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Quick summary: mind-controlling alien invaders are attacking the Earth, and I was worried it'd be just me, Hybrid, and Gearbox trying to save the world by ourselves.

Well, it turned out the three of us didn't have to fight off the whole alien invasion all by ourselves. Turns out there were seven of us.

Alright, I exaggerate a bit. No non-humans were affected by the mind control, which includes us, the Unearthlies, the Ethereals, most of the Darksiders, the Society of Lycaon, Gorillopolis, anyone in Atlantis or Draculopolis, and various other heroes and villains. That's actually a pretty good number of metas to fight off an invasion force.

Unfortunately, none of them are here in Metro City to help us out. And we really do need help bad. 'Cause about the time we realize the Thrugs are up there, they realize they've got a city full of mind-controlled slaves to turn against us. So Hybrid, Gearbox, and I get stuck having to fight off and escape from Iota, Daphne, Black Hat, Shrieker, and Warzone, as well as a couple dozen civilians.

On the bright side, they use very few of their special powers -- Warzone doesn't fire any rockets, Iota doesn't use his neural stunners, Black Hat doesn't scramble Gearbox's diodes again. Shrieker gets off some screams, but they're mostly unaimed. Daphne gives us the most trouble because all she has to work with is punching people, and while she's not really superstrong, being completely indestructible means she can punch a hell of a lot harder than a normal human. I finally end up dropping an ice coating all over the ground, and the three of us beat a fast retreat while they're all slipping and sliding.

Things are a little chaotic for a few minutes. Every time anyone sees us, they start heading after us, all blank-eyed and emotionless. Not too hard to avoid them -- a few more ice patches, and we duck down an alley while everyone else slides on the ice.

And actually, things get a bit scary when Squid Kid shows up. She's having no trouble at all using her powers -- she's got all her tentacles out, and unfortunately, mind-controlled Lenore Pittman is a hell of a lot more ruthless than non-mind-controlled Lenore Pittman.

I'm not particularly surprised that Lenore is an effective combatant -- I saw her wrap up a full dozen of the Clone Ranger's duplicates last time he blew through town, and that was with only eight arms to do it with. But I'm surprised how close she comes to taking us all down solo. She has all three of us tied up very rapidly, and we're fortunate that Gearbox has his head screwed on straight -- metaphorically speaking. He launches his head at her on an eight-foot-long spring and knocks her unconscious.

The entire incident is incredibly unnerving for Hybrid and me. In Hybrid's case, it's because she and Squid Kid are friends, and she couldn't bring herself to strike a friend. For me, it's more a matter of Lenore's complete silence and unemotional detachment as she attacked us -- Lenore is a wisecracker by nature, prone to laughing and throwing off distracting patter both in and out of fights, and the idea of a dead-serious and dead-silent Squid Kid really threw me off.

Once we get out of Lenore's tentacles, Gearbox heads straight for the nearest building -- a now-empty auto shop. He drags us into a back office where we aren't visible from outside the building. "For now, I suspect the only way any of them can track us is by sight," he says. "Better to lay low as long as we can."

"Thisshh ishh really bad," Hybrid says. She's nervous as hell and her fangs are out, but she doesn't seem to be in a berserker rage -- just agitated and scared. "What the heck do we do?"

"I wish I knew," I say. "We need to calm down as much as possible, Hy, so claws in, if possible. We need to figure out how we can do something about the Thrugs, and I've got no clue about how to do that. None of us can even fly up there, can we?"

"I actually can configure myself into a helicopter," says Gearbox. "But it's a very small helicopter that can only carry one person. But I think we should focus on finding the other non-human heroes in Metro City to see if we can help keep them safe."

"Yeah, they can help fight the Thrugs, too," I say. "Can't do much with just three people."

"Well, there'ssh the three of ussh," says Hybrid. "And there'ssh... I'm drawing a blank on any othershh. Are there any otherssh?"

"Telepathy won't work on Jonni Rotten's brain," says Gearbox.

"Telepathy also isn't supposed to work on anyone using a psi-scrambler," I say. "But Iota was in lockstep with the rest of them back there."

"Iota often neglects to turn on his psi-scrambler," says Gearbox. "We can't know if he was mind-controlled because he left his scrambler off or because his scrambler was ineffective."

"That'shh our problem," says Hybrid grimly. "Not enough evidenssshe for anything."

"True enough," says Gearbox. "I can tell you that this seems to be a worldwide phenomenon. Global broadcast chatter has come to a near complete stop, but automated satellite imagery does show Thrug ships all over the planet. This is a full-scale invasion."

"And we've already loshht, haven't we?" asks Hybrid.

"Only if we can't organize," I say. "And we'll have to start doing that on a local level. Think it's safe to hit the Panic Button, Gearbox?"

