"Exile!" thought Hunter. "What's going on down there? Did you free the girl?"
"I did, comrade!" thought Exile, "but the metal men we have been breaking are rebuilding themselves, into some kind of giant lizard."
"What do we do!?" thought Taz.
"You can listen to me."
Exile looked to his right in shock.
"How did you get in here?" he thought.
Deborah smiled, a mischievous look in her pale green eyes.
"I'm a sorceress," she thought. "Breaking into an unprotected psychic network isn't that hard. Actually, you're lucky the Disciples haven't gotten in here. They run on psychic power."
"So," thought Gavin, "what's the plan, Miss…"
"Deborah," thought the sorceress. "Okay, here's the idea. Every one of the Disciples' clockwork bodies has a core made of psytanium, a metal alloy that responds to psychic energy. To decrease their power, the cores themselves have to be destroyed."
"If they're all made of clockwork," thought Colleen, "what's controlling them?"
"The voices you heard came from the Overseer Brains. A few of the Disciples are allowed to retain part of their identities and voices, so they can direct their troops. They are housed within heavily-armored mechs, and by now, they're probably all bunched together midway up the room."
"So, what is the plan?" asked Anton.
"What we need," replied Deborah, "is a team to keep the Disciples, and their giant clockwork lizard thing, busy, so they don't find some way into the rest of the base. While that's going on, a smaller team needs to try to disconnect the Overseer Brains from their psychic broadcasters. We need the heavy hitters down here with the lizard and the heavy thinkers up top with the Overseer Brains."
"Alright," thought Gavin, "Shag, Anton, Blitz, Hunter, Taz, and Colleen are the ground team. Sylvia, you'll be there to keep them on their feet."
A chorus of thoughts agreed to their roles.
"Hubert, Alex, and I will head for the Overseer brains," Gavin continued. "And Exile? We'll need you to get Deborah up here to help us. We could use her knowledge of the situation."
"Okay everyone!" thought Hunter. "Let's show 'em what we can do!"
Up on one of the catwalks, Hunter rushed towards his girlfriend, before scooping her up.
"Huntie!" she exclaimed in surprise, "I can't remember the last time you carried me like this."
Colleen wrapped her arms around his neck as she rested comfortably in his arms. As he rushed along the catwalks and down the stairs, Hunter smiled.
"Well," he said, "I like to save it for special occasions."
"This is a special occasion?" asked Colleen, over the rushing air.
Hunter looked down at the base of the cave.
"Fighting a psychically-controlled clockwork dinosaur in a cave with no way out. Yeah, I'd consider that special."
Up above, Taz looked down at the giant roaring lizard.
"How are we gonna get down there?" he asked. "It's a long way down."
He felt a hand on his shoulder. When he turned, he saw Shag with a devilish grin on his face.
"Allow me," thought the sheepdog.
Scooping up Sylvia and Taz under his arms, Shag leapt from the catwalk. There was a moment of silence as Taz's shock wore off. Then, he screamed like a little girl.
Covering her ears, Sylvia looked down at the clockwork lizard. She saw Hunter rush to the ground floor and begin to spin at super-fast speeds. A moment later, he saw Colleen hurtle out from him at ludicrous speeds.
"Chimmy-Cherry-Changa!" cried the collie as her foot plowed into the clockwork creature's head.
The lizard stumbled to one side as the female Rover's impact snapped its head to one side. As it tried to right itself, an enormous boulder came flying from the other side of the room. Leaping down from another catwalk, Anton and Blitz landed on the floor as Anton dusted his paws off.
An instant later, Shag landed atop the lizard's metal-plated head, before springing off and setting his cargo on the ground. As the lizard shook off the triple impact it had just suffered, Taz rose to his feet, shaking in his boots.
"Warn me next time, mate," he breathed.
"But where is the fun in that?" thought Shag.
As the lizard rose to its full height and roared at the Rovers, Hunter called out to the others.
"Same as before, Rovers," he said, "hit and run. Don't stand still, or you might find yourself on a blind date with one of its pointy bits."
Taz's hands burst into flame, Anton pulled a boulder out of the ground, and Blitz bore his claws as the other Rovers took a fighting stance. A moment passed as the opposing combatants sized the other up. Finally, with a fervent howl, the Rovers launched themselves at the gargantuan lizard, which responded with an ear-splitting roar all its own.
