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Not really the way I envisioned my day working out -- apparently mind-controlled by an invading alien army, getting released from their control on the opposite end of the country and having to run all the way home in an hour, only to watch the Thrugs kidnap the Chrome Cobra, our master strategist when it comes to foiling alien invasions.

Once we start getting word out, there's a certain amount of panic.

I don't even know why. I mean, I can go weeks at a time without having any communications at all with the Chrome Cobra. She'll give me a call occasionally to ask that I help out with some crisis, or I'll call her if there's something I'll need an assist with. I don't need her help to go out and fight crime.

Nevertheless, I'm one of the folks in a panic about the Thrugs kidnapping her.

Star tried to catch up with the Thrug ships carrying her off, but even if he'd been fast enough, they were shooting at anyone pursuing them, and I had to save his bacon when they shot him down with stunner beams. He tries to go back again after he wakes up, even though they've got her into the mothership by now.

Penitente can't fly, of course. He just watches them go, then breaks out a rosary from under his collar and heads for the nearest church. It's not even a Catholic church. He's out again a few minutes later, while I'm still trying to talk Star out of trying to fly back up there.

"Guys," he says to us. "I need to get back out there and beat up some bad guys. Anything to keep from thinking about what just happened."

He heads off northward, toward downtown.

Star and I decide we need to make sure the rest of the heroes are in the loop. Maybe some of them will have some ideas for what we can do next.

And no one has any good ideas -- just useless reactions.

Atlas tries to fly up and attack the mothership directly. He doesn't even get close to the ship's forcefield before a barrage of stunner blasts force him back down to the ground. It's not like I'm in any position to denounce people for showing off their machismo, but man, get a grip.

Daphne Diller sits down and hyperventilates for a minute, then starts talking about trying to raise ransom money. We don't even know that the Thrugs use anything like money.

Defender decides she should go offer herself as an alternate hostage -- every alien invasion that hits the planet always treats her like she's the chief prize. She always shrugs it off, but now she's talking like maybe the Thrugs would be willing to trade her for the Cobra. I point out what should be obvious -- the aliens never want to capture Defender, just shoot her down. The Thrugs would be more likely to kill her and keep the Cobra in custody.

Gamma Girl is full of questions, none of which I know the answers to. How did the Thrugs know where to find her, what are they doing to her, can radiation get through their shields. I don't know any of that.

Iota runs for his lab so he can do research. Maybe that's useful, but I just hope he can research stuff fast.

Miss Mega just stands there looking shocked and angry. She could probably jump all the way to the forcefield, but even if she didn't get knocked back to the ground by blasts from the ship, she'd only be able to get in a single punch at the forcefield before falling back down. She's one of the strongest people on the planet, but she knows what her limitations are.

And Phantasmo ends up having the only really sensible reaction any of us have -- he sends a bunch of his ghosts up to investigate the forcefield. They can't get through the field, but it turns out they can either deflect the stunner beams or let 'em pass straight through them.

Atlas finally has me round everyone up so we can compare notes and plan what our next moves are gonna be. We end up meeting in the basement at City Hall. We could've met out in the open somewhere, but we figured the Thrugs would keep shooting at us. So we're in the basement. Feels like we're hiding.

"Okay, people, this is really messed up," says Atlas once we all get settled down. "Does anyone have any ideas? It's kinda down to just the ten of us."

"Express, you could vibrate through the forcefield, right?" asks Penitente. "If Atlas carries you and a few other people up there, you could get a group of us through the field."

"No, sorry," I say. "I can't vibrate through an energy forcefield. Even if I could, I can't make other people vibrate into insubstantiality."

"Alright, I've had some experience in this kind of thing," says Daphne. "The standard procedure here, if there aren't any cops you can get to handle the situation, is to pay the ransom. I know it's not something we want to think of doing, but it's probably going to be the simplest thing."

"Dammit, Daphne," says Defender. "This isn't a standard kidnapping. This is an alien invasion where the aliens have taken the Cobra as, essentially, a prisoner of war. We don't know that they want to give her back. We don't know whether she's even still alive. And there's no ransom demand anyway!"

"I'd like it if we could avoid talking about whether or not she's dead," says Gamma Girl. "If we're going to do that a lot, I kinda think I'd rather go sit with my husband and kids in the storm cellar."

"We can't know something like that anyway," says the Star. "Unless... Phantasmo, is Cobra among your ghosts? Or any of the other missing heroes?"

"No, and I'm sorry, that's an awful question," says Phantasmo. "Please don't ask anything like it again."

"Well, it's something we should try to figure out," says Daphne.

"No, it isn't," Iota says. "It's completely irrelevant."

"People, really, arguing about this is doing us no good," says Atlas. "We need some concrete ideas."

"Miss Mega could hit it really hard," says Penitente. "Enough force would overload it, right?"

"Well, I don't know whether I'm strong enough to punch through a forcefield of that size," says Miss Mega. "I certainly couldn't do it with a single punch, though, and having to jump up there over and over to hit it isn't going to be very efficient."

"I could fly you up there," says Atlas. "But some of their stunner beams are strong enough to knock me down."

