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My name is Kumiko Takahashi, and I'm ready to destroy the entire planet.

Maybe you think I'm supposed to be a superhero. Too bad. From my current vantage point, a few days in your future, I've gone completely insane, amassed levels of power that outmatch every deity on the planet, and am currently trying to decide whether I'd prefer to destroy the Earth by blasting it out of its orbit and flinging it into the sun or just by eating the souls and skins of every human alive.

Oh, but you're mystified, yes? What could bring the world to such a dire, terrible fate? What would ever bring a goody-two-shoes superhero to the point where she's about to snuff out the life of every single creature on Earth? Why don't we roll time backwards just a bit, to the wonderful little riot that got this entire thing started, and I'll let you see how it all transpired...




Hi there! My name is Kumiko Takahashi, and I'm a superhero.

As you've probably heard multiple times, there are no superteams operating in Metro City. We're not just the largest city in the United States to not have a superteam, we're the largest city in the entire world not to have a superteam. This has bugged me ever since I moved to this stupid city. Superteams are great for getting everyone organized, for helping to hit the bad guys as a unified force, for helping to keep all its members relatively happy and sane.

Still, nothing to do for it. Metro City doesn't have a superteam because the Chrome Cobra doesn't want one in her city.

That doesn't mean we don't periodically have team meetings, even if we don't call them "team meetings" and even if we're not a team.

The Cobra gets us all together up at the very top of the Infantino Building, which is one of the few buildings I really like in this city. The major item of business is working out how we're going to deal with the expected trouble going down tonight.

Listen, I am not good at paying attention to sports, but you'd never be able to miss the fact that Metro City's brand new pro basketball franchise, the Hammers, had enjoyed an uncommonly great debut season. For the most part, they cruised through their games and were seeded number-two in the playoffs. And then they went down 0-and-4 to the Pacers, getting stomped in their last game 86-108 just this afternoon.

This was the first time in a decade or two that Metro City had a team that was any good at all. And to have everyone's dreams of sportsball glory end with the team getting knocked out of the playoffs this quickly? We figure it's a dead certainty we're going to have riots.

Apparently, the Metro City Police Department has a bit of a chip on their shoulders about this -- they've already made an announcement that they don't need any metahuman assistance to keep the city quiet, and giving the local superheroes the brush-off is a fantastic way to make sure we're all pissed off. So the Chrome Cobra sent the message around to everyone that we're going to help keep an eye on things, no matter what the cops say.

I would deeply like to get to help out. The rioters could cause a vast amount of property damage, so it would be best to keep them contained. And frankly, it sounds like the police are hoping to go beat up some sports fans, too, and I'd love to help discourage them from doing anything like that. I think it's incredibly important that I be here to help.

And that's why it sucks when I have to tell them I can't be there.

The problem is that this event is also the type of thing I'd cover as Kumiko Takahashi, liberal blogger on topics like police violence, racism, sexism, and related issues. Salon has already asked me to live-blog and take photos. Helping with security as a superhero is good, but everyone else can handle that -- and helping keep media attention on this is just as important, and I'm the only superhero here who can help bring an audience to that.

I told my fellow heroes I couldn't be there due to secret identity reasons -- and I'd expected some pushback because of that, but everyone was fairly mellow about it. It probably helps that Penitente also asks to pass because of his secret identity. Gearbox says he doesn't want to be there because he's afraid that police will try to confiscate him so they can take him apart, Wheelman requests off because he's concerned that a guy with car superpowers won't have many options to help keep the peace, and Piledriver says she needs off because she's already been assigned to cover the expected riots for the newspaper she works at.

Almost everyone else gets tasked with helping maintain a respectful distance between the police and the angry sports fans. A few heroes -- Gearbox, Wheelman, Hypothermia, and Jonni Rotten -- are told to patrol the city and let us know if there are other emergencies going on -- wouldn't do to let the criminal element take advantage of all the superheroes in town babysitting a bunch of drunk fratboy rioters. And the Cobra says she's going to be working behind the scenes so she can observe the entire scene and alert everyone else to any potential trouble.

I still wish I could help out. I don't trust the cops in this town at all, and I'll hate myself if there's a crisis where I'm needed. Heck, if there's a big enough crisis, I'll just drop the live-blog, head for an empty alley, and transform so I can assist. Always gotta remember what's really important.

