Outside the bank, the roar of a powerful engine approached making everyone turn to what remained of the window, which happened to be nothing.
‘Perhaps it’s the police wanting us to make a statement?’ Willow said hopefully. No one wanted to admit that whoever was approaching didn't sound like the police.
A black limousine with tinted windows rolled to a halt just outside the smoldering bank. Out clambered the three coolest human beings our heroes had ever seen.
Psylocke, Sage and the Black Knight were well known on the Superhero scene and internationally famous to boot. Willow gave a shriek of excitement so shrill that everyone assumed their ears must still be ringing from Hertz’s sonic wave.
Psylocke stood, hands on hips and surveyed the carnage.
‘What happened here?’ She demanded.
‘There was a heist.’ Indrani said.
‘We foiled it!’ Maeve added excitedly.
The Superheroes looked far from impressed. Psylocke glared.
‘We made a detour especially to deal with this situation. And we would have done so, if it hadn’t been for the traffic...’
Sage and the Black Knight muttered among themselves.
‘Still, this trip hasn’t been a complete waste of time...’ Psylocke looked our heroes up and down and seemed to make up her mind. ‘Come with us. We need people with your talents.’
‘Where?’ Ellis asked.
‘How long for?’ Iris was alarmed. Her heart began palpitating at the thought of a trip that might last longer than a day, thus necessitating sleeping under a strange duvet.
‘As long as it takes to knock you into shape.’ Psylocke narrowed her eyes ominously.
‘What if we don’t want to go?’ Facade asked.
‘I’m not going anywhere.’ Maeve said defiantly. It was a valiant stand but from the way the three Supers advanced upon them, our heroes knew it wasn’t really a choice. Plus Psylocke said, ‘You don’t have a choice’ as they were buckled into the back seat of the car.
A few uncomfortable hours later (the limo wasn’t that big) they found themselves being whisked through London town; over Tower Bridge, past Big Ben and the London Eye, through a dull-looking building and into a lift that travelled deep, deep down, Willow tweeting the whole way until they lost reception. They emerged into a huge underground cavern fitted out as the most high-tech lab imaginable.
‘This is MI13, our Headquarters.’ Psylocke made a sweeping gesture as they gawped, open-mouthed. ‘Here we will assess your capabilities before you undergo a rigorous training programme. If you earn it, you will be accepted into this elite organisation.’
‘What’s that?’ Indrani pointed and asked.
‘That’s BOB. He works here. You’ll be reporting to BOB a lot over the next few weeks.’
‘It looks like a brain in a jar.’
‘That is, in essence, what BOB is, yes.’
If someone had told them that morning that they would soon be, among other things, reporting to a brain in a jar, it may have sounded a bit strange. Only a few hours since the heist and this now seemed a perfectly reasonable request.
Psylocke gestured to a group of chairs in a semi circle nearby.
‘Please, sit. Let’s introduce ourselves. Tell us your name and a bit about yourself.’
Cue a collective groan followed by an awkward pause in which no one wanted to be the first to speak. Indrani cracked first.
‘I’m Indrani Abbott. I’m a student. My favourite book is Pride and Prejudice. When I was seven and I first learned to ride a bike, I - ’
‘Please stick to the stuff about your powers.’ Psylocke interrupted.
‘Oh right, sorry. Well, I do magic, as you might have guessed. I have my own familiar; my rat Thelma. She’s adorable. I won’t lie; I was a bit disappointed I didn’t summon a cooler animal, like a tiger or something, but Thelma is sweet and portable too. Look, I keep her in my pocket.’
There was a screech of chairs scraping hurriedly across the floor.
‘Um, okay. Maybe you can meet her later. My mum is British-Indian and comes from a coven that follows the teachings of the sacred Hindu text Atharvaveda. My dad is from a coven of Wicca who harness the power of the elements – not to gain power or wage war, but to better understand the potency of the world in which we live.’
‘Did they teach you how to do magic?’ Maeve asked.
‘No. I’m self taught. I learned everything I know from my grimoire. It’s an ancient spell book. I don’t actually talk to my parents about this stuff. I don’t think they’d approve. They want me to be a doctor.’
‘And what is your superhero identity? What name do you like to go by?’
‘Thank you, Devi. You will all be addressed by your superhero names from now on.’
‘I can name everybody.’ Facade pointed at Indrani, Willow, Ellis, Iris and Maeve. ‘Smurf, Twiggy, Klutz, Sneezey and Jumpsuit.’
There was a chorus of disapproval at these monikers, including a comment that may have been ‘Bitch Face’.
‘That’s enough. Who’d like to go next?’ Psylocke interrupted. Willow waved cheerily.
‘Hi, I’m Doctor Willow Andrews. Pleased to meet you all.’
