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Blarghy

Preying Mantis (IC)

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GM

 

October 20th, 2016, 9:30 A.M.

 

Deputy Director Theresa Becker leaned over her desk to slide a pair of files to the men across from her.  Although a short figure, beginning to gain weight thanks to her current desk job in AEGIS’ Directorate division, she was once a field agent who helped defend against the last Terminus invasion.  Burn scars adorned her knuckles instead of rings, and her face showed the subtle signs of reconstructive surgery.  She was a blunt, no-nonsense woman with a reputation for fairness but, if truly necessary, choosing success of the mission over the agents who carried it out.  Rumor had it that she once made a young rookie cry with just a stern glare.  More than rumors said at least two at-large supervillains wanted her dead very, very badly. 

 

James Warne quite liked her, to the extent that he liked anyone. 

 

“I’m sending you both to West Virginia,” Becker explained with a gesture to the files.  “There is an abandoned munitions factory in the town of Wallders, near Bluefield.  When the factory died, it essentially took the town with it, but the few stragglers have reported suspicious activity.  Noises, strange lights, and so on.  We checked the power grid, and someone seems to be leeching electricity back into the facility at a high rate, probably to supply whatever machinery still remains.  This has ‘supervillain’ written all over it.  Someone has very likely made this place their new lair, and we want to dig them out before they can cause any trouble.”

 

She jutted her chin toward Ethan Stone.  “Chain of command wants to send you in just as much for publicity as anything.  Show the country that AEGIS still cares, even about little backwater spots like Wallders.  Don’t be too flashy; we don’t want it to look crass.  You’re going in as a defender of the American people, not a campaigning politician.”

 

When Becker’s eyes turned to Warne, she looked almost a touch suspicious.  “…I’m not entirely sure why you’re assigned to this too; you’re not exactly good advertising, most of the time.  Still…I do prefer to use teams for these kinds of missions, just in case, and you two worked well together with the Bonfire matter.  Just try not to terrify any civilians.  If your name shows up in the papers as anything other than a glowing commendation of the agency, I’ll have you working credit fraud for the rest of the year.

 

“And that’s basically it.  Questions?”

Edited by Blarghy

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"Agent Warne is one of the best investigators I've ever worked with," chimed Ethan. "He'll be indispensable in getting to the bottom of everything." He worked his tongue in his mouth for a moment before continuing. "I do have... less of a question, more of a request. I'm going to need some documentation made up to help explain to my wife why I'm going to in in West Virginia for the duration of the mission. I've got that whole, ah, double-life thing going on, you know." He smiled, lamely, then coughed. "But seriously, Ms. Becker, if she finds out that I'm flying around in a tank she'll kick my ass when I get home, and nobody wants that."

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GM

 

Becker and Warne exchanged a sideways glance that seemed to say, Psh.  Families.  Nonetheless, they both saw the logic in a good cover story.

 

"Something can be arranged, certainly.  What do you think would put her mind at ease?  You could be training new pilots, although that would require specifying an Air Force base and involves more dangling threads than I like...  A weekend survivalist course, perhaps.  It would not only explain the trip, but also justify any difficulties you might have answering phone calls.  I can commission the necessary documents and send them to you by the end of the day; I believe we have a template for this sort of thing."

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Ethan nodded, pleased with the idea. "The survivalist course, definitely. Thank you, Ms. Becker, that would be perfect." He smiled and leaned back in his chair. "With that out of the way, hrmn. What about room and board? You know, a base of operations? The AMP's big, but not exactly comfortable to sleep in." His phrasing might make one wonder if he had slept inside it once or twice before. "And what about a field team? Are we cooperating with local law enforcement, or is this strictly an AEGIS operation? Who knows that we're going to be there, and how many ruffled feathers can we expect to need smoothing back down?"