Before the Cobra can dismiss us, Atlas speaks up. "Let's not finish up with our never-gonna-call-it-a-team-meeting team meeting yet..."

"Oh, stop it, Atlas," the Cobra says. "We're never going to become a superteam, no matter how much you want it to happen."

"All I'm saying is," he continues. "As long as we're all here, are there any threats or rumors of threats we all need to be aware of?"

"I'd rather we stay focused on these riots for now," she says. "I'll let you know if there's anything important enough for us to worry about."

"That's what you say all the time," Hybrid says. "But you knew Lord Shadow was in town last week, and you never told anyone about that."

"Turned half the city evil, and you didn't think that was worth mentioning," grumbles Express. "I never wanted to know that side of my personality existed."

"We got through it just fine," says the Cobra.

"No thanks to you, Miss I'm-Gonna-Hide-Bombs-All-Over-Downtown," says Hypothermia.

"Seriously," says Atlas. "Who's heard of anything going on? Why don't we see if we can avoid getting ambushed by the supervillains, for once."

"I'm hearing rumors about the Church of Sorrow," says the Star. "Word on the street says they've been sniffing around the local museums for spare artifacts."

"It's not the Church of Sorrow," Jonni Rotten says. "Trust me, I'd know if the Church of Sorrow was up to something like that. More than likely, it's the Disciples of Thoth trying to get people to think they're the Church. Doesn't mean we shouldn't hit 'em hard, though."

"I'll see if I can track their movements down over the next day or two," I say. "The Council of Thaumaturges is pretty sure Professor Presto is in Metro City, too. He's not normally any great threat, but if he's working with the Disciples, that's going to be a more serious issue."

"Devil Wasp has been raiding labs lately," says Daphne Diller. "He's hit three tech companies in the last ten days. I hear he's managed to pull down some pretty sweet equipment. But you know him -- he never quits when he's ahead."

"Defiant has been robbing -- I am not kidding you -- bookstores," says Phantasmo. "Two used bookstores, one chain store. She's apparently taking horoscope books. Again, I am not kidding, and I have no clue what she's up to."

"Doesn't fit her usual M.O. at all," says Iota. "Is this a feint to throw us off her trail?"

"It could be, I guess," says Phantasmo, shrugging. "But I really can't tell you. Whatever she's doing doesn't make sense to me."

"Johnny Staccato is recruiting again," says Penitente. "Don't know what he may be planning, but he and his goons have been making the rounds. If you see any of 'em, please feel free to bust 'em up."

"My uncle got a call from Doctor Arkanis," says Piledriver. "Wanting to find out if he wanted to hang out and do mad science together or something. Uncle Aggy told him he wasn't interested. It's possible Arkanis isn't even in town, you know? But if he is, we should keep an eye out for robot armies and stuff like that."

"Fine, we got anything else?" asks the Cobra. "Everyone keep your eyes peeled based on these almost uselessly vague rumors, okay?"

"Screw you, Cobra," says Squid Kid. "This at least gives me an excuse to stake out some bookstores so I can nab Defiant."

"Whatever," says the Cobra. "Try to remember we've got actual work tonight. Everyone try to make it to Stelfreeze Courts as early as you can. I'm betting any trouble that happens is going to start near the sports bars out there. Be nice to everyone -- unless someone starts some shit, then be a little less nice. We good? See you guys tonight."

And that's it for our not-a-team-meeting. Some people go back to work, some people go back to daytime patrolling, and I don't have anything on my to-do list, so I head back to my apartment. We've got a few hours before much of anything's going to be happening, so I decide to get a little extra work done before this evening's (probable) chaos.

What kind of work are we talking about? We're talking getting home, putting the old whale song CD on repeat, and falling fast asleep for as long as I can. Seriously, do you have any idea how little sleep superheroes get?

So we've got a few hours to kill. I'll tell you how I got involved in this business.

I had a completely, perfectly, ridiculously normal life up until my 14th birthday. My Grampa Shiro and Gramma Hanako  -- my mom's parents -- drove up from San Diego to our home in Oxnard to help celebrate. Not that there was a huge celebration -- I was too old for birthday parties. I had cake with my family and went to get cheeseburgers with some friends from junior high.

The next day, my grandparents announced they were taking me on an outing. We drove up into the mountains, and I thought for sure they'd dragged me along on a wine-tasting tour where I'd get to watch them drink wine while I rotted from boredom. Instead, we pulled off on a deserted country road, drove up to an empty campground, and got out of the car.

