“What the hell’s going on here?” Buddy asked. “Where’s Zero?”
“Get the hell out of here, Buddy,” Jeff yelled as he shot Buddy a snarling glance. “You’ve served your purpose. This is between me and my father.”
Oscar ran toward Jeff and tackled him to the ground. As he landed, he placed an elbow on Jeff’s chest. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m here,” Jeff said through labored breaths, “to take what is rightfully mine. I’m here for my birthright!”
Arthur laughed as he returned to his feet. “You stupid, stupid boy. You have no birthright. You have no place in this family. And you are most definitely not owed anything.”
Jeff struggled against the weight of Oscar’s suit on top of him until Jeff’s form melted and grew into that of Arthur himself. Once he became his father, his frame grew larger and larger, until Oscar was no longer capable of holding him back. “You dare try to keep me from what I am owed,” Jeff snarled in the voice of Arthur.
Arthur cackled louder. “Come on, boy, you think you can honestly take me on face to face? You had your chance, you failed. Now get out of my house before I am forced to do something drastic.”
Jeff, now over ten feet tall, his head touching the ceiling, batted Oscar to the side as though he were nothing. He snorted as he stepped closer to his father. Alexa moved toward Arthur to assist, but Buddy held her back.
“What are you doing, Buddy?” Alexa yelled. “Jeff’s going to kill Artie!”
“Sounds like this is more of a family squabble,” Buddy disagreed. “Let’s see where it goes before we get involved.”
“You think I’m not worthy to run your damned business?” Jeff grunted as his form re-molded, becoming more beast than man, maniacally growling through the fangs now protruding from his mouth. “Yet you sit down here and allow the whole thing to go up in flames. You’ve never understood what our business could be, never truly knew what all we could do. It’s time for a new generation to take over. And unlike you, I’m not afraid to use force.”
“You wouldn’t know how to use it if you tried.” Jeff, now looking like something between a wolf and a man crossed with a bear, stood face to face with his father. Arthur laughed at the monster standing before him. “Having power does not mean to use force at every opportunity. One must delicately tread the road of diplomacy and terror. You, the one who would pretend to be my son, only know terror. And you do even that horribly.”
Jeff howled in anger as he swung at his father, sending the old man across the room. “You damned fool!”
Arthur stood slowly, still laughing.
“How dare you laugh at me?”
“Now?” Alexa asked, looking at Buddy in concern.
Arthur continued laughing as Jeff approached him once again. His form morphed back into his normal shape, his face red with rage. He spit as he yelled, “You think this is funny old man? I’ll tear you apart!”
“Jeffrey,” Arthur continued his crazed laughter, “you couldn’t hurt me if you tried. I, on the other hand, as always, hold all the cards.”
Jeff lunged at his father, who disappeared at that precise moment, causing Jeff to fall to the ground. Just as he hit the cement, four rods appeared from the ceiling and pierced through him to the ground. As soon as they made contact, Jeff’s body began convulsing, his shape shifting to something new with each shudder.
Oscar stood from where he had fallen earlier and looked at the man now screaming in pain. “We have to do something,” he yelled as he ran to the door. “D.A.W.N.!”
Buddy, Ryan, Alexa, and Talmadge followed quickly behind.
“Donna worry. I’ll soon free your friend here,” Salachar said as they disappeared inside the complex.
Oscar was already on the other side of the foyer when the rest of the crew entered. “Oscar!” Buddy’s voice echoed off the walls as he ran after his friend.
Oscar turned as he pressed the button to the elevator. “This ends now, Buddy,” he said as his helmet’s mask slid down over his face.
Alexa appeared at Oscar’s side. “Dad,” she said softly. “What are you doing? You’re in no shape to fight Artie. Especially not with him as crazy as he is right now.”
“I started all this, Lexi. I have to finish it.”
“Not alone you don’t,” Ryan said as the rest of them made it to his side. “You’re a Defender, Dad. Defenders fight as a team.”
“You don’t understand, son. I had the chance to stop him. Stop him before he had the chance to do any of this.”
“What do you mean?” Alexa asked, her eyes hazy with tears.
