PART THREE

Tropic dropped to the ground directly behind Crimson startling the red-suited man and causing him to jump.

"Jeez, Tropic!", Crimson spat, "give me some warning! I’m not that young anymore!" Tropic just smirked at the man and waited. "All right, all right. Have you found anything out?"

"Some", frowned Tropic, "but it still makes no sense." He recounted his search of the warehouse and his conversation with the Freakshow gang. Crimson listened intently, looking down and scratching his jaw. He shook his head in disbelief from time to time.

"But I did find this." Tropic pulled the calendar page from his belt and handed it to the spy. "It’s dated about a week ago and has that single name on it."

"Al-Salim Kabir Asam?", Crimson read.

Tropic nodded. "Yeah. That’s it."

Crimson nodded as well. "OK. Let’s get cracking. And by cracking I mean skulls. As far as the semi and the canisters, I don’t know. But…"

Tropic waited for the red-suited spy to continue.

"There has been a Malta lab in Talos that has seen a lot of activity in the past few days. It’s possible that there’s some kind of connection. Hell, the girls could even be there. Why don’t you go check that out. I’ll get to work on this name."

Tropic agreed and began to hover over the man. "Right. Let me know if you find out anything. If I get finished at this lab before I hear from you, well, you’ll be seeing me." Tropic grinned.

"All right." Crimson looked up at the hero. "I may need to call Indigo in on this. She’ll be able to get the dirt on this Asam guy."

"Good…she does good work. Just tell her to be careful!" With that Tropic sped towards Talos Island, a contrail of flame following him.

Crimson pulled out his communicator, pressed a few buttons and held it up to his ear. "Indigo? Crimson. I’ve got something for you. Level at Most Urgent." He turned and paced in front of his statue.

Tropic landed in front of the building Crimson had indicated was the Malta lab and frowned. He looked up and down the street and muttered to himself, "My apartment is two blocks from here!". He entered the building and began his search.

From the outside the place looked just like any number of nondescript office buildings. But as soon as one entered, the interior told another story. Metallic walls and floors interspersed with computers and scientific equipment filled the hallway that Tropic found himself in. Also, right down the corridor, were three Malta agents.

Tropic stared and realized what he had to do. Not one of the Malta could be allowed to leave this building. If the missing heroines were here that would be the end of it. But, if they were not, he couldn’t allow an escapee to warn his people that he was coming. The girls could disappear forever if that happened and that was not a chance he was willing to take. He steeled himself and tread purposefully into battle.

The three in front of him paced nervously in patrol. A Sapper and two operations engineers, the Sapper being the most worrisome; one strike from his weapon could drain every bit of strength from Tropic’s body and Tropic determined the Sapper would be the first to go. He gathered his energy and unleashed a bolt of pure flame at the man. The Sapper dropped like a stone.

The two engineers turned to face their attacker. "Tropic!", one yelled, grasping at a stun grenade on his belt. The other clicked on his walkie-talkie. "We have a MHI! Repeat: MHI in Base Level One!". Then he grabbed his weapon and fired in the direction of the hero.


Tropic leapt forward firing a blast at his enemies. He hit one of the men but the other was able to toss his stun grenade. It landed directly at Tropic’s feet and exploded on impact. He was trapped in some type of webbing and was unable to move. Bullets ricocheted off the floor and walls all around him. Tropic willed his body heat upwards and the area around him began to burn. The heat caused the webbing to melt from his body and he struck the men with another bolt of power.

One wavered and he struck him again with a blast which finished the enemy. The other continued to fight but Tropic came on. He hit the Malta soldier with a coating of ash. The engineer was stunned and stopped in his tracks, hacking and coughing. Tropic ran up and on his way past hit the thug with a blaze of fire. He fell to the cold metal floor smoldering and unconscious.

Ahead there was an intersection of corridors. Looking both ways Tropic saw one side was a dead end. The other lead to a bank of elevators. Unfortunately, the way was blocked by more Malta soldiers and a Zeus Titan. Tropic sighed.

Another Sapper was with this group as well. Tropic ran directly towards the Malta soldiers. One of the engineers shouted out a warning and the Sapper spun around to aim his weapon. As the energy draining bolt fired Tropic dropped down and began to slide along the floor as though he were trying to steal second base. The metallic floors of the lab and the slick nature of his costume caused almost no friction and he slid straight at them.

As the bolt passed over his head Tropic created his sword of fire. He slid straight through the enemy group and as the Sapper passed on his right, the sword nearly cut the man in two. Tropic dropped his feet and the soles of his boots gripped the floor immediately, stopping his forward progress abruptly. His momentum carried him up to his feet and he somersaulted forward. Upside down and facing his attackers Tropic loosed a fireball at the two remaining soldiers engulfing them in its powerful flame and taking them out of the fight. All that remained now was the deadly Zeus Titan.

The Titan had been trying to zero in on the hero with its homing rockets to no avail. Tropic had moved too quickly and the robots blasts had missed. Tropic moved to the attack. He hit the huge mechanical beast with another bolt of flame. The robot staggered back but was able to unleash a barrage of rockets at the oncoming superhero.

