|Dance in the Flames|
Dance in the Flames is a story serial written by BobTheDoctor27, set three years after the events of Allies of the Night. It is his first story serial which revolves around Hero Factory characters and will specifically target the fictional Delta 4 Hero team.
The helpless hero was spinning around and around, bashing into the interior of his damaged craft as it plummeted towards the surface of the frozen planet below. His arms were wrapped around his head to protect it. Even so, he could still see the accursed world looming ahead of him through the windscreen. He was hurtling towards it at an impossible speed. He felt adrenaline bite into him, the G-Force press him back into his seat, and the horror finally sink in.
Tumbling over and over, as if being dragged away down a waterfall.
The Hero known as Jack Breacher could do nothing but watch as his vessel reeled and rocked. He tried fighting the violent shudders only to hit his head hard on the panel before him. He saw stars and almost blacked out, nearly overwhelmed by the aggression of the falling Hero Craft. But the Elite Hero managed to clench his fists tighter and wring some strength from the depths of his consciousness.
A hollow rushing sound filled the hero’s audio receptors as his craft entered the atmosphere of the arctic planet. Friction began to build up on the sides of the falling vessel.
The blaring klaxons stopped abruptly, leaving Breacher in the grip of a silence so complete that, for a moment, he thought he might have died already. His vessel was plummeting down wildly, rocking from side to side in no clear direction. It spun and lurched, as if caught in a terrible wind, falling at eighteen thousand miles an hour. Five miles a second. He could be incinerated at any moment if the fuel tank caught fire, which it probably would given the craft’s ruined state.
Breacher was already aware of a pink glow outside the window as the module began to rub against the planet’s upper atmosphere.
He was on fire. The whole world was on fire. The very air was breaking up and crackling from the heat. His hero craft had become a fireball. He was in the heart of a living hell.
Breacher yelled out. He couldn’t help it.
Then the fire disappeared, like a curtain being torn open.
He saw white.
There was another back-breaking jolt as the craft’s defeated computer system activated miniature booster rockets to act against the death-defying speed of the vehicle. The frozen planet seemed to shimmer on the other side of the window, allowing the Elite hero to see nothing but blank, endless paleness as far as his vision would allow him to.
Sparks flew as the craft made its landing, smashing into an ice plateau with enough force to level a mountain. Breacher was thrown forward, his safety belt torn off the metal by the sheer force of the impact. Again he cried out in surprise then cursed as he struck the metallic roof of his vessel. He was pretty sure he’d heard an unnerving CRACK sound.
And, at long last, silence.
After spending a full minute simply breathing in and out, the hero shrugged off his injuries and turned his attention to his pounding head. He felt groggy and disengaged, which he guessed wasn’t a good sign. Soreness rarely was.
Still unsure of what was happening, Breacher pulled himself up onto his feet and realized that the craft was lopsided. The whole thing must surely have been at the bottom of the mother of all impact craters. The hero groaned and rubbed his eye, trying to wipe the grogginess from vision. It was all blurry and fuzzy. He felt like dropping off and falling asleep in the crashed hero pod, and he probably would have had a buzzer not started to ring and the escape hatch blew off. He cursed under his breath when he caught a glimpse of the wall of ice before him.
The hero pod had smashed right through the ice and finally come to a rest several meters beneath the frozen surface. Startled, Breacher hesitated to inspect the remains of his craft. The communicator screen had been cracked when he’d fallen forwards. Sparks crackled and fizzed behind the shards of broken glass and ruined circuitry. Muttering darkly, the blue and black armored hero rolled over and began pressing buttons on the control panel. There was a blunt flash of light as the cracked windscreen was illuminated by a holographic image, projected from a device hidden behind the steering wheel. After several seconds of a mind-numbing rotating cog, the image warped itself into a spherical shape, representing the dark, icy planet he was now stranded on. According to this computer, the world around him was called Orcus, a terrestrial body in the Corellia System, fifth planet from its star with a surface temperature that Breacher wished he hadn’t read.
Just because nobody’s complained yet doesn’t mean Hero Pod landings are crash-proof.
The hero took one final look at the interior of his vessel then sighed. Electricity was surging through cut wires and sparks danced across the vehicle. Worse still, hydraulic fluid was beginning to flood the cabin. The Elite hero took one final glance at his Hero Pod, then gazed out into the frozen wilderness outside.
How did he want to die? Freeze to death outside or get blown up inside his hero craft?
It took some thought. Breacher pondered the question until the hydraulic fluid started to reach his feet. It was warm and viscous, like fresh tarmac. That was all the convincing he needed as he grabbed his twin Plasma Rifles and hurled himself out of the hatch, into the unknown.
Leaving behind a ticking bombshell as the hydraulic fluid continued to leak.
Patrick Gust threw his Ice Spear Shooter into the snow and slumped until he was sitting down, sheltered by the small sentry post disguised by the blizzard. He was tired, all the way down to the core of his very being, tired of hiding and running and hiding some more. It seemed that was all he'd done since he and his teammates had arrived on this frozen wasteland.
The big white snowflakes rained down upon the yellow armored rookie, whipping him in the helmet and stinging his eyes as they melted. It was freezing, but he tried not to shiver. He gritted his metallic teeth to the point where he didn’t care whether or not they cracked. His mouth was too numb to feel anything.
The visibility was terrible. Gust could barely see five meters out of the cave’s mouth, yet it was light. He often wondered how he could still see in such as dark, grim place. Clank, one of his team mates, had told him it was because of the way the sunlight reflected off of the ice or something but the clouds were obviously far too thick for that.
Of course, his headgear had been upgraded with both a flashlight and echolocation capabilities when he was upgraded around a month ago, so vision wasn’t one of his problems —- or at least not one of his more pressing ones.
Scanning the snowfall outside, Gust’s young, keen eyes spotted a shiny glint of silver just outside the cave. Frowning, the rookie reached for his Ice Spear Shooter and rose to his feet, tense. There was nothing to see outside except the frozen emptiness, he knew that. He’d been patrolling this planet for weeks with his three other teammates. There shouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary on such a remote, inhospitable planet. Nothing grew here. Nothing had ever lived here.
But then the glimmer caught his eye again. Definitely silver he thought to himself. Perhaps it was a scrap of armor, something he’d dropped. It was unlikely but the rookie didn’t particularly care for guesswork. His mind was distracted now and he wanted to see what the object was, otherwise it would haunt him for the rest of his shift.
The young hero began to charge his weapon, preparing to fire a burst of ice at anything that so much as breathed. He should be the only living organism on this side of the planet. Orcus was simply uncongenial.
Still, the strange find had caught Gust’s attention. He wanted to blunder out into the storm and inspect the glinting metallic object, but he was no fool. Orcus was a dangerous planet with far too much snow, which he was swiftly beginning to dislike.
Too many potential hiding places.
The yellow armored hero stuck his head out of the cave, weapon at the ready, audio receptors burning. The rookie hesitated before stepping away from the safety of his guard post and crept through the snow, towards the object.
Gust held his catch carefully in his numb fingers to examine it. The strange thing did not belong in the frozen wilderness, that was for sure. He couldn’t leave it to be swept away by the remorseless wind or to be buried in the snowfall.
But now he had it he wasn’t all too sure what he should do with it. His find was inanimate. It did not live or breathe; it was not food; therefore it was not something he particularly desired.
His slow, frozen brain finally realized that his catch was some sort of gear, a cog. Perhaps it was part of an important machine. Maybe it had fallen off of his enemy’s craft when he’d arrived on the planet. The latter idea filled the inexperienced hero with more joy. He’d been dispatched to Orcus roughly a month ago to search for the criminal known as Bonecrusher, a violent Aurosian who had been driven mad by the destruction of his species at the hand of a mysterious disease and seemed to be blaming the Hero Factory for it. Seeing as handing out vaccinations wasn’t one of Gust’s many chores, he saw no reason for the bounty hunter to blame the heroes. He didn’t understand the fugitive’s thinking but, then again, he didn’t particularly want to either.
Bonecrusher was dangerous. He was a villain responsible for countless crimes going back since before Gust’s time. The rookie had often asked his fellow heroes what the Aurosian had done. Someday he hoped to get a response.
As the rookie rose to his feet he came to the conclusion that the gear obviously wasn’t natural. He definitely hadn’t brought it. He couldn’t account for his teammates but he doubted the piece was one that the heroes used. It was crude and brittle, something he suspected wouldn't be used by the Hero Factory.
And there was only one other person on the inhospitable planet who could have dropped it.
A current of terror engulfed the rookie’s senses when he realized what the gear’s presence meant. When he discovered that his joints weren’t frozen together by the cold he crouched down and ducked back into the safety of the cave, weapon at the ready.
There was no movement outside except for the shower of snow drops and icicles. He didn’t want to admit it, but he disliked being in caves. They were far too still, too close, and much, much too dark.
The rookie stopped short. Was he hearing things? Confused, he peered into the darkness behind him.
Nothing. He turned away.
The hero froze. Something had moved off to the right. A footstep. Horror began to grip his very core once again as a dark, sinister chuckle began to echo through the cave. Gust felt the urge to run, but his feet would not move.
He forced himself to turn around and look. Four beady, sapphire blue eyes were staring down at him from the darkness of the cave. He imagined a wicked smile beneath them, filled with jagged rock-like tusks in place of teeth.
