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Masks VI



by



Rodford Edmiston






Part One: Holiday Break



The first and second sections of this tale are actually set before Part V. The third section starts shortly after.




The Leader of the huRK and his council of advisors were in a closed meeting, discussing a follow-up investigation of something discovered by one of the Fleet Leaders some months earlier.

"If that is, indeed, Tolnar's son and heir, this presents us with a potential opportunity," said the Leader.

"This is known to be certain within a probability of just less than ninety-eight percent," said the Clan ChzKlkk Archivist, one of the Leader's most valued advisors.

"Assume we take this offspring," said Sub-Leader East. "What would our purpose be?"

"Multi-fold," said the Leader. "Analysis of a full Shilmek Primus of the Tolshik line. Inside information of both the court and Tolnar's family. Explanation of why said offspring is on Earth. Finally, the possibility of subornation."

"We would must needs be very careful," said Sub-Leader South, as usual the council for caution. "Work through intermediaries who would not know their employers, or even the true identity of the target."

"And those would in turn be hired by intermediaries who would not know the identity of their employers," said Sub-Leader East, as usual very willing to add another layer of deception to a plan.

The Leader narrowed its pupils, just a bit... the equivalent of a slight smile for its species. The most important of the group were already supporting the plan. The others would go along. It sat back and let the others plot and scheme, only occasionally asking a question or making a suggestion. Yes, this would work well...


***


One of the best things about being able to fly - with being able to fly at the top of the list - was traveling. Not just soaring through the air, but going somewhere without worrying about traffic or airline reservations or even borders if you were feeling particularly anarchistic. Right now, Energia was making a trip to visit a friend and a teacher.

This was all Energia's fault, actually. During the Fall semester she had been complaining about how weird some her fan mail was.

"You get fan mail?!" Gadgetive had said, both surprised and envious. "I don't get fan mail, and I've been doing this a lot longer than you."

"Well, you haven't worked with the people I've worked with," Energia had said, a bit smugly. "This actually started while I was interning with the Young Guardians. Nearly all of it goes to their headquarters, and they forward it to me, at the school. Well, I also get some which goes to the Intrepids, and even some which comes straight here to the school."

"I don't get fan mail," said Gadgetive, pouting.

The result had been Gadgetive deciding she wanted to intern with someone. Anyone. But just for the holiday break. If that worked out okay, well, she'd see.

Only, there just weren't any teams or established independent masks who wanted to take an intern for that month.

Finally, Blue Impact had agreed - with much rolling of eyes - to let Gadgetive work with her for three weeks in early December. Gadgetive didn't celebrate Christmas, but Blue Impact did, so that was the limiting factor; the older super had family and friends to shop for and socialize with. Part of the reason Blue Impact decided to do this was that Gadgetive - an orphan - really didn't have anywhere to live except the school, and Blue Impact's previous roommate in her home city - a feline super who claimed to be the reincarnation of a WWII veteran Mask - had moved out just a few weeks earlier.

Energia was flying in to visit the odd couple the week before Christmas, mostly because she had presents for both of them, tucked away with her clothes and other personal items in a large duffle she was towing by the metal in the zipper and snap rings. She smiled a bit at the irony of her trip. She wasn't old enough for even a learner's permit, but she could - and her parents had no problems with this - fly hundreds of kilometers to spend a day with friends.


***


"Watch it!" Teddy yelled, as he felt the top-heavy news truck heel over in a hard turn.

"She's getting away!" said Gerry, driver and technician.

"Of course she's getting away! She's driving a souped-up motorcycle! Don't try to catch her; just keep her in sight as long as you can!"

"I've still got her in my sights," said Sue, the upper part of her body sticking out the roof hatch with the camera. She almost fell as the van hit a pothole. After regaining her footing and adjusting her headset, she got the camera back on the fleeing super. "Well, mostly."

Blue Impact glanced back over her shoulder and snarled behind the faceplate of her helmet. She needed to get away from these goons so she could go home and meet her guest.

She wheeled around a corner, then abruptly hit the brakes hard. Her planned route was blocked by heavy traffic. Still moving, but much more slowly, now, she glanced back again. The TV truck wasn't in sight yet, but she could hear it gaining. She looked frantically around, and spotted a culvert. Remembering what she could of the storm sewer system in this area on the fly, she diverted off the road. She had to dismount to carry the bike down the short, steep slope - with her weight, riding it down would have resulted in an uncontrollable slide most likely ending in a crash - then quickly remounted and took off into the huge pipe.