"Sounds good to me," he says. "The Thrugs' technology lets them travel the galaxy, but communications have always been one of their weak points. I'd be willing to bet they're not monitoring the airwaves at all."

An antenna rises from one side of his head, and a yellow light at the end flares up bright. "Attention to all non-human Metro City heroes or anyone else unaffected by the Thrug mind control: please join us in the back office of the auto shop at the corner of 28th and Binder. Please acknowledge."

There's a crackle from a speaker in Gearbox's chest. "You idiots!" Jonni screams at us. "They're monitoring the airwaves this time!"

The plate glass window in the front of the shop explodes, the office door splinters, and Express is in the room with us.

I don't know if you've any idea how terrifying it is to face a speedster in combat. They can see almost every attack coming, and they have no trouble avoiding you -- but you have almost no chance of countering their attacks. It's like being in the middle of an angry mob. Even if you're tough enough to withstand a dozen attacks per second, you've still only got a couple of seconds before they run out, research your weaknesses, and come back with something that will hurt you. It's not impossible to beat a speedster, but it is usually pretty damn hard.

The only element in our favor right now is that Express isn't actually in control of himself at all. If he were, he would've known not to start out on Hybrid. It isn't that she's particularly well-suited for fighting him -- in fact, after a staccato flurry of thumping noises that seem to come from nowhere, she's thrown against a wall, covered in cuts and contusions that haven't had time to start bleeding yet.

Gearbox jumps on Express -- of course, someone with a computer brain would have the only chance of figuring out where a speedster would be. Again, it doesn't do much good -- it takes a few seconds, but he ends up largely dismantled and flung all over the office.

Express turns on me, his face completely emotionless, his body blurring as he begins to accelerate.

He should've started with me. I've had time to prepare for him now. And this office isn't large enough for him to avoid the ice coating the floor.

Derek probably could've gotten out of something like this under normal conditions -- I suspect that slick floors are the type of thing that speedsters learn how to avoid early in their careers -- but when he's being controlled by alien invaders who don't have his experience with superspeed? No way.
He skids right into my fist, and he goes down for the count.

God, I wish that was all there was to this, but there are almost certainly more mind-controlled people on the way, both normals and superhumans. Gearbox is scattered all over the floor trying to piece himself back together, and Hybrid is just getting to her feet, healing fast but in full berserk combat mode, all yellow eyes, fangs, claws, and foaming drool.

"Hybrid, calm down, please, we don't have time for this," I plead.

"Shhnaaarr," she snarls. "Guh-gonna rrrrip him, gonna tearrrr..."

"Please, Hy, whatever you do to calm down, do it now, please, please." If anyone else comes through that door, we're all done for.

She shudders, gnashes her teeth at me. At my feet, Gearbox has fitted most of his torso, most of his head, and part of one arm back together.

"Shhhyaaaa," she slurs, "Shhing. Shhhing shhomething for mee!"

"What? I -- I don't know any music. Hybrid, I've never been able to sing at all!"

There's a click on the floor as the last piece of Gearbox's head snaps in place, then a burst of static, then he starts to play some kind of classical music. The effect on Hybrid is almost instantaneous -- she throws her head back, gives one big full-body shudder, then goes up on both toes and does a series of quick pirouettes. When she slows to a stop, she's completely back to normal again.

"Thanks so much, Gearbox," she says, dropping to the floor next to the robot's head. "I owe you big time. Did you tune into a classical station?"

"No, I have a wide selection of music on my playlist," said Gearbox. "But I suspected you might appreciate something by Gounod. Quickly, can you find a large box? It's taking too long for me to put myself back together, and we should get out of here as fast as we can."

"Don't leave too fast," says a voice from the doorway. "You might miss your ride."

It's Wheelman and Jonni. Glad to see both of them, but a bit surprised to see Greg. The guy looks perfectly human to me -- maybe he's a genetically engineered lifeform, like Hybrid?

"Goddamn, you idiots," rages Jonni as she pushes past Greg into the office. "Why would you even risk using a cell phone during an alien invasion?!"

"Chill out, Jonni," says Gearbox, sounding a bit irritated as Hybrid starts shoveling him into a nearby trash barrel. "The Thrugs have never managed to tap even the simplest Earth cell network before. How could we have known they would've changed their game now?"

"Your first clue should've been the fact that they were using mind control when they've never done it before," yells Jonni. "And your second should've been that they were kicking our asses, which they've also never done before! Should've been a good sign that they'd finally brought their A-game, right?"

"Yo, Gearbox, you alright?" says Wheelman. "Looks like you went all to pieces on us."

"Ha ha, it is to laugh," says Gearbox. "Not sure we have time for much banter, Greg. We should get to your car before any other Thrug attacks."

"Fine with me," says Jonni, turning to look outside. "We gotta find some place to hide out. Hey, there's Squiddie. Nice to see you finally made it, Lenore."