Patrick Gust whimpered in fear and backed away from the floating pairs of eyes. His head was pounding. Bonecrusher. It had to be.
“I know who you are!” he cried out, desperately trying to confront the monster in front of him. “I —– I’m not afraid!”
“Oh dear,” murmured the shadowy figure slowly, ignoring Gust’s babbling. “What have I here?” His reptilian eyes were alive with hunger and hate, like a hawk eyeing its prey. Despite Gust’s previous guess, the cave-dweller had a small mouth. He looked sad, like the saddest person the rookie had ever seen.
Then the sorrow boiled away into rage.
What felt like a crab-claw snapped shut around Gust’s chest and squeezed, hard. The rookie’s eyes budged from the pressure before he was flung aside, as if he were weightless. His Ice Spear Shooter fell out of his hand and clattered to the ground, where it wedged itself into the snow.
The fallen rookie gasped in terror as he looked up at figure.
“You are fortunate” snarled the villain in the shadows. “Your sorrow will be short-lived. These are your final moments, hero,” he spat in disgust. “There will be pain – great pain – but then the total peace of the beyond. Death will come as a blessing, rookie. You will welcome it in the end, you’ll beg me to finish. You’ll break down on your hands and knees then weep like a woman.”
Gust stared into the eyes of the stranger, transfixed with terror. “Wh-Wh... Who... are... you?” he croaked, forcing the words out between his chattering teeth. He was shivering from something other than the cold.
“The beginning and the end of your greatest sorrows” replied the entity. He said it plainly —– clearly not a boast.
The petrified rookie’s eyes widened as the tan and black armored monster before him stepped into the light. A sapphire-blue orb of energy was materializing at his enemy’s Meteor Blaster. The wicked device crackled with energy, illuminating the hideous face of the barbaric Bonecrusher. Gust quivered in fear as he tried to crawl away, leaving his weapon behind. He didn’t get far before the Aurosian snarled menacingly and he froze in fear.
Bonecrusher drifted around him, toying with his victim. The yellow armored rookie tried not to think about how well the technique was working. It was certainly unnerving him.
The Aurosian had no nose, just two large, circular holes above his upper lip. He sniffed as he passed, and Gust somehow understood that the criminal was smelling his fear.
The alarmed hero gawped in horror and tried to make a run for it. His base wasn’t far away. He could probably call for backup, get help. Without thinking, he snapped up his weapon, turned his back on the jagged frozen cave and ran. Behind him, the monster chuckled darkly.
Then there was a vile, vicious howl of delight as Bonecrusher gave chase.
No sooner had he left the cave was Gust’s vision suddenly shrouded by the pelting of the snowstorm. Desperately, he tried to battle his way on, trudging through the knee-deep barrier that would prove to be no trouble at all for his enemy. Savage, animalistic growls and grinding teeth seemed to fill his audio receptors, getting closer every second. Bonecrusher was almost on top of him. He could feel the criminal’s rotten breath on his back.
A pang of wild energy seemed to surge through the hero’s frozen mind. His feet began to feel like slabs of iron that weighed him down until he came to a stop, panting for breath. He didn’t dare turn around until his Ice Spear Shooter was fully charged.
As quickly as he dared, the rookie lurched to the left, rolled over in the snow, and turned to aim at the mildly surprised villain behind him. His eyes narrowed before his weapon burst into life, firing two identical beam of ice at his foe, like knives cutting through the blizzard.
No effect other than the criminal’s laugh going an octave higher.
Shocked, Gust could do nothing as Bonecrusher’s maniacal laughter continued. He watched through empty eyes as his Meteor Blaster began to hum with energy. The ball of blue energy hurtled towards him, striking him square in the chest and propelling him backwards, into the snow. He landed heavily and lay there, paralyzed.
I intended to live forever thought the rookie before he slipped into unconsciousness.
Until now, I was on track...
The fugitive known as Bonecrusher eyed the fallen hero with disgust. He was getting sick of the puny pests stalking him. He’d arrived on the planet weeks ago and every single day since then, even on this lifeless, arctic planet, the Hero Factory had managed to catch up with him.
It was like they were taunting him, rubbing fresh new enemies in his face. He’d been itching to pick one off for weeks. Initially he’d planned for the one of the more experienced heroes but it was in his nature to give his enemies a sporting chance. He couldn’t help it. Perhaps he just pitied them.
With a sharp kick, the Aurosian bounty hunter booted the immobile rookie’s weapon away. He didn’t want to take any chances, not that the weapon had any effect against him. He came from the planet Auros, the icy weather on Orcus was warmer than most summer days where he came from. These Ice Shooters his enemies were parading around with had the same effect as glasses of lemonade: Refreshing.
Letting his scorpion-like tail snake round his body and up to his front, Bonecrusher decided to slice the hero open. Perhaps if he physically removed the head he could send some sort of message to the rest of the heroes. A threat, a ransom, blackmail. Whatever. That was what he normally would have done.
But the Hero Factory had changed much in the past month he had been on Orcus. The design of this hero was far more modern that the models he was used to. The wiring was all different and the headgear was better protected. It took him three times as long to wrench the headset off and when he did, he managed to pull another piece of armor off with it, some kind of cover that sat at the top. He hoped it wasn’t anything important. It was no use having a dead hostage.
The bounty hunter was suddenly startled by the sound of a loud explosion. Tense, he jerked his head up to search for the source. His eyes widened in shock as they settled on a blinding fireball rolling into the lifeless grey sky, like a ball of gravity-defying tumbleweed .
A gigantic concussion ring blasted outwards. The entire valley was hit by a violent shockwave. Bonecrusher was tossed sideways, his right foot stabbing into a particularly deep mount of snow as he tried to frantically keep his balance. The terrible explosion had blasted outwards and had met absolutely nothing in its path. The Aurosian closed his eyes and stood in silence.
When he opened them again a moment later there was nothing to see in the melancholy sky other than a roiling cloud of thin smoke. No debris, no metal, no clattering wreckage. Nothing at all except microscopic invisible particles of vapor accelerating into the atmosphere.
And no survivors.
A huffing Jack Breacher mounted a tBreacherous, icy ridge and stared across a frozen sea of jagged peaks. He’d visited most of the varying climates of the universe in his years as a hero, but this was the harshest wilderness he’d ever experienced. A plateau of ice peppered with rocky outcrops. Whipping snow that could blind a lesser being in minutes. Temperatures so low that each breath stung his throat. It was a hostile, alien, unforgiving landscape.
The hero wanted to throw his head back and howl with mad delight but he doubted he’d even be heard over the roaring of the ferocious wind. Even so, it was well below zero and wasn’t going to get warmer any time soon. He needed to reserve his energy to keep warm before his joints froze.
The scanner he was carrying was beeping softly in his numb, frost-encrusted fingers. The blue and black armored hero put his other hand over the screen, sheltering it from the rain of needle-like chunks of ice that were pelting him. The device had been displaying an arrow for the past half hour, showing a faint life reading in the murky distance. He didn’t know why he was following it. The chances he’d have landed within walking distance of the owner of the heat signature were too slim for him to care to think about.
A cruel wind cut through Breacher and he staggered down the other side of the ridge. He’d lost track of time in this barren world of ice. It felt like he’d been wandering for days, though he suspected it couldn’t have been more than an hour.
He considered backtracking, to return to the remains of his destroyed hero craft. It took him a moment for his frozen core processor to remember the explosion that had engulfed his craft and thrown him off his feet mere minutes ago.
There was no going back.
The wind roared around him and the temperature dropped. Breacher hadn’t thought it could get any colder, but he was wrong. Even his circuits seemed to be frosting and stalling. His entire body felt numb beneath his armor. His lips were drawn back over his metallic teeth in a grimace. Only his chest was marginally warm, where his hero core burnt away.
The hero slipped and almost collapsed on top of his scanner, but managed to twist and fall on his side. He gasped from the shock of the cold impact. Part of him wanted to lie there and let the snow bury him alive. It certainly would have been easier than rising and pushing on. But he was a hero, one of Hero Factory’s finest. Failure wasn’t programmed into him.
As he struggled back to his feet, Breacher suddenly realized that the storm was getting worse. It had whipped up without warning since he’d climbed out of his craft. Yet, he struggled through the bitter gale, helmet buried in his arms to protect his eyes.
He slipped many times after that and nearly fell through cracks in the ice just as often. He was walking over deadly land for someone who couldn’t see clearly. It was all too easy to wander off the edge of a ridge and drop into an icy abyss. His best tactical move would probably be to find a cave to sit inside, waiting out the worst of the storm.
But he would grow weary soon enough. Being mechanical he had no desire for food but he still couldn’t survive in this arctic hell. His core would burn out soon enough, leaving him to disintegrate in the snow. Yet still he pushed on, preferring the idea of falling into a chasm than perishing from low energy supplies.
Something shimmered far off ahead of him. Breacher thought his depleting power reserves were causing his vision to glitch until he realized that his scanner was pointing towards the distant glimmer. He squinted and shielded his helmet from the flurry of gravel-like ice with his spare hand. There was a distinct flash of yellow. The snow was thick as ever and it was almost impossible to see anything further than a couple of feet away, but Breacher held his position and kept his eyes open. Moments later, the flicker of yellow came again.
