Just as Wo-Man cleared the treetops, she caught sight of the Upsilonians' flying saucer dwindling into the distance. She angled toward it and kicked her rocket pack up to full thrust. They were still outpacing her, but she made sure to keep them in sight with her telescopic vision. She was surprised they didn't just ascend and leave Earth's atmosphere entirely. Maybe the engine damage Mauler had inflicted made that impossible at the moment. They'd still inevitably pull completely out of sight, but maybe, if she followed their path exactly, she might be able to guess where they went.
Except . . . were they slowing down? Yes. Yes. No doubt about it, she was getting closer. If she was lucky, this meant that one of their damaged engines might've just quit on them. She might just be able to run down her prey, like a hunter on the Serengeti. Keep the pressure on. Keep closing at full speed. There they —
Her triangular yellow eyes widened in surprise. They weren't just slowing down, they were stopping. That was some damn good luck. Mauler must've broken their engines more thoroughly than either of them had supposed. She had 'em now. She was nearly upon them. She pointed both of her fists dead ahead and closed in for the kill. They must be barely hanging on. . . . Unless . . .
A white light burst from the saucer's rim. Damn it! A paralysis beam. She jinked to the right, barely avoiding the effect. They'd fooled her. They didn't stop because their engines failed, they stopped because they were turning to attack.
The Upsilonians' deep voice filled her ears, just as it had on her first two encounters: "We didn't think you would attack us. We were unprepared. We won't make the same mistake again."
Another white light. She dodged it again. "These combat reflexes you gifted me with," she goaded them, "They work just as well against your own weapons, don't they!" Staying on the defensive, she worked her way closer to the rim of the flying saucer.
"Think twice before attacking us," the voice said. A pair of hatches opened on the bottom of the ship's wide rim. Then, two paralysis beams lit up at the same time. She dodged . . . but the beams weren't aimed at her. Instead, each beam pulled a figure out of the hatch nearest it, and held it suspended in midair.
Two people hovered helplessly between Wo-Man and the Upsilonian spacecraft, frozen in place by the beams. She stared into the face of the one on the right, and her alien heart pounded in her chest. "MARK!!"
Mark Robinson's face was frozen in an expression of surprise by the paralysis beam, probably from the moment the beam had grabbed him; but despite nearly every muscle in his body being frozen, he somehow still managed to gasp. Slightly. Then Wo-Man recognized the person on the left, too. "And Georgina!"
Georgina couldn't turn her head, but she glanced over at Mark and, through her frozen jaw, asked "How does she know my name?"
If Mark hadn't been paralyzed, he would've shrugged. He answered, "A super-hero's gotta know these things."
Wo-Man nervously sized up the situation. The two paralysis beam emitters holding them in place were pretty far apart. There'd be no way to save both of them at once, even with the help of her eye beams. But maybe . . . the Upsilonians still hadn't given her an ultimatum. Maybe they were lousy terrorists. Maybe, just maybe, if she rescued one of them, the Upsilonians wouldn't kill the other one to show they meant business. Maybe. Gods, what an awful risk!
"If," she asked aloud, "If I . . . surrender to you" — it hurt just to say "surrender" — "What will happen to these two?"
The alien voice replied, "They will be given abilities, and assigned missions to eliminate our rogue elements on Earth, just as you were."
"And if they don't want to perform your missions?" Wo-Man asked.
"Then they will be reprogrammed so that they will want to," the voice said, "Just as you will be."
Robbing them of their freedom too? Cripes. This was no choice at all. She had to save them, or die trying. But if . . if it turned out that she could only save one of them . . .
For Steve's sake, she should save Georgina. But as she looked from one paralyzed face to the other, there was only one choice her heart would let her make.
Head down and rocket pack on full, she weaved erratically toward the paralysis beam emitter that held Mark in place. Another white light, the same paralysis beam that had tried to snag her a moment ago, tried again — and missed again. Then a black beam shot at her and missed. A negative energy beam; what Mauler had termed a "black phaser." They were trying to kill her again. She was close enough now to see the turret that had fired the black beam. It swiveled and tracked her . . . then stopped. Hah! This close to the craft, she was past the edge of its firing arc. They still hadn't done anything more to Mark or Georgina. Yet. She crossed directly over the rim of the craft, positioned herself directly above the paralysis beam emitter — a boxy affair with a front end resembling a plain stage spotlight — and punched down at it, hard.