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GM

 

"I've already told the local cops you're coming.  What few the town actually has.  Don't snub them, but certainly don't rely on them either.  The last thing we need is to stop this villain while also getting Barney Fife splattered across the sidewalk.  If you need support, I'm sending a small backup team with you, mostly to guard the XO-9 when you aren't in it; I'll authorize renting rooms at whatever hotel Wallders hopefully has, or compensate the police department if you prefer to stay at the station for added privacy.  As a third option, you could instead stay in Bluefield and just commute; it's about an hour by car, and so, much less for you.  That's where you'll be landing anyway; I'm sending you both and the other agents by cargo plane to a private airstrip in Bluefield.  I doubt that everyone wants to ride on your back for the trip.  In any case, I don't think that such a brief mission with minimal crew requires a full base camp or locking down an entire building."

 

"Just because we think we know where this individual is operating doesn't necessarily mean they'll be easy to find," Warne pointed out.  "They may be blending in with the local population; after all, they likely need supplies occasionally.  Any newcomer to a small, dying town would probably have already been noticed without our help.  If the culprit is an actual member of the community, then it could be tricky--especially if they have contacts in the police department and already know we're coming."

 

Becker shrugged.  "If it works out like that, then we can make alternative arrangements.  In the event that you can't quickly find some cackling madman in the factory and the mission lasts more than a day or two, I'll likely recall Stone, let you dig around, and send him back in once you've found solid leads.  I assume he can make the trip in relatively little time via the AMP when he's alone.  A drawn-out investigation looks less impressive and hardly plays to the strengths of a giant walking weapons deposit, however, so I hope you can make this quick to get the full propaganda benefit."

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The agent pursed his lips, considering, and then smiled. "That sounds like a good plan," he said. "The X-09 can reach escape velocity, so I won't have any trouble making the trip there and back again. I'll just need to fly high enough that I'm not a threat to air-traffic." He looked at Warne. "Should we arrive seperately, do you think? I mean, you're right about the town recognizing outsiders as outsiders, but would it be better if they didn't know we're working together? You're the big investigator; what do you think?" Then, he addressed Becker. "Do you want me to do any extracurriculars? Fly-bys, maybe, or firing blank rounds to impress the locals?"

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GM

 

She gave a short, humorless laugh through her nose.  "Feel free to make an entrance, but don't frighten the townspeople.  Sometimes there can be a fine line between a hero showing off and a villain trying to intimidate.  Make sure they know who you are before you start shooting, at the very least."

 

Warne tilted his head toward his partner and replied, "I suppose I could move a little quieter than all of that, but I don't plan to hide my allegiances, and apparently neither are you.  I'm not that kind of agent.  ...Usually.  Unless it's that kind of job."  He turned his eyes back to Becker for confirmation, to which she nodded. 

 

"Indeed not.  This mission is openly authorized and on the books.  Unless it goes horribly wrong, no one will be operating from the shadows."  Momentarily, Becker's expression shifted, becoming aware of how she tempted fate; she knocked twice lightly on the surface of her wooden desk for luck and then concluded, "Any further questions?"

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"Understood, Deputy-Director. No need to hide our affiliations from the townsfolk, but behave respectably. If we're representing AEGIS, we want to put the effort into looking good. That's easy enough to wrap my head around." He noticed Becker's pagan good-luck ritual, smiled, but kept his mouth shut. The cockpit of the AMP was practically cluttered with little totems, though most of those were family photos and xeroxed copies of his daughter's crayon-drawings. Instead, he smiled. "I think that's all I needed to know. If I need more information, are the standard channels open?"

Edited by Sophistemon

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"They are.  I expect daily reports, and I hope they'll be positive ones.  If trouble arises, let's ensure that it's someone else's fault.  That's all, agents: dismissed."

 

* * *

 

About thirty hours, some paperwork, one private flight, and a boring drive later, Warne and four other black-suit agents stepped from their company SUV and surveyed the little town of Wallders.  Wallders surveyed back; the insular townsfolk watched them with wary curiosity, having by now heard rumors of their supposed saviors, albeit with mixed levels of faith.  Clothes here were old and patched, the buildings were no better, and all too often, Warne saw faded spots of discoloration on storefront exteriors where the For Sale signs had lingered for far too long, until hopelessness alone pulled them down.  Today's Wallders was full of prisoners by necessity, stuck with no reason to stay yet few ways to leave.  At the top of the short hill overlooking the rest of the dying town sat the munitions factory--dark, dusty, and ominous, like some Gothic castle out of an old legend, recreated for a modern generation. 

