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Masks Series III



by



Rodford Edmiston





Part One: Acquisitions


         "This is so cool!" said Energia, giggling like someone much younger than thirteen. "This has got to be the best Christmas gift ever!"

         "We're barely out of the atmosphere, yet," said Template, smiling inside her helmet.

         These second generation super space suits were much slimmer, lighter, more comfortable and, of course, more capable than the prototype Template had worn before.

         "Wow," said Energia, falling behind a bit. "This is so..."

         "You all right?"

         "It's just... I can feel it!" she said, slowly extending her arms, hands spread wide.

         "Hon, talk to me," said Template, moving close to her, starting to worry about anoxia.

         "I can feel the layers and swirls in the magnetic field," said Energia, voice full of wonder. "I can feel the plasma sliding through it, like sand through fingers. I didn't know space was so... alive!"

         "You may be the only person on Earth who would actually feel that way," said Template, a bit envious. "Sorry to bust your bubble, but we need to get back on flight plan."

         "Oh; right," said Energia, with an embarrassed laugh.

         The hours actually passed quickly. Soon, the Moon filled their field of view.

         "Ooh! Let's go see the magnetic launcher before we land at the city! I wonder what that feels like!"

         "We're on a filed flight plan," said Template. "It's dangerous to deviate from it. Especially to fly over what's considered an essential military installation."

         "The suits have IFF," Energia pointed out. "They'll know who we are."

         "There's still locations - here and on Earth - where they'd shoot first and notify the next of kin later. Much later."

         "Ow. Okay. Guess I'll just have to ask for a tour."

         Satisfied she wasn't going to fly off and get herself killed, Template contacted Lunar Traffic Control. They were directed (via both voice and HUD) to a particular lock in the Port Authority Dome. There they were given a brief check and allowed official entry.

         One of the improvements in this model of suit was the elimination of the need for talcum powder. After the duo was escorted to an unoccupied locker room they easily pulled off the space suits and donned the costumes they had carried in the small storage compartments at the bottoms of the backpacks. Another improvement was the elimination of the urine cup; the new suits handled hygiene matters far more gracefully. They had even dealt with such normal processes as shed skin cells and bacterial buildup, so there was no need for a shower. Soon Template and Energia were in costume and quite presentable.

         "How was your flight?" said Polly, their contact, as they exited from the locker room.

         "Wonderful!" gushed Energia, practically bouncing in the artificial gravity. "I flew to the Moon on my own power!"

         "I have to admit, that's something to be proud of," said Template, grinning. "But she couldn't have done it without your suit."

         "Oh, yeah; thank you!"

         "You're quite welcome. The data your aunt provided was a big..."

         "What makes you think she's my aunt?" said Energia, quickly and with feigned innocence.

         "I'm not her aunt," said Template, since, as Randy, she was actually the uncle. Her next statement was also true, and also deliberately misleading. "Friend of the family."

         "Ah," said Polly, nodding and not buying a word of it. "Anyway, the data Template provided was very useful in finalizing the design. Or at least the design for this model. You know how engineers are."

         "They know when good enough is good enough," said Template, nodding, "but are never really satisfied."

         Polly Sanders was a third-generation Lunie, and one of the first born under artificial gravity. Since the population was still pretty low, and much work still had to be done simply to support the people living there, and she was one of the few comfortable in a full gee, she was a designated liaison with Earthers. The fact that she was good with people only made her more in demand for the job.

         "Would you believe we already have over twenty orders?" she said, as she escorted them to the debriefing room. "Nearly half are paying the full price, instead of letting us monitor them for a discount."

         "I didn't know there were that many wealthy flying supers," said Template, surprised.

         "Well, not all are paying for their own suits. Some have sponsors. However, a big chunk of them belong to the Flying Club."

         "Which flying club?" said Energia, puzzled.

         "The Flying Club," said Template. "Founded by a group of six supers who could fly under their own power or via devices of their own invention, back in the late Thirties. Most members are pretty wealthy, and the rest can call in favors from some pretty impressive people and organizations."

         "Well, the more we make, the cheaper the suits get," said Polly, as they seated themselves to wait for the engineers. "Of course, not all super flyers are able to use our suits."

         "Cabiria, one of the students joining the school for the second semester, is like that," said Template, nodding. "Her name means Born of Fire, and she's a flamer. Besides materials problems, the oxygen requirements would be too high."

         "Y'know, I hadn't even thought of that," said Polly, nodding in turn. "Oh! Here they come..."

                   *             *             *

         They wound up spending two days, courtesy of Earthside Lunar Research. Mostly walking around the main dome and going on tours, but also being interviewed about how the suits had worked and asked for suggestions. When they were ready to leave they were handed the same suits, but with some upgrades already installed and more promised for later. Since both Template and Energia had been doing some shopping the expanded storage compartments were definitely a welcome change.

         They exited through what may have been the same lock, and lifted off.

         "I don't understand why you're so easy about the suits transmitting data," said Template, "when you're almost paranoid about the Super Monitoring System."

         They were already well under way back to Earth, the Moon shrinking behind them.

         "That super detection system makes me nervous," said Energia, shifting her posture uneasily while maintaining a steady acceleration. "I can take the suit off and leave it at the school. That thing can find us anywhere, any time."

         "Ike Kenniman is very careful about who has access to it, and he's pretty trustworthy."

         "Yeah, but what if the government sets up its own system? Or a supervillain?"

         "The UN and the US government have both tried for years to copy Ike's system and so far haven't managed to produce anything useable. Supervillains have put up such systems, but they're detected and removed in short order." Template could tell the girl wasn't too reassured by this. "Honey, nothing is perfect, and few things are certain. Keep in mind that the system could be used to find you in an emergency. Also, people do know there's a problem and are working on it. Meanwhile, if you don't want to be detected, just don't use your powers."

         "Yeah, right," the teenager muttered. She sighed then grinned, turning so Template could see her expression, through the faceplate. "And miss all this?"

         "Well, the Super Monitoring System doesn't work outside Low Earth Orbit," said Template, smiling back. "So relax. For now."

         "Anyway, before I forget..."

         She moved in close and gave Template an enthusiastic hug.

         "Best. Christmas. Present. Ever. And it's only the eleventh."

                   *             *             *

         Randy had arranged for his niece to get her present early, which left him - or, rather, Template - free to work on projects for the school over the most of the holidays. Some of those included recruiting new students for the second semester. However, just now he was relaxing at the Intrepids' base. Of course, for supers, relaxation often included catching up on some rather odd subjects.

         "I'm trying to figure out why one branch of the US government is enthusiastically supporting the school, while another is trying to destroy us, and neither seems aware of the other."

         "The US government is far from a homogenous organization," said the Black Mask. "People in general tend to focus on what applies to their interests and not even notice anything else, and bureaucrats take this to extremes. And those in charge of bureaucracies tend to focus on the particular features appropriate to what they're interested in, and don't think much about the others. The US Department of Education is supporting the school because it is handling super children, which means they don't have to."

         "At least we have some good news," said Bowman. "All five of the recently created government super teams are having serious in-house trouble, in addition to some accusations of harassment and civil rights violations. Two of them are officially on hiatus, and two more may as well be. There are major calls to stop inhibiting the private supers and teams and let them do their jobs."

         "The only government-created super agency which has had any staying power is the T.O.W.E.R. Agents," said the Black Mask. "Still going strong after more than forty years."

         "They're the ones who have offered the school one of their mothballed SSTs, if we'll go out to the boneyard and get it."

         "That's more good news," said the Black Mask, nodding. "Those are quite useful vehicles."

         "Hold on," said Solange, grabbing the remote. "Something about Thurlin and surgery."

         "...and doctors say the procedure was successful and that after only a single full day of rest President Thurlin will be capable of making intelligent, rational decisions."

         "Wow!" said Rapscallion. "Those guys must be miracle workers!"

         "Down, boy," said the Black Mask, though he was smiling.

         "Uh-oh!" said Rapscallion. "I see Dr. Whiskers approaching, and she looks serious."

         "I have something private to discuss with Randy," the felinoid said, as she approached the table. "Nothing bad; just some confidential information to pass along."

         "Sure," said Randy, rising to follow her out of the break room.

         "We finally completed your gene mapping," said Dr. Whiskers, once they were away from other ears. "As we suspected, you have a very high inherent power level. However, your only native power is sharing power. Taking or giving."

         "Wait... I've given my power to others, but never tried taking from them."

         "You're what's usually known as a two-way leach. The experts on super genetics and powers I have consulted suspect that the DNA implantation you received merely provided an unusual method for application."

         "This would explain my niece's powers, though," said Randy, nodding. "That makes both of us a type of energy manipulator."

         "Yes. But be very careful if you decide to try experimenting with taking power from others. When you give power you can feel how much you have left. When you take..."

         "I could take too much," said Randy, seriously, nodding to confirm he understood the risk.

                   *             *             *

         "Are you sure this thing will fly?" said Template, with good reason for her concern, as she strapped herself in the copilot's seat. "And I don't know why you wanted me up here. I'm qualified to fly hoppers and a couple of other common types of team vehicles, but this..."

         "Checked her out myself," said Junker, distractedly. "She's old but this is a sound design, in use for over twenty years before being phased out. They did a good job mothballing her, too. All we had to do was clean her up, replace a few dry-rotted rubber parts and a few other things just to be safe, add gas, compressed air and electricity, and she's ready to fly. And, on the off-chance something does go wrong, my flight suit will protect me while you fly me to safety."

         Template still wasn't sure, and became less so as she watched - and heard - him prepare for liftoff.

         "Let's see... Mixture's to the rich, the props are forward, the suction gages check, three green lights, doors closed, boost pumps on... Here we go!"

         The Little Piggy Hoedown lurched into the air, straight up, riding four pillars of superheated, supersonic air.

         "A bit more abrupt than I was expecting!" said Template, barely managing not to wreck the seat armrests.

         "This isn't an airliner," said Junker, smirking.

         Less than two hours later they were circling Pine Island, and they only took that long because he wouldn't push the plane past Mach 4 without time to analyze the data from this preliminary flight. Not long after they were on the ground.

         "No offense, but I'd much rather do that under my own power," muttered Template, as they disembarked.

         "Just remember, most supers can't," said Junker, emphasizing his point with a raised index finger. "Which is why we need this thing."

         "Well, here come the other techies, so I better get out of the way. See you the day after New Year's!"

                   *             *             *

         Karen waited until they were in Randy's car and driving away from the family holiday dinner before voicing her thoughts.

         "Randy, dear, I'm sorry, but your parents are, well..."

         "Crazy," said Randy, nodding.

         "I wasn't going to go that far," said Karen, with a laugh. "They're actually charmingly eccentric."

         "Try living with them," said Randy, rolling his eyes. "Seriously. My sister, too, though less so. Seems like about two thirds on both sides have at least some minor quirk, and a good third on my mother's side are flat-out weird."

         "I wonder if that's somehow connected to the super gene that runs in them." Karen shook her head. "Anyway, your sister is odd but nice, in a slightly butch way."

         "I never thought of her as butch," said Randy, pursing his lips in thought. "Alpha male, maybe..."

         "Are you saying gender dysphoria runs in your family?"

         "Well, there was that one great-uncle they say liked to dress as an old woman on Halloween..." 

         Karen laughed, then punched him on the arm.

         "Anyway, I met your parents. Now it's your turn."

         "I met your parents for Thanksgiving."

         "Want me to hit you again? You know what I mean."

         "I know what you mean," Randy reluctantly admitted. "Lunch tomorrow."

         "Lunch and a leisurely walk around the Bermuda's less tourist-trappy parts."

                   *             *             *

         Template and Colossa were having lunch at a tourist restaurant in Bermuda. Only they were in civies - the former in a sundress; the latter in Bermuda shorts and tube top - and using the names Susan Platt and Karen White. It was a girl's day out, just the two of them, their last chance for some public socializing before the second semester started and Template would be busy for an indefinite time.

         "Y'know, you're attracting more attention tugging at it that way than if you'd just leave it alone and enjoy the implied compliments."

         "I was counting on a longer dress," said "Susan," sourly. "Not to mention a more comfortable bra. I greatly prefer the cups in my costume."

         "You're showing less leg than most of the young women in here," said Karen, grinning. "Me included. And a lot less cleavage."

         Susan muttered under her breath.

         "You need to get out of costume more," said Karen. "Seriously. You could wear civies with your mask and that would be fine at the school."

         "I like my costume," said Susan, firmly. "If I ever get complacent about putting it on, remind me of this outing."

         "So Tiger is going to take you?" said Karen, trying to change the subject. "To interview that prospective student you were telling me about, I mean."

         "Yeah," said Susan, nodding as she stirred her fork around her salad plate, wondering if it were worth the effort to chase down the last bits of vegetables. "Eve says I needed to see the girl myself to evaluate her, but Tiger insisted that I was too likely to get into trouble being escorted by any of the staff except the director, and that he didn't do that sort of thing. They owe Tiger a bunch of favors for stuff he's done for them, including his working to get this girl out of there. So they're letting him escort me."

         "I don't know," said Karen, with a shiver. "Those people..."

         "Are more scared of Tiger than you are of them. I'll be fine."

         "And the courts aren't protesting? About a convicted killer being released to the school, I mean."

         "She was offered probation - if that's the right word - but turned it down, actually requesting imprisonment for her own protection. Her father killed just about everyone she knew before she managed to kill him, and some of his followers could still be after her. She didn't have anywhere to go, and would have felt she was endangering anyone who took her in. When Tiger mentioned the school to her she expressed interest, and when Eve agreed to consider accepting her she asked the judge for her case if he would allow this, and got his blessing. She's a juvie, she was under extreme duress, and she removed a serious, long-time menace to society."

         "She'll have a lot of catching up to do, after missing the first semester."

         "She's been working on her GED through a prison program. The sociologist working with her says she's bright, already has a good command of the basics and has been making excellent progress." Susan sighed, looking a bit sad. "She's never actually been in a normal school, never had friends her own age... Now that her father is dead she just wants to be able to learn and socialize and stop hiding. To have as normal a life as she can, considering."

         Their main course arrived just then and they were busy eating for a while.

         "I'm actually more concerned about some of the other new students," said Susan, finally. An expression of disgust flitted briefly across her face. "We've got an underage tease who earns money signing autographs - and who knows what else - at super shows, then skips out on her booth fees. We've got..."

         "You're such a prude," said Karen, teasing. "Although I have to admit some of those shows and conventions are pretty raunchy."

         "Say, this fish is good!"

         "How come I've had it before and you haven't?"

         "Just busy, I guess."

                   *             *             *

         Holding hands, they walked slowly around the port town, talking and taking in the sights, but mostly taking in each other. As they walked, though, Susan's demeanor changed. She seemed preoccupied by something, bothered by it. Finally, she broached the subject.

         "Do you ever feel... scornful of normals?"

         Karen considered for a moment.

         "Not scornful. Maybe... disappointed. And not because they lack powers. Most of them just don't do anything."

         "Yeah. That's pretty much what I..."

         They were interrupted by a group of dingy young men stepping into their path.

         "Well, well, well," said one of them, smiling nastily through a mouth full of decayed teeth. "Lookie what we got here. A pair of lezzies."

         Susan looked around, and realized they'd strayed well out of the tourist area and into a commercial section near a low-rent district. She sighed in aggravation.

         "Let's go," she said, quietly, to Karen, releasing her hand and turning.

         There were more behind them.

         "Great," said Karen, sighing. "Our last chance to spend some time together, and these jerks have to ruin it."

         "We goin' ruin lot more than that!" one of the young men said, leering.

         "I don't think so," said Susan. "We're teachers at the Pine Island Academy."

         "You t'ink we let you go, 'cause you teachers?" said another one, laughing. "We hate teachers!"

         "No, I meant..."

         She was interrupted by one of the young men grabbing both her arms. Susan glared at him, then lifted two meters off the ground, shrugging him loose as she rose.

         "I meant that we're supers, who teach super children."

         There was a pause. Then, without word or ceremony, they left, quickly.

         "I think I need a shower," said Susan, with a sour grimace, looking down at her arms as she landed. "In boiling acid."

                   *             *             *

         "The next time you feel a need to defend yourself when in civilian attire, please do so without the overt use of super human powers," said Andrea, a bit stiffly.

         "Yes, ma'am," said Template, sighing.

         "That said, I'm glad neither of you were hurt. Such encounters are rare in Bermuda, but they will happen anywhere you have a large population. Simple odds."

         "I just wish we could have reported it to the authorities, but the fake ID I was using wouldn't have stood up."

         "At any rate, classes begin next week and we still have three students for you to recruit. Though I daresay one will be less willing than the others.

                   *             *             *

         "Is that it?" said Template, peering at an ominous, blocky, monolithic structure.

         She was flying, carrying Tiger in her arms after meeting him in a forest not far from the prison complex.

         "No, that is the Slippery Elmer Holding Facility," said Tiger, sourly.

         "The which?!"

         Tiger sighed.

         "Slippery Elmer Hotchkins is a small time hood with a single, low-level power which makes it almost impossible to catch or hold him."

         "What's his power?"

         "He's almost impossible to catch or hold."

         "And they built that whole thing just to hold one guy."

         "He aggravated some important people about twenty-five years ago. They use his personal prison to test new methods and measures. So it largely pays for itself. If something can hold Elmer..."

         "I get the picture."

         "Okay, see that helicopter pad? I told them we'd be landing there."

         Template obediently and gracefully swooped down to the designated spot. There were already several people waiting for them. Once Tiger was on his feet he walked up to the one in front - who was also the largest by a good margin.

         "What's up, Chuck?"

         "Do you have to use the same, stupid joke every time?"

         "Of course I do. It's part of the spell."

         "Spell?" said Template

         "And part of my punishment," the big man said, with a sigh.

         "Explanations later," said the lean, ascetic-looking woman who now advanced to the fore. "Your appointment is scheduled for eleven thirty-five to eleven fifty-five. Exactly. There is no time for dawdling."

         Template gave Tiger a puzzled look as the woman spun around and marched off. He just shrugged and followed, leaving Template to catch up.

         They entered an armored car with blacked-out windows. As it started moving, the dour woman handed them clip-on VISITOR tags.

         "These assure your entry. Only you can assure your exit."

         Again, Template glanced at Tiger, who rolled his eyes a bit.

         What security procedures they passed through could not be seen. Soon, however, the vehicle stopped. Only Tiger and Template got out, into what appeared to be an underground garage. The armored car quickly closed its doors and left, exiting by a heavily armored automatic door. Ahead was a glassed-in security booth beside an equally heavily armored personnel door. Inside was a woman with bright red skin and short horns.

         "Good morning, Clarity," said Tiger as they approached.

         "Good morning, Tiger," said the strange woman. "Who's the norm?"

         "'Norm'?"

         "Not a magical creature." Tiger turned back to the guardian. "This is Template. Comrade in arms. Here to interview Beverly van Morrison."

         "Oh, right," said Clarity, nodding. "Hope you can help her."

         "That's why I'm here," said Template.

         The massive door opened with a slight whuff of displaced air. Inside was a small chamber just large enough for three. Tiger and Template entered. The outer door closed, there was a slight pause, and the inner one opened.

         "These are the strangest people..." said Template, as they walked down the narrow corridor to yet another armored door.

         "Most of the security people are former inmates. Or even current ones," said Tiger. "Norms get antsy when it comes to locking up supernaturals. Most of these measures are overkill by a large margin for the typical inmate. Norms also tend to lump all supernaturals in together, so there actually are a few here for whom these measures are needed."

         Tiger punched buttons on the keypad and the door opened. Beyond was another hallway, this one with a glass wall on the left. Through it, below, she could see... them.

         "Just stick close. We're now in the general population area. Most of the people here don't want anything to do with me, and nearly all are trying to get out and behaving themselves. But there are a few opportunists..."

         Template, being a public super hero, was used to being stared at. She'd also visited high-security prisons before. This was... different. There were the familiar expressions of curiosity, anger and even lust. But there was also hunger...

         Even though bright lamps strove to illuminate every cranny of the chamber, shadows still lingered in odd places. She stuck very close indeed to Tiger as they walked along the elevated hallway.

         "They have men and women together?" she whispered.

         "Not enough of them to justify separate recreational facilities. The elevator could take a while to get here. Just be cool. They can't physically reach us."

         Template only now noticed the elevator at the end of the hall. Again, Tiger entered numbers on a security keypad. And they waited. Template kept feeling her eyes drawn to the tableau below. She would deliberately turn to face ahead, then her mind would wander and she would, with a start, realize she was staring through the glass.

         And then, one of those times, she realized she was looking at someone plastered against the outside of the glass, staring at her.

         It was the eyes which got her. Red and glinting with light grey highlights, like gambler's dice worn round.

         Kill your companion. Break through this barrier and free me. Then, I will give you pleasure such as no mortal has before known.

         That last broke the spell. Template tore her gaze away with a tiny cry. Tiger quickly moved between her and the stranger.

         "Back off, Vlad," said Tiger, sternly, his tiger-striped aura flaring. "She's with me."

         The vampire winced, and withdrew back into the shadows.

         "Wow," said Template, shaking her head as Tiger quickly led her away. "Still dizzy."

         "He's one of the stronger dominators here," said Tiger, leading her away. "He usually knows better than to try anything when resistors are around, though. He can only focus on one target at a time. Guess it's a good thing you're really not his type."

         "Thank God for that!" said Template, with a nervous laugh and a shudder.

         The elevator arrived and they entered, Template unable to prevent the escape of a sigh of relief.

         Down and down they went. From the indicator, Template saw they had started near the top. There were no identifying labels, just numbers. Then finally the elevator stopped, just three levels from the bottom.

         "Okay, she's through there," said Tiger. "Her social worker will introduce you. I'll be just outside the door. She's really not dangerous, keeping her down here is more for her protection and that of any inmates who might mistakenly try to take advantage of her, but there's always a chance one of the others could do something particularly sly. If you need help - or just want out - yell."

         "Right," said Template, straightening herself, and trying to keep in mind that she was here to interview a 16 year old girl who had gotten in trouble through no fault of her own.

         Tiger opened the door for her. Inside was a small meeting room with a table and three chairs. An older woman and a pale teenage girl were already sitting. Template closed to the table.

         "Hello, Beverly," said Template, extending her hand. "I'm Template."

         The girl hesitated, then timidly extended her hand. It felt warm and dry.

         "I'm Elizabeth Grainger," said the older woman, also shaking hands. "I'm a certified child psychologist with thirteen years of dealing with young people in trouble. I even have previous experience with supers. Though I have to tell you, this has been a new experience for me."

         "I know this will be uncomfortable for you," said Template to the girl, sympathetically, as she sat across from the other two. "But I need you to tell me your background. How you came to be..."

         "A vampire?" said Beverly, flatly. "My father did this to me. And he did worse, to my mother and those she recruited to try and protect me from him.

         "He seduced my mother, who barely survived his attentions," said Beverly, quietly, looking down at her hands. "Her friends got her away from him, then they managed to keep her pregnancy and my birth concealed from him for over twelve years. They were a bit surprised when I appeared to be a normal human child. That helped me hide. Eventually, though, he found out and decided to recruit me. Naturally, my mother and her friends resisted."

         Template nodded, not sure what, if anything, she should say.

         "Over the next four years he made repeated attempts to... acquire me. My heritage began to assert itself, at first through increased physical prowess, then through other abilities. I was still human, though, what the Rom call a Dhampir. And with the help of my family was able to resist my father's efforts. I believe, now, that these were more to test me and stimulate my development, rather than serious attempts to liberate me from my protectors. Because, eight months ago, he almost casually overwhelmed our defenses, killing nearly everyone inside them.

         "I resisted him for six weeks," said Beverly, her voice choking slightly. "Even after he bled and bonded me. I... kept surprising both of us with my strength. Finally, in a fit of desperation, I attacked him when he was off-guard. And, using what I had learned from him but refused to use otherwise, managed to take his power. With the result you see before you. And the result that my father was, finally, dead."

         "And you're sure he's dead," said Template, surprised at the anxiety in her voice.

         The girl nodded.

         "I didn't even need the coroner's report, or to see the cremation. I knew. Because I took all he was."

         Template felt a bit queasy at that, but had to admit the girl had just cause. She was also one of the spookiest people she had ever met, not even excluding "Vlad." With her quiet demeanor, morbid tone, pale complexion and sad face she looked like a creature of the night. Still, how much of that came from what she was and how much from recent events in her life? Template was definitely willing to give the girl a break.

         "Well, Eve is already supporting your attending to the Academy. I think I will, too. That doesn't mean you won't have troubles. If nothing else, classes are all during the day."

         "Sunlight is a minor annoyance to me," said Beverly, casually waving that away. "And there are protections I can use to ease even that."

         "What, uhm, special needs do you...?"

         "Blood, of course," she replied. "Animal would do, though it should be mammal. But not human."

         Template nodded as she made notes.

         "My room should either be windowless or have extremely good shades." The girl considered her interviewer for a moment. "You're taking all of this very routinely."

         "We already have three other magical creatures as students, one of them a centaur," said Template, with a wry laugh. "We also have a non-magical super who does a pretty good impression of a werewolf. There's a good chance you'll fit right in."

         "That should definitely help," said Elizabeth.

         "I... hadn't realized," said the vampire girl, startled. "I knew, I guess, that magical creatures were already there, but..."

         "Any other requirements?"

         "No. I can eat normal food, but I need at least two liters of fresh, whole blood a day to stay healthy. More if I have to heal myself or exert myself."

         "We have a substantial biology lab, with some brilliant people supervising the students, some of whom are also brilliant. We'll work something out. Though don't be surprised if they want you to test experimental concoctions. Not to mention test you. Don't be afraid to come to me or one of the other supervisory staff members if they won't take no for an answer."

         Elizabeth nodded at this, obviously reassured by Template's words. Then she smiled, just a bit.

         "That shouldn't be a problem. My father was the only one who ever refused to accept my decline of an offer."

         Template shivered, just a bit.







Part Two: Wonders and Exploitations




         "I'm glad you checked in," said Eve, after Template decided to deliver her report on the vampire girl in person. "We've got the farrier arranged for Cheiron, so you don't have to ask Chestnut about arranging one."

         One reason for the personal report was that Eve was having a pre-semester meeting with some of the staff that afternoon. That gave Template the opportunity to tell her news to several of them at once.

         "That's good," said Template, nodding, and almost yawning. "Even though he only wears those rubber pullovers, and those only when he's going on hard surfaces, he still needs help with tending his hooves and no-one here - including him and Chestnut - is an expert on hooves. In the herd they do that for each other, but here..."

         "So many with special needs," said Andrea, sighing.

         "I have to admit," said Template, "when I started all this I had no idea this sort of thing would be so common."

         "Many supers have special needs," said Weather Warper, quietly, as if speaking from experience. "Most either handle those themselves or get help from teammates."

         "Anyway, I'm not staying long. I promised the Intrepids I'd pull monitor duty tonight, since most of them are on a mission."

         "You lend new meaning to the word commuter," said Weather Warper, smiling and shaking his head.

                   *             *             *

         "How was your shift?" said Solange, giving Template a sisterly kiss when she walked, yawning, into the Intrepids' break room the following morning.

         "Quiet. So quiet I actually had trouble staying awake. Fortunately, Bunter helped keep me occupied."

         "If you don't have to leave immediately after breakfast, stop by my workshop," said Bowman.

         "Oh, no, he wants to show you his new toy," said Solange, snickering.

         "It's a valuable collector's item," said the archer, tautly.

         "Okay, now I'm intrigued. I'll be there as soon as I've eaten."

         Forty-five minutes later she was in the gadgeteer's favorite place. Smiling, enjoying the mystery he was presenting her, he opened a fireproof safe and pulled out a lacquered wooden box. He opened the lid to reveal... a box of playing cards, lying in a velvet-lined cavity.

         "Uh..." said Template.

         "It's one of MechMaster's original killer card decks."

         "One of whose whats?"

         "Forties villain," said Bowman, excitedly. "He did revolutionary work in microtechnology, before the term had even been invented. Created devices with micromechanical components. We still don't know how he did some of the things he did."

         He moved to an empty counter space - a rare commodity in a gadgeteer's workshop - and set the box down. Carefully, reverently, he removed the deck, opened its box and gently slid the cards into his gloved palm. He thumbed one out and held it to Template.

         "Feel that."

         "It's a bit thicker than a standard card," she said, frowning. Her own gloves were actually integral with her costume, but thin enough for her to notice the odd features of the card. "I feel ridges and grooves, too."

         "Like this, it's harmless. But sort them in the right order and activate..."

         He proceeded to carefully organize the deck. Then he put it back in the pack, which he gently rapped against the counter on all six sides. He removed the deck again and held it out.

         "It's... solid!"

         "Exactly. The cards have locked together, mechanically and precisely indexed by those ridges and grooves and some pins and holes which aren't as obvious, just waiting for the initiation procedure."

         He set the deck down on the counter and gave the top two carefully timed taps.

         There was an odd, rasping sound, like a mechanical sequencer cycling. Then, with a strange, irregular thumping and whirring, the deck of cards rose eerily on six spindly legs. It wavered for a moment; then with another sound, similar to the first, a pair of blades sprung out. It paused again, with yet more cycling sounds. Then it began walking, the movement and mechanical sounds coordinating in a creepy, syncopated, limping dance.

         "The blades were originally coated with poison; the exact blend subject to MechMaster's desires and whims. These have been cleaned, and against anyone even wearing a pair of sturdy gloves would be harmless, anyway."

         He reached out and tapped the top of the deck again, jerking his hand back. The tiny, monstrous construct whipped around several times, blades high. Then folded itself back into a deck of separate cards.

         "It's not in perfect shape. You should feel honored; no telling how many more times it would be able to do that without at least some cleaning and restoration. And, trust me, that's not something I'm looking forward to."

         "That was incredible," breathed Template, staring at the apparently harmless deck of cards sitting there.

         "Micromechanics. Each card actually has several layers, with tiny moving parts inside. And each card is more intricate than any music box ever built. The man was evil, but he was definitely an artist."

                   *             *             *

         Template was still thinking about that innocent-looking mechanical assassin two days later, when she flew back to the Intrepids' base to join up with the Black Mask. Their mission was to recruit - forcibly if necessary - the last of their new students.

         "Do you know where we're going?" she said, after the greetings were over and she and the Black Mask started for the hangar.

         "Yes, Eve thoroughly briefed me," said the Black Mask, nodding.

         "I'm glad of that. From what Eve told me, our target isn't going to be much of a problem, but her surroundings may be."

         "Have you ever been to a super fair?"

         "I've been to several real science-fiction and fantasy conventions, but not any of those," said Template. "I hear they're more like an auto show or technology show. Only with a generous extra helping of sleaze."

         "There is definitely that," said the Black Mask. "This particular one, Sexy Supers, brags that all of its participants have at least one, demonstrable superhuman ability, no matter how minor, and that none of the participants themselves are minors."

         "My mother could qualify," muttered Template. "On both counts."

         "Precisely. Roughly three-quarters of the guests - or perhaps 'exhibits' is a better word - are nubile young women with perhaps ten percent being handsome young men. They are either trying to earn a living off their meager abilities or similarly supplement their income. Some do operate as masks - seeking bounties, hiring themselves out as detectives, bodyguards and such - and some work as celebrities of various stripes. Some are paid escorts, bit actors, even nightclub entertainers. Since only a few have ever actually fought crime - or committed crimes - in costume they lack credit as super celebrities and must emphasize their sexual aspect to attract fans. Especially fans who are willing to pay for admission and autographs."

         "Eve tells me that a few retired or disabled legitimate masks - even some villains - use these shows to earn extra income."

         "True. They generally avoid events such as this one, however."

         "Well, we need a way to confront her away from other people, if we can."

         "Ah. I might have a solution to that problem." He smiled. "I do tend to be rather intimidating. I'll attempt to cause her to flee, and if she does you follow her until you are in a circumstance where her apprehension will not endanger bystanders."

                   *             *             *

         "That's Radio Star!"

         "The third unrelated super to have that name," said the Black Mask. "This one was active in the mid-Fifties, actually overlapping the second. That's not her original costume, but a near Trademark-infringing replica of the original Radio Star's. Who is much better known to the public and far more respected among supers than either of the two who came after her."

         As usual, Template was impressed and a bit intimidated by his knowledge of supers and their history. She was definitely intimidated - though not impressed - by their surroundings.