But a foot or so above the emitter, her fist plowed right into the ship's invisible battle screen.
It didn't hurt, or even jolt her a little, but it was like punching into thick goo. Even with her full alien strength behind it, her fist slowed; by the time it did make contact with the emitter, her blow was so weak that it barely dented the boxy surface. She'd need to hit it a lot harder if she hoped to overcome this force shielding. She pulled back one leg, and kicked just as hard as she possibly could — and that seemed to be enough. The battle screen yielded, her metal shoe made hard contact, the emitter housing crumpled, and the white beam holding Mark in the air sputtered and died.
And Mark fell.
Wo-Man shot away from the flying saucer's rim and wrapped her arms around him in midair — then jinked to one side before she'd fully stopped his fall. Another black beam zinged dangerously close to the two of them. She could feel the heat, and the cold, the beam gave off. She dove toward the trees below, holding onto Mark for dear life; and as she passed between a pair of giant conifers, she put on the brakes as hard as she could. She was too close to cancel all of her downward momentum, though, and slammed hard into the ground feet first; but the alien strength in her legs was enough to cushion the landing.
She held Mark at arms length in front of herself. He was alive, and unhurt, and free, and beautiful. She kissed him on the mouth, hard and fast, with an intensity that told him she was overjoyed — or that said an agonized goodbye to the one she loved.
"Run," she insisted. She swallowed, hard. "Get out of here as fast as you can. I need to save Georgina."
She took back off before Mark could answer. Over her shoulder, she saw him dwindle away behind her, frozen for a couple of agonizing seconds of indecision; then he darted into the trees and was gone.
As Wo-Man cleared the treetops and the Upsilonian ship came back into full view, another negative energy beam shot past her. It hit a Douglas fir on the ground behind her, and turned it to charcoal dust. She flinched, and hoped Mark hadn't been anywhere near that tree. She needed to close with the ship again, fast, but she couldn't let any of those black phaser beams touch her. She'd have to make her course too unpredictable to hit, and the only way to accomplish that was to keep pointing her rocket pack in random directions. That slowed her down, but a straight course would've made her an easy target. Georgina was still there, suspended in the same place by the same paralysis beam, and Wo-Man's telescopic vision showed her to still in one piece. Good. They hadn't hurt her. Wo-Man shifted her focus to the paralysis beam's emitter on the hull, some distance from the wreckage of the one that had been holding Mark. That emitter was her target. She'd have to keep nudging herself in that direction between her jinks and dodges. Two more black beams — then a third, and a fourth — tried and and failed to nail her; then, finally, she was above the rim of the flying saucer again and behind the black beams' reach.
Once again, she drew her leg back and lashed out at the emitter with all her alien might. Her metal shoe plowed through the battle screens and smashed into the beam box, which crumpled and sputtered just like the first had. With her telescopic vision, she could see the look of panic on Georgina's face as her paralysis cleared and she started to fall. Time to fly out into the hot zone again. She streaked straight toward the falling Georgina —
And a negative energy beam finally found its target.
It wasn't a direct hit. Just a glancing blow. Just the meekest grazing touch, landing only on the tiniest sliver of her right thigh armor. But it nearly sapped the life out of her. Searing heat and numbing cold flooded her senses at the same time. She clutched at her own sides, and nearly hit the on/off switches for her flight powers by accident. She was coasting forward, gravity-nullified and still drifting toward Georgina, but unable to control her rocket pack through the pain.
Georgina. Steve would never forgive himself if Wo-Man let her die. Fight through the pain. Focus. Move toward her. Yes. That's it. Rocket pack's throttling up to full again. Don't go straight this time, keep your course random. Keep dodging. Georgina was falling awfully fast now. Alter course to intercept. Keep dodging. Almost there. Dammit, another black phaser. This one missed, thank your lucky stars. Almost there. There! Grab hold. Grab her and don't let go. Now cancel your downward momentum. Brakes. Brakes! You've stopped her fall but the two of you are still hurtling forward. Look for a place to set down. Yikes! Another black beam came close there. Harder to move evasively with a second person weighing you down. Another black beam, barely missing.
