By the time Wo-Man arrived back in Los Angeles, the glow of dawn already lay upon the eastern horizon. They'd split up, as Mauler needed to see his comrades off, while she needed to check Steve's answering machine. They intended to rendezvous at League H.Q. afterwards to begin their search for the Upsilonians' flying saucer. She'd noticed herself nearly nodding off during the flight at one point, when her eyes had wandered along the dark, monotonous horizon. Appparently her alien brain needed sleep just like Steve's human brain did. Maybe she could catch a nap back at Steve's place. She hoped adrenalin, or whatever passed for adrenalin in this body, could keep her awake in the meantime.
She landed her customary distance away from Steve's place and elbow-clacked her flight systems off. She was just about to change back into a man when she noticed someone half a block away, staring at her. Damn it, she was slipping. If this stranger had seen her change, it could've blown her whole secret identity. She'd better take back off and find another place where she could —
That's when the stranger stopped staring at her and walked up to her. No, "walked" wasn't the right word. His legs looked like someone taking a leisurely stroll, but he closed in on her as fast as an Olympic sprinter. He jerked to a stop about ten feet from her and said, in a flat, almost monotone voice: "You must submit to our instructions."
"Who are —" Wo-Man began, then her triangular yellow eyes widened. "You're one of the Upsilonians in disguise!"
"If that is your term for us," the stranger said. "I have the location of your first target."
She pointed a finger sternly at him. "I told your people, no."
His hand reached into a pocket, seeming to disappear into his clothing, then reappeared holding a transparent hemisphere. Its insides glowed a baleful yellow. He angled it toward her, and said, "Then you will die."
Wo-Man lunged automatically. The stranger pressed something on the hemisphere, and a thundering yellow beam identical to Wo-Man's own eye beams tore through the air at her. But she had already jinked to one side, where the beam wasn't. She took one ultra-quick step, closing the gap between herself and her attacker, then struck. A single snap-kick connected with the stranger's hand, sending the hemisphere flying backward before he could react. The object flew back into the cinderblock wall behind him. She heard a crack as it impacted. Almost instantly, the stranger flickered, and its human disguise evaporated.
In its place, there now stood a human-sized cockroach. . . . Sort of. It had no antennae, no separate thorax and abdomen, no vestigial wings covering its back; and its head merged smoothly into the tops of its shoulders. Its top pair of arms ended in hands with jointed fingers, like a human. It was also wearing a belt, with a few unrecognizable gadgets attached to it on either side. It started to reach for one of them with its top right arm . . . but before it could, Wo-Man grabbed the arm and twisted it around behind the creature's back.
Thankfully, its arm could twist that way without breaking. It tried to reach around to the other side with its top left arm, but Wo-Man pinned that arm behind its back as well.
The creature let out a series of chittering squawks. Wo-Man said, "Your friends can't help you right now. And I know you can speak English, so you're going to tell me: Where is their space ship?"
"I don't understand," the creature said. "You ran away from us. Why do you want to find us again?"
"Never mind my reasons," Wo-Man insisted, tweaking its arm to remind the creature that she was in charge. "Just tell me where to find your ship."
"I will not comply," the creature said.
"Well then," Wo-Man said. She clacked her elbows against her sides, then leapt into the air with the creature still firmly in her grip. It chittered unintelligibly. She climbed a couple hundred feet into the air, then said, "Surface gravity here on Earth is 22 miles per hour per second. Given your lack of obvious wings, I doubt you can fly or glide. If I let go of you now, you'll be going about a hundred miles per hour when you hit the ground. So. I'll ask you one more time: Where. Is. Your. Space ship?"
"It's . . ." the creature began. But this was only a distraction; Wo-Man had paid so much attention to immobilizing its top arms that she didn't notice its bottom arms moving for its belt. It grasped a boxy protrusion with its bottom right hand, and instantly, its body dissolved into a black cloud of smoke. So did the belt it was wearing . . . except for the little square protrusion it had just been touching. Before Wo-Man could react, the cloud collapsed to a point, sucked into the belt gizmo that was now suspended in midair; then a black, blurry beam shot out horizontally and vanished into the distance. The belt gizmo fell from the sky a charred and smouldering wreck.