         "Good Lord," said Template, quietly. "That one must have super powers. It's the only way she could stay upright!"

         "Eve of Corruption," said the Black Mask. "Low-level super with moderate physical enhancements and some volitional shapeshifting. Occasionally works as an actress, usually in non-porn titillation films. Her costume is quite elastic. There's a rumor she's actually a male, but those are wrong. People are confusing her with Corruption's Eve, a minor Sixties super villain who later became a character actor of some talent, specializing in playing alien females."

         He turned his head a bit and gave her a lopsided smile.

          "Or was it female aliens?"

         "At least our costumes aren't attracting much notice, here."

         Which was part of the reason Template felt vaguely queasy. Most of the people wandering around the noisy, brightly-lit exhibit hall were overweight males, of ages ranging from early teen to late middle. One of the most unsettling aspects of their behavior was that they would look at her with a flicker of anticipation, then turn away, dismissing her from their awareness. As a heterosexual male Randy had definitely been guilty of objectifying women. Even Template often found herself thinking of some attractive woman she didn't know as the sum of her parts, rather than a person. Both Template and The Revolutionary had been subjected to such attention, especially Template the three times she had worn her costume at F/SF conventions. This, though... It was if, because she wasn't showing enough skin, she didn't exist. Template was a bit embarrassed to learn that she didn't like being ignored.

         They finally reached their target's booth. A young woman in a costume which might have been designed by Solange (had she lost all sense of taste) sat with fake smile firmly in place, surrounded by photos and artwork of her in even tackier, more revealing outfits. She was blond, curvaceous and rather strikingly tall, something made obvious by her eagerness to stand with someone to have a photo made in front of a stylized space backdrop and exaggerated by the extreme spike heels on her costume's knee-high boots.

         "Allessandra?" said the Black Mask.

         "Yes?" said the blond woman, in a practiced, perky voice.

         "The original Allessandra would have been well past a hundred by now. If she hadn't been killed by that Communist super in Korea. Your real name is Alexis Sanderson. You are the great-granddaughter - and double namesake - of the original Allessandra. And you are underage."

         The pasted-on sexy smile melted away, replaced by stark fear. She suddenly leapt into the air, knocking her chair back, and the display wall behind her almost over. She lifted to just below the ceiling and flew away in a costume not really meant for such activity. The Black Mask turned and nodded to Template, who took off after her.

         Allessandra didn't seem to realize there was anyone flying behind her; didn't even look back. She appeared to be in a blind panic. She flew an erratic course through the exhibit hall until she spotted an open loading dock door, and shot straight towards it. Men unloading from trucks dove out of the way. An action seen to be justified when Allessandra bumped hard into a U-Haul trailer as she squeezed past it outside the door, rocking the vehicle. Template followed - though more gracefully - and waited until they were well above the buildings before moving to block the younger woman. She was helped by the fact that the other was desperately tugging the top of her costume back into place. Template gritted her teeth and put her mind firmly on business.

         "That's enough," she said, firmly, arms wide to emphasize the situation.

         Allessandra started, looked panicked... hauled back to a stop in the air and started to cry.

         "Please don't arrest me! I need the money for college!"

         "That's odd, since you ditched high school your sophomore year."

         The girl started again, and now looked even more fearful. The tears were real, but how much else of her performance was?

         "I'm not here to arrest you," said Template, lowering her arms, "I'm here to relay an agreement your public defender reached with the federal judge for your case. Come out to the Pine Island Academy, stay on the island and in the school and earn passing grades until you turn eighteen, and your records will be sealed. You can start over once you're an adult."

         Her eyes flicked around, looking for escape.

         "Don't. I'm faster and stronger than you, not to mention much better trained. The alternative, if you refuse, or do manage to escape, is that several additional charges will be added, and you'll be tried and sentenced as an adult."

         "But... I can't afford that school! I can barely afford to live, now!"

         "Your fees will be paid by the feds, through a program intended to rehabilitate underage supers who have gotten in trouble with the law."

         She backed away a bit, not trying to run just yet, but looking like she was preparing to.

         "You don't have to make your final decision now. Come out to the school and try it for a month. If you decide you'd rather go to jail..."

         "But... I paid money for my table..."

         "You mean you promised to pay money from what you earn here today and tomorrow," said Template. She shook her head. "Then you were planning to run out on your debt. Like you have six times before. You've pretty much been blackballed from other conventions. The organizer of this one decided to give you one more chance, since you're a good draw. And you were planning to let him down, too, weren't you?"

         "I draw at least two hundred extra customers! I should get my table free, like that bitch Freeza!"

         "This isn't about her. I want your answer. Do you go to a tropical island and try to fix your life, or do you go to jail? Either way, it starts now."

         Template watched her hover - irregularly; she obviously wasn't a practiced flyer - as she thought. And finally she nodded.

         "Say it."

         "I'll go to your damned island," was her surly response.

         "Good. Then you won't mind wearing this."

         Template held up what looked like a choker. Then, while Allessandra stared in confusion, suddenly lunged forward and snapped it around her neck.

         "What the fuck!?" Allessandra screamed, backing away and yanking at the collar.

         "It's a tracking device. And far too sturdy for you to remove."

         "You fuckin' bitch!" the girl screamed, lunging for Template.

         Template evaded her easily, then grabbed her in an over-under double half-Nelson.

         "Temper, temper," she said, mildly. "Not to mention language. This is exactly the sort of behavior which got you thrown out of the Young Rebels."

         With Allessandra screaming profanities and struggling the whole way, Template flew her down to where the Black Mask had the containment vehicle waiting, in an empty area of the convention center's parking lot. Her task was not made any easier by the fact that Allessandra's struggles had caused her top to fall down again.

         "You sure this will hold her?" said Template, actually straining a bit. "She's stronger than I was expecting."

         "There's a nullifier inside," said the Black Mask, manfully restraining from staring at the underage girl's heaving, bare bosom.

         Template shoved her in and slammed the door.

         "Tell me you got her agreement on tape," said Template, slumping against the back of the truck and fanning herself.

         "Digital WORM, actually," said the Black Mask, holding up a device plugged into his comset. "Certified evidence recorder, from the local District Attorney's office. And I think we should both pray that no-one got her capture on video, or took photos."

                   *             *             *

         Template was again carrying Tiger on a flight to evaluate a new student. This time, though, she was actually looking forward to the trip. From what she could determine from his demeanor, so was Tiger.

         "I thought you or the Black Mask had already told her about the school," said Tiger, a bit embarrassed. "I happened to mention our trip to the Dark Prison and she suddenly perked up and wanted details."

         "Which way, now?"

         "Just follow the river until you see the floating castle. You can't miss it."

         "A floating castle," said Template, not sure if he were having a joke at her expense.

         "Just look for it. No, not in the water. Up on the side of the river valley, to the left."

         Moments later they rounded a bend in the river and, sure enough, there was a castle. Most of the way up the left side of the valley wall, on a sort of large shelf of land. It was distinctly floating, as well, if only a meter and a half above the ground.

         "It's a floating castle," said Template, blankly.

         "And you thought that was a euphemism," said Tiger, smiling like a cat with a canary feather in the corner of its mouth. "Among other things, they grow mushrooms underneath."

         The strange structure was on the uphill edge of an upscale subdivision. Combined with the general style of the homes below it and the theme of the landscaping in the area, the floating castle gave the impression that this particular subdivision might have been designed by Walt Disney. There were several structures besides the castle on the grounds around it, most not quite as fanciful but a couple moreso. Trees, old and huge, dotted the land. There was also a miniature railroad winding its way around the property, and a tiny amusement park. Considering the average height of the inhabitants, those were just about to the right scale.

         Runner actually met them in the air, levitating up to give them both a hug at once.

         "Welcome to our humble abode!" she said, with an impish - and very toothy - smile. "L'il Glomahr has been waiting anxiously for your arrival. The rest of us have just been waiting."

         "L'il Glomahr?"

         "Their daughter's name," said Tiger. "She's their third child, and their first in over six hundred years."

         "We figured it was about time for another one."

         As they approached the ground another figure rose to meet them. This one was even smaller and more childish-appearing. Only this one actually was a child.

         "Did someone mention my name?" said the non-furry little child elf.

         Though far less feral than her mother, her grin revealed fangs which would have given Vlad pause.

         "Template, this is my daughter, Glomahr," said Runner, proudly, as they settled to the flagstone walkway running through the immaculate side lawn. "Glomahr, this is Template, a friend of the Black Mask's."

         "I knew that much already," said the girl, smiling impishly.

         "Ah... just how old are you?"

         "Thirteen, in three days."

         "Ah. Only about a year younger than... Uh, Energia."

         Tiger, who knew Template was also Randy, and Energia's uncle, just grinned.

         "Come inside. We're having tea and cookies in a bit. And I mean real, US-type cookies."

         They chatted, Template following the flow while Runner introduced her to Stave, her husband. The two adult Bluegrass Elves then escorted their guests into their "den." This was actually an enormous Medieval hall, which served as both dining room and lounging area, the second section comfortably close to the massive fireplace at one end. There was a huge blaze in progress, producing a comfortable warmth in that portion of the hall and filling it with a pleasant scent.

         "I don't see Steamboat anywhere around," said Tiger, as they moved to seat themselves.

         "And you won't," said Runner, angrily. "Not for a good, long while. He sold some of my collectibles to clear out a room he wanted to use. Said he assumed I'd rather have the money, anyway."

         "Please tell me one of those wasn't a MechMaster Killer Card Deck," said Template, with a sudden sense of the inevitable.

         "How did you know?!"

         Template sighed, and related what Bowman had shown her a few days previous.

         "I suppose he's a good keeper for the thing," said Runner, doing some sighing herself. "But I will check to make sure that's the same item. Next time I'm in their headquarters."

         One couch was human sized, one elf-sized, and to one side there was an odd pad which was obviously part of the furnishings but the purpose of which was not evident. Until Template remembered the similar pad in Cheiron's room. Glomahr had somehow disappeared without Template noticing while they were talking. As they settled themselves she suddenly reappeared, wheeling a tea cart through a door at the far end of the room. She seemed inordinately proud of carrying out the duties of positioning the cart and presenting the dishes and cookies and pouring the freshly-brewed green tea.

         "I don't mean to sound crass, but if she's doing this to impress me into letting her into the school, she needn't bother," said Template, smiling at the little elf girl.

         "Actually, she just enjoys this sort of thing," said Stave, who had a surprisingly deep voice for someone whose head barely came to Template's navel. "A born hostess."

         Template nodded, and began questioning Glomahr and her parents. She had attended a human grade school and middle school, and also received extensive home schooling.

         "We kept having meetings with history teachers," said Stave, rolling his eyes, "explaining that the books were wrong. And that we knew this because we or someone we know was there."

         "That... must be handy," said Template, a little disconcerted at having their ages driven home. They seemed so... informal. "I take it you two travel more than most elves?"

         "We used to," said Runner. "But the time we went to visit Tsar Alexander and Tsarina Elisabeth for the holidays and Napoleon invaded soured us on playing tourist for a while. We've only been getting back into that lifestyle since L'il Glomahr is getting old enough. We figure travel is an important part of her education."

         "Well, we'll be glad to have her at our school, for that part of her education," said Template, feeling a bit dazed. She had an inspiration. "In fact, we'd also love to have you two as guest speakers. Care for a paid vacation on an island paradise?"

         "That," said Runner, smiling, gaze distant, "sounds wonderful."

         "With that settled, would you like a tour of the property?" said Stave, putting down his cup and plate.

         "I hate to cut this visit short, but I should try and see Chestnut while I'm in the area," said Template, realizing with a start that she'd been there for over an hour already.

         "She's not in the area," said Runner, sipping the last of her somehow still warm green tea. "She's in Louisville this weekend. Some sort of charity event."

         "Ah. Well, there's time for the tour you mentioned, then." Template and Tiger rose as their hosts did. However, Template then hesitated, looking at the pad. "This may sound strange, but... do you regularly have centaurs for guests?"

         "Just the one," said Stave. "Marian lives less than a block from here."

         "'Marian'?"

         "She's from my world," said Tiger. "Part of the exodus, to prevent the Gifted from flooding our world with too much magic too quickly. Poni lives here, too."

         "They just fit right in," said Runner, with another of her Trademark toothy grins.

         The castle actually was smaller than Template expected. That is, it had fewer rooms, because they tended to be huge. There was also a large courtyard in the center. She noticed that they didn't show her the basement or the uppermost rooms - which were their bedrooms and a huge attic - but did mention the latter in passing while ascending to the roof. Template definitely enjoyed the view from the parapets.

         The train and other rides were functional, but not really practical for a full-sized adult human. The flower beds were gorgeous... though Template couldn't help feeling there were odd little creatures flitting around the blooms just outside her vision.

         Finally - and with surprising reluctance - Template and Tiger said their farewells and departed.

                   *             *             *

         "Boy, are my arms tired," groaned Randy, as he entered the large apartment he and Karen were now sharing.

         "They're going to be tireder," said Karen, looking distressed. "While Chestnut was at some charity event in Louisville she was attacked by another equine-themed woman. Girl calling herself Mustang Sally. They had a big fight, right in front of a bunch of TV news crews. She's not hurt - or at least not badly - but is pretty upset."

         "Well, we better go check on her," said Randy, with just a hint of reluctance. "Do you know where she is?"

         "They're keeping her in the hospital overnight for observation."

                   *             *             *

         It was always odd, seeing a super out of costume, even the ones who didn't wear masks. Seeing someone as vivacious as Chestnut in a hospital gown and bed and looking morose was downright disconcerting.

         "Are you all right?" said Template, as she and Colossa entered.

         "I'm fine, physically," said Chestnut. "If I wasn't I'd just change back for a while to regenerate. But we sure tore up that auditorium. I hear some bystanders got hurt by flyin' debris, though none seriously. I just don't understand why that gal wanted t' fight me. And then wouldn't give up when it was clear I was whuppin' her good!"

         "Stubborn pride," said Colossa. "I once fought a low-level brick who was convinced no 'little girl' could beat him, no matter how big she was."

         "Are you coming back to the school next semester?" said Template. "Because there's no doubt Mustang Sally was the instigator. There's no blame on you."

         "Hell, yeah!" said Chestnut, with the first genuine smile they'd seen. "You couldn't keep me away!"

         They stayed, talking about this and that, until visiting hours ended and the senior floor nurse chased Colossa and Template out.

         "I can't believe you're adding a vampire and an elf," said Colossa, as Template flew the two of them back to the Intrepids' base to update the team on the events regarding Chestnut. "And that I didn't know about them until I heard you telling Chestnut!"

         "I told you about Beverly," said Template, a bit defensively.

         "Just that she was the daughter of a murderous crime lord with supernatural connections, and was in jail for killing him. Nothing about her being a vampire."

         "I'm sure I told you."

         The were still arguing as they entered the base.







Part Three: Commencement




         "Almost ready," said Andrea, sighing in tired satisfaction as she ended the staff meeting. "Some students have yet to arrive, but all prospects have been contacted, the dorms and most of the other facilities are ready..."

         "Don't jinx it," said Junker, warily.

                   *             *             *

         Well out into interstellar space, more than a full light year from Sol, a small huRK scientific fleet came across an anomaly. A manufactured one.

         "It appears to be a Sholvak fast courier, Fleet Leader," said the sensor operator. "Currently empty and in standby mode, but with definite signs of recent activity and occupation. An oddity is that the canopy is open. Not damaged... merely left open. As if the occupant had departed with the intent of returning shortly."

         The Fleet Leader stroked its neck spines absently as it thought this through.

         "Scan the volume around us for appropriate-sized living or once-living things."

         "Done, Fleet Leader. None within short range."

         "Extend your range towards the nearest star. Also scan for metapower application."

         "Brilliant, Fleet Leader!" said the medium caste officer, only a moment later. "One metapowered Sholvak, Primus class, heading towards the nearest system on its own power."

         "Identify specific Primus."

         There was a long silence.

         "Fleet Leader... the entity is Queen Tolnar."

         That definitely caused a stir!

         "Archivist! What is the significance of this system?"

         "Only one developed planet plus a large satellite with a colony and some outposts... a few other outposts on other bodies or independent... unallied, classic early technical world," the scholar recited as it tapped the ship's database. "Single intelligent species, multiple governmental agencies and cultures, defensive capabilities..."

         "Well?" said the Fleet Leader as the other trailed off to silence.

         "Fleet Leader... this world has driven off the MenDekLed Hoard three times... the Great Devourer four times... five different Harvester swarms have failed against it, two of them being so damaged the remnants were absorbed by other swarms... There are multiple, other similar examples."

         That caused an even bigger - and more uneasy - stir.

         "Are you telling me," said the huge huRK, slowly and carefully, "that she is deliberately approaching a world which could challenge her and one of her primary fleets, without so much as a single escort?"

         "Fleet Leader... I accurately relay the information the archives have for this world."

         "Fascinating," said the huRK. "I want monitoring stations placed around this system. We will go about our business, but we will also keep notes on hers."

                   *             *             *

         She stood motionless in the air, regal, stern and perfect. She had dark blond hair and deeply bronzed skin, and was sculpted like a world-class athlete at the peak of her training. Template had seen a few people who could carry off a long, swirling cape with dignity; this woman made them seem pikers.

         "That's Queen Tolnar!" said Andrea, sounding frightened, as she joined the group looking up into the sky. "Good Lord! We can't fight her! The entire membership of The Planet Defenders would have trouble driving her off!"

         "Maybe she doesn't want to fight," said Template, tentatively. "I mean, except for those first two times, when she was young and eager to make a name for herself in the universe, all her visits have been peaceful. Or at least started that way..."

         "If you think that, you go talk to her," said Cyclone Ranger.

         Template swallowed nervously, but nodded, and took off.

         "Good morning," she said, hovering a few meters away from the humanoid alien. Mercifully, her voice was steady. "I am Template, one of the administrators of this facility. What is your purpose here?"

         "At least one of you has some courage," said Tolnar, in a surprisingly mild tone. "I wish to enroll my son, Maldren, in this institution."

         "Ah," said Template, somehow not surprised. "Well, if you will come this way I'll introduce you to our Principal..."

                   *             *             *

         "How the Hell did she know?" said Andrea, weakly, at the staff meeting Eve called after speaking privately with Queen Tolnar for more than three hours.

         "Language," said Eve, mildly. "How she learned of our school is not really important. You can ask her yourself if you want, the next time she's here."

         "I'll pass," said Andrea, quickly.

         "What I want to know is, most aliens look very much non-human, but she could almost pass as one of us," said Template. "Is that just some sort of cosmic coincidence?"

         "You don't know?" said Andrea, startled. "Her people are human. About a hundred thousand years ago the Sh'pokt collected samples of life from Earth to create an example ecosystem back on their homeworld. They didn't know humans were sentient until a bunch of them escaped and almost stole a ship. The Sh'pokt were then forced to adopt and educate them and their descendants. They eventually took over that culture, and several others. One reason they pay so much attention to adding Earth to their empire is that they know it's their planet of origin, and mostly leave it alone out of reverence and respect for their mother world."

         The alien woman had left as uneventfully as she had arrived, once she and Eve had hammered out all the pertinent details. While many of those details - such as method of payment - were still confidential, the communications center had reported several instances of heavy traffic between Eve's office and governments around the world during the talks. Most of the communication time had been with the UN.

         "The primary short-term impact is that having her son here greatly increases our security needs," said Eve. "I had to assure her that we were capable of seeing to his safety. Which means a great deal of preparatory work by us before he arrives here, in three days."

         "Ohhh, yeah," said Junker, nodding. "We'll have to coordinate more closely with the Lunies than ever. And the Planet Defenders and some other space-capable super teams. And beef up both our sensors and our weapons. Tie into the Deep Space Early Warning Array. That woman has some formidable enemies, and many of them would be quite capable of slipping through our current net without leaving so much as a ripple."

         "As for why she is taking this action, I believe she wishes to have him away from court intrigues for a while. Something I well understand. And this may be the only world not aligned with one of the stellar empires which is strong enough to resist same. She may also simply wish him to learn some independence."

         "Just how powerful is this boy?" said Template. "I'm concerned about discipline problems."

         "Rightly so," said the Black Mask, participating through a conference call. "His abilities would have to be measured to determine them precisely, but guessing from what I know of Tolnar's early abilities, he would be at roughly Template's level, though with a few powers she doesn't have. For example, energy projection and FTL flight. However, he's approaching the period of his life in which members of his species goes through a quick and very substantial increase in power. They're born super, then experience a sort of power puberty in their teen years."

         "I wonder if she simply wants him some place where if he breaks something it won't matter," said Andrea.

         "Great," said Cyclone Ranger, looking tired. "And all this is assuming the UN even lets the boy on the planet."

         "The treaty with the Sholvak includes a cultural exchange provision," said Eve. "Her Majesty intends to use the educational clause in that."

         "Should work," said the Black Mask, his transmitted image nodding thoughtfully. "However, they'll almost certainly want to put some of their own people on the island, to help protect the boy and the school."

         "That's quite acceptable, as long as they don't expect us to quarter them at the school itself," said Eve. "I'll speak with Commissioner Wright this afternoon. Most likely, we will wind up having some T.O.W.E.R. Agents staying in either Pine's base or one of the closed super team bases. Now, is there any other new business? Good. Remember, school starts in four days. We will be ready."

                   *             *             *

         "Our contact at the UN is rather upset by Queen Tolnar's visit," said Andrea, at the staff meeting the next day. "He's fussing at us because she didn't go through channels."

         "I assume you told him to take his complaints to her," said Eve, dryly.

         "Well, more politely than that but, yes."

         "So what's the word?" asked Template.

         "The only way the UN will allow Maldren to be a student is if Zeep promises to help protect - and keep an eye on - him. He has agreed to do so, though only against external - that is, extraterrestrial - threats."

         "So we're back to declaring independence," said Template, sighing, "since the US won't let Zeep on its soil, or that of its possessions.

         "However, they will allow the boy to attend on a provisional basis," said Eve. "One semester, as a trial. If that works, and if we have Zeep on board by then, he's good for however long his mother wants him to stay. Also, keep in mind that Zeep doesn't need to physically be here - whatever that means to something like him - to protect us."

         "I have to admit, I'm looking forward to meeting Zeep," said Template. "I keep hearing all these wild things about him, but have never actually seen him in person. And there's so little documentation of his activities."

         "He prefers a low profile," said Eve. "Given his abilities, he usually gets it."

                   *             *             *

         Maldren arrived, on schedule, two days after that. Only the staff and a few key students knew who he really was; the rest were informed he was a near-human extraterrestrial there as part of an educational and trade program with an Earth ally. Something unusual but not completely unprecedented.

         The young man - about 14 in Earth years, bronze-skinned like his mother but dark-haired - had flown to the island under his own power the day before, after a stop at the UN offices in New York to go through the necessary paperwork. His mother had accompanied him to the UN to make sure all the Is were dotted and all the Ts were crossed, but then stayed behind to attend to some details. At Queen Tolnar's request there had been no publicity of the event and so far the press hadn't gotten wind of it. Though there had been some speculation as to why six of the Navy's fastest fighters - famed Brown Racers - had flown in tight formation from just off the US coast to Bermuda.

         Fortunately for the subterfuge, Maldren wasn't requiring he be addressed by title, explaining that was not necessary for those not under his mother's rule. Since his given name was easy for most humans to pronounce, and not generally associated with Queen Tolnar, that was how he was registered with the school and introduced to the other students.

         So far his opinions of the school, its staff and students had been expressed as polite mild approval. He was cooperating with the regulations and staff instructions, though often asking for clarification, or providing reasons for wanting to do something different.

         "Definitely not a spoiled brat," said Andrea, with relief, at the evaluation meeting after the first day of the new semester.

         "Neither was Tolnar, actually," said Captain Hazard, of the Planet Defenders. "Even when she was beating the tar out of us, in Fifty-Eight, she was, well, mannerly about it. And honorable, not striking a downed opponent, allowing time-outs for the treatment of injuries, evacuation of the seriously wounded, and so forth. Almost chivalrous. And we were always careful to treat her the same way. From what I've seen of her son, she's trained him in the same code."

         "If we do have trouble with the boy," said Eve, nodding, "that is the way to approach him."

                   *             *             *

         "You missed your first flying class," said Template.

         Allessandra hadn't caused nearly as much trouble while staying on the island before school started as Template had expected. However, on this, the second day of classes, she had already skipped an important one. Now she and the course instructor - Eagle - were in Template's office to find out why.

         "I don't fly that much."

         "Flight is a rare and precious ability," said Template, passionately. "You should develop it to your limit."

         "I just don't plan to ever need it that much," said the younger woman, flippantly.

         "Allessandra... it's a required course for those who can fly," said Template, completely unable to understand her attitude. "You attend the class or you fail. Period."

         The girl fidgeted for several seconds. Then abruptly leaned forward, arms jutting wide.

         "I get airsick, okay!" screamed Allessandra, suddenly and honestly angry, as well as a bit frightened. "Anything fancy and I toss my fuckin' cookies!"

         "That's actually not an uncommon problem," said Eagle, glancing over at Template. "The human vestibular system just isn't meant for flying. It's a learned skill."

         "Then she will learn it," said Template, flatly. "You've had your powers for years. The fact that you still have a problem with flying tells me you just haven't flown enough."

         "I didn't used to have a problem," said the teenager, sourly, as she slumped in her chair, arms folded under her ample bosom. "It just... started, a couple years ago."

         Template and Eagle exchanged glances. Allessandra was big for her age - in more ways than one - and sometimes they had trouble remembering she was actually only sixteen. The revised costume they'd had made for her helped a bit with this, as did the fact that she often wore civies, even to class.

         "Allessandra... how long has it been since your last physical exam?"

         "Well, uh, never, actually. I mean, I've never had anything except the checkups they require for school."

         "Well, you're going to have one now," said Template, reaching for her phone. "You might have an actual, physical problem which is causing this vertigo, or whatever it is. It could be something as simple as wax in your ears. I'm calling Dr. Nief and scheduling an appointment for you as soon as she can see you."

         "I, uh..." said Allessandra.

         "Trust me," said Eagle, in a reassuring tone, as Template dialed, "it's better to know for sure if there's a problem. And if there is, what can be done about it. And if there isn't, you..."

         "Will have to practice flying a lot more," said Allessandra, with a sigh.

                   *             *             *

         Rubber Made was pitching for the Extraordinaries in the final inning. She was getting tired. Too much showing off with her Patented Long-Reach Elastic-Snapped Fastball Specials.

         "Just one more out," she muttered to herself as she wound up.

         It was one of her best curves ever. Unfortunately, she was up against Squirrel Girl, batting for the Eccentrics, whose enhancements allowed her to track the pitch just fine. She popped the ball up high, heading for left field. Rubber Made reached for it but wasn't quick enough. The only player on the field who still had a chance to catch it was Richard Flemming, Ettienne's roommate and the only normal on the team. Of course, there's normal, and there's normal...

         Richard, running hard, saw the ball wouldn't drop low enough until well after it passed him. He took off his glove and tossed it into the ball's path. Horsehide smacked solidly into cowhide. Richard managed not only to get under the falling combination, and not only to catch them, but to catch them by shoving his hand into the glove and grabbing the ball with it before the stitched sphere could fall free. He stopped and triumphantly help up the glove, ball plainly seen. The umpire signaled a fair catch.

         "Aw, man..." said Squirrel Girl, who was almost to second base.

         "Hey, if they allow me to stretch to catch and tag, they can allow that," said Rubber Made, grinning. She stretched her arms out and gave her friend a consoling hug. "Better luck next time."

         "Whoops! Watch the hands. You know I'm ticklish."

         Game over, players and watching crowd slowly dispersed.

         "Not a bad game," said Template, as she walked Energia and Maldren back to the dorms. "I thought we'd have problems, allowing powers, but it's better this way, to have them out in the open. And not nearly as lop-sided as I expected, given the varying power levels and types. It's a good way to encourage people to figure out how to apply their powers in unusual ways."

         Moondance walked by, greasy with sunscreen, wearing a wide-brimmed hat and welder's goggles. With her was a small girl with big eyes and huge, pointed ears, as well as long, pointed canines which flashed in the setting sunlight as she excitedly talked.

         "Ooookay,' said Energia, trying not to stare and failing. "This place just keeps getting more interesting.'

         Template laughed, then explained.

         "A vampire and an elf," said Energia, mildly boggled.

         "A Bluegrass Elf," Template corrected. "They're smaller and more feral than their European cousins."

         "Vampire," said Maldren, tipping his head slightly to one side. "An undead drinker of blood."

         "That's only one definition," said Template. "More generally, a mammal which needs to consume blood. Moondance is quite alive, actually. Just has some odd dietary requirements and sun sensitivity."

         Aside from being a bit formal and standoffish he seemed to be a fine young man. Template just hoped there wouldn't be problems from students whose parents had fought Tolnar or other Sholvak when they learned whose offspring he was. And she knew that was "when" and not "if," given who and what those students and parents were.

         As they reached the branching of the path which led to the boys' dormitory, Maldren stopped, turned towards them and bowed a bit.

         "Thank you for the socialization and the explanation of the game."

         He smiled, turned and walked away.

         "Wow," gushed Energia. "Cute, good manners and a prince..."

         "What?!" said Template, shocked. "No. Uh-uh. No way."

         "You're just jealous," said Energia, impishly.

         "Hon, don't do this. The political complications alone could..."

         "Oh, don't worry. I am well aware he's out of my league." She looked down the empty path, a distant smile on her face. "But a girl can dream, can't she?"

                   *             *             *

         It was a meeting of the Zurich Octagon, the blackest of the black, an organization so secret it had no formal name, no formal acknowledgment, composed of managers of projects and programs so secret that even the President had only a vague knowledge they actually existed.

         The men and women seated themselves in the sealed room without ceremony, opening folders, turning on laptops and otherwise preparing for the start of business. Harrison, the current Black Chief, rose, and all the murmured conversation of the participants stopped.

         "The US Congress has agreed to consider the matter of secession for Pine Island."

         "We can't let them secede!" said Grimes

         "It's already as good as done," said Sawyer. "All House and Senate members have been covertly briefed on the Tolnar situation and had the benefits of allowing the boy to attend the school clearly pointed out."

         "Well, undo it! You're the one who is always bragging about his influence!"

         "Do you have any idea of the consequences if..."

         "Do you have any idea of the consequences if they find Project Standby?!"

         "Which is...?"

         Grimes just glared at him.

         "All of us here are in the need to know," said Harrison. "Explain it for the benefit of those who don't know already."

         "Project Standby was created in the late Seventies after the last major Sholvak attack. It is a secret command center which ties into both the Pine facility and the super bases there, as well as the special communications network which was threaded through the Sub-Teran tunnels. It was intended to be left mothballed until needed. Among other resources, it contains sixteen Mark IV Myrmidons."

         "Since the very existence of this installation violates several treaties and international and internal agreements, we cannot let it be discovered," said Brockner.

         "I believe we should alert Seamount Base," said Harrison. "They may need to arrange a training exercise, as a cover for destroying the command center and its contents. Since the Standby base is in an isolated area of a US possession we don't need permission, or to even warn them. If the team is good enough they won't even be noticed."

         "I have a request for them, anyway," said Belleau. "A certain mysterious flying man has been seen in that area. I want them to arrange an accident."

                   *             *             *

         "When you invited me to a Friday night sleepover, I knew I'd have to be a girl the whole time," said Bobby Double, currently wearing a frilly pink nightie and having her toenails painted. "I just didn't know we'd be doing all this... girl stuff."

         "Did you think we were inviting you to a lesbian orgy?" said Squirrel Girl, with a smirk. "Sorry, Bobbi, but this is how girls our age socialize. And you're the one who wanted to know how to be a girl, in case you ever had to on the job."

         "Or at least that's his - I mean her - story," said Rubber Made, snickering. "I just can't believe she got Eve to allow it."

         "With that compulsion she put in my head, I can't change to anything male while I'm here," said Bobby - or Bobbi - with a shrug and a bit of a pout. "I just thought this would be, well, different."

         "Nubile young girls running around mostly naked, or lounging suggestively, with lots of crotch shots?" said Rose. "Sorry. That only happens in teen exploitation films. Or anime."