‘We’ve already met, Twiggy.’
‘My code name is Nymph. My parents were scientists, like me. My upbringing was a bit unusual. I was born and raised in a sterile lab environment and never introduced to the usual allergens that other children are exposed to.’
‘Sounds a bit over-protective.’ Iris said.
‘Oh no, it wasn’t that. The scientists wanted to create the perfect allergic specimen. Never having been exposed to allergens, I ended up allergic to an extremely high proportion of things including most plant life, animals and foods.’
‘Okay, sounds a bit psychotic.’
‘It’s not all bad. Using allergen immunotherapy, the scientists created a vaccine that made me immune to all allergens. But there were side effects. I’m now immune to all viruses, bacteria and poisons. When I take a special serum I basically turn into a human tree. I can release pheromones with the power to control people.’
There was a girlish giggle from Devi which everyone politely ignored.
‘I can also manipulate plant life, insects and the like. Get them to work for me.’
‘Your parents must be...erm...proud?’ Ellis raised an eyebrow.
Willow’s expression hardened.
'We don’t speak.’ She said flatly.
‘I don’t blame you.’ Ellis said.
After another awkward pause Iris realised she was next. She folded her arms and her tone was terse.
‘I’m Iris,' she said. And this is stupid. 'I can control electricity too. There’s not much else to tell. I keep to myself and I like it that way.’
‘What’s your secret identity?’
‘I don’t have one.’
‘How about Joules?’ Nymph suggested.
This was universally approved of within the semi-circle so it wasn’t as though Iris, aka Joules, had much of a choice.
Maeve was up next. She beamed at the room.
‘Hello, fellow supers! I’m Maeve Maddox, magician’s assistant by day, Cassandra by night.’
‘Cassandra by night? You sound like you work in the red light district.’
Cassandra gave Facade a pointed look.
‘Cassandra is my superhero identity and that’s all I’m going to say as my powers aren’t something I feel able to share with you people yet. Maybe if,’ here she threw Facade another look, ‘and when I decide I like any of you enough to be friends that might change.’
Ellis rolled her eyes. ‘Fine. Let’s wrap this up shall we? I’m Ellis Parker. No relation to Peter.’ She added quickly. ‘Code name; Vixen. I’m curator at the museum. I have a degree in History specialising in ancient warfare and combat. I’m proficient in all disciplines of martial arts. I do demonstrations for the kids at the museum.’
‘Thanks, Willow. I mean – Nymph.’
‘Do you have any superhero abilities?’ Psylocke asked.
Vixen paused before answering. ‘I’m telekinetic, but I don’t have much control over it.’ She admitted. ‘I’m working on it. I can conjure a sword when I need it.’
‘Is falling on your own sword some sort of Samurai tribute?’
‘Shut it Bitch Face!’
‘Why don’t you introduce yourself?’ Psylocke nodded at Facade. She shrugged.
‘My name is Facade. Just Facade.’
A long pause.
‘Is that all you care to say?’
Someone muttered, ‘lame’ under their breath.
A young, stern-looking woman in a white lab coat marched up to our heroes, heels clacking and clipboard in hand.
‘Good afternoon. My name is Dr Phreak.’ She peered over the edge of her glasses. ‘I’m in charge of MI13’s combat simulator. Let’s get started and see what you can do, shall we?’
Before anyone could protest the cavern melted away. They were stood in the middle of a lush green park. Trees lined the paved walkway and people milled about, enjoying the sunshine.
‘What the hell?’ Cassandra blinked against the bright light. Before anyone could speculate that the words ‘combat simulator’ hardly implied a cucumber sandwich and ginger beer picnic, they were surrounded by robots that appeared in a fizz of static and immediately opened fire.
Nymph, Devi, Joules and Vixen took a direct hit of their laser beams and were blasted off their feet, stunned. Cassandra managed to duck receiving only a glancing hit on the shoulder. As she scampered for cover, Facade did what it was becoming apparent she did best; punch her enemies.
Her fist went right through the nearest robot which collapsed in a pile of sparks and twisted wire. Phreak’s voice sounded from a tannoy in the sky.
‘Thank you, Facade. Please sit the remainder of this simulation out.’
Facade retired to a park pew, smiling smugly.
‘As for the rest of you, I am very disappointed in the standard of your heroics.’ Phreak’s voice dripped disapproval over the largely comatose crew. Cassandra looked up and spotted the control booth suspended above the tree line. She could see Phreak in her white lab coat, looking at them through the huge windows, Psylocke at her side.
Cassandra wasn’t strong. She couldn’t fly. She couldn’t move objects with the power of her mind. She wasn’t good at thinking of witty retorts to snarky comments, which would have really come in handy today. What she could do was swap minds with anyone she wanted.
