"A YOUNG BUG'S FANCY"
by Jason R. Carter
The place was Security Savings of Venice Beach.
Gizmo Bug held the petrified Liberty in his arms. He was in the middle of robbing the bank when she came onto the scene to foil the robbery. Unbeknownst to her, it was a trap. He had an accomplice in the form of Jinx. She was the reason that Liberty was encased in a layer of stone. Bug could hear the police sirens outside.
"D'oh! The cops," said the Bug. "Wings...deploy! Time to make our exit, my dear..."
He looked up at the ceiling. "And that skylight will do just..." But before he could finish the sentence, he heard a sound. He heard something like concrete slowly breaking. He knew it couldn't be the ceiling because he hadn't gone through it. The sound was getting louder. Just then, Gizmo Bug looked down and started to shudder.
"What the--? Uh-oh..."
"Uh-oh" was right. Because Jinx' effect on Liberty had now worn off, and the Bug was in big trouble.
"It's, uhh...it's not what you..."
However, something else happened. Instead of getting knocked into the next time zone, he got a sort of come-hither stare from the platinum patriot. As she stood up, Bug was about to speak, but she pressed her index finger to his lips and went "Shhh". Then, suddenly, she grabbed him and planted a big wet one right on his lips!
Here was the girl of his dreams kissing him hard and passionately in the middle of the bank. He could almost hear Henry Mancini's "Love Theme from Romeo and Juliet" playing in the background.
When the police arrived on the scene, their jaws dropped to the floor and their eyes were nearly out of their sockets. They absolutely could not believe what they were seeing: Liberty and Gizmo Bug kissing and caressing in the middle of the bank like a teenage couple on a park bench. Eventually, one of the officers managed to raise his jaw high enough off of the floor to speak.
"Bug," he said. "Hey, Bug! Wake up! BUG!!!"
Just then, Gizmo Bug's eyes quickly opened. Everything had changed. He wasn't in Security Savings of Venice Beach, passionately kissing Liberty. He was back in his cell at Death Valley Paranormal Detention Center a.k.a. Stronghold...
Passionately kissing his pillow.
"You two need some time alone?" the officer's voice mockingly asked. The voice actually belonged to a husky prison guard. The Bug immediately put down the pillow and stood to his feet.
"Time for your session with Dr. Pearson."
"Just a minute."
He turned to the wall of his cell near his cot. Pasted on it were various news clippings and photos of none other than Liberty herself. He walked right up to it, slicking back his magenta colored hair with his right hand.
"Gotta be going now, darling," he said to the photos, "but I'll be back." He then kissed the photo in the center. The guard rolled his eyes and sighed.
"Come on, Winebauer, before I puke!"
* * *
Dr. Thaddeus Pearson was Stronghold's chief psychiatrist. He was a man of medium build in his late forties. His hair was salt and pepper colored. He wore a three-piece tweed suit with a brown tie. It was his job to handle the inmates' various mental and emotional disorders. Many of the metahumans incarcerated in Stronghold were trying cases. Gizmo Bug was no exception.
Dr. Pearson sat at his desk, preparing his files, when Gizmo Bug came in, escorted by the guard.
"What's up, Doc?"
"Hello, Edward," said the psychiatrist. "Please, sit down."
Winebauer immediately plopped down on the psychiatrist's brown leather couch, and began to nestle up in it. "Ah, Corinthian leather!" he sighed. Pearson walked over and sat in the chair next to the couch.
"Now, Edward, let's focus on why we're here. To discuss your fixation on Liberty."
"Every red-blooded American should be fixated on liberty, Doc. It says so in the Declaration of Independence. Life, liberty and the pursuit of..."
"You know that's not what I meant."
"I'm sorry. But I guess you're right. I am stuck on that flaxen flag-waver. But I just can't help it! That long, luxurious blond hair, those full lips, those great, big, beautiful..."
"What? I was gonna say 'blue eyes'. Oh, for shame, Dr. Pearson! I know you shrinks are preoccupied with sex, but--"
"Why don't we go back to the beginning?"
"The beginning? Okay. Well, one night, Mommy and Daddy Bug got a little frisky in the back of Daddy Bug's Cadillac, and Barry White was playing on the..."
"Sorry." Bug then sighed and stared dreamily at the ceiling, his hands behind his head. "One of the happiest days of my life was the day I met my goddess. I was robbing Biodyne Labs and about to make my getaway when I noticed that I wasn't flying any higher. Then I looked down and that's when I saw...her!!! I tried to play it cool, make jokes, play like I wasn't interested. But then she took me in her arms, and I was putty in her hands."
"Even though she then turned you over to the proper authorities."
"No relationship is perfect," Bug replied, shrugging his shoulders.
"I fail to see what relationship you might be referring to."
"Why, the madcap romance between me and Liberty, of course!"
