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Masks IX: Business as Unusual



by




Rodford Edmiston











Part One






"You're being held without bail, pending trial, due to flight risk," said Joseph, staring at the unremarkable fellow in workman's clothes, who was busy looking confusedly innocent. "The next step in the investigation - to take place as soon as you have been informed of the process - will be questioning with a telepath present to verify what you say."

"You can't do that!" said the man, defiant despite the fact that two of the four across the table from him were supers.

"I assure you, under the laws on this island, when someone is caught stalking someone - especially a student - it is quite permissible to use telepathy on them. As your appointed counsel I suggest you cooperate. That will make the process less strenuous all around."

"That's not what I mean," said the man, smugly, finally dropping his act. "We have conditioning which makes it impossible to read our minds!"

"And the fact that I am currently doing so confirms this delusion how?" said Eve, acidly. "Your conditioning seems to be mostly wishful thinking."

"You must be real mad, knowing what I think of you," said the man, hotly.

"Not when I consider the source. You and your men will be tried, sentenced and punished under UN law as child stalkers."

"Wh-what?!" said the man, scandalized. "That's outrageous! We're not child stalkers! We're agents of the US government, here looking for known lawbreakers you're sheltering!"

"We have an extradition treaty with the US," said Eve. "So what you are saying is nonsense. Not to mention that when you said that you thought of your actual mission: to kidnap young supers to be indoctrinated into serving your superiors. Now, if you have no further objections, both Security Chief Champolion and I would like to get this over with."

"Of course I have objections! You can't do this! It's a violation of basic human rights!"

"You're a fine one to talk about human rights, seeing as how you were stalking children!!!" snarled Template, leaning forward as far as her swollen belly allowed, fists clenched so tight her gloves creaked. "I swear to God, if I catch anyone doing that to my child there won't be enough left to bury, much less try!"

Down, girl, came the thought from Eve, carrying a measure of both alarm and amusement. I'm supposed to be playing Bad Cop. You're just supposed to be observing.

Sorry, came the not at all regretful response. I'm still in a bad mood from that incident at the mall last week.

Understandable, but you're still hampering the procedure.

Template grumbled, audibly as well as mentally, but sat back, tugging her cape in place, and let them get to it. Half an hour later the prisoner was soaked with sweat and weeping, and Eve looked a bit tired.

"That's all for now. We'll present this evidence to Abigail Hawking, head of the local UN office's legal department. She'll arrange your trial."

The man was so wrung out he couldn't even protest.

"Three more to go," said Joseph, with a groan.

"From my preliminary examination they should be less trouble," said Eve. "He was the leader, and the only one who knew what their actual mission was. The others were simply blindly following orders."

"Which is a major part of what caused us to notice them," said Andrea, shaking her head. "Idiots. Their superiors, as well. They sent in men who were so stupid that they immediately attracted attention."

"What do you expect?" snapped Template. "The people who would do this sort of thing are not only inherently deceitful, but don't trust any judgement but their own. The more robotic their underlings the better."

"Maybe I'm naive, but I thought things were going to get better with your new president," said Joseph, sighing and rubbing his eyes. "Instead, she's undone what little good Gould did."

"I can't believe Seivers hasn't rescinded those special orders, yet," said Template, sourly. "According to her legal staff and the heads of several government agencies, they can still arrest and hold without bail any super just for being a super. They promise not to do this unless they feel they have to, though, so everything's all right!"

"Hopefully, it's just momentum," said Eve, with a tiredness born of centuries of experience. "Bureaucratic momentum. The management changes, the employees change, but policy is eternal. At least until the new management deliberately changes it. Since all Gould did was put holds on things pending oversight investigation, nothing was actually changed by him. Then this new leader undid Gould's holds for 'national security' purposes. So it's back to business as usual until - hopefully - the government investigators or the courts say otherwise."

"Let's hope that's what it is," said Andrea, though by her attitude she seemed skeptical. "I've been hearing about other things which imply that the new president isn't as noble or honest as she appears. I mean, she has spy ships off our shores, watching us!"

"Amanda Seivers seems like an honest and open person," said Eve, nodding. "I actually find the spy ships encouraging, though. Or rather, the fact that they are openly watching us. She's letting us know she's keeping an eye on us, rather than trying to sneak around. Like whoever sent these idiots tried to do. However, she has already betrayed several campaign promises. Including not opening for public examination the records about the super apprehensions from the last days of the Thurlin administration. There are still people missing who are probably being held somewhere, secretly."

"God," groaned Template, rubbing her temples, then unconsciously pressing her mask to her skin. "I really hope we didn't go through all that just to go through it again a year later. We didn't know when we had it good with Gould. I take back all the - well most - bad things I said about him."

"That's enough of a break," said Eve. "Send in the next one."


* * *


This school year had seen an influx of superhuman youths who had neither a criminal record nor any intention of donning a costume. Indeed, many of them were openly critical of those who wore clothing different from theirs. Most were here because their families thought this was both safer than the US for someone with powers, and that they could get appropriate training here.

"Don't you people get tired of wearing the same clothes all the time?" said Sid, as he swerved around a small group of female students, walking along one of the paved paths.

"We don't!" Energia called after him, as he hurried off somewhere.

"If you paid attention to us, instead of treating us like a collection of parts, you'd have noticed!" Rubber Maid added.

Sid barely noticed their responses. He had something important on his mind. He approached a side path of bare dirt, looked around to make sure no-one was watching, then ducked down it. After a few paces he turned left and pushed through some hanging brush. Those he was meeting were already there.

"You got it?" said Leon, eagerly.

Sid smiled as he produced several folded, slick flyers.

"It's a cruise line targeted to single men," said Sid, handing out the brochures. "It's like Carnival Cruise crossed with Hooters by way of Vegas."

"Hah!" said Leon, leering at the images. "Talk about a stacked deck!"

Mack smacked him playfully on the back of the head. They were in a sort of little cubby surrounded by vegetation, not far from the boy's dorm. A semi-secret meeting place for older male students who wanted some privacy.

"Ow," said Leon, reflexively, not taking his eyes off the images. "So, are we good?"

These two new students were part of the group which didn't believe in costumes, masks or mask names. Wolfman Mack didn't wear those things, either, and his "mask name" was simply a descriptive nickname. They were a natural clique.

"Yeah," said Mack, with a wolfish smile. "I think we're good."


* * *


"Some of the younger kids are building a treehouse," said Template, with a smirk, as she sank into the beach chair. "There are adults and older kids helping. Mainly by keeping the gadgeteers away."

"Meanwhile, Chestnut and some of the other bricks are playing volleyball with a wrecking ball," said Andrea, laughing. "I made them put up biohazard tape, and made sure they had plenty of room."

After dealing with the would-be kidnapers they had rushed to catch up with island events. Mainly to ensure nothing important had escaped their attention while they were preoccupied. Now, sitting in the shade on the small patio outside Andrea's office, they were taking a few minutes to share what they had learned.

"We need a yellow hazard tape for 'Not safe for anyone not physically superhuman,'" said Template, with a tired smile. She stretched and groaned. "Ow. I never realized just how much of a woman being pregnant affected. Which is pretty much everything. There have been times when my teeth have hurt."

"Most women don't realize that, until it happens to them," said Andrea, sympathetically due to having two children of her own. "Though I imagine being a super brings entirely new complications."

"That's what the doctors are telling me," said Template. "Though fortunately, I've managed to avoid most of them. So far. Even my powers aren't affecting the baby. As long as he's inside me, he shares my powers, and my immunity."

"I hate to ruin the mood, but... I never did hear any details of what happened to you in..."

"It's all right," said Template, with a dismissing wave. "It was pretty harrowing at the time but in retrospect it's almost funny."

She sighed, and smiled tiredly.

"I was shopping for clothes in civilian garb, using my Susan Platt ID." She gestured at her belly. "Since I can't change back until this is over I couldn't be Randy, and I needed to try things on anyway. I found what I was after, and a few other things, and was walking across the parking lot to a secluded spot where I could fly away without being noticed. These three government vans came wheeling into the parking lot. I tried to get out of the way, but they were specifically heading right for me."

"Oh, my God..."

"Yeah. They cut me off and surrounded me. Two of them had antennas on the roofs and we later found super detectors inside. Guess they spotted me flying in, and I had just turned my flight back on to leave. Anyway, I was caught flatfooted, and before I could do anything they piled out and zapped me."

"With neutralizers?"

"Yeah. New models, much more compact, like portable TV news cameras. I didn't even realize what they were until I saw the glow. Then I collapsed. Several of them came over and started literally dragging me to the third van. The door was open and I could see that it was lined with neutralizers. I started screaming for help. The first thing out of my mouth was 'Please don't hurt my baby!'"

Andrea squeezed Template's hand. Despite her earlier words, the super looked like she was close to tears.

"They almost had me inside when a man jumped between me and the van, angrily yelling at them to stop."

"Who was it?"

"I don't know, but he deserves a medal. He also wasn't the only one. Turns out every father within earshot literally came running, including one guy in his eighties.

"The feds tried bluffing, but those men weren't hearing it. The feds tried getting physical, and started a brawl they lost badly."

"Ow. Trained federal agents taken out by a group of fathers."

"Oh, they weren't federal agents. Just workers for the local INS office, given a field job. Not only did they not have a warrant, they weren't LEO."

"Wow," said Andrea, astounded.

"Yeah. The local cops really didn't like that. Neither did the judge who got the case. Those guys are being held without bail, and will probably face multiple charges of kidnapping, since they had their logs in the vans. Their agency - a local branch of INS - denied they worked there, but those guys had their IDs on them and the vehicles were registered there. Turns out they were responsible for several disappearances and assaults in that area. Unfortunately, by the time police got to their holding facilities they were empty, except for security guards who had to be forcibly restrained from blocking entry."

"My God..." said Andrea, astounded. "Not just that they would do something like that, but that they would be so incompetent at it!"

"They had no idea who I was," said Template, grimly. "They detected a double super signal, spotted me, realized me being pregnant explained the odd signal, and decided to collect me for study. Their bosses are now insisting this was in the interest of national security and that the local government has no right to interfere."

"Incredible," said Andrea, obviously stunned.

"The local media picked up on it, with video from two cell phones of the assault, but most weren't properly outraged. Some were even hostile to me, the fathers and the cops, saying they were interfering with lawful federal operations. The national medial is ignoring this and similar events."

"The arrogance!!!" said Andrea.

"Which pretty much sums up this whole business," said Template, sourly. "However, nearly every single response from the public has been against the feds. People of all types are outraged they'd treat a pregnant woman that way. Most of the few who supported the feds were such obvious anti-super bigots - one advocated forced abortion of all pregnant supers, to prevent us from 'taking over' - that they evoked a strong backlash response. Now they've made everybody not a fanatic leery about supporting such views."

She sighed, and stretched again. Then lifted out of the chair into a low hover.

"I think I'm going to go lie down."

"Well, you are on light duty," said Andrea, smiling. "Go nap. We know how to reach you."


* * *


"I feel rotten," said Template, sitting with a groan. She took her booties off, with some difficulty, and sat back, wiggling her toes inside her costume's integral socks. "My feet hurt. Why do my feet hurt?! It can't be the extra weight; not only am I flying more than walking these days, I have Class Nine Hundred strength!"

"Evolution," said Colossa, wryly, as she knelt to gently rub her lover's feet. "Make a pregnant woman miserable so she'll stay safe in the den and out of trouble."

"It's only biology," said Template, as if reciting a mantra. "It's only biology."

She awkwardly managed to bend over far enough to kiss the top of her spouse's head.

"I am so glad you can spend a few days here."

"Me, too. Although I'm having sympathy cravings."

"Heh. At least I'm following the family pattern. Nothing really unusual, just lots of it."

"Your doctors are all pretty surprised you haven't put on more weight, given how much you're eating. They don't know how much you burn off, doing what you do here."

"There is that," said Template, with a tired laugh.

"Well, with your niece's help I've got your evening meal ready."

"You're so good to me," said Template, softly, catching her lover's hand and holding it to the side of her face for a moment.

"Hey, it's my baby, too," said Colossa, blushing.

"You still planning to take off work so you can help with the baby the first few months?"

"Yeah. Share the load. The Intrepids are arranging their schedule so I can spend all my time here for most of a year."

"But I'll have the entire milk duty for at least three years," said Template, sighing again. She shuddered, and suddenly looked as if she were going to cry. "I just don't know if I can do it. I really don't."

"Hey. Even if I were having the baby - and I do want to have at least one - you'd be committed for several years. That's what being a parent is."

"I know, I know. God, I'm tired..."

Colossa grew to double size, bending a bit to keep her head from hitting the ceiling. She lifted Template in her arms and carefully laid her out on the sofa.

"Supper's not for a while, yet. You sleep."

"Thank you," Template muttered, already half out.






Part Two






Paula was constantly amazed at how few people even gave her a second look when she wasn't in costume. Dressing like a normal woman meant that almost no-one connected her with Champion. She was currently wearing a peach blouse and matching skirt, and black flats. Her small, black purse (Purse!) was sitting on the table beside her latte.

Forget masks and the costume discretion, she thought, wryly. All you need is a different hairstyle.

She sat quietly in the coffee shop, reading the paper and having her favorite drink. Being on call twenty-four\seven was draining. Even if the Drs. Piano and Gorgeous hadn't frequently harped on the need to take the occasional break, Paula would have done so. Unlike some of her new teammates.

She looked up as someone entered, and smiled when she saw Carol D'Arsonval.

Carol was assistant manager at a city library branch near the coffee shop. She was one of the few people Paula had met who actually paid enough attention to what was going on around her to connect her with Champion. She had tentatively broached her discovery a few weeks earlier, eventually revealing that she had known for nearly a month before that, but had needed time to build up her nerve.

"So, how is the world, today," she asked, quietly, as she sat across from Paula at the small table.

"Same as usual," said Paula, with a low laugh. "In a big mess."

She found having a "normal" - if well-informed - friend with whom to share views provided a useful reality check.

"And how is the hero business?" she asked, more softly.

"Quiet, just now," said Paula. "We had a big fight three days ago - the Animator spent weeks preparing a major heist, which included having his creations and henchers practice with smaller crimes."

"I read about that," said Carol, nodding. "People were actually joking about the petty thefts and vandalisms, saying he'd sunk to a new low. What was he really after?"

"He'd worked out a deal to supply ammunition and spare parts to a South American nation with old US military equipment," said Paula. "He raided a Navy armory. That's why none of that part of the scheme has been released to the news media, yet."

