Joules’ invisibility couldn’t protect her for long. She got caught in the workshop crossfire, taking a blast in the chest which slammed her into the opposite wall, knocking her unconscious.
Cassandra wasn’t in a position to help, quivering under the bench, trying desperately to break through the block on her telepathy. Without warning, screaming voices reverberated around the room. They came from the Tannoy system but to Cassandra, it felt as though they were deep inside her head. She sucked in her breath sharply and tried to block them out but she couldn’t ignore them – or their accusations. Images and sounds burst through her consciousness – memories long-buried, along with overwhelming fear and guilt.
‘Noooooo!’ She buried her head in her hands, trying to block the voices out.
Long ago while practicing a new trick for the circus, Cassandra received a nasty shock when her magic routine resulted in the sudden and unexplained disappearance of her boss who vanished into thin air. As if this weren’t bad enough, her colleagues’ heads also exploded.
Understandably, Cassandra didn’t like talking about it.
‘I didn’t do it! It wasn’t me! Leave me alone!’ She wailed.
Back in the kitchen, Devi was simultaneously struck with the same affliction. From nowhere, she heard her parents’ voices – and they were not happy.
‘You’ve tainted the family coven with your recklessness, Indrani,’ her father berated. ‘Pacifism is sacred and you have used the elements in battle.’
‘Listen to your father,’ Devi’s mum’s voice dripped with disapproval. ‘You don’t deserve the powers you have. You don’t deserve Thelma.’
Devi gasped. She looked about frantically but somehow couldn’t grasp that her parents were not there. She choked back a sob.
‘No! I’m sorry Mum!’
‘We should take her away from you.’
‘Yes, take the rat away.’
Devi sank to her knees and cried, totally crushed.
Nymph continued to rock backwards and forwards in the lab, tormented by dark memories of her twisted childhood and though Vixen managed to get up and slice through her nearest robotic assailant there were more where it came from.
Things weren’t looking good for our heroes. They were outnumbered, out-gunned and out of luck.
All except one.
Hot wiring the car was taking too long, so Façade decided to fall back on her usual modus operandi. She punched the living daylights out of every robot in the garage. It worked as well as it usually did – she destroyed every single one of them in a blur of fists, standing over their smoking wreckage with satisfaction. No messing about.
A shimmer tugged at the edge of her vision. She whipped around to see another robot materialise from nowhere in the garage, in much the same manner they had appeared not so long ago in the combat simulator.
If she hadn’t been so preoccupied, this fact might have led her thoughts to a certain person. But there were now more A.I. to punch so the thought was shoved aside – much like the robots.
At the same moment, another robot shimmered and appeared in the library. Vixen took another bruising hit and almost went down. Pain shot through her side as she staggered, clutching her ribs. This was so unfair. Who was doing this? Was this part of MI13’s sick recruitment process? Struggling to her feet, her ears ringing, Vixen gripped her sword until her knuckles whitened. The union would hear about this - if there were such a thing for superheroes.
Indignation rising with her adrenalin, she raised her sword at the level of her eyes and charged. Her sword went through the advancing robot like butter, burst through the force field covering the door in a flash of green light and penetrated the control panel which exploded in a fizz of sparks. The robot crumpled into a heap as the doors clicked and swung open.
Strength ebbing away, Vixen staggered into the hallway, sinking to her knees. Lights swam in front of her eyes. Somewhere, deep in the building, she thought she could hear a car engine revving…..
Façade leapt into the ruined Lexus, whacked at the buttons on the dashboard and hoped something would work out. It did. As she rotated one of the gear sticks, the gun mounted on top of the car buzzed and activated. Façade pressed the red button.
A rocket launched across the garage and blew the doors apart. Outside the library Vixen heard the impact and forced herself to her feet.
More sounds were coming from around the corner. Vixen edged her way towards them, keeping flush to the walls. Façade ran to meet her. They looked each other up and down. Façade raised an eyebrow when she too heard the clanking noises.
‘I think it’s coming from the lift.’ Vixen jerked her head to one side.
The lift was descending, gears grinding, buttons flashing. ‘We have to warn the others.’ Vixen said.
She lurched drunkenly across the hallway to the doorway labelled ‘Communications Centre’. She rammed her sword into the control panel where it promptly got stuck.