"I don't think those were stunners, Atlas," says Iota. "I think they use those to knock down buildings."

"The ghosts and I could carry you up there," says Phantasmo. "The ghosts can deflect their stunners."

"Well, first things first," says Mega. "Could you even hold me up?"

"I -- I guess so," says Phantasmo nervously. "How much do you, um, I mean..."

Miss Mega sighs mock-wearily. "Seven hundred pounds, Phantasmo," she says. "It's a bit more than that, but the bathroom scale doesn't really measure me accurately anymore."

"Oh, okay," says Phantasmo. "I could hold you up for a few minutes, I guess..."

"Well, entirely aside from that," she says. "If they start shooting us with the destructo-beams they were hitting Atlas with, we don't know whether the ghosts can deflect those at all, so no, we're not going to even try it. I'm not going to risk letting them kill you so I can get a few shots at the forcefield."

"Maybe we're going about this the wrong way," says Gamma Girl. "What about capturing one of their ships and flying it into the mothership?"

"You have to know how to fly an alien spaceship," says Iota. "They're mostly impossible for anyone who hasn't had some time to learn how a non-human species designs their flying machines."

"Actually, darlings, I could do that," says Defender. "The suit has databases full of info on the technology of every major civilization in the galaxy. I'm sure I could pilot a Thrug ship without too much difficulty. The problem would be getting the passwords that would let us pass through the forcefield. Without those -- and the Thrugs use several, in combination with retina and DNA scans -- we'd splatter ourselves as soon as we tried to get through."

"Wait a minute," says Iota. "When did you get a database that would let you pilot spaceships?"

"Yeah," says Atlas. "The Assembly never had anything like a database of alien technology, and I thought their computers had everything."

"Alright, hold on," Defender says. "It was my understanding that the Cobra had already told everyone about who I worked for, right?"

"Who you work for?" asks the Star. "No, she never mentioned anything to me. Who do you work for, Defender?"

"Oh god, I don't know how much time we have for exposition," Defender says with a chuckle. "Any of you familiar with the Intergalactic Defense Patrol?"

"Y-You're a member of the Patrol?!" gasps Atlas.

"No wonder alien invaders hate you so much!" says Star. "The Czardominion was never the same after the Patrol got through with them!"

"How many other members of the Patrol can we mobilize?" asks Atlas.

"Unfortunately, it's just me, dears," says Defender. "I'm a bit of a pilot project for the Patrol -- maybe Earth will be considered worthy of a full detachment of IDP members someday, but for the time being, I'm all we've got."

"What the hell is the Intergalactic Defense Patrol?" I ask. This is the craziest damn thing I've ever heard of. And of course, it's apparently something that the Assembly members never saw fit to mention to anyone else.

"It's all pretty much there in the name, darling," says Defender. "We're the largest police force in the Milky Way galaxy. Still pretty spread out, because space is so big. Think of me as the frontier sheriff, just with more style and sparkling wit."

"But you can't blow the mothership away all by yourself, right?" says Gamma Girl. "And I assume you can't just call in more Patrol members, or you would've done that already."

"I've already tried calling the Patrol," says Defender. "But the Thrugs are considered a very low-level threat, and my superiors feel that any planet stuffed as full of superpeople as Earth is shouldn't have any trouble trashing them all by ourselves."

"Great," groans Phantasmo. "So it's still all up to us. And we've got no workable plans."

"We only need one workable plan," says Atlas. "We need one workable plan to get the forcefield down, and this invasion will be all over. If we can get the forcefield down, it won't take more than two or three of us to wreck their ship up from the inside."

"Well, I hate to say it, but I think our best option for now is more research," says Iota. "I'm pretty sure their instruments aren't sophisticated enough to detect me when I'm miniaturized, so I should be able to get in close and take some detailed readings of their shield. It'll take longer, but I'll try to get some results as fast as I can."

"And the ghosts can get close to the forcefield, too," adds Phantasmo. "I'll ask 'em to see what they can figure out about it. Even if they can't find out much, maybe they can distract the Thrugs so they don't notice Dr. Denziger."

"I don't like the idea of leaving the Cobra in their hands any longer than I have to," says Atlas. "But for now, you guys are the only game we have. Just find us some info we can use, alright?"

"Well, the rest of us should go beat up aliens, right?" says Daphne. "I'm sick of sitting in this basement."

"Southside slums are looking a bit vulnerable," says Penitente. "Anyone got any ideas for shelters we could move people to? There are people hiding out in the sewers right now, and that don't seem like a good solution to me."

"Have any of the schools opened up as shelters?" I ask.

"The schools are full right now," says Miss Mega. "I hear they're having to turn people away. This city needs to rethink its emergency preparedness if moving people into elementary school gyms is their best idea."

Defender stands up suddenly. "Oh god," she says. "Oh god, we need to get outside right now."

"What's the matter?" asks Gamma Girl.

Defender taps the side of her helmet. "Comms traffic from the Thrugs is way up," she says. "The translator software says they're launching a major attack. Sounds like a big chunk of their infantry is heading for the streets. They're going to try to overwhelm us and finish the war right now!"

