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"I hate picket duty," Nuke Boy said, tugging at a loose fold of spandex on his crotch. "We've been here like, two, three hours?"
Razorback paused and lit up a cigarette. "More like four."
Nuke Boy flopped down beside a plastic pillar and let out a deep breath. "This sucks."
"So do we," Razorback said, puffing on his cig.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Razorback blew a big, gray smoke ring, which rose in the air and was whisked into the network of weather antennas atop the geo-dome. "Whenever we go on a mission, we get our heinies handed to us."
"Bad luck." Nuke Boy shrugged. "It'll change."
Razorback snorted. "Bad luck my foot," he said, stretching his arms so that his shadow on the dome's surface looked like a giant bat. "You gotta quit announcing your moves, dipstick."
"Whenever you use your gear, you shout 'cobalt beam!' or 'atomic net!' or something stupid like that."
Nuke Boy turned red beneath his cowl. "Shouting helps me focus! It lets me concentrate my chi."
Razorback flicked his cig away and exhaled noisily. "It helps the Mirlons draw a bead on us and stay two steps ahead, that's what."
Nuke Boy harrumphed and got up sulkily. "Well, at least I don't do this when I shoot razorblades." Fists clenched, he squatted, scrunching his face until his nose touched his upper lip. "YyyyeaaarRRRGGGHHHH!"
Razorback's pale face turned paler. "Stop it."
"You look like you're taking a dump. YyyyeaaarRRRGGGHHHH!"
"Stop it, man—I mean it."
A razorblade, ice-cold and deadly, whizzed past Nuke Boy's nose.
"Ah, forget it." Nuke Boy waved a hand and flopped back down. "Bored as hell, that's what I am."
Razorback shook his head and plopped down beside him. He lit up another cig and gazed at the coruscating city spires. "I wish Cat Girl were here."
Nuke Boy licked his lips and sighed. "Umm. Cute face, nice figure. Gutsy, too. Kinda reminds me of Atom Babe—remember her?"
"Yeah," Razorback said, wistfully.
Nuke Boy stuck a finger beneath his cowl and rubbed his left eye. "Hey, you reckon she and I could be...you know?"
Razorback looked at him and shrugged. "I dunno, man. You don't seem like her type. For starters, well—let's just say you're, uh...hygienically challenged."
Nuke Boy scratched his right armpit and sniffed his fingers, wrinkling his nose as he did. "Hey—it's not that bad."
Razorback grunted and stretched his arms again, reflecting the sun's rays off his metallic blades. "That's not what Cat Girl said."
Nuke Boy flushed. "You're just jealous."
"Me? Jealous? Ha!"
"I'm up for full League membership next week."
"So what? I am, too."
"Huh?" Nuke Boy swore—a five-letter word that smashed through the brittle stillness of the air. "The Captain didn't tell me."
"Why should he? Besides, strictly speaking, I'm senior to you."
"Seniority ain't worth a rat's ass these days."
"The hell it isn't. But who am I to argue with a mutant bonehead like you?"
"Humph. Ironic, coming from a guy who looks like Edward Scissorhands on crack—but without the spooky cuteness."
Razorback scowled and raised a blade-studded fist. "Watch it, mac. I'm just a nose hair away from shoving this down your tight, moronic—"
Nuke Boy's two-way radio chirped. "Team One, come in, please."
"Christ—it's PAL," muttered Nuke Boy, recognizing the cool, clinical tones of the League supercomputer. He fumbled for the handset and pressed the transmit stud. "Team One here. Nothing to report, over."
"The Sanctuary is under attack," PAL said, without preamble. "Doctor Mesmer and the Mirlons. Perimeter breached. Code Red, repeat, Code Red. All field personnel, return to base immediately."
Nuke Boy released the stud. "That doesn't sound right," he said, scratching his head. "The big boys ought to be home."
Razorback frowned, counting the blades jutting from his left fist. "Captain Archon, Lenzor, Derring-Do, and Kosmos. Can you ask PAL where they are?"
Nuke Boy did.
"The League founders are within the Sanctuary. They are all non-functional. The base is—"
PAL's sentence ended in a crackling hiss.
"PAL? PAL? Come in. Can anybody hear me? PAL?"
Nuke Boy switched the handset off. "Holy crud," he said, looking at Razorback. "What now?"
Razorback stared back at him, upper lip twitching. "We'd better get back to base, pronto."
"We'll go faster if we rappel down," Nuke Boy said, unlimbering his mini-spelunking rig. Once assembled, it looked like an ungainly steel spider, poised at the brink of the geo-dome.
"Have you field tested that contraption yet?"
"Sure. Well—not really. I mean...it ought to work; I designed it myself."
Razorback turned on his heels and opened the rooftop access door, which squeaked in seeming protest. "I'll take the stairs, thanks."