         "No! If I want to see naked girls live I just use the girls' showers. Or a mirror. I wanted pointers on makeup, and cultural references, and... You know."

         "Girl stuff!" said the others, in a fair chorus.

         "Too bad they won't let me do the same thing with the boys," said Rubber Made, with a sigh.

         "You can't change into a biological male," said Bobbi Double, smugly. "Just move stuff around."

         "Yeah, but it looks the same."

         She stood and concentrated. Her body reshaped into that of a teenage boy. Who looked rather odd in a girl's sleepshirt and panties.

         "See? Whoops; voice too deep. That's better. See, that's why I need the practice, too."

         "That's quite a package you've given yourself," said Rose, staring at Rubber Made's crotch.

         "Hey!"

         She shifted back to normal, as the others laughed.

         "So what's next on the agenda?" said Bobbi, as she slowly kicked her feet to help her toenails dry. "More 'Let's make over the usually guy person'?"

         "Speaking of 'crotch shots,'" said Rose, as she watched Bobbi's antics. "Show some modesty, girl!"

         "Popcorn and a movie," said Squirrel Girl, triumphantly. "And, yes, it's a chick flick."

         "Joy..." said Bobbi, sourly.

         "And then we'll discuss the agony of the female menstrual cycle," said Rose, mischievously.

         "Eeewww..." said the others, in a fair chorus.

                   *             *             *

         Randy had insisted on having this day to himself. This was the last weekend he had free for the foreseeable future, and he was determined to simply have some fun. To relax after all the hectic activity of getting the school ready for its second semester. Karen had claim on tomorrow, but today was all his.

         He was stunting around, out over the Atlantic, well away from shipping lanes and airline routes. Just having fun, going from skimming the water to soaring almost to LEO, from holding stationary to look at the stars well above the stratosphere to screaming across the wavetops supersonic. Even after more than an hour of this he wasn't bored; far from it. He kept varying his activity, trying new things, keeping the flying fresh. Naturally, he was at the peak of his self-entertainment when something interrupted.

         His helmet chirped to warn of radar scans from behind, the HUD informing him they were from two military aircraft. Randy told the helmet to add in satellite information to identify the source. Which, since it seemed to be closing while he was flying high and fast, must be state-of-the-art. The ID came back as a pair of Brown Racers. Randy whistled, and altered course a bit to let them by. They moved smoothly back in behind him. A bit surprised, Randy climbed. They climbed with him. They were now less than a hundred klicks back. Close, under these circumstances.

         Randy began an increasingly aggressive series of maneuvers. They matched him, and continued to close. Finally, Randy hit the brakes; flipping vertical in a cobra maneuver to use air drag with his flight power to briefly decelerate hard. He had planned to let them fly past, but they also slowed, then began circling him. Randy scowled, and started focusing on losing them.

         Randy didn't really take the situation seriously, at first. He figured the pilots were simply using him as a practice target of opportunity, so he played with them, maneuvering in ways an airplane simply couldn't, even with vectored thrust. Because Randy's flight was usually all vectored thrust. After nearly causing them to collide, though, he decided enough was enough, and started climbing and accelerating. He was at Mach four and fifteen thousand meters, pulling ahead, when his helmet warned him of a missile launch. Then another, and another and another. The HUD identified them as Harpy missiles. And they were closing fast.

         Randy dove sharply, hoping to break lock, or loose it in the ground clutter. The missiles tracked him like he was laying rails for them to ride on. Worried, now, he put everything but a bit of resilience, speed and strength into flight, and poured it on. He turned slightly, heading northwest. Towards a place which should let him in but defend against the missiles. Pine Island.

         "Four solid locks," the General reported, to the joy of the dignified-looking civilian with him. "It's only a matter of time. Those are scramjet sustained missiles, and they're much faster than his top speed. They have more than enough range to catch him."

         Randy was on the deck, going flat out, body tucked into the most streamlined configuration he could manage. According to his HUD, they were still closing, and he had several klicks to go. The outside of the helmet was nearing its temperature limit; behind him, the noses of the missiles must be glowing bright red.

         Push it, push it, push it, Randy repeated desperately to himself. C'mon, *c'mon*!

         Somehow, he managed a bit more speed. The Harpies were still closing, but now he saw he was going to make it.

         A cruise liner flashed by on the right, just a brief glimpse of white and primary colors against the powder blue horizon. Randy didn't dare look back, but he had a pretty good idea of what he'd see: Five long, straight lines of white spray kicked up by their sonic booms. He felt a bit sorry for those on the ship. And wondered if any of the glass on board was still intact.

         There! He saw the island. He wasn't quite where he expected to be, and adjusted course, which meant the Harpies closed a bit more. No problem. They had to react to what he did; he already knew what to do.

         Only, the response to his approach wasn't what he expected. That is, there was no response from the island's defenses. He wondered if he was too low... but just now climbing was not a survivable option. Instead, he'd have to use the landscape of the island, itself. Fortunately, he was approaching a part which was far from any inhabitants. Randy just hoped there were no hikers in the area...

         Just before crossing the beach Randy put about a third of his flight into speed. He began slowing, naturally, but between his remaining flight allocation and his momentum he would have enough velocity for what he intended. Even with his speed so high, this was risky. Randy saw a rocky outcrop - what had been a coral head before Pine raised this part of the sea floor above the water - and abruptly swerved left. Two of the Harpies overshot; one made the turn; one impacted the coral head.

         The next several seconds were full of desperate swerving, with some hard climbing and diving. At the end of it Randy was still supersonic and two more of the Harpies were gone. The one left was climbing, trying to refind Randy after losing him in ground clutter. Randy pulled up hard, using his body to plane the air, trading speed for altitude. It was close, but he managed to get in behind the missile before it spotted him. By now it should be nearly out of fuel.

         Sure enough, the exhaust was dying, the Harpy slowing. Only... Randy could see, on the ground ahead, a section of the retirement community. Randy put more power back into flight and closed. He grabbed the fins at the base of the missile and swerved it left and up. He held it on that course for several seconds, then - satisfied it had a large, empty area of ocean to crash into - fell back. He was just starting to congratulate himself on getting out of the mess when the missile exploded.







Part Four: Schemes and Consequences




         "You're telling me," said the man, barely able to keep from screaming, "that two half-billion dollar air superiority fighters with two three-million dollar missiles each couldn't shoot down one flying man?!"

         That last actually was screamed.

         "Think about what you just said," the General replied, confidently. "'One flying man.' This is someone with inhuman powers. Someone not human. And we almost got him. We learned from this, Senator. We'll do better next time."

         "There is no next time for you!" the older man shouted. "You're fired!"

         He lunged to his feet and jabbed an accusing finger, thrusting his whole arm at the General for emphasis. Then he gasped, and clutched at his chest. And collapsed to the floor.

                   *             *             *

         "That should do it," said Dr. Nief, nodding. She turned from Randy to the white-haired boy. "Thank you, Ettienne."

         "Thank you," Randy echoed, as the boy smiled and nodded modestly.

         Randy watched silently as the odd boy gathered his huge, grey tomcat and left. Hoping he'd managed to be surprised enough at the youngster's healing ability. It was a pain, keeping track of who among these people Randy wasn't supposed to have met, yet. It was a greater pain remembering that even most of those he had officially met were supposed to be acquaintances, rather than friends and coworkers, when he was in his base form. He was doubly relieved Dr. Nief had called the young Frenchman in, first to have his burns and cuts healed quickly, second so he could get out of here quickly.

         "I'm glad you decided to use him, instead of keeping me here until I healed normally," Randy told Dr. Nief as Ettienne left.

         "Well, you were one of the people who founded the school," said Dr. Nief. "You've also helped us out personally a few times. And Template vouches for you. And we've had no other calls for his talents today. So, why not?"

         She checked him over and nodded.

         "You can leave whenever you're ready. However, Eve wants to speak with you, first."

         "Send her in," said Randy, sitting up and swinging his legs over the edge of the exam table as the doctor finished. He was glad they'd let him keep his shorts on. Though what he was going to wear on the flight back home he hadn't figured out, yet. His helmet, leather jacket and boots were all just about shredded, and even his gloves and jeans were damaged.

         "What happened?" said Eve, once they were private.

         Randy gave a detailed description of his encounter with the Brown Racers and his flight from the missiles.

         "What happened to the island's anti-missile defenses?" he finished, tone a bit outraged.

         "Down an hour and a half for upgrading," said Eve, scowling. "Naturally, during that period was the only time we've actually needed it."

         "So far," said Randy, pointedly. "So. I didn't get the registration numbers, but their transponders should have been picked up by satellite. We need to find out who those guys were and get them court martialled."

         "I have already contacted Ike Kenniman and some others. They traced backwards from the missiles' detonations to when they were launched... but no further. According to every sensor monitoring that part of the world, the missiles simply appeared. They were even able to track you back for several minutes beyond that, but lost you when you went very high. Or, rather, descended after rising very high."

         "Damn!" hissed Randy, punching his thigh. "I'm starting to realize there's more to this than two Navy fighter pilots simply deciding to shoot down a random super. So what do we do? How do we find whoever is responsible?"

         "We do nothing, for now," said Eve. "Oh, we report the explosions and such, but say nothing about what we know to be the cause. Especially not that we were able to track the missiles, or even that you were what - who - they were after. We don't even mention you. Then, we wait."

         "Guess that's the best course."

         "One other thing," said Eve. "United States Senator in bad standing - yes, he still hasn't resigned, and his party won't force him out - Armistead Carstairs has disappeared."

         "Right out of his jail cell?" said Randy, surprised. "What, did some cohort have him teleported?"

         "Nothing so extraordinary. His lawyers arranged a change of venue to a more sympathetic judge. Who granted bail, declaring that Carstairs was not a flight risk and excoriating the previous judge for saying so. Carstairs was last seen just over three hours later, as he left a press conference in which he claimed he was being framed by supers and would be vindicated. No-one will acknowledge seeing him since."

         "It's possible some super - or even a former ally - did him in, but I bet he's on a tropical island somewhere, with a new name and a new face, chortling over how he escaped justice."

         "You know better than that," said Eve, ominously. "His kind are never wrong in their own minds. He is in hiding, plotting his revenge... which he will view as justice. After his vindication he will return, triumphant, all sins forgiven."

         "Argh..." said Randy.

         "By the way, did the Black Mask ever tell you that the Agent Carstairs who was accosting people at that convention you attended three years ago is the nephew of the Senator?"

         "No, he didn't," said Randy, sourly. "But it doesn't surprise me."

                   *             *             *

         "Let's try a relay," said Myna. "Maldren, you send power to Energia. Energia, you channel it and send it in a different direction. Take it easy; remember, this is the first time we're trying this."

         Red beams bridged the gap between the alien boy's eyes and the human super's outstretched palm. Energia's whole body glowed softly as she sent the captured heat energy off in a different direction. They held this formation for a few seconds; then Maldren shut down his beams.

         "Very good. Now, Energia, could you change the energy into a different form?"

         "I think I'd have to store it first," she said, frowning in thought.

         "Well, try the exercise again, starting by simply channeling, then try to change it."

         Both teens nodded, and resumed. Once the redirection was successfully established Energia concentrated. The outgoing beam flickered, and its color wavered. Then it shifted from red to a bright blue. They held this for a few seconds, just to make sure; then Maldren stopped his beam, and hers faded. Energia began a victory dance in the air.

         "I did it!"

         "You certainly did!" said Maldren, obviously impressed.

         All three were hovering just three meters above the firing line at the practice range. For this particular exercise they weren't expected to actually hit anything, so the energy just shot out into space. Below them, the others in the class were practicing exercises specific to them and their talents. That is, when they weren't watching the events taking place above them.

         "Very good," said Myna, beaming. "Practice this on your own time, of course, but be careful. Build up slowly until you learn your limits."

         "Why is it," said Maldren, as they drifted to the ground behind the others, "that she can redirect and transform energy when I can't?"

         Was there a trace of anxiety in his voice?

         "Manipulating energies and forces is what she does," said Myna. "I knew she had the potential to do this from working with other E/FMs. Your energy projection, however, is a product of your other powers."

         "Ah," said Maldren, though he didn't seem too reassured.

         "If it's any consolation, you could probably produce more energy than she could safely channel."

         Elsewhere, Template was busy with administrative matters. Though she did help some with teaching, she had no formal training in that. She was good with both numbers and people, though. Just now, she and Eve were startled as three members of the maintenance staff entered her office in triumph, interrupting a meeting about whom to contact for help with further security systems upgrades.

         "Figured out the problem with the ball-thrower!" Marcus announced triumphantly. "Turns out the tube was bending slightly under load, and distorting the interrupter on the electropneumatic sequencer."

         "That's fine," said Eve, who had understood about three words out of four in that last part.

         "Congratulations," said Template, who understood all of it but wished they had contained their enthusiasm over this minor triumph until an appropriate time.

         These mild responses did nothing to dampen their glee, nor to help them realize they were interrupting something. Indeed, they seemed to take the comments as encouragement to go into further detail, of the problem and its solution.

         "I have an idea," said Template, who had long ago learned that the best way to get rid of hyper gadgeteers was to give them something interesting to do. "We've spoken about using supers with ranged attacks to intercept incoming projectiles. Could something like the ball thrower be used to train them in this?"

         "It certainly could," said Junker, eyes glazing as he visualized scenarios.

         "I'd appreciate your checking into that. Perhaps even constructing a prototype for evaluation of the concept."

         "We'll get right on it!" said Marcus, eagerly.

         "No; wait until more urgent matters are settled," said Template, quickly. "We don't need it yet. But feel free to think about it. Meanwhile, though, please follow the current project flowchart."

         They left, even more eagerly than they had arrived. Eve stared after them through the door they had forgotten to close.

         "As Zeus is my witness, I will never understand them," she said, shaking her head.

         "I do, since I have Gadgetive's pattern," said Template, with a wry laugh. "Trust me, once the bug starts gnawing, there's very little which can make it stop except doing what it wants."

         "Well, I'm glad we have someone in management who speaks their language. Now, about the Bay Area Guardians..."

                   *             *             *

         "The second semester is definitely going more smoothly than the first," said Template, as she and Eagle practiced sitting on a cloud. "Well, the actual school part is. This new stuff coming in, with the missiles, and Carstairs vanishing..."

         The trick was to find a cloud with as sharp a boundary as you could, then fly close formation in a sitting position. It was good hovering and slow flight training. But it was difficult enough that they hadn't formally introduced it in the flying classes. Not to mention usually requiring an altitude above that which supers without independence or life support equipment could function.

         "Well, we did have the first semester to help us find our stride," said Eagle, showing off a bit by reclining onto the fluffy mist.

         "Unfortunately, those same weeks gave our opponents time to learn about us," said Template, sighing and likewise flopping back. "As well as for some of the activities which prompted us to create the school in the first place to become more developed."

         "Did you know that my origin is connected to Energex'?" said Eagle, out of the blue.

         "No, I didn't. And this is apropos to...?"

         "Just... thought you should know, since you keep going up against him. He was originally a teacher at the university where I got my degree. Used archives of Nazi experiments - most of them on Jews, Gypsies and such in death camps - to figure out how to impose force patterns which mimic super abilities on human tissues to duplicate powers."

         "So he's not genetic, either," said Template, nodding. She started slipping into the cloud a bit. "Wonder if that's - Whoops! - that's why he recharges so slowly."

         "Could be. I know he was working on a machine to improve his powers within a few weeks of getting them." Eagle shook his head. "Idiot was calling himself Maximum Man back then. Anyway, some of us students and teachers who were keeping an eye on him figured out his plan and decided to sabotage the device. Only he came back early. I jumped into the machine and got empowered - watch the duck - only at first I could just use one power at a time, since the machine was meant to work with the powers he already had. It wouldn't have worked on me at all, except that we later learned I had some super genes which just happened to heterodyne with what he was doing. My powers gradually shifted to me having them all at once, though they were also all greatly reduced in magnitude."

         "Let's see... besides flight, you've got mildly enhanced speed, strength, resilience, some independence, uh..."

         "And I can start fires by staring hard," said Eagle. "Basically, watered-down versions of Energex' powers."

         "Did he ever improve his powers?"

         "Oh, yeah. Several times. Though the increase was less each time. He's apparently reached the practical limit for empowerment through that method."

         "Yeah, that's pretty interesting. Hey, have they ever checked into removing his powers by reversing that process?"

         "Yes. They've never been able to hold him long enough to do it, but they did find out there's a good chance it would also kill him. And even if they successfully did it, he knows how to get them back."

         "So we're stuck with him being a major menace until he dies of old age or gets killed."

         "Pretty much."

         "Well, I need to get back soon. Chicory Chick and HyperManic are due for detention and it's my turn to monitor."

         "What did they do now?"

         "Got in a food fight in the cafeteria. Just the two of them. By the time anyone else could react, Speed Freak and Blue Impact had caught both of them."

         "Ow."

         "What in..." said Template, as she looked down. "Oh. Several of the better flyers are playing tag. Including Allessandra."

         "Looks like a recreation of the Battle of Britain," said Eagle, laughing. "Allessandra sure has straightened out the past few weeks."

         "I'm amazed. Turned out that fixing her inner ear problem, and giving her a chance to be with kids her own age who also have powers, plus some counseling, was pretty much all she needed. She just tried to grow up too fast, due to circumstances in her life."

         "Well, you can wave to them as you head for detention."

         "Oh; right. Catch you later!"

         Template did wave at the flying children; most waved back. It appeared that Energia was currently "It" and doing a good job of chasing down Maldren. Who had been surprised, early on, to learn just how good at flying some of the children his own age here were. He'd buckled down and practiced, and was now much better, himself, but still not quite in Energia's league in terms of skill. However, given his better acceleration and higher top speed, he was managing to keep out of her reach. Barely. Or was he just teasing her?

         Template laughed, shook her head and flew downwards. She wasn't completely comfortable with the friendship developing between those two, but so far it didn't seem more than that, and she was not going to play the part of an interfering relative. She'd wait and see. Meanwhile, that game had reminded her of another potential problem for the school.

         If we get many more fliers we'll have to institute some form of air traffic control, she mused, as she dropped to the path near the entrance closest to the detention hall.

         They already had a low-altitude speed limit, partly due to Template pointing out the harm sonic booms could do, following Randy's close brush with that cruise liner.

         We have rules no-one ever had to think about before, and will soon need more, thought Template, as she walked inside. Good thing we've got so many creative people on staff. And among the students! I just wish certain individuals from both groups weren't so creative about mischief. Some of them entirely by accident.

                   *             *             *

         "What do you mean you don't have a father?!" said Energia, stopping to stare at Maldren as they walked towards their dorms to clean up and relax a bit between last class and supper, a few days after that particular game of tag.

         "The royal line and most noble lines have been genetically engineering themselves for thousands of years," said Maldren. "Mainly to increase the number of us who have powers, and the level of them. My mother didn't like any of the candidates put forward as a potential mate by the Council of Electors, so she took an alternate approach."

         "I remember Glomahr telling me there's a saying among her people," said Energia, as they resumed walking. "That the most important question to ask before you begin genetically engineering a species is 'What should we genetically engineer for?' The Bluegrass Elves chose general survivability enhancements plus psionics. But to hear that your mother didn't even... Did she have you, herself, or were you... Oh! I'm sorry! I guess that's really personal."

         "You are honestly interested," said Maldren, shrugging. "I had a natural birth. It's a matter of pride among us that no matter how we change ourselves we would still be a viable species if we somehow lost our technology."

         "Yeah, that's pretty much the approach of the Bluegrass Elves," said Energia, nodding. She shivered. "I hear the Sheplem are all grown in vats, engineered down to the last base pair for specific tasks."

         "My culture believes in a compromise approach," said Maldren, proudly. "Half my genetic material was carefully engineered. This was then used to fertilize one of my mother's eggs, to provide a natural variation of characteristics."

         "Best of both worlds, then," said Energia. "I don't know. I guess I'm just old fashioned but I think when I'm old enough I'll just use the traditional method."

         "There are those among us with similar inclinations. As long as both genomes are strong, there's no stigma to that."

         Energia suddenly laughed.

         "If my mother knew I was talking about sex with a boy my age... Well, not sex, but reproduction."

         "I have the impression that my people are a bit more open to this topic than yours, but my mother would still chastize me for speaking of this publicly."

         "Well, it's just the two of us, here, so if she asks, you didn't."

                   *             *             *

         "The US military said nothing at first," said Andrea. "When the cruise line company complained, the Air Force denied the accusations, saying the ship must have encountered a freak storm. Then a passenger who happened to be videotaping his wife on the foredeck sold his recording to a major news agency. His High-Definition tape clearly shows the missiles going by. This left the Air Force was suddenly playing catchup. Now they're saying an unidentified super flew into a missile test and 'distracted' the missiles away from the actual target. They're even hinting this was deliberate, as a prelude to an attack on the cruise liner like those pirate raids a few months back."

         "And the fact that no such attack has taken place is being ignored by them," said Randy, nodding sourly.

         Eve was giving Randy a private briefing about what had been learned in regard to the attack on him. Randy and not Template, to help maintain the fiction that they were separate people. She had also wanted to brief some other staff members and get their input on this and related matters. So she had scheduled a special, weekend staff meeting, to which Randy was specifically invited. Unfortunately, Template was unable to attend...

         "At least after this upgrade is completed we'll have a defense system with multi-level redundancy," said Eve. "Only one part should ever be down at any time. We're also letting some of the gadgeteers create interim defenses to hold the line while the remaining planned equipment is being put in place."

         "You sure that's a good idea?"

         "No, but they're faster than the contractors. Who knows; if something they install works well enough we may even incorporate it. We're also making progress with integrating energy projecting staff and students into the defense system."

         "There's something else odd about this attack on you," said Junker. "The US government is now saying the planes came from the Eisenhower, as part of a training exercise. Only the Eisenhower wasn't in the area, but much further south. So far south that the planes would have needed to refuel once to get there and once to return. Again implying a deliberate attempt on your life. Only, there were no tankers along the necessary flight path."

         "So they're not just lying about attacking you, but about how it was done," said Eve.

         "Which means they want to keep wherever those things came from secret from us," said Randy, nodding. "You know, whether this was an accident or spur of the moment thing or a deliberate attack, I bet there's a lot of frantic activity inside the walls of the Pentagon right now."

         "Especially if this was some sort of black project the regular military wouldn't know about," said Junker. He gave a sour laugh and shook his head. "Those guys hate that sort of thing. They figure only they should have the weapons of mass destruction. And they really chafe at lying to cover for black ops. Especially when that results in them taking the blame."

         "The Black Mask has contacts throughout the super community helping on this," said Randy. "We'll find it, all right. Especially since many of those we're asking have relatives here."

         "Moving on to other business," said Eve. "Something else we're working on is alternative means of transportation to and from the island. We recently learned that one of the old Sub-Teran tunnels passes less than a hundred fifty kilometers from here. Some of our gadgeteers say we can tie into that."

         "Wow," said Randy, marveling in spite of the seriousness of the situation. "The Sub-Teran tunnels... I'd love to see those. All that history, all those adventures..."

         "We've got our gadgeteers - both teachers and students - working on an Orukter for the digging."

         "Wait," said Randy. "If the ocean floor under the island was uplifted by Pine, how would that affect this tunnel?"

         "They're designed to move with the tectonic plates and other geologic shifts," said Junker. "The scale of the alteration was large enough that even that far away it was probably moved some, but for the same reason the movement of the ground around the tunnel would have a small gradient. It should still be passable."

                   *             *             *

         In the assembly of the Zurich Octagon, the secret managers of the United States (at least in their minds and those of some others) the discussion turned to the school and the latest developments involving it.

         "At least we know, now, that their defenses are weak," said Turner.

         "Their non-mask defenses," said Grimes, angrily. "Their technological defenses. Their automatic defenses. Given warning, some of those living on that island could pick off incoming missiles or artillery shells just by thinking bad thoughts at them."

         "I stand corrected."

         "Still, this unexpected hole in their automatic protections could be exploited," said Gabriel.

         "They apparently know this; they have recently already arranged a significant upgrade to their automatic defenses," said Harrison. "My sources tell me the earliest these could be completed is roughly a month an a half from now."

         "So the plan to destroy Project Standby fits in nicely," said Grimes, nodding. "We even have some leeway."

         "I propose covering for the operation by staging another, larger, operation. This on the school, itself," said Belleau.

         "You and your slavery obsession," said Sawyer, sourly.

         "It has shown great promise," said Belleau, insistently. "Even with the loss of that one facility and those working at and managing it. I see no reason to drop the idea. We might as well get some good out of these... superhumans."

         Harrison thought for a moment, then nodded.

         "Agreed. But do not use DoppelMeister this time. Not only are his replicates less dependable than real humans, they would be watching for those."

         "A direct assault, then?" said Turner.

         "Yes. Our forces are strong enough, now. We wait until we know they'll be shorthanded for some reason. Then we stage a lightning assault. In and out, no more than thirty minutes on the ground. Grab whoever we can, then leave before they can rally. Meanwhile, our infiltration and demolition team will be waiting for the operation to start. Their job will take longer, but with all the supers, normals and children at the school running around like an overturned ant hill after the raid..."

         "Good plan," said Belleau, enthusiastically. A nasty smile spread slowly over his face. "I'm looking forward to doing them one in the eye, after all the trouble they've caused us in the past. Especially Template and Gadgetive. Oh, yes; I definitely want Gadgetive back. For some personal attention."

         The others pretended not to notice the leer in his voice. A few shuddered in disgust.







Part Five: Children of the Times




         Maldren didn't quite breeze through the flying obstacle course, but he definitely was doing very well. There was applause and whistles from some of the others present, including the non-flyers who just liked to watch.

         "Very good," said Eagle, recording the boy's score. "You're the fastest today, and among the top fifty."

         "Top fifty runs, or top fifty flyers at the school?" he said, a bit of tension there.

         "Top fifty runs. Out of several hundred. Including dozens by myself and Template. Oh, and even counting those who actually levitate, there's only about forty flyers here. But more than that have been through the course; we have supers from all over the world test and even train on some of our specialized equipment, including this obstacle course."

         "Ah. Not so bad, then."

         "And you'll get better with practice," said Eagle, encouragingly. "Remember, I've been flying for nearly twenty years. Longer than you've been alive. Skill can definitely compensate for lack of power."

         Maldren nodded, taking this in as he took everything in.

         "All right," said Template, landing at the end of the course. "I'm afraid that, despite appeals against it, we're having that special exercise I mentioned at assembly this morning. Fifteen minutes. And remember, it's mandatory."

         There were groans and expressions of dread.

                   *             *             *

         "I'm okay with women's restrooms, now," said Template, sighing as she practically melted from Colossa's massaging, "but I still feel like a fraud in locker rooms and showers. Even with the individual stalls at school. Naturally, I'm the one the girls ask for when there's a problem in there. And it's usually someone huddled in a shower not wanting to come out. Half the time they're naked, occasionally because someone stole their clothes."

         "You're good with kids and you're available, since you don't regularly teach classes," said Colossa, who was definitely wishing they had time to get out of costume. "I assume this morning was particularly bad?"

         "Especially personally," said Template, glad she'd stopped by the Intrepids' base for lunch and a bit of socializing before attending a school-related meeting in DC. "We had the required exposure to a power suppressor this morning, and, naturally, all of them hated it except the magicals and the one normal. Some kids took it hard, including Energia. And she's the one who wound up naked, wet and sobbing, because she found out she has to do it two more times just this semester. A couple of other girls also took refuge in the locker room, but at least kept their clothes on. That Thurlough kid actually had a panic attack. Claimed later we'd cheated to make people think he was a super, when he wasn't."

         "Too bad there's not a denial suppressor," said Colossa, sourly.

         "There are some. But they're only available by prescription."

         "Hah! Well, I hope your niece is all right. I understand that's a horrible feeling, and worse for some than others."

         "Have you ever been under a neutralizer?" said Template, turning her head a bit to look over her shoulder.

         "No," said Colossa, firmly, "and I don't want to be."

         "You really need to know what it feels like. Could give you a warning that it's being used on you."

         "I've heard it described," said Colossa, fervently.

         "And?"

         Colossa stopped her ministrations and leaned back, looking a bit worried.

         "It feels like someone has drained the life out of you."

         "Well, that's pretty accurate," said Template, grudgingly. She sighed and sat up, realizing the treat was over. "Look. It's policy that every student and teacher at the school go through that at least once, and we really recommend multiple exposures. There's some indication - unconfirmed - that this can help build resistance, since they're never one-hundred percent. I don't like it, but I've done it four times already."

         "That's you. This is me."

         "You just don't want people to know you keep a bit of growth on in costume, so you're taller," said Template, teasing.

         "Well, yeah," said Colossa, shyly. "You know that's part of how I make my hero identity look different from my civilian identity."

         "And you also enjoy being taller as Colossa," said Template, with a grin.

         She gave the other woman an affectionate kiss on the cheek.

         "It's okay, hon. I love you anyway."

         "Wait," said Colossa, as something occurred to her. "Don't you change back to Randy? When you're under the nullifier, I mean."

         "Nope. That's an instantaneous and completed effect, a result of a change made by a power, not an ongoing effect like growth. I not only don't change back, I can't change back."

         "Hmmmmm..." said Colossa, getting a scheming look in her eye.

         "Why do I have the feeling this is going to lead to something kinky?"

                   *             *             *

         Template whistled happily as she walked out of the Department of Education office building. For once no "special interests" had bullied their way into what was ideally a simple meeting between someone who represented a school and the government overseers for education. Template knew they hadn't given up, but had no clue as to why they weren't here for this particular session.

         Maybe there's a flu going around which targets self-inflated bureaucrats, she thought, with a slight smile. Or an attack of manners. Or maybe...

         Among the benefits, they'd finished more quickly than usual. Template paused on the porch, at the head of the marble steps, debating heading back to the island or doing a little sight seeing. She was oblivious to her pose: hands on hips, cape fluttering a bit in the slight breeze, staring off into space, the high-heeled boots giving her a much sexier stance than she realized. Several tourists snapped photos.

         She almost missed the approaching TV news crew, spotting them just before she was going to lift off and fly away. However, she didn't miss them. Much as she was tempted, she didn't lift off and fly away, either.

         "Excuse me! Miss Temple!"

         "Template."

         "Sorry; Miss Tinplate#. May we ask your purpose here?"

         "I'm called Template. I was representing the Pine Island Academy in a routine meeting before the Department of Educations Standards Board."

         "You mean... you weren't here for the Tellhoff Bill hearing?"

         "What is the Tellhoff Bill?"

         The man smirked, and his tone became condescending.

         "It's only the most important legislative proposal involving supers in the past thirty years!"

         "And what's it supposed to do?"

         "It requires all US citizens to wear normal clothing."

         Template stared at him.

         "Well? What will you do when you can no longer wear a costume?"

         "A costume is normal clothing for me," said Template, emphatically. "Just as a burkha is normal clothing for many Moslem women. Just as a turban is normal for many Sikh men. Just as a yarmulke is normal for many Jewish men. In a polycultural society such as the United States, any attempt to define 'normal' clothing, 'normal' food, 'normal' music, or 'normal' anything else is a fool's task. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a school to get back to."

         She flew away while he was still trying to figure out what 'polycultural' meant. She felt rather irritated at the man, but also figured she now knew where all those who normally - excuse the expression - forced themselves into the board hearings were.

                   *             *             *

         Flying was something Maldren had been doing since not long after learning to walk, and he'd started that much earlier than a terrestrial human would. Swimming, however, was alien to him.

         "Come on!" teased Energia, wearing her mask and a one-piece swimsuit based on her regular costume. She bent down and splashed water at him. "The ocean's nice and warm, and it's shallow right here."

         "I see neither the entertainment value, nor the utility," huffed Maldren, who was wearing a portion of his normal costume which, alone, resembled short-legged tights.

         The boy was already a real hardbody, and promised to be incredibly handsome in a few more years. Energia had noticed him casting discreet glances her way, as well. Which gave her some definitely odd sensations...

         "What if you need to go underwater to rescue someone, or get into an enemy base?"

         "I'll just fly. It still works when wet."

         Eventually, she coaxed him into the water, and even taught him some basic strokes. After serving the minimum time his honor required, however, he promptly exited.

         "The air has become cold," he said, shivering.

         "The wind off the ocean is making the water evaporate more quickly," said Energia, the voice of experience. "You'll get dry, soon."