Which was how she ended up in the control booth a few seconds later, in Phreak’s body. At the same time, Phreak looked about, stunned, in Cassandra’s body, unable to figure out how she ended up in the middle of the robot melee.
In the control booth, Cassandra was confronted with a vast dashboard of computers, flashing lights and buttons. Being unable to navigate the differences between a Windows PC and a Mac, she was considerably out of her depth.
So, she did what any tech-idiot would do. She randomly pressed all of the buttons, one after the other.
Down below in the park, the others began to slowly come around. They awoke to the sight of one of the robots powering down.
‘Is it over?’ Vixen croaked.
The other robots advanced, seemed to change their minds and began attacking each other.
‘Are we supposed to stop them fighting?’ Joules asked. ‘This is public disorder, isn’t it?’
‘It was GBH a minute ago. I call this progress.’ Vixen said.
Up in the control booth, Psylocke looked on the mayhem disapprovingly. She sighed as Joules harnessed electricity from the park’s street lights and hurled the lightning bolt at the robots – and missed. Time for a coffee break. She left them all to it.
Phreak, or Cassandra as everyone still believed, emerged from the bush she had been hiding in. She had some idea of what had happened and frowned up at the control booth at the alien sight of her thrashing about at her precious computer like a clueless moron. She put her fingers to her temple and used her brain connection to the computer to access the mainframe and lock Cassandra out of the system.
Back in the booth, Cassandra quickly realised that her idiotic button-pushing didn’t seem to be doing anything anymore.
So she picked up a laser gun that was handily lying around and blasted the dashboard.
As the melted metal smoked and smouldered, down below the remaining robots spun out of control, running amok and shooting the innocent bystanders, who had up until now been enjoying themselves, rather unfeasibly unconcerned about the marauding A.I.
The robots’ lasers now seemed, unfortunately, set to kill. Every bystander went up in smoke and the scene froze. The light flickered and all went dark. When the lights came up, they were back in the lab.
‘How did we do?’ Devi asked.
Phreak’s expression said it all – she was distinctly unimpressed.
‘You failed. You were supposed to stop the robots from hurting innocent civilians.’
‘We stopped them hurting us. We’re innocent.’
Phreak sighed. She had her work cut out for her with this useless shower.
‘Let’s load the next programme.’ She snapped her fingers twice and the lab melted away once more. They were now in a large, empty room.
‘That’s awesome. How do you do that?’ Devi asked.
‘Using my neuro-connection to the computer mainframe that Cassandra saw fit to almost destroy.’
Cassandra stared at the floor sheepishly.
‘While I’m making repairs on the system I want you all to keep yourselves busy with this.’
A shimmering blue ball about the size of a football appeared in the middle of the room.
‘This test is called ‘Keep Away’. As I clearly overestimated your collective intelligence with the first simulation, we’ll keep this one nice and simple. I’m splitting you into two teams; Cassandra, Joules and Nymph versus Facade, Devi and Vixen. Your goal as a team is to keep hold of the ball for six minutes, protecting it from the other team. If the ball is destroyed the blame will lie with the one holding the ball at the time and the other team wins. Clear?’
They all nodded. Phreak sighed again and headed back to the control booth, sending a mental instruction to the coffee machine to have a latte with two sugars waiting for her.
Our heroes looked at each other. No one moved. Without warning, Facade strode over to Cassandra and landed a punch at her head, knocking her out cold.
No one could deny that Facade had what is generally known as a ‘game plan’. It was just unfortunate that her strategy for every scenario boiled down to the same thing; bone-crunching.
‘For God’s sake!’ Vixen shrieked at her team mate. Had this woman ever tried a diplomatic solution? Vixen ran for the ball, grabbed it, threw her force field around it and levitated to the ceiling, where she hung, slowly spinning, looking down on the others.
‘Right then. Come and have a go.’ She said.
Joules summoned a bolt of electricity and threw it at Vixen who dodged it easily. Joules inwardly cursed her faked sick notes dished out during secondary school P.E. lessons. She could do with some spatial awareness right now.
‘Is it just me, or is it getting hot in here?’ Devi asked.
The walls flickered and disappeared. The room expanded, outwards and upwards, black rock rising around them and a crater high above. Cracks appeared beneath their feet and they had to jump out of the bubbling lava pools that opened up.
‘We’re inside a volcano?!’ Nymph squeaked.
‘Phreak must be really pissed off.’ Devi said.
Cassandra sat up groaning, nursing a bruised head. After a second or two of confusion she remembered the perpetrator of her pummelling and threw Facade what she dearly hoped was an intimidating look. Facade looked spectacularly un-intimidated.