The hero frowned in confusion. He didn’t know what the light meant. An animal? He couldn’t imagine any shining yellow animals in this solar system. He didn’t even think this planet was inhabited.
A person, perhaps? Breacher liked the sound of that idea. People meant civilization, and civilization was beginning to sound very appealing. Civilization meant warmth and shelter which, at the moment in time, were things he would almost-willingly sell his Hero Core for.
“Hey!” he bellowed, yelling through cupped hands to amplify his voice. But if it was a person, they either didn’t hear him or just ignored him.
The blue and black armored hero began trudging towards the glimmer. It was probably nothing, a leaf or a scrap of cloth, but hope drove him on. If it was a person then he might end up with a roof over his head and a warm fire at his feet that night.
There was only ice in the place where Breacher thought he’d glimpsed life. He stood, peering into the snow-riddled darkness, trying not to breathe. For a long time he saw nothing. But then, as the wind gradually died down, he caught sight of it again, a long way off, something yellow. He started to cry out and broke into a run.
He chased the glint for a full hour. The longer he chased it, the more convinced he became it wasn’t real. If his scanner wasn’t constantly reminding him it was real he might have dubbed it as a ghost leading him to his doom, toying with him for cruelty. Or the snow had impaired his vision and the occasional flashes of yellow were nothing more than a flare at the back of his eyes. If there was the slimmest chance of survival, he had to seize it.
So he pushed on, through snow, over ice, defying the bitter wind. The cold was settling in again, despite his death-defying resilience. He could feel himself drawing lose to the end. Even heroes had their limits. As disorientated as he’d been in the past hour, it was nothing short of a miracle how he’d made it that far.
Eventually, the hero found himself spotting the opening of a rocky ridge to his left. It looked like the mouth of a cave. For a long moment, the hero stared slack-jawed at the ridge. Was it real? If so, perhaps the colors had been too. Sighing, he took a fresh step forward and felt his foot connect with something hard and metallic in the snow. He cried out in surprise and nearly tripped over. Angered, the hero shuddered and examined his find then felt his eyes widen in surprise. There was a yellow body at his feet, twitching and quivering in wild spasms of urgency.
Without wasting a moment, Breacher tucked his scanner into his pack and scooped up his fellow hero in his bulky arms, intending to carry him towards the hole in the rock.
An icy chill ran down the elite hero’s back as he caught a glimpse of a dark figure pounding towards him. It was massive, dark behind the heavy snowfall, almost completely invisible against the jet-black sky. If not for its two pairs of crystal-blue eyes he wouldn’t have spotted it until it was upon him.
Was it some sort of animal? It had to be. Breacher was sure of it. The being was easily twice his size with a pair of vicious-looking horns and sharp talons. It appeared to be standing on its hind-legs, its mouth a gaping maw of blades.
It must have been starving. A more cunning creature probably would have waited longer, until he was too weak to defend himself. But when it’d seen him slip its mouth must have watered.
A sharp blow to Breacher’s chest sent his spiraling back into the snow in shock. He lost his grip of the yellow-armored hero as he flew through the air, wandering what monster was standing over his body.
Breacher rolled onto his back and glared up at the abomination towering over him. Only one thought passed through his head in that instant. He was almost certain that animals didn’t carry energy weapons and walk on two legs.
Which meant his stroll in this desolate winter wasteland had just gotten interesting.
Sam Clank snapped back into consciousness and cried out in alarm. He bolted upright in his bunk bed and immediately banged his head on the bed above him, which seemed to silence him for a moment as pain flared through his circuits. He opened his eyes, unsure if he was still in his dream or if the blood-red flashing lights and flaring alert sirens were just part of his alarm clock. He quickly decided against it and instead set out looking for someone to physically disembowel for waking him up. There was nobody else in his room.
The orange-armored hero’s insides began to clench, his mind racing as it always did when anyone had an especially bad nightmare. He felt like something terrible was about to happen, and he didn’t need the flaring klaxon bells and flashing lights to tell him that much.
Forcing himself to wake up and focus, the veteran hero leapt out of his bed and snatched up his blaster and sprinted towards his door. He slipped out into the corridor and was almost deafened by the noise. He winced and tried to block it out of his audio receptors, fearful for his continued hearing. After a moment’s hesitation, the orange-armored hero was reminded that the alarms meant danger and decided to get to the control room. He stumbled over to the command center in a daze, still half-asleep but ready to throw himself in front of whatever snow monster was causing all the trouble.
Clank booted the door open and threw himself inside with drunken balance. The alarms bells stopped burning his sanity and the lights shut off as he did so, and the room was plunged back into darkness, save for the light of the computer monitors that colonized the shadowy chamber.
Two other heroes were in the room, hiding in the darkness. A male and a female. He knew the female well. They’d been friends for years and teammates for slightly longer. Her name was Jenny Sharp, his closest living friend. She turned around and smiled at him slyly as he stumbled further inside.
“Enjoy your nap?” She was teasing him.
“Very eventful” he replied with an exaggerated yawn. “I don’t suppose the base is on fire?”
“No such luck” grunted the male, a green-armored hero named Jaret Tracer. The grouchy mechanic seemed to be in a particularly bad mood, worse than his usual frame of mind. Clank was just glad he wasn’t stuck on a team with Tracer, he didn’t think he’d ever met anyone more cynical in his life.
“So what’s the problem?” The orange-armored hero did a quick headcount then realized that one of their number was missing. “Is Gust in trouble?”
Sharp nodded. “I’m getting data reports that he’s been demobilized.”
Clank nodded then exchanged glances with Tracer. They both knew what that meant.
“Where is he?” grunted the green-armored hero.
“Outside his sentry post, two kilometers north” responded the white-armored female.
A dull pop-up box sprang onto the screen. Sharp frowned. After a moment’s hesitation she clicked on it and it expanded.
“I can establish an optical link” she announced. “We can see what Gust sees… even after he dies.”
It was an inevitable fact but still one that pained the three of them deep inside. Gust was a simple rookie. Bonecrusher was a vengeful, hero-killing maniac, hardened by a decade of oppression and hardship. And they were separated from the heroes by two kilometers of frozen debris. The novice hero would be finished off long before they managed to reach him. The best they could hope for was to run past his broken body. If they hurried, Bonecrusher’s footprints may still be fresh in the snow.
And if they weren’t, Gust would have died for nothing.
The link was established almost immediately. After a split second of fuzzy, grey nothingness, the image arrived with a crackle, revealing absolutely nothing. Just a white world that seemed to be frozen solid.
But then a dark figure staggered onto the screen, shivering from the cold. The combination of the visual link and the poor visibility through the curtain of snow left the three agents confused. It took them a moment longer than it should have to identify him as a fellow Hero Factory agent. His blue and black armor appeared frozen and clammy, encrusted with a thin layer of ice. With no organic parts there was nothing to stop his joints freezing over. Plus he appeared to be blinking and coughing as he struggled to his feet, wobbled, then puffed out his chest and narrowed his eyes.
“Who’s this clown?” grunted Tracer. The three heroes exchanged confused glances before anyone spoke.
“A reinforcement?” suggested Clank unconvincingly.
Sharp shook her head. “If he was he’d have the upgrade or at least some sort of prototype ice-resistant armor, which he clearly doesn’t… unless shivering is the latest trend.”
“But his core would’ve run out if he’d stayed here as long as us.”
“So he just got here?”
“Possibly” shrugged the white armored medic. She rubbed her forehead, as if trying to stimulate an idea forming in her mind. In the end she just shuddered to herself and turned to her two teammates. Something was troubling her; and Clank didn’t need to be her closest living friend to figure that one out.
“Well whoever he is, he’s dead regardless of whether or not we get to him” grunted Tracer. “The cold, core drainage or Bonecrusher. It doesn’t matter what kills him, he doesn’t stand a chance out there.”
“Not essentially” retorted Clank casually, making an open gesture to the screen. “You see his armor? He has Elite plates, plus military brandings. He’s probably better suited to this planet than any of us are.”
“I’ll run a search for him in the database” muttered Sharp quietly. “You two focus on –” She trailed off when her eyes returned to the screen.
Gust had moved. He’d been picked up then thrown down. The other hero was on the ground, heaving himself back to his feet, eyes burning, muscles straining.
“He has an identification plate!” exclaimed Tracer. He pointed at the screen as the stranger returned to his feet. “Zoom in!”
Sharp hesitated, unwilling to obey orders from one of the heroes she should be ordering about. Reluctantly, she finally decided some battles just weren’t fighting and turned to face the computer interface. The image widened then homed in on the hero’s shoulder plate, his military ID tag.
“What does that say?”
“I think it’s PBreacher!”
The three team mates exchanged then exchanged glances, confused.
“I’ve never heard any of those names” grunted Tracer coldly as he narrowed his eyes.
“Well, whatever it is, it definitely starts with an R” murmured Sharp as she panned the camera back out. Just as she did so, the hero on the screen snarled, his joints frozen together, his fingers trembling, his hero core burning away quietly.
Blazing like a god.
“Let’s just hope Bonecrusher spends enough time wondering who his is for us to get there…”
Breacher threw himself at his attacker as he roared his rage. His momentum drove him into his enemy and the pair thumped into the snow, wrestling wildly with one another.