 

The sheriff, an old man with a limp, made his way toward them.  He and Warne exchanged a few curt words, each portraying their mutual lack of friendliness, which in a strange way offered some kind of kinship. 

 

"This all of ya?" the old man asked gruffly. 

 

Warne just shook his head silently, smiled his thin-lipped grim smile...and pointed up toward the sky. 

Edited by Blarghy

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It could have been a bird, maybe, by the way it flew. Naturally, soaring on air currents with two limbs outstretched to catch the breeze, it might have been a distant eagle. Or it might have been a plane, perhaps, by how fast it flew. It raced through the sky with enough speed to tear the air around it as it went, which caused enough of a sonic boom that it sounded like rolling thunder. But this was neither bird nor plane -- this was Upgrade, the end result DARPA brilliance operating under nearly limitless funding. The intent: to create a repeatable super-soldier without physically, mentally, or chemically altering a citizen. The reality: to build and maintain a single AMP X-09 unit cost as many taxpayer dollars as the construction and upkeep of an aircraft carrier. It was classic DARPA: big ideas, bold executions, but good luck catching that lightning in the same bottle twice. Still, Upgrade served his purpose. The bipedal offspring of a tank and a fighter jet, the Armored Mobility Platform XO-9 was a marvel of modern engineering and became more and more impressive with every subsequent overhaul. Equal parts a piece of propaganda as it was a powerhouse in combat, the silver centurion of American values had been built as a reminder to the citizenry that its government was still looking out for them.

 

The AMP banked, instructed by its pilot to initiate a flyby. It soared over the town, then paused to hover in midair, a glinting speck in the distance. The AMP fell to Earth, quickly at first, until the stabilizers kicked in and the descent was slowed. Finding a patch of empty ground, Upgrade landed as daintily as a 3,000-pound butterfly. Pneumatic joints hissed as Upgrade stood tall and struck a mighty pose, with both enormous hands finding purchase on its shining metal hips. Inside, Ethan Stone was singing softly to himself, out of tune with the radio. "He-ee-re I come to save the da-aa-ay..." He reached out and flipped a switch, enabling external communication. "Citizens of Wallders," the metallic voice boomed. "Do not be alarmed; we are here to help."

Edited by Sophistemon

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GM

 

Reactions followed a predictable pattern.  At first, the civilians milled about, sullenly curious, passing along whispered words of Warne's gesture.  Some noticed the distant object, but most began to grumble with little patience.  The speedy thunderclap caused them to soon jump; muttering turned to excited speculation.  Once they could clearly see the huge, gleaming metal man, townsfolk pointed and chattered loudly.  This became a sudden spike of panic when Upgrade launched into a rapid descent.  A few people outright ran, several screamed, and somewhere, a baby began to cry.  "Holy hell!" the aging sheriff shouted.  However, when he came to rest on the cracked asphalt of the main street, issuing his noble announcement that vibrated through their teeth, Wallders rewarded the agent with cheers and clapping that exaggerated not only their numbers, but also their spirits.  For at least a moment, the town's feeble heart enjoyed an infusion of fresh, warm blood. 

 

"Showoff," Warne mumbled, before lighting a cigarette. 

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Warne's earpiece buzzed, transmitting a familiar voice. "Man, I always feel bad about the babies. They always cry when I come in for a landing. They just aren't ready for the spectacle." The AMP raised up one hand in a salute, directed at the townsfolk in general and the sheriff in particular. "My partner and I apologize for the interruption of our visit. We're planning to be as non-intrusive as possible. I hope I can count on all of you to assist us in our mission. We may have questions that need answers, and it'd be swell if you'd give us a hand." Upgrade turned to the sheriff and extended the same hand in an invitation to shake it. Of course, the sheriff's hand might just barely fit around the tip of the AMP's pinky-finger, but it's a nice gesture all the same. "Photo-op," buzzed Warne's earpiece. "The Internet loves this sort of thing."

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GM

 

"Bloggers," Warne replied to that last comment.  The word came almost reflexively, in light of their previous mission together. 

