. An energy overdose might drop all of the bugs. Then Powie could just grab the queen's crown without any opposition.
With her mind set, Powie made her way towards the pedestal. Her brooch reflected a few more energy beams with ease.
As she approached the pedestal, another bug got in her way. It stopped before an opening in the back of the pedestal. In this bug's antennae was a second Durar Jewel. Powie could hardly believe her eyes. But she wasn't close enough to reach for the desired item. Instead, the bug threw it into the pedestal's opening. A quick sizzling sound radiated from the opening. Energy beams flew more freely from the disco ball for several seconds before settling back down again.
Forget trying to get to the queen. If Powie could get that jewel, she could just sneak right back out of the nest without any complications. The warrior carefully moved towards that pedestal opening. But the other bug hadn't moved aside yet. It turned around to face her. Its antennae didn't extend like the first bug's had. This one seemed to be trying to move alongside Powie. It didn't let her near the pedestal.
The bug's motions appeared to be trying to usher her towards the junk tunnel. But Powie wasn't going to allow that. Stealth was cast aside for Dragon Style at last.
With her free hand, Powie opened her helmet's mouth shield. A warning appeared on her visor about having broken the pressure seal on her suit. She ignored the warning and barely felt the influx of heat against her lips as she exhaled a dose of her own dragon's fire on the bug.
There was a strange scream from the bug as it lit up. Although the mouth shield automatically closed after Powie released it, her visor continued to display more information as her helmet ran a scan of the atmosphere. To the warrior's annoyance, the display blocked her ability to see whether or not the bug was on fire. Another phrase popped up on the display; 'Air Quality Breathable".
"Not now!" Powie quickly clicked the message away. Her target was the opening in the back of the pedestal. With the bug having moved out of the way, she rushed up to it. A pile of the Durars rested in a bed of fiery orange liquid within the opening. Due to their various stages of melting, the warrior was unable to risk grabbing one. Even the latest addition to the pile already showed signs of melting. Faced with the secret of the discoball bugs' fuel source, Powie braced herself. She would get that 'rain of chaos' after all.
Once more, Powie opened her mouth shield and blew fire into the fuel area. The disco ball reacted to the newly acquired heat by blasting beams in all directions far more aggressively than the insertion of the Durar had been. The discoball bugs were quickly overwhelmed by the amount of energy absorbed into their shells. They dropped to the ground and seemed unable to move even as the cavern's ceiling dropped blast released debris upon them.
With the bugs distracted, Powie let her disguise dissolve. She ran straight towards the queen. Even the guardian bugs had been laid low by the overdose of energy. The discoball bug ruler screamed in fury despite the number of beams entering her shell.
As Powie reached out for the crown, the queen displayed her jaws and lunged at the warrior. The jaws bit onto Powie's infowrist. It immediately sparked in the queen's mouth. As the regal creature recoiled from the sudden wattage, Powie snatched the crown off of the queen's antennae. They weakly tried to grasp the crown. But Powie easily wrenched it free.
She spun on her heel intending to flee. Multiple bites sunk into Powie's boots preventing her escape.
Somehow, a group of the bugs had dragged themselves over to the throne. Maybe their antennae were too weak to use but their jaws were still strong. Powie tried to kick them away. Their strength waivered but held on. More and more energy beams flew from the disco ball. The bugs were helpless to stop their shells from absorbing those beams. As they struggled to stay clamped on Powie's boots, they began to cough and convulse.
Suddenly, a putrid liquid spewed from many of the discoball bugs' jaws. Unable to maintain their hold any longer, the bugs let go of Powie's boots. Although her feet were covered in vomit and chew marks, Powie stumbled behind the throne for cover.
The bugs were preoccupied now. But the warrior was still trapped as the energy assault raged on.
Even more of the cavern ceiling fell. A rocky chunk hit the disco ball. But the hard surface didn't shatter. Powie did notice that another chunk caused the disco ball to wobble.
If Powie could knock the disco ball off of its pedestal, the beams would stop. She may have to fight her way through an extremely angry colony. But that was easily the better choice.
Working quickly, Powie freed the Durar jewel from the crown. She placed both it and her brooch into her backpack. Trinket's many creations gleamed at her. None of them looked immediately useful to Powie. All that mattered was getting the jewel back to her father.
She carefully peered around the side of the throne again. All of the bugs were motionless. Some were still getting sick. Others cried out as they struggled to move. The queen's cries were faint yet filled with malice. But even she was unable to pursue Powie.