Tactically, he had the advantage having landed on top, but then his rabid foe took a vicious bite for his neck and the hero had to jerk himself away to avoid injury. The slight gap gave his strange attacker space to ram his muscular knee into Breacher’s chest. He fell back, winded.
He was in far worse shape than the stranger, but he had a fellow hero to protect and that gave him a slight desperate edge. In that single moment, he didn’t care what happened to him, but he wasn’t going to let this ferocious, beastly carnivore kill his fallen victim.
His rival was back on his feet before Breacher’s frozen metallic backside hit the snow. He had no idea who his foe was or why he’d been attacked, but like any natural warrior he didn’t care. Rather than waste time asking questions, he struggled back up and threw himself at his assailant. He would rather live in ignorance than die well-informed.
The hero’s weapons charged with energy only for a powerful swipe to strike his forearm and knock his left blaster from his hands. It disappeared into the snow, burning its way through the cold with a fiery hiss.
Angered by the loss of one of his favorite Plasma Pistols, Breacher made sure he latched onto his attacker’s back. He cried out in alarm when he realized it was jutted with sharp, bone-like spikes.
The Elite Hero’s eyes widened in shock as a thunderbolt of realization struck him. Crab claw, spiky back, horns, scorpion-tail. He was fighting an Aurosian. He should be putting this figure in a museum, not a hospital.
For a moment he considered trying to dismount and make peace with the last member of the critically endangered species. Perhaps he could crack a joke and they could laugh over how he’d mistaken him for the local wildlife. But then he realized he’d been attacked first. Plus the unconscious yellow-armored hero in the snow wouldn’t have fainted.
And he’d just remembered the name of the last Aurosian.
“Bonecrusher?” he growled in surprise as his crab-like foe struggled to tear him off his back.
“I don’t do autographs, hero” he spat sarcastically as his claw bit into Breacher’s chest. “But if you want something nice written on your tombstone then perhaps something can be arranged.”
The blue and black-armored hero was hurled through the bitter air with a flick of Bonecrusher’s wrist. By some miracle, he managed to land on his feet.
“You talk too much” remarked Breacher coldly as he raised his remaining blaster and fired wildly. He didn’t see the familiar scarlet flare for the snow but he could tell he’d struck the Aurosian. There was a hiss as Bonecrusher jerked his leg back and clamped his single hand down on it.
“You are a resilient little pest!” his enemy snarled menacingly. Before Breacher could even take up a defensive position, he was headbutted in the chest again. He snarled as his second blaster was knocked from his fingers. It wasn’t too much of a problem. The range was too close for his energy rifles. They were useless in this proximity.
But the loss of his weapon still irritated him. Without even letting an enraged grunt slip, he threw himself at Bonecrusher again, this time managing to make him slip and fall over. The two fighting strangers wrestled to the ground. They struggled against each other for a number of minutes before Breacher was finally pinned down, pressed tight against the ice.
It was going to take far more than that to finish him off though.
Squirming for his life, the hero managed to get a hand between his helmet and his enemy’s and pushed. Bonecrusher tried to chew at his fingers but the hero was too experienced to be caught out like that. His Hero Factory battle field instructors had taught him to be wary of the dirty moves as well as the legitimate. Hardly the glamorous training that members of the Alpha Team got but it seemed to have finally paid off. He’d have liked to have seen this oh-so-famous William Furno, who he’d been hearing too much about lately, make it out of a skirmish like this with all of his body parts intact.
Sliding his fingers away from his foe’s teeth, he jabbed at his eyes, gouging one of them. The Aurosian howled in agony. That gave him the only chance he needed.
Taking the window of opportunity, Breacher followed like a flash of lightning – desperately glad that the cold had sharpened his senses instead of shutting them down. If he won this fight, he’d be able to travel the Makuhero City, with one of the Hero Factory’s most wanted criminals in Hero Cuffs. What he would give to see Preston Stormer’s face when that happened.
But the conflict was far from over and only a fool would congratulate himself while his opponent was still alive and dangerous.
Pinning the three-eyed Aurosian down, Breacher found his enemy’s throat and squeezed. His fingers tightened as Bonecrusher’s face turned purple. Aurosians could hold their breath for far longer than most other species, but his enemy had been panting from the fight and hadn’t much oxygen left in his organic lungs. He had to break Breacher’s grip quickly or his species was going to finally die out.
The desperate Aurosian worked his left arm free and began tugging on the hero’s hands. When that didn’t make a difference he flailed out, trying to punch Breacher in the face, hoping to smash his helmet. But the hero had been expecting that too. He tucked his chin in tight and took the blows on his forehead, grunting in pain but still in control.
His attacker was weakening. He had fought many fights in his time and knew when one was lost. There was something glinting in his eyes. Pain? Defeat? Anger? Whatever it was, Breacher doubted his enemy was going to give up. He imagined the Aurosian making his peace with whatever Gods his species had worshipped. If he was to die, he’d want a clear conscience. He probably wouldn’t ask for forgiveness for the countless lives he had claimed, probably for the times he’d been weak instead, when he’d disgraced his proud and demanding species.
And that made Breacher taste the temptation of bloodlust.
The hero could sense victory, but remained focused. Many battles were lost in their last few seconds, when the one with the upper hand grew over-confident and gave his opponent the chance to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. Breacher was sure he wouldn’t make that mistake. Just another thirty seconds of pressure and his hero-murdering stalker would be dead. Then he could find his transporter and –
Bonecrusher’s leg shot up and connected with the hero’s chest, rocketing him into the air. He gave a cry of shock and pain as his fingers were torn from his enemy’s neck. He fell through emptiness for a long moment before crashing hard against the rock beneath a particularly thin patch of snow. He shuddered and turned to regain his stance in the skirmish only for Bonecrusher’s scorpion-like tail to flash past him and pin him to the ground.
Again he hit the ground, his Elite chestplate decorated with a deep scratch. His vision flickered for a moment as he realized part of his optical circuitry had been cut. His left eye appeared to be blinking on and off, which wasn’t a good sign. Damage of any sort rarely was.
The hero barely got a moment of vision back before Bonecrusher’s jagged claw bit into him, clamping around his neck, squeezing until Breacher felt the mechanical components behind his helmet beginning to crumple.
His eyes widened and full, unbroken vision temporary returned to him. It was just long enough for him to see his enemy’s monstrous face, his bony features, the black blood trickling from his punctured eye socket, the hatred in his remaining eyes as he squeezed.
Breacher accepted that his enemy’s ugly face would be his final sight of life.
But then everything stopped and the hero felt the claw snap open, causing him to drop back to the ground in a broken, battered heap. When he stirred and opened his eyes all he could see was the menacing grin that appeared to have been carved into the Aurosian’s alien face.
“No” he muttered, gritting his teeth to fight off the pain in his eye socket. “No, I won’t kill you now. I have defeated you, and you are barely conscious, little hero. Just as well for you I would never kill an enemy in their sleep. Only a coward strikes down an unconscious foe, and I am no coward.”
Breacher groaned and pounded the snow with his fist. “Just finish me off you overgrown sea urchin!” His mouth wasn’t functioning properly because of the cold. The joints were frozen half open.
“You are without a shred of dignity” sighed the Aurosian as he began to walk away slowly. “But, alas, I will return to kill you if you become a nuisance. Just remember, every breath you take from now on is because I allow it. No matter where you travel, who you hide behind, how many battles you win – you'll know you're only walking, talking, living because of me.” Bonecrusher laughed sardonically. “I just saved your life, hero... I think that rates a thank you, don't you?”
Breacher said nothing, just glared with hate-filled eyes at his enemy.
“Of course, it was a shame. You came so very close to defeating me only to end up broken in the snow.” The Aurosian turned around, scanning the snow in the distance, then turned back. “I suspect you will not be here for long. There are other heroes on this planet, my unyielding stalkers. That’s one thing I admire about you heroes. You are capable of being so persistent and unremitting. Or at least I used to. Now I wouldn’t even drain your tainted cores to power my ship.”
“Are you done monologuing?” challenged the hero. “I have other jerks to put behind bars today.”
The Aurosian snorted before snapping his claw shut and smashing the Hero’s chest. His core made a sharp cracking sound and he cried out in pain. Barely stable.
“You should learn to speak when spoken to” snapped his enemy bitterly. The Elite Hero watched him as he smoothly bent over and scooped up his scanner. He must have dropped it in the snow when they’d started fighting. “Isn’t that what they teach you in your hero training sessions ?”
Breacher said nothing.
His foe’s three-remaining eyes narrowed. “ Fear me hero . For today you have made a powerful enemy. From this moment on I shall plague your dreams, stalk your thoughts… we will meet again, be it in the fiery depths of Hell or later in this life, we shall finish this.” The last Aurosian eyed the murky landscape once more, as if expecting something to shoot out of the backdrop of snow at any moment. “...Live a long life, hero” he chuckled. “I want you around to remember this day. The day the Almighty Bonecrusher , Ruler of the Aurosian Empire, spared your simple, scrawny little life.”
With that, the crab-like being bolted into the snow. Within seconds he’d vanished, leaving a stunned Jack Breacher stranded in the middle of the frozen wilderness with an inert rookie buried in the snow beside him.
Since when had there been an Aurosian Empire?
Jenny Sharp stared at the computer monitor, stunned into silence at the sight of Bonecrusher disappearing off into the snow. Her eyes were wide and wild, like exposed flesh wounds.