The beams were starting to come fast and furious now. The aliens were more determined this time than they'd been when she rescued Mark. She had to find a place to set Georgina down safely, but she'd had to move in a different direction to snatch her from the air, and instead of trees ahead there lay an open clearing with only patches of jumbled rock. Too exposed. She'd have to arc around to one side to find ground cover, and the beams were getting closer. That barely-grazing hit she'd taken had nearly knocked her out of the sky. Such a blow would probably kill Georgina. She couldn't let her get hit. She positioned her armor, and her rocket pack, between the ship and the woman she was carrying. Another black beam just off to her left, and another uncomfortably close to her right. Damn it. Wasn't there any safe-looking place directly below? She glanced off at 10 o'clock, and —
She caught movement in her telescopic vision. A small rock shot up from the ground and struck the force shields on the underside of the Upsilonian ship. One of the negative energy beam turrets that had been pointed at her swiveled to aim at where the rock had come from. This gave her the opening she desperately needed. She crossed to the grove of trees that she'd dropped Mark off in a moment ago, hounded now by one fewer black phaser. Just before she popped down below the treetops, she looked back at where the distracted black phaser was now firing, and saw a black-clad figure running and dodging madly. A black-clad, masked figure, with an 8-ball logo on his chest.
She swooped down to the ground with Georgina, bubbling with excitement. Another super-hero! She might have a chance to bring down the Upsilonians after all. She slowed down to the point that she could dump off Georgina safely, without having to land or even hover; and as Georgina stumbled awkwardly to a stop, Wo-Man pulled away and told her, "Get yourself to safety."
She flew back as fast as she could to where Octoplex had just been. The alien beams were blasting away at some boulders; he was probably hiding behind one of them. There! She could see him crouching there from her angle above. His costume looked a little . . . cheaper than the last time she'd seen him. Maybe his good suit was at the cleaners. He also had something long and narrow in one hand. She flew down behind an adjacent boulder and said, "Octoplex! You're a sight for sore eyes. How did you know to be here?"
He replied, "You're not the only one with a beef against these aliens."
"Well, you saved my bacon back there," Wo-Man said. "And hers. Thanks."
Octoplex hefted the long object in his hand. It looked like a thick length of pipe, or maybe a metal rod that had been lying around — clearly an improvised weapon. "Get me up on top of that space ship," he said, "So that I can do some real damage."
Wo-Man grinned. "You got it." She flew over to him a couple feet off the ground, put one arm around his waist, and hoisted him skyward. "Let's show the Upsilonians what happens when they mess with us!"
The black beams tore the air around her as she dodged and jinked. She could feel his muscles tense whenever one of the beams got close, as though he were trying to help her dodge.
"The Upsi-what?" Octoplex asked through the chaos.
"The aliens are from Upsilon Andromedae," Wo-Man explained, dodging another beam. "Same star as the mutants Mauler fought four years ago. At least, that's what their Number One said."
"That would explain the black phasers," Octoplex muttered to himself.
In fact, it seemed a little easier for Wo-Man to dodge carrying Octoplex than it had when she'd been carrying Georgina. Or maybe it was just easier when she was looking toward her attackers instead of away from them. She wove between beams, almost seeming to find a rhythm to their attacks, and at last made it over the rim of the flying saucer again.
She dropped him a few feet off the upper surface, and instantly regretted it. He didn't land on the surface; he landed on those damned invisible battle screens a foot or so higher. The upper surface wasn't perfectly horizontal, it sloped down slightly toward its edge, and Wo-Man feared that Octoplex would slide off. But if anything, the springy surface of the force shields increased his grip. He gave her a thumbs up, lifted his improvised metal club high over his head, and brought it down as hard as he could on a random patch of the saucer's upper surface. Even with eight times the strength of a normal man, the battle screens dampened his blow to the point where he barely made a dent.
Wo-Man pointed to a swivel mount near the edge. "Break that, if you can. It's one of their black beam cannons."
Octoplex ran over to it — no, dashed over was a better description, he could sprint damn fast — and raised his club again. This time, he spent an extra second in the wind-up, and when he finally brought his club down it hit nearly as hard as Wo-Man could kick. The black phaser cannon was starting to crumple, but it could still swivel and, presumably, still shoot. He'd have to hit it a few more times to take it out.
"You got this," Wo-Man told him. "Keep it up. I'm going to look around for any weak points this behemoth of a space ship might have." She took off around the perimeter. The sound of Octoplex's next smash echoed in the distance. Unfortunately, the whole edge of the broad rim looked smooth and uniform, with the exception of the few emplaced paralysis beams and negative energy beams. Maybe up top . . .
