This was not the wizened gnome I had dealt with before. Indeed, that figure might have been a caricature of this man, who looked to be a fit and vigorous middle age instead of the century plus of Gaunt's known history.
"So that wasn't you in the desert," I blurted.
"I am astounded - not to mention insulted - anyone thought that homunculus was me," he said, seeming offended, his old-style Southern accent more noticeable than that of the gnome. "I _wrote_ the rule about never turning yourself into a giant monster!"
"What are you _doing_ here!" I demanded, voice shrill with the unfairness of it all.
"Oh, come, now. I've been keeping track of you since you attracted the attention of my construct. When you reappeared after being gone for several months, in the company of an old confederate, I was suspicious. When I saw you recruiting veteran supers I became even more so. When I saw you coming here I reviewed events in this area, and realized you were after something which at least two heroes died to protect. I don't know - yet - what it is, but for you to go to all this trouble it must be something significant. The perfect opportunity for me to gain revenge and recoup some of my losses in one maneuver."
The whole thing made sense... if you were a paranoid egomaniac with a persecution complex who valued treasure over personal commitments. The "Gaunt" I had interacted with before assumed that since _he_ was important - by his own definition - that every action by anyone which intersected his schemes, however peripherally, must be part of a deliberately planned effort against him. This Gaunt had similarly conflated several different events which occurred before and during the assault on Las Vegas and come to the conclusion I was some sort of master planner, who had arranged for the defeat of his "homunculus."
I was actually too stunned and outraged to be afraid. Well, more than somewhat afraid. Protests, evidence to the contrary, pleas for mercy, would all be ignored. Actually, vigorous denials would more likely be taken as confirmation of Gaunt's preconceptions. There was a fine line to be walked, here. I would have to play along, act as he expected me to act - though not exactly - to buy time.
"All right," I said, not merely calmly but boldly. "You have me... for the moment. But you need me. I know what's here, and how to access it. You don't."
That last was a calculated risk. That sort of challenge was guaranteed to raise his ire, but if he held true to form he'd rise to the challenge, rather than simply have me killed for committing such insolence.
"Very well," said Gaunt, a bit peeved.... though my empathy told me he was also curious and eager. "For the moment you live. But your companions..."
"We need them, too," I said, as calmly as I could manage. "There's debris to clear, alien language to decipher, and the young one bears Sonic Jett's DNA."
Now I had intrigued him, and maybe even impressed him. By providing vague hints that each member of my group had a specific, necessary purpose for being here I had strongly implied a detailed, mastermind plan of the sort he, himself, enjoyed arranging.
I was sweating bullets trying to keep this game going, but I wasn't so distracted that I didn't notice Greg was frozen in place, while Simon, Tulio and John were subtly preparing for action. Unfortunately, that preparation didn't escape the attention of our captors.
"Don't!" said the same amplified voice which had spoken before.
"Please," said Dr. Gaunt, disdainfully, with a short, choppy gesture. "I know who you are, and made sure my men are prepared. If you give me any trouble they will simply kill you. As it is, you are just barely worth keeping alive."
I knew that Tulio and John would not just give up, but they wouldn't do any thing rash, either. I figured Simon would also be careful. We were in a bad situation, backed up against the slope, the cave out of reach, men in powered armor arranged to prevent us from going anywhere else. We needed time; time to negotiate, to plan. If I could keep this pretense going that would give us the time. However, Greg was a wild card. All it would take was for him to panic. _I_ certainly wasn't going to start anything; if - when - trouble did start there was no place to hide, and I'm not blasterproof.
"P-please," said Greg, hands raised in a pacifying gesture. "I'm not with them. I'm just a normal guy."
He looked desperately around at the faceless, armored figures, at Bruno, at Gaunt himself. I didn't need my empathy to know that the response was unfavorable.
"You won't get anywhere with that," said Simon, a bit too loudly. "Gaunt conditions all his minions to obey him unquestioningly."
It was as if Simon - a mastermind himself - was talking directly to me. Some people claim to literally see a light when they have a brilliant idea. I'm more of an aural person. There was a clear, distinct tone in my head. Almost a ping.
"Precisely," said Gaunt, with a suave smile, as if to confirm my insight. "There is no appeal. No mercy. You gentlemen will stay alive only so long as you prove useful to me."
"Well, then," said Tulio, doing some smiling of his own, "we might as well get started."
He launched himself at Gaunt. Bruno lunged forward, punching him back in the direction he'd just come from, and beyond, well back towards the tunnel entrance. It seemed that Gaunt had upgraded Bruno since I last saw him in action. That punch didn't really hurt Tulio, though. Being shot by half the powered armor guys did. However, even that wasn't enough to down the man who once bore the title of Maciste. Especially since he wasn't alone. John tackled two of the armored men, taking them off their feet though not really hurting them. Simon, pulling something from his pocket, jumped between the attackers and Tulio. The object turned out to be a compact shield projector. It was a small thing, and I knew it wouldn't last long, but for the moment the device was protecting the two of them.
I had thrown myself to the ground as Tulio jumped. Greg was scrambling on all fours towards Simon and Tulio. Tulio was getting back to his feet, trying to shake off being shot several times with force rifles. Bruno was charging Simon and Tulio. John was busy with the two armored men.
Dr. Gaunt was back behind the flitter, watching from its cover. None of us were known to have a ranged attack, except possibly Simon. As a mastermind he was likely to have any number of interesting gadgets on his person. Still, he was busy for the moment. Gaunt - like all his ilk overconfident - calmly planned to quickly duck into the car if the fight turned dangerous for him, but otherwise saw no need to move.