"Kumiko, my dearest heart," said my grandmother. "You are now 14, the same age I was when my grandmother introduced me to my new world. I know you are good and noble and brave, and even though you listen to music that is the worst thing I have ever heard, I know you will make me proud. This is yours now -- the Protector's Staff."

Grampa Shiro took our picture as Gramma Hanako handed me a necklace with a small silver-colored ornament dangling from the end of it.

I took the necklace from her, wondering what on earth she and my parents had against hip hop -- and then the whole world exploded around me.

The pendant on the necklace glowed with intensely bright light and exploded into a yard-long silver staff, encrusted with shimmering jewels and topped with a shining starburst crest.

My clothing unraveled and rewove itself into a new configuration -- an ornate silver and blue costume with a short, frilled skirt, puffy sleeves, a high collar, and a large red bow at my neck. There were silver gloves and boots and a silver and blue headband that looked more like a crown.

Even my hair changed. I'd always preferred a short haircut that I didn't have to fuss with. But it all grew longer and restyled itself into twintails. And it turned pink -- bright, crazy, electric pink. I'd never really liked pink, but now I had pink hair.

I was barely noticing any of this, though -- I felt like I was hovering in an infinite sky of flashing technicolor madness. Swirling faces and colors and symbols flying everywhere, like the best dream of my life mixed together with my worst nightmares. It was glorious and terrifying and magical in every possible way.

When my head finally cleared -- it felt like it'd been several minutes long, but had been only a second or two -- Gramma Hanako wrapped me up in a huge bearhug and told me I was now Silver Protector Kumiko. And then Grampa Shiro took another picture of us.

It turned out that, when she'd been my age in Japan, Gramma Hanako had been Silver Protector Hanako. She'd gotten the Protector Staff from her grandmother, who'd gotten it from her grandmother, and on down the line for at least a couple of centuries. And now, I was the new Silver Protector, defender of the innocent, destroyer of evil, soldier of good against the monsters in the shadows.

We spent two hours going over an abbreviated history of her secret superhero career and reviewing the basics of how the Protector's Staff's magic worked. I learned how to transform myself back to normal. And after that, we went out and got some ice cream. And then I threw up.

I was fighting demons by the end of the next week. Gramma Hanako had taught me a lot of stuff, and the Protector's Staff had been teaching me spells in my sleep. I could cast a few simple but subtle spells even without powering up, but all the really powerful magic didn't activate until after I'd gone through my transformation. But even with my most ass-kicking spells, fighting bad guys was a serious challenge. It was good that my magic worked best by improvisation. Your average demon is terrifying but hidebound. They don't react well to unpredictability. Still, who wants to get too seriously challenged when you're going up against demons, right? So I started looking for more superheroes I could team up with, and it wasn't long before the Council of Thaumaturges got in touch with me to offer training and assistance.

And because I was fighting crime in Los Angeles, I eventually got an offer for my own TV show. Frankly, this terrified me more than any demon or supervillain I'd had to deal with yet, so I let the Council handle the whole thing for me. The result was "The Adventures of Silver Protector Kumiko," an anime-esque TV cartoon that ran on Fox Kids for five seasons. I loved it for about half of the first season -- after that, the thrill of seeing Cartoon Kumiko wore off. The money was pretty good, though I didn't really see any of the cash 'til after I got into college. I still get recognized for that damn cartoon, and it gets less funny every time.

And despite all this craziness, I didn't tell my parents about my double life. I didn't tell anyone -- and no one figured it out, even though I basically looked like me, just with long pink hair. One of the magical benefits of being the Silver Protector is that it's almost impossible for anyone to recognize Kumiko Takahashi as Silver Protector Kumiko.

Also, one of the magical disadvantages of being the Silver Protector is that I can't get myself a more sensible costume. Come on, do you think I really want to look like an anime schoolgirl?

I finally told Mom and Dad my secret identity just before I turned 18. They were furious. And Mom was even angrier at Gramma Hanako.  Imagine spending your whole life never knowing that your mother had enjoyed a life of adventure and danger, had saved countless lives, had risked her very existence against demons and monsters. You'd be stuck between being so proud of her and being horrified at how many times you could've lost her and then never discovered her secret life -- and then realizing that you could still lose your daughter to the same dangers. I guess it's hard to blame her for being upset.