Dodging another beam, Powie hurled the crown at the disco ball's base. An energy beam shattered the crown as it sailed through the air. Bits of it flew everywhere – including into the disco ball's pedestal. Once more, the pedestal wobbled. Once more, it resisted a fall.
"Scalurg!" hissed Powie as she looked around for something else to throw.
A rumbling sound drew her attention back towards the disco ball. Above it, the ceiling was shaking. Some of the crown's shards had landed up there. With the help of a few more energy blasts, the ceiling gave way. Rocks plummeted down on the disco ball. Energy beams blasted some of the rocks into pebbles. But they couldn't stop them all. The disco ball wobbled from side to side. As more and more of the rocks fell, the assault on the disco ball was too much. It fell off the side of the pedestal as a solid shower of rocks buried the device from view.
There was a fizzling sound. Then the beams were no more.
Powie wasn't about to waste this lull. She sprang from behind the throne. The floor was full of angry squalls but very little movement. The ceiling vigorously shed rock chunks all over the nest. Luckily, rock dodging was one of Powie's specialties.
She pulled her backpack off of her shoulders and clutched it close to her chest. The back of her suit bulged out. That bulge quickly changed into two distinct wing shapes.
With a flap of her wings, Powie was in the air. Some of the bugs attempted to reach up. But they were too nauseous and overstuffed to catch her. Powie flew towards the entrance, dodging rocks the entire way.
The open tunnel greeted Powie with a total void of light. She shifted her pack to work with her infowrist. A few warning sparks told Powie that it would be very foolish to try pressing anything there. Trying to use her own fire as a light source was out of the question. Her brief encounter with the air a few minutes ago was warning enough that Kelvignius was too hot for bare skin exposure.
She began to hear sounds behind her. The squalls of the bugs were coming towards her.
With a disgusted scowl on her face, Powie reluctantly opened the backpack. Maybe one of these perverted little devices was a light. To her surprise, the Durar Jewel was glowing! Actually, it was sort of burning. A few of the other objects in the pack were showing some signs of melting under the Durar's heat. Powie quickly snatched her brooch from the pack to keep it from melting too.
She kept it clutched close to her as she started forward. The Durar provided enough light for her to resume flying down the tunnel. With a few well timed flaps, Powie cleared the long tunnel in just a few minutes.
The sounds of the discoball bugs had long since been left behind.
Powie zoomed out of the tunnel's opening and soared into the Kelvignius atmosphere. The lovely sunflower-yellow sky was lost on Powie's gaze she retraced her path back up the lava river. Since flight was so much faster than walking, Powie returned to her point of entry in no time at all. She flapped past the location of her encounter with the spineswayer and right over the debris of her first field test of the peek-a-boom plush. The warrior didn't stop until a familiar object greeted her eyes.
Metal ore from the mines of Dugwin provided the November leaf orange coloring of the space streamer along with the source material of its construction. Powie would have preferred a less noticeable color but it wasn't her ship. U.P.H.E.L.D.'s insignia, two planets clasping hands with a third while lifting it between the two, was boldly displayed on the flame orange rudder fin on the ship's roof. The organization considered orange to be the symbol of a warm inviting light and used it as their motif wherever possible.
The front third of this rounded rectangular vessel sloped down into a pudgy nose cone. Two rocket engines were held on curved wings which extended from either side of the cockpit hatch all the way to the back of the ship. These served as the gravity defying propulsion needed to escape a planet's surface. Three more rocket engines on the space streamer's backside allowed this vessel to pass through space.
It was those immense engines which gave the space streamer both its name and its reason for existence. It was the universe's current space speeder. Generally U.P.H.E.L.D. reserved its usage for high priority missions like Powie's.
The Durar Jewel had survived the escape intact. But Powie's pack was looking a little scorched from the heat. How was Powie supposed to carry it back home if it was going to destroy containers? Maybe she could just hold onto it herself. As she opened the cockpit's hatch, she noticed a satchel on her seat.
Oh! Powie had forgotten all about the special container which she'd been given to hold the Durar. Powie couldn't remember anyone mentioning the fact that Durars had an internal heat source. The warrior hadn't noticed any heat when she briefly held the jewel. But the evidence was clear. Trinket probably wasn't going to be happy. But at least his items had been 'heat tested'.