No-one noticed the groundhog - nearly the same color as the dirt and stones - scurrying from rock to rock. No-one noticed as the groundhog made its way safely behind Gaunt, now sheltered by the egg-shaped vehicle and shielded from view. No-one noticed the groundhog flow into a duplicate of Dr. Gaunt, except for holding a large automatic pistol.
I aimed at the center of the back of Gaunt's head - muzzle almost touching him in case he also had a force field - waited for a particularly noisy moment, then fired. Gaunt's brains splattered over the rear of the car, and he dropped to the ground. The gun jammed, the lubricant having dried too much for proper function, but it had done enough.
_Thanks, Mack,_ I thought, with a pang of gratitude, as I shoved the gun into my pocket.
"Stop!" I yelled, raising my arms.
The fight halted. None of Gaunt's men looked around at me.
"All of you, return to base! Immediately!"
It was an absurd order. Even with their conditioning, they hesitated. I waited, tensely, standing in a typical Gaunt pose, not repeating myself because, well, once was all the actual Gaunt would say it.
My side waited, tensely. I didn't know how much they had seen, but at least some of them knew who this "Dr. Gaunt" was.
At last, Bruno grunted something at those in the armor, and as they turned and began marching off he started for the car. I had a moment of pure panic when I realized he would see the body when he came around the front of the car. However, the body on the ground no longer looked like Dr. Gaunt, having lost much of its face. Bruno didn't even glance at it as he got in.
I stepped back a bit as the car lifted and whirred away.
Weak in the knees, I forced myself to stand there until they were completely out of sight. Then I dropped the form and sagged to the ground, beside the gorily dead Dr. Gaunt.
The cheers of relief, joy and congratulation sounded muffled and distant, thanks to the blood pounding in my ears. They clapped me on the back and flattered me. All but Greg, who was sitting on the ground, arms wrapped around his knees, sobbing. I felt like joining him.
"That was brilliant!" said Simon, laughing. "When I realized what you were doing, leading him on by his own preconceptions, I kept trying to think of ways to help. Then Greg said that, and gave me an idea, and..."
"I just wish there had been a way to take him alive," said Tulio, glancing at Gaunt and turning quickly away. "Though I admit I can't think of one."
"Forget him," said John. "He lost. We won. Let's celebrate!"
I knew what he meant by "celebrate," and was definitely not in the mood.
"No, before that, we need to call someone in," said Simon, sobering. "Not the local cops. Not the FBI. The Guardians?"
"I hate to admit it, but I agree," I said. "This is something which needs quick response by someone who knows how to handle both Gaunt and alien tech. And we need them quickly."
* * *
As it turned out, the Guardians and the Assembly both decided to send people, and called up specific individuals from other teams to boot.
The first to arrive, less than half an hour later, was a figure in a silvery space suit. It fit snugly enough to reveal that the person inside was not only female, but about six months pregnant. She landed and took off her helmet. To my vast surprise, it was Template.
She nodded curtly towards me and introduced herself to the others, as she stripped out of the suit. Underneath was her regular costume, minus the cape. That turned out to be in a storage compartment in the suit's backpack.
"I flew above the atmosphere and boosted here suborbitally," she explained, casually, as if that were nothing special. "A few others should be here shortly. Is that Gaunt?"
"What's left of him," said John, with a smirk. He moved closer, turning on the charm. "So, I assume congratulations are in order. When are you due?"
She actually looked confused for a moment. Then irritated.
"I am in a committed, monogamous relationship," she said, firmly. "Let's try to keep this professional. What happened to Gaunt's men?"
John was as confused as I'd ever seen him. Despite my recent trauma, I almost laughed. Instead, with help from the others I began relating the past hour's (and was astounded with the realization only a bit more than that since we found the disturbed gravel) events. Then had to back up to the beginning.
Next to arrive were another fast flyer and a speedster, arriving almost simultaneously. Then several of the Guardians, in one of their hoppers. Finally, an Assembly hopper landed on the beach.
By now we'd had to tell the story four times, and reaction was also setting in. We were starting to get punchy. At my lead, we didn't tell them about Greg's sabotage. I figured he'd suffered enough, and the others may have agreed.
Some of the older members of the Guardians knew John, Simon and Tulio. The warmth of the greetings varied from person to person. A few showed active dislike of John, which he didn't seem to notice. The current Maciste and Tulio had an enthusiastic reunion which would have pulped a normal human.
By sundown we had a serious camp established, there in that mountain valley. They'd even brought our gear - and John's SUV, which still held much of it - in to join the party.
The supers quickly surveyed the scene, confirmed that the one body was that of Sonic Jett, and the other two Nimrod and the Master Assassin, respectively. They also agreed that my two scenarios were either correct or very close. Finally, they confirmed the existence of some serious alien technology under the lake. Things were moving so quickly I felt dizzy.
"You five are heroes," said the Guardsman, as we sat around a campfire that night. "You solved a double mystery which resisted all attempts at resolution for decades, in the process vindicating three heroes. You found equipment which very much needed to be brought to the attention of the right people and kept out of the wrong hands. Then you kept it out of the wrong hands. Congratulations."
"A pity you couldn't capture Gaunt alive, though," said Champion, staring over at the body, now covered with a sheet.
"Yeah, right," said the young Maciste. "How many times does this make he's been dead? Seven, eight?"
"If you count actually having a body left behind, just four," said the Guardsman.
"Great," I said, feeling a churning in my gut. "You mean he's likely to come after me _again_."
"Don't worry about it," said John, putting his arm around my shoulders. "You've got friends in high places. And me, too."
* * *
That's it for Part Six!
That tone Lawrence hears is pretty much identical to the one Eddie Valiant hears when Judge Doom says “One of these days you idiots are gonna laugh yourselves to death!"
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