Stupid Little Stick Figures.
"Dispatch to 128, over."
The voice buzzed in Lieutenant Murphy's ear as she shot over the landscape, almost inaudible over the sound of the thrusters. She activated her noise cancellers, and opened the channel with an eye gesture. "128 reads you loud and clear, Dispatch. You got an update for me, Noah?"
Dispatch, Noah, cleared his throat. "I do. Fight's in its last legs, but some of the Tower heroes-"
"Don't call them that," she interrupt without thinking.
"...right. Some of the Tower operatives, then, are attempting to enter the building."
Murphy pursed her lips. "Dammit. How critical is the situation?"
"Not extremely; everything we have says there's about half an hour before the field starts to decay and the whole building comes down."
"Right." She checked her map, watching the computer-generated landscape speed by, and did a quick calculation. "Our ETA's three minutes. Order them to stand down."
When Noah spoke, there was a tremor of hesitation in his voice. "I don't think I really have the authority to-"
She cut him off, probably a little harsher than she needed to. "But I do, and the order is coming from me. They stand down." Then, in a more reassuring tone, "I'll take any flack for this. You just pass on the message."
"...yes, sir." The line crackled, then shut off, and the lieutenant refocused as the city of Austin came barreling over the horizon. As the city's fringes began to pass underneath them, she opened a channel to her team, who flew in a V formation behind her.
"We're coming in to the scene now, people. Dispatch tells me that the fight's mostly over, and that we have about half an hour before the building collapses," she relayed to her squad.
"What's the bad news?" Lichenko, her de facto second-in-command asked.
She didn't bother asking how he knew. "The bad news is, the Tower's apparently decided that their 'heroes' are good enough to handle the situation." The sarcasm practically dripped from her voice.
"Well, shit," muttered Aaronson.
"Strike that from the record, Aaronson, professional behavior on the job." Aaronson was the newest member of her squad, and while the stringent entry requirements meant she wasn't anything like a rookie, she had a lot to learn. "But yes, that's about right. I've gotten Dispatch to tell them to stand down, but whether they'll listen is up in the air."
"Fuckin' Tower," the greenie swore.
"Enough, Private!" Internally, she agreed with the sentiment, but they were professionals, and if Aaronow wanted to work with them, she'd have to learn to act like one.
They were coming into the city center now, and as they slowed to navigate between the gleaming maze of skyscrapers, their objective came into sight.
Murphy had seen a lot of things in her five years with the MERIT's First Responders, things that boggled the mind or emptied the bowels. But she'd never seen anything quite like this.
Half a skyscraper hung suspended in the air, chunks of rubble floating around it like a miniature asteroid belt. The bottom half of the building was mostly intact, but a few pieces of debris hovered around it too, one in the process of smashing through the top floor. The whole scene looked like someone had taken a scene from a bad action movie and paused it. Except this scene was very real, and very, very dangerous.
Figures in bright, colorful clothing were buzzing around the edges of the time distortion, and Murphy noted with relief that none of them were moving over the fuzziness in the air that seemed to mark the edge of the field. Most of the figures seemed to be reporting to one in white and gold robes, or maybe the one in black standing behind him. The Lieutenant gestured to her team to follow her as she swept down towards him.
The thrusters on her suit were designed for long-distance flight and speed; they didn't do well at soft landings. Once she deemed she'd passed the maximum safe distance, she shut them down, coasting through the air on her momentum for a few seconds. As the ground hurtled towards her, she reached into her core, tapping into the well of cold energy that rested their, pulling it up through her limbs, then pushing it out her hands and chest. There was a roar distinctly different to the ones coming from the suits of her squad, and jets of crackling, rushing blue energy erupted from her hands and core. She modulated their thrust, pointing them forward and cushioning herself cut them off and dropped smoothly to the ground about two meters from the robed figure. She landed with a heavy clunk as her suit adjusted to the landing. Considering that the armor weighed about a ton, this was a movement that would kill or severely injure most people. Lieutenant Jennifer Murphy was not most people.
