Joe Peperelli considered himself a cautious man. As someone who needed others to work his powers through, he knew when to keep both friend and foe alike close.
That cautiousness bled into everything else he did, or else he would not have survived in the cutthroat world of the criminal underground.
"Wait!" Joe shouted to his Elites before they could get into range of Fletcher, and, consequently, the turret fire raining down on the combat instructor. "Elites, hold defensive entrenchment. Shield line formation delta!"
Several elites filed in front of each other and unlatched large metal discs with glowing red centers. They planted the discs at their feet and crouched down, pressing a few touchscreen buttons.
The discs crackled with red energy before opening up, exposing glowing red circuitry and moving mechanical parts.
Large front facing shields of energy formed from these discs, and behind them, groups of three Elites crouched for cover.
"What is it now!?" said Darius as he withstood more barrages of large caliber gunfire and energy blasts from the dozen or so turrets installed in the Red Circle's façade. Crawler drones skittered across the walls, firing volleys of seeker missiles and adding to this damage.
Darius, however, was practically invincible.
Like many Alters whose powers transmuted their bodies into specific elements or energies, he was invulnerable to conventional firearms and possessed no real vital organs to hit.
The only real weakness was the white core in his chest that functioned like an engine to boost his heat and lava output, but destroying that did not kill Darius, it just limited his magma output temporarily.
Unlike many other Alter powers that transmuted the body fully into a different form, he also did not need to eat, drink, or breathe while maintaining this state, essentially rendering his energy levels the only definite timer on his power.
The only way to beat Darius was by destroying every single part of his body in a single instant, preventing him from regenerating or dunking him in deep water where his lava form would solidify and entrap him.
Even so, it was annoying to deal with all the hits he was taking because he needed to expend energy to regenerate.
Darius shot forth globs of magma with expert accuracy at the turrets he found, disabling them one by one.
"None of the Red Circle higher ups are here. They may be planning an ambush within! And we need to remain careful, especially of Cubehead and his warp traps!
My Elites will provide suppressive fire and snipe any drones, but you three will have to deal with breaking through the main door!" Joe nodded to an Elite, and several of them reached into their combat packs and took out spinning disc shaped drones that cloaked shimmered, cloaking themselves.
These reconnaissance drones had no offensive power, but they had advanced scanning systems that had Cubehead's energy signatures locked into them.
"Fucking pansies, gonna sit behind those shields and hold onto your balls like that, huh? And Red Circle higher ups!?" Darius laughed derisively. "Don't get funny with me, Joe. You and your 'Elites' might be scared sh*tless of them, but each of us from Blackwater is worth three Red Circle sh*tstains!"
Darius, however, relented to Joe's plan. He looked back after he finished disabling the last of the turrets. "Clank!"
"Get your lil' pea shooters out of my face," said Clank to the Elites as he trudged forwards, all of his heavy metallic parts clanking and clicking, emitting the sound of hydraulic pressure hissing from pistons external and internal.
He looked like a living tank, awe inspiring in his bulk and sheer power. He knelt down, and his three large metal toes extended out before hooking into the asphalt below, cracking into the ground for a firm hold.
His enormous red shoulder cannon lowered, and the barrel began to light up orange and spin. Patterns of blue energy lit up all around the length of the red weapon of mass destruction. The cannon aimed square at the Red Circle's main door.
Where before the door was a discrete yet stylish double door of tinted glass decorated with golden floral patterns at its frame, it was now a fortified grey Neosteel frame at least half a meter thick.
No conventional firearm would ever get through that.
But Clank did not believe in conventional. No, he did not believe in anything that did not generate an explosion loud enough to rupture an eardrum. Go big or go home was his motto, and he lived by it.
A deafening, rumbling crack echoed through the air as Clank's giant body recoiled. The ground under his anchored feet shattered.
The sound of metal exploding, literally shattering into pieces under unfathomable impact, pierced through the air.
Neosteel was the most durable metal on the market that was not techno custom made. It involved a 'smart' atomic structure that incorporated nanotechnology to shape itself in the most efficient structure against any specific type of damage or impact.
It was flexible, durable, adaptable, and, in the Red Circle's case, upgraded even further so that it was also heat proof and shock absorbent, making it bomb proof.