         Swimming he didn't like. Lying on sun-warmed sand, however, was a sensual experience both alien and very attractive to him.

         "Niiiice..."

         "Don't get too comfortable. Some of the kids are getting a rugby game together and I want to watch."

         "That is a sport I have heard my mother and some others talk about," said Maldren, with a bit of eagerness. "It actually piqued my interest in this world, even before my Mother decided to make me come."

         "We better get going, then."

         He sighed. They stood together, dusted themselves off and lifted into the air. Soon they were landing on the top row of the bleachers overlooking the athletic training area. Given the climate, and the casual mode of dress it encouraged, neither felt uncomfortable about what they were wearing. Indeed, some watching the game were wearing far less.

         "I understand you wanted to stay home but your mother wanted you to come here," said Energia, as they settled down in a shady spot. "But why did she? And, yes, Eve, Template and a few others suggested I ask that, but I won't tell them if you don't want me to."

         "I have no reason not to tell them," he said, watching intently as the game got underway. "In fact, the general reason has already been given. Just not all the details."

         "Details?"

         "As with anything involved with the Empire's rule, the situation is complicated. I believe the primary reason was that - influenced by some members of the court, including a few of my Mother's own family - I had begun to ask why she had signed a treaty with your world instead of subjugating it. The concern was that one of our rivals would conquer Earth and use its resources against us when - as obligated by the treaty - we came to help."

         He looked out at the sports field, where the first goal had just been scored. He seemed impressed.

         "I see now why that is not a legitimate concern."

                   *             *             *

         The hallways, corridors, rooms, even the ducts and elevator shafts, all were damp and cold. Those who had ordered the construction of the place had countered worries that the environment would be antagonistic to good morale with assurances that the engineers and technicians would solve the problems. The engineers and technicians were rather irritated when their plans to solve the problems were almost uniformly rejected by the bosses as too expensive. None of those responsible for the creation of the facility were ever inside except for brief meetings - such as this one - and left as soon as they could without seeming to be making a hasty departure. Everyone else had to put up with the constant cool, humid air, the closeness, the frequent, ominous creaking...

         "Let's get this over with," growled a man in late middle age and a grey suit.

         His carefully-groomed appearance was wilting in the excessive humidity.

         "First order of business is super countermeasures," said the base commander, General Hudson, nodding to the chief of research.

         "No change in most projects as detailed in the last memo," said the man, standing awkwardly, obviously uncomfortable with such duties. "However, we have an update on the augmentation program. Dr. Hartford says the first batch of subjects to undergo his new regimen is ready for field testing.'

         "Excellent," said the grey suit. "If the procedure is as safe and effective as he claims, we can use it on volunteers from among our own forces, next.'

         There were a few questions and answers back and forth; then they moved on.

         "Senator Story is stable but not improving," said the General, not sounding at all displeased. "The doctors say that could change at any time but probably won't. Even if it does, the change will probably be for the worse."

         "I say, if he's not better by the end of the week, try something experimental on him," one of the others muttered.

         "Senator Story is a valued and valuable ally," said the grey suit. "However, the cover story won't hold much longer. If he does not begin recovery soon we will have move him, no matter how risky the doctors think that might be. Then issue a press release that the cover story was a cover story and that he had, instead, been under observation following a heart attack."

         "All of which is explicitly true," said one of the few women the room, and the only one in a suit and not a uniform.

         Her tone made clear that she had some criticism of the man's words, but not exactly what. Another man, a supporter of the head, started to speak, looking angry.

         "We're studying options for dealing with the alien at the school," said the General, quickly, heading off an argument over who was stating the obvious this time. "Our evaluation is that a combined operation with the group going in to attack the institution would be best. We have some paralyzing toxins and other things which should be useful against any Sholvak. We're still working on a method of application. Perhaps it could be used as a coating on some of the anti-super submunitions which we're planning to use, anyway."

         "Yes, yes," said the oldest member of the group, nodding emphatically. "Two birds with one stone. Mutual support. Only one backup team needed. Very efficient."

         A few more matters were brought up. Each, like those already discussed, was considered so confidential that besides these meetings the only way information about them was communicated was via courier. All the old business was updated and the new business dealt with; then the next meeting was scheduled, and the session adjourned. The General, himself, escorted the visitors back to their subshuttle. US Military personnel from the Army and Navy were seen on the way, saluting when they encountered the group.

         Even once underway the visitors didn't relax much.

         "These tunnels give me the creeps," one muttered, shifting uneasily in his seat.

         "At least they're sturdier than that base. And dryer."

                   *             *             *

         "The judge in the defamation suit against me dismissed the charges, since the psychiatrist has vanished," said Solange. "That's also helped my case against my parents."

         "Good news," said Randy, though his mood was subdued. "Though I guess it's also mixed news. Inherently."

         Randy hoped he was paying sufficient attention to the girl's problems. He was distracted, and with good reason. Template had made a point of stopping back by the Intrepids' base before returning to the island. To her disappointment, Colossa and most of the other team members were out on an emergency call. So she had become Randy to check on some Randy things. And caught Template's interview on the hourly news when Solange spotted a blurb promoting it and called him to the monitor room. Besides seeing the version the station Solange was watching showed, Bunter, forewarned, had tivoed multiple channels for them to watch in retrospect.

         Most stations and networks showed the whole thing, with little or no editing, since it was so brief. And then their commentators completely missed the point, claiming Template's statements were an outrageous example of super elitism. Some lambasted "Miss Tinplate" for bashing religion. Others for trying to establish supers as a religion. Randy was obviously distressed by all this. Hence Solange's quickly changing the subject by announcing the news about her legal troubles.

         "Yeah, I know what you mean,' said Solange, sighing, bringing Randy back to the immediate topic. "I don't want to hurt my parents. I just want them to stop hurting me. But they won't accept that. They think they're the heroes in this case, and are mystified why I've become a villain.'

         "At least your parents know you're Solange. I still can't tell mine, or even my sister."

         "That is such a weird setup," said Solange, shaking her head. "They all know Jenny is going to a super school and wears a costume a large part of the time, but they still haven't twigged that you're Template? Or anyone but good ol' Randy?"

         "That's how they know me. I was never much for costumes, even on Halloween. So they just don't see me in one."

                   *             *             *

         "I am sorry about this," said Template, sighing. "They ambushed me with something I didn't know about."

         "There was nothing wrong with your remarks," said Andrea, sympathetically. "Indeed, members of the groups you cited have been almost unanimous in approving of your comments while attacking the bill."

         "That's good news."

         Template yawned before she could catch it.

         "Sorry. All that flying, the tension over the interview, the..."

         She interrupted herself by yawing again.

         "Don't worry about it," said Andrea, obviously amused. "School day's over, and the administrative work done. You can fly home and get to bed early. Rest for that big date tomorrow."

         "Does everyone in the school know about that?" said Template, a bit alarmed.

         "Well, you've been gushing about an upcoming Saturday night date with an unnamed female all week."

         "Oog. Guess it's a good thing I'm already out as a lesbian, then."

                   *             *             *

         Randy stretched and sighed, then looked at his watch.

         "What's taking you so long, anyway?"

         "You went through getting ready for a date as a girl yourself. Why do you have to ask?"

         When Karen finally exited the bedroom Randy forgot all about his impatience.

         "Damn, you look fine," he said, standing slowly.

         "So, was I worth the wait?"

         "Definitely."

         They took Karen's car, which was newer and, frankly, much nicer than Randy's. The restaurant had their reservations and they were seated soon after arriving. They ordered, then conversed quietly, with long periods of silence, until the food arrived. Even the desert was perfect.

         They went dancing, then, not returning to their shared apartment until the wee hours. And then spent a long, pleasant time on another kind of dancing.

                   *             *             *

         After the debacle with HyperManic the first semester, the school had been reluctant to let students go to Bermuda at all, much less unsupervised. The island government had also been reluctant, for a while. However, the damages had been made good, and many tourists had subsequently asked where the supers were, so they eventually decided to forgive and forget. And cash in.

         The main motivation for allowing students to visit Bermuda was to help students become accustomed to appearing in public wearing their chosen costumes. And also to help civilians - both native and tourist - to become used to seeing particular costumes and associating them with the school.

         A secondary purpose for the students was to remind them there was a larger, mundane world out there. Remembering that, and learning how to interact with normals while in costume, was an important skill all by itself.

         The unwritten but very firm policy put in place by the school was that no group would be smaller than ten students, at least half had to be over sixteen, and at least one in five had to be a "known responsible individual." Which specific students met that last criteria was not on any list. Indeed, those deemed qualified tended to change depending on who was doing the qualifying. However, Lasher, Cosmic Ray, Jr., Ettienne, Mentat 7 and Chelydra were widely known to be on most of these mental lists.

          The lure of Bermuda was great enough that even those not considered "responsible" were willing to put up with the rules to spend time there. Of course, this meant extra work for the "responsibles" and less time for them and those not truly irresponsible to enjoy Bermuda, since they had to keep the true troublemakers in line, and occasionally find them.

         Energia and Interceptor spotted Velocirapper at almost the same time. They looked at each other, nodded, turned and waved to Lasher to get her attention, then pointed.

         "He's in the porn shop, again," Energia shouted down at Lasher as she left the others and headed in the direction indicated at a trot.

         Velocirapper looked up at the familiar voice and scowled. He never wore a costume; he'd outed himself by accident less than a month after his powers manifested, and his alternate form was far more distinctive than any colorful uniform. In human form he wore normal clothes appropriate to the situation. In raptor form he wore only a sort of large thong. Since he was one of the few transforming supers whose costume changed with him, this worked quite well for Velocirapper.

         "It's not a porn shop!" he shouted up at the youngsters. "It's a magazine store which carries porn!"

         The two flyers took high cover, circling around overhead and distracting Velocirapper while Lasher came up behind him. His first warning was a rawhide strip flicking over his shoulder.

         "Busted," said Lasher, smirking.

         "I'm through here," said Velocirapper, calmly. "Where is the rest of the group?"

         Unfortunately, the rest of the group, egged on by Doomster, had decided to follow Lasher. The two groups on the ground intercepted in an alley between blocky, low-income residences, with laundry strung on lines between them. Which made landing a bit difficult for the two flyers.

         By the time Energia and Interceptor reached ground level, Doomster had already found more trouble. Or maybe, for once, it had found him. A group of local teenage toughs had trailed Lasher and Velocirapper and were now shouting insults at the young supers, in multiple languages and with accompanying gestures. Doomster had pushed past the two older teens to confront them.

         "Go ahead," said Doomster, sneering and sticking his chin out. "I'll give you a free shot."

         "Don't..." said Lasher.

         The islander struck before she could get any further. The blow was strong enough for them to feel. Doomster went flying into and through a nearby wall. There was a kitchen on the other side, fortunately not being used at the moment.

         There was an astonished pause on the part of the students. Then the local toughs swarmed over them.

         Energia was far enough back to have a chance to fly up out of easy reach. One of the men leapt at her, but by this time she'd put her plasma wall up. He bounced off, screaming, pieces of laundry falling with him. After hitting the ground he immediately clambered back to his feet and began pounding on Wolfman Mack, who was still changing and not at full strength. Doomster, though obviously shaken, climbed back through the hole he'd made in the wall. Immediately, another of the gang members slugged him, knocking him down and apparently out.

         Energia fired a tentative blast at one of the toughs who was about to put his fist through Lasher's chest. She didn't know how much to use; they were obviously more resilient than normals but how much so? She didn't seem to hurt him but he yelped and looked up in surprise. Which gave Lasher a chance to snap a short whip into his left eye. The man screamed and staggered back.

         What do I do? thought Energia, looking frantically around.

         She saw Interceptor floating behind her, a bit higher, looking dazed; he might have a black eye starting. Energia had an idea. She had ranged attacks; he didn't. She remembered that Pine Island was below the horizon from here, and their personal coms not powerful enough to reach around that curve. Relaying a message through the boat crew would take time.

         "Interceptor! Get higher and call for help!"

         He made the OK sign and started climbing like he was going for orbit. Energia turned her attention back to the fight just in time to see another of the thugs leaping at her. Rather than simply let him hit her, she fired a plasma bolt at him, knocking him back to the ground. She'd wanted to use him to hit one of his friends, but such application of her powers was a bit beyond her current level of skill. Still, she came close enough to cause the other man to hesitate, and the leaper seemed out of the fight, at least for the moment. Energia moved a bit higher and forward to be over the center of the quarter-dozen bad guys not yet engaged, and began firing bolts at the men.

         Unfortunately, this brought her to the attention of more of them. Two from that group leaped at her, and a third threw a motor scooter. She dodged the men and shot the scooter back at the thrower, but bumped into a wall in the process, her plasma wall searing away a broad streak of paint and making a noxious cloud. More laundry fell when, spinning away, she reflexively grabbed at an anchor for one of the lines. As she recovered, yet another jumped at her. He hit her plasma wall and yelled in pain, but instead of letting go just looked determined and wrapped his arms around it - and her - squeezing. Energia felt a stab of fear, and pumped everything she had into the wall. The man screamed and fell away, clothes flaming and skin blistered.

         Energia quickly checked her fall and regained altitude, before any of the other attackers could take advantage. A survey of the situation showed that most of her classmates were down, while most of the attackers were still in the fight. The school students had started with a nearly two-to-one advantage, but now the situation was reversed. Energia gritted her teeth, and held both hands in front of her.

         The force bolt pinned a good half of the attacking young men to the ground and held them there, while not solidly catching any of her classmates. She did clip Wolfman Mack and HyperManic, but since they were on the edge of the effect this mainly pushed them away from it, and from the attackers. Several of the attackers not pinned were also knocked off balance, which was part of her goal.

         "Gonna strobe!" she shouted, accomplishing the impressive task of building a charge while also holding the force beam.

         Her cry made those who had practiced with her cower and cover their eyes, while it made several of the assailants look up at her. Perfect.

         She dropped the force bolt and let the charge loose. A brilliant flash filled the street and washed over the tops of buildings, bouncing around corners. Immune to her own powers, Energia was quickly able to see that her ploy had worked; most of the attackers had been dazzled enough to be unable to fight, while those she was helping were far less affected. Energia began herding the attackers into a single, squirming pile with another double-handed force beam. Velocirapper, finally in reptile form, and Europa shoved the rest into the pile.

         "Put anybody can't walk on that big sheet of roofing over there!" Energia shouted, almost pointing before catching herself. "I'll use the Meissner Effect to carry them while the rest of you follow on your own power!"

         "Not runnin'," muttered Doomster, trying to get to his feet.

         Fortunately, he was too stunned to actually carry out his stubbornness. Energia held the men away from her friends while they hurried to pile the injured and unconscious on the metal sheet. Then she quickly shifted her powers, getting a magnetic lock on the galvanized steel, lifting it off the ground and pulling it down the alley. The other students ran after her. Energia could see the docks in the distance, and plotted the most direct course she could. Behind them came shouts and insults from the gang, who were free and starting to get their vision back.

         The students' troubles weren't over. The dirty dozen gang members caught them more quickly than any human should have been able to. Energia was thoroughly occupied, with lifting and propelling the sheet while also holding it rigid and level. She couldn't fly too fast or risk someone blowing off. She didn't dare raise the sheet any higher, in case someone fell off anyway. Those on the ground would have to fend for themselves. Fortunately, these were largely the most competent fighters in the group, social evolution resulting in them being the most likely to still be on their feet. The group of students made a strategic retreat towards the docks, defending successfully against repeated attacks.

         The other locals seemed confused by all this super activity. They scattered out of the way, but otherwise just stared. Energia wondered who they would blame for all the fuss and property damage. She thought she heard police sirens in the distance but wasn't sure. Even if she were right about that, they were heading towards where the fight had started, and not where it now was.

         The battered group reached the dock where the school's boat was moored. The defenders stopped well before that, to hold off their attackers while Energia and the less injured placed the more injured carefully on the boat. Captain Jackson and his small crew were too confused to do much at first, but quickly recovered. At the Captain's barked orders two men began casting off while he and another helped with the injured.

         "I think they're afraid of the water," said the Captain, as he secured the last injured student. "They could swarm us easy if they just jumped in and swam to the boat."

         "They're not after anyone in particular," said Energia, actually panting as she recovered from her efforts. "They just want to fight. Us. Any of us."

         "So they may try to swim after us when we leave."

         "Maybe," said Energia. "I'm gonna cover the others as they retreat."

         "I'll fire up the engine."

         As it turned out, when they saw the students were leaving, the gang members switched from attacking to jeering and making rude gestures.

         "I'm tempted to fry the lot of 'em," muttered Energia, settling down on the rear deck of the moving boat after the last of the defenders jumped aboard.

         "Don't," said Lasher. "Not only would you take out the dock, you're tired enough that you'd probably not even be able to fly afterwards."

         "I'm not tired!" said Energia, even as she realized she was. "Well, I don't want to damage the dock."

         The rescue party came swooping in towards Bermuda, led by Interceptor, who must have met them halfway. They spotted the boat and came down to land on the deck, making the craft rather crowded.

         "Who's hurt and how bad?" demanded Eagle.

         Lasher gave a quick accounting of the worst injured. After a check to assure themselves there was no reason not to move them, those three were given to Invicta and Eagle. Cyclone Ranger stayed to take detailed notes, then fly on to Bermuda and report the assault to the authorities.

         Next, several students came flying, running or swimming out from Pine Island to meet the boat. Maldren was the first to arrive, and he went directly to Energia.

         "Are you injured?"

         "No. Just a little tired."

         "She was fantastic!" gushed Wolfman Mack, back in human form to save room. "Held the whole group of attackers off while carrying most of us to safety!"

         Energia blushed, while Maldren put an arm over her shoulders and beamed at her with pride.


         #I don't feel all reporters are idiots any more than I feel all psychiatrists or politicians are idiots. It's just that the idiots are far more entertaining. ;-)







Part Six: Still Mortal




         "You can relax," said Dr. Whiskers. "It's not cancer."

         "Whew!" said Template, sagging with relief.

         "I suggest you cut down on caffeine. That's the primary causative factor in fibrous breast lumps like this. I'd also suggest you self-exam more often. Don't leave it up to Colossa to find them for you. This one was large enough you should have found it weeks ago."

         "Uh, yeah," said Template, sheepishly. "The caffeine is because of the hectic time we had getting the school ready for second semester. That's easing off, now. And, well, I do self-exam. It's just that, ah, Karen plays harder than I do. And she's more familiar with how a breast should feel."

         "No excuses. Just to be safe, I want to see you again in thirty days. I'm making a place for you on my schedule right now, and I will page you, most likely at an awkward and embarrassing moment."

         "Point taken."

         "Now, what's this I hear about that lovely niece of yours getting into a fight."

         Template related the events in the attack on the students.

         "For many of them, this was their first real fight," she said, summing up. "I'm pretty happy with how well they did. Especially Energia. Folks say she pretty much saved the day."

         Her smile turned unexpectedly to a scowl.

         "I just wish she weren't so tight with Maldren."

         "What of those who attacked them? Have you determined who they were and how they all came to have the same powers?"

         "They had all the hallmarks of Dr. Hartford's augments," said Template, scowling even harder, "only improved."

         "It's public knowledge you're there," said Dr. Whiskers, thoughtfully. "And it's widely known among super circles that Randy visits there on occasion. He very well could be keeping an eye on you, and the school as a whole."

         "And taking advantage of available disenfranchised local youths as test subjects for his improvements," said Template, nodding. "We've already discussed that, and a few other things connected - or which may be connected - with the assault."

                   *             *             *

         "Wish I'd been there," muttered the elf girl, the multiple gold earrings in her large ears glinting and occasionally jingling together as her head moved with her energetic conversation. "Haven't had a good scrap in months. Between my psi and my magic, I could'a been a big help."

         She and several others were sitting around the lounge area of the girls' dorm, resting after supper. Moondance was also waiting for the next delivery of her evening supply of fresh animal blood. She refused to drink it with her supper, something which a number of students and teachers were grateful for, but felt no qualms about drinking it away from the dining hall and its regular food.

         "I'm glad I wasn't there," said Beverly, aka Moondance, waving a distracted greeting to the tech who had just entered, carrying a sealed carton. "Too much chance of losing control."

         "If you don't test yourself you can't get better at it," said Glomahr, with a short, matter-of-fact nod.

         The tech placed the carton on the corner table beside the large tumbler Moondance used for this purpose. Still involved in the conversation, she absently opened the carton and poured its contents into the tumbler. Most of the girls had learned to ignore the process, or pretend the thick, red liquid was actually something else. Glomahr had actually surprised - and revolted - most of them by occasionally finishing what Moondance left. The two shared more than large canines. Bluegrass Elves were nearly as carnivorous as wolves, and fresh animal blood was considered a delicacy by many.

         Beverly raised the plastic tumbler, but before it reached her lips she gasped, shied back, and hurled the tumbler away so hard it not only shattered on the far wall but splattered most of those there with the contents.

         "That's human blood!" the vampire girl screamed.

         "It's artificial," said the tech, quickly. "Made from cultured bone marrow."

         "I will not drink human blood!" Beverly shrieked, jumping to her feet, fangs bared.

         "But it... it's not real..."

         She screamed again and ran out into the night.

         "Congratulations!" snapped Eve, a few minutes later, after being summoned and having the situation explained. "You just ticked off a Grand Master Class vampire! Everyone but Template, Andrea and myself stay here!"

         "I want to go, too," said Glomahr.

         "All right," said Eve, after a brief consideration.

         She and the others hurried after the girl.

         They found her, naked, wet and sobbing, in the shower.

         "Does this happen at other boarding schools, too?" said Template, exasperated. "Or is there something different about our school, our students, or some combination?"

         "In her case I suspect she felt a need for cleansing," said Eve. "Glomahr, will you try talking to her? Predator to predator?"

         "Sure," said the little elf girl.

         She needed a while, but eventually she got Moondance dried, dressed and out of the building to meet with the adults in a less public place.

         "Beverly, I officially apologize," said Eve, seriously. "I will have a firm word with the entire biotech staff first thing... No, I'll do it tonight. Get them all out of bed if I have to. This was inexcusable."

         "Th-thank you," said Moondance, almost sobbing again.

         "Now, we'll have someone bring you some non-human blood and..."

         "I think I'll just sk-skip it for tonight," the vampire girl said. "I've been t-taking it pretty regularly and could easily go for a couple of days. There won't be any problems."

         "If you're sure..."

         She nodded.

         "I'll be with her," said Glomahr. "I moved into her room, remember?"

         "She likes to cuddle," said Moondance, actually rolling her eyes, demonstrating she was beginning to return to normal.

         "Hey, I get more from wolves than these teeth! C'mon, Bev, I know you're a night person and my folk are naturally nocturnal, but I think we should both head for bed early."

         Glomahr took Beverly by an arm and gently guided her away.

         "Are you sure they're not...?" said Andrea.

         "Pretty sure," said Template. "I've met her parents, seen their home. She has a separate bedroom, but will often nap with one or both parents. Tiger tells me that in the wild members of a tribe all curl up together in an enclosed den, or in several subgroups if it's large enough. Though he also tells me they have strong libidos and mature sexually earlier than humans do. They also have fewer hangups about sex. So don't take it for granted she's as young as she looks."

         "I thought only the alpha pair in a pack mated," said Andrea.

         "That's northern wolves. Southern ones, when there's plenty of food, will let any mate that want to. And the Bluegrass Elves aren't wolves, or even part wolf; they just adopted some lupine characteristics. Or, rather, their ancestors did, after emigrating to the New World from Europe, nearly two thousand years ago."

                   *             *             *

         The Bermuda police were reporting several encouraging leads on finding the enhanced toughs who had attacked the students, but so far had produced no actual results. Meanwhile, Template and the tech staff worked on tapping the old Sub-Teran tunnels. Gadgetive even had an idea for using them as waveguides for secure communications. Their UN contacts were strongly supporting the idea of using the old tunnels, and had actually arranged for a technical expert to meet with Eve, Template and some of the gadgeteers to discuss the matter.

         "Good afternoon," said the older woman, in a cultured, upper-class English accent, as Template met her at the base air/spaceport. "I am Lady Olivia Carver."

         "I am very pleased to meet you," said Template, eagerly offering her hand. "I've read and heard much about you."

         "And I, you," the other replied, shaking hands.

         "If you'll come this way I borrowed a flitter to take you down to the school. If you have time, later, I can use it to give you a proper tour."

         "That would be lovely."

         They shortly landed outside the school's administrative building. Inside everyone else involved was already present, with Junker ready to present their plans. After he finished Lady Carver began asking questions and making comments, Eve guiding the meeting into an informal discussion.

         "You say you haven't yet chosen a location for the station," said Lady Carver. "I suggest you use the old Project Standby facilities,"

         "The which?"

         "It was an emergency command and control center, built on Pine Island to take advantage of several resources in the area. There were even plans to connect to the Sub-Teran tunnels, but those fell by the wayside when the base was closed following a treaty banning much of what it was supposed to do. They kept it open for a while as part of an emergency communications system, but it was soon superceded."

         "First I've heard of it."

         "It was finally closed in the late Eighties as part of a major budget cut. So major that the facility was simply mothballed and sealed. The equipment would be a bit old by now, but still serviceable. If you agree to this, we can have people here in a few days to take a look at it. We'd even partially fund the work of converting it. That would let us monitor the project, just to satisfy ourselves that all the eyes are crossed and the tees are dotted."

         "If it would make things go faster, we could supply super help," said Template. "Even bring in friends not officially part of the school."

         "Actually, I was thinking of asking for that," said Lady Carver. She smiled slightly. "It would greatly aid our budget."

                   *             *             *

         "Hey, kid!' said Rapscallion, waving to Gadgetive. "Good to see you again. I hear you're finally finished with all that child super slavery ring stuff. I'm just surprised Thurlin is still free.'

         Most of the senior members of the Intrepids were at the old Pine base to help with the locating and opening of the Standby facility. Gadgetive was planned to be instrumental in the operation, so was waiting when the Intrepids entered. After a brief welcome, Junker and the other staff members held back to let the Intrepids and Gadgetive socialize a bit. They trailed along behind the costumed supers during the walk to the lab.

         "Actually, that had been started two administrations before Thurlin took office,' said Gadgetive. "So while he took some heat for not knowing about them - assuming he really didn't and wasn't just lying about that, too - he and his folks escaped most of the blame. Worse, with all the convictions and firings Thurlin was able to put more of his people in position. So I just helped him consolidate his power.'

         "You got most of the people responsible for a child slavery ring out of power and into prison,' said Template, flatly.

         "Try to think of it as giving Thurlin enough rope to hang himself,' said Rapscallion.

         "It also resulted in many previous kidnapings being solved,' said the Black Mask. "A large number of supers in their teens and early twenties were rescued and deprogrammed, then returned to their families. Some had been missing for fifteen years. A few hadn't even been known to be supers before their rediscovery.'

         "But we didn't get the top boss or his direct aides," said Gadgetive, emphatically. "Too many layers and cells and need-to-know restrictions in their organization. They're just too well hidden."

         "There are many people still working on that, working their way through the connections," said the Black Mask, seriously. "We will find those responsible."

         "Anyway, on a lighter note, I've got the prototype of my communications station ready."

         She led them into the private workshop she had finagled out of the Pine base personnel. There were many odd shapes under cloths in the large room. She went straight to one of those and yanked off the cover to reveal a massive, busy, complex and more than a little ominous machine.

         "I call it... B.I.G. A.L."

         "I thought this was supposed to be some sort of communications relay,' said Bowman.

         "Yeah. You put it in the old Sub-Teran tunnels and it uses them as waveguides for a dedicated com system,' said Gadgetive, proudly. "Put one of these everywhere you want to tap the system. It picks up the signals and converts them to something more traditional. It uses a radioisotope power system good for a minimum of eighty-seven years. Completely autonomous.'

         "The girl is good," said Junker, with an almost parental smile.

         "I hope you're planning on some sort of outer casing," said Bowman, prowling around the machine, looking but not touching.

         "Oh, yeah; it's over in the corner. A ceramic-metal composite. Similar to Chobham armor, but more resilient."

         "Good job," said Bowman, nodding. "I'd really like to see the specs."

         "Got 'em here," said Gadgetive, proudly, leading the fellow gadgeteer to a bench.

         Junker and the tech moved in to participate.

         "Well, that'll keep them busy for a while," said Rapscallion, quietly, as he, Template and the Black Mask left.

         "Too bad Colossa couldn't make it," said Template, wistfully.

         "We had to leave someone senior behind," said the Black Mask. "I need to speak with Eve about some bureaucratic matters, Bowman's function is pretty obvious, and we know better than to inflict Rapscallion on our innocent younger members."

         "Hey!"

         Template laughed.

         "Y'know, I miss this sort of banter," she said, as the trio made their way out of the base.

         "Well, I'd be happy to visit more often, but they won't let me out of the country without a keeper."

         "Oh, I can very well believe that. Anyway, after school lets out this afternoon Lady Carver and some of her specialists are going to show us where the installation is, and help us get inside. Until then, I'm available to escort you wherever."

                   *             *             *

         Template didn't like walking on soft ground. The heels of her boots tended to sink in. And if she forgot and simply walked normally without deliberately lifting those heels clear, they often caught on things. Which either broke or tripped her, depending on how much strength she had at the moment. Which is why she was flying above the others as they tramped through the jungle. She knew this made it look like she was showing off to those who didn't know her, but at the moment didn't care. Besides, by lifting up between the low growth and the canopy she was able to get a better view of the ground where they were searching. Which, frustratingly, still didn't help her find the entrance to the bunker.

         "According to the old directions," said one of the UN techs, consulting a GPS unit, "we're right on top of it."

         "It's been less than twenty years," said Eve, frowning as she swept her gaze around the scene. "Could it have been overgrown or buried in such a short interval?"

         "Remember, this growth was intended to cover bare ground quickly," said the Black Mask, who seemed to have already known the woman. "It..."

         "Found it!" shouted Gadgetive. "Hah! And they said a MAD wouldn't work on it!"

         "A which?" said Eve.

         "Magnetic anomaly detector," Template explained, absently, as she landed beside the young gadgeteer, while the others made their way through the thick growth to the same position. "Finds disturbances in the Earth's magnetic field caused by large amounts of steel, or by the electrical current running through cables."

         Gadgetive had, indeed, found a semi-buried and completely overgrown metal hatch.

         "That's not on the plans," said the UN tech, frowning. "Could it be something of Pine's?"

         "Not likely," said Lady Carver. "He isn't known to have done any digging here, and the area around the installation we're looking for was built long after he was shut down."

         "This door's only eight years old," said Gadgetive, now frowning herself as she applied some sort of custom-made sensor unit. "And the controls are live."

         "Something the UN didn't think to tell you about?" said the Black Mask.

         "Unlikely. This was all declassified two years ago. And I have more than enough clearance for anything likely to be here, even without that."

         "My experience has been that the less likely something is to be somewhere, the more likely some clever person is to think that makes it the perfect place."

         "Needs a keycard and code number," said the tech, examining the door as some of his companions cleared it.

         "I think all non-supers should stand back," said Template, feeling oddly irritated. She looked over at Lady Carver. "Since this isn't supposed to be here, there should be no objections on the part of the UN to my forcing it, right?"

         Lady Carver hesitated, thinking the matter through, then nodded. Template smiled a bit like Clint Eastwood, and reached for the door.

                   *             *             *

         "They're in the base!' said Grimes, as he finally got a private moment with Harrison.

         "What?! How did they find out about it?'

         "Unknown. However, since there is nothing obvious about its builders or its purpose, we still have time to destroy it.'

                   *             *             *

         The door they'd initially forced turned out to be a concealed escape hatch, leading directly from the control room to the surface. It was obviously new construction, added long after the base had supposedly been sealed. Once inside they'd backtracked through a small security section to the main entrance, which gave far easier - if less detectable - access. The concealed hatch - located on the far side of a low rise from the main entrance - had been resealed.

         "This is just bizarre," said the tech, comparing what they were seeing to the plans he had brought. "The layout is the same as the plans show, but most of the equipment has been updated to current or near-current standards."

         "Which is a violation of international and even interstellar treaty!" huffed Lady Carver. "I'm going to step outside and call in a forensic investigation team. Please don't go any further than this room. And don't touch anything! Not only do we not know what these controls are for, you could disrupt important evidence."