"Wow," said Carol, fascinated.

"We stopped him pretty easily, in spite of the fact that he'd created a very powerful set of animates. The last two made a stand after we'd dealt with all the others. So, we had Buzz make an apparently suicidal charge, only to veer away as they tried to blast him. Behind him, Rebound reflected their attack back at them, while Sharma added a whammy to make it more effective against them. They both simply evaporated, the way the Animator's creations do once they're beaten.

"Sharma," said Carol, thoughtfully. "She's the one who replaced Dr. Piano, right?"

"Not exactly. She's currently the team mystic, but she's a very different sort from Piano."

"Is it true that 'Toon! is the Animator's son?"

"No, though they are distantly related."

Carol loved this sort of inside information. She was a news and history junkie, rather than a super junkie, though of course supers were often major players in both news and history. Carol wanted to be well-informed, and hearing the inside story of the Assembly's adventures scratched that itch.

"You planning to write a book, or something?" said Paula, teasing.

"No!" said Carol, looking shocked. "I really hope you don't think that's why I ask you about this stuff. It's just that, so much of super history stays with the supers."

"I know that," said Paula, with feeling. "I have been amazed at some of the things I've learned since getting into this crazy business."

Before Carol could say anything more, Paula's cell phone buzzed discreetly. With a sigh, she answered. After a few seconds she hung up, sighing again as she put the phone away.

"Business."

"Good luck out there," said Carol, sincerely.

Within minutes, Paula was in her rally car, speeding to the scene of a crime.


* * *


Template was feeling much better today. A good, home cooked meal, a good night's sleep with her lover cuddled up with her, and a beautiful morning helped greatly with this.

As assistant principal, Template's job mainly consisted of three parts. She substituted for Eve when the principal was busy with something non-routine. She substituted for any of several teachers when they were likewise unavailable. She was also the interface between the management of the school and the running of the island as a whole.

Because of this mix of duties, a typical day could range from lazy to hectic. Often there was no notice ahead of time which it would be.

Just now, though, she was simply the assistant principal. Routine paperwork normally bored her, but given her current state, boredom was just fine.

She checked her calendar, and was relieved to see that there were no more scheduled visits to her family or Colossa's for a while. She hated deceiving them - using a holographic disguise and voice changing module - but there was no way she was going to complicate her life further by letting them know that Randy was not only currently female but pregnant.


* * *


Eve, meanwhile, was dealing with someone who might have been sent by the bosses of the men they had recently arrested. Though he was ostensibly there on different business.

"I don't understand why you won't accept our offer," said Mr. Hengest. Just one of the suspicious things about him was that his clothing was... off. It just didn't fit with his claims. He was also suspiciously pushy for someone supposedly trying to help. "With federal financial support you can cover your budget shortfall. All you have to do is meet our standards."

"I don't care that the school is losing money," said Eve, sternly. "It was not established with the goal of making a profit, something our backers were told up front. Our purpose here is to provide training for young supers. If we have to subsidize the school to accomplish this, that's of little consequence. Since meeting the requirements for the funding you offer would make accomplishing most of the goals of this school impossible, your offer is unacceptable."

"Well," Hengest huffed, "if you won't accept I'm afraid there's a good chance your certification will be revoked."

Eve actually smiled. He was revealing his hand, now, and she knew it wasn't nearly as strong as he thought it was.

"That has already been tried," said Eve, dryly. "So clumsily that the US Department of Education are now determined to frustrate people like you out of sheer spite. Good day, Mr. Hengest. There's an escort in my receptionist's office to show you off the island."


* * *


"Wow," said Template, sinking gratefully onto the couch with a groan. "No major catastrophes today, just the usual minor disasters. Please, tell me some good news."

"Sorry," said Colossa, sourly.

In the small house Template had been assigned for the duration of her pregnancy and early child care period, the two of them usually dressed civilian but continued to use their mask names. Just now she was wearing slacks and sport bra. Unfortunately, Template's sex drive was currently in neutral.

"What happened?"

"US Senator in good standing Walter Thordyce stood up in front of his peers today and announced he had proof that supers are responsible for both the economic downturn and global warming. Meanwhile, President Seivers has denied that any supers are being illegally held."

"God..." said Template, rubbing her temples. "Times like this I think we should force standards on all politicians. Test them for intelligence and honesty. And I mean super tests. Mentalists, gadgeteers and mystics could figure out how, and the rest of us could enforce it."

"You're starting to sound like one of those elitist mask villains," snapped Colossa.

The pregnancy and the complications it had brought to their lives were a burden to Colossa, too. They both knew this, but still couldn't help letting things get snippy, sometimes. Occasionally, they got worse than that.

"We can't keep going like this! We're already ignoring a lot of what the normals try to make us do. Not to mention sometimes having to forcibly ruin their attempts to hobble us."

"Honey, you're scaring me," said Colossa, wide-eyed.

Template started to say something, possibly hateful, but stopped. She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and forced herself to relax.

"I am very sorry," she said, voice tight with barely restrained tears. "It's just... I feel..."

"So do I," said Colossa, hugging her. "So do I."

"I just want to... do something!"

"Think about what single act by supers had the most influence on the Thurlin administration," said Colossa, emphatically, holding the hug and rocking them gently back and forth. "The peaceful demonstration in front of the White House. That event was picked up by every news agency, shown around the world, and generated so much favorable press and letters, calls, e-mails and faxes from constituents that the White House and Congressional mail offices were three days behind!"

"But what long-term good did it do?!" said Template, hotly. "It all faded away after a week!"

"Because once they heard of the impact their protest had, the supers involved shook hands, congratulated each other on a job well done, and went back home."

Template opened her mouth to say something in a loud, angry voice, and froze.

"That's it," she said, after several seconds.

"What's it?" said Colossa, suspiciously.

"Lobbyists."

"Huh?"

"Seriously. We need, well, lobbyists, activist organizations, an anti-defamation group..."

"Supers and politics don't mix."

"Supers as politicians don't work," said Template, firmly. "But in this modern world any group must organize politically if it doesn't want to be buried by those which do."

"Okay, but, how?"

"Still working on that," said Template, frowning in concentration. Colossa pulled back a bit, as she suddenly realized her spouse was in full gadgeteer mode, but thinking about social constructs rather than technical ones. "I'm going to make some calls, talk to people. I really think this could work."

"Okay, but unless you're going to make video calls, get out of your costume, take a shower and eat supper, first."

"You make a great political advisor," said Template, laughing and kissing Colossa's hands.


* * *


"We knew from the start that we would need psychological counseling," said Eve. She threw her hands wide. "We have two psychologists on staff who specialize in gender dysphoria! And a farrier on call!"

"I love it when you complain about such things," said Andrea, stretching and smiling. "It means there aren't any real tragedies happening."

Eve laughed a bit at that. The two of them were sitting in Eve's office, having an informal catch-up session.

"You have a point."

"What do you think of Template's idea for political activism?"

"I think it's drastically overdue," said Eve, seriously. "This sort of thing has been tried before, especially in the late Sixties and early Seventies. But never as a long-term effort. I think it - if done properly - will be very effective."

* * *


In this third year of operation the school was offering classes they hadn't before. Some of them had never been offered anywhere before. An entire new set of courses had been added, essentially providing technical college type instruction in some fields. They didn't have actual certification for teaching at this level, yet, but it seemed assured.

One of the more specialized new classes was Super Tactics. This class was held two days a week, and only for those students deemed likely to go into the hero business. Classes alternated between basic instruction from Captain Hazard and presentations by various super guests. Just now, Captain Hazard was in his office, speaking with this week's guest, partly explaining the sort of thing he taught, and partly just talking shop.

"Most heroing doesn't involve actual hand-to-hand fighting," said Captain Hazard. "That's because of the powers. Criminals - even the majority of super criminals - are almost always petty criminals. They became criminals because they're inept or lazy. They aren't much danger to a super with good training. Police can usually stop them, but it's more dangerous for normals, so they're left to us. Part of what this class does is teach how to tell when to bluff and when to dive in."

"It's true most crimestopping activities don't need violence, but there are exceptions," said the Combatant, pointedly.

"Yes. We do train in both self-defense - normal and powered - and pro-active techniques. This class, though, isn't about fighting techniques, but about fights."

"I think I get it," said the Combatant, nodding. "You talk about the way fights go, and how things could have been done differently."

"That's a large part of it. We also talk about preparing for a fight, both with general training and specific tactics for particular opponents. Oh, and the value of group interaction during a fight."

"That's something the Assembly is very good at," said the Combatant, nodding again. "They're a small team, and work together well. A word here, a gesture there, and they can set up maneuvers on the fly which tag-team opponents who by the numbers they shouldn't be able to take."

"So you think you'll be able to teach our kids anything?" said Hazard, in a teasing but friendly tone.

"I think you better have staff members monitoring my lecture," said Combatant, smugly.


* * *


Template was flying low above the school to make the guest lecture by the Combatant. According to several people he was one of the best super combat trainers in the world, and had something special planned for today. She was very much looking forward to this. While she didn't like fighting, she missed being an active hero, and wanted to be prepared for resuming that life.

Abruptly, the world washed out like an overexposed video for several seconds, as a brilliant light filled the sky. Slowly, that terrifying illumination faded. While it was still so bright as to prevent normal sight from working properly, a hammer blow struck, seeming to drive the whole world downward. This came with sound, something too loud and all-encompassing to be described in detail.

Slowly, slowly, her vision and hearing recovered from the blast. She heard people calling, some screaming.

"What's going on?" Template yelled into her com, on the command security channel.

She had reflexively covered her eyes and curled into a ball - or as close as she could come, given her current state - and pulled her flying back to a hover when the light hit. Now she was gradually resuming normal flight posture and speed, changing direction towards the mountain where the school's command center was located.

"Someone just nuked us!" came the reply. The young woman was speaking clearly, but there was a note of panic in her voice. "Shields held, but with little margin. They topped out at eighty-nine percent. That was no basement fission job, either. Initial readings indicate a custom, high-efficiency fusion job of over forty megatonnes!"

"My God... Where did it come from?!"

"We got a blip, something approaching straight down from outside the atmosphere, fast. We had time for one challenge, then we blasted it. That thing exploded eight klicks up - must have been salvage fused - and it still nearly crashed our shields!"

"Radiation??" said Template, with a sudden pang of fear for the baby.

"Not a problem. The way these shields work, the more energetic the particle or photon, the harder it's repelled."

"Great," said Template, posture sagging with relief as she flew. "Call Junker and link him in a conference call with me, Eve and the security chief. Oh, and the UN liaison."

Someone had just declared war on the school. Template was determined to give whoever that was a response which would make them regret their rash action.






Part Three






"I do not want my class photo to be an autoradiograph!" said Doomster.

"Not a problem," said Albert Flash. "No hard stuff got in through the shield. I'd've felt it."

The assembly had been hastily called, but training and actual experience resulted in near-universal attendance in short order.

"Quiet, please!" said Eve, at the podium on the otherwise empty stage. She sighed, barely thinking in time to turn her head so the microphone didn't pick that up. When she was helping to plan this school she never dreamed she would be in this position so often. "The island and the area immediately around it are not currently in danger. Even the seismic activity the overpressure triggered has subsided. Due to the altitude at which the weapon exploded fallout is not significant. However, several neighboring islands and ships in surrounding waters are in trouble from the initial radiation pulse and shockwave. We are asking for volunteers to help these people."

There was a susurration of sound in the large hall. Most of it was caused by people talking about the tragedy, and whether they would or should do anything in response. However, one small clique saw an opportunity.

"Dude!" hissed Sid, eagerly. "This is, like, the perfect... Thing!"

"If we can get assigned to the Cornucopia," said Mack, a little uneasy at the younger boy's eagerness to take advantage of tragedy.

"Leave that to me," said Leon, not as predatory but still obviously pleased at the situation.


* * *


"Slow down!" Leon yelled, again.

"We've got plenty of time," Mack added.

They were being towed on surfboards by the flying Sid. Mack knew why he was so eager. He had also had visions of buxom young women in revealing costumes - more revealing due to damage received from their travail - who would be very grateful for their help. Only... Mack had been at the school from the beginning, and even though only a bit older than the other two had seen far more action. Both fights and, more appropriately to their current situation, rescue missions.

"Okay, that must be it up ahead," Sid called down. "Yeah, I see the name. Hang on; I'll lift you out and put you down at the front."

"Foredeck!" Leon yelled.

With their surfboards dangling from safety straps, the two non-flyers were roughly hoisted out of the water and deposited on deck in front of the bridge.

"Be careful!" said Leon, angrily. "You dinged my board and almost made me fall!"

Sid looked around, ignoring him. At first glance the ship wasn't badly damaged. There was a lot of broken glass and some bent metal. The smokestack had a distinct kink in it, which was probably why the cruise liner was only making ten knots. Something which told Mack the situation was more serious than revealed by that first glance was that there were very few people around. One of those few was a woman wearing a uniform bikini. She was showing more than the outfit originally intended, due to a broken strap. She also had bandages wrapped around her head and left knee, had numerous very un-sexy bruises and scrapes and smudges, and bore a shell-shocked appearance.

"We're from the Pine Island Academy," said Mack, while Sid tried to reconcile reality with his fantasy. "We're here to help however we can."

"I'll take you to the Captain," said the battered woman.

That worthy was on the bridge, up several decks from where they had landed. As they entered, Mack could see that about a third of the equipment was obviously non-functional. Someone had swept most of the glass - safety-type, fortunately - into a corner. Everyone there had some sort of injury, ranging from minor and untreated cuts to one man who had most of his head wrapped in a bandage.

The Captain seemed a bit startled to see them.

"I was hoping they'd send more people," he said, barely not adding anything about expecting someone older. "We've taken a lot of damage."

"I'm sorry, but so have a lot of other ships," said Mack, sympathetically. "Tell me what help you need and I can let the school know if it's more than we can provide."

"The whole superstructure is damaged," he said, maintaining a proper posture despite the obvious emotional pain in his voice. "The shockwave compressed it, warping just about everything. Most of the doors won't open, so we couldn't even abandon ship if we need to."

He sagged, just a bit.

"She... wasn't designed to take this." He shook himself, and straightened again. "Most of our electronics are out, including all the navigation equipment. We've got one working two-way radio and some receive-only units working."

"Well, stuck doors Sid and I can take care of," said Mack, confidently. "Leon is a probability manipulator. He may be able to help get some of your electronics working. Meanwhile, tell us which doors need to be opened first."