But now, that magnificent neosteel door had been blown apart like glass, its broken pieces smoking and blackened from impact.
Clank opened his metal mouth, and steam and smoke hissed out as he exhaled and stood up, detaching from the floor. "Nothing beats the boom of a railgun, I tell you. Nothing."
"Scan the insides - we don't want to deal with any ambushes!" said Joe. The Elites moved quickly, using handheld controllers to sending out their recon drones into the broken main door to scan the insides for threats.
"All clear!" said an Elite.
"ALL clear? No hostiles, either?" Joe narrowed his eyes.
Not a single trap in sight and not even any personnel to try and defend? Something was off.
"Yes sir. All clear," repeated an Elite.
Joe worried for a moment before calming down. If it was just himself and his Elites, he would be hesitant to push through.
But he had three of Blackwater's combat instructors with him, and they gave him all the assurance he needed.
Clank and Fletcher were solid B rank villains. Colette at B+.
At the B rank, villains and heroes alike became legitimate, recognized threats.
The Red Circle's higher ups were strong, yes, but they were either at the highest end of C rank or on the low end of B.
There was just that much of a divide between the C and B ranks. The difference between those that were just strong and those that were exceptional.
Darius Fletcher was not exaggerating when he stated he could deal with three of the Red Circle's higher ups.
In a direct engagement, it was probably true.
Feeling more confident, Joe waved to his men.
"Squadrons 1 and 2, spread out and mobilize!" said Joe. "Flush anyone out with smoke and flashes. If you detect Cubehead's trap cubes, break them with sonic grenades."
Cubehead could create small black cubes of energy that he could remotely activate or have detonate in foreign presences, causing the cubes to expand and warp individuals to other locations.
However, these cubes were fragile like glass, and sonic suppressant grenades could release far reaching waves of force that could easily shatter them without the need to ever risk nearing them.
Ten of Joe's men moved forwards, sweeping the area around them with side to side scans of their Hydra assault rifles.
They moved quickly but carefully, and entered into the Red Circle bit by bit, allowing those ahead to cover for those behind, making it so that if there was an ambush, losses could be minimized.
Joe was careful enough to keep the rest of his eight men outside, just in case something happened here.
Darius watched the Elites file in. "So? Any threats?"
"Not yet," said Joe as he saw the last of the ten Elites from his two advance squadrons move in. "Dance floor is secure. Second floor is being secured as we speak."
"They must be concentrating their defenses on the third floor. Where Casimir is holed up like a rat." Darius spat a glob of magma on the ground. It melted and sizzled into the asphalt. "We'll tear him out of there soon enough."
"Hostiles! Above!" one of Joe's elites suddenly shouted.
Joe immediately whipped his head.
A veritable flock of drones buzzed above, descending towards everyone outside. Some of these drones were combat drones, but many were just utility or commercial grade.
"No explosives!" shouted an Elite, confirming that they were not suicide bomb drones. But then what the fuck was this? Without bombs strapped to these drones, the vast majority of them were just chunks of flying metal.
"Gun them down! Use your EMP charges! We take no risks here!" said Joe.
Joe's eight elites knelt down and rapidly gunned down the swarm of drones above with volleys of explosive rounds. They tossed up EMP charges in locations where the drone swarm was thickest, disabling large swatches of them.
"Casimir must be getting real fucking desperate if this is his idea of a distraction," laughed Darius as he crossed his arms and looked at the dense cloud of random drones above.
"Wait! Hostiles! Switching to anti-unit fire!" said an Elite.
Now that the cloud of drones had been thinned enough, it was possible to see that there were people hidden within. White suited men and women with some form of flight capability whether it was levitation or through wings.
"The Strike Squad!" shouted Joe. "Take them out before they reach us!"
The Red Circle's Strike Squad consisted of its airborne staff that functioned like cavalry, making quick strikes in and out with their mobility. Joe had been on guard against them. He knew that they would not fight in the insides of the Red Circle where their flight was restricted.
But throughout the night, the Strike Squad had never shown up.
Not until now, when Joe had allowed his confidence to lapse just a tiny bit, splitting his Elites up in half.
Joe's mind raced. The cloud of drones had also hidden the Strike Squad not only in a mass of metal, but there was enough interference generated from the mass of drones that it was impossible for the Elites to scan them out beforehand.