Up above, Exile and Deborah watched the battle begin to unfold. Exile felt a bit uncomfortable as the pair of them snuck up towards where the Overseer Brains were. It was not, however, due to the stealth spell that Deborah had cast around them. Rather, it was because the young woman had taken ahold of his hand and refused to let go, all the while making small talk, as though they were simply on a walk in the park.
"So, how long were you five in that time bubble?" she asked, as the pair sidestepped another group of Disciples that were descending to the ground.
"Um…over ten years," Exile stammered.
"Hmm, and how old would you be, not counting those years?" she asked, coyly.
"Well, I was born…'95, so, that would make me 28 in dog years. Um, can we hurry?" he asked, as he continued to nervously glance upwards. "The others are waiting."
"Oh, I'm sure they'll be fine," replied Deborah. "It's not every day I'm stuck in a cave full of menacing robots with nothing but a handsome man to protect me."
Exile's eyes went wide.
"You think I'm –"
"Oh look, we're here!"
Exile felt a shiver run down his spine as Deborah released his hand and her spells dispersed. As the young woman moved towards the other Rovers, Exile looked up to see that, just above them, stood a veritable fortress of clockwork. As Deborah, Gavin, and Hubert began discussing their next move, Alex approached the husky.
"Are you alright?" asked the malamute. "You look a little flushed."
Exile tugged at the collar of his suit, indeed feeling a little warm.
"Must be the lack of air flow," he muttered.
A few moments later, Deborah and other Rovers gathered around.
"I'm going to cast my Stealth spell again," she said, "and for it to extend to all of you, we need to be in, uh, physical contact."
As the others began to take each other's' hands, she held out hers to Exile. Upon seeing his hesitant look, she smiled sweetly at the husky.
"Come on, Exile. I won't bite," she said with a grin in her eyes.
Feeling unusually tense, Exile finally took ahold of Deborah's hand as she took ahold of Alex's. Closing her eyes, she began to murmur.
"Abscondite nos a conspectu inimicorum."
Exile felt a shiver run up his back as he watched a shell of energy envelope his teammates. The Rovers began to fade, until they were ghost-like in appearance.
"Okay guys," said Gavin, "single file up the stairs, keep in physical contact, and keep as inconspicuous as possible."
As the Border collie led the way, Exile followed between Hubert and Deborah. Feeling pressure on his hand, he looked back to see Deborah squeezing and rubbing his hand, a look of affection on her face. As he turned away, an uncertain look rose on his face.
"What is she doing?" he thought. "Is she…flirting…with me?"
The quintet made their way up the stairs, the rhythmic sound of clockwork growing in their ears as they approached the Overseers' fortress. The structure looked as though it had grown like some sort of brass tree. As they approached, Deborah whispered another spell.
"Iter ingredi castra."
A silvery trail of light flowed out from her towards the towering structure. As the Rovers looked on, it wound its way between a pair of giant gears.
"This way," Deborah said, motioning to the trail of shimmering lights.
Leading the Rovers through the opening, the group wound their way through the fortress's tangled mess of moving parts. With little incident, the five managed to thread their way to the fortress's center. Pulling themselves through the final gap, they stared in awe at the sight before them.
The floor of the chamber consisted of a single enormous gear, slowly turning in rhythm with rest of the fortress. Hovering in the center of the chamber was an enormous shard of psytanium, its purple surface giving off a green-tinted light, and around the room, sitting atop their own pedestals, were a dozen brains, each floating in their own glass container.
"So, that's why I was smelling cranial fluid and heavy water," muttered Hubert.
"How did they get this all in here?" asked Exile.
"Like I said," replied Deborah, "the Overseer Brains are powerful psychics. They can meld and morph matter with merely a thought."
"So what do we do?" asked Exile.
Deborah's eyes grew wide as she looked past the husky.
"Gavin! Alex! No!" she cried.
As she rushed past him, Exile saw the two young Rovers moving towards the psytanium shard, but before she could reach them, they had reached out and touched the glowing metal. A shockwave of green energy exploded from the psytanium shard before immediately reversing its course. Hubert was thrown off his feet as the implosion sucked him in. Alex and Gavin never had a chance to run. Exile grabbed Deborah as she fell to the floor. Pulling her to his chest, he grasped one of the brass rods extending from the wall. As Hubert crashed into the psytanium shard, a green glow appeared in his eyes, along with those of Alex and Gavin. Moments later, they rose into the air and stared down at the one remaining Rover and the young sorceress, and as they opened their mouths, they spoke in a voice not their own.