         For the next two days two forensic teams, each working with a pair of experienced gadgeteers, went over the base with a fine-toothed microscope. While they learned where the equipment was from, they uncovered nothing to tell them who had put it here, or why. Most of the specific items were supposed to be installed in US military bases, or even ships.

         "Someone has been diverting funds and equipment," said Eve, sourly. "I wonder how much of the opposition to our school is explained by this..."

         "Except that it's apparently never been used," said Andrea. She shook her head. "It's like it was built - and modified and upgraded - for a specific purpose which just hasn't happened yet."

         "It reminds me of those old Cold War supply caches," said Template. "I understand the UN security guys are still working on cracking the encryption on the data."

         "Encryptions. Several different types, all US issue, both civilian and military. Even some of the printed documents are encrypted. And most of the rest is manufacturer's manuals, operating instructions, procedural guidelines, and such. Not many clues about who modified that place or why. Except from the machines, themselves. And all they tell us it that it was a communication and command center for somebody!"

                   *             *             *

         Template forced yet another secured door. Once certain nothing would explode, zap or spew acid, the forensic team and Junker approached.

         "This is supposed to be a blank, rock wall," said the man with the plans. "Instead, it looks like they dug a new corridor and put in this steel wall and security door."

         "The rest of the new stuff we've found was just replacing or modifying what was already here," said Junker, nodding as he aimed a light through the door and down the corridor. "This is all new construction."

         "We better get Lady Carver in here," said Template. "This looks pretty big. And sounds it, too, from the echo."

         "This entire section is not on the plans," said Lady Carver, puzzled.

         "That's what Junker tells us," said Template, nodding. "You have no information on this?"

         "None."

         The two women followed Junker and the UN forensic team down the corridor, their footsteps eerily quiet on the neoprene flooring. Most of these doors were unlocked, though closed. The rooms behind them were workshops and storerooms, plus a couple of well-equipped laboratories. There was also a breakroom.

         "Whatever was in this section, it was so dangerous, important, secret or whatever that they didn't want people coming in and out except to arrive for their shift and leave when it was over," said Junker. "The fact that some of these doors - including those at the end of the hallway - are high and double-wide tell me it was something big. So does the large hydraulic lift leading to overhead doors. And I'll bet we'll find it in that last room."

         Those doors were locked, and far sturdier than any yet found in the base.

         "This could take a while," muttered Template, running her hands over the armored metal. "Maybe we should wait until after class and call in Chestnut."

         "I think I can bypass the code pad and trip the lock," said Junker, pulling out some tools.

         "Go ahead," said the leader of the forensic team. "We've already got all we're going to from out here."

         Junker pried the cover off the keypad, unscrewed it from the wall and began jumpering wires.

         "Have you discovered, yet, where the power is coming from?" said Lady Carver.

         "Small nuclear reactor," said Template, with a grimace. "New installation. The original had cables running to wind mills, solar panels and tidal generators, all removed when this place was shut down. The folks who reopened it put the reactor in what had been the staff quarters, and converted the commissary into new quarters. The modifiers obviously planned for a smaller staff, but higher energy consumption over a longer time."

         "After finding and examining the bunkroom we knew that area had been used extensively, unlike the rest of the base," said the head of the UN team. "This area also looks like it was operational for several years before being thoroughly mothballed."

         He looked around, puzzled.

         "You have to wonder what they were planning to use it for..."

         There was a spark, a scent of something burning and a muffled obscenity from Junker.

         "Need any help?" Template asked, playfully.

         "No! I've almost got... Yeah!"

         There was a distinct clunk from the lock. Junker started to reach for the handle, then shied back and gestured for Template to go first. She rolled her eyes, put everything into resilience and independence, and opened the doors.

         The room beyond was dark, except for dim light from emergency exit signs. Template started feeling around for a light switch, but Junker stopped her.

         "No telling what's in here or what flipping the wrong switch might do," he explained, pulling out a powerful hand lamp.

         Light splashed a distorted circle on a large piece of equipment. Junker adjusted the diameter until the entire device was included. Then began slowly backing out of the room as he swept the beam around to reveal more of them. They appeared to be large, articulated, armored and armed vehicles.

         "Holy shit!" yelled Junker, accelerating his withdrawal. "Myrmidons!"

         Template remained inside, but went on combat alert. Nothing happened for several seconds, and she began to relax.

         "They're inactive."

         "Don't care. Not going in there. From the size and style, those have gotta be Mark IIIs or Vs, maybe even IVs!"

         "Wasn't it three Mark IVs which took over Cape Kennedy in Sixty-One?"

         "Those were Mark IIs," said Junker, trying to push the door closed. Since Template was casually holding it open so she could look continue to look around he got nowhere. He began hurriedly explaining. "They hadn't figured out when those were built that the bits of alien tech were modifying the programming. The Mark IIIs were entirely human made, as were the Mark Vs, but for the Mark IV project in Sixty-Nine they tried putting some alien tech back in. Fortunately, an oversight committee told them they were crazy and stopped the project. Then, in Seventy-One, Nixon ordered the project revived and the dozen prototypes completed. Nobody knows what he was planning to do with them; the project was still ongoing when he resigned, and by the time the units were completed and - Surprise! - revolted Carter was the fall guy. They were destroyed - with a lot of difficulty - and the project closed. Rumors persisted, though, that another batch had been almost completed at a separate facility before the revolt, and hidden somewhere after the shut-down.

         "If those are Mark IVs, they could constitute a bigger threat to the planet than Energex and Queen Tolnar combined. They were nicknamed the Synthetic Supers, because they used alien tech to simulate powers."

         "Hooooo..." said Template, releasing the door and letting him close it. "What do we do with them?"

         "We order everyone out of the compound, immediately. The activity could trigger them. Then, the other gadgeteers and I will suit up and make a detailed inspection."

         "Yes," said Lady Carver, nodding. "I agree with your plan."

         She pulled out her com. Junker stopped her.

         "Your pardon, Lady, but that is exactly the sort of thing which could cause a problem. I suggest we tell the others in person."

         The older woman paled and put her com away. Then she pulled it out, removed the battery, and put it away again. Template and Junker also removed the batteries from their coms, as did the forensic team. Then, quickly but quietly, they left.

                   *             *             *

         "I can have a dozen T.O.W.E.R. Agents* in Dread Knight armor there in an hour," said Commander Spike.

         "Only if you keep them outside the installation unless we specifically call them in," said Lady Carver. "According to the techs and gadgeteers, any EMF could awaken the Myrmidons. The gadgeteer team is going in all-mechanical, completely non-magnetic. That should be safe."

         "Yes, of course," said Commander Spike. "I didn't mean to imply we were taking command the situation away from you. Just letting you know what short-term support you can count on from us."

         "Thank you, Commander. You're presence will definitely be welcome."

                   *             *             *

         "And now they've found the Myrmidons," said Grimes, sourly. "There's a good chance they can uncover enough clues in those assault machines to learn who was responsible for them being there."

         He slammed his fist on the table.

         "What is taking so long?!"

         "We've accelerated the schedule," said Harrison, defensively. "Our strike teams will be ready to go in just two days. I doubt they'll uncover that information in such a short time. They'll want to work slowly and carefully, not realizing how much work we put into making them safe and obedient servants."

         "All right," said Grimes, reluctantly. "You're probably right. I just wish we'd already destroyed that bunker."

         "It takes time to covertly mobilize such forces. Cover stories have to be created, documents forged... You know we have to think long-term and not rush into something on the off chance we'll be compromised. Now, about the plans for the children..."

                   *             *             *

         The strike team moved through the jungle towards the facility carefully, in spite of being behind schedule. Their underwater approach had taken longer than planned, due to the discovery of security equipment they hadn't been warned about. It was non-standard - typical gadgeteer work - and had taken much effort to bypass. Still, their plan included a margin for unexpected obstacles, and they had time left before the distraction began. With the heavy growth around the facility they were within a hundred meters before they spotted the first guard - and that guard was a shock. They examined the situation silently for several long minutes. Then withdrew.

         "I recommend aborting the mission,' the team leader said, over his radio, to his commander, as they headed back to the beach. "There's a full T.O.W.E.R. Agents security team standing guard, including six in Dread Knight armor, with constant activity in and out, much of it involving super personnel.'

         "Understood. Don't leave the island, yet. Stand by.'

         A few minutes passed, the team members wisely taking advantage of the unexpected break to rest and even nap as they waited in the heavy growth near the ocean. Then the commander called back.

         "There will be an additional diversionary strike near your target in eight minutes on my mark. Use that to get in and destroy what you can. Mark.'

         "Understood,' said the team leader, hacking his watch on the mark.

         "Just one more to go,' said Junker, quietly, as he lowered the tertiary power distribution core from the second-last Myrmidon. "With these out and the batteries drained, they're now officially mostly harmless.'

         The room was chemically lit, by both mantle kerosine lamps and cold lanterns, with supplemental light sticks used for close work. The result was an odd mix of cheerful, nearly white light and eerie orange and green.

         As Junker began climbing down from the work platform, however, a jolt passed through the solid rock the base had been dug into. He held on until that passed, then rapidly completed his descent.

         "What the Hell is going on out there?! Thurber, go see...'

         Alarms began sounding, faintly heard through the closed double door into the hangar. Junker was very glad they had disconnected the power and communications lines from the base into the Myrmidon hangar first thing. Though there was still a chance all this activity could wake that last one...

         "Get that core out of here!' Junker yelled to the tech who had the component, as he ran to the last machine. "Steve, help him, then find out what's happening. If it's something ongoing, get as many powerful supers in here as you can. And Gadgetive! The rest of you, get the platform over to that last one!'


         *How many have realized that the T.O.W.E.R. Agents are my tribute to Tower Comics' T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents?







Part Seven: A Corruption of Arms




         The attack on the school had begun right on schedule, the only change being that instead of their long-range bombardment being directed solely to the Pine and super bases on the island, about ten percent had pulverized an innocent section of jungle north of the bunker. This to draw the attention of those on guard there.

         As soon as the missiles started flying, teams left in submersible assault craft. The timing, like all the plan, had been worked out in exquisite detail, and was executed like clockwork. Unexpectedly, though, over half the missiles were shot down by small rockets, hypervelocity projectiles and a few energy beams. Those with the farthest to travel - intended for the patch of jungle near the bunker - had the highest attrition rate. The attackers weren't sure that any of them had reached their intended target. And since that part of the attack had been a last minute addition, there was no margin in the plan to try again.

         "Where are those interceptors coming from?" the task force commander demanded, watching as most of the missiles were destroyed seconds after leaving the water.

         "Multiple sites, sir! Most from locations not previously marked as hostile. Our information is that their defense system is largely offline for upgrading!"

         "If this is largely offline..." the commander muttered. "Advance the schedule on the bombardment. Launch every anti-material missile we have, as quickly as possible! Try to saturate those defenses. And focus on the primary objectives; the bunker team will have to make do with what they already got."

         More missiles got through this time, but still fewer than expected. Because the mechanical defenses were by now being augmented by supers. The Commander swore softly; the response time of those inhuman creatures was far shorter than the plan had anticipated, and they were far better coordinated.

         "Switch the missiles to half anti-super munitions, half the standard mix."

         "Yes, sir. So far, none of the assault teams are reporting trouble, in spite of the less than anticipated effect from the bombardment."

         "Tell your people to keep track of as many supers as they can," said the Commander. "We have to keep them off our people's's backs."

         One landing team entered the lagoon and went to the old welcome center. They found it flooded and sealed off from the rest of the base. After determining that breaking through the doors would cause only a small section to flood, and take far longer than the time allocated for their mission, the members of that team went with their contingency plan and swam to shore. There they split into two groups and hurried towards the dormitories.

         Another team - specialists all, and including some personnel augmented by Dr. Hartford - attacked Pioneer Reserve Facility Delta, the only active super base on the island. The Pioneers had long been a thorn in the side of several members of the Zurich Octagon, and even though this was only a backup facility with civilian staff, hitting it hard would hurt them. With most or all of those stationed there going to the aide of the school, the team expected to cause major damage to the base and its facilities, perhaps even complete destruction.

          The majority of the assault teams headed directly for the sections of beach closest to the dormitories. They immediately ran into unexpected opposition. Not only had the bombardment alerted students and staff that something was going on, but some of both were unexpectedly nocturnal. Several men simply vanished, snatched away by something unseen moving behind or among them. And then they encountered the real weirdies...

         L'il Glomahr made gestures which left tracks of light in the air, while shouting words which weren't sounds. Attacker after attacker fell asleep, was entangled in something unreal, or simply froze in place. Nearby, Wolfman Mack ushered children out of the girls' dorm towards the presumed safety of the forest, while also watching the Bluegrass Elf's back.

         Some people - even supers - wake slowly. Some wake quickly. Among the latter were two flyers, Maldren and Energia, both of whom went into action wearing only the essential parts of their costumes: masks and bodystockings. Maldren, being much faster, was soaring high above the school when more missiles came in. Several headed directly for him. He shot two with eye beams, dodged three others, but got hit by one coming in on the deck and diverting upwards at the last moment to strike from below.

         "First volley of anti-super missiles launched!" the commander's coordinator reported. "Three direct hits! None of the targets are destroyed, but all are disabled and falling. The drug seems to be working."

         "Ready the next salvo as quickly as possible."

         "MALDREN!" Energia screamed, changing her own climb into a dive as she saw him drop.

         She managed to grab him just above the treetops. He was unexpectedly heavy, more than she could physically carry, but she was able to guide them to a rough but safe landing in the underbrush. The boy was alive and didn't seem hurt, though he was covered in what appeared to be soot and was unresponsive. Energia dithered, then quickly hid him under some bushes and lifted off. Cautiously.

         She poked her head out the top of a tree and watched. More missiles were coming in. She raised her hand and sent a beam of heat at the closest. She was inordinately pleased to see it obligingly and promptly explode with a violent report. Only to spot some of the others immediately divert towards her. Yelping, she ducked back under the tree and took off under the canopy at high speed. The subsequent explosions were relatively minor, but something told her the effect on supers would be significant. She began dusting the powder off her arms and hands as she flew, just to be safe, not wanting to depend on the thin, conforming fabric to keep it all out.

         She could hear more explosions in the distance, about equal numbers of the sharp bang of an airburst and the muffled, deeper boom of ground strikes. She wondered how many people she knew were dying out there... and what she could do about it.

         Energia resorted to a hit-and-run tactic of poking her head out, zapping the closest missile - varying her type of attack she used to see which might work best - then ducking and running. She didn't know how may flying supers were in the air, or even how many of those missiles she directly attacked were aimed at supers. At least she was doing something useful.

         As she flew in a erratic course around the dormitories, she spotted one of the assault teams. She diverted in their direction and zapped them with what she called her Swift Shock. The high-voltage, high-frequency, low-amperage attack would painfully and effectively stun any unprotected human. Energia was only mildly surprised when this had little effect. As they turned their weapons towards her she boosted her plasma wall and tried to figure out how much more she could hit them with and not kill them.

         However, as her protections absorbed the first of their shots she noticed a missile diverting down, most likely drawn by the signature of her strengthened plasma wall. Energia gave a cry of mixed alarm and annoyance and shot off, past the team, divesting her plasma wall behind her as she flew to distract the missile. Not only did this successfully decoy that attack, the blast knocked down the bad guys.

         The school's defenses were already organizing, beginning to make a coordinated stand in several areas around the dormitories. Which was exactly what the attackers had been waiting for. Small, dense groups outside were far preferable to two large groups spread through a couple of buildings and numerous individuals in cottages. Now they could really start to work.

         "Neutralizer teams report ready," said the coordinator.

         "Execute," said the commander.

         Doomster had begun tipping one of the submarine landing craft over when a neutralizer team managed to get him in its sights. The beam from their bulky, crew-served weapon caught him dead center. He dropped, half in the water, half on the beach. Fortunately, as the craft rocked back it threw him clear, and he was face-up so he wasn't likely to drown, but he wasn't moving...

         Energia saw the beam and recognized it from the school's training sessions. She felt a jolt of fear, which became a flood of pure rage as she saw others felled by the beam. This was no gradual build-up, as they had experienced previously; the shock of the sudden loss of powers was actually knocking some supers cold, and disabling at least momentarily all of those hit. Some of the attackers were already carrying neutralized children back to their landing craft, where medics waited with autoinjectors, presumably containing sedatives. She could see other teams using those neutralizer weapons against the small, dense knots of defenders and defended, sweeping the beams back and forth like scythes, leaving fallen supers in its wake.

         Energia looked around frantically, and spotted a power transmission line. She flew over to it and put her hand out, tapping into it to build a charge more quickly than she could on her own. Her hovering form began crackling with energies too much for her to completely contain. The nearest neutralizer team had noticed her activity and was just swinging their weapon around towards her when Energia released the power line let go of the charge, now converted into something else. A bolt of lightning shot from her to the power line, blowing the nearest transformer in spectacular fashion. Smaller bolts jumped between conductive materials all around the area, some actually stinging people in their paths. The electromagnetic pulse fried every unshielded electronic device for two kilometers, and every shielded one within a hundred meters. The neutralizer died with a burst of acrid smoke, and the powerpack of the weapon promptly overheated from the short, spewing boiling electrolyte on its users.

         Energia sagged, dropping lower, her plasma wall dimming. Then, as the attackers regrouped and began directing their attentions towards her, she gathered herself, and dove back among the trees. Once safely under cover she sat on a tree branch well off the ground and closed her eyes, but she was doing far more than resting and recovering. She felt around for the signature she'd detected from that neutralizer... There! And there! And two more, there and there! Energia smiled. She knew where they were. The operators didn't know where she was. She began building a charge...

                   *             *             *

         "Sir! Teams report one neutralizer and significant amount of other electronics taken out by an EMP! Source not yet known."

         "Damn! They are willing to sacrifice their own equipment to take out ours!"

         "Maybe not, sir. The EMP was pretty concentrated. It could have just been focused on... Oh! Another neutralizer was just taken out by some sort of long-ranged beam attack. We're trying to find the source, but it's deep in some pretty dense woods. However, it's not far from the EMP attack."

         "That has a priority! Find that source and remove it! It must be a super!"

                   *             *             *

         Energia had actually taken out two of the neutralizer beam canon with that second attack. She had, eyes closed, aimed each hand at one, fired a quick, hard pulse of EMF, then quickly moved to a new location.

         She was just starting to focus on the remaining cannon when a massive explosion destroyed her previous perch.

         "Yipe!" said Energia, as she realized just how much - and how desperate - attention was being directed her way. "Think I'll play possum for a bit."

                   *             *             *

         The team attacking the Project Standby bunker actually managed to take out half the unarmored T.O.W.E.R. troops and three of the Dread Knight suits before being driven back by the remaining UN peacekeepers and some of the supers working at the bunker. While the attack on the school and the bases had drawn off more than half the supers at the bunker, only two had gone to check the nearby bombardment.

         Still, the raiders' mission wasn't to attack personnel, but to destroy the facility. None of the assault team had been seriously injured, yet, and they knew a back way in.

         Only, when the demolitions team got to the escape hatch, it had been obviously wrenched completely out of the frame, then jammed back in place, the gaps sealed with some sort of filler. The delicate, gloved hands which had done the work had left clear impressions in the stainless steel.

         "Damn!" hissed the lieutenant in charge of the demolitions team. "Fitz, Cooley, try to blow that open! Rest of you, keep watch!"

         Meanwhile, several of the attackers firing from heavy cover were surprised to find themselves flanked by a mix of T.O.W.E.R. Agents and supers. Several were quickly taken out, most captured alive. The rest quickly withdrew deeper into the forest.

         "They're a mix of US Army Rangers and Marines,' said Captain Colville, in charge of the UN security force, after hearing reports on the captures. "Uniforms, equipment, tactics, language, all point to them being authentic.'

         "I'll call my contact in the US military as soon as we're finished,' said Lady Carver.

         They were both inside the force's armored command vehicle, along with several others members of the UN group.

         "Attention US soldiers!' Major Colville announced over his command vehicle's PA. "You are attacking a US possession, and a United Nations installation under the protection of T.O.W.E.R.! Cease fire! Cease...'

         The command vehicle took a hit from a mortar round, knocking out the PA speakers and communications antennas. Those inside were badly shaken but not seriously hurt. However, they were now deaf and blind. Colville, swearing mightily, staggered outside and activated his private com.

         "Fear Knight team leader, this is Colville. Is there any sign the attacking forces are backing off?'

         "A few ceased fire briefly, sir,' Lieutenant Hodkings replied. "They're shooting at us again, now.'

         "Then you are authorized for full retaliation!'

         "Acknowledged, Major,' Hodkings replied. "Going to full retaliation.'

         Within seconds, rockets, mortar rounds and heavy machine cannon fire were raking the attacking ranks. Thirty seconds later they ceased. There was, quite simply, nothing left to shoot at but bare rock and churned soil mixed with plant and animal bits. Sickeningly, some of those animal bits were human.

         The mortar attack on the command vehicle had been timed to cover the explosion at the escape hatch. Unfortunately, that had only served to jam the heavy armor disk deeper into the tunnel.

         "Team leader, this is Satchel One. Access negative."

         "Roger, Satchel One. Withdraw independently to the beach. We'll cover and follow."

                   *             *             *

         "All but two of the neutralizer cannon have been taken out of action," said the coordinator. "Additionally, we're receiving multiple reports of supers who are unaffected by the beam."

         Both those developments were unexpected. The Commander thought fast.

         "What's the prisoner count?"

         "Thirty-five drugged and in crawlers. Only five of those are adults, though."

         "It'll have to do," said the Commander, scowling. "Begin the withdrawal."

                   *             *             *

         Chet lifted a rock bigger than his head and hurled it with a grunt. The lump of siltstone shattered on the front of the landing vehicle, leaving a modest dent. The return fire glanced harmlessly off something in the air between him and the attackers. Both the remaining neutralizer cannon had been pulled back to protect the withdrawal. They fired repeatedly at the two children on the beach, bathing them in the eerie glow, to no apparent effect. However, the students dared not venture beyond that invisible protection. The operation continued unhindered by the pair's modest efforts.

         Supers left stunned or worse by the blast from a neutralizer cannon were being drugged and loaded aboard the landing craft as they watched. And they couldn't do anything about it, not even slow the escape of the kidnapers.

         "Dang! Wish my dad was here!"

         "Well, he's not," said Glomahr. "And I can't keep this barrier up much longer. Almost tapped out. Cheiron!"

         The centaur youth ran in from the woods and hurled a huge spear at the vehicle, striking in the center of the dent Chet had made. The hardened steel head buried itself deeply into the soft, aluminum alloy armor. This caused no more than a moment of surprise on the part of the kidnapers. That, however, was enough. The centaur grabbed both the others and ran back into the woods with them under his arms, as the elf's shield spell faded.

         "There's only the three of us here," said Chet, as they reached cover and the centaur put the two of them down. "We either need to find reinforcements or go help someone else. Meantime, I can help you recharge, Glomahr."

         He put his hands on the tiny elf's shoulder and closed his eyes, biting his lip from the mental effort. Glomahr looked startled.

         "Oooh! I didn't know you could do that! I can feel my store of magical energy recovering."

         "Shhh! I need to concentrate," said Chet. After a few seconds he relaxed. "There; that's about all I can do for now."

         "Not full, but that'll help. Thanks."

         Cheiron was about to say something when all three froze. This only lasted for a few seconds. Then Glomahr nodded, Chet frowned and Cheiron scowled.

         "I do not like this plan."

         "It gives us a good chance of finding where these people work out of," said Glomahr, climbing onto the centaur's back. "That would let us shut them down for good. I say go with it."

         "On three, then," said Chet, preparing himself.

         "Three!" yelled Cheiron, leaping forward.

         "Hey!" yelled Chet, chasing after him.

         The trio of supernaturals tore along the beach, Glomahr protecting them while they drew fire... and attention.

                   *             *             *

         "Why the fuck are we taking these kids?!' one corporal demanded, grabbing the Captain's arm as he echoed a question in the eyes of many others.

         "You remember reading about that court case, where a bunch of kids were kidnaped and brainwashed into helping the bad guys? These are some of them. We're taking them back for deprogramming.'

         "Oh,' said the corporal, releasing the captain's arm. "Sorry, sir.'

         "No, it's good you asked about that. In all the rush we didn't have time to explain. And we certainly don't want anyone thinking we're taking kids as hostages.'

         There was nervous laughter from relief among the troops. All of whom missed the meaningful glance the captain gave the sergeant.

         None of those filing into the landing craft noticed the shadow among shadows which moved over the pile of unconscious children in the rear compartment of the vehicle. None noticed when it left, or that there was now one more small, still form than they had brought aboard.

                   *             *             * 

         "Over here!" Moondance cried, waving.

         She was surrounded by nearly a dozen downed attackers. Cheiron and Chet ran up to her, realizing that they were out of the immediate line of fire of anyone left on the beach, thanks to a handy coral head.

         "Did it work?" said Glomahr, as she slid off Cheiron's back.

         "Like a charm," said the vampire girl, flashing a fangy smile. "With a little luck, we'll have at least three people in their base within a few hours."

         "They should have let some of us go," muttered Chet.

         "We've already demonstrated that their neutralizer doesn't work on us," said Glomahr. "They'd take other precautions. No, if the plan Eve 'pathed to us is to work, it'll have to be with them."

         "Are you all right?" Chet asked the vampire girl, noticing her clothing had multiple bullet holes.

         "It's nothing," she said, embarrassed. "Though I'm going to need some blood, soon."

         "What about these animals?" said Cheiron, coldly, gesturing at their prisoners.

         "No!" said Moondance, firmly. Though she glared at the men. "No, I still consider them human. Though after seeing what they did, I might feed on them as a last resort, if it comes to that."

         Chet told himself that was a bluff to intimidate those prisoners conscious enough to hear. But shivered anyway.

                   *             *             *

         The last of the attackers to escape jumped aboard the landing craft even as they moved out, ocean water already flowing over the lower edges of the vehicles' hatches. The odd submersibles then made their way along the ocean floor on tractor treads. Little more than half the attackers who had gone on the mission were returning, and they were bring back far fewer than half the number of "rescued" children planned. Still, they were getting away.

         Hugh Manatee and Merma followed, discreetly, and watched as the landing craft entered a much larger vessel. Once all were aboard and the hatches closed, the huge submersible rose off the sea bottom in a cloud of silt, spun around in place, then shot off at a speed neither of the aquatic students could match.

                   *             *             *

         Deep inside the bunker, the last Myrmidon was down to its last power distribution core.

         "Listen!' said one of the techs on the floor. "It's finally stopped!'

         "That doesn't mean it's over,' said the team leader. "Everybody not actively working on this thing stand guard in the corridor. Our guys could have lost.'

         "Damn, that was close,' said Junker, as he handed the last power distribution core to Gadgetive. "That one was already charging.'

         "What could it have done on just batteries?'

         "You'd be surprised,' said Junker, completely serious. "And horrified.'

         "I see someone! Oh, good; it's Lady Carver.'

         "Status?' she asked, striding into the room.

         "All deactivated," said Junker. "What's going on upstairs?'

         "We killed nearly half the attackers, and drove the rest off,' she said. "Unfortunately, there was also an attack on the school and they took prisoners, mostly children."

         The cleanup was depressing. Several staff members and two students were severely injured. Nearly half the UN team were also out with various hurts, and five of them had been killed. That there weren't also dead among the students and staff was due largely to the work of Ettienne and two other healers on the island. The latter had been added at Eve's insistence after the white-haired boy had proven the worth of non-traditional medicine following the last attack. No-one was yet counting the dead among the attackers.

         "The hardest part was trying to get the students calmed down," said Eve. "So we didn't. We put them to work, patrolling and helping with damage control until they were too tired to continue."

         She gave a those assembled a tight smile.

         "I even had several ask if morning classes would be called off. Think of that. After all that happened to them - and to us - last night, they thought we might still have classes. And they weren't asking because they want to skip school. They want to go after their friends and teachers. But won't while the school still operates."

         "Any word from your plants?" said Lady Carver.

         "None. But that's to be expected. They will wait until they are able to make their move safely."

         "Well, I hope they are able to contact us," said Major Colville. "We have nothing on these monsters. It's not merely that their craft were stealthy. It's as if our systems were ignoring them. We have no traces."

         "That could well be the case, actually," said Junker. "That the Combined NATO and UN Military Activity Monitoring System ignored them, I mean. Everyone we captured and every body we've found shows them to be US military personnel, from every service. Obviously, someone high in the government is backing them, and that support could include the MYOB codes."

         "The what?!" said the Major.

         "Lets someone tell the monitoring systems to 'mind your own business' and not pay any attention to them."

         "I didn't... When and how was this instituted?!"

         "Later, Major," said Lady Carver, raising a hand. "Actually, I knew about it, and am surprised you didn't. But for now this may actually give us a way to find them. If I recall correctly, the system monitors when and where such a code is issued."

         "You're right!" said Junker, suddenly straightening. "I'll... uh, contact someone who may know how to get that information for us."

         "Dr. Sutterlin," said Lady Carver, smiling a bit, "do you think I don't know you helped design the monitoring system?"

         "You've got a back door," said the Major, smiling.

         "Well... yes."

         "More importantly, do you have a way of issuing that command without leaving a record?"

         "Uhm... yeah."

         "Then we may have a way of approaching whatever installation these people come from without them noticing," said the Major.

         "I ask, because there is far more to this than an attack on the school, or even an effort to enslave young supers," said Lady Carver. She looked over at Eve.

         "Besides our own losses, worldwide there are at least fifty supers under the age of 25 missing within the past seventy-two hours," said Eve. "Some are members of recognized teams; some are independent masks; some are private citizens. A few of those last weren't even widely known to be supers until their parents or guardians revealed this after they disappeared. And this is on top of over a hundred supers killed, either resisting capture, defending someone being captured, or deliberately targeted out of the blue. Our students don't know, yet, that many of them have lost family, friends and mentors."

         "Damn..." whispered Colville. "Someone decided to make their move, then."

         "This is major,' said Lady Carver. She pulled out a folder and opened it. "We were able to recover the dogtags from nearly fifty of the attackers. All of them were confirmed as members of the United States military. Most were previously reported killed while on active duty, all within the past six months. A few are supposed to be on extended medical leave, or on detached duty for cross training.'

         "Are you saying that those young men and women we killed honestly thought...' said Major Colville, looking sick.

         "Many of them most likely were innocents who thought they were serving their country on special duty. Others were almost certainly in on the deception.'

         "God..."

         "So whoever is behind this has much to answer for," said Eve, ominously. "I, personally, will aid in the interrogation of the prisoners. And you can believe that I will not ask their permission to read their minds."

         "Under the Extended Defense Protocols, I declare that valid," said Lady Carver, flatly. "You and the other telepaths have free reign. Because not only have these people arranged for the deaths of innocent people, there are children's lives at stake."

         "Got it," said Junker, looking up from his portable terminal. "Only... there's nothing there. It's in the Atlantic, hundreds of kilometers from any land. Not even a ship there."

         "Then they moved out from their base before using the codes," said Lady Carver, sighing. "Now, it's all up to our plants."







Part Eight: Turnabout Intruder




         The group in the assembly hall was an uneasy one. Nearly everyone looked exhausted and anxious. Lady Carver seemed to have more grey in her hair, and even Eve appeared older, as they stood at the podium. The agitation of the students didn't help matters.

         "I have a list of students and staff who are known to have been captured," said Eve. "Copies of this and the lists of those who are simply missing or in the infirmary are being passed around. If you have a correction tell Andrea after this assembly."

         A slow wave of reaction moved through the audience as the lists were received and read. This was punctuated by occasional outcries as a fear was confirmed. Quickly followed by additional outcries demanding action.

         "We have to go rescue her! Them!" said Energia, almost crying, as she saw that Template was among the missing.

         Eve sighed and sent her a mental message to be quiet. For a moment the girl looked like she was going to rebel, but finally acquiesced, thanks in part to Maldren, fully recovered from his drugging. Fortunately, many in the assembly hall were having similar reactions to the information.

         "We are working on this, believe me," she said, aloud and loudly. "And not just us. T.O.W.E.R. and several other UN agencies are on the job, as are the CIA, the FBI, Interpol... We will find our people and we will rescue them."