I was offered scholarships to several schools in California, but by then, I was really, really tired of L.A. You just can't escape show business there. You can't stop running into people who want to sign you to another cartoon or to a live-action version of your cartoon. Or who want you to be a model for them -- even in my non-magic form, talent agents would follow me around town. I know for a fact there were other six-foot-tall Asian girls in Southern California who wanted to be models, so why did everyone have to pester me instead?

So I jumped at the chance to attend Portland State. So much less media frenzy -- though I still had to deal with people talking about the cartoon as if they were actually based on my real life. And I wasn't too far from home either, compared to going to one of the Ivies, so that was a plus.

I got a dual degree in journalism and computer science, briefly considered moving back to Los Angeles, then decided to just stay in Portland. I worked at the local newspaper, mostly writing obituaries, but hoping to move up to actual reporting -- but I got fired when they found out about my blog.

"Sex and Violins" wasn't much of a blog at the time. Thoughts on state and national politics, movie reviews, feminism, racism, culture, and classical music reviews -- and only a couple hundred readers a day. Ironically, it was the tamest stuff -- the music reviews -- that got me in trouble. I'd played violin since I was a kid, and all my ambitions to play in a symphony orchestra were thwarted by my mostly mediocre talent. But I was a good reviewer, and I made both the conductor of the Portland Symphony and the arts reviewer for the paper angry because they couldn't control my reviews. They both raised a stink about me and got me fired.

But I kept writing the blog while I was job-hunting, and before long, I was actually making enough dough with ad sales and freelance writing to give up on day jobs and devote myself to writing. Granted, I wasn't making a lot of money, but it was enough to cover my expenses. I still keep the old "Sex and Violins" blog running, mostly as an archive and so I can post the occasional concert review, but nowadays, I do most of my writing freelance for a variety of online publications.

Anyway, everything was going great. Portland was awesome, my friends were awesome, my boyfriend was awesome. I was fighting crime with Rocket Rose, the Trailblazer, Rubicon, and so many more awesome superheroes. And then the Council of Thaumaturges decided they wanted to reassign me to Metro City. This little podunk didn't have a wizard to hold their hands whenever the bad guys came after them. So I had to uproot my whole life and move here. It was a massive fuckup, and I still haven't entirely forgiven the Council for sticking me here.

I'm also a little amazed this city has lasted as long as it has. The place is stuffed full of science labs and tech firms. Metro City comes across as a city that really loves science, which is kinda cool, at least until you realize this means the city has an unusually high number of mad scientists. But even with all the insane technologists running around with giant robots and gengineered monsters, this place should've been destroyed in magical apocalypses a dozen times by now. Do you know how many sorcerous artifacts this city has in it? The Bloody Pearl is in Metro City. The Obsidian Staff is in Metro City. The Quasmaux Configuration is built into a radio antenna on top of Bissette Tower, and I have no idea how the hell that happened.

Plenty of the heroes in this town have magical origins, but the only person maintaining these doomsday relics and making sure they didn't crack reality apart and let the Orb Goblins free was el Phantasmo -- and the poor kid didn't even know that most of these things were present here. My first month here was absolutely terrifying, because every other day, I was finding out that the Broken Fang was buried under City Hall, or the Undying Heart was lub-dubbing along just below Kupperberg Street in the middle of the city. And the Council isn't able to take any of these artifacts away for storage -- they're irrevocably bound to Metro City, so it's entirely impossible to remove them without terrible disasters tearing the city apart.

So Metro City is full of supervillains, mad scientists, and dangerous mystic artifacts -- and it still manages to be impossibly boring. The arts scene is weak, and any band with anything interesting to say moves away as quickly as they can. The Metro City Symphony is third-rate, at best, and the formalism of professional dance has always left me cold, so I can't even tell if the local ballet troupes are any good.

Do not get me started on the Sloppy Metro sandwiches that the Chamber of Commerce and all the local restaurants try to push as regional cuisine. I haven't yet eaten even one of those things that I thought was digestible. Except for Bridwell's Deli over on 116th -- their Metro has roasted red peppers and an incredible hot mustard sauce. Plus there's Wolfman Sandwiches, which uses toasted sourdough buns -- which shouldn't even work for this kind of sandwich, but it's just fantastic. But all the rest are awful, and I'll fight anyone who says different.

And the local superheroes have been a significant disappointment. They're successful enough -- they take down supervillains, they save lives, they periodically save the world. But they're Z-list. They're has-beens, nobodies, losers, and nuts.