"Edward, I'll be blunt. Most of the prisoners here are violent psychopaths. You, for all your criminal tendencies, aren't really the violent type. But then incidents happen, such as the brawl you instigated in the mess hall a few weeks ago."
"Now, wait just a minute, Doc!" Bug exclaimed, quickly rising to his feet. "That hooligan deserved what he got! He made a vulgar comment about my ladylove! One I'm too much of a gentleman to repeat!"
"All the same, I would hardly think that justifies physical confrontation."
"Gasp!" Bug placed the back of his hand to his forehead. "Is chivalry truly dead?! Say it isn't so!"
"Edward, is this necessary?"
"No, this is Corinthian leather. Pay attention."
The psychiatrist sighed heavily, somewhat exasperated with the Bug. "You have to come to grips with reality. And the reality is you're obsessed with Liberty. And, for the record, she hasn't shown any indication that she reciprocates your feelings."
"Oh, but that's where you're wrong, Doc," the Bug replied, waving his index finger. "Don't you remember what I told you?"
"Ah, yes. The 'look'."
"Yeah, that's right, the look! The very same look that said she wanted me, and wanted me bad, baby!"
"And what, may I ask, did the blow to the jaw she gave you say?"
"Do you have to dwell on the negative?"
"Did it ever occur to you that perhaps Liberty is already involved with someone? For all anyone knows, she might even be..."
Before he could finish, Bug rushed over and placed his hand over the doctor's mouth, as if to silence him. "Don't say it! Puh-leeeeeeze!"
Pearson removed Bug's hand from his mouth. "Married, Edward. She might even be married."
This caused Bug to scream "NNNOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!" at the top of his lungs, with his arms stretched outward and his hands balled into fists. Pearson merely stared at the floor, rubbing his temples.
Bug immediately stopped screaming and turned his attention back to the doctor.
"Edward, please sit..."
* * *
"DOWN!!" barked the huge metahuman, as he tossed a desk in the air. He stood close to 7' and couldn't have weighed any less than 450 lbs. His shoulders were almost as wide as the doorway. Some of the patrons scrambled out of the way. The other bank patrons immediately dropped down to their stomachs, placing their hands on top of their heads.
"Okay, ladies and gentlemen," barked the big man as he walked amongst all the scared customers, "just stay calm and don't try anything stupid. You might actually be able to tell your grandkids about this."
The robber made his way to the main vault. The bank manager was down on his knees, looking up at him. "Open it," he ordered, "or I show you why they call me Crunch! You don't want that!"
"I can't!" pleaded the bank manager. "This vault is on a magnetic time lock! It won't open for another twenty-four hours!"
"Sorry," Crunch replied. "I'm in a hurry." The bank manager immediately scrambled out of his way. The large crook then placed a hand on each side of the vault door. Bracing himself, he then began to pull on the door until it ripped off the hinges, and then tossed it away like it was nothing. The other robbers rushed into the vault with sacks and began to fill them with stacks of bills.
"Ahem," said a voice from the doorway.
The robber looked to see her standing there in the doorway, clad in her signature flag-suit, her right hand on her hip, and her left hand holding the mangled vault door. Liberty the American Girl. The platinum patriot herself. The big man wasn't shaky for a minute.
"Forget your PIN number?"
"I think you wanna get outta the way, sweetheart," the mammoth felon said as he walked up to her.
"Suppose I'd rather you put the money back and give yourself up instead?"
The behemoth cocked his infant-sized fist back and WHAM! knocked her through the door, sending her sailing right across the street and crashing into a boutique.
Liberty sat amidst broken mannequins and displays, shaking the cobwebs out. "Stupid, Jess, real stupid," she groaned to herself. She looked up to see Crunch coming in her direction, cracking his knuckles and smiling with sinister glee. Instantly, she regained her footing and flew towards him. She went barreling into his midsection and tackled him into a brick wall. She floated a few inches off the ground, watching and waiting for him to move. Slowly, the giant began to rise, laughing. "So, got some fight in ya, after all, huh?" he bellowed. "Good. That ought to make this fun."
"Are you gonna talk or are you gonna fight?"
He then gave his reply, as he started to charge her. Dodging was easier now that she was hovering. She could simply float out of the way. Back and forth, they traded blows, blocking and ducking. Every now and then, a punch would land. The blows rocked the streets to their foundation.
Suddenly, Crunch grabbed Liberty's hair and yanked hard. He lifted her up in the air and slammed her face first into the pavement. Then he lifted her up and slammed her down again. He then reached down and picked her up by the back of her head. "You know, it's too bad I gotta take you out," he said. "You're kind of a hottie."
"Too bad no one can say the same about you," said a voice from above. The giant and Liberty looked up to see a male figure hovering above them, his arms folded, a confident smirk on his face. The figure was handsome, blond and muscular, wearing a costume with a patriotic motif. A pair of reflective shades hid his eyes. This was Freedom Max, the "golden boy" of the metahuman community.
