“Let the countdown begin!”
Blaring klaxons meant Laserman had breached level two, where he would undoubtably be defeated by an army of thugs. The first of the Terror's final checks came in all clear. Dash commanded a mutant scientist to open the teleportation pod doors, and sections of man-sized, metal eggs surrounding the cyclone-storming hourglass of the Terror flew open with a steaming, hydraulic whoosh.
The Dervish leapt into the first available pod, lab coat flapping behind. The door whooshed shut with a crunch. Without belting himself in, he shifted the pod interior to zero G and teleported away, still gasping for air from all his laughing. The lights on the pod he used went dim, all used up. The rest still flickered with color against the brilliance of the Hyperquantum Cyclonic Terror.
Seven pods for seven mutated scientists. A secondary initiative booted efficiently amongst them. The mutants needn't shout over all the alarms because they communicated telepathically. Their green, suction-cup fingers darted around over a series of computer consoles teeming with buttons. Their uneven eyeball clusters showed no pupils, which were transfixed on an inwardly located, holographic interface within their collective neural net. Between the seven, they might have had close to a hundred eyes yet not one of them looked outside itself at the world around it, focused as they were upon their digital labors.
Like programmed automatons, they would not break until the absolute last. Until that final minute, their highest priority would be to ensure the operation of the Terror. After it they would flee to the pods, and woe to anyone still within the city limits then! Woe, okay?
The third level breach alarms erupted into siren shrieks and banshee wails.
Laserman burst through a pair of double doors, turned and immediately decked a mutant clicking at a computer mainframe. He grabbed a metal furniture (formerly weighed by the thing in the lab coat writhing on the floor) and blocked the massive doors with its legs, making it a different sort of bar stool. It would only hold for so long if they turned the flamethrower on it, but that was a risk Laserman would have to take. His nostrils flared mightily, lungs stinging but uncaring at the heat and turbulence of the lab's atmosphere in close proximity to a churning plasma vortex, just greedy for air.
Down dropped Blackout― Laserman's loyal, intelligent service cat― from a ceiling tile at the other end of the room (landing, of course, on its feet). The cat's tail had been scorched bare at its tip by Flame― boss of The Dervish's cruel gang of miscreant meteorologists― and his napalmy weapon of choice. An unflappable force of felinity, Blackout sauntered over to its ape descendent partner.
“M-ow?” asked Blackout, or “Are you hurt?”
He certainly looked it. While once he had pressed at the double doors to bolt them shut, now he verily leaned upon them (momentarily, of course, for the clock was still ticking). A bruise had already begun to form along his jaw, where he had taken a punch zooming past the SWAT team and their battle with Dash's minions at level 2. His lower lip was split and numb. Sparks spat out a joint at the left shoulder of his robosuit where it'd been pierced by three wicked projectiles from stormtroopers wielding a weapon against which his armor was not prepared― assault staplers! One leg on each of the giant staples, machine-sharpened to nanopoints, pierced the electromesh plating of his robosuit like arrows through chain mail. The legs that hadn't hit him hung just over his shoulder looking sharp and deadly.
Despite his injuries, Laserman only reached out, scratched under Blackout's chin, and whispered, “Who's a good kitty?”
Blackout knew the answer, but felt reassured at its friend's health rather than patronized.
The mutants, this whole time, kept up their automatonish poking and clicking at consoles with their suckered fingers. Even the one who'd been punched off his stool resumed its work as though nothing had happened. They had a single program, a single mission, a single mind. They weren't made for combat, but Laserman knew that. This wasn't his first encounter with mutated men from XI V.
“We come in peace.” Laserman took a step forward. “Stop this machine now!”
The mutant scientists ignored him entirely. They did hear him in some way, even if (all eyes turned inward) they couldn't see him, but they didn't hear in a human-normal auditory sense. The HQCT had whipped up into such a frenzy by now that anyone with that kind of auditory sense would have a hard time hearing anything other than the thunder of soon-to-explode plasma echoing in its chronochrome hourglass. Instead, the mutants heard Laserman's words reported deep in their neural net. Unfortunately his order conflicted with their current program. So, without their help, shielding his eyes against the scintillations of the whirling, potentially city-vaporizing, giant time bomb in the middle of the room, the Man of Laser and his faithful feline hurriedly scanned the consoles for something, anything, just some way to shut it― or even slow it― down.
Our hero's eyes alighted on a conspicuous, red button under a sheath of glass between two of the mutants' consoles. “STOP,” it said in white letters. He wasted no time in smashing the glass open with a hard elbow and slapping at the button.
But nothing happened, except that Laserman cursed and went, “You've got to be kidding!” to nobody in particular.