Yeah, the Chrome Cobra is amazing, but the hero worship dies fast once she starts punching you in the face. Atlas and the Star washed out of the big leagues. Defender comes off like Paris Hilton in an alien supersuit. Hybrid and Jonni Rotten are psychos. Gearbox is clever, but he's got rage issues, too. Piledriver and Squid Kid are flakes. Wheelman is a pig. Polyphemus is a decrepit Fox News wingnut living in a monster's body. Iota suffers from short man's syndrome, and Hypothermia is too distant to relate to. Miss Mega is a city-wide disaster just waiting to blow up in our faces. The rest of them are weirdos -- but essentially nonentities. Really, I've got the most faith in the Cobra, the Express and Gearbox. The rest of them haven't given me any reason to respect them at all.

There are a few things to make the whole move bearable. My boyfriend, Dean McCutcheon, moved to Metro City with me. Thank god -- I'd completely lose my sanity without him. Never thought I'd find myself in a long-term relationship with a dimpled Orange County brogrammer, but he's almost as liberal as I am, and more importantly, he's just the best damn human being on the planet. He'd just been laid off from a tech startup and figured Metro City's various science labs would be good places to job-hunt. He's gotten a position with a computer game publisher downtown, and he gets me all the new games I want, so he's definitely a keeper. It probably helps that he knows my secret identity and wasn't nearly as freaked out about it as I thought he'd be.

Writing is helping a lot. You can write about national and international politics from anywhere, so it doesn't really matter if I'm in a world-class metropolis. I'm probably getting a little extra writing done because I'm not as likely to get distracted by this boring-ass city, so a little extra money is a definite bonus.

I've even started doing something kinda cool combining magic and coding. Here's the thing -- do you have any idea how many absolutely insane trolls I get sending me death threats on Twitter? Most of them are standard chickenshit morons who're afraid to leave their basements, but there's always a danger that one or two will actually be crazy enough to try to make good on their threats. It's easy enough to track IP addresses through blog comments, but when you add a little magical oomph to those searches, you can find out which ones are 12-year-olds taking a break from trash talking on their Xbox and which ones are legitimately crazy. Now I just need to figure out how to get this code onto the Internet without blowing my secret identity.

Anyway, I have an excellent nap for a few hours before Dean wakes me up, and we start getting ready to head for Stelfreeze. I told Dean he should probably stay home, but I knew from the beginning that he'd insist on coming along. Yes, it's patriarchal and pointlessly chivalrous -- but on the other hand, who wants to get stuck all alone in the middle of a riot? We pick out some comfortable clothes, good running shoes, discreet eye protection, and a few canteens of water, plus fully-charged cell phones and a couple small first-aid packs. I cast a spell of protection over us that should help us avoid serious injuries, and I recharge the wifi spell I keep on my cell phone. And then we're out the door.

Once we get on the bus (Metro City sucks, but they've got fantastic buses, and they'll take you just about everywhere), Dean starts up with the questions.

"So what exactly are you going to be doing out here?" he says. "Are you taking photos of the rioters or the superheroes?"

"Probably a little of both," I say. "Whoever's doing the most interesting stuff, I guess. Plus the usual live-tweeting."

"Live-tweeting is the worst thing in recorded history," he says.

"I think the Holocaust was worse."

"Only if it was live-tweeted."

"Well, buckle down for pure horror," I say. "Because I'm going to be live-tweeting."

"Want me to take pictures for you?" he asks.

"Of course not! Why would I want you to take my pictures?"

"Kumi, sweetness, you know I love you, but your photos are shit."

"No, they're not," I say. "My photos are fantastic. You loved all those photos I was taking last week, remember?"

"Those were scenery photos," he says. "You had forever to set them up and get your focus and adjust the white-balance and all that. When you're taking pictures of a live event, you never have time to do stuff like that. Sorry, but remember the pictures you took at that Daily Kos convention? They were not good."

"You just want to take my photos so you can get some of my incredible blogging paycheck."

"Your blogging paychecks are indeed incredible," he says. "They just cannot be credible."

We're totally a Kate Hepburn and Spencer Tracy movie, just with more swearing and doofy pop culture references.

"You've got your lucky quarter, right?" I say.

"Abso-tively, posi-lutely."