"Damn it!" Wo-Man cursed. That black beam had doubtlessly been the creature itself, turned into some other form for quick transport. But at least she'd seen where the beam had been pointing. Judging from the street layout below, it had flashed out north-northeast. That, in all likelihood, was the direction their space ship was in, though she had no way to gauge the distance.
She'd let Mauler know as soon she met him at League H.Q.. In the meantime, her secret identity needed a checkup. She landed again, making sure that this time the street was completely empty of potential onlookers, then said "I'm a man" and banged her fists together. Steve Rorkiel trotted from where Wo-Man had been standing and made his way into his apartment.
He expected a slew of messages on his answering machine from Georgina, berating him for going on one of his "walkabouts" on Game Night and leaving her to worry if he'd make it home. Which was why it puzzled him when his answering machine was completely blank. Had there been a power outage when she called? . . . No, the plug-in electric clock on his nightstand still showed the correct time. If there'd been, say, a half-hour power outage, the clock would have been half an hour behind. Had Georgina gotten so angry with him that she'd stopped talking to him completely? Was she thinking about breaking up with him? The thought chilled him. He did not want to lose her. He picked up the phone and started dialing her number . . . then stopped and put the phone back down. If she didn't want to talk to him right now, calling her would only make things worse. If she was hoping he'd call her, then she'd probably want to see him, then he'd have to make up some limp excuse to cover for him while Wo-Man went after the Upsilonians.
No, it was better to let sleeping dogs lie for now. He had bigger fish to fry. . . . In fact, speaking of sleeping dogs, his bed looked awfully inviting right now. But he knew that if he just dozed off for a "quick nap" he might be asleep for hours. Hmmm. He'd better take something to stay awake and alert. Coffee. Time to get out the old percolator. He still hadn't invested in a Mr. Coffee machine yet, but he'd planned on —
Then it hit him. The alien that had tried to assault Wo-Man had been lurking here. Right outside his apartment. The Upsilonians knew where he lived! He wasn't safe in his own home. And he wouldn't be safe, so long as the Upsilonians' space ship was still flying about. That settled it. Help or no help, Wo-Man had to take them down today.
And in the meanwhile, Steve needed to get out of that house now before any more of them showed up. No time to sit here and brew coffee. Instead, he resorted to an old trick he'd used in college. He opened his MJB coffee can, grabbed a handful of the unused coffee grounds, popped them directly into his mouth, and chewed. The strong, bitter flavor combined with the gritty texture to create an overwhelmingly awful dining experience, but he got the caffeine hit he needed.
One transformation and a short flight later, she met up with Mauler some 50 feet above League headquarters. She got right to business. "One of their goons tried to kill me."
Mauler raised his eyebrows underneath his mask. "Oh?"
"Yeah," she said. "At first he looked human, though he walked way too fast. He tried to convince me to do their dirty work again, and when I refused, he shot at me. Nasty looking yellow beam. I got rid of his gun, and when I did, he turned into a human-sized cockroach. Then before I could convince him to tell me where their space ship was, he turned on some kind of teleporter escape device."
Mauler nodded. "Number Seventy did something similar when I fought him four years ago. Turned into a blurry beam and shot into hyperspace."
"My would-be assailant turned into a blurry black beam too," Wo-Man said, "Only this beam wasn't going up-and-out, it went sideways. It was headed north-northwest from my — from where I was standing. I'm guessing he would've gone to his space ship. If we head north-northwest, we might just get lucky and run right into their flying saucer."
Mauler frowned. "The more I've thought about it, the more I agree with you about needing help. I'm more powerful now than I was when I squared off against Number One and her gang four years ago, but even so, I'd still feel a lot more comfortable if we had Magnetic Bottle with us."