"Come to bail your little girlfriend out, pretty boy?" Crunch taunted.
"Girlfriend?" the hero replied, before taking a good look at Liberty. He spent a considerable amount of time taking in her features. "Wow. Uh, I mean, that's just a rumor. Although, now I think I'm starting to wish it wasn't."
"Yeah?" Crunch then picked up a loosened street sign and twisted it into a pretzel shape. "Well, when I'm done with you, you're gonna *wish* you looked this good!" He then tossed the warped piece of metal aside and charged Freedom Max, who hovered down a little closer to the ground. Just as Crunch had gotten close enough, Max had flown to the side, dodging his advance. "Olé!" Max shouted. He then raised his arm, as if he were a matador waving a cape in front of a bull. "Toro! Toro!" he shouted. This caused Crunch's nostrils to flare. Angrily, the massive criminal charged him again. Again, Max dodged, and a rising Liberty shouted "Olé!" just before landing a hard right to his jaw, sending him staggering back. "That's for grabbing my hair!" she added.
"You little--!" he growled, before feeling someone tap his shoulder. He then turned to get a left hook from Freedom Max. After that, Liberty and Freedom Max knocked him back and forth between the two of them until he finally got woozy. At that moment, Liberty and Freedom Max landed a double punch, effectively knocking him out.
"So, we finally meet," said Liberty. "Wish it was under better circumstances."
"Oh, I think the circumstances are just fine," Max replied, with a smile.
* * *
The police began to load the now-restrained Crunch onto the paddy wagon. Just a few feet away, Liberty and Freedom Max stood to the side, getting better acquainted.
"I figured we'd run into each other, sooner or later," said Max. "Guess it was a good thing I was in the neighborhood. Had some business to take care of."
"Fighting another meta-criminal?" Liberty asked.
"No, inspecting the new line of Justice Brigade action figures. That sort of thing comes with the territory."
"Uh-huh," Liberty sighed.
"You know, I heard you turned down the Assembly once. Good for you."
"Why is that?" she asked.
"Well, to be honest, the Assembly's a bit boring. Especially that stiff Sovereign. You'd have more fun if you joined up with the Justice Brigade. Plus, you and I would be able to work more...closely together," he said, as he inched closer towards her.
"You know you're sweating?" she asked, looking at his forehead.
"Huh? No, I'm not."
"Yes, you are. I can see it," she said, pointing to the beads of sweat on his forehead.
"Ahem, anyway, he said, wiping his brow, "what do you say? Wanna give me...I mean, the Justice Brigade a chance?"
"Well, to tell the truth, I don't think I'm ready to join any team, whether it's the Assembly or the Justice Brigade. I'm still a little new to the superhero thing."
"Oh. Well, give it some thought anyway, OK? Anyway, I gotta be off now. But I do hope we run into each other again." With that, he took her hand in his and kissed it, to her surprise, and then flew off. As she watched him fly away, a thought popped up in her head.
"Oh, man, I'm gonna be late for class!"
Meanwhile, Freedom Max had thoughts of his own. "OK, Max, get a hold of yourself. I mean, she's just another chick." He then looked back at Liberty, who was flying off in another direction. "Yeah, just keep telling yourself that."
* * *
Gizmo Bug walked through the Stronghold mess hall with his tray, looking for a table to sit at. As he walked, his fellow inmates taunted him.
"Hey, Bug! You and Liberty set a date yet?!"
"The real Liberty, or the pictures on his wall?"
"Like he has a chance with either!"
"Heard he's already two-timing the pictures with his pillow!"
"Laugh while you can!" he replied, turning around. "One day, my love and I will be together!"
"Maybe, if she's not too busy with Freedom Max."
"Freedom Max? Ha! That blow-dried peacock doesn't stand a chance with her!"
"Oh, yeah? Take a look," said an inmate, pointing to a TV screen. It was a news report of the bank robbery, with footage of Liberty and Freedom Max standing close together. It even showed Freedom Max kissing Liberty's hand. To say the least, Bug was less than thrilled to see this. He dropped his tray and started to tremble with anger.
"That cad! That fink! Trying to put the moves on my Liberty!"
"Did he just say 'cad'?" whispered one inmate to another.
"He's not going to get away with it! Oh, no siree Bob! Not by a long shot!"
"Hey, calm down, Bug!" shouted one of the guards. "Maybe you need to go back to your cell."
* * *
Meanwhile, an ominous-looking black helicopter flew across the skies over Death Valley. In the back of the helicopter, there were men dressed in paramilitary garb, checking weapons and other equipment.
"What's our ETA?"
"Ten minutes until we reach Stronghold," replied the pilot.
"Good. Phase one is going smoothly."
* * *
"It's not fair," Bug muttered as the guard escorted him to his cell.
"Aw, quit your griping, Winebauer," said the guard.
Just as they had gotten to his cell, alarms started to sound.