Mind racing, he smacked the button again. Was it broken? A false abort switch, designed by Dash to torture him with hope? Perhaps he'd activated it the first time, only to shut it off by pressing it again? Or had it really been on and he'd turned it off by pressing it (as Dash would've expected him to, especially since he'd had it sealed so innocently behind glass!) and now his pressing it again had perhaps reactivated it on some sort of timer? Was it all reset? Was it all too late?
While he was busy freaking out, Blackout tapped him on the leg and looked up at him imploringly. The cat's ears had picked out the racket of a modem from one of the consoles surrounding the Terror (in a minor way, our hero's lack of hearing had spared him). Laserman shot out for it and, recognizing the readouts as belonging to the XI V neural net, attempted to force a stack overflow in one of the alien robot mutant scientists.
The door jolted against its hinges. The stool's metal legs held, but bent. Twice.
Laserman cursed again. It might be stressed that normally Laserman was politely spoken (as any Michigander) but his life, his cat, and all of Detroit could be blown up in mere minutes. Just how many minutes was now impossible to tell, as the countdown flickered wildly between inscrutable, unreliable symbols and a blinking twelve. Was it four minutes? Three? One?
Suddenly, a six-and-a-half foot tall, eye patch-wearing minotaur of a dude materialized at close quarters to Laserman wielding an Uzi. This happened even though the door never opened because this man-mountain― The Dervish's chief lieutenant, Flame!― wore a phase displacement headband, clearly visible without his protective welding mask. He didn't need the welding mask because he didn't have his signature weapon. Phase/displace-materializing in close proximity to a doomsday device is dangerous, true, but shooting a flamethrower around one would be an idiotic guarantee of disaster. Bullets, though, can't penetrate the chronochrome plating of the Hyperquantum Cyclonic Terror― and so Flame planned to assassinate his rival once and for all!
In the split-second while Flame's body still coalesced into substantiality, our hero grasped and controlled the beefy wrist of his opponent, twisting it away and down. Laser speed and cybernetic strength saved our hero and the seven XI V from spraying, deadly hot lead. Flame had only enough time to roar, “I'll kill you!” before Laserman disarmed and tripped him. The fiendish forecaster had a bind on Laserman's cannon arm, though, and forced it outward, pulling him to the floor.
They wrestled for like two minutes. Blackout leapt at Flame in defiance, but he batted the cat across the lab with his boot. Only then (with Laserman pinned under him) did Flame see the glitched-out timer.
He knew he'd blown his one opportunity to personally avenge himself against the man who'd blinded his eye. The course of their punching, crawling, dragging, strangling combat had taken them to the other end of the room, so that he'd have to leap to the other end to recover his gun, completely exposing himself to a laser blast. The teleportation pods, and escape, were his only possibility if the flamethrowerless man-mountain wished to survive the death of his enemy.
Flame pummeled his foe about the shoulders and back, where old burns still scarred him, and jumped off him into the nearest teleporter. A burst of blue light shimmered out from the pod and its lights went dead. Then the giant was nowhere to be seen.
Part of Laserman― the part crumpled up in a heap of old, throbbing scars on the floor― hurt and despaired so much that he just wanted to curl into a ball.
A powerful surge from the robosuit's concentration chip brought our hero's vision and determination back into laser focus. His hand shot up to one of the Terror's consoles― with all his code still typed in― and pressed a button to upload.
In that same microsecond, the mutant scientist robots' final command kicked in. Blast shields fell down over all the consoles. The mutants all piled into their respective teleporters and zapped away to safety before Laserman could find his feet again. All of them, that is, except for one.
This one sci-mutoid, codename Xolglox, plopped in front of a blank console in the teleporter used up by Flame. Android-like, it'd depressed the system initiator. Nothing happened. It sat there for a second, either expecting to teleport or awaiting new commands from its collective, until Laserman's forced stack overflow error finally hit home, disrupting its internal connector program and jogging it out of its neural net. Xolglox realized it was all alone and was going to die that way very quickly when the Terror blew up, without any time to process either of those really quite dire feelings.
“Help us!” The Man of Laser yelled at it. “We've got to stop this thing.”
So the alien stuck its sucker-ended fingers into Laserman's ears and transmitted a mental blueprint of the Hyperquantum Cyclonic Terror via infomeld, highlighting its weakest points.
“Cross the circuits...” it croaked.
That message might have been cryptic if not for the simultaneous, red blinking of a series of parallel mirror circuits in the mental blueprint image of the Hyperquantum Cyclonic Terror. A single laser beam entering through a pinhole-gap (accidentally introduced to the chronochrome shell by all the freakish, rumbling instability of the HQCT) charged to incredible intensity and aimed at just the right angle might connect two primary mirror configurations made never to touch, and thereby short out the entire doomsday device.