The battle she had just witnessed through Gust’s optical link had been a heated one, with victory swinging erratically from one combatant to another. She’d been on edge the whole time, fearing for the life of the strange blue and black armored hero, wondering how in the Voodoo Paradox Spirals he’d managed to get so close to defeating the criminal while Gust – who had been equipped with the latest advances in Hero Factory technology – had been felled like a tree.
It didn’t make sense to her. It was irrational to her logical, medical mind. She refused to accept the conflict that had occurred before her very eyes. It was impossible. Statistically, even rookies with the upgrade were far more capable than Elite heroes without it. She’d watched training sessions take place, even studied the physical differences between the two types and always come to the same conclusion: That the upgrade was unmatched by anything the Hero Factory had ever created before.
So how had this stranger nearly pummeled Bonecrusher?
She pondered over the issue for a moment longer, almost mulling it over in her mouth. Finally, she turned to her left in search of Clank, intent on asking him for his opinion only to realize she was standing alone in the darkened base. Her teammates had charged out into the arctic chill to find the stranded heroes somewhere in the snow.
In that moment she had never been more vulnerable. Alone in the metal compound, aware of every creak and shudder of the frozen pipes. A strong wind was gathering energy outside, plus the temperature was dropping. Every security camera she checked seemed to have a layer of air encompassing it, pulsing with cold, obscuring the image. The breeze didn’t help either. It found invisible cracks and made draughts, sucking heat out of the base. The savage wind made strange sounds as it blew. Rustling, cracking, crunching noises.
The sounds were mellowed by the thickness of the base’s walls but Sharp could have done without them. She was depending upon hearing the soft crunch of the sliding of treading in the snow, and her chances of picking them up were rapidly diminishing.
Hide and seek. Perhaps the oldest game in existence, revolving around primal thrills and fears hidden deep in the back of every sentient being’s mind. Predator and prey. The irresistible shiver of delight, crouching in the dark, hearing the footsteps pass by. The rush of pleasure in doubling back and yanking open the closet door to discover the victim. The instant translation of primeval terrors into modern-day laughter.
This was different.
There would be no laughter. There would be short seconds of the furious discharging of energy weapons, followed by the stench of smoke then a sudden deafening silence. Then the shaking and the need to throw up.
And this wasn’t hide and seek. Nobody was hiding, and nobody was really seeking. Bonecrusher knew exactly where she was. The Outpost was the only structure on the entire planet. She was just sitting, right there, waiting for him. No art. Just plain brutality, which disappointed her a little. She was good at hide and seek – the real world version, not the game. She was good at hiding, but far better at seeking.
Again, Sharp drifted out into the corridor, leaving the Mission Control centre in the gloomy light of the monitors. The entire base was a circular ring with the recreation room in the middle. To her left she could see the main dormitory where Clank and Gust slept and recharged. To her right she could see Tracer’s quarters. It was her eighth sweep of the interior perimeter. She saw nothing worth getting concerned over. Nothing to see from any exterior camera except the grand, frozen emptiness. Nothing to hear except the rush of icy water in the heating pipes and a faint creaking as the wasteland outside grew colder, compacting under the weight of the snow.
An abrupt electronic beep disrupted her senses from one of the consoles in the room behind her. Swallowing back her loneliness, the female hero returned to the Mission Control centre and glanced again at the screen, paused, shook her head then began typing. She might as well put herself to some use while she was alone and she wasn’t exactly going to do the housework. That was Gust’s job.
A thought suddenly struck the hero, causing her eyes to widen and her muscles to tense in shock. A cold quiver of dread ran down her back as, for the first time, she experienced true dread. The mere idea was far more terrifying than staring into the sneering faces of a thousand crooked villains.
If Gust was dead... she’d have to do the housekeeping!
Hauling the fallen hero through the snow and into the cave should have been a hard and laborious task, but Breacher just clamped his chattering teeth together and braved the forces of nature. Fortunately, he’d spotted a rock formation nearby, which had a small cave cut into it, presumably artificial. Probably cut by Hero Factory service bots to serve as a sentry post for the yellow hero. It seemed safe enough and he was pretty sure Bonecrusher wouldn’t follow him in, which made it just about the safest place on the planet.
After about an hour of de-thawing, Breacher decided to check what supplies he had. He still had his Peacemaker and a basic medical kit, but the rookie seemed to give him more favorable findings. In the hero’s pack he found an oil-soaked rag, a spanner, a pair of pliers and a flashlight. Exotic!
While the flashlight offered the luxury of light in the still darkness of the cave, it provided no warmth. Collecting a number of small, rounded pebbles – presumably ruminants of glacial moraine, suspended and carried by the ice from when water once ran on the planet’s surface – the hero formed a small stone ring, laid the oily cloth down in the center, then fired a shot at it from his Peacemaker. The oil ignited and flames lit the cavern, leaping up and up, casting flickering shadows that kept him on edge.
It was only then that Breacher had realized the rookie was awake. His eyes were moving though his body was petrified. Paralyzed. Curable with the right instruments, he was sure, but there wasn’t much he could do for the moment. His small medical kit offered little more than a couple of nails and scrap armor shreds, intended to cover open fissures in armor, not for greater injuries.
But he wasn’t completely heartless. In the end, he decided to prop the yellow armored rookie up against a rock up close to the fire, making sure he was comfortable. He even spoke to him sometimes, reassuring him that help would be on its way. His hero craft had crash landed, which would have sent an automatic distress signal back to the Hero Factory. A Dropship would be dispatched and reinforcements would arrive.
“The name’s Breacher, by the way” he muttered after several minutes of unbroken awkward silence. He glanced at the hero’s identification plate then nodded to himself. “Looks like your name’s Gust. That’s original. I knew an Alistair Gust once. Died a couple of years ago on the front lines of some long-forgotten war in a faraway galaxy. You must’ve been named after him. Guess you only had to suffer the wars he faced in history classes, right?”
Breacher nodded to himself again, realizing he was starting to ramble. The rookie’s eyes were wide and desperate, fixed on him, begging him to help when there was nothing he could do. It was torture.
“Can you blink?”
The rookie blinked.
“OK, blink once for yes, twice for no.” grunted Breacher. “Is there a Hero Factory base nearby?”
The rookie blinked. Once.
“Is there a medic there?”
“Do you have a communications network?”
“And you’re on Orcus because you’re trying to capture Bonecrusher?”
The Elite Hero glanced at the cave’s opening then at the rookie. His visor was beginning to steam up, which must be some kind of living torment for the invalid hero. Feeling kind, he stepped up and rubbed the hero’s visor, clearing the vapor off it, allowing his unfortunate teammate to see clearly once again.
The contact was only brief but that was all it took. Breacher’s finger brushed against a switch on the novice’s headgear and a beam of light shot forwards, projected onto his chest. Frowning, he stepped to the side and allowed the shape to focus.
It was, strangely enough, a hologram.
A female hero, adorned in white and gunmetal armor, was standing before him, eying him curiously. As if he were a Raw-Jaw in a zoo. For a long moment there was no speech, only the howling of the wind. Rustling, cracking, crunching noises. The brittle chafing of frozen foliage, hollow clicks and clonks from the glacial wilderness outside the cave. Breacher was beginning to fear the hologram could not carry sound.
As if answering his unspoken doubts, there was a hum and a brief buzz. It crackled over the gale as the image shimmered and, hovering in the air just between him and the ghostly female, was a flickering rectangle of pink light.
A virtual screen. It fizzed and crackled as the hero’s lips moved, then, in a bold, white font, it read:
> GREETINGS, HERO. MY NAME IS JENNY SHARP.
Breacher chose not to respond. He knew the hologram would probably have software capable of reading the shapes his mouth made and interpret them as words but it wouldn’t matter. It would be standard Hero Factory technology.
And his name was blocked on all standard Hero equipment.
> THERE ARE TWO HEROES MOVING TOWARDS YOUR POSITION.
“Is that supposed to make me feel all warm and fuzzy inside?” growled Breacher, not wanting to waste breath that could be spent keeping himself active.
> IN THE LONG TERM.
Breacher let rip a dry snort. “So you want me in your base?” The hero cocked a satirical eyebrow.
> UNLESS YOU’RE GOOD AT IGLOO BUILDING.
“Not really my style” grunted the Elite Hero. “Have you got a spare Dropship I can use to get off this planet?”
“What’s your base like?”
The female smiled.
> IDENTICAL TO EVERY SINGLE OTHER LONG-TERM HERO FACTORY PLANTARY OUTPOST IN PRODUCTION. BUILT TO ACCOMMODATE SIX HEROES. YOU CAN HOLE UP THERE UNTIL OUR MISSION IS FINISHED.
“And how long will that be?”
> UNTIL WE HAVE AN AUROSIAN IN HERO CUFFS.
Breacher’s face fell and all optimism drained from his expression, giving him his own signature appearance of an immovable rock.
“If you’re going after Bonecrusher then I may be of some assistance. I’ve encountered Aurosians before.”
Sharp nodded, her own face grim.
> I’LL CONTRACT OUR MISSION MANAGER.
“He won’t know me.”
The female hero frowned, her mechanical eyes narrowing.