"Security alert! Security alert! All security personnel quickly escort all prisoners to their cells immediately! This is not a drill! Repeat, this is not a drill!"
* * *
Guards fired at the helicopter as it advanced toward the outer wall. The passengers returned fire, causing the guards to scatter. The helicopter then fired a Stinger missile towards the wall, blowing a hole in his cell wall. Into the smoking crater came canisters, which released a purple gas, rendering them unconscious. The helicopter then hovered towards the hole and two individuals dressed from head to toe in black leapt into the hallway.
"There he is," said one, pointing to the Bug.
"Grab him and let's go!" said another.
They grabbed Bug and carried him off towards the hole. They loaded the unconscious Gizmo Bug onto the helicopter, before they flew off, avoiding gunfire from the guards.
As some guards helped the fallen guard to his feet, one asked, "What the hell just happened?"
* * *
Later that day, Jesse and Gina sat on the grass on the UCLA campus. Underneath them was a blanket. In between them was a small radio.
"So, you finally met Freedom Max, huh?" Gina asked. "After all the rumors being spread about you two, it must have been pretty awkward."
"Actually, I'm glad he showed up when he did."
"Mmm-hmm," Gina replied with a sly grin.
"Nothing. I was just wondering if he's as gorgeous in real life as he is in all his photos."
"It's a valid question!"
"I was trying to stop a bank robbery! I didn't really have time to check him out!"
Gina then shot her a look as if to say "Yeah, right!" It was a look Jesse knew too well. She knew there was no point in denying anything when Gina gave her this look.
"OK, I was kinda checking him out."
"So, is there any chance of the gossip becoming reality?" Gina eagerly asked.
"I dunno, Gina," said Jesse.
"I mean, he is good-looking and all..."
"So what's the problem?"
"He just seems to have this huge ego, you know? If I wanted to date a guy like that, I'd just get back together with Barry Ellis."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Still, look on the bright side. At least he's not..."
But before Gina could finish the statement, a voice from their radio said, "We interrupt regular programming for this special news bulletin. Just a few short hours ago, Edward Winebauer, a.k.a. the Gizmo Bug, escaped from Death Valley Paranormal Detention Facility, a.k.a. Stronghold. He was aided in his escape by mysterious assailants who, according to eyewitnesses, dragged him out after they used explosives to destroy a portion of the walls. At present time, authorities have no clue as to who was behind the breakout. Winebauer is considered to be armed and dangerous. If you should see him, do not approach him."
Jesse groaned and rubbed her temples. She knew it was just a matter of time before Gizmo Bug was sniffing after her like a lovesick puppy.
"I'll go get some Advil," said Gina.
* * *
In an abandoned warehouse, Edward Winebauer woke up.
"Oh, man," he said, rubbing his head. "I gotta stop taking Nyquil straight from the bottle."
He noticed he was still wearing his Stronghold jumpsuit, but his dampening collar was gone. He then looked around and saw his Gizmo Bug suit hanging on a hook. A few feet away from the green insect-like suit was an old worktable with some incomplete-looking equipment. He realized he was at one of his old hideouts. He then remembered what had happened. He remembered the explosion and the knockout gas. He remembered strange men coming for him just as he was drifting into unconsciousness.
"How did I get here?" Gizmo asked himself. "And why am I still in this ugly jumpsuit? Blecch!"
He then walked over to the worktable, where he saw a slip of paper. He walked over and picked it up. It was a note, which merely said:
"All in the name of true love."
He then remembered the last thing going through his mind before the breakout.
He began to get himself ready. He no longer cared who broke him out or why they did. Now he was just determined to settle a score. In his mind, Freedom Max tried to steal his girl. That was just something one didn't do, at least, not without suffering the consequences.
"If that himbo thinks for one second he can take my girl, he's got another thing coming," he muttered to himself as he sat at the worktable, tinkering away at one of his gadgets. Granted, only a few of his gadgets actually worked on their own. The rest of them were merely channels for his meta-abilities. But it gave him something to do.
"Get ready, pretty boy, ‘cause I'm coming for you."
Meanwhile, outside the warehouse, a mysterious woman sat in a mysterious black van with surveillance equipment sat, speaking on a cell phone.
"Everything's going according to plan. And the fool hasn't the slightest clue as to why we broke him out."
"Excellent. Now begins phase two."
* * *
The next day...
Jesse sat on the edge of her bed, already dressed in her flag suit, putting on her boots while Gina sat at her computer. "So, where do you plan to start looking?" Gina asked.
"I probably won't have to look for him at all," Jesse replied. "Knowing Bug, he'll be out in the open to draw me to him." She then reached for her gloves and was about to put them on, when a knock came at the door. Liberty and Gina's heads immediately turned to the door. "Quick, hide!" Gina whispered as she rushed to the door. Liberty automatically ran for the closet and, just before going in, signaled for Gina to open the door. At the door was one of the girls in the dorm. "Hey, did you hear?" the young girl asked. "Gizmo Bug's flying over Hollywood Boulevard, calling out Freedom Max!"