But could Laserman do it? Did he have enough time left to charge a laser blast to such incredible power? Could he avoid hitting any of the other vital parts that might just make it explode catastrophically, spewing plasma and evaporating all life for miles? Could he fire off a beam in the absolute nick of time with such superhuman― one might even say laser― precision?
… actually, never mind. This was kinda his thing.
Lasers exploded everywhere in shockwaves throughout the Hyperquantum Cyclonic Terror, but outside nothing so much as crackled. Outwardly all that happened was all the lights went out and the machine whirred to a stop. Then it was suddenly eerily quiet and still.
So suddenly, in fact, that Laserman wondered aloud. “Was that it?” He touched his robosuit, sought out a fleshy spot of his neck. “Am I dead?”
“Meow,” said Blackout. The cat's claws scratched at the door, pawing underneath it at a moving light. From the other side, someone giggled.
Our hero thought maybe this was one of Dash's minions. He approached with caution, guiding himself to the barred entry with a laser point. “Excuse me,” he said. Whoever was on the other side didn't seem to hear him, so he repeated himself.
“Oh hey, guy?” came a voice from the other side. “Are you in there?”
“Who do you work for?”
“Huh? I'm Deputy Frank... NDPD!”
Laserman pulled the bar stool out of the door handles (a bit of a trick in the dark) and opened the door. On the other side― holding one of those squarish, emergency flashlights with the handle on the top― stood an unathletically large, smiley fellow in a police uniform. One of his eyes didn't move much, and seemed permanently fascinated with his own nose. Atop his police badge he wore a nametag sticker with “Frank” written on it in permanent marker.
“Hey, I know you!” said Frank.
“Yeah. I saw you at the bank today.” Frank looked very proud at having remembered this, even though he didn't want to show it.
“I didn't―” Laserman was about to finish with how he hadn't been at the bank when he recalled his predicament.1 Frank must have seen the fake footage on TV.
Immediately, Laserman switched tactics. Getting past the SWAT team during the assault stapler distraction was one thing, but getting out while the whole police force processed the scene from top-to-bottom would be a totally different matter. Practically impossible. So he asked, “How would you like to be famous, Frank?”
The policeman's eyes widened, glowing. “Famous?”
“How did you get down here?” Laserman uprighted a fallen furniture and invited Frank to sit on it. “Are other officers coming?”
Frank frowned sheepishly. “I... aw, shucks, I got lost. I'm sorry, guy.”
“That's okay, Frank, that's okay. You're doing fine. Please, take a seat.”
A laser dot traced spirals in the ceiling, bored-like. “I see you've met my cat, Blackout.”
“Is this your cat?” Blackout was busy rubbing its ears on the stool legs. Frank reached down to pet it. “Wow, what a nice cat. You've probably got the nicest, best cat I've ever met. I really mean it.”
“Hey,” said Frank. “We're friends, right?”
“Of course we are, Frank.” Laserman saw no reason to say this with anything but sincerity. “Hey, do you like games?”
Frank nodded, saying he was really good at games, and so the Man of Laser proposed a couple of rules for theirs. The first was that Frank had to show him where he got lost. The second was that he couldn't let anyone else know that some guy named Laserman was down there― or the cat, for that matter, or this alien― even though they're good guys. And, lastly, Frank had to say that he pushed this button― a big, shiny red one that said “STOP.”
“You know what?” said Frank. “Y'know, I would give you a million dollars.”
“Thank you.” Laserman swapped a lens function or two in or out from his laser cannon to produce an exact 3D scale model of the Hyperquantum Cyclonic Terror's lair. He pointed to exactly where they stood. The deputy nodded his understanding and pointed to where he must've come in― of course! Police or villain, no-one would think to patrol the tertiary dredge control conduit exit.
The black cat jumped up into the crook of Laserman's waiting arm and they headed out the door, followed by a scared-looking alien in a lab coat. Laserman paused at the door. “Frank... we're friends, right?”
“Friends forever, I think,” Frank answered.
Laserman shook on it. “Friends forever.”
Frank hardly knew what to say. “You know what? Wow, you deserve a raise, guy. I mean it!”
And then they were all out the double doors back to the safety of wherever it is Laserman goes off to. Probably back home. The mutant might get a look or two in the elevator, but for real it would take more than some slightly rearranged facial organs to disturb your typical New Detroiter.
Meanwhile, the deputy stood diligently on guard, lighting the dark of the disabled doomsday lab with his flashlight. He circled around the room a few times, patrolling and whistling the theme from The Great Escape. The timer's display flickered back on, frozen dead in defeat.
But that didn't mean a whole lot to Frank.
1[In episode 2, Dash Dervish framed Laserman for bank robbery using the magic of green screen technology! -db]