"Excellent. Terri, go get Chief McCallister. Until he gets here, I hate to seem like an ungrateful host but we need to work, so could you please wait for the Chief outside?"

Terri led them out onto a sort of balcony off to the right of the bridge, then limped away.

"I don't think they know what to do with us," said Mack, with a bit of dark humor.

"Dude," said Sid, quietly, as he watched the injured woman hurry off. "This is totally unsexy."

"Shut up," said Mack, actually snarling. "We're here to help these people."

"No way," said Sid. "I'm outta here."

"What?!" said Mack, outraged. As he turned he saw the other take to the air and fly away. Furious, barely keeping himself from changing, he glared at Leon. "You leaving to?"

"No, I'll stay," said the younger boy, though he swallowed nervously.

"Good. Planning a prank is one thing. Chickening out on a rescue mission is another. He's probably out of the school."

"That means he goes to juvenile," said Leon, alarmed.

"His choice," said Mack, growling it.


* * *


"People are already blaming us for this," said Andrea, at the late staff meeting that evening.

"One thing in our favor," said Security Chief Lori Savage. She'd only been on the job for a few months, but was a top professional and had already greatly improved the island's defenses on several levels. "The blast was so big that those most affected - well, besides us - felt it was directed at them. That won't last, of course, but for now is giving us some leeway."

"For all we know someone else might have been the target," said Eve, a trace of hope in her voice.

"No, not a chance," said Junker, vigorously shaking his head. "That thing came straight down towards us."

He started to say something else, but was interrupted by his com. He excused himself and took the call. While the others held a subdued conversation around him, he listened and read his display, occasionally asking a question. He seemed increasingly thoughtful, and sat in silence for a bit after he hung up. Everyone else in the room looked at him expectantly.

"This is bizarre," said Junker, continuing to stare at the downloaded data after ending the call.

"Someone just tried to nuke us," said Template, sharply. "I'd say it was well beyond bizarre!"

"No, look at this." He turned his com - which was actually a very capable palmtop computer - around for them to see the display. "The radiation signature, the radioisotope analysis, they show that the design of the bomb was, well, archaic."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Okay. Back in the late Fifties and early Sixties the US and the Soviet Union - and probably others - built a bunch of table thumpers. That is, very large, one-off devices to be used only for propaganda purposes. I'd have to check, but I think the largest was something like sixty megatonnes. There were rumors of bigger ones planned or even built but not tested. Most actual weapons were much smaller, but a few were only a bit smaller. This thing must have been physically one of the biggest in the inventory when it was built. That means not only did it have a big yield, but contained little flourishes not seen in operational weapons until a decade or two later."

"You think this could have been one of those?" said Template, puzzled. "Wait, could it have been meant to be stored in orbit, but something went wrong, they lost it, and it just..."

"No. Impossible. Nuclear bombs require maintenance to remain functional. This one was maintained or - more likely - brought out of storage and refurbished just for this attack."

"But... wouldn't someone who intended harm to the school have used a more modern weapon?"

"A series of them, more likely, but that's only possible if you're talking about an actual modern arsenal. Something only a few nations have. Current weapons are more accurate and therefore smaller in both physical size and yield. I think that whoever is behind this had just the one or at most a few weapons to hand, and simply used what was available."

Template whistled.

"So... Someone decided to attack us, looked to see what they had for the job, and... Who in the world would have such a thing?!"

"You'd be surprised," said Junker, sourly.

"So. Is this an organization, a mastermind, or some mad genius?" said Lori.

"A mad genius would build his own bomb. A government would use several smaller modern ones. This was a propaganda weapon, following known design parameters characteristic of either a Soviet device from the mid-to-late Sixties or a Chinese device from the early-to-mid Seventies. It was just very, very large."

"That actually narrows it down a bit," said Lori, thoughtfully. "There can't be that many individuals or small groups who had the opportunity to obtain such a device, the facilities to store it against future use, the patience and longevity to continue protecting it, the desire to use it, the technology to put it back into operational condition, and the capacity to deliver it."

"Not more than a score of them, in this crazy world," said Template, bitterly.

"There's something which may be connected to this," said Eve, frowning. "You may recall the Assembly foiling a raid on a military storage center a few weeks back. The ostensible reason was to steal ammunition and spare parts for the military of a South American nation hostile to the United States. However, when she heard about the attack on the school Champion called me directly to let me know that the attacked armory also has a section with an inventory of nuclear weapon parts. No bombs, as such, but the components needed to make them active. Some of them dating back to the Sixties."

"Whoa," said Andrea.

"The Assembly don't know what, exactly, is missing. The Navy refuses to even acknowledge that secure room exists. However, it had obviously been broken into, and just as obviously looted in a specific way. By party or parties unknown."

"Did the Animator know about this?" said Template.

"No. He's outraged that someone took advantage of his heist. Especially now that he's facing more serious charges for unspecified violations of national security."

"We're dealing with a true master planner, here," said Lori, seriously. "Someone who learned about - or, more likely, arranged - the raid."

"That does narrow it," said Junker, nodding. "The time between the theft and the attack here would be accounted for by transporting the components and modifying them - or the bomb, or both."

"Then I want a list of all current and past masterminds likely to have instigated such a plot," said Eve. "Don't worry about motive for the moment. Focus on means, opportunity and modus operandi. Find someone with both the resources and the inclination to mount such an attack, and we will ask them why when we find them."


* * *


Mack and Leon got back to their dorm well after dark. All students doing rescue work had been exempted from the usual curfews, so that was not a concern. Something - or someone - else was. While the exhausted probability manipulator went straight to his room, Mack had a stop to make before hitting the shower and then the sack. They'd actually done a lot of good on the cruise ship, but his sense of accomplishment was tempered by a sense of betrayal.

Mack threw open the door to the room and flipped on the light. He didn't care that he woke Sid's roommate.

"You ditched us," said Mack, in a deceptively calm voice, as Sid sat up and rubbed his eyes. "We had to call for a pickup."

"Oh, grow up," snarled the younger teen.

"No, you grow up. You'll probably be kicked out of the school for this..."

"You'd rat on me?!"

"I don't have to," said Mack, tiredly. "The school logs all arrivals, which you'd know if you ever paid attention. Whatever the school does, Leon and me are done with you."

He turned and walked out, leaving the light on and the door open.






Part Four






At the mountain base of the Assembly the next day, all the active members were present in the main meeting room, waiting for a guest. They filled the time until her arrival with small talk. Though some of it wasn't so small to those involved. Their current Chair was Champion by unanimous vote. She had been elected shortly after Dr. Piano announced he was going on reserve status to pursue personal matters. Even before that, she was the de facto head of most operations.

"I wish Carol weren't so... straight," said Champion, sighing.

"I thought you turned that off," said Maciste, puzzled.

"If I leave it off I tend to be... unmotivated," said Champion, with another sigh. She shrugged and gave a wry smile. "Lucille explained that just about all motivation in animals is tied to reproduction. Which means sex."

"So sex really is behind everything," said Buzz, with a snort.

"It's good you have a mundane friend," said Sharma, as usual sounding slightly spacey.

"Trust me, she's far from mundane," said Champion, with a fond smile. "But she is only a friend. Ah, well... Back to the business of the moment. The Pine Academy is sending Template to talk to us about what we found at the Navy armory. We all had a look in that room before security chased us out, so we all need to speak with her. Between us we may have an important clue and not even know it."

There were no problems with that. At least, none which were voiced. Champion had met Template twice before, and for some reason the woman made her uneasy. She figured it was the pregnancy. Champions were usually infertile, but as a former man the idea of having a baby growing inside her...

Lucille had actually worked with Template, though only briefly. She had, however, heard almost entirely good things about her. Her main shortcoming was a sort of ruthless sense of righteous wrath. Which Champion well knew was something needed to deal with some situations.

Template arrived on schedule. As was the case with so many people with very high level superhuman strength, she didn't have bulky muscles. She was obviously in good shape, with definition which showed even through the layers of her outfit and the deceptions of the costume discretion. She moved like a dancer, despite being seven months pregnant. The subdued greys and blues of her costume, like the different colors of Champion's, spoke of a professional attitude towards heroing. Though Champion definitely questioned the cape...

Greetings were exchanged and introductions made where necessary; then they got to business. The session was long and tense, with only two breaks. Champion could definitely understand why the veterran super was being thorough; she and everyone on that island had nearly vanished in a flash of nuclear fire. Of course she was taking it personally. However, while she was intense, she was also as professional as her uniform. When it was over they were all tired, some of them actually close to exhausted. Little which was new had been uncovered, but at least Template had heard it first-hand.

"Thank you," she said, finally, pushing herself back from the meeting table. "I don't know yet if this is even connected, but it is definitely appreciated."

She sighed and looked irritated.

"It would help if the Navy would give us an inventory of what's missing. We don't even know if parts were taken for more than one bomb."

"Navy Materiel Command has flatly denied that storage building even exists," said Champion, sourly. "No inside contacts can get anything, our appeals to both military and civilian authorities have been ignored."

"Our lawyers have filed a FOIA, but that could take years to work out even if they don't just Homeland Security us," said Gorgeous, sourly.

"Maybe someone at the school can come up with a quicker way," said Template, nodding. As if she had already thought of something. "Oh, Doctor, before I leave I'd like to talk to you about a project I'm working on..."

* * *


That evening a figure dropped out of the night sky towards the the recently robbed storage facility. The damage had been repaired, security systems not only restored but upgraded. The intrusion did not go unnoticed. In fact, alarms sounded and lights came on while the person was still too high to see with unaided vision. Guards scrambled towards the fenced-in area.

Revealing a detailed knowledge of the supposedly secure facility, the figure crashed through the sturdy roof of one particular structure.

The very stringent security installed in that building meant that by the time the guards were able to enter the intruder was on the way out. Shots were fired, most missing, those which hit causing no noticeable effect.

Even before that, though, the senior security officer saw on cameras inside the building just what was happening. The figure even turned, once, and stared directly at a camera, leaving no doubt.

"Energex," said the man, feeling faint.


* * *


"You took a big risk," said Eve, after Template had delivered her report. "Even discounting the physical one to you and the child, what would have happened to the school if you had been caught?"

"We had to know what was taken," said Template, defensively. "I had my space suit on with a jumpsuit over it, and was using the holographic emulator. They may have had sensors which could tell there was a hologram, but Junker tells me that even then they would only have known it wasn't Energex."

"I'm not criticizing," said Eve. "Something needed to be done, and you got away with it. Now, what did you find?"

"They had a paper inventory there," said Template, smiling tightly. "An old one, dating back to the early Sixties. I used super speed to compare it with what was actually on the shelves. There were enough parts missing to refurbish at least half a dozen bombs. If they can get enough radon."

"Five more weapons," said Eve, shivering. "By the storms of Olympus, Zeus, himself, never was so profligate with destruction."


* * *


Paula was on the way to the coffee shop when she saw Carol striding purposefully towards her, heading her off. Paula's smile faded as she saw Carol's expression. The librarian literally shoved her into an ally and slapped a newspaper into her hand. She then put her own hands on her own hips, and glared. Confused, Paula unfolded the paper and read. It was an official publication for a radical feminist organization. A photo of Champion was on the front page.

"'Champion endorses freedom from theological tyranny,'" she quoted. "'Hero and strong example for all females says women have grown beyond the need for religious patriarchy. "God isn't in the details. She is in all women."'"

The article went on to quote a diatribe against every major religion, and several minor. She looked up at Carol.

"What is..."

"Do you have any idea how this will be used against women in areas where there actually are restrictive religious patriarchies?!"

"I didn't..."

"It's easy to be a strong woman when you're superhuman!" Carol shouted. "Try doing it when you're normal! Especially when your whole country fanatically believes in keeping women pregnant and wrapped in layers of cloth!"

"That's not..." Paula shook her head. "Why are you angry with me? I'm not the one making these claims. I have always kept away from politics."

"Politics?!" said Carol, even louder, now. "Politics?! You think the rights of woman are mere politics?!"

"Stop twisting things around!" yelled Paula, actually overpowering the other woman through sheer volume of voice. "I wasn't talking about human rights and you know it. I was talking about how these people have - without my permission - made me into a figurehead for their organization. They're trying to politicize me and I don't even know any of them!"

"You're not affiliated with them in any way?"

"No! And I never said any of these things!"

Carol was now the one who looked confused. Before she could say anything else, Paula hurried on.

"Look, this is the first I've heard of this. I definitely plan to learn more. Like who is putting words in my mouth. Damnit, my powers come from a supernatural source! A matriarchal one!"

"I didn't know that," said Carol. She shook her head. "Wait, what..."

"The Goddess of the Arcadians. I saved the life of their main priestess."

The librarian suddenly looked very uncomfortable.

"That's... spooky. Oh, and I'm very sorry I flew off the handle like that."

"No problem," said Paula, looking angry, now, herself. "You were right to be outraged at this. I'm outraged at this."

"So, uh..."

"No afternoon snack today. This is more urgent. Hopefully I can be there tomorrow."

"Good luck."


* * *


Two days later saw yet another meeting between members of different super hero teams. This time, though, it was a video conference. The school was coordinating, since they had the latest and best equipment. A few institutions had needed to install hastily delivered upgrades to their scramblers before being allowed to participate. Once the reason for the conference was known, the reason for the security precautions was understandable.

"We have uncovered the culprit behind the theft of nuclear weapon components, and the subsequent attack on the school," said the Black Mask. "I want to note up front that we had to violate several local, state and federal laws to obtain the necessary information. Many government agencies are still overtly working against any super activities, and few of them are openly cooperating."

His sense of the dramatic couldn't be faulted. He knew how to build suspense, and not to try and keep it high for too long.

"Sung," said the Black Mask. He appeared to have tasted something sour.

"Nobody's heard from him in decades," said the Guardsman, startled.

"Dr. Piano told us he was being held in stasis by the Irregulars, the most persistent non-team in history. They captured him in seventy-seven, and simply held him. At that time they consisted of Dr. Piano, Galtio - younger brother of Queen Tolnar, who worked with them for a few months - Hyperion and Psion the Seer. His detention was illegal, of course, but I doubt anyone who knew Sung would have protested. The problem is, when their base was overrun by government forces, the feds freed Sung."

"In the name of sanity, why?!" said Tiger, throwing his arms up.