"Freedom Max?" Gina asked. "Why?"
"I don't know. Something about Max trying to steal his girlfriend," the other girl replied before she left. Just then, Liberty came out of hiding.
"Great," Liberty said, "just great."
* * *
Gizmo Bug circled over Hollywood Boulevard in a frenzy. "Come on, you two-faced home wrecker!" he shouted. "What are you, scared? You should be!"
Just then, he got his wish as he saw something coming in the distance.
"Finally," Bug said to himself. As the something started to get closer, it began to look more and more like Freedom Max. Finally, he was about a foot away.
"Well, well, Gizmo Bug," said Max.
"I'm surprised you didn't bring the rest of the Justice Brigade."
"For you?" Max replied. "Ha, funny. So what's with the call out? Don't you usually annoy Liberty?"
"You, sir, are not worthy to speak her name!"
"Excuse me?" he asked, arching his right eyebrow. At this time, Bug began to fly up closer to Max, removing his gloves.
"You have committed a most heinous and dishonorable act!"
"OK, and that would be?"
"You have dared to come between me and my intended!" He then slapped Freedom Max in the face with his gloves, as if challenging him to a duel. "I demand satisfaction!"
"Did you just smack me with your gloves?"
"I did!" he replied, putting them back on.
"OK, geek boy, just come along peacefully."
"Not until you and I settle the score!"
"Are you serious?" Max half-chuckled.
"Aw, what's the matter?" asked Bug. "Afraid I might knock your capped teeth in?"
"Yeah, right. And my teeth are *not* capped!"
Bug then reached for his belt and pulled out a small box-shaped device. "Oh, and what's that for?"
"This!" Bug replied, pulling out a pin on the top of the device. The box then began to emit a earsplitting whine. The sound made Max cover his ears and cry out. "Just your basic mugger deterrent, with the good ol' Gizmo Bug touch!" Bug shouted over the whine. Then Bug flew towards Max and rammed into him. He actually managed to move him a few inches, but not without suffering aftereffects of his own. "Whoa!" he shouted, holding his head and trying to steady himself, "that old song was right! Love *does* hurt!"
"Bug boy, you have no idea!" Max then reached for the device and snatched it from Bug's hands before crushing it. He then grabbed Bug by the antennae and yanked him towards him, his fist cocked.
"D'oh! Not in the face! Not in the face!"
"Ahem!" The sound caused them to turn around and see Liberty hovering close to them, her arms folded and with a disapproving look on her face.
* * *
Somewhere, on the street below, the mysterious black van was parked. The driver looked up at the scene in the sky and spoke into a cell phone.
"We've acquired target."
"Proceed," said the voice on the other end. On the hood of the van was what looked like a satellite dish that positioned itself, aiming directly at the three metahumans.
* * *
Liberty still hovered near Freedom Max and Gizmo Bug, giving them both a stern look.
"Darling!" Bug exclaimed. "You've come to rescue me! OK, pretty boy, hit the bricks!"
"I'm not here to rescue you," said Liberty.
"Oh, you're just saying that."
"No, I'm not. I'm here to turn you over to the authorities."
"Don't worry your pretty little head, babe," said Freedom Max. "I got the situation under control."
"Oh, you're in trouble now," said Gizmo Bug to Freedom Max.
"Don't worry my pretty little head? Could you be more full of yourself? Seriously! I think I'm starting to see why Star and Ariane walked out!"
Freedom Max was at a loss for words.
"And you," she added, turning to Gizmo Bug, "why can't you get it through your head that I'm not interested in you?!"
"Why do you deny it, my pet? Remember when you gave me that look in the bank!"
"I can't believe you're still obsessing over that so-called look from two months ago! I wasn't giving you any look when I found myself in your arms! Also, in case you forgot, I decked you in the jaw almost immediately!"
"Why do people keep bringing that up?!" Bug exclaimed.
"Can I please hit him now?" asked Freedom Max.
"Look," she sighed, "let's just turn him in."
"But he hit me with his glove."
"I don't care!"
"Well, you deserved it!" exclaimed Bug.
"My God, shut up!"
"Uh, guys?" Gizmo added.
"WHAT?!" Liberty and Max roared in unison.
Just then, a green burst of energy hit all three of them, causing them to cry out in pain until they fell to the ground, unconscious. Then, the black van drove up to where they fell. The driver and two men, all dressed in paramilitary gear, emptied out and walked over to them.
"Inform the Major we're bringing the target in," said the driver, and added while turning to the fallen Freedom Max, "along with a bonus." One picked up Liberty, while another picked up Freedom Max.
"What about him?" asked one of the men, pointing to Gizmo Bug.
"That fool has served his purpose. Leave him."