Muttering darkly, Nuke Boy repacked his rig. "Wait up, willya?"
Huffing and puffing, the masked duo emerged from the geo-dome and made a beeline for the parking lot.
"My car," said Nuke Boy, looking around. "Where is it?"
"We parked right here," Razorback said. He knelt on the asphalt, frowning. "Uh-oh. Look at this—broken glass."
Nuke Boy knelt down beside him. "Christ. Don't tell me—"
Razorback spat on the ground and got up. "Carjacked."
"Damn. What now?"
For a while, Razorback chewed his lip. Then he snapped his fingers. "Let's commandeer a vehicle. We're Leaguers, after all."
They scampered towards the road, half-capes billowing. "My go," Razorback said, waving madly at a small pink Uni-car.
The pink car braked to a stop. "We need your vehicle, ma'am," Razorback said, poking his head inside. "It's an emergency; the Mirlons are—"
"AIIEEEEEEEEEEE!" shrieked the lady inside the car. She floored the gas pedal and sped off, knocking Razorback to the pavement.
"See?" Nuke Boy said as he helped Razorback to his feet. "I told you you look like that 'Hellraiser' guy."
"Dammit. Why don't you try, dipstick?"
"I will," spat Nuke Boy as he ran up the road. Spotting a black SUV, he stepped in front of it, waving his armored hands. The SUV screeched to a halt and rolled down its windows.
"Citizen! The League requires your aid. Please dismount from your vehicle and—"
The yuppie inside the SUV raised his middle finger. "Move off, freak."
Gritting his teeth, Nuke Boy drew his neutron blaster and poked it at the driver. The yuppie blanched, holding his hands up in terror as Nuke Boy fingered the firing stud.
"What the hell?" shouted Razorback as he snatched the blaster off Nuke Boy's hands. "What are you—nuts?"
Amidst a barrage of honks, the SUV roared off and swerved wildly up the road. Razorback grabbed Nuke Boy by the lapels and hissed.
"We're protectors. Don't do that again."
Nuke Boy gulped. "Sorry."
Grunting, Razorback let go. He handed the blaster back to Nuke Boy and sighed. "We're stuffed, bright boy—I'm fresh out of ideas."
Gloomily, Nuke Boy scratched his head, and then, face brightening, unzipped his yellow belt-bag. He stuck a hand in forcefully and grinned.
"How's that gonna help?"
"Watch and learn, razor-face."
Waving a fistful of twenty-dollar bills, Nuke Boy stepped back on the road and whistled loudly.
The two sidekicks leapt out of the cab two blocks from the Sanctuary and scrabbled their way through mounds of smoking rubble.
"Jeez—what a mess."
The Sanctuary itself was razed, its once-proud edifice shattered, dashed to ash-gray pieces. Jagged shards of concrete, like giant's teeth, leered scornfully at the costumed pair. In the distance, police and EMT sirens wailed.
Nuke Boy looked around, devastated. "I can't believe this."
Razorback knelt down beside a huge chunk of rubble. "A green cape—looks like Lenzor's." His face was creased with worry. "Gimme a hand, NB."
Grunting and puffing, the duo heaved, extricating a spandex-clad body from the debris.
"It's Lenzor, all right."
"Is he dead?"
Razorback placed his fingers on the man's neck. "Yep."
Nuke Boy punched a fist against a cupped palm. "Dammit."
A low groan drifted from a pile of rubble beside them.
"Did you hear that?" Nuke Boy said, but Razorback was already digging furiously with his blades.
"It's the Captain. Help me—quick!"
With a concerted yank, they pulled the League leader out, laying him gently on a slab of concrete. Captain Archon groaned again, his eyes mere slits on his blood-spattered face.
"—that you, Nuke Boy?"
"Yeah," he replied, struggling to keep his cool. "Razorback's here, too. What happened?"
Captain Archon coughed. "The Mirlons—there were just too many—enhanced types. Doc Mesmer—more powerful than ever—he..." The Captain groaned, wincing in pain.
"Where are the others, Cap?" Razorback asked, anxiously. "Derring-Do, Kosmos? And the other pickets?"
The Captain's shoulders heaved as he let out a choked sob. "Dead—all dead...even The Black Ninja and Cat Girl—oh..."
Nuke Boy and Razorback look at each other. "Christ."
Grabbing Nuke Boy's hands, the Captain gasped, blood bubbling thickly from his nostrils. "I'm not gonna make it—it's all up to you now. Doc Mesmer will be back soon—the city...oh...the city—"
The Captain coughed twice, closed his eyes, and lay still.
Nuke Boy took the Captain's gloved hands and folded them tenderly over his star-spangled chest.
"Rest easy, Cap."
Numbly, Nuke Boy got up and trudged outside the razed building. Razorback trailed behind, sitting beside him on the cracked entry steps.