"He was being held illegally," said the Black Mask, looking disgusted. "I honestly believe that none of those responsible for his 'rescue' even knew who he was. They just knew he was a captive of superhumans, so they freed him. Even gave him an orientation class and some start-up cash. Then he vanished. A year and a half later, he nukes a superhero school."

"I knew they had raided the old base," said Piano, from the Assembly's facilities. He was a reserve member these days, but definitely still kept his hand in. "The base hadn't been used in decades, but several of us associated with the Irregulars kept it in operational condition, in part because of Sung. I don't know why federal agents targeted it when they ignored many active bases. I suspect some personal factor was involved, someone who had a grudge against the Irregulars.

"As soon as I could I visited the facility and surveyed the damage. Several dangerous things besides Sung were missing. One reason I formed the Assembly was because of that. Though I have managed to recover nearly all of the other missing items - some with the help of the Assembly - I heard nothing of Sung until shortly before the raid on the armory. Some of my contacts informed me that a few of his old enemies had mysteriously disappeared, some of his former operatives were missing, and activity had been reported in areas where he was suspected to have hidden resources. Bits and pieces which would mean nothing to someone not specifically looking for Sung."

"I hope you have more than that to go on," said the Guardsman.

"Yes. With those leads, and able assistance from several allies both inside and outside the super community I was able to connect between Sung's last known appearance in Virginia and these new activities. While much of his activity in the past sixteen months remains a mystery I definitely confirmed that he was assembling a force of agents and operatives. For funding he's using gems, precious metals, stored drugs and other valuables, dipping deep into reserves... some of them put away for future need more than half a century ago. Sung has also contacted a number of other masterminds and technical geniuses. He may even have a connection with Dr. Gaunt."

"He wouldn't have acted until he thought he was ready," said the Guardsman, thoughtfully. "That means he considers himself capable of hiding from us, and defending against us."

"We need to put all hero teams in the world, as well as T.O.W.E.R., Interpol and anyone else we can think of, on alert," said the Black Mask.

"Indeed," said Dr. Piano.






Part Five






"No reports of radon thefts," said the Black Mask. "Sung couldn't have stored it; the half-life is too short. That's one reason old nukes have to be kept maintained. We have no idea where he got enough for the nuke he used; maybe he combined everything he had left."

"I don't understand why his old bases weren't found and destroyed," said Template, angrily.

"Some were. Others were used by his more ambitious lieutenants for their own schemes. Remember, though, he was in operation for over thirty years, and was very successful except for those instances where he confronted western supers. While his primary bases are almost certainly all unavailable to him now, he just as certainly has depots and safehouses as yet undiscovered. With no-one aware he was loose, or not taking a villain from thirty-plus years ago seriously if they were, he would essentially have had a free hand to rebuild."

"It's like a mastermind's dream," said Template, stunned, as she took in the situation. "He has his full faculties and ambitions and a big seed to facilitate them, years after everyone stopped looking for him."

"He's only had about a year," said Bowman. "His history is that he always acts too soon. Over and over. He gets impatient. Which is weird for someone who otherwise shows a huge amount of foresight."

"It's typical, though," said the Black Mask. "Overconfidence is a common partner to a mastermind's ambitions."

"So, why bomb the school?" said Template, tapping her pen on the table and scowling. "Why use such a valuable resource on us, and let everyone know he's back?"

"I think that was the reason," said the Night Master. "The school may simply have been chosen to create the most outrage. This was his wake-up call to the world, telling us he's back."

"Okay, this analysis is good, but what does it tell us about how to stop Sung?" said Template, sounding a little desperate. "What can we do about this guy?"

"I won't say that every hero team on Earth is dropping everything else to deal with this," said the Night Master, a bit wryly, "but the situation isn't far from that. We've even had some criminal organizations offer to help."

"I guess they don't want the competition," said Bowman.

The meeting was just the three of them, in a small, little-used room at the Intrepids' base. While general organizing of the effort to find and stop Sung was being done over the secure communications network, details - especially newly uncovered facts - were being distributed by fast flyers and speedsters. Template was not supposed to be a part of this, due to her condition, but had insisted on taking the latest news to the Intrepids.

"So far, press reaction to the attack on the school has been mixed," said the Night Master. "Especially since public opinion is, roughly, 'Stop talking about supers! Someone set off a nuke!'"

"As Rapscallion puts it, half the media is for us, half is agin' us, and the biggest half is ignoring us."

"We're taking it seriously," said Template, firmly. "That's what's important."

"Speaking of the media, so far the press hasn't noticed the efforts to create a formal special interest group for supers," said the Night Master. "That's almost certainly a good thing. The longer we can go before they do notice, the longer we can go without serious complaints."

"And threats to lock us all up for doing what normals do," said Template, sourly. She looked back and forth between them. "Is this a good idea? I know the tradition has been for supers to stay out of politics, but given the current situation..."

"The problem is that sometimes politics won't stay out of your life," said the Night Master. He put a reassuring hand on her arm. "This is, indeed, the right thing to do, for this time. I was actually contemplating something similar. When I heard your suggestion, though, I realized that you are a much more sympathetic character. For both supers and norms."

"Taking advantage of my current state," said Template, wryly.

"We need to use what weapons we have."


* * *


Despite the seriousness of both the political and criminal situations, things were not all doom and gloom.

"You're serious," said Paula, not sure whether to fall prostrate or run screaming through the base, so instead simply sitting there.

"I've had it confirmed by the Seer of Vienna," said Sharma. "If all parties are agreeable, the burden of being a champion may be transfered to another for far less effort than creating or removing a champion."

"Of course," said Paula, with a sudden, sobering thought, "even if the Goddess agrees, I still have to find someone."

* * *


As she walked down the street, Energia caught a glimpse of her reflection in a store window. She couldn't help but smile. Thanks to a recent growth spurt, she'd stopped putting lifts in her boots and padding in her top and bottom. Well, as much padding. She still hadn't finished filling out, but was very pleased with her progress so far. Sure, she was never going to be as naturally curvy as people like that bimbo Allessandra, but if she wanted to look more buxom she would just stuff her top more. If her mother would let her...

She enjoyed walking around in public in costume like this. Some people recognized her, some just looked puzzled. This made her feel like both a known hero and a mystery woman. Most folks simply looked (or stared) but kept their distance. Some even hurried away, appearing vaguely worried or uncomfortable. A few of the people she encountered actually spoke to her; some asked if she was Energia, and were pleased when she said yes. A couple had confused her with another teen super. Some asked what she was advertising, and were confused when she said she wasn't. Some - not all men - made passes. Three had received wake-up shocks for getting friendly without invitation. There were times when she especially appreciated her powers. Just now, though, she needed to get her mind back on business.

Since the staff at the school was so busy with more serious matters, some tasks were being delegated to the most experienced students. Energia had been asked to speak to a young super who was causing problems due to the nature of her powers. Or maybe it was power. Like Blue Impact, her body had been altered by her super genes, once they activated. Unlike Blue Impact, this girl couldn't easily hide her change.

After asking around a bit she found her target in a downtown mall. Energia had been startled at the reactions of some of the people she spoke with. Many felt she was there to arrest the girl, and were very glad of that. A couple even complained that "something hasn't been done about her" sooner. When asked why, they made vague accusations, often including some variation of "being weird."

The local cops had informed Energia that the girl was guilty of several misdemeanor offenses, due to lashing out in anger or frustration. No-one had been seriously hurt in any of those events. She had been charged with several more serious crimes, but each time a court had determined that the "crime" had either been an accident, or someone being offended by what she was, rather than what she had done.

Energia found Hazel Fuentes working in a sports equipment store. Which of the employees was her target was obvious. As described, she looked like she was made of metal. Specifically, dull-finished iron. She was a tall woman in her late teens, wearing shorts and t-shirt, like the other employees, but hers were very loose. Also obvious was that she wasn't wearing anything under the t-shirt. Well, Energia had to admit she had the body for it. Her bare, metal skin showed rippling muscles, including a distinct six-pack.

There was a bit of a stir as Energia entered. Hazel didn't notice until Energia was almost to her, and then started, and looked worried.

"Hazel Fuentes? I'm Energia," she said, holding out her hand.

This seemed to confuse her. She stared for a moment, then hesitantly took Energia's hand. From experience, Energia knew that most super-strong supers had skin which felt normally soft, up to a point. This was like shaking hands with a statue, except warm. Almost uncomfortably hot, in fact.

"I'm from the Pine Island Academy. We were notified that you are eligible for membership, and may be eligible for financial assistance to help you attend."

"Wait... The which academy?"

Her voice sounded odd, flutelike. Less metallic than musical.

"We're a school for young supers. Non-profit, accredited by several governments but not associated with any of them, on an island near Bermuda."

The iron woman tried to speak several times, but nothing came out. Finally, she shook her head. And became angry.

"If this is some sort of joke, you're in big trouble!"

"Joke?" Now it was Energia's turn to be confused. "I'm a student at the academy. I fly pretty fast and the instructors are busy right now, so they asked me to come and ask if you want to attend."

"This is serious," said Hazel, not quite sure she believed it.

"Yes. Someone told us about you, and that you'd had to drop out of high school, and..."

"Drop out of high school," she said, sighing and running a hand through her wiry hair. This made an odd sound, like brief snatches of stringed instruments playing. She dropped her hand and scowled. "I was kicked out. They said they didn't have the funds for my 'special needs.'"

"Well, I'm pretty sure we have people with needs more special than yours," said Energia, with a nervous laugh.

The woman glared at her.

"I weigh over half a tonne. I can only digest metal, and drink water or some solvents."

"We have at least one other student that heavy, and he often snacks on alfalfa," said Energia. "Not the sprouts. The hay. Another student has to drink fresh blood about every day. One of our teachers weighs about half as much as you, but she's smaller."

This matter-of-fact recitation of information left Hazel staring.

"This... this is all real," she said, numbly.

"People like you are one of the main reasons they established the school."

"How old are you?" said Hazel, suddenly.

"Sixteen."

"Do your parents know you're running around dressed like that?"

This wasn't the first time she'd been asked such a question.

"Yes. They make sure I don't wear anything too revealing."

Oddly, Hazel started pacing. She seemed very agitated.

"You know my parents are dead, right?" she said, starting to gesture, then abruptly pulling her hands in tight to her sides. She had obviously learned to be careful.

"Uhm, yes," said Energia, quietly.

"They died in the same accident which triggered my powers."

Energia nodded.

Something seemed to occur to her; she abruptly stopped, and spun around to stare at Energia.

"Wait. Is this that place which got nuked last week?"

"Almost nuked. Our shield held. I won't promise that it's perfectly safe, but we haven't had a student even seriously injured, yet."

Okay, that might have been stretching things a bit, but Energia was trying to sell the school, not go into details about its failings.

"Shield? No, never mind. God, I can't think."

"Listen, I don't want to pressure you, but the person who told us about you also warned that some folks in the local government were planning to take action against you, for running around naked."

"Look at what I'm wearing," said Hazel, sourly. "I can't put on anything too tight or it tears when I move. I don't even feel it. I can't sit in a chair, so it's either use the floor or stand. When I pee it looks like runoff from a junkyard, and my crap looks like finely ground wet scrap, and with either I have to squat because if I sit on a toilet I break it."

"We have people who love to build special equipment," said Energia. "Including furniture. You'd have a room full of stuff designed to work with you. They'd even make clothes you can wear."

She reached around, grabbed the hem of her cape and held it up.

"Here. This isn't the toughest super fabric, since I'm not super strong, but I've never been able to hurt it."

Hazel rather doubtfully took a section of the hem between her hands and gave a half-hearted tug. Then looked startled and pulled harder. The fabric stretched, of course, but did not tear.

"That's..." She seemed about to cry. "They can make clothes that won't..."

She actually broke down and began sobbing. Her tears looked like rusty water with a touch of anti-freeze. Energia wasn't certain what to do. Her first instinct was to hug the woman, but she settled for putting a hand on her arm. Then, thinking of something, Energia pulled out a tissue and handed it over.

"Trust me, you aren't the first super with powers requiring special clothes. We've got a student who bursts into flame, as just one example."

"Oh, God, thank you, thank you," Hazel sobbed, dabbing her eyes.

"You have to tell me you want to attend," said Energia, feeling like a heel for pushing that. "If you just tell me that, I'll tell them and they'll start the paperwork. They were planning to invite you for the start of the Fall semester, but if you're having this much trouble I'll see if we can get you in there sooner."

"Yes," said Hazel, almost desperately. "Oh, God, yes. My job is okay, my boss and the other employees are fine people, but the rest of this city... Get me out of here."






Part Six






"Welcome to the Keep," said Harris, sourly, as he and the others aimed their portable floodlights around the underground chamber.

"My God..." said Champion, voice a stunned whisper.

"What hit this place?" said Dr. Gorgeous, as they looked at the devastation.

"We're not sure, yet," said Harris, with a tired sigh. He rubbed his short-cropped hair in a gesture of aggravation. "Some sort of dimensional destabilizer, we think. We'll know more later."

"And this happened right after the nuke over the school," said Maciste.

"Less than a microsecond. Best guess of our brains - our surviving brains - is that the blast was intended to cover the signature of whatever generated this. It may even have powered this."

The place had been coarsely homogenized. There was no piece left in the chamber larger than a head. Those larger pieces were... distorted. Twisted. The chamber itself had been expanded out into a perfect, subterranean sphere.

"We lost six people, and have four others injured," said Harris.

"And you're still up and running," said Gorgeous.

"Thanks to most of our computing being performed by a Beowulf cluster distributed through multiple, widely separated nodes, we are still functioning, though at a reduced capacity," said Harris. "We didn't lose any data, either. However, we will need time to actually recover and organize all of it."

"This puts a whole new light on what happened to the school," said Champion, angrily. "Someone bombed them as a... a distraction to keep this from coming to our attention immediately!"

"If you've seen enough, Director Reese wants to talk to you," said Harris. His tone said that he had definitely seen enough.


* * *


"We contacted you, because the Assembly is the nearest reputable super team to our hub," said Reese. "And because the Seivers administration doesn't seem to be taking this attack seriously. I have my doubts they even know what we are."

"I have to admit," said Champion, a bit embarrassed, "I only have a vague idea."

"The Bureau of Extraordinary Measures was established by President Abraham Lincoln to counter Southern applications of supers and supernaturals," said Dr. Gorgeous. "It was and is a clearinghouse for information of a particular type."

"Yes," said Reese, nodding. "While we do have agents who go out and solve problems, our primary function is to gather, organize and analyze information, then disseminate that to whoever needs it. Including supers."