As they started to load Liberty and Freedom Max into the van, Gizmo, still groggy from the blast, grabbed one henchman's leg before passing out. With that, they got in the van and drove off, leaving the Bug lying in the streets.
* * *
Liberty's eyes began to flutter open. She then got up with a jerk.
"You're awake, finally." She turned to see Freedom Max, wearing a dampening collar. She then looked down to see that she was also wearing one. Whoever was responsible for their predicament was thorough. Looking around, she could determine that they were in some kind of makeshift cell. Judging from their surroundings, they looked to be in some kind of a mine or a cave of some sort.
"What happened? Last thing I remember, we were hovering over Hollywood Boulevard with Gizmo Bug, and then..."
"And then something hit us. And then, apparently, we wound up here. Question is, where's here? And who brought us here?"
"And what happened to Gizmo Bug?"
"I wouldn't worry about him if I were you," said a voice from the shadows. Just then, out of the shadows stepped Major Galina Kozlov, two of her Valkyries and two henchmen.
* * *
"Oh, auntie Em," Gizmo Bug groaned as he started to regain consciousness. The next thing he heard was the sound of guns locking and loading.
"FREEZE!" He looked up to see two of L.A.'s finest pointing their guns down at him.
"Can't we all just get along?" he said, raising his hands.
"Up on your feet, funny boy!" Gizmo did as he was ordered. He then looked around to notice Liberty and Freedom Max missing.
"What happened to Liberty and Freedom Max?" Bug asked.
"Worry about yourself. Read the insect his rights."
"You have the right to remain silent."
"I choose to waive that right. Wings deploy!" His wings immediately popped up and he darted towards the sky, the police far below him. "Sorry, boys, but I've got a damsel in distress to rescue!" As he flew off, he then reached into a pouch on his utility belt and pulled out a miniature tracker. He then raised the antenna and pressed a button. The device started to beep as it revealed the tracer signal. It placed them at 150 miles outside L.A.
"Death Valley." Bug knew that meant he'd be going closer to Stronghold. "Oh, poopie." He then decided to suck it in. His ladylove was in danger and that was just the kind of bonehead risk he was willing to take for her, so he flew off for Death Valley.
* * *
"Galina Koslov!" exclaimed Liberty.
"I'm flattered you remember me," Galina replied.
"How could I forget? You and that doctor tried to kill me with that gas a few months back!"
"It was unfortunate that we failed, because it left us with a potential thorn in our side. One that's going to be dealt with."
"And just who might 'us' be?"
"That's something you will never know."
"Yeah, well, I don't know who you people are or how thorough you were," said Freedom Max, "but in case you forgot, I'm the leader of the Justice Brigade. When I don't check in, they're gonna come looking for me. And then they're gonna come looking for you."
"We anticipated such a possibility. So, in addition to abandoning our vehicle, we took the precaution of occupying your compatriots with some escaped meta-criminals. Or should I say, some *more* escaped meta-criminals?"
"More?" Liberty then began to put two and two together. "You broke Gizmo Bug out of Stronghold."
"Very good. We knew about his ridiculous crush on you. So, we broke him out, knowing that he'd commit a crime or some act of idiocy to lure you out, and that's when we made our move."
"Let me see if I get this straight," Freedom Max interjected. "You staged an elaborate jailbreak, just to have bait for a trap? Lady, that's gotta be the stupidest thing I've ever heard!"
"It worked, didn't it?" Galina replied, confidently.
"And I'm guessing that's why he's not here," added Liberty.
"Once you've caught the rat, why keep the cheese?" Galina responded coldly. She then turned to one of her Valkyries and nodded her head. The Valkyrie then worked the console. Liberty and Freedom Max then heard a loud noise, like a loud vacuum. It was coming from the vent in the ceiling of their cell.
"Since Heider's gas was an abysmal failure, we decided this time to suck all the air from your cell, thereby killing you via asphyxiation. But at least you'll both be together. Do svidaniya."
Liberty started to pound on the cell door. Max placed a hand on his shoulder. He then pointed to the vent. She could figure out what he was getting at. Max crouched down so he could boost her up to the vent. As she went up, she reached for the grating and began to pull on it, but to no avail. It was screwed in too tightly, and neither of them had the strength to yank it loose.
It was hopeless.
* * *
"Shame we couldn't stay and watch the show," remarked one of the Valkyries.
"Yeah," replied a henchman. "I was ready to take bets on who'd go first."
"My money's on the babe," said one.
"Oh really?" asked a Valkyrie, with a cold stare.
"It doesn't matter, anyway," interjected Galina. "The cache of explosives should finish the job. Fortunately, there's enough time for us to clear the--"
Just then, the Major stopped them. "Do you hear something?" They all began to listen. They all heard a buzzing sound and looked up to see Gizmo Bug headed right towards them.
"HERE I COME TO SAVE THE DAAAAAAY!" he sang out loud.
"I thought we left this clown behind," said one of the henchmen.