> THE ASSEMBLY TOWER HAS RECORDS OF EVERY SINGLE HERO EVER CREATED, ACTIVE OR INACTIVE.
Breacher’s face grew darker. Shadows overgrew his eyes, like cobwebs, and a great weight hung from his shoulders. He appeared for a moment as someone burdened by a sinister secret before answering cryptically. His cheesy demeanor was suddenly replaced by a thoughtful frown.
“I guarantee that you won’t even be able to find my name on normal Hero Factory databases” he grunted confidently. “I operate under special operations. My branch is... secretive.”
> SO YOU’RE AN AGENT OF RECON TEAM?
“Recon Team!? Please, Merick Fortis probably wishes he could have my job.”
> YOU SOUND VERY SURE OF YOURSELF.
“You don’t believe me?”
Sharp didn’t respond. Instead she changed the subject.
> WHAT’S AN ARRAGENT SPECIAL OPERATIONS SOLDIER DOING ON ORCUS THEN?
The male hero hesitated. He wasn’t going to answer the question, so he avoided it.
“Give me directions to your base and I’ll tell you in person. Right now, I’m very conscious of the cold. I’m wounded. The rookie’s paralyzed. We both need medical attention.”
The hologram of Sharp nodded.
> I’M SENDING YOUR COORDINATES TO MY OTHER FIELD OFFICERS: CLANK AND TRACER, RELIABLE GUYS. THEY’LL TRACK YOUR HEAT SIGNATURES, BUT YOU SHOULD PROBABLY HEAD WEST TO MEET THEM.
“I’ll leave immediately” grunted the Elite Hero, suddenly aware of the cold once again. The conversation had distracted him but now it was drawing to a close he was slowly becoming aware of the chilling icy creep once again.
Sensing the conversation had run its course, Breacher stood to attention and performed a military salute. In this new situation, it appeared Sharp was his going to be his superior. It would perhaps be a good idea to show a little respect to the first female mission commander he had seen in years.
The hologram blinked out of existence and Jack Breacher was left saluting the cave wall.
Breacher half-ran, half-walked across the ice plateau, his feet sliding wildly with every step. He was breathing hard, freezing air burning down his windpipe and roasting his circuitry. His system was scrambling and frying constantly. The wind was in his face, hurling frozen needles at him.
No amount of heroic dignity was worth this.
The unrelenting cold was one thing, but having to balance a fellow hero on his shoulders was another matter entirely. He was a dead weight, an abandoned hero, left on his own. He wasn’t a scout. He was bait. Plain and simple. He’d been stationed out there to attract Bonecrusher’s attention.
Not that he particularly cared.
It was a technique he’d used many times. Rookies were some of the hardest heroes to define. So many words could describe them and their difference from the Elite Heroes like himself. They were... uninspired. Second-rate. Unimportant. Forgettable. They were the C-students of the Hero Factory.
But they were packed full of potential, innocent and inexperienced, yet each generation held the promise of untold possibilities. The youngsters got the best training, the best opportunities, the easy life in spite of being inferior. Maybe it was life’s way of balancing things out. Many Elite Heroes were jealous of their novice counterparts. They got the benefits of being a hero and none of the pain and angst that only time took away.
Many words to define them.
The most accurate being: expendable.
No matter the rookie’s potential, Breacher still wished he’d left his yellow-armored accomplice behind. Taking him out in the cold in this state was madness. He had done it to get them both to safety, but now he saw how crazy the idea seemed. His new paralyzed teammate would have at least stood a chance in the cave, but would be doomed for sure out here in this chilling realm of death.
He considered backtracking, to return Gust to his sentry post to let someone who was better orientated save him later, but he’d lost his way some time ago. Everything looked the same once he got away from the mountain. He wouldn’t be able to see the cave again. Even if he did it would just cause confusion.
I’m wondering in a blizzard... all over again. This is no better than before!
He pounded on. One step, then another, and another. The intruding wind pushed back against him. Ice fragments pattered against his armor. All feeling had deserted his hands and feet yet he clung to the yellow-armored rookie, struggling on faster. It felt like he was getting nowhere.
Breacher was struggling, taking short, choppy steps, legs stabbing into the ground. He was bringing his feet up and dropping them down again almost vertically. His vision was blurring. His throat was burning. He was the only moving think in the whole white wintery world. Plus the fact that the immobile hero on his shoulder was taller than him didn’t add to his optimism.
It meant he was literally the smallest living organism on the planet.
Gust coughed and shuddered on his back, his body violently beginning to fight off the effects of Bonecrusher’s Meteor Blaster. His system was trying to reboot but it couldn’t. Not permanently, he hoped, otherwise he would’ve just dragged a brain-dead shell of a corpse when he himself needed the medical attention.
But the hero started having spasms and having wild fits of whimpering panic. He wriggled and fought against Breacher’s grip. In the end he had to drop his young teammate in the ice. He fell like a sack of pebbles and nearly disappeared completely beneath the snow.
Savage eyes wrenched themselves open and focused on him. Gust was stressed, terrified, fearful for his life.
“It’s OK, kid!” yelled Breacher over the wind. “I’m trying to help, but I can’t carry you anymore! If you want to survive you need to move! Can you walk or not?”
The rookie swallowed back his terror and blinked in distress.
“I... I don’t... know” he croaked, barely audible over the roar of the wild wind.
“Yes or no?!”
“I... think so.”
“Good, because we have to run!”
He hooked an arm around his stunned companion then hauled him to his feet and started walking only to stop in his tracks. There were lights in the far distance. Pulsing yellow strobes, about a mile away, barely visible against the vastness of the snowy backdrop. Yet the reflectivity of the snow made it look like there was a whole lit-up acre on the move. Like a space craft gliding to a land. A huge bright dancing circle of horizontal light. He hustled forward to meet it, dragging the discomposed rookie along after him. The noise cried out as they slipped and skated, their free arms thrashing and windmilling.
Breacher’s face was frozen behind the protective mouth guard of his helmet. It was like he’d been beaten with a bat the anaesthetized by a dentist. His legs were stiff, slow and unresponsive. He was slipping and sliding, like he was rung on place. Like a slapstick movie.
As he drew closer, at an agonizingly slow pace, he realized that there were in fact two flaring strobe lights, both handheld, emerging out of the murky distance. The painful light popped right in his eyes. He came to a stop, planting his feet firmly in the snow that stood still and raised his free arm to wave. The universal distress semaphore. Big overlapping half-circles.
The two strangers drew closer still and Breacher was able to identify them as other heroes. The one on the left appeared to be the most muscular of the two, sporting some snazzy green armor and breathing apparatus that spat out frozen smoke, which pooled and trailed behind him. He looked stubborn and angry.
The one on the right looked appeared younger at first glance but that was clearly not the case upon closer inspection. He was an Elite hero. Alert, vigilant, tense and deadly. He was looking at the orange-armored team leader, perhaps. The guy definitely looked the part.
Only, the team leader wouldn’t be the one who got sent out in the snow.
Breacher smiled broadly and opened his mouth to speak. Before he could utter a cheesy opening, however, the green-armored hero threw his strobe light aside and whipped out a weapon; some kind of double-barreled energy blaster. His hands were shaking from the cold. He’d probably shoot his own foot off before he shot someone like Jack Breacher, but he took it as a treat anyway.
Pushing Gust into a mound of snow, the Elite Hero pulled out his own weapon, his last remaining Plasma Pistol: The Peacemaker. He aimed it square at his target’s head. One slip of his finger and the hot-headed youngster would be trying out the experimental new fashion trend of having a hole burnt through his head.
Stalemate. Not a great first impression but Breacher had stared down the barrels of many guns. He’d learnt to study the person holding it instead of dwelling on the immediate, small-minded sensation of being shot in the face.
The green-armored hero was a jerk, there was no doubt about that. He didn’t have any Elite brandings or special armor yet he didn’t look like a rookie either. Something in-between perhaps? Either way, he should know better. His hands were shaking from the cold. Breacher’s weren’t. But he wasn’t shaking from fear. The guy had spent a lot of time preparing himself for a killshot. It was as if he’d trained himself. Perhaps he’d been neglected by his team. Perhaps he had a proud and demanding conscience that wanted him to seek conflict. Perhaps he genuinely held a grudge against Breacher for some injustice he had committed. Perhaps he was just paranoid. A trigger-happy moron, itching for his big break as one of the big gunners. Shoot first and ask questions later. He’d been watching too many movies. He was desperate to shoot something after spending his miserable life on this boring, desolate planet. He was untrained, direct and inelegant.
Absolutely no threat at all.
He lowered his weapon a fraction. The green-armored hero did the same, reluctantly. With the air still tense with the foreboding skirmish, the orange-armored hero advanced. He shot his teammate a disappointed look, then about-turned and beamed at Breacher. He extended a hand to beckon them closer. Gust struggled frantically. Breacher just stepped forward coolly, not a slither of emotion on his helmet, then extended his hand.
“Jack Breacher” he announced over the screaming wind. “Hero Factory Special Operations. Founder of the 107th Division and Guardian of the Aligned Chaos Cascade... Here to help.”
The orange-armored Elite Hero didn’t hesitate. It was too cold for that. He grabbed his hand firmly and shook.
“Sam Clank” he winked confidently. “Joint second-in-command of the Delta 4 Hero Team. Welcome to Orcus... Sorry for the welcoming community.”