‘What are you doing, Klutz?’ Façade held her arms out.
‘We need to send a communication to the others.’ Vixen snapped.
‘I suppose impaling a control panel is an improvement on stabbing yourself.’
‘This worked before, all right? It’s not my fault it’s stuck. I’m knackered. Where’s that piece of crap computer?’
Façade got out her mobile as Vixen wrestled with her stuck sword.
‘BOB, where are the others?’
Static fizzed. ‘I am unable to locate the others. There appears to be something wrong with my programming.’
‘Can you reboot yourself?’
‘Yes. It will take approximately half an hour.’
‘Whoever’s in that lift will be here in half a minute. And I doubt it’s a welcoming committee!’ Vixen whipped her mobile out of her pocket and yelled into it. ‘BOB. Answer me straight. What’s happening?’
‘I am afraid I cannot answer that question. I do not know.’
‘You’re full of shit, BOB.’
‘That is incorrect. I am full of binary code.’
Before Vixen could say anything else, the lift pinged and she and Façade could only watch as the doors slowly slid open.
Framed within was Psylocke, looking furious, a tall, dark-skinned man in shades and in front of them, almost filling the doorway with his physique, was a square-jawed handsome man dressed in the colours of the Union Jack.
‘Captain Britain!’ Vixen couldn't help gasping.
He flashed the same mega-watt smile that had graced the covers of so many newspapers and TV news reports as he strutted into the hallway, closely followed by the others.
Psylocke rounded on Vixen and Facade. ‘Where is she?’
‘Who?’ Asked Façade indignantly.
‘I thought she was with you?’
‘No. I ordered her to stay behind in the Comms Centre.’
About the same time the metaphorical penny dropped, a mounted gun appeared above the doorway to the Communications Centre and unleashed a round of bullets straight into Captain Britain’s chest.
They glanced off him, littering the floor like hailstones. He shrugged.
‘It’s going to take more than that to stop Captain Britain!’
Façade rolled her eyes. Vixen continued to struggle to disentangle her sword.
‘We’ve been under attack. What’s going on?’ Façade asked.
Psylocke frowned. ‘It’s Phreak. She’s infiltrated MI13 and compromised BOB.’
‘I’m not sure yet. I think her primary goal was to obtain information on you lot.’
‘Not much of a psychic are you?’ Vixen said.
‘I was looking for truthfulness.’ Psylocke glowered. ‘And she answered all her questions truthfully.’
The dark-skinned meathead in shades, who happened to be nightwalker Blade, grew impatient.
‘Enough talking! Let’s get in there!’
Façade strolled over to the doorway, drew back her fists and threw the hardest punch she had yet. The door was blown off its hinges and crashed across the room. Vixen’s sword came away from the control panel in a shower of sparks. The other Supers looked at each other, impressed.
‘Nice one, rookie.’ Blade nodded at Façade.
They all peered into the semi-darkness of the Comms Centre. It was empty.
‘Damn it!’ Psylocke swore. ‘She must be controlling the system remotely using the link in her brain. She could be anywhere.’
BOB’s eerily high-pitched voice echoed from within the room, making everyone jump.
The strain of this small yet strangely terrifying fright, coupled with fatigue and a sudden urge to go to the bathroom, proved catastrophic for Vixen who promptly wet herself.
‘Nice one, Klutz.’ Façade gave her the thumbs up.
‘Shut up!’ Vixen snarled, trying to edge away from the other Supers who were politely pretending not to notice. They had seen this sort of thing with a hundred newbies.
In the kitchen, Devi, who had been fighting the insecurities which had threatened to overwhelm her, finally got to her feet. Her parents weren’t here. This wasn’t real. Using the last of her strength she summoned her fire spell and blasted open the doors to her prison. Thelma was delighted and began cleaning her whiskers from her vantage point on Devi’s shoulder.
Back at the Comms Centre, Façade and Vixen could hear the groan of warped metal and hoped it wasn’t a bad sign. As if in answer to their fears there came a clanking noise behind them. Someone was climbing down the lift shaft. Our heroes held their breath. A pair of red stiletto heels appeared followed by their owner – the medic in a white lab coat who had healed them after their session in the combat simulator. Everyone exhaled in relief.