"Yoo-hoo! Mysterious paramilitary types!" he shouted.
"How did you find us?" asked Galina.
"Seemple, my leetle babushka," Bug replied in an exaggerated Russian accent, intending to mock Galina. "I placed a little tracking device on one of your goons there when I grabbed his leg!" One of the henchmen looked down at his legs and found a small tracer attached to the cuff of his pants.
"It seems we underestimated your resourcefulness," said Galina, "but you're too late! In a matter of seconds, Liberty and Freedom Max will be dead."
"WHAT?!" the Bug roared.
"In fact," she added with a cruel smile, "they're probably dead right now." By now, Bug was visibly trembling with anger, his fists clenched. Naturally, the anger was more for the possibility of Liberty being dead.
"Aw, look!" taunted one of the Valkyries. "He's upset!"
"Nah, he's just scared he lost his dream date!" mocked a henchman.
"Enough games!" Galina barked. "Kill this--!"
Before she could finish the order, an angry Gizmo Bug dove down towards them, ramming into the henchmen and Valkyries and knocking them down. He was livid. While he wasn't exactly gifted with super-strength, he still went in, swinging. He then turned towards Galina, who had a gun cocked at his head.
"You should have just let the police take you back to Stronghold, dubiina."
"Maybe, but then I wouldn't be able to do this!" he said, before throwing up a magnesium flare and shielding his eyes. Galina cried out as the flash blinded her, causing her to drop her gun, which Bug then scrambled for and aimed it at her head. She could hear the gun being locked and loaded. She could feel the barrel of the gun pressed against the back of her head.
"Oh, don't be too sure of that."
"It's not in you, Winebauer. I know enough about you to know that you're no killer."
"You just bragged about killing the girl of my dreams. You're as good a place to start as any."
"And it doesn't occur to you that she might be alive?"
The idea made Bug pause for a moment.
"That mine is sitting on a cache of explosives, set to blow in a few minutes. You can either kill me or try to save her. The choice is yours."
It wasn't really a choice. "Wings deploy!" Bug quickly flew into the entrance. Seconds later, the Valkyries and other agents began to rouse themselves.
"What happened to the Bug?" said one of the henchmen.
"Unimportant! Everyone to the chopper!" The Valkyries helped the blinded Major to her feet as they ran to a secluded part of the park where, underneath a large tarp, there hid an Apache helicopter. After removing the tarp, they all boarded and took off.
* * *
Liberty and Freedom Max were starting to slip into unconsciousness. They had fought to stay alive as long as they could. To them, it looked like the end. At that moment, Freedom Max placed a hand on Liberty's cheek and lifted her head. Max then removed his shades. They stared into each other's eyes and started moving in closer and closer to each other until...
The two quickly turned to see Gizmo Bug flying towards them. They weakly pounded on the cell door. He reached into his pouch and pulled out a small explosive. He immediately started to cut a door into the cell. Just as the doorway was made, both Liberty and Freedom Max spilled out onto their knees, gasping for air.
"You know...I never thought I'd be glad...to see you, Bug," Liberty said as Bug worked on her dampening collar. "Thank you."
"Do I get a kiss for being a hero?" he asked.
"Don't push your luck," she replied. Sighing, he then went over to work on Freedom Max' collar.
"Does anybody else hear beeping?" Freedom Max asked. They listened closely and they figured the beeping could only mean one thing.
"That's why I came down here! That witch said there was a whole cache of explosives down here, and they were set to blow! That was a couple of minutes ago!"
"Which means those bombs could go off at any second!"
"Well, I've got plans for the evening and dying isn't one of them!" exclaimed Freedom Max.
"Right! Let's move it!"
"And for the third or fourth time today, wings deploy!"
The three immediately raced for an exit. Almost the instant they got out...
The force of the explosion pushed them forward. For the most part, they were unharmed. They turned back to see smoke billowing from the mine entrance.
"Well, that was an eventful afternoon," said Bug.
Liberty and Freedom Max stared at the Bug.
* * *
State police were all over the scene. They couldn't find any physical evidence of the event, or of the perpetrators. It was all utterly destroyed. But they did have a certain escaped meta-criminal to return to Stronghold.
"Home again, home again, jiggety-jig," Bug said with melancholy in his voice.
"Cheer up, Bug" said one of the troopers escorting him to the paddy wagon. "If it turns out you really were taken against your will, the jailbreak won't affect your jail time."
Meanwhile, Liberty and Freedom Max once again found themselves off on the side, talking.
"You know, this is twice in two days," said Freedom Max. "People might start to talk."
"People do talk," replied Liberty.
"Oh, right. Of course, I wouldn't mind if we did this kind of thing...a bit more regularly."
"Hey, pretty boy! Get your own girl!" Bug shouted, as the police loaded him onto the wagon. "That's right! I'm gonna be watching you!"
"It's so nice to be admired," Liberty said, with some sarcasm. Freedom Max chuckled a bit before he noticed Liberty looking rather depressed.