"They are one of the most important sources of information on the strange, the weird and the just plain peculiar on the planet," said Gorgeous. "All supers, of course, fall into at least one of those categories."

"I really hope that in your data recovery project you'll give emphasis to anything known to connect with Sung," said Champion.

"We already are," said Reese.


* * *


"See?" said the Black Mask, pointing to the map he'd brought to the Guild Hall. "The BEM analyzers say that these locations all show new activity. All are known or suspected to be safe houses or storage depots belonging to Sung."

He leaned back and let the others - primarily Dr. Gorgeous - get a good look. While they pondered this, the Black Mask produced a manilla folder with a printout.

"Here is a list of recent activities by operatives with connections to Sung. There aren't many of them still in business. We have clues that he or some of his people have tried to make a few new contacts but nothing solid."

"The fact that he is using old contacts - whom he must know we are aware of - tells me he is in a hurry," said Gorgeous, frowning in deep thought.

"Exactly. Most of his recent dealings appear to be of two main types: Acquiring equipment for repairs or upgrades, as well as new personnel; and cashing in stored resources to pay for all that as well as buying information and influence."

"Any patterns which could tell us what he is after?" said Champion.

"No. No arrests or interrogations have been made; right now we're just watching. So far no-one has actually seen Sung contacting them. He has either been in disguise or worked through operatives. We know Sung must be aware of that we would watch these people and places. There is a great deal of pressure to dive in and talk to these people and search those premises. However, none of the local governments are officially interested in performing or allowing those activities. Most likely due to a high level of bribery."

Buzz muttered something uncomplimentary about those governments.

"Appeals from governments and NGOs who have good relations with the nations where these activities are taking place have garnered only token cooperation."

"What about local supers?" said Maciste.

"All are either patsies of their governments or severely hounded by them."

"So we're stuck with mundane means by government agencies either hostile to our efforts or operating from outside," said Champion, tiredly, "and super means which are also remote from the scene."

"A few supers and independent intelligence operatives are working on the situation," said the Black Mask. "Most of the latter and some of the former being paid by outside law enforcement agencies or super teams to do so."

"Mercenaries," said Champion, her tone scathing.

"Most of them are just people earning a living," said Gorgeous, flatly. "Let's not criticize someone just because they don't put on a mask and work for justice."

"What's the bottom line?" said Buzz. "What do we know and what do we suspect?"

"Sung is planning something big," said the Black Mask, steepling his fingers and looking thoughtful. "That's no surprise. He is always planning something big. This specific plan appears to be aimed at nearly every major nation, including his homeland. Something disruptive, which will allow him to seize power. It appears to be a multi-faceted effort, involving both super technology and Machiavellian scheming."

"Not two years out of hibernation, and already he's planning to take over the world," said Champion, obviously angry. "I'm glad most evil geniuses these days go for less grandiose plans. Like cornering the market with a new computer chip which secretly relays information back to them."

"That was a fun one," said Buzz, grinning.

"Fortunately, there are many people around who remember - and often opposed - the old style of mastermind," said the Black Mask. He smiled. "Including yours truly. We remember the mayhem those people can cause, and how to fight them."

"We're counting on you," said Gorgeous. "You veterrans know how people like Sung think."

"We are definitely working overtime on the problem."

"This makes me think of other such people who might return," said Champion. She shuddered. "They say Professor Death's escape rocket should return to Earth in about thirty years. What if he had a suspension capsule on board? There'll be even fewer of you veterrans then. Who will be able to even notice him in time?"

"Something to worry about later," said Dr. Gorgeous, though those who knew her realized she already was.


* * *


Expelling Sid hadn't been done lightly. Like many, here, he had been given the choice of coming to the island or going to juvenile prison. The latter choice would include being constantly under a neutralizer, something no-one at the school wanted for him. However, given this and several other, much less significant, offenses, the independent board which met for such decisions felt there was no choice. The vote was unanimous.

"You bastards," Sid muttered, as he was led to the terminal connecting to the Sub-Terran tunnels. "You haven't heard the last of this."

"I'm sure we haven't," said the security guard to his right.

Sid's offenses - including those which had led to him being sent here - were non-violent. He wasn't being shackled or kept under a neutralizer. However, all three of the guards accompanying him had equipment for dealing with physically superhuman prisoners. Including one of the new, compact neutralizers. They were also very well trained.

Template stood with Eve and some of the other senior staff, watching Sid and his escorts enter the small building which housed the lift. Sid spared them a scathing look, the turned his gaze back to the doorway.

"No remorse from that one," said Eve. "His main problem was always that he blamed everyone else for his troubles."

"Maybe being powerless in a general population of juvenile offenders will shock some sense into him," said Template. Her tone indicated she though that unlikely.

"How is our latest acquisition doing?" said Eve, as they turned to walk back to the administration building.

"Energia took her some generic super fabric outfits, and said she's never seen anyone so happy to get new clothes. Of course, before this even the slightest bit of carelessness would ruin what she wore, and often leave her showing too much skin. The paperwork is almost finished; she should be on the island in a few days."

"Excellent. I am not a believer in mystical karma, but I definitely believe that helping people brings benefits. This is one more for our tally."

"Just wish some people were more eager to be helped," said Template, glancing back at the lift building.


* * *


"I just wish I had the power to, well, do things," said Carol, wistfully. "The way you and your teammates do."

"What, writing letters and demonstrating isn't enough?" Paula teased.

"It's hard to imagine this Sung guy responding to a letter campaign," said Carol, in a strongly ironic tone.

"Point," said Paula, sighing.

"I mean... There have been a few times when I stood up to someone intent on doing wrong, including once when I physically got in the way of a big, drunk guy who was going after one of our workers. I was terrified every time."

"You did it, anyway," said Paula, impressed.

"Yeah... but... I was most afraid of getting hurt, for no reason. Of being ineffectual."

Paula stared at her. Wondering why she hadn't seen it before.

"Would you?"

"Pardon?" said Carol, who had already gone on to other thoughts.

"If you had the power. Would you endanger yourself? Take the risk, on the chance - a good chance but still not a certainty - that you could help?"

"Hell, yes," said Carol, with determination.

"Damn," said Paula.

"Are you all right? You look pale."

"I feel pale," said Paula. She shook herself "I have a very big decision to make."

"Huh?" said Carol, just starting to realize that their discussion might have more meaning than she had previously realized.

"I... have some very good reasons to want to return to my former life," said Paula, softly, rubbing her hands together slowly. "Don't get me wrong. I love being Champion. But... There are things left undone, unsettled. However, I can't just stop. I have to transfer the mantle to someone else."

"You're offering it... to me?!" said Carol, her voice ending in a squeak.

"Not lightly, believe me. You'd... change. Physically, mentally, you'd probably have to give up your job, figure out how to make excuses to friends and family for vanishing..."

"You're serious," said Carol, feeling rather numb.

"Very. Even if you agree, though, there's no guarantee the Goddess will accept you."

"Goddess?" said Carol, nervously. "I'm Episcopalian. I mean, I don't go to church regularly, but I still..."

"I'm a Lutheran," said Paula, with a grin. "She's a goddess with a small gee. Well, if you're using the word as a description instead of a title. A supernatural being of great power, but who makes no claim to omnipotence. She doesn't even ask her champions to worship her; just follow her rules and represent her to the world. She's a pretty moral type without being fundamentalist. Pretty easy-going, and a supporter of women's rights."

"Damn," said Carol, shaking her head. "To hear you say that... I mean, I knew the press releases minimized how you got your powers, but to hear you come right out and say they're from a goddess..."

"Look, you don't have to make a decision right away," said Paula. She shrugged. "Or you can tell me right now never to mention this again."

"Oh, I'm definitely interested," said Carol, firmly. "Very definitely. Despite the complications."






Part Seven






"I've found my replacement!" said Champion, joyously, as the team gathered for their first briefing the next morning. "Well, she still needs to be approved by the Goddess, but..."

"Hold on!" said Buzz, raising a hand. "What's this about a replacement?"

"Oh, that's right; you don't know," said Champion, with a laugh.

"Perhaps I should explain," said Sharma, leaning forward a bit. "If all parties involved agree, a special dispensation may be granted by the deity responsible for granting the transubstantiation to transfer it from one vessel to another. This requires vastly less etheric disturbance than performing the transfiguration in the formative process. Since all this must be done across dimensional barriers that is significant. It is also easier, for the same reason, than simply removing the mana construct."

Buzz stared blankly at her for a moment, then turned to Champion. Most of the others were having similar reactions.

"Okay, maybe you should explain it."

"What she said," said Champion, innocently. She laughed, and relented. "Basically, if the Goddess agrees, she can move whatever magic it is which makes a champion to someone else. Which is much easier than installing it or removing it in the first place, since any of this has to be done from another dimension."

"Contacting the Goddess will not be easy," said Sharma.

"I've done it before, though under unusual circumstances," said Champion, confidently. "I'll figure out a way. Though I hope you'll help."

"Oh, certainly. I would enjoy the opportunity."

"You realize we'd want to keep you on as an advisor," said Lucille. "For that matter, you would need to train your replacement."

"Yeah," said Champion. "Carol and I already have a vague plan. If the Arcadians agree, they'll provide fake documents saying she's down there, working in their main library. She'll resign from her current job, come here, and start training. Even before the transfer. So she'll have a head start I didn't."

"Wonderful," said Buzz, grinning. "Say, is she that stacked redhead I saw you with the other day?"

"No, Buzz," said Champion, tiredly. "So, with my personal matters out of the way, what's the latest on Sung?"

"A minor breakthrough," said Gorgeous. "We think, now, that he used a one-shot teleporter to simply put the bomb above the island, a little to the east to take into account the Earth's rotation, and let it drop."

"No wonder they didn't detect it until it was very close," said Champion. "Wait. He used a gadget with one application to drop a bomb on the school, then somehow used some of the energy from that to power whatever he used on the Keep... Why not just use the teleporter to put a small bomb inside the Keep?"

"The teleporter probably couldn't deliver something that far underground. It's also possible that the teleporter wasn't one-shot. We have evidence that he left the door open, so to speak, and channeled part of the blast into some sort of magnetohydrodynamic generator. Which would have destroyed the teleporter, the generator and most likely the weapon used against the Keep."

"Really convoluted," said Maciste. "Not to mention bridge-burning."

"And therefore typical of his plans," said Gorgeous. "To Sung, everything is expendable except Sung. We're looking in seismic records and other sensor data to see if we can find the location of the generator."

"Which would be well away from any of his other resources," said Champion, sourly. "And probably already destroyed."

"We are aware of that. But we might be able to find a clue there, despite the damage."

"He'll have left traps," said Champion. "Probably monitors, too."

"Yes, we know that," said Gorgeous. "We're not idiots. We also assume he already knows we're looking for him. The team we pick to go in would only be a small part - if that - of any effort to actually apprehend him."

"So, what do you think his next move will be?" said Buzz. "Unleashing an army of sex-crazed robots based on an exaggeration of Britney Spears?"

"I thought Britney Spears was an exaggeration," said Champion, dryly.

"We're still working on that," said Gorgeous, ignoring the speedster. "Sung - like many masterminds - is easy to predict in general, but difficult in detail."

* * *


"Lemony fresh victory is mine!" said Rubber Made, striking a dramatic pose.

"Wonderful," said Allessandra, rolling her eyes. She looked around the dorm room and nodded. It didn't quite sparkle, but it was definitely very clean. And, yes, had a lemony smell. "So, she gets a ground floor room because of her weight. Likewise, special furniture, which will hopefully be here soon. Because Energia has already gone to meet her at the Sub-Terran tunnel terminal."

"Not bad," said Rubber Made, grinning.

Allessandra smiled and held out her hand. She pushed the concealed button in her ring and spread her fingers. Her staff flew into her palm with a solid smack.

"Well, then. We just need to find the furniture and get it in here."

She flew out the open sliding door and headed up.

At the small lift building housing the elevator to the Sub-Terran tunnels Energia waited patiently. Since the gadgeteers had built specialized vehicles for traversing those ancient excavations, the school used them for almost all transportation to and from the mainland, and a few other places. The greater the distance traveled the more likely the use of air or even suborbital transport, but these days even most commutes between here and Europe and Africa were being made underground. For security reasons as well as safety. Sung was not known to have ever used the ancient excavations. He was also far from the only reason for the precaution.

Energia worried for a bit that the elevator wouldn't be able to handle Hazel's weight, but then remembered that it was also designed for freight. Finally - just about on time, actually - the doors opened and out stepped the iron woman. There were some other personnel with her, but after waving to Energia they walked away.

"Hi!" said Energia, walking up to the bemused-looking newcomer. "Welcome to Pine Island."

"Are you always this bubbly?" said Hazel, who couldn't help but grin.

"Bubbly?" said Energia, confused. "I'm not bubbly. Anyway, sorry for the small reception committee but this is a working school for superhumans so you can see why the staff would be busy. Also, they thought having too many strangers at once wouldn't be good. So; I'm here to give you the tour and then show you to your room."

She didn't mention that the room was last to give people more time to have it ready.

"Bubbly," said Hazel, nodding.

Energia rolled her eyes. Hazel smiled for a moment, then shifted uncomfortably.

"Actually... I need a ladies room first."

"Okay, there's not one between here and the admin building. Oh! I think the first thing they rebuilt in your dorm room was the bathroom."

If the others weren't finished by now, tough.

"That would be great."

"Walk or fly?" said Energia, grinning.

"Fly? I thought you weren't super strong."

"I'm not, but I can lift a locomotive, with my powers."

"I've never flown before," said Hazel, a bit excited. As well as curious as to how the smaller girl would do this.

"Okay. Uhm, I've never lifted a person of living metal before, so let me know if this stings or tickles."

She lifted into the air over the iron woman and focused her power. As usual when lifting metal objects, Energia used a combination of magnetic and electrical fields, oscillating them in accordance to the feedback her powers provided. This time, though, the effect was... unusual.

"Stop! Stop! Stop!" yelled Hazel, frantically.

Energia hastily put her down.

"Did I hurt you?!"

"Oh, God, no," the metal woman panted. "That was, like, the best vibrator ever."

"Eeewww..." said Energia, shying back.

"That's why I stopped you," she said, laughing. "I don't think either of us swings that way."

"Uhm," said Energia, chewing her lip as she thought. "Okay, since you're made of iron I can use a purely magnetic field. Or... How far can you jump?"

"I... don't know."

"Never mind, then. Let my try the magnetism."