The medic leapt into action, laying her healing hands on Vixen who instantly felt better, though not less embarrassed. Before she could move on to the other Supers, the gun mounted outside the door whirred into life, pivoting around so that it pointed inside the room – right at Façade.
Façade looked towards Blade and concentrated. Using her powers of mimicry, she absorbed his strength a fraction of a second before the impact of the hail of bullets thudded into her.
They glanced harmlessly off her and Vixen forgot her shame in a moment of incredulous awe.
‘Since when could you do that?’ She asked, jaw hanging open. Façade shrugged.
Captain Britain marched into the room and headed towards the server room, the door to which now stood open, crumpled from the impact of the Comms Centre door flying across the room and hitting it. He reached for the mass of wires within the machinery and in a single action, ripped them all out.
The lights went out, plunging them in darkness for a second until the emergency strip lighting kicked in and glowed brightly.
BOB’s voice could barely be heard as he cried, ‘Noooooo……’ and faded away.
Across MI13, the remaining robots powered down, as did the force fields around the doors, which all swung open. The intimidation of Phreak had been stopped.
Devi and Nymph emerged, blinking and dazed but unharmed. Joules came around and sat up, nursing a huge lump on her head. From where she still hid under the workshop bench, the block on Cassandra’s telepathy broke.
A thousand sensations rushed into her cerebral cortex, filling her nerve endings with the thoughts and feelings of her fellow heroes. Fear, pain, panic – a superhighway of emotion that made the blood vessels in Cassandra’s brain swell fit to burst.
She threw back her head and screamed.
The mind blast that resulted from the sudden release of her pent up fear and anger ripped through MI13. Psylocke, Blade and Captain Britain covered their ears and winced. Façade didn’t feel anything and wondered what the others were doing. Vixen found that Cassandra’s mind blast had the pleasant side effect of clearing her headache. But others were not so fortunate.
Devi, perhaps the most sensitive member of the group, took the blast hard and was knocked off her feet. After a few seconds she sat back up again – and wondered where the hell she was. Her memories of the last few days had been completely wiped from her mind.
Some might say she was the lucky one.
Four months later
Façade, Devi Vixen and Cassandra wend their way through the university corridors, following the scientist in the white lab coat and nervous twitch.
‘We can’t account for how they got into the building.’ She twittered. ‘The damage to the lab is extensive. We haven’t contacted the police. You were the first people we called.’
‘Relax. First we’ll look at the CCTV and then the lab.’ Vixen said.
Since the ‘code nine’ incident, life had moved on for our heroes. Devi had needed to be virtually re-recruited, not to mention re-introduced to everyone. It was doubtful they would ever be able to reverse the effects of Cassandra’s mind blast though Devi remained besotted with Nymph, and much to her own bemusement, wanted to cry whenever she smelt bacon.
Miss Metamorphosis proved a wily opponent, managing to escape from police custody that day and remained AWOL. Psylocke and the other Supers had quelled the riots she left behind as a result of her mind control though they had been unable to figure out if she and Phreak had been in cahoots or whether Phreak had acted alone. Either way, Phreak also remained missing and at large.
One upside to the code nine was that Psylocke fully recruited our heroes, deciding that while they were more than a bit eccentric and certainly had elements of the pathetic about them, they seemed able to handle the unpredictable life of superheroes. They were given their own kitted-out Liverpool headquarters in the sub-basement of the Liver buildings.
Pretty soon, they were getting distress calls. A robbery here, blackmail there, could Merseyside’s newest hopefuls help them out where the police and justice system had failed? It turns out they could. Their local notoriety grew. They began appearing in The Echo and were even interviewed on Granada Tonight, much to Nymph’s delight.
Psylocke insisted that they elected a team leader. Nymph promptly voted for herself. To Vixen’s shock, Façade nominated her. She strongly suspected that Façade would use the fact that she wet herself against her at some point in the future, but what the Hell? Her dignity had left the building some time ago, in no small part thanks to her fellow heroes’ constant reminders, and Twitter.
Vixen felt obliged to put her own name forward after being nominated and Devi surprised everyone by electing Cassandra who in turn put herself forward. Nymph was out of the running, though thankfully remained gracious throughout defeat. She even posted magnanimous tweets congratulating her team mates. She reserved her bile-filled rants for the secret diary she kept under her pillow and into which she scribbled furiously at night for a week until she felt better.