As she hit the ground, her shield flared and rippled along her skin, buffering the metal away and keeping her in the center. It wouldn't stop bullets, she’d learned that the hard way, but it helped cushion her from impacts, and it stopped her rattling around in her armor like a pinball. Because of her abilities, the think tank of Forges hadn't needed to include precision thrusters or cushioning like they had with any of the others, and that meant she had a whole bunch of nifty gadgets squirrelled away in various sections.
Her squad landed behind her with varying levels of control, their various abilities making the process easier or harder. The expression on the hero's face wasn't awed or impressed, but it wasn't as cavalier as she suspected it had been before, which was good enough.
"Report," she snapped as she strode past him. The movement threw him off his stride; he'd obviously been expecting her to talk with her, and for a brief second, he hovered in place, unsure. The approach of the other members of the squadron quickly galvanized him, and he hurried to catch up with her as she reached the edge of the disturbance.
"Who in God's name are you?" He asked. He had one of those 'refined' Southern accents, all smooth, yawning vowels. He probably thought it made him sound cultured, but she just thought it grated. Granted, she thought that about most things.
"Lieutenant Murphy, MERIT," she said, turning to face him and tapping the badge emblazoned on her chest. "And if you couldn't figure that out from the suit, you're obviously even more stupid than that costume makes you look." He gaped up at her behind the fancy mask he wore, struggling for a response. She didn't give him a chance to find one. "Now, report, before I decide you're completely incompetent and find someone else."
His mouth flapped open and shut noiselessly, his eyes wide with shock.
" Forget it." She reached up to rub the bridge of her nose, before remembering that there was a good 4 inches of metal between the two body parts and dropping the hand. She gestured to her squad and began barking out orders. "Alright, we've got 25 minutes on the clock, and I want to be in there by 20. Lichenko, Janson, figure this field out. We're not stepping one foot in there until we know exactly what it is." They nodded in acknowledgement. "Chung, find me whoever's next in this farce of a command chain." The woman in the red suit gave a quick informal salute and hurried off. "Aaronson, you're with me." The private started, but quickly complied.
Murphy turned, hands on hips, and inspected the scene. "What's your read on this, Private?" she asked as her subordinate arrived.
For the most part, MERIT teams consisted of metas with physical powers, ones that would either aid in assisting in containing situations, or in containing the metas responsible for them. Aaronson, though, was a bit of a special case. She’d had her application for First Responder turned down four times before Murphy had stepped in. She’d had to call in quite a few of the favors she’d accumulated in her years in the force to make it happen, because the reason the now-Private’s applications had been denied was that she was ruled to be simply too valuable to be put on the front lines.
This was because Private Alexis Aaronson was a Forge.
"Uhm, well, ah," she stuttered, put on the spot. She paused for a second, seemingly gathering herself, and when she spoke, it was in a terse, professional voice that was distinctly at odds with what Murphy had seen of her. “Depending on the size and strength of the explosion,” she paused, retracted her helmet, and stared at the frozen debris intently, mouthing numbers to herself, “somewhere between 5 and 10 seconds have passed inside the field, while at least 5 minutes have passed outside. Given that the current record for non-UR-powered time distortion is one second inside for every two out, and with a field size a centimeter in diameter, it is highly unlikely that there’s a realtech device powering the field. It is possible,” she amended, “but highly unlikely. Something of this scale would be consistent with a Class B Forged device.” She paused again for a second, twitched a little, and then continued. "How this goes down depends on that distinction. If it's realtech, and the shields in the armor can't protect us, then there's basically nothing we can do, because as soon as we go in, we'll be operating in their time frame
"Mmm," Murphy said noncommittally, trying to hide her discomfort with the sudden change in the young woman. "And if it's not?"
"Then a whole new avenue opens up. If it is a Class B, and our shields and/or produced UR can prevent us from being affected, then it's possible we might be able to prevent any and all damage. Depending on whether it's a complete stop, or just extremely slow, from their perspective, it'll happen instantaneously, or just incredibly fast, respectively. But that brings with it the issue that any force we exert is going to be magnified by virtue of being applied over a single instant. Moving any of the people could very well kill them."