"If things go wall-eyed on us, you grab that quarter and start humming the theme from 'The Rockford Files,'" I say.  "No one will pay any attention to you as long as you keep that up. Then you head somewhere safe."

"I know," he says. "We've gone over this so many times before. You don't have to worry about me."

"And don't lose the coin either," I tell him. "The Seventh Son enchanted that for me, and I don't want to have to ask him to make any more for me."

"I won't lose it," he says. "And again, don't worry about me. It's insulting. You get shot at way more often than I do. And I've been in more actual riots than you have, too."

The bus drops us off three blocks from Stelfreeze Courts, and we walk the rest of the way in. We're far from alone. There are a few hundred people here, both cops and drunk sports fans. The cops are armored up and wielding billy clubs and riot shields. The drunks have the occasional beer bottle and their unfocused drunken drunkenness.

And standing on the rooftops throughout the area are the city's superheroes.

There's honestly something really cool about watching superheroes incognito. When you're wearing the costume and flinging the mystic spells around, you're focused on either what the bad guys are doing or on trying to keep the civilians safe. And when you're in your own civilian guise, it's actually really cool to look at superheroes from ground level, as it were.

Of course, I can't resist taking some photos. I try not to dwell on metahuman issues in my writing, but the superheroes here are definitely part of the story. I line up a shot of Atlas, looking all gigantic and heroic. He glances my way, and right as I snap the picture, he looks away.

"Ooooh, dismissed!" Dean whispers to me.

I don't say anything, but I'm a bit steamed. I don't see any reason why he should look down on us that way.

I decide to get a photo of Squid Kid instead -- and she does the exact same thing! What the hell is wrong with these assholes?

"You're getting mad, Kumi," Dean says. "What's the matter?"

"You saw that attitude," I reply. "Do they really think they're so much better than everyone else? Arrogance is poison to superheroism."

"Get serious," he says. "You'd do the same thing in their place. This isn't a meet-and-greet. They're scanning for threats. If you look at someone and they're not a threat, you look elsewhere for other threats."

I should know that. No, I did know that. I've done the same thing hundreds of times. I guess I'm in a mood to be irritable.

"You feeling guilty?" Dean asks. "Thinking you should be wearing the costume right now instead of being part of the crowd?"

"Maybe," I say.

"Forget it," he says. "You've got a good excuse, and you said no one blamed you. You've got your own special brand of heroism to do right now. Go talk to people, get their stories, and do your live-tweeting."

Well, when he's right, he's right. Dean and I go walking around the area, talking to people, taking photos, tweeting what's going on, and trying to do our part to keep a ton of angry drunks calm. We're getting retweets and mostly positive responses. That helps make it a good night's work.

The worst thing about a good night's work is that it can all go to hell really quickly.

Out of nowhere, a long stretch limo pulls up next to Kubert & Sons Brewery, the nicest brew pub on the whole street, and Blake Duvervalle, Keeron Ranshe, and Zale Walsh -- the Metro City Hammers' star players -- all get out for a night on the town.

The entire crowd, all up and down Stelfreeze, gasp in shock, myself included. Why on earth, when everyone is predicting post-playoff riots, would any of the Hammers' players venture out into the heart of Drunken Rioter Country? For a second, I almost believe this is going to defuse any riots before they even start -- it's like everyone's too stunned by the audacity (or stupidity) to do anything but goggle at them in surprise.

But then there's a woman's voice shouting over the astonished hush: "YOU FUCKING LOSERS!"

And just like that, beer bottles are flying everywhere, and the crowd is already in the process of flipping over their first SUV of the night.

I grab Dean. "Keen Dean, I think I'm on the clock now," I say. "You got that lucky quarter?"

"Rockford Files," he says hoarsely. "I'll see you at home later."

He joins the smarter members of the crowd and leaves the area. Meanwhile, I run for the nearest empty alley to transform in peace.

Thirty seconds later, I fly down and drop a Stunning Steel STRIKE over a quartet of fratboys -- nothing too powerful, just enough to scare them away -- then hover next to Defender, who's firing her neural blasts everywhere she can.

"Thought you had the night off, darling?" she says calmly.

"Yeah, I thought I did, too," I say. "You're running your pacification burstcasts, right?"

"Full power, and at least 500 foot coverage," she says. "They should start settling down soon."

"It's not working," I say. "The psychic agitation out here is right off the charts. I think someone's jamming your signal."