That left BOB with the deciding vote. For reasons known only to him and a complete mystery to everyone else, he chose Vixen.
So, as Team Leader, with Cass as her Second in command, Vixen led the way to their latest call out – a break-in at the University of Liverpool’s labs. Joules had a lot of students taking piano exams that day and Nymph was presenting a scientific paper at a conference so that left the remaining four ‘Liver Birds’, as they had been nicknamed by the press.
Cassandra had sworn to find out who coined the moniker, hunt them down and kill them.
Ensconced in a poky security room with the lights off, our heroes stared at the flickering black and white images on the CCTV footage.
All was still until around midnight when a dark-haired girl entered the lab. From the way she was looking around and behind her it was clear she was nervous. The cameras cut to a different view point in which she was stood in front of a table laden with equipment. She was handling something but had her back to camera, obscuring the view.
She stumbled backwards.
‘Look,’ Devi pointed. ‘The vial that was on the table has gone.’
The two scientists glanced at each other nervously.
The girl in the footage jumped into the air, stumbled again and suddenly lashed out, arms and legs flailing madly. She knocked over a whole table sending its contents scattering.
Then she turned into a deer.
Our heroes blinked, after the fact which was lucky, because it was truly a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it transformation. One second they were looking at a rather clumsy young woman. The next they were looking at a bucking hoofer.
The deer now thrashed wildly about the lab, turning over tables and smashing everything in sight before bolting out the way it came.
One of the scientists froze the tape.
‘That’s it.’ She said.
Our heroes looked at each other and shrugged.
‘Well? What do you think?’ The other scientist asked, looking anxiously at her colleague.
‘We don’t know yet.’ Devi laughed.
‘We’re good, but not that good.’ Cassandra said.
‘Take us to the lab.’ Vixen tried to keep things business-like. Not always easy with this crew.
The lab in question was easy to spot, seeing as its bashed in door was hanging off its hinges. Once inside, our heroes surveyed the carnage.
Devi spotted blood on the floor by shards of smashed glass. The sight made her queasy and she wished for the tenth time already that Nymph were there. Nymph was great with gore. When she crouched down for a better look she noticed a shiny substance like mercury smeared across the tiles.
‘Here’s something for BOB back at HQ.’
Vixen took a swab. ‘We’ll get this back to the lab for analysis.’ She got to her feet. ‘Take us to the caretaker.’ She narrowed her eyes at the two jumpy scientists.
Brian Mason was an unassuming bloke with five o’clock shadow and a hint of hen-pecked husband about him. He sported a bloody bandage across his head.
‘That thing done it!’ He bemoaned. ‘Whacked me with its antlers as it come running out the lab.’
‘What can you tell us about what happened last night?’ Façade asked, cracking her knuckles menacingly. She had no intention of punching him – yet – but found that people tended to talk faster when she flexed her fists. Brian swallowed.
‘I’d unlocked that room for cleaning only I forgot my mop, so off I goes back to the broom cupboard. I was bursting so I went the bog on the way. I was gone no more than five or ten minutes. When I got back I heard a racket and when I got to the door that beast come charging at me like a bull and took a chunk out my forehead. I should sue. There’s nothing written in my contract about this sort of thing. My mate Barry from the union –‘
‘Thank you, Mr Mason, that’ll be all.’ Vixen turned to one of the scientists. ‘What was in that vial?’
The scientists looked at each other before the first replied. ‘Can we rely on your complete confidentiality? What we tell you must go no further.’
‘Hurry up and spill.’ Façade cracked her knuckles again. The scientists visibly paled.
‘Nanites.’ One said. ‘It’s a technology that allows its subject to change their molecular structure. It’s a top secret programme.’ She added hastily. ‘I can’t tell you who we’re working for. Needless to say, the only people who know about this project are us scientists and our students, all of whom have signed a confidentiality agreement.’
Façade got out her mobile and hit speed dial. ‘BOB. Patch into the uni’s CCTV and run a scan on the girl in last night’s footage. See if you can match Bambi up in the student database.’
‘Affirmative. I mean – okey, dokey.’
In less than ten seconds, BOB replied brightly.
‘The subject, code name Bambi, is a registered student at the university, Katherine Knots.’
If possible, the scientists paled further, a fact that didn’t go unnoticed by our heroes.