         "But this was a military action!" said young Lord Flemming. "Supers are prohibited from participating in military actions by the Geneva Protocols!"

         "Except for those sanctioned by the UN Security Council, which this definitely will be," said Lady Carver. "Neither do the Protocols prohibit using powers to defend against military action. The primary purpose of that treaty was to make super-human mercenaries illegal. As I recall, your grandfather had a bit of trouble with that...#"

         The young man scowled but remained silent.

         "Yes," said Eve, regaining control. "This was a military action. One in which US troops participated, but which was unauthorized by the United States government. The exact situation is currently unknown, but I believe most of those participants did not know their action was unsanctioned. So we are giving the United States government some leeway, here. Several of our military contacts have already assured us they would not participate in such an action, that no-one they know among the US military would willingly take such an action, and that they will help against those responsible for the acts committed against both supers and T.O.W.E.R. yesterday."

         She heard a bit of a commotion to her right and looked over to see Junker and his team entering through the side doors. They looked tired but triumphant, and Junker gave Eve the high sign. She sagged, just a bit, with relief.

         "Now, before we do anything else, I want to get these distributed."

         At her gesture, gadgeteers and techs began moving through the assembly, attaching to each person a small device.

         "Normally, these are hideously illegal," said Eve. "However, in light of the current situation Lady Carver has, on her own initiative, agreed to their use. These are neutralizer counters."

         That caused a stir!

         "To review, when the neutralizer was developed about ten years ago there was a huge legislative battle between those who wanted them completely banned and those who wanted them made universal. This resulted in a very complicated set of laws laid out in an international treaty. I believe Lady Carver would be more qualified than myself to explain the situation."

         "Basically," said the UN liaison, standing and speaking without benefit of a microphone, her voice carrying easily to the attentive occupants of the hall, "only qualified operators can legally use neutralizers. The devices can kill supers by cancelling their powers in a situation where not having them is lethal, and the whole issue of removing powers without due process is still under contention. The lawmakers on both sides of the issue, certain that their work would prevent the misuse of neutralizers, then proceeded to make any sort of countermeasure strictly illegal, with severe penalties for possession of even the plans.

         "However, there are situations stipulated in the treaty wherein a countermeasure can be legally used," said Lady Carver. "That includes mass misuse by a government agency against supers who are not currently wanted by the law. The idea being to prevent such things as genocide against supers. I have ruled - and I do have the authority to do this - that the situation here is just such a case. So wear these with an easy conscience."

         "The power cells are good for about thirty hours," said Eve. "You'll get the chargers before they need refilling. The units can still be used while charging - in fact, there's no off switch, so they're on as long as they have power - and have a radius of about three meters. We are working on a large one for the whole island, but that could take perhaps two days.

         "More good news is that we have nearly two hundred supers on their way. So many, in fact, that we had to diplomatically suggest to some of those offering that maybe they should stay home to prevent a crime wave. Many of these masks are already on the island, and most of the rest should be here by sundown. We're quartering them in the old Pine and super bases. Exactly how they will be used is still to be determined, but with them here any further attack against our facility is almost guaranteed to fail, up to and including a Small Coup or a nuclear strike."

         That was met with a cheer, and Eve smiled at the response.

         "So, please, when we're through here, unless you have some important business, return to your dorms until supper."

                   *             *             *

         "Gadgetive" crawled slowly through the ductworks. The kidnapers' procedures were incredibly sloppy, at least in part because of their unexpected losses. Assuming that any prisoners in the landing craft had already been sedated, they didn't even have anyone watching them for unanticipated activity. Once alone, she had emulated Colossa's shrinking power and reduced her already small body to less than half its normal size. This allowed her to hide most effectively in the hold of the landing craft Moondance had helped her enter. Once certain she wasn't being observed, she removed the grill on a vent, squeezed through, and refastened it behind her. Since she hadn't been counted when the bodies were loaded into the crawler, no-one noticed she was missing when the captives were moved to the transport.

         Exploring the landing craft, she found it completely empty but with the controls on standby. She couldn't risk activating anything to call for help or even find out where they were going. She did do some exploring and some work on appropriate tools, using spares from the crawler to augment her own supplies. Eventually, she became so sleepy that, reluctantly, she found a hidden place and curled up for a nap.

         Hours later she was awakened by the transport docking and shutting down. She was about to exit the crawler when she heard the outer hatch open. Hiding quickly, she watched as a repair crew came aboard and moved the vehicle out of the transport and into a huge repair bay. They then left, obviously leaving work on this vehicle for later. "Gadgetive" very carefully made her way out of the crawler and into the base's ductwork. These conduits were actually large enough she didn't need to shrink to fit through.

         She hated leaving those kids to be hauled off, but reason told her this the was the best course. Not only did she not know where they were, but she could also assume they were safe for now. Whatever plans the kidnapers had for them would take a while to put into action, and - being sedated - they weren't likely to get into trouble on their own initiative. Meanwhile, she had work to do. One part of that was exploring the base as carefully as she could.

         None of the plants knew who the others were, or even how many there were. That was deliberate; what they didn't know they couldn't reveal if captured. But she didn't intend to be captured.

                   *             *             *

         Some of the best brains on the planet were storming in the main conference room of the old Pine base.

         "What we have here is several different individuals and small groups whose activities were previously hampered but not stopped by masks, and who subsequently joined forces against a common enemy,' said the Black Mask, as he and the other analyzers reviewed the data they and the detectives and spies and seers had uncovered. "The super child slavers. Carstairs and his supporters. Dr. Hartford and his augments. And others.'

         "However," said Dr. Gorgeous, "it appears the masterminds behind all this is a group of mid-level US Federal government bureaucrats who have somehow arranged to have themselves put in charge of several significant projects - black and otherwise - which they then diverted resources from to further their own purposes."

         Lucille Gorgeous definitely violated the "dumb blond" stereotype. Tall, curvy and with an IQ off the top of the charts, she also had a perfect memory and could correlate data more quickly than most computers.

         "The ego of these people," said Cabbage Engine, slowly shaking his head. "No-one gave them this power, their legal authority is trivial, and they are putting on airs as if they were real-life versions of the Gnomes of Zurich."

         CE's somewhat self-deprecating mask name came with a brain which was equally good at trendline analysis and obscure puns.

         "We can worry about their mental health later," said Tiger, almost growling. "Right now, we need to figure out where they are, what they're doing and how they're likely to react to our actions."

         While Tiger lacked the sheer brain power of some of the others in the room - his IQ was only low-end genius - he was good at hunches and seeing the overall situation. His pragmatic approach often helped keep the more intellectual members on course.

         With fifteen super geniuses, Tiger and some high-powered correlators such as the Black Mask, the information they had was not merely reduced in short order, but analyzed to within a millimeter of its life. Then, the conclusions were presented to the tactical geniuses. And a plan shortly came into existence. A daring plan, one worthy of the third largest cooperative effort among supers in the history if the world.

                   *             *             *

         "Excuse me, Sergeant? Where's Corporal Lang?'

         "Based on the initiative he showed during the evacuation, we transferred him for special training.'

         "Oh. Thank you, Sergeant,' said the private. "I'll let the others know. We were just... wondering, you know...'

         The sergeant nodded and turned away, barely able to conceal his contempt. He hated having to lie like this, but they hadn't weeded out all those like Simon Lang, yet, and couldn't afford having those traitors to humanity screwing things up if they discovered the true mission of the group. Lang, meanwhile, was definitely receiving special training. In pain.

                   *             *             *

         The questioning lasted for hours. Only... they seemed to just be going through the motions. What they asked made no sense. Who did he work for, and how had he infiltrated the group?! He had been invited, and he was a soldier in the US Army! No matter what he answered they simply continued, as if the whole verbal interchange were just an excuse to hurt him. Lang finally resorted to simply giving his name, rank and serial number, over and over, which served only to infuriate them. Finally, when he was half dead, they threw (literally) him in an empty cell. Empty as in completely bare. He lay, bleeding, on the cold concrete floor, feeling it draw the heat out of him. Even the odd rattling, scratching sounds he soon heard didn't rouse him. However, when a diminutive figure dropped into the cell from a ceiling vent in the hallway outside, opened the door to his cell and began checking his injuries...

         "You... you're one of... the kids we...'

         "Figured out, yet, that they're the bad guys who are kidnaping young supers?' asked "Gadgetive." She ran a scanner over him. "They did a professional job on you. Nothing broken except your nose and a couple fingers, no serious internal injuries... If I give you some painkillers and stimulants will you help me take these goons down?'

         "H-huh?' said Lang, now even more confused.

         "They lied when they recruited you,' said "Gadgetive," firmly. "Accused others of exactly what they were doing, while claiming they were the good guys. But would good guys do this to you?'

         "Uh... no.'

         "Good. Now, do you want the shot? There's some small danger it could kill you, but you're young and healthy.'

         "I... if what you say is true, we have to stop them.'

         "Which I've been saying.'

         "Give me the damn shot.'

         Corporal Lang was a lean man, but getting him through that narrow vent opening was difficult. Still, once through the vent was large enough for him to move on all fours. "Gadgetive" had tied a cord to the grill before climbing out. She used that to pull the metal object within reach, then refastened it.

         "Where are we going?' Lang whispered.

         "First, away from the cell block,' "Gadgetive" whispered back. "Then, well, you tell me. Communications would be good, so we can call for help.'

                   *             *             *

         Naturally, they got lost. Partly because "Gadgetive" got tired of bypassing security sensors in some of the more important junctions of the ventilation system and insisted on detours which wound up going the wrong way. However, during their wanderings they passed the infirmary storeroom while trying to find landmarks, and - seeing and hearing no-one - decided to make use of the medical supplies to help Lang.

         "Must be night shift," said Lang, wincing as he dabbed antiseptic on a split lip.

         "Keep quiet, anyway."

         They soon had him treated. "Gadgetive" sat him in a wheelchair and stood on some boxes to look through the transom vent.

         "Big place," she commented. "Don't see anyone except a few sleeping patients, and they..."

         "What?" said Lang, when she stopped.

         "I'll be damned,' said "Gadgetive," looking at the sallow, immobile figure third from her perch. "Storey. Huh. Guess it's true; nasty friends, nasty end.'

         "Who?" said Lang.

         "Sicced the Air Force on a friend of mine, just 'cause he was having fun flying around over a national forest. Not bothering anybody, not breaking any laws or violating any regulations. This may explain why the same guy encountered planes which fired missiles at him a few weeks ago."

         "Well, I think I'm oriented, now," said Lang. "You still want to try for the com center?"

         "Yeah."

         Minutes later they had found the com center. As Lang had warned her it was staffed even at night. "Gadgetive," realizing the two of them were in a fresh air vent, took out the small tank of anesthetic gas she had found among the medical supplies, fed the hose out into the room, and cracked open the valve. Soon the three men were slumped in their chairs.

         "Piece of cake," said "Gadgetive," as she climbed down. "Well, marble cake."

         Before Lang could join her, however, the door opened and a stun grenade flew through. After that did its work several men with submachine guns followed, opening fire when they saw that the intruder spotted on security cameras was still upright, if appearing a bit dazed. Several short bursts went in "Gadgetive's" direction, most of the rounds hitting her small figure.

         Except that she didn't go down. Instead, the girl turned to face those firing at her, a nasty grin on her face. She expanded, bursting out of her outfit, gaining different clothing.

         "All enemies of freedom are enemies of The Revolutionary,' the new figure said, darting forward to the men and cracking knuckles.

         Only they weren't her knuckles; she was squeezing their hands around their guns.

         She tossed the disarmed men through the door, preventing more from entering. Another stun grenade was simply swatted back out, handball style. Then the unconscious techs were ejected. Finally, The Revolutionary forced the door closed, jammed it in the frame and piled every loose, heavy object in the room in front of it.

         "Are you ready for more, citizen?' The Revolutionary asked, as she pulled Lang from his shelter.

         "Wh-what... Who are you?'

         "The Revolutionary, at your service,' she replied, taking tricorne hat in hand to make a graceful, sweeping bow. "Now, gather your wits. We have much to do.'

         "But... you were a little girl!'

         "Few know I am, among my many talents, a mistress of disguise.'

         Lang had experienced so many shocks and surprises in the past day he just let that go.

         "Now, soldier, how do I adjust this apparatus to send a message to the world?'

         "That depends on who you want to call,' said Lang, moving painfully into a chair at the main console.

         "T.O.W.E.R., the Intrepids, the Pine Island Academy... I have their frequencies.'

         "That will make things easier,' said Lang, wryly.

                   *             *             *

         "Why are we just sitting here?!' said Eagle, loudly, as he paced around the huge table in the command center of the Pine base. "They've got a bunch of our kids and teachers, including Template! We have to do something! What are we waiting for?!?!'

         Before any of the dozens of masks present in the room could reply, the visage of the current shift commander in communications appeared on the main view screen.

         "Got something coming in from one of the plants. Putting it on live, after acknowledging her initial call."

         "Attention, all friends of liberty! I, The Revolutionary, have uncovered a dastardly plot to undermine the freedoms we fight so hard to retain! A coalition of evil men and women have conspired to divert the resources of the United States military - including hundreds of innocent, duped soldiers - to support a plan to steal children with super powers and use them against you! Come at once to the Atlantis Seamount to join the battle against these villains!'

         The message was repeated, with minor variations showing that it was live and improvised, then started again, cutting off in a squawk the third time.

         "That,' said Eve, rising.

         "The Revolutionary?!' said Lady Carver, startled. "How did she get involved in this?'

         "Template must have decided that since she wasn't associated with the Academy she wouldn't be watched for or suspected,' said Eve, making an educated guess. "We can ask them later. Now, we must strike!'

                   *             *             *

         "We've been betrayed!' shouted Belleau, over the secure communications line, something separate from the Seamount Base communications.

         "You've been infiltrated,' snarled Harrison. "One or more of the captives must have been ringers.'

         "What are you two so worried about?' said Brockner. "We were planning to announce our existence and goals in a few weeks, anyway. This moves the timetable up, sure, but...'

         "You fool!' shouted Belleau. "We'll have to fend off not only every super able to make it here, but T.O.W.E.R. as well. Thank God we have some of the Navy on our side.'

         "Thank God we're not at that base," muttered Grimes.

         "That doesn't help me!" said Belleau, shouting even louder. "I am here!"

         An emphatic chime interrupted them. Harrison answered, to find the head of the facility where they were meeting on the line.

         "Sir,' said the man, saluting as he addressed Harrison. "Intelligence reports that several naval task forces - including two from the US Navy - are being ordered to steam towards Seamount Base at full speed.'

         "Hah!' said Harrison. "Three of the closest admirals and five of the captains are all either allies or known to hold views sympathetic with ours. With them assisting our defense, there's no way even all the supers on this planet can stand against us!'

         "Sir you don't understand,' said the coordinator, sounding hysterical. "They're not calling them in; those men are specifically omitted.'

         "Give me the details.'

         "On the way."

         A nearby printer tongued out several pages. Harrison read the document, and sank into a chair.

         "Bastards. The Joint Chiefs have ordered those ships in the Atlantic least likely to join our cause into action against us. Our known allies and potential allies, even though closer, are being ordered to stay out of the battle.'

         "How did they know?!'

         "There must have been more transmissions than the one we intercepted,' said Brockner. "Private, heavily encrypted ones, from someone there who was able to access our files.'

         "I want all information on this Revolutionary,' said Harrison. "Who is she? What are her politics?'

         "Uhm, bizarre,' said Belleau. "I've been following her career. She simply appears out of nowhere to champion some cause. Some are liberal, some conservative, some... undefinable. Every time, she claims she's defending liberty. We have no idea of who she is, or where she comes from, except that her first known action was against the Specialists, after they had been conned into attacking the Intrepids' base. Her known powers are eightieth percentile strength, stamina, resilience and speed, and seventieth percentile energy projection.'

         "What are her weaknesses? How do we get to her?"

         "Unknown. There simply isn't enough information on her."

         "Those damn masks!" shouted Harrison. "How can anyone so paranoid still be running around loose?!"

                   *             *             *

         "No. No NATO," said General Thorvald, in charge of the task force which was forming up to assault (if necessary) the Atlantis Seamount. "Thank them and ask them to stand by if needed, but for now take no action. We know where the kidnapers are. We know who they are. We know how many there are and how they operate. We have a pretty good chance of containing them, and we definitely have the numbers in our favor. NATO and UN forces can stand by, and could definitely be useful in corralling any who escape our net, but they are not to participate in the assault itself."

         "That... is acceptable," said Lady Carver, nodding. "Just as long as you do your job as well as you say you can."

         "What about the supers?" said Hodgkins, the General's chief aide

         "Satellite photos show nothing in that area," said the General, frowning in thought. "They're probably submerged, most likely built on top of the seamount itself. We don't have anything armed or capable of carrying assault troops which can go that deep. Just some special rescue submersibles."

         "So you will need the supers."

         "Yes," said the General, reluctantly. "We will need the supers.

                   *             *             *

         Early the next morning, while the units of the task force were still joining up as they headed for the target, a special assembly was held in the school's auditorium. They were a quiet and somber group, for many reasons. There was a good chance many of them would be killed in this effort, or forced to kill to protect themselves, teammates or children. And if things went very wrong all the children could be killed. Eve spent some time silently evaluating the group, and nodded.

         "We have a plan. We are in the process of putting it into action. Before we go too much further, however, I have someone who wants to address you."

         They watched, most of them puzzled, as a man in clerical collar rose and took Eve's place at the podium. At first glance he was aged, even infirm. But once he began to speak his elderly frame straightened, and there was a fire in his voice, a light behind his eyes. A whispered name spread through the hall: The Deacon.

         "Some have objected to our participation in today's activities," said the man, voice strong and clear. "They claim that supers have no business joining a military operation. Supers have rarely been used in war for much the same reason nuclear weapons have rarely been used in war. Once you start, how do you stop? But what we do today is not a military operation. It is a police operation, a cleanup of a corrupt group who have suborned civil and military resources of the United States.

         "It is also a rescue operation. We go to rescue our coworkers, our friends, our family... our children. We go to rescue them from those who have so little regard for any lives but their own that they trick the innocent into sacrificing themselves to protect those who have betrayed them. Who have so little regard for any freedoms but their own that they would enslave others to make their lives better.

         "Finally, we go to seek justice for those who are not here today, either because they have been captured, or killed, by these same cowardly, greedy people.

         "Have no doubts. What we intend to do today is in the cause of right. It is up to us to make certain that the final result is not invalidated by actions on our part, on the part of those in the military who will be aiding us, or on the part of those whom we fight against. Go with strong hearts and clear minds."




         #Richard Flemming is essentially the grandson of his world's James Bond.







Part Nine: The Parting of the Sea




         Even the kidnapers wouldn't keep children unconscious through strong sedatives long-term. Shortly after the transport arrived at Seamount Base the prisoners were moved to several barracks, each equipped with wide-beam neutralizers flooding the whole room, checked to make sure none had been overdosed or were having a reaction, then left to wake on their own. The captors made certain there was at least one adult from the school in each room. As soon as the group working a particular barracks left, Coach Able Tyler opened an eye and carefully surveyed the situation.

         So far, so good. He was certain there were monitoring devices in here, though, so once he had a plan he needed to put it into action quickly. For now, he waited.

                   *             *             *

         The kids were just starting to stir when the alarms sounded. That was what Coach Tyler had been waiting for. Quickly, he bolted off his bunk and ran to the door - the only door - and began examining it. Not only was it securely locked, but neither lock nor latch was not accessible from the inside.

         "Someone thought this through," Coach muttered sourly.

         He began stacking empty bunks in front of the door. It opened inward, so the frame rather than the lock would take the brunt of any physical attempt to break out. Which made keeping the door closed easier for him. He stacked three bunks horizontally, one on top of the other. Then he began removing the legs from other bunks and using them to brace between the bottom bunk at the door and the floor. It wasn't perfect, but for now it would do.

                   *             *             *

         "Sir, three of the four bunkrooms we're using for the prisoners have had their doors barricaded from the inside."

         "Which means they can't get out to help their friends," said the head of security. "Don't bother me with that now! As long as those neutralizers stay on those freaks are the least of our problems."

                    *             *             *

         He ghosted through walls, occasionally seen but not really believed. He excused his lack of action by telling himself he was scouting, but he knew he was just reluctant. He hadn't played hero - well, not counting that one boy he'd helped a few months back, and the occasional anonymous good deed - in nearly twenty years. He'd thought he was over the trauma which had made him hang up his public career, but he kept thinking he should do something, maybe disarm the soldiers he saw, then shying back. Soon, though, he'd be faced with the choice of possibly hurting a bad guy or letting a child be harmed. He was determined not to balk.

                   *             *             *

         The waters were dead calm, thanks to Weather Warper. No ship was within five kilometers of the undersea base, partly to reduce the chance of early detection, but mostly because the plan needed room. The supers were assembled on the flight decks of two different aircraft carriers. There were that many.

         "I have to admit," said Admiral Naismith, "this is the most unusual action I've ever taken part in."

         The Admiral was a short, stocky man with grey hair. He projected an air of calm competence and brought a businesslike approach to the situation, seasoned with a bit of humor. Where most of the personnel on the ship treated their odd guests with reverence or suspicion, he was courteous and respectful, while not hesitating to express his own opinions or ask perhaps awkward questions.

         "Our best brains and your best brains agree this is the most practical approach," said the Black Mask. "That is, unless you want to try and shuttle half a dozen men down there at a time in the only submersible you have on hand which can reach that deep, or wait for more deep boats to arrive."

         "Oh, I'm not challenging the plan," said Naismith. "Just marveling at the sheer audacity of it."

         "Audacious actions often require an audacious response."

                   *             *             *

         "Damn it! There's no way we can fight off that many! Not only do we not have the physical resources, too many of our people would twig to the fact that we're not legit!"

         The Assistant Chief Tactical Officer of the Atlantis Seamount Base was one of the few women of authority there. Many in the conference room had been convinced she was one too many even before she began this defeatist tirade.

         "We don't need to attack them," said General Hudson. "They need to attack us. And they can't reach us. Even their depth charges won't work this far down."

         "And the infiltrators?"

         "What harm can three supers and some mutineers do?"

         "Just in case, though, I recommend preparing to evacuate important personnel through the old Sub-Teran tunnel," said the Chief Tactical Officer.

         "There's only one person on this base I want to see evacuated," said Hudson, sourly. "And given that he's been pestering me every three minutes for updates I think it's past time he went."

         "Colonel," said the Chief Tactical Officer, looking at his Assistant, "you will escort Mr. Belleau to the elevator."

         She saluted and left. General Hudson nodded covertly to the Chief Tactical Officer; that got the woman and her morale-breaking attitude out of the command center for a while.

                   *             *             *

         "This isn't fair, this isn't fair," said Thurlough, murmuring quietly to himself as he rocked back and forth, arms wrapped around his knees.

         Coach Tyler couldn't help but feel sorry for the boy. Zapped with a neutralizer, drugged, kidnaped, hauled away to a place they still knew almost nothing about. Now he was awake with a sedative hangover, still under a neutralizer and crowded in a prison with people who, at best, barely tolerated him.

         "I can't tell you much," said Tyler, after properly assembling the students... well, those physically and mentally active enough for that. Some were still in their bunks or, like Thurlough, huddled somewhere. "They're sure to have this room bugged. But it's an even surer bet those alarms mean at least someone from the school got lose is not only is still out there, raising mayhem, but has probably already called in the cavalry. So we sit tight, and wait this out."

                   *             *             *

         "This is bad," said the POTUS, leaning over his Oval Office desk, head in hands as he skimmed the report. "Really bad. As bad as the time China managed to launch an Orion without anyone having a clue they were even working on one."

         "Ah, Mr. President, that was a movie," said Abner Prescott, his chief technical advisor.

         "And who let them make a show about it when it should have been a national secret?! Anyway, stop changing the subject. How can we cover this up?"

         "Uh, we can't. Several news agencies already have learned about the attack on the school, and two have people on the ships involved in the rescue who are reporting live."

         "Who authorized that?!" Thurlin demanded. "Dammit! This is not the time or place to show initiative! Those TV people should know to wait for us to give the high sign in situations like this!"

         "I'm certain they know we would want them to," said Vice-President Gould, over the TV conference hookup, from where he had been sequestered in a secret bunker for the duration of the crisis, as policy required. "Of course, since we have no direct authority over the press, they have no obligation to follow our wishes."

         "Well, whose idea was that?!" said the POTUS, not quite pouting. "Anyway, we'll deal with them later. For now, we need to get our word out, to counter this reckless reporting."

         "We're working on that, Mr. President," said Thurlin's press secretary. "We have good deniability on this action and the people and resources behind it."

         "There are people who would say we have good deniability on everything," said Gould, dryly.

         "Good, good," said Thurlin, nodding eagerly. "We can spin this in our favor, I know we can. We'll blame it all on the supers. And say we knew nothing about any of this until they started trouble."

         "And since we didn't know anything about it we might even get away with it," said Gould. "Of course, that begs the question of why we didn't know anything about it."

                   *             *             *

         Crawling through ducts just hadn't been practical after The Revolutionary had revealed her presence in the base. For one thing, she'd lost the only clothes she had small enough to fit Gadgetive's form. For another, her companion wasn't doing too well. The drugs were wearing off and she didn't dare give Corporal Lang any more just yet. Currently, she was half carrying him.

         She stopped short of yet another junction and carefully set him against the wall. The Revolutionary took a deep breath, straightened and strode boldly into the intersection. The men manning the hurriedly-placed defenses were surprised. They were also professionals. They fired anyway. The sickly mauve beam from the neutralizer washed over the striking female figure standing before them.

         The Revolutionary simply smiled. Because one of the things she had done while pretending to be Gadgetive was build a counter to the nullifier effect. It wasn't a hundred percent effective, but that still left her with plenty to handle any measures they'd dare use inside their own base. It was personal only, of course, but from what Eve had told her in those frantic minutes the principal had used to organize her plan, the other adults who had snuck in didn't need such protection. And The Revolutionary certainly didn't want any of the students involved in this fight. And they would get involved if they could get out of their cells, which having their powers would allow. No, far better they stay safely locked up.

         The men with the nullifier were surprised when their target calmly marched to them and swatted their ultimate defense against supers aside. In seconds they were either unconscious or fleeing.

         "Damn, I hate to see that," said Lang, as he leaned over and peered around the corner. "I know these guys. I'm pretty sure they'd all help you if we could just explain how they'd been duped."

         "I'm going easy on them," said The Revolutionary, reassuringly. "Don't worry; I will save my full wrath for those behind the deception."

                   *             *             *

         Deep under the base, Belleau stepped from the elevator into the Sub-Teran tunnel and looked for his ride. Which wasn't there. The man was baffled. He knew he'd left the thing right here! It was automated, so it wasn't like the pilot had turned coward and fled. Uncertain, he moved a little further into the tunnel and looked around some more. Because he knew it had to be there!

         The elevator doors closed behind him, cutting off the light. Belleau fumbled in his pocket and pulled out his keychain, shining the puny flashlight from that around to cut a dim swath through the absolute darkness and stillness. Still no transport. Fuming, he went back to the elevator and pushed the button.

         Nothing happened.

         He still wasn't feeling any fear, yet, though he was sliding from outrage towards concern. Had some coward fleeing from the base stolen his transport, and now the controllers above thought he had left already?

         He stood, waiting for someone to notice him pushing the dead button.

                   *             *             *

         Another corner, another nullifier. Only, before The Revolutionary could reach it, a powerful stream of water struck her ample chest. Two more quickly joined the first, shoving her back, then over. Besides positioning fire hoses, someone had greased the floor. The Revolutionary found herself tumbling, and slid hard up against a wall.

         The Revolutionary felt like she was in a Three Stooges movie. She could stand - with effort - but anything more resulted in an instant fall. She would not make any progress away from the wall unless she wanted to put most of her power into flight. Which would leave her vulnerable even to the small arms her attackers carried. She tried to move sideways, but they had planned well; she was in a cul-de-sack, with walls close by on either side. The neutralizer countering device was tucked inside the rear of her waistband and intended to be pretty rugged. But not waterproof. She began to worry, and reached for her pistols.

         A man in civilian clothes walked down the corridor to The Revolutionary's right, passing the seated and worried-looking Corporal Lang. He paused at the junction to examine the situation. And sighed.

         "Ah, well," said the stranger, stretching. "Suppose it's time to break cover."

         There was an odd, green shimmer, and he changed. The same height, now, but leaner, finer, with pointed ears and triangular face, and long, green hair. His eyes were also green, so green they seemed to glow.

         They swung their guns at him... and the weapons fell apart, even as the streams from the fire hoses faded. The green-haired man gave them a sad smile. He raised his closed hand and opened it. Dozens of screws and other small parts streamed to the floor.

         "TenBroek himself could not catch me. Surrender."

         "The Prince of Speed*," breathed The Revolutionary.

         "Indeed," said the elfin man, nodding to her. "And it's long past time I returned to the larger world. Starting with here and now."

         "You should start with protecting the children," said The Revolutionary, bending to gather her hat. "I thank you for the help, but they need it more."

         He nodded and... blurred, vanishing. Moments later, the lights flickered. There was a distant rumbling. Ears popped as pressure in the base fluctuated. The Revolutionary laughed. She turned to the disarmed men and smiled, cracking her knuckles. Each sounded like a rifle shot. Still smiling, she started towards them.

                   *             *             *

         On the surface, an interesting application of thinking outside the box was taking place.

         Gravimetric, Divider, Force Master and a number of gadgeteers deployed directly over the location of the base, flying through various and sundry means. Beams, planes and fields of force pushed down, moving the water back. In under a minute the deep peak of the seamount was exposed to air for the first time in its long existence. They were surprised to see no artificial construct, and after a quick consultation pushed the water lower. There, further down the flank of the normally submerged mountain, they saw it. With the base uncovered the supers spread outwards, slowly, moving the water before them. They pushed it out as far as they safely could, and held it.

         Then came the cold. A cold so deep and terrible anything capable fled before it. The ocean crackled into ice, forming a tube with a wall only a few meters thick at the top but growing progressively wider with depth, to hold back the weight of the sea. This came from a combination of a larger version of Thurlough's heat remover and similar devices, the weather control powers of Cyclone Ranger and three others, and the powers of two ice manipulators. The latter made certain to sculpt a pair of spiraling ramps going down at a steep angle from the surface to the roof of the base, with a curved lip at the outer edge for safety. As a final flourish they raised the top of their ice tube to minimize water spillage, and installed stairs over this in two places for access to the ramps.

         Then, while the force users and ice manipulators stood by in case the ice cracked, everyone else in a costume began making their way down, into the base. Most simply slid...

                   *             *             *

         "That... That's not possible!" said General Hudson, as he stared at the display.

         "We're talking about people with super powers," said the Chief Tactical Officer, sourly. "Of course it's not possible."

         "I hate to do it, but... we'll contact them and claim their actions are endangering the children."

         "Won't work. They believe - with justification - that the children are already in danger. We'd have to actually threaten the children directly - on screen - for them to back off."

         "I, I can't do that!" said the General, looking distressed.

         The Chief Tactical Officer moved his eyes a bit to one side to meet the gaze of the head of security. Who nodded, just slightly.

         "I'm sorry, sir," said the Chief Tactical Officer, folding his hands. "We have no choice."

         The head of security quietly drew his pistol and aimed at the back of the General's head.

                   *             *             *

         "Sir?" said a lieutenant to Admiral Naismith. "Getting a transmission from the base. Sound and video."

         "Put it on channel three," said the Admiral.

         Besides Naismith and the Captain and the regular staff of the aircraft carrier the Admiral was using for his flagship, the Combat Information Center also contained the best data analyzers and tacticians from among the supers. They were clustered around the Admiral's position.

         The Admiral switched the large display across from his seat to channel three, where he and his guests could all see what was happening. On the screen appeared a tall, broad-shouldered man in early middle age and wearing a US Air Force uniform. He looked grim. And maybe dyspeptic. There appeared to be several small, hastily cleaned stains on his clothing.

         "You will cease this unlawful attack on a sovereign property of the United States of America at once!" said the Chief Tactical Officer, looking stern and disapproving. "We will not hesitate to use any means necessary to defend this base against the actions of inhuman aggressors and their dupes."