Energia took back to the air, and gingerly lifted the iron woman.

"How does that feel?"

"Sticky."

"Huh?"

"That's... the only way I can explain it. It's kinda unpleasant but not really painful."

"Well, walk or fly?"

"Fly. After all that, I really need to go."


* * *


"Well, the baby is healthy," said Dr. Whiskers. She spared Template a brief glare, as the human reclined nearly completely submerged in a tank full of specialized gel. "No thanks to you."

"I was careful," said the patient, defensively.

"Flying all over the world," Dr. Whiskers muttered, as she fussed with something, "breaking into a military base, not getting enough sleep..."

"But she and the baby are both all right," said Colossa, quickly.

"She got lucky. Of course, this whole thing has been a fluke. All three of the doctors involved in this recommended that you fertilize multiple eggs in one go, implant one and freeze the rest for additional attempts, but, no, you said do one at a time. Stupid, sentimental..."

"It worked," said Template, flatly. "Now, can I please get out of this?"

"Awww, I wanted to climb in with you," said Colossa, teasingly.

"Not fair," said Template, sourly. "Even if my libido weren't currently on Low."

"Yes, you can leave the examination tank," said Dr. Whiskers, with an absent wave of her hand. "Colossa, you'll probably want to get some of those towels."

Template - totally naked, hair up in a tight bun - carefully lifted herself until she could stand in the tank of examination gel. The stuff was a technical marvel, conducting ultrasound and aiding in or permitting several other types of non-intrusive scans. She stood, goo sliding down her nude body, while Colossa quickly brought the towels over. The second super - also nude - then enlarged herself a bit to help her mate out of the tank.

"I'm just glad this stuff was warm," said Template, raising her arms as Colossa began wiping.

"You and the fetus are both healthy," said Dr. Whiskers, closing her folder. "Weight and all other factors are within nominal parameters."

"Does that evaluation include my boobs?" said Template, sourly. "Damn, look at how these things have grown!"

"I'm looking, I'm looking," said Colossa, grinning.

"Yeah, but they sag!"

"I like droopy boobs. When they're on you."

"Yes, the expansion is within normal limits," said Dr. Whiskers. She gave brief thanks that her own species didn't go in for exaggerated mammaries.

"What about the genetic analysis?" said Template.

"The same as the first three times," said Dr. Whiskers, a bit testily. "I keep telling you - we all do - that just because you're essentially a surrogate for your own son doesn't mean you change his genes."

"It's just... I don't want him to get the evil genes this form has."

"They're not evil genes," said Whiskers, tiredly. "They are genes associated with certain patterns of behavior common to criminals. They are also commonly found in non-criminals. It takes more than genes, even if you were able to change them in the baby."

"So... Another month?"

"Approximately. If you don't do something foolish in the meantime which triggers a premature delivery."

Template looked down at her now mostly dry body, and sighed. She cradled her swollen belly with her hands.

"Another month."

"Hon, it's just a month," said Colossa, putting her hands on her lover's shoulders. "Now, c'mon; let's get to that shower, so I can give you a real hug."






Part Eight






One of my favorite parts of The Incredibles is when Vi realizes that for the first time in her life she has clothing which works with her powers.







By sundown the new arrival had settled in to her room, special furniture and all. She was de facto host of a welcoming party, though her guests brought all the snacks and drinks, including some tuned to the newcomer's metabolism. Hazel seemed a bit overwhelmed by all the attention, but very pleased by her change in situation. However, people were understandably curious about her. After some initial reluctance, she opened up.

"How did you find out what you could eat and drink?" said Beverly, perhaps due to her own dietary peculiarities. Though now nineteen, she still looked much as she had when she arrived at the school.

"After the accident, while I'm trying to deal with my powers - With turning to metal! - my grandparents made a deal with this research company. They could study me in return for taking care of me. Nobody asked me about it. Now, the company did figure out what I could eat and drink and things like that, but I was pretty much a prisoner. When I told them I wanted to leave, they... made it clear they would use force to keep me. I didn't want a fight. I managed to get word of what happened to the attorney who was handling my parents' estate. He got me out of there. My grandparents haven't spoken to me since. They seem to think I'm some sort of dangerous juvenile delinquent, because I didn't want to be a lab animal, and was angry with them for making me one."

"Were you close to them before?" said Energia, thinking of her own family.

"I thought I was. Looking back, though, their visits were mainly to see my mother. I knew they never liked my father, and I guess they included me in with that, but were courteous and did what was expected of them."

"That's... sad," said Beverly, whose own childhood had been constrained by her father's intentions towards her.

The second thing Hazel had done after reaching her room (and exchanging hurried greetings) was put on her new clothes. The people delivering the furniture and other items had arrived while Energia was meeting the new student, and were actually waiting for Hazel to tell them where she wanted things put. After sorting through the offerings, Hazel chose tights and a tank top, with appropriate underwear underneath. All in her size, to Hazel's astonishment.

A quick tour of the school had followed, with introductions to many other students and some of the staff. Hazel was feeling rather dazed by the time Energia brought her back to her room. She had a couple of hours to rest and find her way around the dorm before more supplies arrived, including food and hygiene equipment. Those were quickly followed by an invasion of others living in the dorm, and the party started. Hazel had actually tried to persuade them to put it off for a day or two, but even Energia had politely but firmly insisted. Hazel yielded, and soon found that she was enjoying herself. Just now, she was sitting on her new bed, occasionally bouncing experimentally. She was the only one heavy enough to make a noticeable dent.

"You'll have to get some regular furniture, for guests," said Allessandra, squirming. "Your chairs are entirely too firm."

"Oh, come on," said Energia, rolling her eyes. She finished heating a bag of microwave popcorn and handed it to Rubber Made to put in a bowl. "They feel just like any hard chair."

"Yeah. Which is why I don't like 'em."

"You should put one of your chairs in the den, too," said Glomahr, pragmatic as usual.

The Bluegrass Elf was arguably the most unusual person in the room, not even barring Hazel. Who had stared upon being introduced. And shied back a bit at the girl's long-toothed smile.

"The staff says if you want to stay for the Summer they'll arrange remedial classes," said Energia. "So you'll be ready to start the Fall semester at a grade level appropriate to your age."

"That would be great," said Hazel. "Are there a lot of students here over the Summer?"

"Yeah. About a quarter of the regular student body. Some of 'em because it's part of their sentence, some because they need the extra schooling. A few because they don't really have anywhere else to go."

"Just like me," said Hazel, quietly.


* * *


Carol was in her second week of training with the Assembly. She hadn't known quite what to expect, and so far had been mostly surprised. Even occasionally baffled. She'd been rather concerned with even the beginning exercises. However, after realizing just how serious and dedicated all the team members were - the entire staff, actually - she had buckled down. While she had a long way to go even to get in good shape for a non-super, she was already making progress. She was also making a good impression with the team members.

Besides the physical training, she was also becoming involved with the day-to-day operations of the team. Fortunately, while Sung was still a major concern, there was little else going on just now which required the team going into action.

"Well, I haven't had any direct communication from the Goddess, but the priestesses in Arcadia say the portents are good," said Champion. She leaned back in her chair, appearing very satisfied. "I will be so glad to get back to being male."

"You were a guy?!" said Carol, startled.

"I hope that's not going to be a problem," said Paula, not worried about her revelation. After all, she - or, hopefully, he - would be staying on with the Assembly after the transfer, so Carol was bound to find out eventually.

"No... but it does explain a few things." She smirked. "Like why you kept sneaking peeks at my chest."

"Peeks for the peaks," said Buzz, leering.

Paula hit him without looking away from Carol.

"Will I be able to do things like that?" said the librarian, a bit envious.

"Sure. With a little practice."

Carol looked down at the groaning Buzz. She smiled. It wasn't a pleasant expression.

"Ohhhhh, yeah..."

"If you are finished with the juvenile displays," said Sharma, "we still need to cover the details of how we handle revealing the new Champion to both the public and our allies."

"Won't I just pretend to be the same Champion?" said Carol.

"You might be able to do that," said Champion. "Maybe not, though. I currently resemble my old self enough to be a cousin. The same may be true for you. Or you could look exactly like yourself, only empowered. In which case you'd probably want to wear a mask."

"Yeah," said Carol, with a sigh. "I don't have any close family still alive, but I do want a private life."

"We may have to wait until after the transfer to find out which of those - or something else entirely - happens," said Dr. Gorgeous.


* * *


"We're moving ahead on the super control bill," said President Sievers, smiling, as her chief of staff joined here while she and her personal aide walked towards the main briefing room at the White House. "Going to discuss the final details at this meeting and present it to the press this afternoon."

"Uhm, bad idea," said Gompers, uncomfortably. He was one of the few people who knew how much his boss wanted to reign in the supers.

"I thought you were in favor of this," said Sievers, startled. "Said it would face little opposition from any quarter."

"Yes, but things have changed. Some of those damned freaks have formed a political action committee, and are lobbying like mad."

"Well, can't we arrest them for interfering with politics?"

"They're not doing anything illegal. And I mean anything. They've got the cleanest operation on Capital Hill."

"But supers can't meddle in politics!" said Howers, speaking for the first time since Gompers had joined them.

"They can, they just normally don't, but given what's been done to them by politicians the past few years I'm surprised they haven't made a move like this sooner."

"My God," said Sievers, feeling faint. "How... can we compete with superhumans who are using one of the few tools I thought were exclusive to us? They'll rule the country after the next election!"

"If they wanted to rule the country, they wouldn't have to wait for an election," said Gompers, wryly. "No, they just want exactly what they say they want. Freedom to live their lives without undue government interference."

"That... That makes no sense!" said Sievers, shrilly. "If they could take over the country - illegally or even legally - why don't they?"

"They don't want to," said Gompers, firmly. "Well, most don't, and the others keep them in line. Partly out of idealism, partly out of realization that if it backfired, they'd be caught in the backblast, too."

"Why are you defending them?!" said the President.

"I'm not. I'm just telling you what's going on and why. They aren't like us. Their goals and methods are different. They're only forming a special interest group because that's the legal way to influence the lawmakers."

"They will not get away with this," said Sievers, her voice almost a hiss


* * *


"I don't get this," said Energia, in Civics class a few days later. "She's in the other party! She should have already undone everything Thurlin did!"

"Most people in power want to maintain the status quo," said Dr. Havers. "They are professionally paranoid, worried that any change will jeopardize their position.

"There's also the fact that she wants to avoid burning bridges with the other party. Instead of standing by her principles, she's letting their work stand. In part because this means she can use the same methods to achieve her own goals."

"I hate politics," said Katastrophe.

"Me, too," said Havers, with a slight smile.


* * *


Hazel heard a knock on the outside door. She turned, and was startled to see Allessandra. The surprise was not that she was there - she had volunteered to introduce the newcomer to people she had missed so far, due to getting settled in - but that she was sitting on her staff, floating in the air.

"Hey," said Allessandra, as Hazel opened the sliding glass door.

"Does that thing do the flying?" said Hazel.

"Nah. It's just for balance." She grinned. The staff rotated vertical, and she struck a pole dancing pose. "And show."

"Well, let's go," said Hazel, starting through the door.

"Whoa, whoa, whoa," said Allessandra, landing and putting out a hand. "You're wearing that?!

"What's wrong with this?"

"You want to make a good impression, don't you?" She pushed past Hazel and began opening drawers and pulling things out. "I know I saw... Here, let's try this."

She laid a pair of sky blue slacks, dark blue panties and a white blouse on the bed, with a pair sandals on the floor.

"There's no bra with this outfit."

"With those iron tits of yours, it's not like you need the support," said Allessandra. She smirked and bounced a bit. "I rarely wear one, either, and I'm not as resilient as you are. Perkiness is one of the benefits of being physically superhuman."

"My nipples are also iron," Hazel pointed out.

"Makes guys think you're into 'em."

"And just what would I do with a guy? Break him?"

"Hon, there are guys in this world with the same problem you have," said Allessandra, firmly. "Half a dozen of them are on this island. I once saw Doomster squeeze a piece of mild steel hard enough to leave fingerprints. Of course, he's still underage, but..."

"Oh," said Hazel, stunned at the realization that maybe she wouldn't be a spinster, after all.

"Now, you change, and I'll introduce you to some hunky men who'd probably be able to handle you."



* * *


"You're sure," said the Guardsman.

"Very sure," said the Black Mask. "While we don't have an agent inside that ancient Tibetan fortress, we have - through several means - determined that Sung is not living there."

"Even though his forces are based there," said the Guardsman, pointing to a location on the map shown in the tabletop display.

"We caught him last time because we infiltrated his main base," said Dr. Piano. "He seems to have learned from that."

"So where is he? We have indications of activity at several locations. Which is his home?"

"This one," said the Black Mask, pointing to a location nearly five hundred kilometers away. "It has a small airport in the valley below, hydroelectric power, a concealed satellite dish - and I don't mean for TV - and a great deal of work has been done to bring it up to Sung's standards of comfort."

"Couldn't all that be said for several of his possessions?" said the Guardsman. "Why this one, and not that one?"

"It's directly over one of the old Sub-Terran tunnels."

"Sung has never used those tunnels," said Gorgeous.

"Which is exactly why he will be using them now."






Part Nine






Template's ear bud buzzed, with a priority message on her private channel. She felt annoyed; she was on her way to a meeting with Eve about some school finance matters, trying to get things settled before the end of the semester.

"What?" she said, making her irritation clear.

"Security Central. We have a call for you. And I think you better take it here. It's from Sung."

That got her attention! She changed course towards the mountains, calling Eve as she went.

"You shouldn't talk to him."

"Why not? I'll go into genius mode. He doesn't know I can do that."

"Can you at least wait until I get there?"

"I'll have the security guys send the live video and audio to you," said Template. She momentarily chewed her lip, thinking hard. "To the Assembly and the Intrepids, too. They're the only ones so far to have the new tunnel com setup."

"All right," said Eve, though she didn't sound certain. "But I'll keep a tap into your mind. I don't trust him."

Template called ahead to make those arrangements, and to tell security to expect her in the main com room. Doors opened and people moved out of the way as she flew by, which was rather ego-stroking. Finally, she was in the main communications center, with its huge, if a bit archaic, screen. Where Sung's image already stared serenely down.

"I'm here," said Template, settling to the floor. She pulled up a chair. "I hope you don't mind if I sit."

Sung said nothing while she made herself as comfortable as she could, his expression unreadable. In the process, she pumped nearly all her power into her gadgeteering. Template put all the rest into her resilience, mainly to keep it active at a level which reduced the distraction from her physical discomforts. She would need all her wits about her, and to focus on the conversation.