But Cassandra wasn’t the type to fight fire with fire. Oh no. She had a game plan of her own and nothing spelt revenge like stealing a shiny blue ball from her enemies. She conferred with Nymph and Joules, outlining her plan.
Above them, Vixen watched this little conference with alarm. She frantically gestured to her team mates to gather and come up with a strategy.
Devi and Facade put their heads together and managed to agree on something before Facade felt the need to throw her fists, which was certainly progress.
Devi cupped her hands together. They glowed blue and three balls identical to the one Vixen held appeared. Devi threw them up for Vixen to catch.
Vixen was relieved that her teammates had brains as well as psychotic and lovesick tendencies. All she had to do was mix the balls up, while making sure she knew which the real one was, like so, and then throw the others to her team mates. Nymph, Cassandra and Joules wouldn’t know which the real ball was.
Vixen chucked the balls at Devi and Facade. They went completely over their heads and bounced across the cavern.
‘Nice one, Klutz.’ Facade said.
Nymph had tried to use her powers to rally the local insect population but the inside of a volcano didn’t seem to be the sort of place for flora and fauna to hang out. Still, there were always her pheromones.....
As Cassandra and Joules looked anxiously at the three balls bouncing around and up at the one still clutched in Vixen’s hands, Nymph sidled over to Devi.
‘Hey, gorgeous.’ Nymph snaked a vine across Devi’s cheek. ‘I want to wrap my roots around you.’ Devi giggled. ‘You know we’re on the same side, right?’ Nymph smiled seductively.
Devi nodded, beaming.
‘So, remind me, which ball is the real one?’
‘That one.’ Devi pointed up at Vixen.
‘No! You idiot!’ Vixen shrieked.
Facade whispered in Devi’s ear. Devi seemed to remember something and muttered under her breath. Vixen felt the ball wriggle in her hands and, more disturbingly, heard it gnashing.
‘What did you do?!’ She yelled.
‘I brought the ball to life.’ Devi beamed. ‘His name is Steve. He’ll bite anyone from the other team. He won’t bite you. I think. Just be careful where you put your fingers.’
Before she could vent spleen, Vixen was overcome with the strangest feeling, like that of catching her balance just before she fell over. She shook her head to clear it – and found herself back on the ground, looking at Nymph. Where was the ball? It was gone – no wait.
She looked up and experienced what is commonly known as an ‘out-of-body experience. There she was, still floating in mid-air, clutching the ball.
Was this part of the test? Was she going mad? Maybe this was all a dream and the heist had never happened, she had never met these crazy people and this whole thing was a product of her raving mind? She certainly hoped so.
She looked down and saw that she was wearing Cassandra’s spangly purple suit and the pieces started coming together.
‘It’s me!’ She shouted at Facade and Devi. ‘And she’s not me!’ She yelled, pointing at, well, herself. She was met quite understandably with incredulous looks.
Meanwhile, Cassandra found that though she may look like Vixen that didn’t mean she could fly like her. She tilted to one side and began sinking downwards towards the lava pool beneath her. She flung the ball into the air – where it disappeared. It was at this time Vixen, Facade and Devi noticed that Joules was missing.
Devi sent a ripple of light across the room. The shadowy form of Joules appeared on the other side of the volcano.
‘There she is!’ Vixen pointed and almost instantaneously was back up in the air, herself once more. As Cassandra she had almost sunk into a lava pit and had to speedily fly back up to the ceiling.
In the control booth, Phreak gave up on the melted dashboard and got a new one out of the cupboard. Those dorky recruits had made a right mess. Feeling cross, she found the volcano dial and whacked it up to ‘Thar She Blows’. Screw them.
An ominous rumbling filled the air. The ground shifted and huge cracks appeared, running from one side of the cavern to the other. The lava shot up like geysers from the pools and rocks starting tumbling down.
Facade scurried up the side of the volcano, showing considerable gymnastic skill – until a rock fell on her.
As she landed in a heap none of our heroes were too concerned. Many felt that being the unconscious one for once would do Facade some good.
Cassandra marched around and gnashed her teeth at everyone, making a noise like an angry bulldog. Too late, Vixen and Devi realised that Cassandra had mind swapped with ‘Steve’ the now sentient ball and was nestling snugly in Joules’ arms.
A loud beep sounded. The volcano disappeared, along with the searing heat. The lights came up.
‘Congratulations A Team.’ Phreak deadpanned. ‘Your team are the victors. After a fashion.’
‘Why are we B Team?’ Facade scowled, nursing a lump on her head.
‘You are Team One so there’ll be no arguing, children.’ Phreak sighed and killed the mic. She asked the coffee machine to put a shot of whisky in her next latte.