"I can't do this," Nuke Boy moaned, holding his head in his hands. "I just can't."
Razorback, spiky face creased with concern, laid a hand on Nuke Boy's shoulder.
"We can, NB. We have to."
Nuke Boy shook his head. "Get real, joe. We're just two-bit sidekicks."
Lowering his gaze, Razorback withdrew his hand and sighed.
At that moment, a black minivan with a police escort pulled up on the far side of the pitted road. A silver-haired woman on a hover-chair slid out of the van, bumping her way purposefully through the rubble towards the forlorn two.
"It's the Mayor," whispered Nuke Boy, reflexively standing up as the woman approached. Razorback, after a moment's hesitation, followed suit.
The Mayor studied them both with sad, blue eyes. "I heard what happened here. I'm sorry."
Nuke Boy swallowed a lump in his throat. "There's only the two of us left, ma'am—nobody else."
Sighing, the Mayor clasped her hands and lifted them to her lips. After a moment's silence, she spoke. "I know this isn't an easy time for you, but we need you to protect us. As you said, there is no one else, and that fiend Mesmer could come back any time."
Nuke Boy looked sideways at Razorback, who looked back at him. A long moment passed, filled only with the whirring of the Mayor's hover-chair and the crackling of the police escorts' radios.
Finally, in unspoken accord, the duo faced the Mayor and nodded.
"We'll do our best, ma'am."
The Mayor gave them a small, sad smile. "Thank you—both of you. The citizens of Metro City can't ask for anything more."
A police officer in blue armor trotted up to the Mayor. "Our helicopters have spotted multiple airborne contacts, your Honor, five klicks from the city limits."
"What kind of contacts, Lieutenant?"
The officer spoke into his radio. "Unknown, ma'am. But whatever they are, they're headed this way."
Even as the officer replaced his handset, Nuke Boy heard the unmistakable concerted buzzing that so far presaged his woes. His heartbeat quickened, and his hands began to sweat beneath his gauntlets.
"Get the Mayor out of here!" shouted Nuke Boy, deploying his corundum buckler as he strode out onto the streets. "Razorback—stay here and hold the fort."
"Fort? What fort?" yelled Razorback. "I'm going with you."
The buzzing increased, and a heartbeat later, the first of the multi-winged Mirlons swooped down on the two crime-fighters.
"Cobalt b—" Biting his tongue, Nuke Boy executed an evasive roll and came up firing, cobalt raygun in one hand and neutron blaster in the other.
Five Mirlons fell from the sky, downed by the weapons' thin beams. As Razorback flung his titanium-edged razorblades at the others, he caught Nuke Boy's eye and winked.
"Not bad, NB."
"Uh-oh—here they come again."
Regrouping at two hundred feet, the Mirlons dove and counterattacked, firing their dartguns and micro-rockets, howling wildly all the while. Pinned by the deadly barrage, Razorback took cover behind what was left of Sanctuary's memorial monolith.
"Some help," he cried, flinging his blades haphazardly around the monolith.
Nuke Boy peeked from behind his shield and winced as a dart spanged against his rhodium helmet. He thumbed on the cloaking squib on his belt and ran towards his partner.
Darts and projectiles, frenziedly aimed, spattered around Nuke Boy's shimmering form as he slid behind the monolith. Decloaking quickly, he grabbed Razorback by the arm.
"You see that big green Mirlon circling the flagpole?"
"He's their Transponder. If we can bring him down, the others will likely run for it."
Razorback looked at him dubiously. "What if they have back-ups? They'll mow us down like grass."
"We don't know that," said Nuke Boy through gritted teeth. "And besides, we haven't any choice—I'm running out of ammo."
Razorback swore. "Me too." He splayed his hands, exposing the razorblades and stilettos strapped to his wrists. "Okay—let's go for broke."
Grimly, Nuke Boy replaced the power cell on his neutron blaster and clacked its chamber shut. "I go left, you go right. On three—one...two...three!"
In seeming slow motion, Nuke Boy and Razorback leapt from behind the pockmarked monolith, firing their weapons as they weaved towards the Transponder. Mirlons of all sizes plunged earthwards, felled by a flurry of beams and blades. As the duo drew near their quarry, the Mirlon Transponder howled, baring his black icky fangs.
"Puny simians. Suffer your fate!"
Ignoring the darts hitting his breastplate, Nuke Boy raised his right hand, bringing his blaster to bear. Twenty paces away, Razorback threw a handful of blades, aimed directly at the Transponder's face.
Cackling, the Transponder ducked—and blundered straight into the blaster's sights.
Nuke Boy squeezed the trigger, instinctively rolling sideways as he did. His shot hit the Transponder square in the chest, gouging a smoking red hole.
In disbelief, the Transponder glanced at his wound, and then, rolling his eyes, crashed heavily to the ground.