 

As for the townspeople, cameras to capture the striking scene were unfortunately in short supply.  The agents saw a few old flip-phones, some disposable cameras, but little else.  Mostly, they were met with a thin sea of awed faces. 

 

This included the sheriff, who did indeed try to accept the handshake, and appeared to immediately feel foolish about doing so.  His sheepishness only increased as he gave a brief, and wholly unnecessary, overview of the situation.

 

"There's, ahhh, the factory," he pointed with his free hand.  He stared up at the mechanical giant before him without looking toward the hill; his directions were off by a fair bit, instead aiming toward the horizon.  "We see, ahhh, lights.  Sometimes.  Shouldn't be any.  Ahhh...because it's not on.  The factory.  Should be empty.  Because we're not working in it."  His wrinkly forehead scrunched inward, embarrassed, and he finished with a nod.  "...Yeah."

 

"Supervillain!" someone in the crowd shouted.  This brought about another cheer, presumably not for the idea itself--then again, perhaps even bad news was still news in a place so desperate as this--but rather for the assumption of what would follow, now that the shining hero had arrived. 

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"Bloggers," Ethan agreed. He gently maneuvered the AMP's enormous hand so that it looked to close around the sheriff's without actually doing so -- it would have been far too dangerous otherwise. "Thank you, sheriff," he said. "And thank you, people of Wallders, for the warm and friendly welcome. If there is something going on in the factory, you have my word that Adept and I will figure it out." He pointed a giant finger at the crowd. "And if there's someone in there, doing what they shouldn't, we'll give them a taste of good, old-fashioned American justice!" He pressed a button and the Gatling cannon unfolded from the AMP's back and slung up over the shoulder. Another switch began to spin it, prepping the weapon to fire, but he didn't pull that trigger -- not yet. A simple display of the awesome firepower at his disposal should get the reaction that he wanted: cheerful amazement.

Edited by Sophistemon

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GM

 

Most of the civilians were confused at Upgrade's reference to his partner, having assumed that all five of the other agents were merely a background entourage, but they quickly forgot even this when he revealed one of his signature weapons.  For a town that once supported itself almost solely with the munitions factory, this gesture struck a lot of chords.  They cheered yet again, louder than ever, to the point that Warne started to worry.  If we don't get immediate results, they may riot.  If we do, they may still riot.  He frowned around his cigarette, but finally shrugged slightly to himself.  The town was so sparsely populated.  Besides, what damage could they do to themselves that time and shifting economics hadn't already inflicted?

 

He leaned toward his backup, made a few soft comments concerning his thoughts, and rejoined the sheriff.  "These four will stay here," he indicated with a tilt of his head.  "In case any trouble spills over.  We'll do our best to contain any conflict in the factory itself, but I hope you'll prepare anyway."

 

The old man hardly seemed to hear him, distracted by Upgrade like all the rest.  The most Warne got in return was a vague mumble: "Right...right..."

 

Adept stepped away from him, looking up at the hill.  "You ready?" he asked through his earpiece. 

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"Ready," Ethan replied. He retracted the Gatling gun and shifted the AMP so that it returned to its super-heroic 'waiting' pose. "Thank you all again for the warm welcome. When we get back from the factory, the first round's on me!" Upgrade turned to Adept. "How do we do this? Fly there separately? Do you want to take a car?"

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GM

 

"I doubt anyone would pay attention if I soared off right now," he answered dryly.  "Still, I'll step around the corner before I join you.  Just as a formality."

 

This proved easy to accomplish; if anyone noticed Warne, their opinions were drowned out by Upgrade's exit-cheer.  He received a standing ovation all the way up the hill, and even when he became a sun-glinting toy figure in the near-distance, most of the townspeople lingered outside hopefully.  Perhaps they'd see the show--and few of them considered that such a possibility might not turn out beneficially. 

 

As for the factory itself, a casual search of the exterior revealed little.  The occasional footprint could be attributed to local cops doing their own past investigation, and the old chains on the front doors had been unlocked for the same reason, not broken or melted as might be expected.  An aerial view allowed both heroes to see structural vulnerabilities in the roof; Upgrade could not fit through without raining down rusty metal on the interior, but a human-sized intruder likely could.  Many windows were already busted due to time or bored and ill-mannered teenagers.  This site was hardly secure, but thus far, offered nothing obvious. 