"Ahh, dammit!" Hybrid yells. "Dammit, dammit, dammit!"

"She's with them!" I shout, "The Thrugs got her! Watch out!"

I get through the office doorway and get ready to fling some ice shards at her. She's just outside the garage, balancing about ten feet off the ground on six of her tentacles. By now, she's had her tentacles out long enough for her to shift into her quasi-demonic, oily-black-skinned, grinning monster form, and she's lit by the garage's flickering fluorescent lights. She looks like something out of a horror movie.

"Am I the only one here leaking fluid?" asks Gearbox. He picks the damnedest moments to exercise his sense of humor.

"Remain calm," Squid Kid says in that bizarre three-part vocal chorus she does whenever she gets like this. "I am here in good fellowship to offer assistance."

"Wait, wait," says Hybrid. "Is she mind-controlled? I haven't heard any of them talk yet."

"I am not mind-controlled," says Squid Kid. "Although in a way, I am, but in other ways, I am not. This will require explanations, will it not?"

"What the hell?" says Wheelman. "Lenore, what's up? Why are you talking that way?"

"The person you know as Lenore Pittman is currently controlled by outside forces," she says. "I am called Tu'golaxug of the Outer Reaches by the cosmic dust creatures of the Dimension of Screams. I am the entity bonded to Lenore and responsible for her powers. But her mind has been suppressed by artificial means and, though I am normally dormant and passive within her, I was able to take over her motor functions when her appearance finally took on an aspect similar to my own. I am ready now to assist you in your efforts to halt this current crisis and restore my friend Lenore to her usual high-spirited nature."

If this were a comic strip, there would be a beat panel right here -- nobody saying anything, just looking stunned and blinking audibly.

"What the hell did you just say?" yells Jonni angrily.

Squid Kid takes a deep breath. "The person you know as Lenore Pittman is currently controlled by outside forces. I am called Tu'golaxug of --"

"I heard you before!" says Jonni. "I want it to make sense this time!"

"I don't think we have time for long explanations," I say. "She's on our side -- that's gotta be good enough until we can get to safety. Where's your car, Wheelman?"

"It's the sweet Escalade across the street," says Greg.

And of course, the universe picks that moment to screw us again. Miss Mega ends one of her superjumps by landing on the Escalade and crushing it into scrap.

And hey, just 'cause things couldn't be bad enough yet, she shows up with way too many of Metro City's heroes and villains -- Chrome Cobra, Atlas, the Star, Gamma Girl, Penitente, Devil Wasp, Malice, Vertigo Man, Strych-9, Black Hat, Big Earl, the Candyman, Electroshock, Johnny Staccato, Metalhead, Splatter, and probably more on the way. None of them say a word, and they've all got the same dead-eyed stare. They're all powering up energy beams or readying weapons or picking up terrifyingly large objects to throw at us. They're moving like they're all synchronized -- they're all going to attack at the same time. You can almost hear the metronome counting down.

We are so dead.

There's a flash of light.

And we're not dead. We're somewhere else entirely. A high-tech bunker of some kind, with rough-hewn rock walls. All six of us are standing on a metal matter-transport platform.

"I was lucky to retrieve you when I did," says a liltingly accented voice from a shielded chamber near the back wall of the bunker. "But I've only earned us a temporary reprieve."

It's a woman, seven feet tall and bizarrely thin, wearing a red costume that's simultaneously beautifully regal and armored like a tank. She has long blonde hair, pale green skin, no nose, and gigantic black eyes. Four arms, seven digits on each hand, nine joints on each finger.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Nebular Kha'an, better know to the world as Princess Nebula, stranded alien turned energy-projecting supervillain.

"Princess Nebula, nice to see you," says Gearbox. "Let me get my legs reattached, and I'll be glad to kick your butt back to the Large Magellanic Cloud."

"I would remind all of you, very quickly, that I just saved you all from certain defeat, if not outright destruction," says Nebula. "Try to use your vaunted machine logic for once, Gearbox."

"So wait, Princess Nebula was behind this all along?" asks Wheelman. "What about the Thrug ships orbiting the planet?"

"Please, could you all try to be somewhat less stupid than the average superhero?" says Nebula. "I estimate we have less than five minutes before my teleportational beam is tracked to this location. I have information to impart, and we all have limited time to prepare."

"Fine," I say. "Spill and make it quick."

"Thank you," she says. "First and most obviously, I am not behind the invasion, and I am not affiliated with the Thrugs. They and my people have been enemies for centuries, and I have no interest in aiding them in conquering a world that I intend to rule over myself someday. As for what you Earthers are doing here -- well, I need allies right now. There are allies I'd rather have, but they're either being controlled by the Thrugs, or they're too widely scattered. There were six of you in one place -- better to use one teleportal beam to get all of you than to use multiple beams that would make it even easier for the Thrugs to latch onto my signal."