"Whom you said yourself might not even exist anymore," Wo-Man replied. "If we wait for help, the Upsilonians will probably fly somewhere else. We might never have an opportunity to go on the offensive again. I'm going after them, with or without you."
Mauler said, "Sounds like you've had a change of heart since last night." He set his jaw. "Let's go." He took off toward the northwest so fast that Wo-Man could barely catch up with him.
"A little farther to the right," she said when she got close enough for Mauler to hear her again. She pointed to a spot on the horizon. "That's where I saw the beam go, right between those two hilltops."
They adjusted course and settled in for a long cruise. The Upsilonian ship could be anywhere along that path — ten miles ahead or three hundred. They'd just have to keep their eyes open.
A few minutes in, Mauler broke the silence. "Have you heard the news?"
"Uh oh," Wo-Man said. "What news?"
Mauler's face seemed to light up. "There's a whole new edition of Star Fleet Battles in the works!"
Wo-Man grunted angrily. "Not this again!"
"They're calling it 'Doomsday,'" Mauler went on, too excited to be deterred. "It's gonna incorporate all the rules changes since the Commander's Edition was published, and reorganize them into an all-new loose-leaf layout, and even add a bunch of new rules and scenarios and ship types never seen before. I can hardly wait!"
"I don't play Star Fleet Battles," Wo-Man pointed out, "But couldn't some of those rule changes act against the Romulan Mauler that you're based on?"
"Hurt the mauler?" Mauler scoffed. "Nonsense! What are they gonna do, add 'shock' rules that cause the mauler beam to inflict 1d6 shock points on the firing ship, and if the cumulative shock point total exceeds the Falcon's shock rating of 21 there's a chance of breakdown every time it's fired thereafter? Don't be ridiculous!"
"Of course not," Wo-Man grumbled. "How silly of me."
A few seconds later, Mauler said, "My electromagnetic sensors have detected something above the horizon ahead."
"Yeah, I saw it a minute ago," Wo-Man said. "It's just an airliner."
"How can you tell at this distance?" Mauler asked. "All I can make out is a dot."
"Telescopic vision," Wo-Man said matter-of-factly. "One of the perks of these triangular eyes." She glared at him. "And notice that I call them eyes, not 'electromagnetic sensors'. You don't have to frame everything as though you're a starship."
"You wound me, ma'am," Mauler replied.
Three more dots-on-the-horizon came and went. One was a Boeing 727, one was a Learjet, and one was a little Robinson helicopter in which was probably a student pilot learning to hover. (Robinson. That was Mark's last name, too. Yesterday still lingered in her thoughts.) The urban sprawl beneath them had started to give way to city outskirts, and then to open countryside, peppered with progressively fewer and fewer buildings. A few more minutes of flying, and they'd be over Angeles National Forest. Another airborne dot caught her eye off to the left, which turned out to be a private Cessna so small it didn't even have retractable landing gear. And then . . . that new spot in the low sky, slightly off to the right — zoomed in, it didn't look like an aircraft. It had a broad, thin body that bulged on the top and bottom, like . . .
"There!" she pointed. "That's them!"
Mauler squinted. "You sure?"
"It's a flying saucer, if ever I've seen one," she replied.
Mauler took a centering breath, said, "I'll take your word for it," and angled off toward the tiny speck Wo-Man was pointing at. In his enthusiasm, he accelerated ahead faster than she could keep up. She shouted over the wind for him to slow down. "Oops," he said when he'd let her catch back up with him. "You know, you really should soup up that rocket pack of yours."
"I don't particularly like crawling along slower than a race car either," she said, "But I haven't a clue how to make my Upsilonian thruster tech push me any harder, and I'm not exactly in a position to ask them."
The flying saucer gradually grew larger in their vision. Both previous times, Wo-Man had seen it at night, when its full extent lay hidden in the surrounding darkness; but here in the light of day . . . "Damn," she said, "That thing is huge."