The smell and sound were especially obnoxious to her heightened senses, but she still grinned; no way were they getting that truck in here! Even without the rooftop satellite mount it was just too tall. She sped along her private highway, tires turning the trickle of water running along the concrete into mist behind her.


***


There was no direct connection between the sewer and the basement of the former bakery where she stored her gear - at least, nothing close to large enough to allow even her passage, much less the bike - but there was a culvert just a couple of blocks away. She shut the bike off while still well inside and walked it out. A cautious peek showed no witnesses; she quickly hefted the motorcycle onto the pavement and ran it across the street into an isolated alley. She pushed it a bit more sedately along that narrow path to the back door of the bakery, and then inside.

Gadgetive was sitting at a massive console she'd cobbled together her first day here. The thing combined a moderately powerful multi-processor computer setup with several radio scanners, a secure communications system and a security monitor for the building. She had actually provided most of the parts, leftovers from various school projects.

"'Bout time," the young woman muttered, glancing over her shoulder at the arriving super.

"Oh, hush," said Blue Impact, taking off her helmet and shaking out her hair (actually a high quality wig). "I had to give a TV news truck the slip. They're a local team who seem to think I'm their personal project."

"Yeah, I know," said Gadgetive, with a snicker. She pointed to the elderly console TV in the corner, quietly murmuring to itself. "They already aired the segment with you stopping that bike courier robbery. Even showed you getting away down that sewer. Speaking of which, don't sit down with those nasty clothes on."

"I got lucky with the robbery," said Blue Impact, unzipping her jacket and leather riding breeches as she walked over to the couch in the corner. Those, her gloves and the rest of her soiled clothing went into a pile on the floor before she reached her destination, leaving her wearing just the characteristically colored slacks and blouse - and mask, of course - which made up her basic costume. "Had a hunch the next one in that series would be in that area."

She flopped down on the couch with a grateful sigh. This place wasn't much as super lairs went, but it served. She'd bought the building three years earlier through an assumed name and discreetly modified it, all while making sure to keep up with the taxes and such. There were no residences in the neighborhood, so after hours and on weekends she practically had the area to herself for a couple of blocks in every direction. In a pinch, she could live here for several weeks without leaving; the building even had an independent emergency power supply and stored food and water. The windows were painted on the inside to hide both the activity and her modifications. Anyone who asked (which so far had been just one neighbor, the owner of a nearby auto parts store she sometimes shopped at) was told the place was being renovated as finances permitted.

"I upgraded that joke you call a generator," said Gadgetive. "Improved the fuel efficiency and output and gave it a modern fuel injector. It'll now burn anything from top quality jet fuel to heavy heating oil."

"Thanks," said Blue Impact. She grinned. "Hope no-one but us finds out about the work you're doing here, or I'll have the child labor folks after me."

"Hey, that was part of the agreement," said Gadgetive, unconcerned. "You give me some practical field experience and public exposure, and I help upgrade your stuff. Besides, I'm enjoying the challenge of squeezing everything I can out of this obsolete pile of leftover Civil Defense surplus."

That last was said with a distinct grimace.

"You try equipping a lair on a budget and with limited technical skills. I'm a working girl, and when I first started this place I also had a local apartment. These days, of course, during school I stay on the island, but now this is where I live between semesters. So, yeah, I'm really glad of the opportunity to improve the dump."

Something beeped, and Gadgetive turned back to her equipment.

"And there's Energia, about two minutes out. We better get up to the roof."

As she had been instructed, Energia stayed high until she was directly over the building, then dropped quickly. She could see the others come out onto the roof when she was about halfway down, and they exchanged waves.

"Hello, hello!" she cried out, as she deftly touched down. She let her bag settle on the roof and grabbed a mildly outraged Gadgetive. "Hugs all around!"

Once the greetings were over Blue Impact took the duffle and ushered the two girls downstairs.

"How was your trip?" said the teacher.

"Cold," said Energia, with an exaggerated shiver.

One floor down Blue Impact led them out of the stairwell and into a short hallway.

"It still surprises me that your parents won't let you date, yet, but they let you fly cross-country unescorted."

"Hey, how likely am I to get mugged at a thousand meters off the ground?"