"I am aware of your political maneuvering," said the mastermind, without preamble. "Is that how things are done these days? Through venal bribery and menial bargaining?"

"Don't you dare try to claim the moral high ground with me," said Template, genuinely angry but also trying to get a reaction from the mind behind that saturnine countenance. "You endangered hundreds of people - half of them children - as a diversion!"

He held up his hand. Just like that, she was unable to move, to speak. She couldn't even take her eyes off the image on the screen.

"Do not question Sung, the Master of Men! If I wish to test modern supers and their institutions that is my prerogative!"

She hadn't known - had never heard a hint - that his power would work through a video link. Template frantically went through the mind-defense drills she'd been trained in, but found them of little use. No-one knew how his domination power actually worked, but anyone who knew about Sung knew few could resist it.

I've got you, came the thought from Eve, as Template felt that vise release her mind. Pretend you're still held, though.

"I come from an age of grand gestures and sweeping triumphs! Of nobility and honor and great dangers and greater opportunities. The petty, shallow rulers who blight this world today and their callow superhuman champions can not even appreciate what I have to offer! I called to express my disgust that you would stoop to such a mundane approach. Someone with your power should tell those weak fools what to do, not wheedle and whine!"

He leaned forward, raising a clenched fist.

"I will bring life and energy back into this hollow existence which today passes for life. I had planned to offer you - all so-called supers, but you in particular - a place in my new world, in return for your fealty, but I see now that you have all been overtaken by the same loss of soul and will as your pitiful civilian leaders. So be it."

The transmission cut off.

"My... God..." said the tech, staring at the screen with open mouth.

"Suck it up," said Template, though she didn't feel much like doing that herself at the moment. She was startled to find that she had no powers currently on. She quickly switched to the usual mix. "Get me a conference call with all those who saw the feed."

This didn't take long. After a brief, stunned quiet, during which people tried to think of something to say, there was a sudden babble, an embarrassed quiet, then a lone voice.

"At last, we know the motivation behind his actions," said the Black Mask.

"You mean... he honestly thinks he's helping people?!" said Rapscallion, aghast.

"Not so much people, as improving his environment. He finds the modern global situation dull and colorless."

"He misses the cold war, and all the intrigue," said Dr. Gorgeous. "Not uncommon, actually, in older people who were involved in those activities. I've heard similar complaints about modern space exploration. They claim they miss the adventure, that it's too routine these days. What they actually miss is the drama."

"Did anyone trace the call?" said Solange, sounding a bit put out.

"Oh, that was automatic," said Template, sourly. "Naturally, we found that it came from here."

"Huh?"

"An old trick," said the Black Mask, with a dismissive gesture. "You echo the signal source."

"So we still don't know where he is," said Solange, almost pouting.

"Almost certainly, in a fairly small area of the Chinese Himalayas, or just east of there," said the Black Mask. He smiled at Template. "By the way, I consider his comments on your political activism to be a ringing endorsement."

"There is that," said Template, wryly. She shook her head. "I just don't get why he called here."

"There are multiple possible reasons," said Dr. Gorgeous. "I suspect he was moved to action by a combination of several of them. He actually did want to see if you could be lured to his cause, though I'm certain he knew that was unlikely. The most reasonable cause is to provoke an action. Preferably a rash one."

"The problem is," said Bowman, "China is cooperating in only a very limited fashion. They're giving us some information, but have said, flatly, that they will not allow outside 'interference.' So even when we find Sung, we may not be able to do anything immediately."

* * *


"I hated lying to her like that," said Solange, after the conference call ended.

"She's too personally involved," said the Black Mask, firmly if sadly. "We also don't know whether Sung has any contacts on the island, or whether he has managed to tap our communications. The fact that we already know where he is living must remain unknown to those there, and not mentioned in our communications."

"You're certain he's in that old keep?" said Solange.

"It's verified. We even have a fair idea, now, of his daily routine."

"We certainly don't want Template endangering the baby," said Bowman, uneasily. "While I know she wouldn't do that deliberately, her sense of duty and anger at Sung for endangering the school could lead her into... situations."

"Well, with luck this will all be over before she learns about it," said the Black Mask. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a planning session to attend."


* * *


"I am astounded that the Chinese government is going along with this," said Dr. Gorgeous.

"Sung has already caused problems they will need decades to address," said Dr. Piano. "Both material and political. Though our cause was definitely helped by the fact that one of their few sanctioned heroes is a seer who forecast dire consequences if Sung were not stopped soon."

The mystic gave a disingenuous smile.

"He owed me a favor."

"They are allowing us a surgical strike force," said the Guardsman, all business, as usual. "No more than twenty. I can think of ten offhand whom I believe no-one here would argue with. However, I am definitely open to suggestions for the others."

"We'll need at least a general plan, in order to make the selection," said Dr. Gorgeous.

"Sung's mind control power works on no more than three people at a time," said Night Mist. "If we can locate him, at least narrowing his location to one large room or suite of small ones, I think we should flood him, forcing him to flee... only we'll have resistors at every known exit."

"The flaw in that plan being the unknown exits," said the Black Mask, with a nod to his cousin. "We've done a pretty thorough investigation, while managing - I hope - to keep Sung from realizing we've done so. The problem is, Sung may have twigged without us knowing, or simply decided to be cautious."

"We can't predict everything," said the Guardsman. "We need to plan with the assumption that he doesn't know we've learned where he is. If we learn otherwise, I trust all involved to be flexible."

"Who are your ten?" said the Black Mask.

"Everyone here except Dr. Gorgeous, plus Champion, Maciste, Bowman, Atalanta, Steel Lace and Jet Jaguar."

"A good mix of competent and experienced supers with a wide range of abilities," said Gorgeous, nodding. "However, of that group only Dr. Piano could be counted as a resistor. How many more do we need?"

"At least three," said the Black Mask. "I recommend Tiger, Solange and the Influence. All of them are both resistors and physically capable of defeating Sung."

"So, we can add up to seven more," said Dr. Gorgeous, frowning in thought. "Any suggestions."

There were several, all competent. However, some were not currently available, and others unlikely to participate for various reasons.

"Mesa and Silbervogel," said the Guardsman, after some discussion. "Everyone agree?"

"Those two alone are worth a small army," said the Black Mask.

"Excellent. That's a team of fifteen. A good size."






Part Ten






"Such a beautiful day," said Silbervogel. "It seems a shame to spend it fighting."

Dr. Piano had to admit that the scene was beautiful, even idyllic. They were arrayed behind cover along a rocky prominence, overlooking a lesser crest to their east, upon which some ancient warlord's keep was perched. A clever irrigation system took water from a spring just south of their location and ran the silver thread through several pools until it reached a large, reservoir recently built into the hillside south of the keep. From there modern piping carried the water across a narrow valley into the keep. Signs of recent repairs and other modernizations to the structure were also obvious. They could see people on the grounds and even inside. Lunch was not long past, but the dining room had already been cleared by the competent staff. There were two nearly-naked young women in the new Jacuzzi on the patio out back. The place might have been some small, private spa, or the hideaway of a wealthy eccentric.

"Those athletic-looking men walking around are augmented and well-trained guards," said the Black Mask. "The women in the spa are attack-programmed androids. The antique bronze warrior statue in the northwest courtyard is a hunter-killer robot. The weathervane on the central chimney comes complete with multi-spectral aiming camera and laser."

"I've seen millionaires' private retreats which were better protected," said Bowman, dismissively. "Is that all?"

"I'm certain it is not," said the Black Mask, firmly. "That is what we know about."

"As soon as we know where Sung is, we split into the three planned groups," said the Guardsman.

They had planned the groups so that those who would watch the exits were - hopefully - each capable of handling Sung, while the other two teams had a balance of abilities. If Sung held true to form, once the situation looked dire enough he would abandon his staff to escape alone. That didn't mean the exit guards would have an easy time. The mastermind was known to have strong combat abilities, on top of his domination power.

"Got him," said Bowman, not long after. He was looking at some small device in his hands. "The Lunies were taking a look with an experimental sensor array which can make neutrino shadowgraphs. It wouldn't give much detail, but they figured any additional info would help. They thought at first they were having a technical glitch, then realized the man-sized blank spot which was moving around inside had to be Sung."

"That's right," said the Black Mask, startled. "He's paranoid an enemy might render him sterile with radiation, so he always wears a device which absorbs ambient radiation. Including neutrinos!"

"Why would he even bother about neutrinos?" said Silbervogel. "They pass through normal matter like ghosts."

"Which is exactly why he worries," said the Black Mask.

"He's currently in what we think is the study," said Bowman. "Apparently working on a computer."

"Perfect," said the Guardsman. "No windows, and soundproofed. We move now. Blockers, you've got ten minutes to get into preliminary position. When we start our operation, get to your final position as quickly as you can without tripping any alarms. Go!"


* * *


The mastermind was running a model to evaluate various scenarios, means by which he might achieve his goals. He had made excellent progress, but was still in a vulnerable period. All it would take was one unlucky break, and one influential person paying attention at the right time, and his plans would be set back several years.

Logically, he should have spent a decade or better consolidating and expanding. He had consumed valuable resources reestablishing himself, with no time to replenish them. However, who knew how much worse the world would become in those ten years? No, he would dare, now, and win, now.

His ruminations were interrupted by the buzzing of the com.

"What?"

There was the bare beginning of a reply, cut off by a blast. The channel went dead. Sung immediately flipped a switch on the control panel beside the intercom station. A large bookcase hummed upwards into the ceiling, revealing a cluster of CRT monitors. He flicked through camera after camera, discovering that some of them had already been taken out. He evaluated the situation with lightning speed, and nodded.

The scenario was not unexpected, and he was definitely ready for it. Sung spun back to the computer, interrupted the work in progress and saved everything. That operation would take nearly a minute, but this room would hold at least that long. While it worked, he began flipping switches, preparing the delay charge. That would keep those "heroes" busy disarming it long enough for the actual destruct charges to discreetly melt what he did not want them to have. Finally, his data stored, he unplugged the external hard drive - ignoring the operating system's protests - and pocketed it.

Sung rose and moved to another bookcase. This one was purely manual in operation, making it both more reliable and less detectable. He unlatched it and, with a bit of effort, swung it open. It was backed by a thick stone slab, the reason moving it was such an effort. Beyond lay a dimly lit corridor recently cut into the rock. Sung stepped through and pulled the door shut behind him. He shoved the massive locking bars into place. Then he walked swiftly down the steeply inclined rock-cut hallway.

Sung was only mildly irritated. He had been prepared to sacrifice this base and all in it. Any true leader understood the principle. It was small, and much had already been moved to the new facility he was preparing.

Sung reached the end of the corridor and opened the armored steel door there. He stepped into the darkness of the small - and very old - chamber beyond, closed and locked the door, and switched on the lights, his hand going unerringly to the control panel. A safety cover was raised, and a toggle flipped. Outside, the reservoir suddenly began emptying. The water would drain down through mixing tanks, gravity and geometry serving to stir it into the cement and aggregate waiting there. He smiled a bit. By the time those annoying Masks forced their way through the door behind the bookcase the corridor beyond would be full of quick-setting concrete. And even if some of them intercepted him before he could reach his escape craft, his mental powers - greatly improved with the knowledge of this new age - would arrest their aggression. Satisfied, he turned and began descending a narrow, spiral stairway.

This took him deep into the rocks under his former stronghold, to where one of the old Sub-Terran tunnels rose to pass above the basement rock under the mountains. The light was dim, but he needed no aid; he had practiced this until he could make the trip even in total darkness.

As he approached the vehicle, however, he saw someone leaning against it. A man, a Caucasian, in normal clothing. The Master of Men was puzzled, but did not let this affect his mien.

"Well, well," said the stranger, straightening and smiling as he saw Sung. "Looks like I drew the lucky straw."

"Stand aside," said Sung, with a dramatic gesture.

"Sorry. I don't hold with that," said the man, his smile turing menacing. "They put us resistors at each likely escape route. Might as well surrender and save us both trouble."

Sung was not concerned. He had resources besides his mental domination. He lashed out at the man with a sweeping, open-handed strike. His long nails were lacquered with a special polymer for reinforcement, and sharpened. Their edges were not as fine as those of a razor, but they were more than adequate for slashing flesh.

The man slapped at Sung's wrist, blocking the strike.

"Presumptuous youth! You dare pit your puny skills against my decades of dedication to the arts of combat?!"

"I'm older than I look," said the man, smiling again. "Shall we?"


* * *


The group in the study looked the worse for wear, but also triumphant. They had overcome some pretty tough opposition in a competent, professional manner to reach this location. There they had found exactly what they expected: A destruct timer counting down, smoke from thermite charges and no Sung. While the technical brains stopped the timer, the others located the hidden door and forced it open. Then jumped back as the hardening concrete began oozing into the study. Fortunately, it was very quick-setting. Some of the heroes still pounded at the mass of concrete. Most had left, to try and find another way through. Suddenly they stopped, as an announcement came over their coms.

"Got Sung," said Tiger. "Tough old bird. And stubborn. Had to knock him out, and that took a surprisingly long time. Anyway, I'm in the tunnel beside his machine. What should I do with him?"

"Stay right there!" said the Guardsman. "We'll have someone there in minutes."

"Roger."

"Well, that's a relief," said Champion. "So what will we do with him?"

"Last time we kept him hidden so his lieutenants wouldn't know where he was and rescue him," said the Night Master. "That shouldn't be as much of a problem this time. We'll turn him over to the international court; we've already cleared this with the Chinese. The Hague has a special branch dedicated to major super criminals."

"I'm actually a bit disappointed," said Champion, looking around the smoking ruin of the study. "This was... Well, it certainly wasn't easy but it wasn't nearly as hard as I was expecting."

"Speak for yourself," said Dr. Piano, who had his left arm in a sling. "Those bikini-clad androids broke two more bones than I like."






Part Eleven






"The capture of Sung has earned us a lot of good publicity," said Eve, a few days later, as she met with Template and the Black Mask in her office. "The news media were just starting to twig about his activities, and raising an alarm, when he gets turned over to the Hague."

"What happened to that main base?" said Template, to the Black Mask. "I'm assuming you folks didn't simply leave it sitting there."