"Yeah," Mauler agreed. "Even without your telescopic vision, I can already tell." He grunted. "But the mutant aliens' flying saucer 4 years ago was bigger. And the MACRON One robot base I fought with the League 2 years ago? That was bigger still. Both of them eventually went down."
That reassured Wo-Man somewhat.
"Then again," Mauler continued, "Magnetic Bottle came to my rescue four years ago, and the rest of the League was with me two years ago. This time, it'll just be us."
"We'd better get ready, then," Wo-Man said with a calm that hid her nervousness. "We're close enough that I can see its surface details now. There aren't many details, most of it's smooth, but I can make out a few protuberances along the rim, and what might be thrusters along the bottom bulge."
"Thrusters," Mauler mulled over the notion. "Take out its propulsion, and it can't fly." Without another word, he surged ahead.
"Huh?" Wo-Man said as her flying companion pulled away from her. "Wait!"
Mauler dwindled in the distance ahead, then looked to be slowing. It took Wo-Man the better part of half a minute to catch up with him again. When she did, he was nearly upon their target, and staring intently. The Upsilonian's flying saucer loomed less than a hundred meters before them, stretching almost all the way across the horizon; but all of Mauler's attention seemed focused on a single point at its bottom, where a cluster of barrel-shaped pods glowed blue at their base. "Let's see how they like this," he growled.
He swung his arms forward and clasped his hands together. A thundering white beam, much brighter and louder than what Wo-Man had expected, surged out of Mauler's hands and slammed into the bottom of the flying saucer. Mauler let out a half-grunt, half-yell as if in pain. The air right in front of the pods lit up in a curtain for a split-second, trying desperately to hold off the blast; but it collapsed almost as soon as it had flared up and nearly the full force of his beam smashed into the barrel-shaped protuberances. They sparked, they smoked, they threw out splinters of half-molten metal, they popped and exploded and expired. Mauler doubled over for a moment, clutching at his sides and groaning; then he straightened up to see . . .
"What?!" Mauler said, incredulous. "They're still hovering! I boosted my mauler beam to maximum power in that blast, I blew out half my own power systems, just to be sure I'd take down their impulse drive, and you saw their engines blow out! Without engines on this side to hold them up, they should be tipping over!"
Wo-Man shook her head. "You dummy. They have gravity-nullification technology. How do you think I fly horizontally with just a rocket pack?!"
Three dark circles on the bottom of the craft, facing toward them, suddenly lit up blue. Thrusters. Just like Wo-Man's rocket pack, but pointing sideways this time. The craft pulled away from them with surprising acceleration, given its massive size.
"More impulse engines!" Mauler shouted. "They're getting away!" He kicked in his own impulse drive in hot pursuit.
"Stop calling their engines an 'impulse drive,'" Wo-Man admonished him as she angled toward the fleeing craft. "They're not from Star Fleet Battles!"
As the flying saucer continued to accelerate away, two black beams shot out from points on its hull, one aimed at each of its two pursuers. Wo-Man's combat instincts kicked in, and she dodged out of her beam's path. Mauler wasn't so lucky. His beam struck him squarely head-on. The fact that he'd been using his impulse engines left less energy to run his deflector shields, which flickered wanly and died as the Negative Energy Beam smashed through them. The remaining brunt of the attack, coupled with the injuries he'd already sustained from boosting his mauler beam, proved too much — and he fell from the air, out cold.
Wo-Man gasped, and dove straight down toward him. She managed to snatch him before he hit the ground, then carried him gently to the brush-covered floor below. She glanced over her shoulder at the Upsilonian ship, and glimpsed it zooming away to the north before vanishing past the treetops. "Mauler, you all right?"
No answer. He didn't look conscious. His pulse was strong, and he was still breathing, but the lights were completely out.
"Mauler!" She shook her comrade to try and snap him out of it, to no avail. It might be minutes, or hours, before he came to.
Damn it. She left him lying on the grass and brush, then took to the air again. There was no time to wait up for him. If she was going to catch back up with the Upsilonians, she'd have to go it alone.
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