"Kumiko, dear, I assure you that isn't possible. I doubt anything on Earth could --"

And at that point, there's a high-pitched whine, a laser beam ricochets off Defender's helmet, and she drops out of the sky like a stone.

I land next to her as quickly as I can, and the Express still beats me to her. He's ready to start superspeed first aid, but she pops back her feet immediately. "Don't worry about me!" she yells. "I wear an ultra-tech armored helmet for a reason! Just find the shooter and -- what the hell is that?!"

As one, all of the police vehicles -- cruisers, paddy wagons, motorcycles, and armored carriers -- rear up on their back wheels and transform into a small army of giant humanoid robots, all armed with laser guns made of their own light bars.

"Rioters!" comes a command over a bullhorn. "Stand down and prepare to be arrested by the Metro City Science Police!"

"Go screw yourself, pigs!" someone shouts in reply.

And with that, a few dozen of the rioters raise their hands to the sky and say words I've only read in unusually rare and dangerous spellbooks. The asphalt and sidewalks are torn up from the streets around us, whirl in the air, and reform into a massive 40-foot-tall roadwork golem. It's wearing, bizarrely, a giant Metro City Falcons bandana.

Chaos? Oh god, chaos would be an absolute relief. I've got superheroes screaming into my communicator, cops and rioters bellowing threats at each other, and every sensible person in the area running for cover.

"Everyone, be cool!" the Cobra shouts over our communicators. "I'm incoming -- just getting my gear on. Try to keep everyone calm -- don't let anyone escalate the situation!"

Ha ha, you know what happens next, right? Yes, the police robots start shooting lasers, and the rioter golem starts shooting volleys of magic blasts, and we and dozens of people are caught in the crossfire.

The only thing that saves me is I manage to raise a Hermetic Silver SHIELD in time to keep myself protected. But Gamma Girl and Squid Kid get hit and go down for the count. Phantasmo's ghosts block for him for a few seconds, but a stray shot from the golem gets through, and he goes down, too. Hybrid handles a dozen shots before she hits the canvas. I can't see the Express anywhere, and I don't know if that means he's injured or if he's moving at superspeed.  

The Star has his cosmic forcefields, Iota is hopefully staying miniaturized and off everyone's radars, and everyone else -- Atlas, Polyphemus, Calypso, Defender, Miss Mega, and Daphne Diller -- are tough enough or armored enough to withstand what the robots and the golems are hitting us with. But there are all these civilians and injured superheroes to keep safe, too. Holy crap, I'm worried there are just not enough of us on hand to take care of this much chaos.

And then the Express reappears, kicking up a flurry of dust devils as he comes to a sudden stop from somewhere north of the speed of sound. He's carrying what looks like a shiny, brand new laser raygun from a 1950s sci-fi movie.

"Figured this out a few minutes ago," he says, pointing the raygun at the golem. "Thought this might be a good time for a field test."

A blast of purple lightning shoots out of the gun and blows a hole in the golem's chest. But take it from someone who knows -- that's not going to slow down a golem. Still, Express doesn't normally go in for rayguns of any sort -- in my experience, he's more of a hands-on speedster.

"Might help if I had a bit more power in the batteries," he says. He zips away at superspeed and zips right back again, toting a much larger laser rifle. "Took me forever to design that," he says. "Better hope it does the job." Then he's racing around the golem at superspeed, chipping away at its asphalt hide while dodging its much-too-slow magical blasts.

And then Daphne Diller, hunkered down under a barrage of lasers from the cop-bots, raises her right arm, and draws the Fifth Symbol of Righteous Xhancala in the air. Two of the robots immediately fall to pieces, while the light-bar laser of a third dissolves into mist.

Okay, something weird is going on. Daphne isn't a spellcaster at all. I would've sensed that sort of magical potential in her the first time we met. She's a mutant, not a sorceress. And no, you can't just trace any of the Symbols of Righteous Xhancala by accident or through rote memorization. You've gotta have the right kind of magical power to do it.

After that, she casts Cargill's Stern Rebuke and knocks another four robots apart. By that point, some of the shock has worn off, and the extra firepower Express and Daphne are bringing puts the momentum back on our side. Miss Mega joins Express in demolishing the golem, while the rest of us take the cop robots to pieces.

So good for us, right? An easy win, chaos and disorder are vanquished, law and order reign supreme! Yeah, sure, but do you really think anything that weird is going to turn out good for us?

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