‘Didn’t you recognise her as one of your students?’ Devi asked incredulously. The scientists shook their heads.
‘We err, teach so many students and err, we’re very busy with the research…’
‘What is it about Katherine that makes you so nervous?’ Cassandra asked, eyebrow raised, her psychic abilities tingling. Right on cue, BOB continued.
‘Katherine Knotts is the daughter of Gloria Knotts, prominent Liberal Democrat MP and Jonathon Knotts, a well-respected lawyer. A notorious party girl, Katherine is quite famous. Even BOB has heard of her.’
‘Not the sort of publicity you want, I suppose?’ Vixen said. ‘Daughter of MP eats nanites and goes buck mental – literally.’
As this conversation played out Devi gathered up whatever further evidence she could find to analyse back at HQ. Cassandra handled each item, trying to pick up psychic vibrations but got nothing.
‘Can you help us or not?’ One of the scientists snapped.
‘What exactly do you want us do?’ Cassandra asked.
‘We want Katherine back in one piece so we can safely extract the nanites from her bloodstream.’
‘What will happen to Katherine when you do that?’ Vixen asked suspiciously.
‘Nothing. We’ll put her through dialysis and she’ll suffer no side effects afterwards.’
They nodded sincerely. Cassandra didn’t believe them for a second. She sent a psychic message to that effect to the minds of the rest of her team. Façade immediately stepped forward, cracking her knuckles yet again.
‘We don’t believe you.’
Vixen stepped forward.
‘We think you’re full of crap. That is,’ she looked to Cassandra. ‘My colleague here doubts the sincerity of your claims.’
‘You’re full of crap.’ Cassandra said.
The scientists’ expressions were blank but Cass spotted a single bead of sweat rolling down the forehead of one of them. Sensing her defences were down, Cassandra scanned her mind. As she predicted, the truth wasn’t buried deep. Both scientists were well aware that the removal of the nanites would kill Katherine.
Cass squared her shoulders. ‘Thank you,’ she said brightly. ‘We’ll be going now. Lots to analyse back at HQ. My colleagues and I will find Katherine and bring her right back here, pronto. Thank you for showing us around.’
The scientists’ eyebrows shot up. ‘Really? Thank you,’ one blurted. ‘That’s excellent.’
‘No problem.’ Cass beamed. ‘We would be delighted to serve the cause of scientific discovery. We’ll be in touch.’
Back at HQ, our heroes had a quick meeting.
‘Okay, team.’ Vixen said. ‘Clearly those scientists are corporate sell-outs working for someone really shady. Thanks to Cass for coming across as co-operative – slightly unconvincingly I felt but I think those two bought it.’
Cassandra smiled smugly.
Façade flexed her by now slightly tender knuckles, briefly considering the possibility of early on-set arthritis. ‘So what do we do now? We can’t hand Bambi over to them knowing they’ll kill her.’
‘I can’t believe they care more about some stupid nanites than a human life!’ Devi’s eyes glistened. She was feeling particularly emotional these days and frequently burst into tears. As a precautionary measure, her fellow heroes had taken to carrying tissues around with them and steering Devi away from greasy spoon cafes and the processed meat aisle in supermarkets.
‘We’re not going to hand her over. That was a bluff.’ Vixen nodded appreciatively at her Second in Command. ‘We’ll track her down and bring her here, then decide what to do next.’
BOB spoke from his server.
‘I have scanned all Liverpool city centre CCTV footage and located Katherine Knotts. I followed her erratic progress around town before tracking her back to local student accommodation near here, where she returned around one a.m. in human form.’
‘So the nanites must wear off?’ Devi said.
‘Or she’s learned to control them.’ Cassandra said.
‘I have traced the scientists’ employer to Asia but the trail went cold. It was a front organisation.’
‘All the more reason not to trust these people.’ Vixen said. ‘Let’s head for Bambi’s student digs.’
‘Shotgun.’ Cassandra said quickly.
Façade drove the van, Cass riding up front, while Devi and Vixen sat in the back. The seats were covered with plastic sheeting. Façade said it was ‘for blood’. Whose she didn’t say but Vixen suspected from the snorts of laughter up front that this was yet another jibe at the infamous incident at MI13. She seethed. No one saw her barn-storming display of samurai prowess, did they? But every man and his dog knew she had wet herself.