 

Warne swung open the main doors with his mind; they were designed for trucks and other heavy machinery, and thus, "At least you'll fit without having to make holes in the wall." 

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"Congrats, Warne, you've managed to suck some fun out of piloting a flying tank." Upgrade paused at the entrance, checking for tripwires and other traps. "Hey, James, take a look here; I'm not going to set off any surprises, am I? They promised me some sensory enhancements, but all I've got so far are standard cameras. Traditional AEGIS."

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GM

 

"Maybe you should just run ahead of me to trip any explosives, Tank-Boy," he facetiously suggested.  The agent, of course, complied; he carefully studied the dark entrance, air heavy with dust and the smell of mold.  He crept a few paces ahead of Upgrade in the same fashion; occasionally something caught Warne's eye, and he held up one hand before easing closer, but false alarm after false alarm began to wear at even his patience. 

 

They passed complex machinery that appeared rusted in place from lack of use and seeping rainwater from the ceiling.  The rubber of conveyor belts looked dry and brittle, ready to snap at any hopeful attempt to bring them back to life.  Large bins for shell casings had long-since been raided clean--and for that matter, so had the managerial offices, which lacked any outdated electronics that might've been left behind by the proper owners.  Not even imprints in the dust coatings over their desks remained, so long ago were they reclaimed or stolen. 

 

"Becker said this place was drinking up power again," Warne softly thought aloud.  "I don't see anything here that might still work, much less work well.  What villain would be desperate enough to set up shop here?  Even most of the lights are busted; the locals said they saw lit windows, but where...would they..."

 

He paused and flew upward to the tall, dim ceiling in the main room, over the railed walkways and closed vats for melting brass.  Momentarily, Adept returned to his partner with evidence in hand.  He presented an extension cord attached to a battery pack at one end and a floodlight at the other. 

 

"I saw two others up there," he reported.  "Aimed at the windows, not the floor.  But why?  What's this all about?"

 

In response, echoing from somewhere in the room, came the measured taps of metal against metal.

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As the two agents traverse the abandoned factory, Ethan chatters in Warne's ear through his earpiece. "Cripes, Warne, just look at this place," he mourned. "This was the only thing keeping the town together, and when it died... it took the entire place with it." Upgrade's sensory cluster turned from side to side, indicating that Agent Stone was shaking his head. When his partner left, only to shortly thereafter return again with the electric lamp, Ethan lapsed into silence. "Maybe... maybe whoever set up shop in here was using them to signal someone from above? Like a landing beacon?" He then held up a hand at the first sound of metal. "Wait. Hold on, do you hear that?" He activated his external communications. "AEGIS!" he bellowed. "Show yourself! Come out slowly, with your hands behind your head!"

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GM

 

As the gentle taps continued, Agent Stone managed to pinpoint a general location.  His high-tech nightvision equipment allowed him to see through the shadows to what Warne could not: between the maze of machinery was an odd figure, hefty and robed, rather like a fat monk.  This individual wore their hood pulled up, head slightly bowed to obscure their features.  One thing Stone could clearly see was the cause of the noise: the person tapped one finger against the various industrial iron safety-guards as they passed, the material of their exposed appendage being metallic too, instead of flesh. 

 

They complied with his orders, perhaps surprisingly.  Through his nightvision, Stone watched the figure lift both hands--the other was also made of steel, yet this right arm looked larger than the left--and lace their fingers behind their hood.  Slowly, they approached.

 

In a scratchy, disjointed, inhuman voice, they spoke. 

 

"Upgrade," the person said.  It was impossible to be sure from such an artificial tone, but something here sounded satisfied.  Smug. 

 

"Upgrade," they repeated.  "Haah.  Hah.  Hahh.  And Adept."