I'm out the door before anyone else can say anything. There are already a bunch of Thrug warriors heading for City Hall. So they knew where we were -- I guess we're lucky they didn't decide to blow us all up while we were still in the basement.

I start pinwheeling my arms around -- when you go fast enough, it kicks up some serious wind. Blitz and Nanosecond can do this fast enough to lift people off the ground -- I can't do that, but I can slow the bad guys down enough to let everyone else get out of City Hall and get into the fight.

There's a flash of motion next to me, almost invisible, and I realize Iota is flying past me to engage the aliens. Good lord, he's gonna get himself killed someday. I catch up to him, grab him, and slow down enough to yell at him to fight smart so he'll be able to research that forcefield. Then it's back to pinwheeling my arms.

The rest of them are out on the front lawn of the building pretty quickly -- Defender and Star first, followed by Gamma Girl, Atlas, and Miss Mega, and then by Daphne, Penitente, and Phantasmo (I half suspect Miss Mega tried to persuade them to stay behind where it was safer).

I'm trying to do as much ass-whuppery as I can -- when you can hit two dozen Thrugs six times a second, you can do a ton of damage. But everyone else is doing their share, too.

Daphne is head-butting every Thrug she can get close to, Iota is staying miniaturized and off the Thrugs' radars while he knocks them down with neural stunners, and Penitente is fighting off a trio of aliens armed with just his fists and his bullwhip.

Defender is actually serving as a decoy, letting a bunch of enraged Thrugs bounce off her personal forcefield while Star, Gamma Girl, and el Phantasmo take down as many of the attackers as they can.

Probably the most impressive from a purely physical standpoint are Atlas and Miss Mega. I'm a guy who's valued strength all my life, and there's nothing more awe-inspiring to me than watching people with actual superstrength go to work. Everything from multiple 350-pound Thrug warriors in full battle armor to gigantic Thrug troop transports get tossed around like cardboard toys. It's beautiful and terrifying at the same time.

I don't want to make it sound effortless, 'cause it's a hard-fought battle. But it's not like these guys had a chance against us -- Penitente doesn't even have powers, and he could take out a dozen of these guys without breaking a sweat. All ten of us? No contest.

It's finally down to Atlas shaking one of the Thrug officers around like a doll while the rest of us stand around and look menacing at him.

"Tell us how to get into the mothership," Atlas growls as dangerously as he can. "Tell us how, or we'll start breaking you apart. Translate for me, Defender."

Defender leans in and says something that sounds like a guttural hissing bark. The Thrug glares at her with absolute loathing. He doesn't say anything, but Defender crooks her head to the side like she's listening to something.

"Neutrino-based comms systems," she says. "How adorably crude. Just a moment -- they're broadcasting to all units in the city."

She listens a moment more, then suddenly stiffens in surprise and head-butts the Thrug. He drops limp in Atlas' arms -- and I'm probably the only person here fast enough to see the crack in Defender's helmet re-seal itself at light speed.

"Lizardy sons-of-bitches are torturing her!" she yells angrily. "Not even trying to get information -- they're just mad that she's been the brains behind foiling all those invasions in the past!"

"What?" I say. "What are you talking about?"

"No time!" she shouts, lifting both arms over her head. "Everyone get down right now!"

There's a crackle of energy as she throws a forceshield over our heads. Then everything gets extremely bright and hot for about five seconds. When my vision clears, everything for 100 feet around us has been scorched black, Defender is slumped back in Star's arms, and weird swirling gusts of wind are starting up around us.

"Good news, darlings," she says blearily. "The ship won't be able to fire another blast like that for at least a minute. Bad news: Ain't no way I can stop a second one."

"What were you saying about torture?" asks Miss Mega. "No way you can drop that kind of bombshell and not explain yourself."

"They've got Cobra strapped into a shockripper," Defender says. "Banned by every civilized planet in the galaxy and even a few of the uncivilized ones. Spectacularly painful -- new members of the IDP have to be able to withstand 10 seconds of it before we're given our armor. They're gonna kill her if we don't do something."

"Dammit!" yells Daphne. "We gotta get up there somehow!"

"More bad news," Defender says. "More Thrug infantry and attack ships incoming. I think this is their big push -- they're ordering about 20 times more warriors, with more suiting up to attack."

"And worse than that, from the looks of the weather," says Phantasmo. The wind is still rising, and it's accompanied now by more and more static electrical discharges. There's a low rumbling sound, too, ominous and frankly nerve-wracking.

"Crap, we gotta scatter," says Atlas. "I hate to separate us in the middle of an attack this large, but we're just sitting ducks for the mothership's artillery when we're standing around together."

"Defender, I thought you said they wouldn't be able to fire that weapon for another minute," says Gamma Girl. "This sure didn't feel like a minute."

"What?" says Defender woozily as larger flashes of electricity begin arcing around us. "The mothership isn't doing this. I have no idea what's doing this."

"Clear out now, people!" Atlas yells. "Clear out now!"

Thunder crashes.

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