“Where the hell’s this damned elevator,” Oscar yelled, attempting to change the subject. He pounded on the button rapidly.
Buddy grabbed Oscar’s hand and turned his old friend to face him. “What are you talking about, Oscar? What could you have stopped?”
“Everything,” Oscar said, his head drooped. “The meta-human army, the mafia thing. The,” he paused, “the Great Redaction… Dominion.”
“I’m sorry, guys,” Talmadge joined in, “but I really have no clue what you’re talking about.”
“What are you talking about, Dad?” Alexa burst out. “You could have stopped The Mind Wipe? How?”
“How?” Oscar laughed. “How? Because I knew what was happening. I saw this darkness growing within Arthur. This anger. He became so discouraged by everything, by how much work we did as these protectors of the city, and how little we actually got in return for it. He wanted more. He saw how much power we had, how much the city relied on us. He talked about how we should charge for our services. But then he took it too far.”
“What do you mean?” Alexa asked.
“He started creating problems only we could solve. I should have stepped in and done something, but it seemed so harmless at first. He’d get little kids who had special powers to accidentally flare up in situations that could be incredibly dangerous, like kids with fire abilities sparking up on a hayride. And all the time, I stayed quiet. Then he came up with his big idea.”
“Dominion?” Buddy asked, remembering the memories he had taken from Damon.
“Dad,” Alexa said slowly, “you didn’t…”
“I didn’t support it. Not a bit. I didn’t even realize what he was up to at first. He found my documents on people who seemed to have inert meta-human abilities, people who were probably completely unaware of their powers altogether. And then he found an opportunity to use that information to create a new threat. A threat only The Defenders could stop.”
“Dominion,” Ryan concluded.
“Yep,” Oscar replied. “And as soon as I realized what had happened, Arthur was already moving on to Plan B. The Great Redaction. I could have stopped everything if I had just said something earlier. Instead I’ve had to sit helplessly watching for years as this man has ruined everything he touches, everything that I–that we, worked so hard to build up.”
“But Oscar,” Buddy consoled, “there was no way you could have known what Arthur was really up to.”
“But I could have done something after I figured it out,” Oscar continued. “Don’t you think it’s odd Arthur called for you the second he thought Damon was back? He created Dominion, surely he could have gotten rid of him, right? Or that he placed my own daughter as his second-in-command?”
“What are you trying to say?” Alexa asked indignantly.
“I’m saying that I think Arthur has planned all of this. I think we’re all just following his script. And if I don’t stop him now, I fear for what he might do next.”
“But what if you going after him like this is just what he wants you to do?” Talmadge asked.
“That’s just the chance I have to take,” Oscar replied slowly.
“We can talk about this all day,” Buddy jumped in, “or we can just go find Arthur and figure it out for ourselves.”
“That’s precisely what I intended to do before you all stopped me,” Oscar replied.
“Hey, we didn’t stop you,” Ryan joined, “we just wanted to come along.”
The group looked at the elevator questioningly, realizing it still had not opened.
“D.A.W.N.!” Alexa yelled.
Ryan and Oscar ran to the desk in the middle of the foyer and looked at the screens situated behind it. The rest of the group followed shortly behind. The screens burst to life just as they all arrived.
“So you’re finally ready to know the truth,” Arthur laughed as his face appeared on each of the seven screens. “Finally ready to know what it’s all about, what this has all been for?”
“D.A.W.N.!” Oscar yelled again, “open up the damned elevator!”
“Oh, she won’t hear you,” Arthur laughed again. “She’s gone,” he said as the lights went out, “and I’m in charge now.”
The screens were the only light left in the room, showing the crazed visage of Arthur Flores as he typed away maniacally on a keyboard in front of him.
“Arthur…” Oscar said slowly, “what are you doing?”
“You know, Oscar, you really did develop some amazing technology in here. The things I can do with the push of a button from this very console, well, it’s just plain fantastic. Did you know we have found a way to use your teleportation technology to transport anything to any location? Like,” he grinned as he looked at the camera, “perhaps bringing an old friend home in the blink of an eye?”