BOB had sent a request for back up to the local animal rescue centre who promised to stand by outside the student accommodation with large nets in case they were needed. Façade carried a small portable EMP device that BOB knocked up during their pre-mission tea break. Its purpose was to send out an electromagnetic pulse which would temporarily knock out the nanites and hopefully return the errant Katherine to her human form, should she be prancing around her flat as Bambi.
Their non-descript black van pulled up outside Catherine’s apartment block. Trying to look as inconspicuous as possible our heroes sauntered up to the front door and buzzed to be let in. Nobody answered.
‘It’s only eleven o’clock in the morning.’ Devi nodded sagely. ‘Most of the students will still be in bed.’
‘Loafers,’ Façade muttered and punched through the front door’s keypad lock.
Vixen sighed and gave Façade a withering look but her team were already through the door.
Cassandra pressed her fingertips to her temples.
‘I can sense twenty-four people in this block.’ She said. ‘And one animal.’
Wasting no time, our heroes ran up the three flights of stairs to what they knew was Katherine’s room. Before Façade could step in with her fists and wreak more damage than their insurance could cover, Vixen used her telepathic powers to manipulate the keypad and open the door.
It swung inwards, creaking ominously. Silence. Another closed door stood at the end of the hallway.
‘Go on.’ Vixen prodded Devi. ‘Go talk to her.’
‘Me?’ Devi squeaked in alarm. ‘What do I say?’
‘You’re the nicest person here. We generally lack compassion.’ Vixen gestured to herself and the other two. ‘Animals sense that sort of thing. Just – tell her we mean no harm.’
As Devi approached the door, Vixen raised her telekinetic sword and Façade her fists. Cassandra tried to get a psychic sense of whom or what lay behind the door.
‘Hello? Is anybody there? Katherine?’ Devi tried to hide the tremor in her voice. She was met with silence. ‘Katherine? Are you in there? We’re here to help. Sit tight. We’re coming in.’ Devi reached for the door handle. It was unlocked. She closed her eyes and pushed it open. ‘Please don’t attack us!’
The room was empty. The others followed Devi inside, Facade closing the door behind them. Devi was the first to spot the flecks of blood spattered on the floor.
‘Look.’ She whispered, pointing to where the trail led, under the unmade bed. Feeling that she had to at least put on a show of bravery, Devi crouched and peered under the mattress.
Hung upside-down from the springs was a massive, black bat. It opened one yellow eye and unfurled its wings.
Devi screamed as the bat flew out from under the bed and around the room, bashing into the walls and flapping around wildly, trying to escape.
Facade tossed the EMP device to Vixen and shrugged. ‘I don’t know this stuff works. I just carry it.’
Vixen activated the EMP and there was a flash of light. The bat morphed instantly into a person and crashed to the floor.
Catherine winced. She looked up to see a ring of four blurry, unfamiliar faces looking down on her. A swell of panic bubbled up inside her.
‘Are you all right?’ Devi asked concerned, noting Katherine’s paleness and bleeding hand.
Katherine looked up at them indignantly.
‘Get the fuck out of my flat!’
‘Charming.’ Vixen said.
‘We’re trying to help you, you ungrateful hussy!’ Cassandra scolded. While she and Katherine were busy arguing about who had more cheek, Devi quickly laid her hands on Katherine and healed her injuries.
‘You’re coming back with us to HQ.’ Vixen told her. ‘Whether you like it or not.’
Façade tied Katherine’s hands behind her back and frog-marched her out, to Devi’s distress who pleaded with Façade to show more compassion. Façade didn’t have much compassion for the irate student who was still yelling at them all to piss off.
Cassandra read Katherine’s mind and through the hazy jumble, quickly discovered what had happened the previous night.
Katherine had been drunk, playing truth or dare with her room mates. Who even does that these days? It appeared that she had been dared to steal something from the lab, which was what had led her there. She had snatched up the vial, heard a noise and got spooked, managing to break the vial in her hand.
The next thing she knew, she was a deer. This was not an easy situation to deal with, especially after twelve vodka jelly shots. After what appeared in Cassandra’s mind like a montage sequence of a drunken deer about town, running through red lights, knocking over wheelie bins, staggering into walls, Katherine managed to teeter home where she collapsed.