"We meet once again, Deborah…" said not-Gavin.
"We must thank you for your cooperation…" said not-Hubert.
"Without you, we would not be able to lay claim to these great minds…" said not-Alex.
"They will serve us…"
"As you have served us…"
"But now your use…"
"Has come to an end."
"You have granted us these minds…"
"And so, we will allow you to watch…"
"As they are made one with us."
As the winds suddenly stopped, Exile and Deborah fell to the floor. The Rover lay there stunned, before noticing that the sorceress was clinging to him and sobbing.
"Baryshnya, what is wrong?" he asked, lifting her head to see her face.
To his surprise, her eyes were no longer green, but a silvery grey.
"I'm so sorry," she sobbed. "They had control over me before I even got here. They sensed Gavin and Alex as soon as you got in the base. I tried so hard to fight them, but they were too much. I'm so sorry!"
As she finished speaking, Deborah broke down, tears flowing freely down her face once again.
Still unsure of what to do, Exile did the only thing he could think off, wrapping his arms around her and holding her as she cried. Deborah clung to him even as he watched the Overseer Brains begin their work on the other three Rovers. For a moment, he contemplated fighting them.
"But," he thought, "if they could take control of someone like Deborah, what are my chances of winning?"
With an exhausted sigh, he mentally resigning himself to his fate and closed his eyes, waiting for the end he knew was coming.
"I cannot believe I will eat dirt here," he thought, "with my pack fighting giant metal dinosaur or having brains removed by psychic robots."
With the sounds of clanking gears, creaking springs, and groaning pistons filled the air, Exile barely noticed a fizzling sound that came from where the mind-controlled Rovers were. Opening his eyes, he saw that Gavin was no longer floating before the psytanium shard. Puzzled, he continued watching, and after a few second, he saw something appear in a puff of smoke, before vanishing a moment later, taking Alex with it.
"What is happening?" he thought.
Moments later, Hubert vanished as well, and then the smoke appeared in front of him. In the few moments it was visible, Exile could make out a shape within the smoke. A pair of glowing yellow eyes peered down at him from the top of a tall lanky figure, a pair of horns perched atop its head with an arrow-tipped tail between its legs. However, before he could say or do anything, the figure had reached down and grabbed Deborah, vanishing in the blink of an eye.
"Hey!" exclaimed Exile as he rose to his feet. "Get back here!"
Exile readied his heat vision as he stood at the ready. Hearing the same fizzling from behind him, he turned just in time to see the same figure lunging for him. Rolling to one side, he dodged the airborne figure and fired his heat vision. The beams of heat hit only smoke as the figure vanished once again and reappeared on top of the Rover.
"Get off me!" Exile exclaimed, trying to wrestle with his attacker.
The figure said nothing as the pair vanished in another puff of smoke. Exile felt as though the air was being pulled from his lungs as the creature's strange smoke filled them, but an instant later, it was over. The Rover now found himself in a brightly lit room, the change in light making him close his eyes in pain.
"That's the last of them!" he heard a voice shout. "Team Psycho-Breaker is go!"
A distant thud shook the floor that Exile lay upon. Instants later, the same voice called out again.
"Wall is breached! Go, go, go! Archer, get that kinetic barrier up and don't let anything through that isn't made of meat!"
Exile felt himself being picked up from the floor and placed on a something soft. Daring to open his eyes, he saw a bright light above his head. A moment later, its luminance dimmed as Exile saw another new face appeared between him and the light. A pair of hands rested on either side of his head.
"What are you…" Exile began.
"Shh," said the new face, "it's alright. You're safe now."
Exile felt a slight tingling in the back of mind for a brief moment, before the hands were removed from his head.
"He's clean," said the face. "Looks like they didn't even touch him."
After a few moments, Exile felt a hand on his chest, and he turned to see the Master staring down at him, a relieved smile on his face.
"Hey Exile," he said, "how're you feeling?"
"Like was hit by stampeding reindeer herd," replied Exile, holding his head as he sat up. "What happened?"
"It turns out the whole thing was a giant gambit by the Disciples to get ahold of Alex, Gavin, and Hubert," the Master explained. "The containment breach was just a distraction to get all of you isolated."
As the Master further explained the incident, Exile took stock of his surroundings. He was in a hospital-like room, surrounded by sparse medical equipment. He saw each of the other Rovers on their own beds with a number of W.I.S.P. staff looking them over.