Yet the Strike squad was still high enough up that they would suffer horrible losses before getting close.
Already, Joe could see members of the Strike Squad grunting or yelping in pain as bullets struck them, many of these bullets goring through their heads to instantly kill them. Several bodies dropped out of the air, crashing into the ground and bleeding out of holes punched into their brains.
Out of the twenty or so Strike Squad members, maybe only three or four would land on the ground without injuries, and then what?
Blackwater's faculty would just annihilate them.
"Where's Hirondelle!?" said Joe. His eyes darted from side to side as he tried to find the leader of the Strike Squad. Without Hirondelle, this attack was meaningless.
She was the only one with enough power to put up a fight against Blackwater faculty, and yet, even she was hilariously outmatched against three faculty members.
"She's not there!" shouted an Elite.
"Cube energy signatures scanned!" said another Elite.
At the mention of cubes, Darius immediately perked his head up and grew serious, the laugh wiping off his face. He started to blast forth streams of magma up to try and thin out the Strike Squad.
Clank could not do anything. He was recharging from using his railgun.
Joe stared at Colette as she just stood there with a hand on her hip and bored expression on her face, looking at the mass of whining drones and flying Alters above.
"What?" said Colette in distinctive French accent. "I can't fly."
Joe turned away from Colette and to his men.
"Snipe those with cubes! Ignore all others! Squadrons 1 and 2, recall!" shouted Joe. He understood what was happening. The Strike Squad was essentially committing a suicide attack to try and throw down Cubehead's warp cubes to try and teleport everyone away.
Joe saw as his elites expertly began to snipe those holding the cubes, but Strike squad members without cubes acted like meat shields, soaking up bullets as long as they could.
"Warp defense formation!" shouted Joe. The Elites gathered in groups of three as they continued to fire, making sure they would not be alone when warped away.
Yet those with the cubes did not focus on the Elites.
They made beelines towards Blackwater's three faculty. When they got close enough to the ground, the final three members of the Strike Squad tossed a cube at each of the three combat instructors.
"Fuck!" Darius tried to reach out and shoot magma at the cube in front of him.
"Welp." Clank saw the cube hover in front of his face.
Colette shrugged at the cube in front of her, knowing nothing she did right now mattered. At this range, destroying the cubes would still trigger its warp effect.
The cubes expanded and engulfed each combat instructor in a cube of inky black before vanishing away.
In exchange, the Elites immediately gunned down the last of the Strike Squad, killing them all.
Joe looked around at the battlefield.
Twenty white suited bodies were scattered all across the ground, some slung over streetlights, some crashed into cars, some splattered on the ground from freefall after getting shot in the head.
Fires from Darius and ammunition based explosions crackled and roared in the night breeze.
Countless broken drones sputtered all around, loosing an eerie mechanical elegy for the dead.
"All squadrons, return to me! Defensive entrenchment! Keep your Red Circle contingencies on hand!" said Joe. He adapted to this sudden turn of events. He did not panic. Time was still on his side.
Casimir had lost all of his Strike Squad to warp the Blackwater faculty away, and those were the strongest among his non higher ups. The rest were fodder that Joe's elites could gun down.
The only issue was the higher ups themselves.
Probably, Casimir thought that without the Blackwater faculty, Joe's Elites were defenseless against the Red Circle higher ups.
Joe smiled as he put on his shades again, his rapidly beating heart starting to calm again.
Little did Casimir know, Joe had prepared a contingency plan against all of the Red Circle's higher ups. The corrosive rounds for Walters, the kinesis fields for Hirondelle, and the viruses against Spybird's tech - all of this still gave Joe the upper hand.
Joe almost wanted Casimir to bring out his higher ups. He wanted to imagine how Casimir would despair when those he considered strongest and closest to himself were systematically and cleanly executed by Joe's Elites.
"Wha-?" Joe dropped his shades as he felt blood trickle from his mouth. He looked down and saw a serrated dirk of black metal made slick by…his blood? It jutted out of his chest, where his heart was.
Joe's knees failed and he fell on the ground… The force of the blade ripping out of him turned him around on his back, and he looked up to see the last thing before he died: the cold, inhuman stare of a fleshless bare skull.