The floor in front of Tropic erupted as the rockets fell short and he was blasted back by the concussion wave. Tropic struck the wall behind him, stunned. The Titan lumbered forward, a hail of bullets thudding and ricocheting all about the dazed hero. Tropic gathered his senses as best he could and sent a fire blast into the monster. It had little effect except to slow it a little. Tropic pushed himself off the wall and found himself face to face with the Titan.

The robot swung its arm at the hero attempting to knock him away. Tropic ducked and sent a powerful blaze into the Titan. It staggered back and Tropic hit it with a ball of ash and flame. The soot invaded the robots gears and it began to freeze up. "Warning, Warning!", the Titan’s mechanical voice echoed hollowly off the metal walls. "System integrity compromised! Internal diagnostic running!".

Tropic stood back and gathered his power into himself. He built it up until it was almost impossible to contain and then fired the pulse of pure white hot energy directly into the Zeus Titan. Arcs of electricity covered the giant robot and it fell over, crashing into the floor. It laid there buzzing and twitching. Finally all movement ceased and the automaton lay still.

Tropic dropped to his knee and rested. "And I’m not even off the first floor.", he whispered to himself. He stood and turned to enter the elevators.

The next two floors were much like the first. Tropic battled through similar groups of Malta agents determined to block his way. His search for the missing heroines yielded nothing of importance. However on the third floor he did find several rooms with sliding bars for doors. He assumed the girls could have been held here but there was absolutely no evidence to prove it.

Tropic progressed rapidly until he got to a Hercules Titan that would just not stay down. He had to practically rip it apart before it ceased it’s attack. He peered around the corner and saw why the robot fought with such tenacity.

The room was immense, broken into two stories by a catwalk that ran along two walls. On the upper level was a Gunslinger, obviously the head of the facility. Gunslingers were especially troublesome. Their six-shooters carried what seemed to be an unlimited supply of concussion blasts and bullets. They were deadly shots and were trained to be merciless and unstoppable soldiers. There was no quit in them. On the ground floor were more groupings of Malta soldiers. Tropic determined to eliminate the bottom section of the room before attempting to confront the Gunslinger.

In short order, the floor of the room was littered with the unconscious bodies of Malta thugs. Tropic climbed the catwalk’s ramp and looked around the corner. The Gunslinger stood there speaking with an Operations Engineer. The immense room worked in Tropic’s favor: the room was so huge the Gunslinger was not even aware of the battle that had taken place almost under his nose. Tropic leaned back and formulated his plan. It was simple and straightforward: Attack the Gunslinger and beat him. Tropic grinned ruefully to himself, "Well, nobody’s going to accuse me of being a tactical genius.". He stepped out from around the corner and rushed toward the Malta boss.

The Engineer saw the oncoming hero first and screamed, "MHI! MHI!’, and fumbled for his weapon. The Gunslinger turned and was engulfed immediately in a blast of white hot flame. He fired off two shots and staggered backwards. Tropic ran forward and fired another blast at the base leader. The Gunslinger had regained some of his composure and began to fire in earnest. Bullets ricocheted off the floors and walls, filling the room with the strange pinging sound.

Tropic felt a sting in his shoulder and knew he had been shot. "Ignore it.", he told himself and blasted the Gunslinger with a new barrage of flame. The Malta thug stepped backward within the onslaught. Tropic hit him again with a ball of fire followed with a white hot blaze. Still the Gunslinger fought.

The Engineer finally had his weapon at the ready but suddenly he grunted and fell over. Three ricocheting bullets had found their mark in the unlucky man. He lay on the catwalk floor dead, never having fired a shot.

Tropic hit the Malta boss with a hard shot and the Gunslinger was knocked backwards. Tropic leapt forward and landed directly in front of his enemy. The Gunslinger struggled to his feet and was struck by another blast of power. Tropic hit the man with a handful of ash and soot. The soldier coughed and hacked but was still on his feet. Tropic struck him with a powerful blaze and the Boss wavered on his feet. Tropic balled up his fist and hit the Gunslinger with a straight right cross, breaking the man’s nose and putting him down, unconscious.

Tropic tried to catch his breath. He encircled the Malta leader within a ring of fire and stepped back. He examined his shoulder where he had been shot. A small white hot tongue of flame burned from the injury. The molten fluid that passed for his blood would melt the bullet and close the wound. Not even a scar would be left. The only evidence would be the hole in his costume where the bullet struck.

He examined the room more closely but found nothing of interest. Then out of the corner of his eye he saw a safe imbedded in the wall. He walked purposefully towards it. Behind him the Gunslinger started to stir.

"Not going to answer any questions, Hero.", the Gunslinger said simply, wiping the blood from his nose with the back of his hand as he stood defiantly in the center of the fire ring.

Tropic turned to the man and realized the truth of that statement. No matter who and what these men were, they were professional soldiers. They had been trained to resist interrogation and he knew it would be useless to try. He turned his attention back to the safe.