"And so, Team Psycho-Breaker, who is trained especially to deal with the Disciples, is cleaning up their mess."
The Master finished his brief explanation. He turned and looked over his creations with a smile.
"All in all, I think you all have had enough adventure for today," he said. "Get some rest, Exile. We'll be debriefing all of you in a few hours."
With that, the Master rose from Exile's cot, gave him an affectionate pat, and moved towards the next Rover in line. Exile lay back down, heaving a sigh of relief and confusion. On the one hand, he was glad that his team was safe and sound. On the other, he could not help but think they had failed.
"Real heroes do not need to be rescued, right?" he thought.
Turning to his left, he noticed that the cot next to him was occupied by Deborah. The sorceress was asleep at the moment, apparently exhausted from their shared ordeal. Oddly enough, there was a smile on her face, and she seemed oddly content as she slept.
"I suppose if she is alright," thought Exile, "then I can be happy about that."
"…and then this giant guy with a flamethrower appeared and started melting the robots! Then, there was a robot lady with laser guns for arms! And then, there was this guy who made a bunch of robots float into the air. Then, that guy with the smoke pulled me out and that's about it."
The Rovers had rested for several hours and were waiting to be "debriefed," as the Master had said. By now, Taz's enthusiastic reprisal of the Rovers' battle came to an end, though his enthusiasm was not shared by the other Rovers. Colleen and Hunter sat side by side, his arm around her and her head on his shoulder, forlorn expressions on their faces. Anton was fiddling with some loose stone, making it float above his hand as he sighed. Shag sat with his knees to his chest, staring into space, while Blitz compulsively sharpened his claws. Slyvia lay on her back, streaks of dried tears running down the sides of her face. Alex and Gavin both appeared to have zoned out, while Exile stared at the ceiling, barely hearing the ecstatic dingo.
"Wow," replied Deborah, as Taz finished his tale, "I wish I was there. That sounds amazing."
Taz puffed out his chest in pride.
"Yeah, we probably could have taken them down," he boasted, "but –"
A loud laugh from Biltz interrupted the dingo, who turned and glared at the Doberman.
"You think this is all a game, don't you, puppy-boy?" Blitz asked, still sharpening his claws. "Well, let me be the first to that it isn't."
Raising his eyes to look at Taz, he glared back.
"If those Agents hadn't gotten us out of there," he continued, "we would all be dead."
Taz's eyes began to burn with fury.
"Well, maybe if you'd done more fightin' and less worryin' about those pretty nails o' yers," he retorted, "then we wouldn't have been in that mess."
"And if you had done more than throw a few matches around, you might have actually helped!"
By now, the two were staring daggers at each other, Blitz's claws gleaming in the light, while flames began to eddy around Taz's arms.
"You wanna go, pretty boy?" Taz growled.
"You have no idea," snarled Blitz.
"Enough! Both of you!"
The pair turned towards Gavin, as he gripped his head.
"Enough with the yelling and the anger!" he groaned. "Everyone just calm down, please!"
Tears of pain began to flow down his face, as a worried Alex put an arm around his shoulder.
"I thought I'd gotten my telepathy under control," he sobbed, "but now I can't get you guys out of my head. Every hurtful thought, every wounded feeling, they're all running though my head, and I can't make them stop!"
The tension that had hung in the air vanished as Gavin broke down into pain-ridden sobs. Wordlessly, Alex pulled him into a hug, resting his head on her shoulder. For a few moments, there was no sound in the med bay but Gavin's quiet crying. Then, Sylvia rose from her cot and moved to embrace the sobbing psychic. Anton and Exile followed a moment later, until one by one, the Rovers had all joined the enormous, furry group hug.
"No matter what happened today," said Hunter, "and no matter what happens tomorrow, we're still a pack, a family, and we'll be there for each other. Win or lose, for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, 'til death do us part."
The other Rovers chuckled at the Labrador.
"We may belong to every corner of the world," continued Colleen, "but here and now, we belong to each other. And hell will have to bloody freeze over before we let one little failure drive us apart. So, what do you say, Rovers? To the power of the pack?"
A collective smile washed over the group.
"To the power of the pack," they replied.
The following group howl was much quieter and more somber than any of their previous ones, but as the Road Rovers felt their emotional weights fall away, they knew that things turn out for the best, as long as they stayed true to each other.