"Point," said Blue Impact. She shook her head. Then gestured towards a door on the left. "Well, here's your room. Get out of those Winter flying clothes and we'll give you the grand tour."

"Also," said Energia, as she tossed her bag onto the bed, "I told Mom and Dad that I wanted to finish my Christmas shopping while I was here. That pretty much decided them."

"You sure brought a lot of stuff for a three day visit," said Gadgetive, eying the large duffle as Energia began stripping off her cold weather flying gear.

"Well, both your presents are in here, plus enough padding to protect everything."

"Presents!"

"Sorry, you have to wait," said Energia, with an impish smile.

Energia was more impressed with the lair than Blue Impact thought the place deserved. Yes, she was still an impressionable child. However, she had also been inside at least three formal team bases, plus the installations on the island. Still, her reaction was gratifying.

They saved Gadgetive's lab for the last. The inventor was very proud of one particular pile of junk, made mostly of stuff she'd brought here from the school.

"Tryin' t'build an apergy device - a special type of antigrav - but it ain't easy. Once I get 'er done, though, I'll have flight capability in my hero togs!"

"Do I smell coffee?" said Energia, obviously not very interested in the work in progress.

"Want some jåegerbrew?" said Gadgetive, extracting a stainless steel pot from what looked like a small fusion reactor.

"You're both too young to drink coffee," said Blue Impact, firmly. "It'll stunt your growth."

Energia looked pointedly at Gadgetive.

"Too late," she deadpanned, before bursting into giggles.

Gadgetive started to make some retort, only to be interrupted by an alarm.

"Whoops! News scanner has a solid hit!"

"I will never be able to keep all those different alarms straight," said Blue Impact, as they hurried back to the main room.

"I'll put in a voice notification system later," said the gadgeteer, absently.

The old TV was already tuned to the source of the alert, thanks to Gadgetive's modifications. On the screen a rather large bipedal mechanism was smashing its way out of a bank.

"That's BlueBot, of the Battling Bots!" said Gadgetive, with a definite note of admiration coloring her surprise.

"Wait, what?!" said Blue Impact. "You mean the Forties robots?"

"Yeah. Weird. They were designed and built by Russian emigrant and polymath Dr. Polyarny, as prototypes to use during the War, but it ended before they were completed. Polyarny used them to earn money by putting on exhibition boxing matches, pitting them against each other, other robots and even some supers. They were later stolen and used by a crime lord for several years before being captured by the Shepherds. RedRob has been in the Museum of Super Crime for decades, but nobody knew where BlueBot was. Looks like somebody found it."

"Well, the cops can't handle that," said Blue Impact, with a mix of determination and resignation. She hadn't planned to introduce Gadgetive to real world super crime fighting this soon, and Energia not at all, but knew there was no helping that now. "Looks like we better get suited up."

"Don't wait on me," said Energia, who was currently in her warm weather, or standard, costume. "I can heat the air around me for as long as this will take."

"Well, I need to get my spare leathers, but that won't take long."

"Do I get to ride on the back of your bike?" said Gadgetive, eagerly.

"Yes. Which means leathers and helmet for you, too. Move! Oh, Energia, while we're dressing you keep an eye on the TV."

"Gotcha', chief!" said the young woman, eagerly.






Part Two: An Appropriate Use of Abilities




"Ow!" Blue Impact yelled, ducking back out of the way and shaking her hand like Jackie Chan. "What's that thing made of?!"

Her best punch hadn't even left a dent. Or slowed it. Or caused it to change course. Blue Impact had hoped to disable the thing before the two youngsters could engage, but that wasn't working.

"Monocrystalline perfectly aligned iron," said Gadgetive, busy assembling something. "Energia, can you lift it off the ground for me?"

"Sure."

As it turned out, the task wasn't as easy as she assumed it would be. The crude-looking robot was heavy, and the way it kept thrashing around made holding it difficult. Still, she held it well off the ground - and out of reach of anything - until Gadgetive finished assembling what she was working on. The gadgeteer warily stepped forward, aimed her construct at the bulky robot and began spraying it with something which hardened into filaments in the air. Soon the blue robot was completely enveloped in an off-white cocoon, and barely moving.

"That's all I got," said Gadgetive, stepping back. "And if I don't coat it with something to stop the oxidation it'll cross link in under an hour."

"I can't hold it much longer," said Energia, reluctantly.

"Put it down, but keep an eye on it," said Blue Impact.

