by Dan Swanson
Tomas Thomas indeed saw the flying heroes, but there was little he could do right away. There was no easy way for him to sneak off the boat in the middle of the river, head to shore, then get back to the hotel and make a quick change to Tom Atomic. If they had needed him right away, they would have found some way to get his costume to him. So he would join them when he could. Still, he was going to be awfully antsy by the time he got back to the hotel.
The Meadowlands was only a short hop away, and Red Rocket and Lady Victory were there in almost no time. The State Police had surrounded the construction site and were starting to evacuate everyone nearby, although it wouldn’t be much use if the villain really had a nuclear bomb. Observing the twisted, melted wreckage of millions of dollars worth of heavy construction machinery, Rocket was sure he wasn’t bluffing.
The two landed about a mile from the temporary construction building that was now being used to hold the hostages. Rocket leaped back into the air, and both he and Lady Victory activated their battle-suits’ stealth mode. The red, white, and blue of Lady Victory’s costume quickly changed colors to match the swampy landscape around her, while Rocket’s red and yellow changed to match the sky behind him.
As they had gotten older, Red Rocket and Tom Atomic had added more weapons and gadgets to Rocket’s costume. It was ironic, Rocket thought, that when they had met, Todd Drake had been the hand-to-hand guy, and Tomas Thomas had been the one who usually carried a weapon; now those roles were virtually reversed. He launched a small, remote-controlled, self-propelled reconnaissance drone that carried a low-resolution TV camera. He shared the drone’s transmission with Lady Victory, and they both watched a small TV window on their helmet heads-up displays as the drone approached the target building.
The small camera didn’t produce a great picture, but they could see conventionally armed guards patrolling the outside of the building. Suddenly, the drone stopped transmitting. Lady Victory asked through their private radio link, “Could it be equipment failure?”
“I doubt it; there wasn’t anything wrong with the telemetry. I’m going to try again.”
“OK. I’m getting closer, haven’t spotted any lookouts or scout patrols yet. I should have visual on the building in another ten minutes.” Lady Victory had been moving the whole time. When she reached visual range of the target, Rocket would begin his attack.
Meanwhile, he launched his last two reconnaissance drones, the second one following several feet behind the first one so he could see if anything happened to it. However, he was still unable to determine why the lead drone failed at just the same spot where the original drone had been lost. All he could see from the trailing drone was the lead drone suddenly falling from the air.
“Careful, Lady V. There is some kind of defensive barrier about a hundred yards out that caused my drones to fail. I’m not sure what it is, but maybe we shouldn’t get closer until we know more.”
“Roger. I’ll let you know when I reach my position. Keep me updated on what you find out.”
Red Rocket drove the remaining drone toward the target building at top speed. An instant before it reached the danger point, he shut down its systems. A second later, well past the danger point, he sent it another signal, and was pleased when it came back on line. He updated his partner.
“My best guess is that there is some kind of electromagnetic field around that building that works like my E.M. scrambler, and bollixes any electronic equipment that passes through. We can probably operate on the inside OK, as long as we shut down everything just before we pass through the field.”
“Roger,” was all she said in reply.
Rocket moved in slowly, using his telescopic vision to examine the scene. Suddenly, his vision was blacked out, and an alarm blared; he had just been touched by a laser beam, and his visor had automatically cut out to avoid damage to his eyes. He flipped his goggles back so he could see, and began moving very fast; this laser was clearly a target locator, and was locked onto him.
A rapid repeat-fire anti-aircraft gun began shooting at him; he had expected guided missiles, but quickly realized that they would probably have the same problem with the anti-electronics field that his drones had experienced. His automated defenses snapped on, and a gout of plasma flared from the back of his wrist, vaporizing the incoming shells.
They exploded with a blast that was strong enough to send him tumbling backward through the sky, and his erratic motion carried him out of the targeting beam. The firing stopped. He began high-speed evasive maneuvers, and though the laser swept across him several more times, he seemed to be moving too fast for it to lock onto him again.
Unfortunately, even though he was still in stealth mode, whoever was in the building now knew somebody was in the air nearby. Red Rocket knew he’d better get moving, as he didn’t want to give the bad guys time to execute the hostages.
Still flying evasive maneuvers, he used his remaining drone to do some scouting. There were probably twenty guards outside the building, all armed with conventional rifles. As the drone circled the building, he was astonished at what he saw.