"The Chinese Army said they'd take care of it, but got their teeth kicked in when they tried," said the Black Mask, for once present in person. "The lieutenant in charge of the base then threatened to detonate nuclear devices hidden in several strategic locations around China. So they called the UN. Who reached an agreement with the Chinese government to send in T.O.W.E.R. forces with full autonomy for that one operation. They verified that the lieutenant was bluffing about the bombs - Sung had only refurbished the one, since that was all he planned on using - and took the base in less than eighteen hours, with minimal casualties on their side. Thanks to a bit of discreet help from us, they even prevented any of the leaders from escaping."

He paused for a moment, examining his teammate.

"Are you angry with us for leaving you out of this?"

"Not really," said Template, reluctantly. "I did feel left out when I learned about the raid, but I definitely understand why."

She laughed.

"Colossa is madder than I am."


* * *


"No, I'm cool," Colossa insisted, that evening. She was sitting at the dining room table of the cottage she and Template were sharing, helping Energia with her homework, when her spouse arrived. "If they had told me I would have told you, and it would only have made you anxious. Which wouldn't have been good for you or the baby."

"What are you two working on?" said Template, moving closer. "How to Boot a Nuclear Reactor?!"

"I feel like the sheriff's daughter on Eureka," said Energia, sighing.

"Well, it could happen," said Colossa, with a shrug and a grin.

"I'll leave you two to it," said Template, putting her briefcase on the table. "I need a shower and some more comfortable clothes. Then I need to do my homework."

Soon all three were in civilian clothes, sitting around the table, chatting. Even though none were wearing costumes or even masks, they still used their mask names. This wasn't a deliberate practice to help maintain their secret identities, or even something they had mentioned; they just did it.

"I think that's it," said Colossa, as they finished helping Energia with her homework. "You staying for supper?"

"No. I need to get back to the dorm. Folks are already noticing how much time I'm spending here. I know some of my gal pals have figured it out, and Maldren and Chet and a few of the other boys, too."

"Well, you can't keep secrets," said Template, philosophically. "You can only hope to keep them out of the hands of people who can use them to hurt you. I think most of the folks here who are bright enough to notice are also honest enough to be safe with what they notice."

"It's going to be harder once I'm a cousin!" said Energia, all too cheerfully.

She kissed and hugged both of the women, said good night, and left into the gathering darkness.


* * *


Things at the school - and around the planet - were calming down. Sung had been arraigned before the international court and was in a very secure prison awaiting trial. Most of his forces had been captured, all of his known reactivated bases occupied. Many recently stolen - and a few missing for decades - items had been returned. The US Navy was quietly fuming, according to insider sources. Because they hadn't reported the nuclear weapon components stolen from their depot, the UN was taking its time returning them. China was fuming, loudly, because the UN hadn't turned over all the recovered items to them, instead of the rightful owners.

Template was closing out another day of minor crises and teen angst when she got a call in her office. From an old teammate.

"President Bolivia Sievers wants to speak with you about the PAC you organized," said the Black Mask.

"Oh, really," said Template, anger in her tone. "We repeatedly ask to speak with her, and get no reply. We expect her to contact us on a number of different matters, and never hear a word. But give even the appearance that we're actually being successful at fighting back politically, and suddenly she wants to speak with us."

"Not us," said the Black Mask. "You."

"I'm just the organizer. I'm also busy with the school. And I'm not a very politically savvy person. Beat Red is our designated speaker."

"She specifically asked for you. It was, in fact, Beat Red who contacted me, and asked me to relay this."

"I wondered why you were the one calling," said Template. She frowned, thinking. Then suddenly looked startled. "He wants me to do it. He wants you to persuade me to do it."

"Yes. He feels that this would be a good idea on several levels. Not least because of you being obviously with child."

"Oy," said Template, actually groaning. "I've got about three weeks until the delivery, and this springs up."

She sighed, thought some more, and shook her head.

"Sorry. I've learned caution. I do not want a private meeting with any politician."

"What if we arrange exclusive rights with a TV station with demonstrated sympathies to both supers and Sievers' administration?"

"That... You mean that DC station?"

"Yes. If we had a camera crew at the meeting location - probably the Oval Office - which would not participate, but merely record, there would be no - well, far fewer - accusations of bias in the result."

"That would work," said Template, nodding slowly. "I'm pretty sure the station would jump at the chance. But would Sievers go for it?"

"Beat Red said if we need to discuss it, he's available for a conference call all afternoon."


* * *


As it turned out, Beat Red and Template decided she needed to come to DC a day before the meeting for a briefing. They were holed up in the back rooms of the modest set of offices the PAC was renting on the outskirts of the capital. The senior consultant the group had hired was with them, providing important insights.

"She prides herself on dealing from a position of strength," said the consultant. "At the first sign of opposition, she'll up the ante. A lot. She considers this to be showing determination, to make her opposition take her seriously. The problem with that is that sometimes she goes to such an extreme, the other party doesn't back down. Her target will be so outraged at this treatment that they just stop negotiating. Sievers has been doing this for years, and still hasn't learned that her method doesn't work for all situations."

"That's not good," said Template.

"Actually, for your purposes that's good. Most people don't like being bullied, and don't like seeing a sympathetic person being bullied. If she takes that tack with you, act shocked or outraged, and refuse to talk any more. Leave if you can."

"But we want to negotiate with her!"

"Yes, but on fair terms. If she won't give you those, refuse to participate. Make it look like you're in the right and she's trying to bully you to get her way despite being wrong. Sievers is still a novice at major league negotiations. So far, though, that's not common knowledge. Neither are her methods."

"This still doesn't get us the discussion we want!"

"But it will," said the consultant, with a predatory smile. "Sievers' handlers know she has this weakness, and actually use it to the administration's benefit. For important negotiations, if Sievers offends someone like this they arrange follow-up talks with professional diplomats, if necessary even implying that there will be an official apology. The target will be so relieved to talk to someone reasonable that they'll often concede more than if Sievers was polite."

Template looked startled.

"So, if she does go Medieval on me, and I walk out, they'll contact us later on the QT."

"Yes. Expecting you to be very amenable. But since you will know about their tactics you will actually have the advantage."

"You see why I wanted you to be the one to meet with the President," said Beat Red, retired hero and full-time beat poet. "The more public sympathy the negotiator on our side has, the less likely she is to pull this crap. If she does it anyway, we'll be entering any subsequent negotiations from a position of strength."

"I understand," said Template, nodding seriously. "I don't like it, but I understand. I really hope she enters this intending a fair and reasonable discussion."

"She might," said the consultant. "There's no way to predict ahead of time; we just don't know enough about her, yet. If she does, great. You know what to do and say. If she doesn't, you're ready for that, too."


* * *

The President tried not to show it, but she was definitely nervous. This... person she was about to meet was one of the most physically powerful beings on the planet. She was also blindingly fast. If she decided to attack Sievers even the neutralizers Thurlin had installed in this room might not stop her in time. She couldn't just turn them on ahead of time; not only would that reveal their presence, but it would definitely have an adverse affect on her guest's attitude. Supers didn't like giving up their advantage over normal people.

Another element of this meeting was actually occupying more of Sievers' mind. Template's puzzling insistence on having a TV news crew present for their talk had been eagerly agreed to by Sievers and her staff. They didn't know why this Template would want the meeting on public record, but this definitely met the administration's approval. With public opinion swinging back in favor of the supers, cooperating with them - or revealing their duplicity, if there was any - were both good ideas. The lights and small camera crew were actually more reassuring than White House security. Hopefully, this meant Template would be on her best behavior.

Finally came word that Template had landed and was being escorted in. Several minutes passed, with Sievers becoming increasingly impatient. Then the door was opened by one of her aides.

President Sievers gaped as Template waddled into the room. She hadn't known the woman was pregnant. Her staff hadn't mentioned it, may not have known, either. The super had been out of the limelight for months, most likely because she was pregnant. This was definitely a major complication. The Secret Service agents escorting her discreetly stepped to each side of the door as it closed behind them, standing with one hand holding the other wrist in the odd way they did. Sievers had a few seconds to recover her composure as Template made her awkward way over to the President's desk. Sievers well understood, now, the previous delay.

"Madame President," said Template, nodding as she shook Sievers' hand and took the offered seat. "I hope you'll excuse me for getting right to the point, but as you can see I'm currently rather inconvenienced."

The press will crucify me, thought Sievers, with dismay.

One criticism during her campaign which had particularly hurt was that she'd never had children, due to a medical problem in her youth. If she was now seen personally taking action against a pregnant woman... She took a deep breath, and steeled herself. For the good of all, she had to be stern, even if it cost her the next election.

"Then I'll get right to the point: I want you to shut down your political action committee," said Sievers, firmly.

"No," said Template, calmly but just as firmly. "We need it to protect our rights."

"It is an illegal manipulation of the legislative process," said Sievers, angry at this blunt refusal.

"Our legal staff assures us that as a recognized minority group, it is very much within the law for us to have lobbyists representing our interests on Capital Hill."

"Supers aren't a minority!" said Sievers, aghast.

"Of course we are," said Template, puzzled. This discussion wasn't going any of the directions her briefers had predicted. "According to several US Supreme Court decisions, as well as a large body of legal precedents."

"Well, my legal staff tells me the opposite! Your organization is an illegal manipulation of the American legislative process. You will cease and desist or action will be taken against you."

"That sort of attitude is exactly the reason we need this," said Template, flatly. "We will not stop an action which is both allowed under the law and to our benefit. This is one of the few ways we have of legally responding to the unconstitutional actions being taken against supers in this country."

"You must stop these scandalous, fictional claims about organized persecution of supers! People are starting to believe you."

Again, the President surprised Template. She was flatly denying, on the record, the documented abuses?!

"All of those charges have been verified, and for many of them there are lawsuits underway."

"But they're obvious nonsense! Teams of office workers given advanced equipment and told to bring in supers for warrantless detention? I mean, really..."

"I was one of their victims," said Template, voice suddenly tight with fury. "If it weren't for the fact that any father who sees a pregnant woman being kidnapped will jump to the rescue, I'd be who-knows-where and no-one who could help would know what happened to me!"

Sievers barely kept herself from erupting with anger. How could the woman just sit there and lie like that?!

Template realized that the woman was believing what her advisors told her. Well, they probably believed it, themselves. The Roundup, as the project was called, appeared to be the plan of some mid-level Federal bureaucrat who probably didn't like how the Sievers administration was talking and had taken independent action. There was no upper-level awareness of the activity because those responsible had never bothered asking for approval. More of Thurlin's legacy; he had encouraged "independent thinking."

"Look, just say that you forbid any such actions being taken," said Template, trying to find a reasonable stance on the matter.

"And lend credence to your insane accusations?! No."

"I'm trying to meet you halfway, here."

"I will not compromise with you on this."

"Then why am I even here?!" said Template, angrily. "I was told you wanted to talk me. Now you not only deny the abuses against supers, you sound like you're dictating terms to restrict us from protecting ourselves against them."

"Is that how you talk to your President, the leader of the free world?!"

There it came; Sievers was pulling rank, trying to look tough. Template gave a mental sigh, and plunged ahead.

"Hey, I voted Libertarian."

"If you don't comply, this administration will be forced to take legal action against all supers involved and you in particular, severely restricting your activities!"

"And this is different from what you're already doing to supers how?"

Sievers' vision actually faded, she was so angry.

Is she doing something to me?

She took a deep breath, let it out slowly. Time to show this bitch who was boss. First by pointing out the contradictions in her own words and actions.

"You supers keep claiming you're above all this! Yet, here you are, doing exactly the sorts of things you criticize us for!"

"You politicians are the ones who dragged us down to your level," said Template, sounding more tired than angry. "We tried to stay nonpartisan, and were accused of taking sides, by both sides. We tried to stay away from lobbying, and you claimed you hadn't heard from us. Well, we're playing your game, now, by your rules, lobbying our hearts out to make sure you hear from us. And you're complaining about that!"

"We will not stand for your interfering with our lives!" shouted the President, confused that her tactic wasn't working and upping the ante.

"Are you listening to what I'm saying?" snapped Template. "We did this - I did this - because you politicians are interfering with our lives!"

"You supers must be kept under control! You are too dangerous to be allowed to run around, doing whatever you want!"

"Even though the Constitution guarantees that we can do that, as long as we don't break any laws?"

"The Constitution was written for humans! Not you freaks! We will not bow down to you! If you do not yield to reasonable limits on your activities you will face far more stringent measures!"

Ow! That was a lot more than any of them had bargained for. Template stared at her for a moment, then shook her head. And went off script.

"So, you're finally showing your true colors," said Template, sadly. "It's not even funny, how much you sound like Thurlin."

"What?!"

"Both of you, terrified by any power you don't control, and so dead certain your way is not only the right way, but the only way. You both have your heads so far up your asses you have no idea of what real people - super or norm - want. Your polls are slanted to give results which confirm your preconceptions. You engage in political circle-jerks, preaching to the choir, and think this proves that everyone thinks just like you do. Sorry. You're wrong."

"You... You dare to talk to me like that? Do you have any idea what I could do to you, with one phone call?! I'd wipe that school of yours off the face of the planet, and your whole island with it! And history would thank me!"

Template felt a chill, but it quickly faded. They had beaten Sung, who had nuked the school. This woman was just a politician.

"So that's what it comes down to," said Template, staring her in the face. "Do what you say or you'll kill us. Sorry. We'd rather die than live under tyranny. Or allow our children to."

Sievers looked shocked. How had this gotten so out of control?!

"What?! No! I... You don't think I was serious..."

Template floated up out of her chair with a slight groan.

"I was invited here for a discussion of the activities of a legal organization I helped found. Instead, you've threatened not only me but all supers. Now that I know you arranged this meeting under false pretenses, I refuse to participate any further."

"But that was... You can't leave now!"

Template winced.

"Sorry, the baby is pressing on my bladder."

Template moved to a window, opened it, and flew out. Ignoring the multiple alarms which sounded behind her.


* * *


"The press is crucifying her!" crowed Bowman. "Even the stations who are just showing the heavily edited version the feds released are outraged at the way she treated you."

"That was the goal," said Template, tiredly. "I can't say I'm comfortable with my actions, but she really gave me no choice."

"I agree," said the Black Mask. "You put a very human face on supers in general, with your present physical condition and tired sense of outrage. You also brought President Sievers' bigotry into the open. Her own public follow-up statements have just dug her in deeper."

"You just can't say she's pregnant, can you?" said Rapscallion.

"Not for much longer," said the Black Mask, with a straight face.







This work is Copyright 2009 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it please contact the author at: stickmaker@usa.net