The mass settled with a muffled thunk onto the pavement and Energia landed gratefully nearby. The robot was struggling, but the mass of cottony material held.

"Need any help?" said Blue Impact, as she watched Gadgetive almost frantically take stuff out of her backpack and begin mixing. The veteran super was starting to feel a bit superfluous.

"Not unless you got a degree in advanced chemistry," the youngster muttered, absently. "Or some methyl chloride."

She soon had a spray bottle filled with a potent smelling clear liquid, which she used to thoroughly soak the webbing.

"Okay turn it over."

Energia gave a tired sigh but complied, and soon the back of the webbing was also treated.

"There!" said Gadgetive, with curt, satisfied nod. "Not only is it secured, I installed several types of warning device to tell us if it's breaking loose, including some NEDs."

"Some which?" said Blue Impact.

"Noise Emitting Diodes."

Blue Impact took a moment to look around at the scene, grateful the two youngsters had been able to handle the menace so deftly. By the time the three of them had arrived the big robot had encountered police resistance. Instead of fighting it had simply continued on its course. Which took it through two cruisers. Small arms fire had only endangered the humans and windows in the area when the bullets bounced off the super-hard perfect iron. More police - some with heavy weapons - had quickly been summoned, but were still organizing when Blue Impact and her partners arrived. The LEOs had held back, waiting to see how the supers handled the situation. Fortunately, while the robot was strong and tough, it was neither agile nor swift.

Blue impact noticed at least three TV news vans in the background, antennae erected and cameras pointing. She felt uneasy, even though the crew who kept pursuing her were so far absent. The sooner the three Masks could wrap this up and get away, the better. She glanced back at Gadgetive, who was waving some sort of sensor device over the cocooned robot.

"Isn't this thing radio controlled?"

"Not getting anything in, but I am getting heavily encrypted stuff out," said Gadgetive, frowning. "Looks like its thinking part was seriously upgraded by someone. Probably semi-autonomous, now, only needing an occasional burst transmission from its master to select a course of action. Only whoever sent this thing is keeping quiet, now we've caught it."

"The loot it took from that bank it broke into - and I do mean broke - is also inside the cocoon," said Blue Impact. "How do we get that out?"

"Oh, they can wait for the batteries to run down and just wash away the webbing around the loot bag with wood alcohol."

"Well, why don't you write that down and stick it to the webbing?" said Blue Impact.

"Oh, good idea."

By the time she finished the police were starting to approach, if a bit tentatively. A plain clothes LEO Blue Impact knew walked past her and Gadgetive to stand beside the off-white bundle and scowl down at it.

"Lieutenant Barris?" said a young male uniform, giving an uneasy passing nod to the Masks as he approached. "The wrecker is here."

"Good. Sooner we get this thing to impound, the better."

"C'mon," said Blue Impact, quietly, as she took the girls by an arm each. "Let's get out of here."

"No thanks?" said Gadgetive, puzzled and a bit outraged as they quickly left the scene. "No compliment? Only a nod from that one guy?"

Blue Impact had placed her motorcycle on top of a dumpster in an alley. Anyone wishing to steal or tamper with it would need powers or heavy equipment to do so at all quickly. A quick check showed the bike untouched. Blue Impact deftly brought it back to pavement level.

"Official policy is that 'rogue supers' only get in the way of real law enforcement," said Blue Impact. She lifted the two helmets off her bike and handed the smaller to Gadgetive. "Most of the grunts are nice people and do thank me, but this guy is a real tighta... Uh, jerk, when it comes to supers."

"Well, we were on TV, at least," said Energia, lifting off as Blue Impact started her bike. "I'm sure the public will be grateful."

"This isn't the West Coast," said Blue Impact, speaking over her helmet radio, knowing that both the others had their own coms. "Or the northeast. Some folks here do appreciate us, including a few news crews. But far more people blame us for everything they see as wrong with the world. I wouldn't be surprised if the anchor at one of the stations covering this event tonight will pointedly ask where we were before the robot broke into the bank."


***


"I miss my Thoremin," sighed Gadgetive, as they relaxed that evening. "Prerecorded music is fine, but sometimes you just want to make your own. Only so much she'd let me bring, though."

"I thought it was a Zeusaphone," said Energia.

"No, that's Junker's. His has digital input; mine has analog. That was harder. The RF from the Tesla coil kept interfering with the driver signal."