“You can make it up to me by defrosting my backside in that cozy base your teammate was talking about.”
The assassin known as Bonecrusher let out a fresh burst of rage as he clutched his head and cried out in agony. His screams shattered the unrelenting, bitter wind for a moment before the savage howling resumed.
Blood was now trickling freely from his gouged eye socket. Thick and black and heavy. Blood that should be pumping through his veins.
He snarled menacingly, then took a powerful, angry swipe at a fresh mound of snow with his pincer and watched the spray of needles fly forwards. Unfortunately, the wind took a hold over them and threw the frozen foliage right back in his face. The Aurosian had to close his wounded eye, which sent a fresh burst of torturous misery through his body.
It simply wasn’t fair. All his life he had been honorable. He had never struck a female. He had helped the old and injured. He had never agued with his domineering father, never wept, never sworn. He had dignity, a moral code.
He had been expecting a child with the woman he loved.
His brief life on Auros had been an uncomplicated and straightforward one, but it was one he had enjoyed regardless. He’d been an only-child. He’d had parents. He’d had a wife with whom he could make a home and be loved unconditionally by. And he had loved her right down to the depths of his very being.
All of his memories, everything he had lived through, his very identity, the love of his life. All of it had vanished in the space of a meager forty seconds. His people, their customs, their rituals and traditions. All of it had been lost, gone forever. The people he would have given his life for had choked and mutated before dying, cut down slowly by an invisible plague before his unblinking eyes.
His heart had been torn out.
Sliding a hand across his face, the assassin wiped blood from his eyehole. Anger gushed through him like an unstoppable wave of molten plasma, charged with fierce and fiery frustration. Guilt, remorse, regret, vengeance, retribution, retaliation, sorrow. He’d lost everything while the Hero Factory watched from atop with golden thrones, turning a blind eye to the spectacle.
It truly seemed that the universe was against him. The depressed bounty hunter had lived nearly half of his life alone, running from those conceited, pretentious heroes from planet to planet, galaxy to galaxy. He’d had to mix with the crowded scum of the universe. He had crossed paths with some of the lowest creatures: pirates, thieves, gamblers, anarchists, and cut-throat murderers.
He had a special destiny in this universe. The last Aurosian. He was lying in ruin and bitterness, shunned and disgraced, broken inside yet only half-knowing of the glory he would one day achieve. He would restore balance to a universe filled with chaos, ensure order, preserve the peace in the way no hero had ever done. His actions on Orcus would facilitate a golden age of harmony across the cosmos.
He wasn’t the villain in this piece.
Drawing in a deep breath, Bonecrusher returned to his feet and once again looked at the scanner he had looted from the hero. He had sustained a grave injury and, to mark the battle, the puny device would have to serve as a victory token. But it was no matter, soon enough he would have the hero’s helmet welded onto the armor on his rear end.
Yet, the small mechanism was exactly what he needed. It was a standard Hero Factory-issued scanner. According to the contraption’s screen, it was been licensed to a hero under the name of Jack Breacher , who was undoubtedly the pest Bonecrusher had left crippled in the snow. Most recently the scanner had been set to detect life forms on a small radar, which appeared to be covering the entire northern hemisphere.
Five heroes, one Aurosian.
The hunter narrowed his three remaining eyes and began fiddling with the settings. He concentrated the search on the heroes. An image zoomed into view, a satellite rendering of a metal dome-shaped structure, the words ORCUS-1 printed on the side. The Hero Factory outpost. The fortress serving as the base of operations for his enemies. He was seeing it from their geostationary surveillance satellite. An ugly grey dot against the white world’s landscape.
There was only one life reading inside.
Adding a few more tweaks to the controls, Bonecrusher managed to locate the other heroes. They were out in the open, moving in a cordon. The snow obscured the satellite imagery but he’d done his research over the years, and their heat signatures were still shown.
Four life readings.
Curious, the Aurosian began to wonder why, if the heroes had access to such a basic device, had they been unable to follow his movements. His unspoken question was answered when he began to focus on his own radar reading only to find that the device could not locate him as precisely as it had done with the heroes. There was no image, no satellite reading, no nothing. Just the small radar blip, a different color to the others. Far too vague to track him with.
It was because he was organic.
The satellite scanned the entire northern hemisphere, searching for anything it could find. Quaza energy readings, mechanical circuitry, electrical currents, heat residue. But, most importantly, Tracking Implants. Every single robotic life form in the universe had their own unique microchips and mechanics which the satellite could analyze and locate.
But he was different. He was an Aurosian.
Aurosians didn’t have Tracking Implants with which to be tracked.
The current generation of heroes didn’t know that. He could imagine them confronting the unexpected problem when they landed on Orcus in their Drop Ship, pouring over geological surveys, revising their plans, raking through maps and images, shrugging their shoulders, back at square one before they’d even started. They’d probably done a scan for robotic life forms, given up when they only found themselves, then completely abandoned the use of sensors. They’d been taking wild stabs in the dark.
Of course, that didn’t make him untraceable. It just made his pursuers stupid. He could still be tracked by a satellite a hundred different ways. This new hero had been smart enough to widen the search parameters of this proximity sensor to anything alive in the northern hemisphere instead of any robotic life forms. It was a mistake which had cost the Delta 4 hero team an entire month spent tracking him the hard way.
Reconfiguring the settings to cover the entire planet took a moment, but it was worth the shocking result.
“Oh my!” muttered the bounty hunter in surprise. “It would appear I’m not alone in this desolate universe after all.”
Breacher sneered at the icicles as they whipped him. Conditions were still horrendous, with or without the help of Clank and his ungentlemanly companion Tracer. The wind remained strong. The snow was frozen so hard it looked like part of the ground, and it was being scoured into long sharp ridges. Blinding white in contrast to the melancholy grey sky. Or at least he thought it was grey. He couldn’t lift his head to check, not without getting icy needles in his optics.
For another seven kilometers they scaled up and down the randomly-placed icy humps and dips. Tracer was an excellent navigator, even whilst supporting Gust, but he was struggling to prevent himself from leading the others on a deviation from the straight path he seemed to be going in.
Then, unlike anything Breacher had ever experienced, they rounded an icy outcrop and entered a sheltered valley, shielding them from the snowfall for a single glorious moment. The clear white, wintery world was sprawled out in front of them, massively wide, infinitely long. It seemed to make the entire world bright for a breathtaking instance. Then the visible wind howling above the surface returned and hammered against the heroes.
The temperature was ever-decreasing. It was still dropping. Way below zero, and the wind made it worse. The cold struck upwards through the soles of Breacher’s armored feet. His face was numb behind his helmet in seconds. Clank and Tracer seemed to be putting on a show of taking it in their stride, but he knew they had to be hurting. Their faces were mottled red and white. Plus they were blinking and coughing.
Gazing out into the misty horizon, the Elite Hero began to make out small dark smudges far away into the unknown. His keen eyes spotted the dull grey outline of the Hero Factory Outpost. It was tall and peaked, constructed entirely from the hard, cold sheets of thick metal. It dominated the bleak landscape, dwarfing the bleak rocks which protruded out of the snow and contrasting the blank snowy-sprawl. Partly forbidding, partly just plain weird.
As they struggled on through the snow Breacher examined the advancing structure in greater detail. It had a solid, dry and smooth exterior. Altogether, the whole place was a neat, crisp, exact piece of construction. Well designed, well engineered, well built. Ideal for its intended purpose.
There was no gate on the outer rim, but there was a ring of metal surrounding the compound. It was looking more like a fortress with every passing second. Cables and aerials jutted out oddly from the flat snow covered structures. There were security cameras mounted on poles, crates packed into corners, pipes protruding out of the ground. The whole headquarters looked modern and advanced yet grimy and forgotten at the same time.
Breacher followed Clank’s lead into the courtyard, cautiously. The orange-armored hero deactivated his weapon then relaxed as he strode confidently across the perimeter. Tracer mimicked his movement and his body language slackened. Gust was now able to take short steps alone so the green-armored hero left him for Breacher to support.
They advanced further into the square-shaped compound. It appeared that the entrance to the base lay about a meter below his level of foot. Indeed the constant accumulation of fresh snow had risen an entire meter since the structure’s composition. Plus the base looked like it had been standing for a lot longer than the month Clank and his team had been inhabiting it. Therefore it must have a permanent resident. No doubt the same person who had bothered to dig the tunnel. Thankfully, the passageway to the base’s entrance was sheltered, but it did descend at about a 45o gradient. Gust struggled.
Tracer stepped forward to the massive steel door. It was the full height of the shelter and three meters wide. There was a digital screen on the right-hand side, a corroded and rusty key pad mounted on it. The hot headed hero stood at an awkward angle so Breacher couldn’t see but, once again, he found himself unable to resist sticking his nose into other people’s business and took a sly step to the left, allowing him a clear view of the keypad.
8. 9. 7. 2.
The door slid open inwards with a mechanical yearning. All four heroes entered happily, glad to be out of the bite of the wind. The entrance snapped shut behind them, as if the steel represented the very jaws of some great metal beast devouring them. The sudden silence was deafening compared to the soul-wearing wind.