"Hey, what's wrong?" Max asked.
"Just about everything. This is the second time I've run into these people, and I still don't know any more about them than I did, then."
"Yeah, well, whoever they are, they'll be found out, sooner or later. Nobody stays in hiding forever. But, on a more pleasant topic, when we were back in that cell, about to die..."
"That moment between us?"
Liberty and Max immediately looked to see the Justice Brigade coming onto the scene. Olympia, Kid Max, Hellcat, Arcana, Ultra Max and Wildcard all arrived, some flying down in front of the two heroes, other running towards them.
"Sorry we're late," said Olympia.
"Yeah, we had a little bit of a hold up," added Ultra Max.
"I know," said Freedom Max.
"Uh, did we come at a bad time?" asked Wildcard.
"Well, um, I'd better be going now," said Liberty. "I guess I'll see you around."
"Yeah, um, I guess. Hey, wait!"
"About my offer from yesterday. Have you thought it over?"
With that, Liberty flew off. Freedom Max watched her fly away.
"Dude, you have *got* to get her to join!" exclaimed Kid Max.
"Don't get too excited, kid," said Hellcat. "I think our fearless leader has his eye on her, himself."
The comment caught Freedom Max' attention. "Don't be ridiculous. I just think she'd be a great asset to the team."
"Why do I get the feeling you're more interested in her assets?" remarked Arcana.
"I know *I'm* interested in her assets!" said Kid Max.
"Kid, do your hormones ever slow down?" asked Ultra Max.
"Team, I have a feeling we'll be seeing more of her in the future," Freedom Max said. "At least, I hope so," he thought to himself.
* * *
The director of THREAT North America sat in his chair, his fingers steepled. His assistant Tomiko Kurosawa stood behind him. Galina sat across from him on the other side of his desk, looking penitent.
"From the beginning, I felt this plan would fail," he said, "but I humored you and allowed you to carry it out, because you wanted to prove that even the most absurd plot can work, given the proper execution."
"It was a calculated risk," said Galina. "I shouldn't have underestimated the bait."
"Fortunately, they still have no idea of who or what we truly are. But that doesn't mean that they eventually won't find out."
"‘Eventually' can be a long time from now."
"It can also be sooner than we think."
Just then, the doors swung open and two THREAT agents walked right up to Galina. Then, each one grabbing an arm, they dragged the Major out of the office, kicking and screaming.
"Let go of me! Let go!"
The director then sat back in his chair, stewing in his anger. "Now, not only is Liberty alive, but we have her, the Assembly and the Justice Brigade seeking us out! The Hierarchy is going to crucify me for this!" Tomiko began to rub his shoulders in order to relax him. "From here on out, we will have to be more careful than ever before." Then a sinister smile began to creep on his face. "Then again, perhaps it was inevitable that our existence would be made known. This might work to our advantage, after all."
* * *
Jesse lay on her bed, stretching out. "Man, what a day!"
"I'll say," replied Gina. "Two days straight of running into Freedom Max? If you're trying to dispel the rumors, you're not doing a very good job of it."
"Well, you can thank Gizmo Bug and whoever it was that broke him out of Stronghold for that."
"Still no idea who they are?"
"No, and Koslov's the only one I really know. But I'll find out who they are, someday."
"And what about Freedom Max?"
"I still haven't decided whether or not I'll take him up on his offer to join the Justice Brigade."
"No, not that! I meant the kiss!"
"We didn't kiss!"
"But you were about to, when Bug saved you."
"Well, we thought we were gonna die."
"And you figured what better way to go, right?"
"Gina!" she exclaimed, throwing a pillow at her.
"Well, look on the bright side, even if you didn't get all the bad guys this time, at least you're still alive, and Gizmo Bug's back in Stronghold where he belongs."
"And he's still hooked on me, no doubt. Don't you just love the status quo?"
* * *
"I'll be honest with you, Edward," said Dr. Pearson, "hearing that you were willing to commit murder troubles me."
"Well, love makes you do crazy things, Doc," Bug replied.
"However, I think I can at least take comfort in the fact that you decided to rescue Liberty and Freedom Max rather than go through with killing that Koslov woman."
"Ah, no real choice, Doc. Kill the psycho witch or save the woman I love."
"Then, why did you save Freedom Max? I assumed you might have perceived him as a rival for Liberty's affections."
"Well, I couldn't very well leave the guy for dead. Not in front of Liberty. She'd be mad at me for leaving someone to die. Plus, I'd have had the Justice Brigade on my tail. Besides, I can't keep an eye on him if he's dead."
Dr. Pearson then sighed and stared at Bug.
"Well, I couldn't. I'd be watching a corpse, and that's just creepy!"
As always, this therapy session with Gizmo Bug was rather trying, but then Dr. Pearson thought to himself, "It could actually be worse. At least he's not War Moth."