She crossed over the top of the flying saucer, but it looked just as smooth and featureless as the rim. Hmmm, maybe the seam where the central bulge met the wide brim might be weaker. She flew down right to the crease and kicked as hard as she could, but it only dented slightly, just as the hull had done when Octoplex bashed it. At this rate, it'd take all day to cause any significant damage. And —
Something flashed past her. Or rather, lack-of-flashed past her — it was another one of those black beams. Up here? Directly above the saucer, where the turrets weren't supposed to be able to swivel? She zoomed her telescopic vision in on the beam's point of origin. Yes, that was a black phaser cannon — and it was pointed right at her. Yikes! She started jinking randomly again, making herself a hard target. Damn it. The turrets didn't have a limited arc of fire; the Upsilonians had been holding back, afraid to point their negative energy beams near their own hull lest a stray shot damage their own craft. Now that the two of them were up there banging away at the ship, the aliens must have decided such accidents were worth the risk.
Alarmed, she zoomed her vision in on Octoplex. The black phaser turret he'd been pounding on was in ruins, but he was some distance away from it and dodging erratically, using his makeshift club to help his balance. A beam flashed past him, barely missing. Thank goodness he was eight times as agile as average, she thought, or they surely would've drawn a bead on him by now. This was bad. Without a heavy hitter on their side like Magnetic Bottle or Infra Man or even just Mauler, breaking this space ship apart looked hopeless. And if by some miracle the two of them survived long enough to cripple this ship, the Upsilonians' gravity-nullification tech meant they could decide to fly up and out of the atmosphere at any —
Gravity nullification tech.
She had gravity-nullification tech of her own. It had to take up some space. She'd speculated that it might be inside her rocket pack. And Number One had referred to her rocket pack as a "grav-thruster unit." What if . . .
What if something about the way their gravity-nullification tech worked . . . meant that it had to be mounted in the same unit as a thruster?
She flew out past the edge of the rim, then arced down around it until she was underneath the spacecraft. Now the black phasers on the underside of the rim opened fire. She dodged them and headed straight for the barrel-shaped protrusions on the ship's central bulge. Three of them faced her, and glowed the same dull blue as her own rocket pack while idling. She put her fists in front of herself and slammed at full speed into the thruster barrel in the middle. The impact nearly knocked the wind out of her. The ship's battle screens had cushioned the blow, but it was still enough. The thruster cracked and went dark. The battle screens also, thankfully, seemed to have cushioned her own knuckles. She twisted in the air and kicked with her steel-clad right foot at the thruster next to this one, which also sputtered and died.
Take out all of the thrusters, and maybe their antigrav would die with them.
More black beams tried to take her out — as did a white paralysis beam. Thankfully, the latter seemed slower to respond to her movement than the negative energy beams did. She kicked, and destroyed, another thruster — then another. And another. She worked her way around past the side that Mauler had smashed some time ago, and smashed more thrusters with her steel shoes. The evasive flying, the aerial acrobatics, and the repeated kicking were beginning to take their toll on her. Apparently, this alien body did have limits to its stamina. Stay focused. Keep wrecking their thrusters. Kick hard. Again. Dodge. Jink. Next one. Kick it. Ignore the fatigue in your legs. Kick. Take another one down. Another. Another.
Sweat poured from her alien skin. She was nearly out of breath. She blinked the sweat from her eyes and kept going. She could not let the Upsilonians win this. At last, she demolished the final thruster ringing the sides of the bottom bulge. But . . . the spacecraft stayed aloft. It didn't fall. It didn't even drift downward. Oh no. Had she completely miscalcu—
No. She'd missed some of the thrusters. There were still four of them in the dead center, pointed straight downward. Time to take those out, too.
One kick. One down. A black phaser beam narrowly missed her.
Second kick. Second one down.
Third kick. Damned fatigue. The thruster was still standing. She kicked again, and finished it off. One more to go.
And that's when their gunners finally got lucky. A negative energy beam slammed straight into her rocket pack. She felt the impact, the heat, and the cold filter all the way through her armor into her torso. Her rocket's housing was armored, just like she was, but the beam was too strong. Her thrust and gravity control died as one, and she plummeted from the sky.
She watched helplessly as the last thruster, her final target, dwindled away above her. She zoomed in on it with her telescopic vision, just to keep it in view longer. Zoomed in . . . yes. She had one more shot. She pushed her zoom to max and kept pushing. Her eyes buzzed, and a second later, her world turned yellow and a thundering blast erupted from her eyes. The ship's battle screens put up a mighty struggle, but in the end, they couldn't stop her eye beams. The last thruster cracked and crumpled and glowed with heat, and at last faded to black.