         He nodded to someone offscreen. The view switched to a hallway, most likely via a security camera. A row of sturdy doors could be seen on each side. Armed men in body armor made their way double-time into the field of view.

         "We had hoped to condition these creatures to make them assets to society," said the same voice. "Now, you force our hand. Withdraw immediately, or they will be..."

         The door to one cell crashed silently open, and a woman in leather jacket, scarf and mask jumped into the hall. She shoved the door closed, then jammed something into the lock, before turning towards the soldiers. She was smiling. It wasn't a pleasant expression.

          The camera switched off quickly, but not before the images showed Blue Impact leaping down the hallway towards the security forces who had been sent to threaten the children.

         "Signal lost, sir."

         "How long until your people are in the base?" the Admiral asked the nearest brain.

         "They're already in. And I do mean the assault team, and not just our plants. They've forced two entry points and are working on a third."

         "Excellent. Did anyone recognize that madman?"

         There was a chorus of negatives.

         "Oh, well; probably someone unimportant except in his own mind," said Admiral Naismith. "Let me know when each objective is secured, please. The children, communications, command center..."

         "Team two just made contact with one of our plants," said Dr. Gorgeous, a hand to her left ear. "He's going to lead them to the children. Says he's already found The Revolutionary. She's okay. And has made contact with someone from the US military who confirms that many of those in the base were deceived into thinking this was a legitimate covert operation of some sort."

                   *             *             *

         The taking of the base was more of a cleanup than an assault. Word had been spreading among the troops that the situation wasn't what they had been told, and like all good soldiers they were asking questions... and passing rumors. Being informed General Hudson was unavailable to meet a delegation from among the troops only fueled talk that he'd been shot. The response of their superiors to their questions and protests reinforced that this was not a regular military operation; several men were beaten, and two were killed. To the surprise of those now in charge of the base, this did not force obedience, but rather sparked rebellion. By the time the supers reached the children, half the troops in the base were holed up, sitting tight until they could find out the truth about what was happening. A few were actively fighting against those running the base, adding to the confusion.

         The supers found themselves having to discern between those who were an active and knowing part of the base's operations, and those who had been duped. Two things helped them resolve the problem: those who had been duped surrendered quickly and asked what was going on; and there were five telepaths among the supers, as well as two who could otherwise determine when someone was being truthful, one of those being Tiger.

         The command center fell last. And when the supers finally broke in they found all inside dead or severely injured. Some by their own hands, some by the hands of their leaders. The body of General Hudson was found stuffed in a closet.

         "The children are already being ferried up to the surface," Dr. Gorgeous reported. "The gadgeteers down there say they can make enough repairs in the time we can maintain the ice barrier to keep the base from flooding when that is collapsed, so we can investigate more thoroughly later."

         "Excellent," said the Admiral. "Tell them to save as many lives among the staff as they can. Not only do we need information they have to find out who was behind this, but they shouldn't be allowed to escape justice."

         *Inspired by Mike Jittlov's Wizard of Speed and Time short subject, but nothing like him except for being fast and green. :-)







Part Ten: Back to School




         "Eve located me shortly after the trouble with HyperManic," said the Prince, his casual manner belying his exotic appearance. The innocuous apparel he had worn at the enemy base had been replaced with green-themed elfin garments. Except for his footgear. Those were incongruously still high-performance running shoes. He shrugged, his long, green hair dipping down his back and rising again. "We spoke about me joining the school, and I found her offer interesting, but decided to wait until the next school year to start. I wanted to close out some personal matters meanwhile. When she called me about the assault I agreed to help. And the rest is, well, the rest. My powers are supernatural, so I wasn't affected by the neutralizers. I just hid among the captives in my mortal guise and bided my time."

         The meeting was actually more of a wind-down social event than a formal debriefing; that had been held aboard the President Regan. School staff and allies were simply standing or sitting in the teachers' lounge and talking, catching up on things and answering questions.

         "No, I can't tell you where I was," said Template, in response to a question from Eagle. "It was legit, though. Ask Eve or Andrea."

         "My powers are pretty minor," said Coach Tyler, to someone who wanted to know why he'd been picked for the infiltration process. He smiled. "I was the toughest kid in my school even before they activated, I stay in excellent physical condition, and I teach self defense. So once Moondance got me on board I just played possum until it was time to act."

         "Actually, I wasn't part of Eve's plan," said Blue Impact. "Didn't even know about it until later. When I realized I was endangering students by fighting back after a group of us were hit by a neutralizer, I played possum, too. Though I almost broke out laughing when they had so much trouble carrying me into the boat. Took four of 'em."

         "You weren't affected by the neutralizer?!" said Template, not only curious but attempting to escape interrogation.

         "My strength, speed and resilience don't come from my powers," said Blue Impact, with a bit of smugness. "They come from the changes my powers made in my body. I'm not at my peak under a neutralizer, but I'm still superhuman. And once I was out of the cell it all came back, including my regeneration."

         Due to the strain of the past thirty hours people didn't stay long. In fact, some started drifting out less than half an hour after the meeting started, once they realized it was neither urgently important nor mandatory. When they were down to just a handful of diehards, Eve chased them away, telling them to go get some rest. All but Template and Andrea.

         "...so when Eve told me her plan, I flew to Gadgetive's quarters, changed into her and put on one of her spare outfits. Moondance didn't know who I actually was; she just picked me up where Eve told her to, and clouded the kidnaper's minds to provide cover while we snuck on board. Inside the base, when I knew the game of pretending to be Gadgetive was up, I realized if I simply changed back I'd be naked, since my costume was on the roof of the dormitory. So I changed into The Revolutionary instead.'

         "You have too many identities," said Andrea, scowling.

         "Well, in this case she used them well," said Eve. "Having two supers not known to be associated with the school - his highness and The Revolutionary - participate in the rescue should keep both our enemies and the simply curious confused as to what actually happened and who actually did it."

         "Right now I don't need any help being confused," said Template, fighting a yawn. "I do want to say, though, that sneaking around that base as a teenage girl made me feel more vulnerable than ever before in my life."

         She shivered, and not delicately.

         "Welcome to the real world," said Andrea, with feeling.

         "Some of those tricked into joining that base's compliment still think it was a legitimate operation," said Eve, "and that we're - even the US Navy and Marine personnel who are holding them - all traitors. I've heard that even some personnel at various levels in the administration who were supplying support for the base were likewise duped, and still confused about the reality of the situation. This will take a long time and much work to straighten out."

         "All the more reason to not worry about it now," said Template, hinting even more strongly.

         "All right, go to bed," said Eve, smiling. "Just remember, while we didn't have classes today, we will have them tomorrow. And do not try to fly home in your condition! Use the guest cottage."

         "No objection from me," said Template, standing and heading for the door.

                   *             *             *

         Others, meanwhile, were not able to delay dealing with the aftermath of the kidnapings and rescues.

         "My daddy used to have a saying," said Admiral Naismith. "'You can build your fence bull strong, horse high and pig tight, and the goats will still get out.'"

         "So how many do you think actually got away?" said Rear Admiral Jones.

         "According to the surviving staff members, none, except for some guy named Belleau. Who, naturally, is the brains behind the entire super slavery ring."

         "I thought that was Roger Skreigh and his crew, under orders from Armistead Carstairs," said Jones, with a grimace of distaste.

         "Turns out Skreigh was in charge of just one branch of a much larger operation. This Belleau guy suggested Carstairs create an organization to handle young supers, making the Congressman think the whole thing was his idea. Once Carstairs put Skreigh in charge of that, Belleau quietly got Skreigh to tie his effort into the main one, without Carstairs knowing anything about it. Belleau is a real piece of work, and not just in the way he manipulates and deceives people. He's a convicted child molester and rapist, and he's really into dominance and subjugation, the non-consensual kind. Even the people in charge of the base didn't like him, felt he was bad for their cause. We don't have any photos of the man but we do have a good description, and Interpol is working up a composite from that."

         "And those missing who aren't supposed to be?"

         "Most of one entire section, run by Dr. Eugene Hartford, who is also missing. Fifteen people, at least ten of whom are artificial supers."

         "He's supposed to still be in prison, of course."

         "We think the Dr. Hartford behind bars is actually one of DoppelMeister's duplicates."

         "Great," said Jones, sighing and rubbing his hair in an expression of combined aggravation and tiredness. "At least we know how they got away. And that this group is using the old Sub-Teran tunnels. But searching those..."

         "Actually, the Pine Academy was already working on accessing those for transportation and communication. Their gadgeteers tell me it will require only a simple modification for their equipment to detect movement in the tunnels. Which they'll happily notify us of."

         "Huh. That'll be a big help. And I can certainly understand why they'd want to give it."

         He shook his head, and resisted an urge to rub it again. He was getting too old for these long sessions.

         "Well, I think that's all we can do for now. I'll keep you apprized of any developments. You let me know if you learn of anything more of importance, or receive any more relevant information."

         "Will do."

                   *             *             *

         With classes cancelled for the day - the second in a row - and the emergency over, students and staff began work on repairs that afternoon. With gadgeteers helping, this also meant considering improvements. (Well, the non-gadgeteers considered them; the gadgeteers figured it was obvious to everyone this was too good an opportunity to miss.)

         "I'm telling you, this will make things a whole lot easier than just putting things back the way they were!" said Gadgetive, hands on hips and staring up at Eagle like a feisty Bantam hen.

         She was promoting a major change to the wiring of the girls' dorm, which she claimed would improve online connection speed 300%, reduce power consumption and help cool the building.

         "And I'm telling you to get all changes approved before installing them," said Eagle, standing firm. "I not qualified to do that, so you'll have to find Junker or one of the engineers."

         "But by that time you'll have this rebuilt!"

         "Tough. We need to get this place fit to live in by tonight, so folks can get back in their rooms."

         "Men!" shouted Gadgetive, spinning around and marching off, arms thrown up in disgust.

         "Catch the piano!" someone yelled from above.

         Eagle spun around and saw a badly damaged upright coming out of a hole in the wall. From the second floor. He yelped and jumped out of the way.

         A force beam shot down from the sky and enveloped the instrument, stopping its plunge just short of the concrete back porch, then moving it to one side and lowering it gently to the lawn.

         "Watch it, Allessandra!"

         "What? He's strong and tough. He should'a caught it."

         "With warning, yes. Maybe even without hurting myself. But not cold like that," said Eagle, irritated and showing it.

         "Sorry," said Allessandra, not quite sincerely.

         "That's not good enough! You didn't do anything during the attack but hide, and now you're trying to kill one of the teachers! Whose side are you on?!"

         "What the fuck's that supposed to mean?!" said Allessandra, screaming, face red, as she launched herself at Energia. "What was I supposed to do? Get killed for nothing?!"

         "You call that NOTHING?!?!" screamed Energia, hitting her with a force bolt which knocked her into - and back out through the side of - a dumpster.

         "THAT'S ENOUGH!!" yelled Eagle, putting himself between the two girls, as the stunned Allessandra tried to get back to her feet. "Energia. Go to your room and stay there until I come for you!"

         The girl scowled, but flew off. Eagle dropped down to check on Allessandra.

         "Go 'way," she said, sobbing.

         "I'm taking you to the infirmary."

         "I don't..."

         Eagle scooped her up and flew off.

                   *             *             *

         "Her injuries were minor, fortunately for both of you," said Template, staring at Energia.

         The two of them, plus Eagle, were in Template's office.

         "The standard penalty for this sort of fighting is a week of detention for each blow or blast, plus repairing the damage. In this case, because of mitigating circumstances, you'll only do the latter. But if you get in another fight any time soon the standard penalty will be doubled. If it's with Allessandra it will be quadrupled. Allessandra gets no punishment, because you blasted her before she actually did anything but fly towards you and yell insults."

         "Yes, ma'am," said Energia, somehow managing to look both rebellious and subdued at the same time.

         Template sighed, and looked up at Eagle. Who also sighed.

         "Energia," he began. He stopped, thought for a moment, and tried again. "You've been one of our best students, in many ways. Allessandra was a problem at first, but has since improved a lot. I know she's still not completely with the program, but she is getting better. Try to cut her some slack."

         "Some people just aren't meant to be heroes," said Template, firmly. "Yes, she hid and didn't fight. So did about a third of the other students and even some of the faculty. Don't consider her less of a person for that. She's only had half of one semester of training, plus a year and a bit with the Young Rebels, who aren't known for providing either formal training or challenging missions. She just doesn't have the mindset, or the skills."

         "That's not why," said Energia, petulantly.

         "Why you attacked her?"

         The girl nodded, chewing her bottom lip.

         "She's just so... stuck up, and lazy, and... just doesn't get with the program."

         "And, as I just said, she's improving," said Eagle, sternly. He softened a bit. Energia was one of their best students, and definitely hero material. She just had to learn not to apply her own standards to everyone else who happened to have powers. "Give her some time. She didn't have a nice family like you have. She's almost an orphan, and has been fending for herself for three years with no real preparation on how to do that. Just... If you don't like her, avoid her."

                   *             *             *

         "I was so worried about you!" said Karen, after greeting Randy with a passionate hug. "I couldn't even go on the rescue mission. The Black Mask made most of the veteran team members stay here."

         "Good idea, probably," said Randy, satisfied to just stand there, holding her, for a while. "And that wasn't just true with the Intrepids. With the other attacks on supers and such, keeping a seasoned group from each team on standby in their bases was definitely a wise plan."

         "So, how are you? And how is Energia?"

         "Still tired. Still spooked. And I guess that applies to both of us, as well as everyone else on the island."

         "I figured as much." She grinned, hugged him briefly, and gave him a kiss. "I planned for us to just stay in all evening. Watch some comedies, have a good, home-cooked meal and get to bed early. No news. No calls from the Intrepids or the school except in case of dire emergency."

         "Right now," said Randy, with feeling, "that sounds very good, indeed."

                   *             *             *

         "I wonder how he's going to reinterpret reality this time," said Glomahr, as students and teachers gathered in the dorm's common room to watch a special announcement from President Thurlin.

         The program began with the usual announcements and opening ceremonies. Then a very determined-looking Thurlin (Well, he considered his expression determined-looking. Others joked he looked constipated.) walked to the podium.

         "There has been a very serious event in the Atlantic," he began. "A group of rogue supers, pretending to be from a school, kidnaped a bunch of children and tried to brainwash them."

         "WHAT!?!?" chorused the audience.

         "It was only through the brave efforts of members of the armed forces of the United States that these, these... super villains were brought to justice, and the children freed."

         "Of all the stupid..." began someone, who was immediately shushed.

         "We have now learned that these people are operating out of a small island nation near Bermuda. A place they call Atlantis, after the old Greek myth."

         "What is he talking about?!" said Allessandra, shrilly.

         "This will not be tolerated. These people will be hunted down, their assets seized, their captives released and deconditioned to be returned to a free society."

         "Nobody's trying to stop him," said Rubber Made, faintly. "Usually, when he gets really stupid like this, one of his people or maybe a reporter breaks in."

         "He fired all of 'em," said Glomahr, dryly, as Thurlin shuffled papers, looking a bit lost. "The reporters, too. Which his staff interpreted as meaning he wanted the press people who made corrections or asked questions banned from these tirades."

         The President gave up on searching through his notes and looked directly at the camera, scowling.

         "As of now I am declaring martial law throughout the United States and declaring war on the inhabitants of this island. Just so you know how your tax dollars are being spent. We expect a quick and decisive victory."

         He turned and walked off without taking questions.

                   *             *             *

         "You can't have heard that right," said Admiral Naismith.

         "That's exactly what he said. Don't you get satellite TV on that ship?"

         "Yes, we do, but I don't watch TV. I'll ask if any of my staff saw the broadcast, but I can assure you that no such orders were received on this ship."

         "That's a relief," said Eve, "but only a small one. You could have been deliberately excluded, due to your participation in the real operation, as opposed to the fictional one the President is promoting."

         "Nothing's come in over the grapevine," said Naismith. "I'll do some checking, though, and let you know."

         "Thank you."

                   *             *             *

         "Not a word," said Velocirapper, who had been busy checking his information network about the matter. "Not a peep. Not a whisper. It's as if everyone else in the administration is pretending the President didn't even make that announcement. No martial law put into effect, no military mobilization."

         "I really hope you're right," said Doomster. "'Cause, damn, I don't want to fight the whole US Navy."

         "Listen, he couldn't get away with it," said HyperManic, confidently. "The news about the kidnapings was out more than a day before his speech, and the news about the rescue more than ten hours. It was all over, including most of the cleanup, before he ever went on the air! There's no way he could justify martial law or a military operation, 'cause there's nothing left to do but detective work!"

         "I doubt that would stop him," said Blue Blazer, dryly. "But his advisors make sure his stupidest orders don't actually get passed on."

         "I wish they wouldn't," said Bobby Double, muttering. "There was already serious talk of impeachment in Congress before this speech. There's more, now. If he'd actually made people suffer under martial law, and sent the fleet to Atlantis - which doesn't exist - or the Atlantis Seamount - which does, but is too deep for them to reach - they might actually do something beside talk."

                   *             *             *

         "Sixteen fights," said Eagle, tiredly. "Some of them with injuries justifying an overnight stay in the hospital for observation. None of them turned out to be serious, fortunately. Also, while students have yelled at teachers, none have attacked adults. Though there have been some skirmishes among the adults."

         "That's all to be expected," said Eve, with a shrug. "People who have been under stress need to blow off steam. When the people involved are supers, those blow-ups can approach volcanic eruption proportions."

         "Well, things have improved dramatically with classes back in session," said Andrea. "With a little luck, things will be back to normal by the beginning of next week."

         "To bad we can't expect better than that," said Junker, tongue in metaphorical cheek.







Part Eleven: Slight of Mind




         The Revolutionary had to make an appearance, of course. If only to satisfy curiosity, some of it hers. As one of the main heroes of the infiltration she was praised and saluted. The Revolutionary found staying in character hard, though, among these people who knew her in a different guise, and all the adulation was embarrassing. After only forty minutes she made her excuses and slipped away from the impromptu gathering (she had only wanted to meet with a few people and was a bit distressed at the crowd) to seek out her primary target. Who, naturally, hadn't been there.

         The Prince of Speed was sitting on the veriest point of an overhanging cliff, twenty meters above the crashing Atlantic. He seemed unaware of The Revolutionary's approach up the well-worn forest path until just before she reached him.

         "Good afternoon. I'm assuming you're not here for the view."

         He hadn't even looked around.

         "Uh, yes," said The Revolutionary, a bit flustered. Like most supernaturals he was often a little spooky. "Just wanted to ask you about something. It's... odd what sticks in a person's mind... Back at that base, after you disarmed those men, you said something about how 'Tenbrooks himself couldn't catch me.' Who or what is that?"

         "Kuiper Tenbroek was one of the first documented supers," said the Prince. "A former slave in the post-War South, his powers manifested in his teens, shortly after the War ended. One of his earliest public exploits was to rescue Molly Bronwether, the daughter of a former slave owner. Despondent over what she saw as the end of civilization, she tried to kill herself by driving her horse cart into the path of a train. Tenbroek later admitted he was more interested in saving the horse than the woman, but he did save her. Perversely, she became his greatest enemy, dedicating her life to ruining him."

         "Oh," said The Revolutionary. She gave an embarrassed laugh. "After my time, actually. Thank you. I sincerely hope you will indeed take a teaching post here, next semester. You seem to know things others don't. Interesting things."

         "Oh, I definitely know some interesting things," said The Prince of Speed, only now to turn and look at her. He smiled and nodded. "Especially about speedsters. Good day."

                   *             *             *

         "We're getting more new students?" said Template. "And some of these are the youngest yet?! Considering we're nearly through with the school year, and have had two attacks on the school..."

         "Neither of which resulted in any serious injuries to students," Eve pointed out. "Also, nearly half of those supers killed or injured worldwide the past few days were individuals who had made a point of tutoring new supers. They left a void which we can fill."

         "Much as I hate to take advantage of others' misfortune," said Andrea, "there's no way we're going to drop this ball. We're also offering special medical care and teaching positions to those supers who were badly injured protecting the kids they were training."

         "Now that's a good idea," said Template, nodding slowly. "A very good idea. If I remember correctly, most of the mentors are older masks, many of them retired from active supering. Even the ones who aren't would probably welcome the excuse to get out of the business and into a related second career."

         "I'm glad you agree," said Eve, with a slight smile. "Given your large scale mobility and way with people, especially those of retirement age, you will be responsible for contacting most of them."

         "Ow..." said Template, mildly.

         "That'll teach you to miss a meeting," said Andrea, grinning.

                   *             *             *

         Flying alone was special enough. Flying with someone was a treat. Flying with one's kin was at least two steps past even that. Randy could hardly wait to try it with his own son or daughter. For now, though, having Jenny cruise with him through the stratosphere was blessing enough.

         "Have you thought about the Planetary Guardians' offer?" he asked, once they were sufficiently alone.

         "Oh, yeah," said Jenny, grinning inside the helmet of her super skinsuit. "An internship with the premier super team?! Why even ask if I want to!"

         "Remember, you'll be interning with the Young Guardians," said Randy, pointedly. "They're very closely associated with the adult group, and under their supervision, but are separately incorporated and housed in a different facility several klicks away."

         "Still, they are officially part of the Planetary Guardians," said Jenny, equally pointedly. "A franchise, I guess you could say."

         "More like a branch office," said Randy. "You'll also be one of the youngest members of an already young team."

         "I know," said Jenny, peevishly. "Look, Uncle Randy, I know all this already. And I still really want to do it."

         "Good for you," said Randy, grinning inside his own helmet, a replacement for the one damaged in the missile attack. "Now... Race you!"

         With that he put on a sudden burst of speed. Jenny made a loud noise of aggravation and struggled to catch him.

                   *             *             *

         "So you do know how to contact him," said Randy, feeling a bit relieved.

         "Yes," said the Black Mask. "And even if he no longer responds to that old summons I'm certain my father knows other ways."

         "That's welcome news," said Randy, nodding. "He's about the last on the list; besides him there's just two I haven't been able to contact."

         They were in the small break room near the vehicle section. Randy hadn't wanted to interrupt other business with his questions, so when the Black Mask had agreed to help him with a school-related matter they had come here.

         "I believe you said there were two things you wanted to ask me about."

         "I'm... feeling a bit uneasy about the legal ramifications of having Jenny at the school," said Randy. "Especially since she's become so aggressive, lately, and so determined to be an active hero."

         The Black Mask nodded, then was silent for several thoughtful seconds.

         "Do Energia's parents know about her being placed in peril by going to that school?" he asked, after a bit. "My concern is, their reaction when they learn about these attacks and kidnapings."

         "They already know," said Randy, with a casual shrug. "About both this attack on the school and the previous one, and the attack in Bermuda. They were concerned, yes, but since Jenny wasn't hurt and actually helped a great deal in defending others, they're mainly proud."

         "You and Karen are correct," said the Black Mask, gravely. "Your family is nuts."

         "Hey, c'mon," said Randy, though he couldn't help but grin. "Just last week a couple of kids got hurt bad at the high school Jenny would be attending if she weren't going to the Pine Academy, when a light fixture fell on them. There's been sixteen fights serious enough for at least one person to need medical care there this semester. Two of the injured were teachers! And several attempts at schools in the area by strangers to get kids in their cars, all unsuccessful, fortunately, and thanks to attentive teachers. A super kid's life isn't that much more dangerous than a civilian's. However, I'm concerned about what a court might say if Jenny is injured. Or if some busybody thinks she might be."

         "Did you hear about that case, a few years ago, in which a local child welfare agency tried to prosecute the parents of a preteen boy who was injured during a circus trapeze act?"

         "Can't say I did," said Randy, puzzled.

         "During the preliminary hearing," said the Black Mask, "the family explained to the judge that they have been circus acrobats for several generations, that they took reasonable precautions but accepted that injuries would occur, that an investigation had shown the injury in this case was due to a fluke and not negligence or abuse, and that they really needed to get back to the circus, since it was their livelihood. Also, the boy was being schooled with other circus children, and was missing classes. The judge heard both sides out, noted that his own son had suffered more severe injuries playing Little League than the one which had prompted the action, and dropped the charges."

         "Oh," said Randy. He nodded. "I remember, now, hearing that for cases involving children there was a pretty clear distinction between unnecessary risks and known risks associated with family businesses. I guess, since I'm in the 'business,' that would apply here, too."

         "Exactly," said the Black Mask. "Though I feel I must add that this is far from certain. Even the judge in the circus case might have a different attitude towards supers."

         "Anyway, thank you for the information," said Randy, standing. "For both questions. Now, I need to switch genders and fly."

                   *             *             *

         The old man scowled at Template. Like her he was a general physical super, though at a lower power level. He insisted on meeting her at the front door, hobbling up on crutches from the sunken den, despite his attendant protesting.

         "Shush, Miranda," he growled, nodding a greeting to Template. "First you tell me to walk instead of fly, so I work the leg. Then you tell me to sit instead of walk, so I don't overstress it. You can't have it both ways."

         "I want you to walk on level floors," the woman persisted, "not climb steps."

         "Be glad I didn't shinny down the drainpipe. Now, scoot and get us some refreshments."

         "I'm a health care professional, not a maid," the young black woman muttered, as she walked out.

         "Whew!" said the old man, as he lifted off the floor and glided gracefully to the couch. He settled down with a mixed wince of pain and sigh of relief. "Come on in and find a seat."

         "Thank you," said Template, deciding to walk to the couch, sitting across the coffee table from the recliner he was using. "I'm very glad you agreed to talk with me, Mr. Sullivan."

         "Since this is hero business, call me Slugger," he said.

         "All right," said Template, smiling. "As I mentioned, we want to make use of your experience. You've demonstrated a willingness to help young supers - you've tutored four that we know of - and would provide you with a chance to continue that. We can offer good pay, the job is on a near-tropical island, and we have some pretty impressive health benefits. There's also several people your age, both among the staff and the islanders, most of whom are used to supers, or are even supers themselves."

         "Are your nurses as pushy as this one?" said Slugger, jerking his head at Miranda's direction as she entered with the refreshments.

         She made a face at him and preceded with her tray to Template.

         "Worse," said Template, straightfaced. "Our chief physician is named Nief."

         He got a good laugh out of that, even though he occasionally winced.

         "I started out solo," he said, after recovering. "I've worked with others, both on the spur of the moment and as part of organized teams. I can get along with others fine, as long as they show the respect I think I've earned, given my record. When it comes to teaching, though, I prefer one-on-one."

         "We have a fairly low ratio of students to teachers," said Template, as she accepted a mug of cocoa from Miranda. "Depending on what you teach, you could very well only have one student at a time. Though that still might mean several a day."

         He nodded, taking his mug and sipping cautiously at it. He frowned for a moment, shifting in his recliner as he thought things through.

         "When would you want me to start?"

         "Any time. Since you wouldn't be a regular teacher we don't care if you start with a semester or just jump right in."

         "You've sold me," he said, nodding more. "As soon as the doctors clear me for travel, I'm there."

         "Thank you," said Template, rising and offering her hand. "I'm sure both you and the school will benefit from this."

                   *             *             *

         Her triumphant flight back from the Rocky Mountains was only just under way when her earplug started giving an emergency chirp. She slowed to a hover and pulled out her com.

         "This Template, auxiliary member of the Intrepids. What is the emergency?"

         "This is federal agent Daryl Harrington!" came the panicked voice. "We have a prisoner escaping transport!"

         "Give me your coordinates!" said Template, already using the RDF in her com to head in the general direction. "Do you have any other respondents?"

         "Negative. I'm on hand com, with no relay. You're the only one in range."

         He gave the location, and it was, indeed, only a few klicks away. Template wondered what they were doing transporting dangerous prisoners on what appeared to be a road going from nowhere to nowhere.

         "I'll be there in under a minute!"

         "Bless you!"

         Template quickly called the Intrepids' base as she flew and gave the details of the situation to Bunter.

         "Not sure what's going on, but I can already see smoke in the distance," she told the computer. "I'll leave this channel open."

         "I will listen and take notes," said Bunter. "Please be certain to orient your com so the built-in camera has a view through the hole provided in its pouch for that purpose."

         She tucked the com back into its belt pouch, turned the right way for the camera to peer out. Template could see, now, several vehicles. One was a federal heavy prisoner transport, off the pavement and with a gaping hole in the side, the edges bent outwards and looking burnt. A costumed figure stood in the middle of the road, shooting energy bolts at suited and uniformed people huddled behind boulders.

         Template hovered for a moment, evaluating the situation. She thought she recognized the super, in spite of his prison orange coveralls. Based on size, appearance and powers he was almost certainly BlowBack, a major player and hardened criminal. Template reallocated her power, putting most into resilience and strength. He was physically tough and strong, but his primary attack was a powerful energy blast. If she could get in close and pound on him, she should be able to take him.

         Just as she thought that one of the men on the ground pointed at her and shouted. BlowBack looked up, and raised his arms to blast her.

         Great, thought Template, dodging.

         "Nice going, fellows! Warn him you've got help coming, why don't'cha'!"

         She swooped down and around. BlowBack was fast; his beam grazed her twice as she closed. And he was powerful... but not nearly as powerful as Energex. She suddenly flew directly towards him, managing to plow into his gut with both fists. He went down, but immediately rolled to his knees and fired a blast at her.

         Template dodged, using strength and flight together. She skitter-stepped to the side, then reversed course to head back in, serpentine, again getting grazed with a couple of blasts. Her last move was up, then down, to deliver a hard right cross to BlowBack's upturned face.

         He was staggered, but still conscious. Template decided to try something different, something she'd practiced but never actually used in a fight. She put her hands on his shoulders and started draining his energy.

         "Wow!" Template couldn't help but shout.

         The guy was a powerhouse! He cried out and crumpled. Template was already glowing; she let him fall away from her hands. He appeared to be out, anyway. Template looked up to see a trio of feds dragging a portable Neutralizer out from one of the vehicles.

         "Hold your fire!" she shouted, raising her hands, noting that the glow was already fading as the energy she'd taken dissipated. They swung the emitter in her direction. "Hold your fire, dammit! He's down and I'm on your..."

         The beam caught her squarely. Template dropped like a cartoon anvil, the impact with the pavement not only driving the air from her lungs but causing her distinct pain.

         She was vaguely aware of shouts and angry voices, all male. Someone came up and waved a gadget over her.

         "She transmitting!" he shouted, quickly locating her com.

         He yanked it out of the belt pouch and smashed it to the pavement.

         "Check again!" said someone out of Template's field of view. "They're sneaky! She could have half a dozen bugs on her!"

         He resumed scanning... and went straight back to the com. Scowling, he stomped on it, checked, uttered profanity and stomped it again. Then finally picked up a fist-sized rock with which he repeatedly smashed the com. Finally he was satisfied.

         He and two others removed her cape, belt and boots. She wanted to resist, but couldn't even turn her head. They turned her over and the man with the scanner reached for her mask. Template tried to scream, but managed only a moan.

         "Whoa! Whoa!" said the voice she'd heard over the com. "You three, stop what you're doing! Not only did she help us, here, you can't do that until she's tried and convicted!"

         "Standard policy," said the man, trying to peel the mask off.

         "Agent! Stand down now!" the Harrington snapped, finally moving to where Template could see him. He was younger than she expected. "I don't care what your policy is, the law says you don't touch a super's mask until they've been convicted of a felony! Are you trying to get us all in trouble?! Stand down!"

         The man hesitated, then yanked his hand back, face flushed and jaws clenched.

         They took her cape, belt and boots and placed them in some sort of secure container. The man who had called her for help crouched down to check her out.

         "Sorry about that. Those idiots must have thought you were trying to rescue BlowBack."

         "Agent Harrington, what is the meaning of this?"

         The voice belonged to an older man, approaching from the rear of the convoy, holding a bloody handkerchief to his head.

         "These men mistakenly neutralized a known member of a hero team," said the younger agent. "Then they..."

         "No, you idiot! I mean why are you interfering with these men's jobs?"

         "Sir, as I just explained, they mistakenly..."

         "Get this man out of here," the senior agent snapped. "Carry on."

         Two of them, smirking, each took an arm and hustled the protesting Harrington off.

         Also smirking, the guy with the scanner crouched down and reached for Template's mask. They'd waited too long. Template had some strength back; not super, or even full normal, but enough to put up a fight with what she'd been taught by some of the best unarmed combatants on Earth. She used her limited strength to apply her self defense skills and executed an elbow lock on the agent, followed by a takedown and pin.