There was a short passageway leading to separate corridors on either side, then a blank grey wall, a T shape. As Gust struggled forwards a metallic clanking emanated towards them, the echo of hurried footsteps bouncing off the walls. Within seconds the slender female form of Jenny Sharp burst around the corner, some kind of medical scanner in her hands. Her right arm locked around the novice’s shoulder as she shot her teammates a commanding glance.
“Get him into the Command Centre, right now!”
All four male heroes flinched at the severity of Sharp’s tone, even Gust took an alarmed stumble forwards in his delirious, limp state. However, it wasn’t until Sharp had disappeared around the corner once again with the yellow-armored novice that her actual order sunk in. She hadn’t meant Gust.
She meant Breacher.
Clank and Tracer exchanged puzzled expressions before turning to their new-found companion and awkwardly escorting him after their leader.
Alpha Female muttered the Elite Hero under his breath. Even in this remote corner of the galaxy, what do I find? A feminist!
“Don’t be a baby,” sighed the white-armored medic. Gust tried to pull his head away, but she had a firm grip on it.
“’Ow! I’m not a baby!” implored the rookie as he struggled against Sharp’s wrath, twisting and turning uncomfortably.
They were sitting in the tiny medical compartment of the outpost. It was just large enough to pass for a sickbay, but it was just big enough to hold the narrow bunk which injured hero was laying on awkwardly, some computer terminals, medical stores, a countertop, and a swivel chair for Sharp. Sparks flew across the room as Gust’s replacement headgear was again fixed into original position. Sharp caught the novice glancing at his original set, which was resting on a metal tray on the counter, damaged beyond repair by Bonecrusher’s savagery. The Aurosian had tried to tear it right off, unaware that the 2.0 upgrade allowed it to be unclipped by simple surgical instruments and had damaged the inner mechanics of his victim’s head. The rookie’s Core Processor still functioned perfectly but there was no doubting that he’d made off with a close escape. Had the bounty hunter given a few more tugs he probably would have torn Gust’s head off.
“Isn’t there anything else you can do?” pleaded the junior technician. “It still hurts!”
“Decapitation?” Sharp suggested archly.
“I mean really. It hurts, you know...”
The medic rolled her eyes.
“How about a cryo-charge?”
“What does that do?”
“Lowers your body temperature to absolute zero in about half a second. Literally freezes you on the spot. We take you back to a planet where there are proper hospital facilities and they thaw you out and treat you.” She smiled. “Don’t look so worried, Patrick, I’m only kidding. I wouldn’t waste a cryo-charge on a weedy rookie with a headache. They’re for emergencies only.”
“OK. You win.”
“Here. Let me show you something else I installed.”
Sharp leaned forwards and began fiddling with Gust’s new headgear until it activated. Immediately his telescopic senses zoomed inwards, focusing on the white-armored hero’s face in microscopic detail. He could see the scratches in her armor, the kindness in her eyes, the beauty hidden behind her own headgear. She was a leader who was very-much in command of her life. One good thing after another had built her career thus far, but it was glaringly obvious that Sharp was more than capable of dealing with just about any problem facing her. She had one of the most remarkable heroes Gust had ever met.
“All yours, big guy” she winked, playfully.
“Don’t make fun of me,” muttered the rookie before realizing she hadn’t been. Swiftly, he formulated an explanation. “I’m not combat trained. I don’t even like fighting. I’m a computer technician, not a soldier.”
“You’re lucky to still be operational,” she told him, pivoting round in her chair and placed her surgical instrument back on the countertop. “A couple more tugs from Bonecrusher and you wouldn’t be doing computer programming any time soon.”
Gust looked forlornly at himself in the small hand-held mirror Sharp had made him hold. He seemed to have shrunk even more than usual. For an upgraded hero, he was short, and underweight, with sad eyes and lank, timid posture.
The female hero took the mirror off him. “What’s up, kid? C’mon, you can tell me.”
“I nearly got us all killed back there,” he said quietly. “If Breacher hadn’t been there then Clank and Tracer might have walked right into a trap to save me. It wasn’t even a proper mission. It was just stupid sentry duty.”
“Don’t think about it,” smiled Sharp sweetly. “You’re alive, and we’re alive and that’s all that counts. Like I said, you were lucky. We’re always lucky.”
He sighed. “Someday our luck with run out.”
“We can make our own luck,” countered the medic. “We’re on this planet to do exactly what you’re worried you did. Perhaps we didn’t catch Bonecrusher... again. But we’ll catch him eventually, and it’s no use getting picked off one by one.”
“I think I lost my weapon in the snow,” muttered the rookie.
Sharp shrugged supportively. “We’ve got spare stocks. Our other weapons might not be as advanced as your Ice Spear Shooter, but fancy gadgets aren’t going to win us the day.”
Slowly, she leaned forward and tapped Gust’s pulsing blue Hero Core, gently.
“This is going to be a test of inner strength. He’s not going to make this easy. But when we finally do get a shot at cuffing him, we’ll all need to be ready. Now come on. Let’s go to the Command Center. Breacher’s probably the only new person we’re going to meet until the end of this task, and if he’s staying you’re going to want to witness the moment when somebody else has to do the housework.”
With a spring in her step, Sharp rose to her feet and trotted off towards the door, leaving Gust to follow anxiously. She led the way down the narrow passageway to the rear of the base, to the room filled with computer monitors and technical equipment.
“Clank doesn’t believe in luck. He won’t see it that way,” he whined.
“Leave Clank to me,” Sharp said.
The rookie paused outside the entrance to the command hub. Sharp did not. She walked straight, confident in her stride. It wasn’t often that the team turned to Tracer for help so he didn’t often make an appearance. But they could always tell when he had been in the room because he would turn off the lights to save power. Right now, the lights were switched on, which meant he’d been overruled and the Mission Control Center would remain illuminated.
Breacher appeared to have donned a new set of armor while Sharp had been tending to Gust’s injuries. The Upgrade. Clank must have given him their final set of 2.0 armor which, mixed with scraps of his old blue plating, made for quite the second impression. Gust considered taking a step back whilst Sharp raised an eyebrow at this new version of Breacher. He was large in every sense of the word: tall, broad-shouldered, a body toned and hardened by decades of combat even before the Upgrade. Even now his brand new headgear looked as though it had been hewn from a single piece of granite, deep-set eyes burning beneath a jutted brow above thin, straight lips. He had been unveiled like a conjurer on stage, like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat.
“You’re a hard guy to find” remarked the medic, moving in to form a loose circle. Gust followed her sheepishly.
“Wrong,” Breacher grunted. His voice was a deep masculine growl, as though he never wasted a word. “I’m an impossible guy to find.”
“Want to tell us why?” retorted Clank. There were instant questions in his eyes. How much use is this guy going to be? What is he? A Special Operations bully? A rogue? A traitor? How come he isn’t in the records?
“Just a hobby,” shrugged the blue-armored hero, easily towering over the others. “A personal choice. I needed to take some time away. Didn't want to leave a datatrail.”
“So you’re cool?”
“You could skate on me.”
“Either way,” interrupted Sharp, “we’re very grateful that you found us. It feels providential. Now we can finally feel like we’re getting somewhere.”
Breacher said nothing at all.
The Mission Control room was not meant for tactical meetings. Normally, they used the recreation room for that, so the tiny computer hub was overcrowded. There was a single chair for the monitor, which had been left for Sharp. She took it without comment. Tracer leaned back and perched in the corner of the room. Clank stood by the door. Gust stood awkwardly to the side. Breacher had center stage.
“Okay,” started their female leader. “Our strategy. From what we’ve seen today, Bonecrusher has engaged us for the first time. Ambushing an agent of Hero Factory is a second-degree galactic felony, which he has committed right here on Orcus. What he’s being charged with in other systems makes today’s incident look like he just threw a pillow at Mr. Makuro. This guy is in our jurisdiction, we’re responsible for tracking his movements. Ideally, I’d like to aim a little higher than that. How close we get to eventually taking down and cuffing him will depend on a number of factors. But, nonetheless, I’m sure Breacher’s assistance will considerably change the outcome of this mission.”
“I met Bonecrusher once before,” muttered the Elite Hero in question, his voice rumbling.
Sharp felt her face light up.
“Splendid!” she beamed. “I’m sure we’d all love to hear the specifics of your encounter. We can always use any new information to – ”
“I don’t think you would,” grunted Breacher.
Sharp hesitated. “Would what?”
“Want to hear what I’ve got to say.”
“Why wouldn’t we?” frowned Clank.
“Because you jumped to the wrong conclusion.”
“Ever since the destruction of Auros, the Hero Factory was perusing the criminal known as Bonecrusher, a radical survivor who blamed our organization for the devastation of his species. Why would he do that?”
“Because he’s got nobody else to blame?”
“He’s not insane,” continued Breacher. “He’s a tactical mastermind who has managed to outfox your agents at every turn.”
“So you’re saying he’s right to blame the Hero Factory for the disease that wiped out his species?”
“Because it was the Hero Factory that destroyed the Aurosians.”
“You were there?”
To be written
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- "This is a great story, I wish to see the end"
- One of the alternate titles for Dance in the Flames was "Inside the Fire", a reference to the Disturbed song which BobTheDoctor27 was listening to when designing Jenny Sharp, one of the main characters of the story. What is ironic, however, is the fact that both these titles were linked to fire and flames while the story is set on the frozen planet: Orcus.
- The story's banner was, very kindly, created by 21bub21.