And in that moment, the whole massive flying saucer began to fall.
Victory. She'd done it. Except . . . she was still falling. And this behemoth of a spacecraft was falling right on top of her. Her flight systems still weren't responding. Maybe . . . maybe they weren't dead, maybe they'd just shut themselves off. She clacked her elbows against her sides. Nothing. Damn it. In desperation, she clacked again, and her gravity control and engine lurched back to life. Yes! Turning it off and back on again, the first and last high-tech trick. Still on her back, looking up at the falling space ship, she thrust sideways, away from its center as fast as she could go.
She was out from under the spacecraft, and not a moment too soon — it plummeted past her and hurtled toward the ground. But . . . oh cripes, Octoplex was still standing on it! She reversed course as fast and hard as she could, angling toward the man in black. He was no longer standing on an invisible cushion a few inches above the surface, but directly on the metal; the Upsilonians must have redirected all their force shielding to the bottom of the spacecraft. He saw her coming, dropped his metal bar, and stretched out his arms to catch her. They were running out of altitude. No time to slow down. She grasped his outstretched arms in hers and yanked him off the falling ship. The force would've torn his arms out of their sockets, if he hadn't been eight times as tough as average. She angled up, steeply, but she still had some downward momentum, and in the next second the ship smashed into the forest floor with a deafening THOOM. The no-longer-descending ship rushed toward her for a couple of agonizing seconds while she pulled up as hard as she could. Octoplex's legs dangled within a few feet of the ship's hull, before Wo-Man cancelled the last of their downward speed and soared off and away.
The impact had devastated the underside of the ship. The battle screens couldn't stop the crushing force from destroying every exposed piece of hardware and mangling the lower hull beyond repair. But the screens did cushion the landing enough that the upper hull remained intact. As far as Wo-Man and Octoplex knew, this cushioning would've also been enough to spare the lives of the ship's crew — provided Upsilonians weren't any more fragile than humans when it came to impact trauma.
She landed gently a short distance away, shut off her flight systems, and set Octoplex back onto his feet. Both of them turned back to look at their handiwork. "You think we got 'em?" Octoplex asked.
"There not going anywhere," Wo-Man answered smugly.
"Still," Octoplex said, "Just to be safe, we should probably report their location to the military. You wouldn't happen to have a CB radio on you, would you?"
Wo-Man smirked, and patted her form-fitting body armor. "I wouldn't have anywhere to carry one."
Octoplex shrugged. "Well, I used to go camping around here when I was younger. I think I remember a ranger station a mile or two away over there." He pointed along a stand of pine trees. "They'll probably have a phone. I can get there in a couple of minutes. You've seen how fast I run."
"You do that," Wo-Man said. "I need to go see if either of the two civilians I rescued got lost or hurt. And check up on a certain Mauler to see if he's still out cold." She snorted. "And get some sleep, I've been up all night. See you around, eight ball man!" She drew her elbows close to her sides, and was just about to switch on her rocket pack when a thought crossed her mind. "Oh! We should have some way of getting in touch with each other. Just in case the Upsilonians decide to send more space ships to Earth."
"I don't exactly have a phone number I can give out," Octoplex said. "Secret identity, y'know."
"Uh . . ." Wo-Man frowned, "Same here."
"And I don't suppose either of us has a Bat Signal. So unless you're willing to share your secret i—"
"NO," Wo-Man said firmly. "I don't share that with anyone."
"Don't blame you," Octoplex said, "Maybe we'll just get lucky the next time we need to find each other. Kinda like we did this time." He shrugged. "And I can always scan the skies for you. Your armor is pretty shiny in the sunlight."
She made a quick saluting gesture with two fingers of her left hand, clacked her rocket pack on, said "'Til we meet again!", then jumped into the air and angled away.
Octoplex watched her dwindle away into the distance. He sighed contentedly. She was as beautiful and graceful as she was powerful. The eye holes in his mask interfered with his view, just a tad, so he lifted the mask off his head and bared his face to the world. There was no one around, no one to see his handsome, admiring face, no one to feel the softness in his brown eyes as he watched the object of his affections vanish into the distance.
"I wish I knew more about her," said Mark Robinson to himself. "But even still, I think I've finally found my mate."
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