"I suspect that, at least, won't be a concern." She clapped a hand on the shoulder of the other woman's suit. "Good read, Private.
At the physical contact, or maybe the clang of metal on metal, Aaronson flinched, and the lines of her face softened and dropped, settling back into a familiar frown. She made a hacking noise in her through, then leant over to the side and spat onto the ground. “Fuckin’ hate that,” she muttered. “Tastes like goddamn puke.”
“Language,” Murphy said, barely noticing she had. “Go join up with Lichenko and Jansen and see if they’ve figured out anything you haven’t, or vice versa.” The scowling Private nodded, brought her helmet up to cover her face again, and strode away in the direction her colleagues had gone in.
“Lieutenant, sir.” Chung had returned, with two people in tow, a young woman in an ornate mask and flowing blue-green clothing and the man in black Murphy had noticed on the approach. “This is Verdebris, says she’s second-in-command of the Tower forces, and Taylor, head of Charon, the private security firm that the owners of the building contracted.”
The heavy-set man gave her a grim nod. “Lieutenant.” She returned it with a quick one of her own.
“You,” she snapped at the hero. “Full report of this situation, one minute or less. Go.”
And surprisingly enough, she did just that, quickly and efficiently summing up the situation, without the malice or rancor Murphy had been expecting. Apparently, the Tower had been called in based on reports of a meta attacking the Peyton building, and they’d sent a few medium-ranked heroes to deal with it. When they lost communication with those heroes, they sent everyone. From Verdebris’ description, it had just been the one meta, some sort of whirling mass of meat and bone that had torn through some of their best without faltering. They’d eventually managed to drive it off, she didn’t specify how, but not without incurring significant damage to the building, damage which had only been worsened by the bomb that went off shortly afterwards. The explosion had caught them unawares, and as such it was a bit of a double whammy when, not seconds later, the time distortion popped up, trapping anyone inside, including any of the heroes not using their powers. Murphy made note of that; it confirmed Aaronson’s speculations.
“Have you made any attempts to enter the field?” she asked the hero, who shook her head. “Good. Thank you for your assistance. Rally your people, and have them stand at the ready. We don’t know what’s going to happen next.” She turned to the security contractor. “What were you hired to protect, and who wanted it?”
He gave a small shrug. “I couldn’t tell you the specifics. Our clients kept information, offline in secure vaults. We never looked at any of it, so I have about as much idea as you do.”
“That doesn’t seem like very good security,” Murphy noted.
“I agree, which is why I fought the clients very hard over it, but they wouldn’t budge an inch. I would’ve turned it down, but we needed this contract, what with Blacklight eating up the market like they have been.”
“Did you lose any people in the fight?”
“Yes, one. Got torn to pieces when that… thing first came in. Caught unprepared. Damn shame, too, he was good.”
As the consultant left, the lieutenant turned back to inspect the collapsing building, processing information. It was most likely that with shields up and powers running, her team could enter the field safely. With her cushioning force field, she could move those in danger relatively safely, as could Lichenko, with his momentum-alteration powers. The others would have to stick to removing debris, as them handling people would just create red smears of mist. The main problem would be the timeframe: if they-
It happened between blinks. She was looking at a building frozen mid-collapse in space and time, blinked, and then it was whole again. She blinked again a few times, but it stayed that way, as if nothing had happened-
No. No, that wasn’t true. Because painted in large, loose letters on the side of the building were the words ‘NAUGHTY, NAUGHTY’, and then, underneath them, the number 113.
As a massive intake of breath was collectively made by the crowd of heroes, Murphy spun on her heels and walked away, leaving the stunned Chung behind. She could spend useful time being bewildered, confused or relieved, but that was as good as wasting it. No, Lieutenant Murphy decided that it was time to talk to Taylor again, and ask him some very pointed questions about his clients.