"Okay, so do you have some sort of safe haven we can get to?" Hybrid asks. "Or a hidden ship?"

"No, nothing of the sort," says Nebula.

"Wait, did you just give us a five-minute postponement from getting slaughtered?" asks Jonni. "If they're going to find us in a few minutes and we've got no way to escape, they're going to send in a bunch of the really big guns to wipe us all out!"

"No, you ridiculous dessicated skank, I have a real plan for victory," sneers Nebula. "I'm going to teleport all of us onto the bridge of the Thrug flagship! We can either destroy their control beams there or cripple the invasion by destroying the enemy generals!"

"I do not perceive the purpose of that action," says Squid Kid -- or rather Tu'golaxug.

"What are you talking about?" scoffs Nebula. "You don't perceive the -- Wait a moment, you -- you aren't Squid Kid, are you?"

"It's a good plan, Too'go -- Tu'guxal -- Tu'golaxug," I finally manage to choke out. "It's the obvious location for the Thrugs' mind control weapon."

"The Thrugs don't have a mind control weapon," says Tu'golaxug. "Perhaps you are not able to perceive that?"

"Wait, what are you talking about?" says Wheelman.

"I have senses far beyond what any of you possess," she says. "The mind control signal is being broadcast from the Thrug ships, but it is not technological in origin, and if I remember what Lenore had learned previously, the Thrugs are not capable of natural psionics."

"Gearbox, is she correct?" asks Jonni.

"I really don't know," says Gearbox. "My own senses can't determine that. It is possible, though. The signal is... unusual."

"Can you amplify it so we can hear it?" I ask.

"We don't have time for this," says Princess Nebula. "They'll triangulate our location soon. We should teleport into the Thrug ships while we have a chance."

"One moment, Princess, please," says Gearbox. "Yes, I can amplify the signal. Listen."

What comes out of his chest is... well, it's music. Some kind of pipes. Someone plucking a string instrument. Not really a great tune, but it's music all the same.

"Goddamn," says Greg. "I know where that's from. Nebula, I need to borrow your car."

"I don't have a car," says Nebula curtly. "And the Thrugs have a lock on us. Sensors indicate there are at least a dozen speedsters tunneling down to our location. We've got 90 seconds, probably less."

"What do you mean you don't have a car?" says Wheelman.

"I don't have a car," says Nebula. "Cars are stupid."

"Okay, anything with wheels."

"My species evolved beyond wheels when you humans were still stuck in the trees," says Nebula. "We need to beam out of here now."

"Like hell," says Greg. "Gearbox, can you shapeshift into a car?"

"I can," says Gearbox. "I can only carry two people, maximum. Sorry, but I'm just not that large a robot."

"As long as you have four wheels and a steering wheel," says Greg. "Everyone gather around."

While Gearbox starts re-configuring himself, Hybrid says, "Greg, what's up? Time's running short, man."

"Time's running too short for explanations, actually," says Wheelman as Gearbox finishes turning himself into a red-and-yellow two-seater dune buggy. "G-Man, I'll apologize in advance for this, but it's absolutely necessary."

"I don't know what you'd have to apologize for, Greg," says Gearbox.

"Maybe for getting us all killed," says Princess Nebula. "We have less than a minute, and I don't know why we're wasting time with this. There aren't any roads out of here, morons."

Greg gets into Gearbox's driver's seat. "Hybrid, get in now," he says. "Okay, Gearbox, I need you to get bigger, please."

"This is really my maximum size, Greg," says Gearbox. "Sorry, but I simply can't grow larger."

"Gearbox, man, just listen to me. Get bigger, please."

"Yes, Master," says Gearbox. And damned if he doesn't actually grow larger. He's got a back seat now with an extra two seats.

"Everyone get in," says Wheelman. "Gearbox, get larger, please."

"Yes, Master," says Gearbox, quickly adding another two seats in the back as we all pile in. "I don't know how I'm doing this. And I also don't know why I keep calling you master, Master."

"Because right now, you're a car," says Greg. "And there's nothing I can't do with a car."

By now, all of us heroes have gotten in, and Gearbox is growing a roof, doors, windows, windshield wipers, fuzzy dice, cup holders, and a new paint job that looks like a winged sandal. A small forest of pine-scented air fresheners have sprouted up around Jonni. Nebula is still outside the car gawking at us.

"Princess Nebula," Wheelman says as the bunker starts to rumble, "We have 20 seconds. Get in the car now."

As she climbs into the back seat, Nebula says, "I don't understand any of this. What use is this? We're inside an underground bunker. Where are we going to go?"

Greg adjusts the rear-view mirror. "We're going to go meet my family," he says.

He turns the ignition and revs the engine. He shifts into drive and punches the gas.

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