Someone had backed a tractor-trailer truck to the entrance of the building and then just kept on backing up, smashing through the flimsy temporary walls until about a third of the trailer was inside. The top and wall panels of the trailer had been removed, revealing a weapons turret on a hydraulic lift. On the turret, now raised above the level of the building roof, Rocket was able to identify the laser tracking system and the “ack-ack” cannon that had been firing at him. There was also a swivel-mounted beam weapon that must have been used to disintegrate the heavy construction equipment. A one-hundred-foot antenna was topped with transparent sphere that was packed full of circuitry, which Rocket guessed was probably the projector for the electronic disabling shield. The turret immediately became his primary target. He needed to move fast.
Because the guards below were now firing into the sky each time the scanning laser happened to randomly touch him, the disintegrator ray was now being aimed toward the sky as well. If it could be integrated with the scanning laser beam, sooner or later it would score a hit, and he didn’t want to find out just what that weapon would do to him.
The intermittent shooting kept him out of range for his plasma torch, so he considered his other options. He had two small guided missiles, which would probably go out of control when they passed through the shield, so he saved those. He was sure his electromagnetic scrambler beam would probably disable the barrier, but it was a short-range weapon. The focused ultrasonic projector seemed to be his best bet. Still moving quickly to dodge the laser and the bullets of the enemy gunmen, he aimed it at the moving devices in the turret.
The ultrasound beam had a disruptive effect on anything organic. Within a few seconds, the lubricants on the moving parts in the platform stopped lubricating, and within half a minute, the laser motion had become erratic as the metal bearings heated and expanded. Finally, the whole thing just screeched to a halt, and smoke started rising as the hard-driven electric motors began to overheat. Now that the scanning laser could no longer target him, Red Rocket could move within range and use his plasma torch.
Thanks to Red Rocket’s distraction, which was working perfectly, Lady Victory advanced unnoticed until she saw the two disabled drones. Now she would have to take a chance. She was going to have to shut down the electronics in her suit, dash forward until she was sure she was inside the barrier, and turn everything back on. Sometimes she regretted the bright patriotic colors of her costume, and this was one of those times. Red, white, and blue didn’t blend well into a green and brown background.
She circled the building, never getting any closer, as she looked for the best cover she could find. Suddenly, she heard artillery going off, and saw Rocket’s plasma torch explode the shells. She was relieved that Rocket’s body didn’t suddenly become visible and fall from the sky. When the guards rushed to the opposite side of the building, it gave her the opportunity she was waiting for.
Lady Victory flipped the emergency power disconnect and ran as fast as she could toward the building, until she was sure she must be inside the barrier, and dived headlong behind some bushes, raising her shield between herself and the building. But it seemed that no one had noticed her. She powered up all her electronics, which seemed to work just fine, and continued her cautious advance. She could see the weapons turret, which looked like the perfect target for Red Rocket, so she focused on the building.
All the guards had rushed to the other side of the building, and were firing intermittently at the sky. She hoped nobody would get hurt by falling bullets. Whoever these guys were, they had impressive weapons technology, coupled with a very poor grasp of tactics or discipline.
When smoke started to rise from the turret, she knew her confidence in her husband had been justified. Seconds later a massive stream of plasma, seemingly coming from nowhere, poured over the platform, and the cannon’s ammunition exploded. Lady Victory made her way through an unlocked door at the rear of the building before the roar from the explosion had died down.
Red Rocket was shaken by the explosion. He hoped none of the bad guys had been killed by the shrapnel, but he couldn’t help but be pleased when some of the armed guards were hit, taking them out of the fight. These guys had participated in the slaughter of hundreds of construction workers, and he had little sympathy for them. He trusted that the walls of the building would protect the hostages. Anyway, with the electronic barrier down, or so he hoped, now was the time for top speed.
Taking out the tractor cab with one of his guided missiles, Rocket then zoomed toward one of the front windows of the building. His costume would protect him from the broken glass, and his smashing entrance ought to give him the advantage of surprise. Just before he reached the window, though, all his electronic systems shut down. It looked as if they had a backup barrier.
His momentum carried him through the window, but without power, he couldn’t stay aloft or slow down, and he crashed to the floor at high speed. The armor cloth of his costume cushioned the impact somewhat, and he lived, but by the time he smashed into the wall and finally stopped rolling and bouncing, he was barely conscious, not to mention visible. Half a dozen bad guys jumped on him, but he was in no condition to fight back.