Blue Impact grinned at the memory of the two of them doing a duet of "Smoke on the Water." And wondered why so many mad-science types had a musical bent.

"Well, besides being a huge, clunky machine, making music with modulated lightning bolts is not conducive to maintaining a low profile," said the older super, wryly.

"Here comes the news," said Gadgetive, with sudden eagerness.

"And what if we get bad coverage, like I warned you about?" said Blue Impact.

"Hey, any publicity is good publicity."

"One of the stupidest things to come out of Hollywood, a place known for being 'plumb shiny with stupid,'" said Energia. She grinned. "Quote from Glomahr."

"Shush!" said Gadgetive, absently, as she leaned forward to watch in eager anticipation

There was, indeed, a segment on super activity, but it wasn't about them. Instead, the anchor eagerly related the events of an admittedly spectacular battle between a local Mask and a street gang with several super members.

"Hey!" said Gadgetive, after the news ended. "What a gyp! Nothing on us, just that guy in the red outfit!"

"That's the Hispanic hero, Mano Dura," said Blue Impact. "He gets favorable publicity, from just about everyone. It's mostly because he's a minority, but from what I've seen, he deserves it. He's a real street Mask, dealing with ordinary people and their problems."

"Hmph..." said Gadgetive, folding her arms and sinking into the couch, scowling.

"Just keep in mind that the area he patrols has a border a few blocks from here," said Blue Impact. "If you're outside the next day or so, be careful. His trouble could spill over into this neighborhood."


***


The neighborhood stayed quiet, so with Blue Impact's permission Gadgetive offered to escort Energia to some local places where she could complete her gift shopping, and maybe get inspirations for those people for whom she currently had only a vague idea. Therefore, her last full day in the city saw her and Gadgetive in civvies walking the few blocks to the nearest bus stop. However, they were both still on call. The young pair had only gone halfway to the shelter when Energia heard a muffled sound, needing a moment to realize its point of origin.

"Why is your ass ringing?" said Energia, free to talk like a normal teenager away from their teacher.

"I keep my cell phone in my fanny pack," said Gadgetive, digging into that accessory. She smirked at her friend. "What, won't your parents let you have a cell?"

"I can't use 'em," said Energia, sadly. "My powers mess up any electronics I carry which aren't specially shielded."

"Oh," said Gadgetive, lifting her phone to her mouth. "Hello?"

There followed several seconds of intent listening, with Gadgetive occasionally nodding.

"Gotcha!" she said, finally.

She put her cell away and turned to the impatiently curious Energia.

"Trouble. Someone made an anonymous 911 call to report an old Jewish guy being mugged. Blue Impact heard the police call on the scanner I rigged. She wants us to meet her there."

"Where can we change?" said Energia, in a hushed voice, looking around.

"We'll have to find a place on the way."

They eventually settled for ducking down an alley, from where Energia flew them to a rooftop. There they changed, hidden from view by a cluster of rooftop air conditioning units. Soon the two young women were flying - under Energia's power - towards the location Blue Impact had given them.

She was standing in the street, watching for them, pretty much alone. A few civilians were in the area, but most were looking wary, and moving quickly about their business. Blue Impact waved the two younger supers down to the pavement beside her.

"Poor old guy was unconscious by the time I got here," she told the pair. "Paramedics took him away a few minutes ago. No idea what the thieves took, except that I found this in the alley the thieves ducked down."

She held out a scroll in her gloved hand.

"Witnesses say he had some sort of satchel. That was there, empty, with this nearby. Left the bag there for the police, but figured I'd better keep this someplace safe, in case someone sticky fingered came by. No idea what it says. No idea if it's even a clue."

Energia took the document and, puzzled, opened it. Only to have her schoolmate take it from her before she could get a good look.

"It's Hebrew," said Gadgetive, frowning in concentration. "Old Hebrew. Not a religious document, but something about moving something... A shipping invoice?"

The others just stared at her.

"What?" said Gadgetive, with a mock innocent expression. "I have a cousin who's a sofer. Lived with him for a few months after my parents died, but he was single and figured I needed a real family. Still see him occasionally."

"What I want to know is, where are the police?" said Energia, looking around. "The ambulance has come and gone, the witnesses have left, but no cops."

"They don't come here," said a new, male voice.

Even Blue Impact jumped a bit. The girls both actually jerked around with shrieks.