The room glowed blue for just a moment, and then filled with glaring light, followed shortly thereafter with a brilliant heat which burned like the sun.
“Um, Buddy,” Alexa said anxiously. “Is that–”
“Oh yes, Miss Rose,” Arthur cackled. “It’s your old friend Dominion, or is it Agent Murphy now? I can never seem to keep these things straight. Looks like he’s about to go supernova.” Arthur’s laughter filled the room over the sound of the burning foyer.
“Buddy,” Alexa continued anxiously, “I don’t have a way of protecting myself from fire like the rest of you.”
“Neither do I!” Talmadge yelled.
“Right, so, um, do you have any ideas on what you can do to–”
A loud crashing sound came from the doorway just as the walls crumbled down around it, followed by the entrance of a large tank-like vehicle skidding into the room.
“D.A.W.N.!” Ryan yelled.
“What?” Oscar questioned.
“It’s D.A.W.N.’s mobile unit,” Ryan answered.
“Carl designed it,” Alexa added.
“Hold please for another available teller,” D.A.W.N. said as a blue light enveloped the form of Damon and he disappeared once again. The room went dark momentarily before D.A.W.N. switched on her headlights and drove slowly forward.
“Stop!” Oscar yelled at the moving vehicle. “The structural integrity of the floor could be compromised from Damon’s fire. We don’t want to risk collapsing the entire complex here.”
“Don’t we?” Buddy asked. “That would at least take care of Arthur.”
“Yeah,” Oscar agreed, “and also get rid of our only possible chance of stopping his army.”
“Good point,” Buddy agreed. Then, not sure why he agreed, followed up with, “Wait, is it?”
“Don’t worry, boys,” D.A.W.N. spoke gently, “I believe I may have a solution to your troubles.”
“At this point, darlin’,” Oscar smiled, “I’d be happy if you could just get us out of this hole in the ground.”
“I could most definitely do that, Oscar, dear. However, I believe you were right before when you stated Arthur should be our first order of business.”
“Well, yeah, but he seems to have gotten control of the base,” Oscar said dejectedly. “I mean, unless you have some way of regaining control.”
“Unfortunately I do not,” D.A.W.N. said matter-of-factly. “Arthur attempted to delete my program altogether, as his paranoia is reaching an all-time-high. He was certain I was assisting you in your attempts to get in through the back door.”
“Well, weren’t you?” Alexa asked.
“I wish I could have, Alexa, honey. But your father had locked me out of those systems years ago.”
“So,” Oscar continued, “if Arthur tried to delete your program, how is it that you’re still around.”
“Well, he actually succeeded in deleting me. However, Carl had apparently inserted a back-up version of my system within the XM1202, which activated as soon as Zero turned me on.”
“Zero?” Buddy yelled in surprise. “He’s still alive?”
“Alive and safe within my tank here,” D.A.W.N. answered. “Although he’s definitely seen some better days.”
“So, you’re mobile now?” Oscar asked.
“Oh, yes dear, and loving it!”
“I’m sorry folks,” Buddy cut in once again, “but I’m really not digging the whole hanging out in the dark within a collapsing underground cavern vibe we have going on here. Could we get to D.A.W.N.’s plan on dealing with the situation?” The ground creaked beneath them. “And could we do it quickly?”
“Of course, Buddy,” D.A.W.N. replied. “As you probably already know, I have access to a full arsenal of weaponry within my mobile unit, including missiles, flame-throwers, Gatling guns–”
Another loud creak. “I’ve read your specs, D.A.W.N., get to the point!” Ryan said agitatedly.
“Right, well, in addition, I also have the ability to use Oscar’s teleportation technology to transport people from–”
“Yeah, we know!” Alexa cut D.A.W.N. off. “We don’t have much time left.”
D.A.W.N. huffed, “My word. Have all of your lost your manners? This is no way to ask for someone’s–”
“D.A.W.N.,” Buddy said clearly and slowly, “please help us get out of here. Now!”
The room filled with a blue light and morphed instantly into a room walled with concrete blocks and gray as far as the eye could see.
Go to Chapter Twenty-Six