Quis Contra Nos? --"Who Is Against Us?"-- Chapter 3

From the Story Arc: The Fading Flame

Previous Story in the Arc: Omnia mutantur, nihil interit. – “Everything changes, nothing perishes.” – Chapter 2 by Dr. Jacob Garvey (Saturday, March 31, 2007)

Next Story in the Arc: Turpibus exitium. --"Destruction for base men."-- Chapter 4 by Dr. Jacob Garvey (Saturday, March 31, 2007)

(posted Saturday, March 31, 2007)

"I wish you could come with us, beloved." Sera stood on tiptoe to kiss her husband as he got ready for his patrol. They had been married now for almost twenty subjective years, and yet every day with him was more wonderful than the last--despite all the trials and tribulations that life seemed bent on putting them through. And even though she longed for "home" she would never sacrifice what she had here, with John and her family, to return there. Perhaps she was becoming rather too mortal, after all, wanting to "have her cake and eat it"!

John smiled, pulling on the CCCP standard-issue grey leather gloves that he always wore with his patrol uniform. "S'alright. You and the kids get to have a day to yourselves. Besides, I've got a lotta administrative stuff to take care of back at HQ, as always." He pulled the Kevlar vest emblazoned with the CCCP insignia on its chest over his head, securing the straps and zipping up the zipper. Once he was satisfied that the fit was snug enough for his tastes, he attached the Kevlar and Nomex cape that he'd warn since his earliest "hero" days, and pulled up his scarf. He really did wish he could join Sera and the children for their usual patrol as a family; instant communication and knowing each other as well as they did made them amazingly effective, and cut down the risk involved considerably. Still, duty called, as it were. There were always a million things that needed doing, whether it was refining the training regimen for the Self-Defense Force, requisitioning some bit of equipment or shipment of necessities, rotating the patrol schedules, or even just manning the comm in the Combat Information Center. And, of course, the ever present and seemingly insidious paperwork. In triplicate, more often than not. It was a running joke around HQ, with comrades constantly updating how many forests it must have been necessary to fell in order to create the amount of paper that the CCCP used.

She laughed. "A day to ourselves! Oh yes, us and far too many little windup robots!" She counted down the list of assignments from Portal Corp. "Nemesis infestation, Nemesis infestation, Psychic Clockwork infestation, Neuron infestation, Nemesis infestation...that creature Nemesis never sleeps." She chuckled deep in her throat. "It is good to have Ratt along on such assignments. As he says, 'tin soldiers burn good!'" And she did not need to be careful not to kill anything in such assignments; neither Nemesis robots nor the Psychic Clockworks were alive in any sense. It was a simple matter of clear them out and leave the poor beleaguered citizens of whatever parallel Earth it was to resume their lives. She often wondered what those citizens thought of the ones who arrived in a flash of light, saved them, and left. Did they think the heroes were avenging angels? In this case, they would be right--well, except about the "avenging" part. Vengeance was a thin, poor thing to live on. Redemption was better. And in the absence of redemption, since nothing was going to redeem those robots who only obeyed the will of their creator, then the restoration of hope to those once victims was certainly satisfying enough.

But she wished John could be with them. So much of his time these days was spent in pursuits that were never-ending in tedium. Like Sera, he knew he did not need to hold back when countering the robotic menaces, and she thought he got a measure of relief from blasting things to the full extent of his powers.

Besides, even though they were always "with" each other, she never got tired of his company. And the children did not have the advantage of the exceeding closeness of the bond she and John shared. She knew that all of them would have been overjoyed if he could just have flung this business of being a Commissar to the wind and spent his time on patrols with them, or looking over their homework, or--well, just in a few frivolous things like that picnic.