"These are my people, chicka," said Mano Dura, taking the scroll from Gadgetive before she could think to resist. "My streets. Anybody, no matter who they are, no matter who they worship, gets hurt or stolen from here, the bad guys know they have to worry about me being on their trail. I'll use this to find the thieves."

"Just remember that you're not the only one trying to help people," said Blue Impact, trying not to show the irritation she felt.

"Yeah, why don't you go back to your giant robots and colorful supervillains and we'll let you know when we can use your help," said the man, scornfully.


***


"Big ego," muttered Gadgetive, as they walked to Blue Impact's bike.

"Not that much more than most singleton Masks," said Blue Impact. "I suspect a lot of that showboating is a performance, to intimidate people who otherwise might commit crime here."

"It's still rude to talk to us like that," said Energia, as she lifted off.







Part Three: Spring Break




The two-dozen Theengrumb gathered in a back room they had rented at a local bar. This world was a popular trading nexus, and gathering spots near any of the spaceports often saw odd meetings. This one attracted no attention, by design. People in those areas rarely took notice of such gatherings, especially if they wanted to stay healthy. The Theengrumb were noted for being able to maintain a low profile when they desired to... and given the business this group was engaged in that was definitely the current goal. The room had been thoroughly scanned, the proprietor and staff checked and properly bribed, and their own security was covertly watching the building and its surroundings.

The species - resembling the mutant offspring of a whippet and a skink - was famed for their sensitive noses and often hired as detectives or security agents. However, this particular group was more mercenary. They were currently discussing a request from a prospective customer to kidnap a young Shilmek Primus from a backwater planet. A task which they soon realized would be even more difficult than their initial evaluation had determined. A non-refundable deposit was requested - and, after some negotiation, supplied - to provide for intelligence work and evaluation. They had the results of those activities; now to decide on whether to finish the task.

"This world is far more formidable than their technological and sociological status indicate," said the head of the investigative group. "The combination of a high level of pre-Primus abilities and an odd precociousness in the application of their primitive tech are the primary reasons. However, they are socially and - overall - technically unsophisticated."

"Before we travel too far along this trail," said a squad leader, "I wish to ask that we consider the source of this request. The huRK are not currently our enemies, but they are no-one's friends. Their competence in covert activities is also questionable. I don't blame them for wishing to keep their part in this secret, but they haven't actually managed to do this."

"They worked through double intermediaries... then had us paid in skleen which carried their scent," said another squad leader, scornfully.

"So typical," said a negotiator. "They get all caught up in their plots and schemes and devious measures and ignore the obvious."

"Now, be fair," said the head of the investigative team. "The huRK don't have a sense of smell and therefore no intuitive understanding of how it works."

"So," said the coordinator, steering the meeting back on track. "Do we take the job?"

"If it were an adult, no, flatly," said the chief negotiator. "But a pre-eruption child..."

"I do not question whether we could capture the child," said the coordinator. "I ask whether the troubles doing so would cause are worth the payment."

They argued back and forth at length, then finally voted. A bit more than the minimum two-thirds required approved taking the job.


***


The Little Piggy Hoedown landed on an empty lakeside beach with a scream of exotic engines, which rapidly wound down to silence once its landing gear was securely on the sand. Moments later, two young women in normal clothes but wearing masks descended the ramp, both carrying multiple luggage items. Behind them came Blue Impact, with a somewhat lighter load of luggage and also masked. The teacher guided the students away from the hypersonic transport, and waved to the pilot. He gave a casual salute in acknowledgement, and the exotic craft leapt back into the air. All three on the ground covered their ears against the sound and squinted against the blown sand and dust as the vehicle vanished into the sky.

Blue Impact sighed, then turned and pointed.

"See that shed over there? We need to get inside, get loaded, and get gone before any of the locals get curious."

"I'm surprised you let us team with you again this soon," said Energia, as they quickly walked towards the dilapidated structure.

"I'm surprised you wanted to," said Blue Impact, unlocking the shed door to reveal a nondescript van. "There were several teen teams clamoring for you both to intern with them, including the Young Guardians wanting Energia back for the two weeks."

"Hey, I've done big teams," said Energia, with a dismissive wave, as they entered and Blue Impact closed the door behind them. "I may go with the Young Guardians again this Summer. But I kinda liked it with just the three of us, over the holidays."

"Yeah, yeah, brag about it, why don't cha'," muttered Gadgetive. "At least I'm getting some offers, now, too. Only not from anybody I really want to intern with."