The Gunslinger snorted, "Never going to get that open. Code and voice activated lock. And retinal scan. Plus you need a keycard, which I destroyed."

Tropic turned and looked at the man. He held up his hand and after a moment it began to glow white hot. The waves of heat rising off of it were plainly visible. Tropic turned to the safe and literally stuck his fingertips into it. His hand was so intensely hot the safe melted around it. He sunk his hand in to the palm and then simply closed his fist around the melting lock. The door swung silently open. Tropic turned to the Gunslinger and smirked.

The safe contained a few documents mostly having to do with supply issues and a ledger. "This may provide some information." Tropic thought but he wasn’t hopeful. He tucked the ledger under his arm, took out his communicator and called Crimson. Tropic couldn’t call the police in on this, these men would receive their phone call and he didn’t need Malta alerted to his search for the missing heroines. Crimson would send a team of his "people" to square things away. He returned to the entrance, making sure that the Malta agents were either unconscious or secure or both. Outside he rose into the air and sped to Peregrine Island eager to give the ledger to Crimson and report his findings.

The phone rang in a darkened office in Steel Canyon. A craggy hand reached out to pick it up and a low voice said only, "Report."

"Sir,", the voice on the other end sounded tinny and far away, "Tropic has attacked our Talos lab facility."

"The units?"

"Long gone, sir, but…"

"Go on."

"The facility is lost. Men and material. The authorities and their technicians are there now."

There was a long pause on the other end. "Do you believe Tropic knows anything of our plans?"

"No, sir. I believe this was a random attack."

Another pause. Then, finally, "Our plans are too close to fruition and we cannot take the chance. He has been a thorn in our sides for far to long." The silence wore on as the low voice considered his options. Then, "Eliminate him."

"Yes, sir. According to protocols I must request your code and order confirmation."

"Code Zero-Zero-Zero-Omega-Zero. Confirm order: Sanction Tropic confirm."

"Yes, sir. Thank you, sir. Code and order confirmed. Sanction Tropic order confirmed."

"I don’t have to tell you,", the low voice said, "that this order is to be carried out immediately." It was a statement of fact and no question.

"Yes, sir. Of course, sir.", the tinny voice answered. "Tropic will cease to exist by the end of the day."

The man in the darkened office hung up the phone. He rested his elbows on the desk and steepled his fingers in front of his face. Too much was happening to take the gamble on Tropic finding out their plans. The operation was set for tomorrow night and nothing could be allowed to stand in their way.

If the Malta Group were to survive Tropic must die. The man in the darkened office sat back in his chair, swathed in shadow.

--------------------INTERLUDE--------------------

Fiery Fox awoke inside…something. She only knew that it was dark and close, lit only by the red fiery glow that escaped from her eyes. Her arms and legs banged against it’s sides as she struggled to free herself. Even in her befuddled state she still tried to fight her way out of whatever…thing imprisoned her. Fox bounced and jumped inside her tight compartment and realized she was inside…something…that was inside something else.

Suddenly the rough passage ended and a hydraulic hiss greeted her ears. She was pulled crisply from what she now saw was a long black canister and held tightly by two Malta operatives. Her mind was still encased in thick molasses but she continued to struggle weakly. Finally she became aware that her forearms were encased in thick handcuffs, a short chain joining them. She fought a little harder but had no effect on the two guards with her.

She was on a loading dock in the back of a tall building and the men pulled her inside. Fiery Fox noticed now that she was not alone. Several other women and their captors had joined her. She recognized that all were super heroines and that all were in the same predicament: chained with two guards each. And all were dressed identically in a simple white shift that came to the tops of their thighs.

The guards dragged the women into the building and down a long hallway. Many of the women tried to put up some kind of fight, to be a little difficult, but they were all in a daze, their minds unable to grab hold of any thought for longer than a second or two.

At last they reached a large room and the women were pushed into it. Most sank to the floor and lie still trying to gather themselves. Others sat, their backs to the wall. Others continued to try and stand. All had the same expression: dazed indifference.

Fiery Fox was on her feet mumbling and trying to swing her arms at her captors, her red hair flipping wildly as she thrashed about. The men laughed at the struggling heroine. One stepped forward, pushed her roughly and simply walked away as she fell. She fell legs askew, shift riding up and bumped her head on the floor. The men laughed even harder.

Then the room was filled with a booming voice. "What’s going on in here?!".

The laughing stopped immediately and the men tried to explain themselves. Fiery Fox gathered herself together as best she could and lie still listening to who she assumed was the commander yell at his men. She only caught bits and pieces of his screaming: "Not to be injured.", "Damage.", "Operation only a day away.", but none of it made any sense to her.

Then she heard a soft swishing and a pair of sandaled feet surrounded by a long black…robe?…was among the captured women. And then the room was filled with a familiar odor. And then a monotonous chanting.

And then the bands of sleep reached upwards from a dark pit and wrapped Fiery Fox in their warm embrace.
TO PART 4 >
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