The rest of her pack was tossed into the cargo area behind the seat. Powie carefully placed the Durar into the satchel and set it on her own lap as she started the ship's engines.
With just a few button presses and some serious rocket propulsion, Powie Zappa was in the air. She rose above the Kelvignius atmosphere and steered course for U.P.H.E.L.D.'s planetary headquarters and the hospital that waited for the Durar.
Three medical wardens greeted the space streamer as it landed on the runway beside the hospital. The engines had barely shut down when the trio stepped forward. Powie opened the hatch and found the tallest of the three wardens staring down at her. His wispy mustache twitched as he extended all five sets of arms towards the warrior. Powie lifted the satchel off of her lap and handed it over to the elongated tube of a creature. The lower corners of that square shaped head turned upwards as the container touched its hands. Without a word, the warden turned and rushed back into the hospital as quickly as his five sets of stubby legs would allow.
The other wardens expressed their thanks several times over before quickly following their companion towards the ward of the stricken.
As they left, Powie was faced with Commander Phylliena. She was clearly not happy.
"What are you so ogre about?" Powie asked as she unstrapped herself from the cockpit seat and stepped out of the ship. The commander's face darkened. If there's one insult that a draykith doesn't like, it's being likened to an ogre and Powie knew it.
"Why didn't you send your infowrist log? I was expecting to go over the mission and test results with you and Trinket."
Instead of responding, Powie held up her right wrist. The gauntlet had some pretty clear chomp marks in it. Commander Phylliena winced. "How did that happen?"
"Well, after I put a little extra fire in the fuel tank, the qu-"
The commander raised an eyebrow. "How did you put fire into the fuel tank?"
Powie gave her superior one of those 'now that's a stupid question' looks which made Phylliena's face all the more unhappy.
"This was supposed to be a field test for Trinket's technology. Where is it?" Phylliena demanded.
"The Durar melted a lot of it and the pack. Lives were at stake! So I-"
A few rage induced wrinkles began to show through Phylliena's not so delicate features. "You knew that the prototypes needed to pass a high pressure situation going into this mission. The lives they saved now could be tripled later. Dragon Style was only to be used if the tech failed. And you didn't even give it a chance? You didn't seem to have a problem with testing items before you left. But suddenly when it's someone you know personally-"
"You're right," Powie snapped. "I guess it's far too easy to forget how right or wrong something is until it affects you personally. Well, it has affected me personally. And I now realize just how wrong it was for me to take this whole thing lightly. Maybe that disconnection is what preserves our sanity or helps us to be good field agents. But my participation in that aloof behavior is over."
"If you expect to be a good U.P.H.E.L.D. agent, then you'd better learn how to follow orders. Aloof or not, we do things this way for a reason."
Powie pulled her helmet off and thrust it right into Phylliena's chest. "You can suck on your U.P.H.E.L.D. ideals for all I care. I'm going to see my father."
Those boots which had trudged through lava, dirt and bug puke sounded hollow as they stomped across the landing pad floor.
With an angry growl, Phylliena turned her head and spat a short burst of fire across the ground. Since it was treated to resist the burning rockets of a ship's exhaust, the floor showed no marks of Phylliena's anger. She was going to be in big trouble with her own superiors for this one. Once again, her foolish big mouth had cost the organization a potential quality field agent. A reckless cadet was common enough. But a cadet with both the mind and luck to counter their high risk behavior was difficult to come by.
She'd been told not to inform Powie of her father's condition. Yet Phylliena just had to open her big mouth and say something. She wondered what her punishment would be this time. She wasn't sure if she could take another three months without her voice. The last time had been the most miserable silence of her life. How could a leader command a team if she couldn't bark orders at them?
Then again they could always – Oh no! Demotion would be ten times worse than losing her voice for a few months. Phylliena needed to find a way to fix this mess and quickly.
Her gaze fell upon the helmet in her hands. It held all of the scans, communications and various information files of Powie's mission. All Phylliena had to do was hack into it and change a few details. If the interface chips in the prototypes had survived, they'd transmit their technical performance report to Trinket. Perhaps he could be talked into an alibi. Yes - that was exactly what she needed to do. Then everything would be fine. Phylliena could keep her job, her voice and possibly find a way to keep Powie on the team.
Yes, that was just what needed to be done! For anyone else, their fate would be sealed. But for the Great Commander Phylliena Bigshooz, any challenge could be conquered!