John secured his tactical belt, making sure each of the pouches were full and ready. CCCP-issue PDA --this one not having been intentionally destroyed out of frustration for a longer period than was normal--, hospital and Ziggursky teleportation tags, hydration pouch, combat stims, zip tie handcuffs, and other articles necessary for efficient "crime fighting", John was always vigilant about keeping himself well supplied. Some metas looked down on such measures, especially in regards to the combat stims. The stims, in their many forms, were derived from the essence of Kora fruit, a unique bit of flora that grew only in a weird and disturbing dimension called the Shadow Shard. In the course of patrolling, John used up a none-too-small quantity of stims, either through the Berkut suit's dispenser or via small ampoules that contained the concoction in liquid form. The boosts allowed him to work harder and longer, and keep his focus. In his mind, anything that improved his chances of coming home at night to his family, limbs attached, was a good thing. Finished with his pre-patrol ritual, John walked over to talk with Sera and the kids while they finished their own preparations. "Do we need anythin' as far as groceries go? Y'all are gonna be Portal hopping, so it makes more sense for me to take care of it."

Astra exchanged a look with Aedan. They had gotten rather tired of the long patrol days when they didn't have classes...not of the patrols themselves, but there was not even so much as a snack bar at Portal Corp, and the vending machines were generally emptied of anything good by the employees within an hour of being stocked.

"Um, Dad....I think you better get bread and peanut butter and honey and green tea and that sports drink mix Aedan likes and bananas and apples and--" she said, rattling off the contents of the two backpacks she and her twin were carrying. "--cause we're, um, all out." "All out," because in those backpacks were enough peanut-butter-and-honey sandwiches to feed a small army. Or manage to keep Aedan and Ratt on their feet for about a day. And all the bananas and apples in the house, and all the green tea extract. And all the packets of sports drink. Water they could get; and if the source was tainted, Sera could boil it sterile and they all knew survivalist skills to filter it or distill it.

"Right. I'll call y'all once I'm at the store." John leaned over to ruffle Astra's hair with a gloved hand. As he was walking towards the door, he called over his shoulder. "Everyone be safe. I'll catch ya for dinner tonight, maybe bring Thea back; she's been lonely for company for a little while." After Thea's fiancé Alexei Nikolski had defected from the CCCP to pursue his own goals, she had broken off their relationship. He'd grown distant and disaffected, and his resignation was the final straw. He had ceased to be the man Thea had known. Still, it had pained her terribly, for she was committed to him. It'd do her some good to be around people other than Kremlin Gremlin, the other CCCP chef, and whoever happened to be in the mess hall or kitchen or the boarding house. Besides, John knew that no one around the house would complain; she was a wonderful cook, and with the appetites that the Murdock clan possessed, plentiful and good food was always a treasured commodity.

"Wait!" Sera ran after him, and caught him in an embrace, dropping shields for a scant moment to envelope him in her love. He needed that...they both needed that. And she remembered something Bella had told her, after Zach was gone. "Even if he was going for a quart of milk, I said goodbye as if he was going to battle." Sometimes her friend was wiser than angels.

John kissed her nose, and was out the door.

As the group flew--in its several forms--across the high-tech landscape of Peregrine Island, Sera kept an eye on the weather. She didn't much like the way that the clouds were gathering. A lightning storm could muck things up all day long--not that the Portals were unstable in storms, but because if there was any fluctuation in the electrical feeds, the techs would hold things up until it all stabilized. That meant that their patrols would take ever so much longer, and they would spend far too much time loitering in the three Portal Corp buildings. Ratt would start looking for a vending machine that had something other than processed cheese-flavored cardboard in it, Aedan and K'takei would start poking their noses into the techs' business, and Astra would go vanish somewhere into a corner. And JJ! Dear heavens. He was so handsome, and clearly no longer a teenager...some of the "minimalist costume" types would always flirt with him. It embarrassed him, and if he would just respond in a, well, smart-aleck way, they would probably leave him alone. But no, despite advice from plenty of his masculine mentors, he would blush and try to look somewhere else, anywhere else, which only made them worse. Sera wasn't sure which behavior exasperated her the most. They landed as the last of the sun vanished behind the grey cloudbank, and hurried into Building A and down into the basement to their assigned Portal for their first mission.