As one, the Mirlons flitted confusedly, their screaming like breaking glass. Eventually, prodded by an unerring stream of neutron blasts, stilettos, and razorblades, they scattered and fled.
Breathing heavily, Nuke Boy and Razorback looked at each other and grinned.
"I told you so, razor-head."
As they reloaded their weapons and brushed themselves off, the twain heard a harsh, needling laugh behind them.
Turning around slowly, like rusty automatons, Nuke Boy and Razorback stared right into the blazing, catlike eyes of Doctor Mesmer.
"Ah—two smelly bags of undisposed trash. I knew I forgot something on my first cleanup here." Smiling toothily, Doctor Mesmer flexed the muscles beneath his ablative armor.
Nuke Boy exhaled, scowling at the metal-clad villain; off to his side, he sensed Razorback readying what was left of his blades for attack.
"Can it, clown," Nuke Boy hissed. "You're going down."
Drawing back his leonine head, Doctor Mesmer laughed again—a harsh, grating laugh, like fingernails scraped across a chalkboard.
"If I had a dollar each time you Leaguers said that, I wouldn't be forced to do all of this," he pouted, gesturing broadly at the carnage around him.
"Spare us the spiel," Razorback growled. "Put up, or shut up."
By way of reply, Mesmer scowled and thrust out his arms, shooting bolts of psionic lightning from his fingertips.
Nuke Boy ducked and spun away, shouting in pain as a bolt grazed his elbow. Somewhere, in the haze of his torment, he heard Razorback scream: another victim of Mesmer's hellish assault.
"You disappoint me," the hulking humanoid chuckled, shooting another bolt into Razorback's supine form.
Gasping for breath, Nuke Boy rolled to his side and groped shakily for his raygun. As his fingers closed around its handgrip, he cried out, writhing in agony as another bolt slammed into his chest. He opened his eyes, slowly, meeting Mesmer's gaze as the villain marched up to him.
"You're plucky—I'll give you that," said Mesmer grudgingly, as if suppressing an urge to gloat. Using his hands, he made a sweeping, theatrical gesture. "And since you're the last of your misguided, altruistic kind, I'll now give you a chance to share—for posterity—your last and final words."
Wincing in pain, Nuke Boy propped himself up on his uninjured elbow and parted his lips.
"A-a-at..." he rasped, agonizing over each syllable. "A-a-ato...Ato..."
"Eh?" Mesmer leaned closer, brows furrowed.
"A-atomic net," Nuke Boy finished, deploying the device with a flick of a thumb.
With a crackling hiss, the net—glowing with quarks—wrapped itself around Mesmer, pinning his arms to his sides. He teetered, and then toppled, hitting the ground face first.
Nuke Boy groaned as he staggered to his feet. Holding his injured arm, he tottered towards Razorback's smoldering form.
"H-hey, NB," Razorback whispered through puffy, bloodless lips, tilting his head as Nuke Boy approached. "D-did we get him?"
Nuke Boy knelt down beside his partner, removing his rhodium helmet and cowl. With the back of his glove, he wiped his face, glad that his sweat obscured the tears on his cheeks.
"Yeah, Razorback. We did."
"W-way to go...d-dipstick." Razorback grinned tightly, and then, breathing his last, shut his eyes.
Behind him, Nuke Boy heard Mesmer struggling against his binds. Briefly, Nuke Boy gripped Razorback's hands and then let go. He stood up pensively, shuffling towards the entrapped villain.
Jaws clenched, Nuke Boy drew out his cobalt raygun and aimed it at the back of Mesmer's head. As his finger curled against the trigger, Mesmer laughed.
"You poor twits. You both fell for it, ass-backwards. I'm only a clone; a probe sent to test the remainder of the League's strength. The real Doctor Mesmer is, right now, inside his lab, preparing to unleash the next batch of Mirlons on your pathetic city."
Nuke Boy's nostrils flared. "Damn you," he growled, firing the weapon again and again.
Raygun empty, Nuke Boy stuffed it back in its holster and trudged back to what remained of the Sanctuary. Wincing, he removed his tattered half-cape and spread it out on the rubble, placing his gear on top. One by one, Nuke Boy checked all his gadgets, cleaning and reloading as he did.
Before long, he knew, the Mirlons would return, cackling their way down the heavens. And hot on their heels—the foul Doctor Mesmer, laughing his crazy, ear-shattering laugh.
Gear repacked, Nuke Boy tightened the straps of his battered armor and clipped his half-cape back on. He ran his tongue around the inside of his mouth and squinted at the sky. Five thousand winged specks were flitting amongst the clouds, gradually spiraling earthwards.
Nuke Boy smiled, feeling the adrenaline surge through his veins. He unlimbered his cobalt raygun and wrapped his fingers around its checkered grip.
"All I need now," he yelled to the empty city, "is one badass sidekick."
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