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"Okay... that's creepy," admitted Ethan. He readied his weapons systems and then engaged his external communications. "Sir, stay right where you are -- do not move." Upgrade took a step closer, letting the AMP's impressive, imposing size do its work. "You're trespassing. This building has been condemned; it's off-limits to civilians. What are you doing here? How do you know who we are?" Ethan clicked the radio and spoke in Adept's ear. "Look at his hands, his arms. He's modified. Be on alert."

Edited by Sophistemon

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GM

 

"...This was a trap," Adept replied.  He took a step away from Upgrade to spread out; safe to say, he didn't need to be told to proceed with caution.  Warne squinted to make out the vague shape in the darkness.  "The lights.  The electricity drain.  He drew us here."

 

"Smart," the stranger said.  Whether he indicated the agents, or his own plan, was unclear.  He lifted his head at last: the face under the hood, too shadowy for normal eyes but well within Stone's visual capabilities, was nearly as modified as his hands.  No eyes--only implanted black lenses, goggles directly attached to his face.  No mouth or nose--just a half-mask, much like what Ethan wore back as a pilot, this one too having an oxygen tube that ran out of sight beneath the man's clothes.  Very little skin--just metal, metal, metal.

 

"Trespassing, yes," he agreed in that unnatural voice.  "I know you, yes.  You, not so well.  But him..."  The head turned, focusing those black lenses on Adept.  "Hello, Warne.  Do you remember me?  I remember you..."  Back, again, to Upgrade: "Why am I here?  I came to -click- you."  His speech cut out for a short second, turning to static, like a bad radio.  Shaking his head, the cyborg sighed, a hiss of air from the sides of his mask.  "Sorry.  Design flaw.  I meant to say kill.  I'm here to kill you."

 

Both his hands swung down, and from the right arm came the hum of moving mechanisms. 

Edited by Blarghy

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Before their unknown enemy could finish arming himself, before Adept could even fully decide on appropriate tactics in this cluttered environment, he instinctively slammed the full force of his psychic talent against that metal chin.  He also broke into a jog to continue moving away from Upgrade; it wasn't until he'd taken several more steps that he looked at the results of his attack, which were...lackluster.  The cyborg merely shook his head with a crackling laugh, like two pieces of sandpaper rubbing together. 

 

"Who are you?" Warne demanded. 

 

"Hahhh hhaaah," he said, a verbal cue rather than his true, more alien chuckle.  "A reborn man.  A former merchant.  An old -click- from your -click-.  Who am I, Warne?  I am vengeance.  I am karma." 

 

"Give me a name, you damned steel-skinned drama queen!"

 

"Hahh haah!  Names, I have.  Once, I was Christian.  Chri-sssss-tian Mannnnnn-isss!  But you can -click- me Mantis!"

 

His right arm seemed to come apart, metal plates unfolding and whirling and a short, thick barrel rising through his wrist.  Mantis punctuated his name with a dull Thook! and something small and round shot from the weapon.  In the dark, Warne couldn't easily see what it was, but Stone--better equipped and with the same military background--probably knew all too well.

 

The grenade hit the concrete floor between them and erupted in fire and shrapnel. 

 

It caught Warne full-blast, a wave of death splashing across him.  From the outside, Upgrade was sure that his partner just met a quick, violent end...but somehow when the flames cleared, Adept remained, albeit on one knee with his forearms crossed over his face.  Around him shimmered the force field that saved his life.  The factory was less fortunate: this explosion brought down part of the ceiling immediately, blew out all the remaining windows in the large room, knocked over part of the incomprehensible machinery, and set two conveyor belts alight. 

 

"Say it -click- me, kids!  Mantis, Mantis, Mantis!  Now let's -click- some fun!"

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Klaxons sounded, blaring barbarously in his ears as Ethan struggled with the controls, wrestling with the machine itself in an attempt to get it to move. He failed, and the impact of the grenade sent the entire system into a momentary shutdown. "Invulnerable my butt!" he barked into Warne's headpiece. "That was a grenade. Nothing even really special about it and it knocked my systems out. I'm going to strangle those engineers; did they make this thing out of freaking tissue-paper?" The AMP reboot quickly, with merciful speed, but in a battle like these even a few scant seconds could be disastrous. "Are you all right? Who is this guy?"

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