The usual sort scurried around the lobby of the building; technicians on their way from one building to another, support personnel complaining to their supervisors about something or other, the odd meta-human on their way to complete some task, and the administrative staff, keeping everything together. It was organized chaos at its best, and never ceased to surprise Sera; such wonders of modern technology, all upheld by the simple and good people employed to do so. Snippets of conversation wafted through the room as the team made their way to the elevators. She picked up a lot of chatter among knots of techs about the latest, hottest computer game. Why the techs immersed themselves in these things, Sera couldn't understand. In a place like Paragon City, no less! Well, perhaps it was because they were in Paragon City. On a computer, even a tech who couldn't lift ten pounds could save the world. But really, they should understand that they were helping to save, not just this world, but so many others...without them, how could people like the Murdocks even come close to doing as much as they did?

A speedy elevator ride later, and they were all in one of the two main Portal rooms for Building A of Portal Corp. It was as much of a beehive of activity as the main lobby, though not nearly as crowded. The portals were constantly maintained and functioning, and needed the expertise of all of the technicians and engineers on hand to keep everything rolling along smoothly. "All right. Is everyone ready?" Sera asked, more for the sake of the Portal techs than because she didn't know. JJ and the twins were bound to her and to John in a tight gestalt that let them all know the most basic things without even resorting to Kheldian telepathy, and Ratt, bless him, was as open to her reading as any book.

Astra had stopped at the Mighty Mart to finish filling the few gaps in her backpack. Ratt had gotten wind of what was in it and she knew he was going to be putting a serious dent in the supplies before long. She nodded, and winked at JJ--who had also gotten wind of what she was carrying, and picked up a throwaway pack and more supplies at the same Mighty Mart. No starving today! JJ had even ducked into HQ long enough to load in more of the GammaBars that Aunt Bella got by the pallet-load--- the appetites of the CCCP, especially Chug, rivaled even those of the Murdocks---on a regular basis, straight from the supplier. She and Aedan--and probably Mom--were sick of them, but for JJ and Ratt they were a novelty.

One of the techs approached the family, reading a PDA and ticking off something that they couldn't see. "Alright. We've got an already explored dimension for you today; scouted out by a previous meta team. The planet designation is Mark Alpha 129B/79 Zeta Blue. It's a Nemesis Automaton world, and we need you to clear out a beachhead for a research team we're sending in. Any questions?" The overall-wearing tech didn't even bother to look up at them as he read off a schtick he'd no doubt given to countless meta-human heroes.

"I got one," Ratt quipped. "You want 'em deep-fried or broiled to golden brown and delicious?" Aedan and Astra exchanged a smile and a chuckle, and JJ whispered to Sera, wondering out loud if Ratt thought he was going to eat the 'bots the way Infurno ate Warwolves.

The tech rolled his eyes, looking back down at his PDA. He keyed something on the pad, then glanced upwards. A tinny voice sounded over the intercom loudspeakers. "This is Control. Target dimension locked in: Mark Alpha 129B/79, Zeta Blue. Prep for entry." The pinpoint of the Portal, normally the power gain turned down to save on energy, expanded with a thunderous crash, the turning mechanisms that powered it ramping up.

"Is there anyone alive there that we need to save?" Astra asked anxiously, over the thunder and cacophony of the Portal mechanisms.

The tech shook his head. "Empty world, Nemesis robots only. Kind of a wreck, really. What's left of the cities looks like Boomtown and I don't even think there are rats left in there. Nemesis cleaned out everything of a higher order than cockroaches as far as we can tell. We're going to drop you in a coastal area away from the cities where there shouldn't be even much in the way of the robots; just a forest and some old farmland gone completely wild. Just go in, clear the zone, and get out. What we learn there should give us some more understanding of how Nemesis controls his pawns." Without waiting for a response, the weary tech turned on his heel and marched off, no doubt to check some piece of equipment or consult with someone.

"Let's go," Sera said; JJ stepped into the Portal a fraction of a second ahead of her, as she and Ratt paused just long enough to ignite their shielding flames before going in. Astra and Aedan followed, instantly changing to Kurukt form with the characteristic snap-boom; it was their custom to enter a new dimension in their hardiest and most resilient forms, just in case there was an unfriendly welcoming party on the other side. In a flash, they dematerialized, their fading outlines swallowed by the Portal's harsh glare.