         "I am Template, auxiliary member of the Intrepids," she husked, barely able to hold on to the man, in spite of putting her weight into the pin. "I protest this violation of my civil rights. Damn your eyes, I came here to help!"

         It took three of them, but they got the agent loose and then pinned her down. The senior agent reached for her mask with his free hand, dripping blood on her as he bent over and fumbled at the right edge, trying to peel it free. Template stared him defiantly in the eye, barely resisting the urge to bite him.

         "You're violating the laws of the United States!" she gasped.

         "Since when did the law matter to people like him?" said a familiar voice.

         "Another one!" someone yelled.

         Template looked up to see the Prince of Speed, poised dramatically on a boulder. The beam from the neutralizer hit him. He ignored it.

         "You're lucky the Intrepids' computer is so flexible," the Prince told Template. "You're also lucky I was still in Eve's telepathy range."

         He blurred down to the road beside her and, ignoring the three men holding her and the others standing around, put a hand on her shoulder. Template felt and odd sensation, like a breeze blowing through her body. The Prince lifted her free and set her on a rock nearby.

         "Thanks," said Template, still weak. She began unconsciously smoothing her mask, trying to re-stick the loose corner to her face. "They put my stuff in that box."

         Most of the agents had their guns drawn, pointed at the green-haired man. Who, again, ignored them and suddenly appeared by the box. He swept his hand through it and held up the bundle.

         "Yeah, that looks like all of it," said Template. "Oh, and can you do something about that neutralizer?"

         He smiled, bowed, and flickered away, leaving the liberated gear hanging in the air. He was back to catch the bundle before it had dropped noticeably. The neutralizer fell into a number of large and small parts.

         "Again, thank you," said Template.

         The Prince walked calmly over to her and presented the confiscated parts of her costume with another bow. Template couldn't help but smile as she accepted the gift. She quickly donned the cape and belt. When she bent over to put her boot on, however, she almost fell. The Prince caught her, of course.

         "Are you injured?"

         "My pride, mostly. Some bumps and bruises."

         He released her. And she promptly started falling again. He grabbed her again. She appeared quite pale.

         "On second... thought I... don't feel..."

         She fainted.







Part Twelve: Saving Face




         "I can't believe you're going to work with the Young Guardians," said Rubber Made, pouting a bit. "Luckyyyyyy... Do you have any idea what a prestigious situation that is?"

         "Of course I do," said Energia, rolling her eyes. "I..."

         She stopped, mouth open, expression first annoyed, then alarmed. Without explanation she closed her mouth and hurried to open a window, through which she subsequently flew.

         "Guess she got a message from Eve," said Moondance. "Or maybe Glomahr."

         "Telepathy," said Lasher, in a tone of mock irony. "So convenient, yet so awkward."

                   *             *             *

         Template lay unconscious in a clinic bed, wired like a test rocket. She was also being bathed in the glow of a neutralizer.

         "Why is she...?" said Energia, shying back on seeing that last.

         "We can't find anything wrong with her," said Dr. Nief. "Oh, her blood pressure and pulse are down, she's running a mild fever, and so forth, but all those are symptoms; we can't determine why she's having them. Since she didn't seem sick before she was neutralized and seemed to get better as her powers returned, we think her powers may have been masking the illness while allowing it to progress. Currently, she's stable, and has even improved a bit, which indicates to me that her powers weren't actually helping fight the illness. I'm cautiously optimistic she'll keep improving, and since she's getting better without her powers I'm keeping the neutralizer on. If nothing else, that makes treating her easier."

         Energia winced, and forced herself to approach, shuddering as her own powers faded. Medical units, like this one, didn't produce the shock of the weaponized neutralizers, but they still weren't pleasant for supers to get close to.

         "So, what do you think will happen?"

         "I'm pretty certain the root cause is simply some ordinary bug. Since she has no special resistance to infection as part of her powers, using the neutralizer allows us to get a true measure of her condition and does her no harm."

         "I think you better call Dr. Whiskers," said Energia, alarmed that when she took her aunt's hand there was no response. "She knows Template's medical history better than anyone else."

         "I've already spoken to her. She'll be here about another hour."

         By the time Dr. Whiskers arrived Template was conscious - though groggy - and insisting on sitting up. Then insisting the bed rails be raised so she could hold on until the room stopped spinning. She greeted the feline medico with affection if weakly, and submitted to her attentions. Afterwards Template told Energia, Eve, Dr. Whiskers and Dr. Nief about the events in the Rockies, from when she arrived at Slugger's home to when she fainted.

         "You should be very glad His Highness has greatly improved his speed over the past two decades," said Eve, firmly. "Before, he would have needed over an hour to get there; now, mere minutes. And that difference may have been significant. There have been two instances of mysterious super disappearances in the past week. In both cases the person who vanished was last known to be responding to a call for help from feds. Though in neither of those cases was the subsequently missing super specifically requested to assist, as you were. They merely heard a general call and went to see what was wrong."

         "What's really irritating about this is that I was carrying a counter unit, in the rear pouch on my belt. I just didn't think I'd need it until I saw the neutralizer, then didn't have time to turn it on."

         After the emergency at the school was declared over, the UN had decided that the neutralizer counters students and staff had been issued must be replaced with units which turned off, and that these must be kept off until there was an obvious need for them. However, they were allowed to retain the new units for the time being, given the chance of another attack by the same group, or opportunists. The ruling had made no sense to anyone at the school, since all they had to do was reach around and turn the new devices on. However, Template's experience made clear what the reasoning behind the directive had most likely been. That a super with the counter off could be taken by surprise with a neutralizer attack, while one with the unit on couldn't. Which made those in the room uneasy as they realized the UN was keeping open the option of themselves taking action against the school.

         "You should be grateful to them for zapping you," said Dr. Whiskers, as she finished evaluating the results of her tests. "If I'm right, you would have eventually been a lot sicker if they hadn't."

         "What do you mean?" said Template, frowning. "Are you saying me being laid up like this isn't due to them zapping me right after I absorbed BlowBack's power?"

         "You said you were already beginning to dissipate that. If you had still had enough to harm you when they used the neutralizer you would have been harmed immediately. Instead, you needed several minutes to realize you were feeling unwell."

         "So this is an actual illness," said Dr. Nief, nodding at having her diagnosis confirmed.

         "She's suffering from exhaustion combined with a low-grade but well-entrenched viral infection," said Dr. Whiskers. "Among other things, the latter is affecting her inner ear. My guess is that she was already using her powers to compensate for feeling tired when she got sick, and just kept amping up to fight the virus without even realizing it. She should be fine after a couple weeks of rest. If she isn't better after a week you should try antiviritics. Meanwhile, she is not to use her powers."

         "For how long?" said Template, concerned.

         "Until your temperature stays normal for at least two days in a row," said Dr. Whiskers.

         She looked up at Dr. Nief, who nodded again, in concurrence this time.

         "Bed rest for at least another day. Then we'll decide whether you can go home. Even then you do as little as you can, both physically and mentally, for another week, when I'll check you again. Test your temperature three times a day for the first few days, then drop to once if it's going down or holding steady. If it goes up, call either Dr. Whiskers or myself. If it goes up sharply get someone to take you to the Intrepids' base immediately. Don't waste time calling either of us. And come by the base anyway in a week. We can schedule an appointment later."

         "Perfect chance for you catch up on all those tapes and DVDs you complain about not having enough time to watch," said Energia, grinning. "And I bet you'll have no trouble getting Colossa to babysit you."

         "So, has anyone found out anything about these new federal rules of engagement?" said Template, after digesting all that.

         "No," said Eve. "However, I think I found out why President Thurlin quietly called off the attack on our school and hasn't said anything more on the subject."

         She appeared to be fighting a smirk.

         "James Fleming's grandfather paid him a visit. Completely unofficial, of course."

         "Oh, my," said Template, her smile causing Eve's to break through.*

         "All right, I think that's enough visitation for today," said Dr. Nief. "Everyone out and let her rest."

         "We'll keep checking on those new rules and how they're being abused," said Eve. "Meanwhile, I'll call the Intrepids and let them know you're going to be all right."

         "Thanks," said Template, waving tiredly as they left.

                   *             *             *

         The news was full of supers. The vast majority of them being interviewed by TV personalities. Some on the street. Some in news studios. Some in front of live audiences. Right now, Randy and Karen were watching a recording of the previous evening's The Tonight Show on which a pair of Hollywood-based supers had appeared as hurriedly arranged guests.

         "They claim there's a new 'rule of engagement,'" said Yedinitsa. "Any super who 'interferes' with a federal law enforcement operation is subject to immediate arrest, on felony charges. And they define 'interferes.'"

         "Even if their help is requested, a super could be arrested just for being there, if someone decides they're 'interfering,'" said Harper, scowling. "That's what happened with Template. A fed in trouble called for help, she showed up and rescued the team he was with, and to show their gratitude they zapped her and tried to strip her. No telling what they'd have done to her if the Prince of Speed hadn't arrived."

         "The Federal Marshals are denying that there was a call for help," said the host. "They say they had matters well in hand until Template got in the way of their neutralizer."

         "Even if you don't believe the video the Intrepids released," said Yedinitsa, "one of the agents present says he did call for help, and that the bad guy was taken down by Template before they could get the neutralizer in operation. That they might not have been able even to use it if she hadn't taken the guy out. That when they did get it in operation they deliberately targeted Template, even after she raised her hands and clearly identified herself."

         "The senior agent on the scene has not been identified," said the host, "however, I'm told he actually bled on Template, so they have a sample of his DNA. However, the FBI is refusing to do a comparison with any of their agents, saying this would be a violation of their rights."

         "And you know what the crowning irony is?" said Harper, jabbing a finger at the host. "They lost BlowBack, a known killer with a record as long as this stage, because they were so busy harassing a hero for daring to show them up by rescuing them from their own incompetence! The guy just crawled off into the bushes and got away while these so-called law-enforcement agents were trying to strip a known hero!"

         The audience reaction showed definite support for the supers' statements. Randy smiled as he used the remote to turn off the TV. Then smiled more as Karen cuddled up against him. She began slowly stroking his chest.

         "I'm surprised they let you change," said Karen, quite definitely aware of the effect her attentions were having on him.

         "Well, that's a minor use of my powers, and Dr. Whiskers thinks I may have first had this as Randy, so my immune system is further along in fighting the virus in this body."

         He took her hand, brought it to his lips and kissed it.

         "But she won't let you change any more yet."

         "What, you want boobs to play with when you've got a pair of your own?"

         "You can't exert yourself for at least another week," said Karen, tracing his lips with a fingertip. "So, no sex. But you can still cuddle. And cuddling's more fun with a girl."

         "Since you're the only girl I've ever cuddled with as a girl, I yield to your superior experience. And if you don't stop that, I'm going to 'exert myself,' doctor's orders or no doctor's orders."

                   *             *             *

         The news a few days later showed the bizarre spectacle of nearly fifty supers picketing the White House. The Secret Service was out in droves. Along with Federal Deputy Marshals, members of special anti-super units from two different federal law enforcement agencies, and elements of the National Guard. Wisely, the authorities hadn't tried to stop the picket, or even to keep the supers away from the sidewalk in front of the President's residence. However, no-one without a uniform - including the regulation suits of the federal agents in that category - was being allowed within half a block of the scene.

         For their part, the masks were being very careful to stay within both the spirit and letter of the law, and avoided secure areas. They were quiet, even their chants subdued and couched in polite language. While weapons were evident, none were being wielded and all appeared peace-bonded. Some holsters and sheaths were even conspicuously empty. TV news crews had been allowed to camp at each end of the block, and occasionally a super or small group of same would stop for an interview.

         "As you can see, the protestors are an odd mix of well-known supers, many with long histories of service, and complete unknowns," said the reporter on the scene for CNN.

         "This batch is all from the same seven teams," said Karen, puzzled. "Yeah, some are newcomers to heroing, but they're all on teams with established veterans, some of whom are also there. And they all had public announcements from the team about their joining."

         "Shush!" said Randy, leaning forward.

         "We're protesting the government's new 'rules of engagement' regarding supers," said Templar, after a quick cut in the recording.

         If the news crew had intended to show the righteous wrath of supers in regard to the new 'rules' they'd certainly picked the right person to interview. He stood there, noble, proud and angry, armor sparkling in the bright Washington sun as he spoke. Behind him most of the picketers continued to march with their signs - at least two of which weighed more each than an SUV - while a couple of Templar's teammates stood behind him, offering support to his words. A few supers were taking a break nearby, drinking, eating or using the portable toilets set up by the DC police.

         "They're placing their 'rules' above federal law and the Constitution itself, while going to great lengths to keep knowledge of them away from public - and super - awareness, even to the point of at first denying those new rules exist. Then they use those secret rules to punish supers who help them with dangerous criminals. If they won't tell us what their rules are, how can they blame us for violating them?! It's like arguing with a five year old! There comes a time when the adult just has to stop trying to reason with someone unreasonable and get firm and make the kid behave. The people behind this mess represent us before the world, and should listen to what we, the voting public, have to say in the matter, instead of deciding we aren't capable of making an informed decision on it. The way they're acting leads me to believe that they are the ones incapable of making rational decisions. I even voted for some of these people, a mistake you can be certain I will not repeat!"

         "And what do you think Template will say to the investigating committee later today?"

         "Besides telling them the truth about what happened?" said Angster, leaning in past Templar to his left. "I think she'll tell them that the next time they want her help, they won't get it. Even if her powers do return."

         "That's twice she's been arrested for responding to a call for help from a representative of a government," said Holster, from Templar's other shoulder, obviously angry. "Now, not only is she unlikely to do this again, all super heroes will be reluctant to respond to such appeals. So when the President attacks us for not helping with a prison breakout or mint robbery, ask him whose fault that is."

         "Yeah!" said another super, who appeared to be with the Showoffs but whom neither of those watching knew, butting in. "How do we know it won't be a trap?"

         "Is that interview with the congressional subcommittee today?!" said Karen.

         "Yeah," said Randy. "Two o'Clock this afternoon. I've already arranged transportation. The Prince of Speed will be there, too, since he was a witness and technically aided the escape of both a convicted felon and another suspect involved in the escape."

         "So, Template is being officially charged with aiding the escape of BlowBack, even though she stopped the escape, and he actually got away later, after the people charging her had disabled her, allowing the escape."

         "Well, so far there are no charges against her or His Highness," said Randy. "Though it's obvious from what government spokesmen are saying that both are considered as good as convicted."

                   *             *             *

         As it turned out, Template and the Prince of Speed weren't the only witnesses testifying that afternoon.

         "Now, then, Mr. Glider..." said a congressman, peering at his notes through glasses perched on the far end of his shiny nose.

         "That's 'Glide,'" the costumed man said, "not 'Glider,'"

         "Uhm, yes... You say that you saw your partner, Switcher, seized by guards at the JYB facility."

         "Yes. We were on patrol when we heard on our scanner that there was a disturbance in one of the wings. I flew us there, dropped him inside, and then flew high cover while he checked things out. Only, as he walked to the control building, neutralizers came on all around the area. Then guards charged out. Even though he was just standing there, with his hands up, not making any threatening moves, they shot him multiple times with stunners, then dogpiled him after he went down. The doctors say he nearly died."

         "Let's try to stay away from speculation, here, and on topic," said the congressman, irritated for some reason. "Now, then, here's the question. What do you think would be the natural response of prison guards of someone in a super costume landing unannounced and uninvited inside the prison in the dead of night?"

         "That he was there to help with the disturbance!" said Glide, obviously angry. "Switcher and I are known to the staff, and have previously...!"

         "And did you actually see any disturbance?"

         "Well... no. But we heard the reports..."

         "On a frequency reserved for use by an agency of the federal government," said the congressman, accusingly.

         "We weren't using it," said Glide, defensively. "We were just listening to it. And..."

         "Even though that's a violation of federal law?"

         "Since when?"

         The pudgy congressman sat up, whipped off his glasses and glared at the super.

         "How can you claim to be upholding the law when you don't even know the law?! I think we're through with this witness."

         "But... you haven't..."

         "Mr. Glider, you will be quiet and leave now or be found in contempt of Congress. And keep in mind that being allowed to leave without arrest at this time is no protection against being arraigned later on other charges."

         "Contempt of Congress?!" the man snapped, taking a moment to glare at the men and women conducting the hearing before leaping from his seat and flying towards the double doors at the rear of the hall. "Well, that would make it mutual!"

         "Have security detain that man," said the congressman, speaking to a security guard standing well to the side. "Now, then, who's next?"

         Template's interview went a little better, mainly because she was forewarned by how they treated Glide. She found that her still-weakened condition made keeping her cool easy; she just didn't have the energy to get upset. Her calm demeanor seemed to baffle her inquisitors as much as her answers to their questions did. Their version of events was so at odds with what had actually happened that Template several times had to ask clarifying questions just to understand what they were talking about. Those on the subcommittee hadn't even known BlowBack had escaped while the feds were trying to coral Template. During the questioning, Template tried to determine what the group she rescued was doing in the middle of nowhere, but her attempts were ignored.

         After twenty-three exhausting minutes, they finally gave up trying to badger her into either changing her testimony or having an outburst. Instead, they turned their attentions on her green-haired companion.

         The Prince of Speed took a different tack.

         "Before I answer any of your questions, I want you to understand something. As designated heir to the throne of the Realm of the Fae I have already instructed our ambassadorial staff here in Washington and our representatives at the United Nations to protest both these 'rules of engagement' and the actions they are being used to justify."

         That caused a major stir. Template peered at the men and women seated in front of her, suddenly understanding they had not realized the green-haired man's public name was more than just a mask's pretension. The chairman declared a recess... or tried to.

         "If you leave now, I will not be here when you return," said His Highness, stiffly. "I have important matters to see to, and have no more time for this petty exercise in vindictiveness against your own citizens."

         They were obviously not used to being spoken to in that manner, and far less used to the speaker getting away with it. Flummoxed, the chair quickly declared that they had no more questions for either witness. Template and the Prince left with calm dignity.

         Once they were out of the building, however, they both broke down into helpless giggles.

         "Oh," gasped Template, quickly finding a bench and dropping onto it. "Oh, my. I'm still too weak to be laughing like this."

         "I never thought pulling rank like that would be so much fun," said the Prince, dabbing at his emerald eyes with a Kelly green kerchief. "I was going to follow the rules, and jump through their hoops. I am a US citizen, or was before I left, twenty years ago, and like to think the system here works. But when I realized that the purpose of that particular group was not to evaluate the situation, but to justify it, I changed my plans."

         "I just wish we could have done that before they interviewed anyone else," said Template, regaining control.

         "Not to worry. With all the bad press, the super picket and several protests from other nations besides my Grandfather's, I think the administration will be doing some serious backpedaling."




         *Imagine you're the leader of a world power, and that you've recently threatened to attack a certain island. That evening, when you enter your bedroom, you find Sir James Bond sitting in your favorite chair, reading the book you had started the day before. He smiles at you, puts the book down and rises to greet you politely, even respectfully. Then informs you that his grandson is on that island you have threatened, and asks you, again politely, to reconsider.

         Oh, and when you finish, he leaves, and you enter your bedroom, to find your spouse asleep in the very rumpled bed, smiling. :-)

         Note that this isn't what happened off-stage in the story. It's what many people imagined happening, based on the man's reputation.







Part Thirteen: Realignment




         "Well, that was unsettling," said Maddy Singleton, Congresswoman from Vermont, as she and her peers filed out of the meeting room nearly two hours later. "Bad enough that these people seem to think they deserve special privileges over and above what is granted to the average citizen, some of them aren't even citizens! I never could stand the English royalty, with their elitist airs and their eccentricities. Green hair?!"

         "Uh, he's not English royalty," said one of her aides. "He's..."

         "Not to worry," said the subcommittee chairman, not deliberately ignoring the aide, but simply unaware she had spoken. "Now that we have all these rogue supers in custody that should take them down a notch. I can't believe so many of them - Most with standing warrants against them! - actually had the nerve - or stupidity - to show up here."

         One of the security guards was trying, quietly, to get the attention of the subcommittee chairman. However, Maddy still had something to say and with one of his peers speaking, the chairman simply didn't notice the man.

         "Anyway, it's time to head back to my office. My hairdresser is probably waiting, and I need my hair done before the press conference." She scowled unpleasantly. "As it is she'll probably bitch and moan about how I kept her waiting and how that will make her late for her next appointment and all her other customers will complain to her about being late. Hmph. She seems to think everything is about her. Doesn't she know I'm a United States Senator?"

         "Excuse me, Senator Holbert, but only one of the supers who testified today is in custody," said the guard, finally able to get the man's attention.

         "Eh?" said the congressman. "That's nonsense. They were all right there. We told you people ahead of time to be prepared to arrest those we indicated, as well as all who were already wanted by the law."

         "None of them had outstanding warrants," said the guard, attention divided between the partially conflicting duties of watching for trouble and informing his charges of security developments, "and security reports that only one person was actually arrested, the woman named Escutcheon* the Untouchable. And they're still waiting to hear from you why."

         "I told you, they have standing warrants against them!"

         "Not that we've been able to find," said the guard. "If you can't supply something concrete, we'll have to let her go."

         "I've had enough of this!" the congressman snapped, stopping and turning to face the guard. "If you can't do the paperwork, we'll find someone who can."

         "We can do the paperwork. And the computer database searches. And we have nothing on this woman. So if you can't..."

         "I told you I'd had enough!"

         With that he spun back around and marched away.

                   *             *             *

         "I hate to say it, but maybe the time really has come for some sort of registration and licensing," said Colossa, sighing. "Even if it's just to keep them from putting a much stricter registration program in place, or even ban us completely again. I just hate to let the government run such a program. Any government." 

         Following a few more days of their "investigation" the Senate subcommittee which was supposed to be looking into the new rules of engagement and their abuse had recommended all supers reveal their secret identities to a registration board, to be administered by the FBI. Even the most anti-super TV news "personalities" were having trouble reconciling that announcement with the stated purpose of the subcommittee.

         "Why not do it like domain names?" said Rapscallion, after a short and gloomy silence. He laughed. "We could check with the people who register clowns for advice!"

         "You know," said Bowman, thoughtfully rubbing his chin, "that's not a bad idea. You could have several independent groups run by supers or non-super people supers trust. They'd better be non-profit, though. Maybe charge a token amount to register a super name and costume, plus a yearly fee to keep the registration active, to defray costs. That could help avoid situations where someone takes a retired super's name without permission, too."

         "They would also have to provide contact information, and maybe even procedures," said the Black Mask, nodding. "Besides registering masks, they could provide a message drop service. The same sort of arrangement many super teams already have, only formalized."

         "That might just work," said Colossa, starting to get behind the idea. "I mean, while most supers want to keep their identity secret from bureaucracies and the press - and their enemies - they share with team members and friends. This would be a formalization of that."

         "And it's already considered an accepted risk by such masks that an enemy might gain access to that information," said the Black Mask, actually seeming eager. "We could provide standards for minimum security, and so forth."

         "I think," said Bowman, "that we need to make a very large conference call."

         "Preemptive strike!" crowed Rapscallion.

                   *             *             *

         "How are you feeling?" said Andrea, the next day, at school.

         The administrator had caught Template first thing, as she landed outside the main building and walked to her usual entrance.

         "Both doctors have cleared me for light duty," said Template. "To be honest, I'm really glad of that. I was getting pretty bored."

         "Well, do not overdo it," said Andrea, firmly. "Look, I know you and Colossa are planning your, uhm..."

         She paused as a gaggle of students walked by, talking about something neither of the adults could figure out.

         "Let's just say Randy's new bride would be rather upset if her new husband was laid up for the honeymoon, instead of laying in another way."

         "Hey!" said Template, blushing as Andrea winked at her.

                   *             *             *

         Template was in Gadgetive's lab at the old Pine base. The teen inventor was one of the few students to be granted such a privilege, and so far that action had proven justified several times. Just now, it might help save someone's life.

         "The first thing we did after installing the initial set of units was listen," she explained to Template. "That is, monitor the existing, background noise. The idea being once we knew what was normal, we could filter it out. But that proved more complicated than we thought."

         Gadgetive was sitting at the master control for the Sub-Teran communications system she had been primarily responsible for developing. Strange sounds were coming from speakers in odd positions around the lab. Since others besides her - most of them not-gadgeteers - would be using the system once it was operational it would eventually be moved to a room separate from her lab, but just now only she and a few others could even understand how to work the thing.

         "Those old tunnels are surprisingly noisy," said Gadgetive, fiddling. "We get whale noises, geological and geothermal sounds conducted through the rock, creakings and poppings we haven't found explanations for yet, even a sucking sound from the osmotic pumps. But! You can filter all those out. And when you do, you get this."

         The lab was suddenly much quieter. There was still some noise, but standing out among that, now, was an odd, groaning sound. When this changed to sobbing Template realized, with a start, that she was hearing someone in distress, an actual human moaning and weeping.

         "Where's it coming from?"

         "Still working on pinpointing it," said Gadgetive, working knobs and levers. "So far I've narrowed it down to a forty-klick stretch between two access stations. I should have it to the meter in another couple of days."

         "Gadgetive," said Template, very deliberately, "whoever that is could be dead in a couple of days. Just give us that forty kilometers and we'll search it. Should take less than an hour, once we get someone down there."

         "No, no, I know I can..."

         "Gadgetive!" said Template, very firmly. "Give me the coordinates. Now."

         She pouted, but complied.

                   *             *             *

         "It was close," said Junker, as he, Template and a bunch of others met in the teacher's lounge the next day. "Guy almost died of dehydration, and was close to starving, anyway. There's very little fresh water down there. There are some seeps, but most of those are brackish. Judging by the loose fit of his clothes, he must have been pretty overweight before he got lost. That's probably what saved him."

         "He wasn't even conscious," said Thurlgar, one of the very few Sub-Terans left and on loan from the Super Hoosiers team.

         "Good thing we didn't wait for Gadgetive to pinpoint his location," said Template, nodding. "He stopped making sounds before she could have finished."

         "We didn't find any ID on the guy," said MoleMan, on loan from the Superlatives. "However, he matches the description of Belleau."

         "We got him!" said Cyclone Ranger, triumphantly, on hearing the news.

         "Yes, and we keep that quiet!" said Eve, sternly. "If his allies still consider him missing we have a much better chance of actually catching them!"

         "The weird part is he was close to an access shaft, which surfaces on a populated island in the eastern Atlantic," said Thurlgar. "He should have had plenty of time to get there and climb up. For that matter, he had enough time to reach the closest ventilation shaft to the west of the Atlantis Seamount. From what signs we were able to find he appears to have gone about halfway back and forth between those shafts, and down some side tunnels, several times, covering more distance than what he needed to travel to reach either exit from where he started but always stopping short of anything which would have significantly helped him or let him escape."

         "What was he doing down there, all alone and without any equipment, anyway?" said Template.

         "This is just a guess, but we know Dr. Hartford and his team are missing from that undersea base. Given the papers and computer disks we found in Belleau's attache case - which he apparently dropped within the first hour of walking - we think he expected to be evacuated when he first went down there. The power was off to the lift. We figure that he was assumed to be gone and they turned the power off before he tried to go back up. We'll probably know more once we can question him."

         "I wonder if this actually is how Dr. Hartford escaped," said Template, thoughtfully. "Knowing how his real loyalty is to himself and a few of his aides, they probably abandoned the metaphorical sinking ship and got there first, and stole whatever transport this guy was expecting to use."

         "You do realize this means this group uses the Sub-Teran tunnels for travel," said Junker, making sure Template got his point. "Maybe routinely."

         "All the more reason to finish Gadgetive's communications and monitoring system soon."

         "It's just about ready to pass TLAR," said Junker, nodding.

         "What's that?" said Cyclone Ranger, puzzled.

         "That's where the chief tech, in his greasy coveralls and with a filthy rag sticking out of his back pocket, walks all around something, examining it," said Junker, straight-faced, "rubs his chin for a moment, then nods and says 'That Looks About Right.'"

                   *             *             *

         Graduation brought multiple emotions. Much had happened during the past few months, and many of those events - or their aftereffects - were still affecting the students, faculty and school supporters. Of those graduating, several already had guaranteed places on super teams, while others had jobs in various industries. A few were even returning for college-level courses in the Fall, even though the school hadn't been certified yet and the hours might not be accepted by actual colleges. Four of the graduates would be back as junior faculty.

         Nearly all of the non-graduating students would return. The consensus was "Best school ever!" Which says a lot about teenagers...

         After the last student had left; after the dorms had all been cleaned out and closed for the Summer; after the non-resident school staff had finished packing, Eve had a day-long meeting with the teachers and administrators. It was a mixed review and gripe session.

         "Better security," was suggested by several.

         "We need to open more sections of the Pine base," said Junker, seconded by Myna, Valence and Marcus Altione.

         "We need a class on superpositional movement next semester," said Weather Warper.

         "I agree, but why are you the one bringing this up?" said Andrea.

         "You do know I can move from any storm to any other, anywhere on the planet, right?" he said, with a slight smirk. "Something about equipotential transposition, according to the brains. But I don't know a lot about how it works, and I'm the closest to an expert we currently have."

         "Oh..." said Andrea. "All right, noted."

         Problems were put forward and marked for the attention of the permanent staff over the Summer. Some suggestions were likewise earmarked; others would require more discussion. And Eve made certain to note what they had done right, and pass out well-earned commendations.

         Finally, Eve announced that they had one piece of business left, to be broached by a guest. And that was Tiger's cue to enter.

         He smiled at the group, nodding to those he knew, and took Eve's place at the head of the table, standing easily while he - grinning - let the tension build for a few seconds.

         "How would you like to be in the Proactive Society?" said Tiger, when it was obvious people were becoming impatient. "Not just you folks, but the whole school. You've got people here who are completely off the radar as far as intelligence agencies and political action committees are concerned. Besides the staff having some experienced people with good connections, some of those kids are bright, and could easily supply fresh insights."

         There were various reactions. None were outright rejection, but there were a few who were doubtful.

         "I don't know about this," said Andrea. "We're already alienating a lot of governments. I know the Society keeps a low profile, but some of its announcements and actions have... greatly displeased some influential nations."

         "Some of which enthusiastically support this school," said Tiger. "We'll present this to them as - among other advantages - a way to add another viewpoint - from a group they favor - to the Society."

         "What would be our status?" said Eve.

         "The school itself would be like a college or research institute think tank," said Tiger. "You'd have a panel which would chose what ideas and projects to present to the Society. Also, some staff and even some students would be welcome as members individually and separately from that."

         "I like it," said Template, nodding slowly. "I've heard a lot of good things about the Proactives from people whose judgement I trust. Of course, they all also had criticisms, which us joining could help address."

         There was a subdued buzz of discussion. Then Eve called for a vote.

         "Aren't you rushing this a bit?" said the Fortean.

         "Do you want to wait any longer to go home?" said Eve, dryly.

         There was a bit of a collective chuckle over that. And they voted. Almost unanimously in favor.

         "One more thing for the permanent staff to work on," said Weather Warper, with a sigh.

         "Is there any other business?" said Eve. No-one had any. "Then I declare this meeting, and this semester, and the first year of the school's operation, over."

         There was a subdued cheer, they said their goodbyes - some of them quite emotional - and began filtering out.

         "You were rushing things," said Template to Eve, when only they, Andrea and Tiger were left.

         "Just because I'm tired," said the principal, with a lackluster smile. "Ask Tiger, if you don't believe me."

         "Well, she did want to save that for last, since it was a last-minute thing," said Tiger, with a shrug. "And she did want to get the meeting over with; why I don't know."

         "Okay," said Template, nodding. "Well, I want to get home, too. I've got a wedding to plan. You did all get your invitations, right?"

         They all nodded, and Andrea even gave Template a sisterly hug.

         "I definitely plan to be there," she assured Template.

         The others also confirmed. They began drifting towards the door. Eve, the last out, reached back to turn off the lights.

         "And that's it until the Fall."



         *The senator later stumbled over "Escutcheon" in a press conference, muttered something about how none of his staff could use a "spelling checker" and went on to announce that they had "Eustachian the Untouchable' in custody. Hours after Escutcheon had been released with an apology.


This document is 2006 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must acquire permission from the author, who can be reached at: stickmaker@usa.net

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