"Aww, isums Gadgetive jealous?" said Energia, giving her a hug.

"Hey, knock it off! People will get the wrong idea!"

Blue Impact and Energia laughed and the former started loading the luggage in the back of the van. Gadgetive had stopped sulking by the time they climbed in and took their seats.

"Oh, Gadgetive," said Blue Impact, remembering something as they climbed in and buckled up. "The techs who examined BlueBot said it had a Twonky, whatever that is."

"A device which physically enters another device and takes it over," said the gadgeteer, glad to be able to teach her something for a change. "A sort of technoparasite."

"Last chance," said Blue Impact, mood suddenly serious. "You two sure you want this?"

"Yeah," said Energia. "I think we can all trust each other."

"Yeah," said Gadgetive, nodding.

"Okay, masks off," said Blue Impact, removing hers. "We'll be at the bakery in about fifteen minutes, so try to at least act normal until then. Oh, and this goes, too..."

She reached up and peeled off her wig.

"Wait," said Energia, startled. "That was a wig?!"

"A very good one," said Blue Impact. "And call me Sandy like this. The building I have my lair in is owned under the name Sandra Gates."

"Not her real name, of course," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.

"Okay... your hair is still blond, but a different style. Is that all the wig does?"

"That's all it needs to do. I usually style my hair to look like the wig at school, but wear it like this when in my civilian ID. It's the little details which throw people off."

"Like strategic costume padding," said Gadgetive, nodding.

Once the van was safely in the garage of the old bakery they began unloading. The two girls had the same quarters as during the holidays. This time Energia had brought more luggage for the longer stay, and Gadgetive less for her shorter one, but otherwise the arrangements were the same as before.

"Well, as I stated before, I'm glad to see you here," said Blue Impact, feeling a bit uncomfortable without her wig and mask. "Both of you. Strange things have been happening around this city but I've had trouble getting anyone interested in checking them out. Mano Dura and a couple of cops I know are the only ones besides me taking things seriously. Two extra pairs of eyes and ears and two more brains working on the problem may help."

She wasn't used to being around anyone from the school without at least her mask on, and though she trusted the girls' intelligence and honesty, she missed the presence of her disguise. Better to be otherwise naked than without those two items. Well, not really, since that could cause considerable trouble, due to them being minors, but... Blue Impact shook her head clear of extraneous thought as the youngest member of their trio spoke.

"We do make a pretty good team," said Gadgetive, grinning. "But we need a group name."

"Wait a minute," said Blue Impact, firmly. "No way. No team, no team name, nothing formal. This is just a one-time deal, for the Summer."

"Well, we all have some blue in our costumes," said Energia, heedless. "Maybe The Blue... Somethingorothers."

"'Three Daggers of Justice'?" said Gadgetive, not quite getting the whole "blue" thing.

"Needs to have 'blue' in it," said Energia, insistently.

"You need to learn more super history," said Blue Impact. "Back in the late Forties there was a famous team called the Three Swords of Justice. And lots of people and teams have used 'Blue' as I well know."

"I like it," said Energia, smiling.

"What?! No! That wasn't a suggestion!"

"The Rapier Trio!" said Gadgetive.

"No!"

"Blue Blades?" said Energia.

"NO!!"


***


"The Jewish guy who got mugged last December was a translator hired by a museum to interpret some old documents," said Blue Impact, at supper that evening. "That scroll was one of a set, dating from the Roman occupation of Israel. It wasn't just in old Hebrew, but contained some sort of code phrases to hide the true message. The linguist had already e-mailed his translations and was on his way to take the documents back to the museum when he was mugged."

"Yeah, there were all kinds of number codes and special slang they used to hide things from the Romans," said Gadgetive, nodding sagely. "Revelations is full of it."

"But that's 'way over in the Middle East," said Energia. "Why would someone here steal those?"

"Well, they're not major collectors' items," said Blue Impact. "Little intrinsic value, and since they've been reported stolen they won't bring much on the black market. For a while it looked like the thieves had no idea what they were grabbing.

"Then, about a month ago, someone broke into an exhibit of materials connected with the scrolls at the same museum which had them translated. Strangely, nothing was taken. However, according to the translation the old guy made one of the items - a large box used to hold stuff long gone - had a secret compartment in it. When they checked, the compartment was there, but empty. They're not sure, but they think it had been opened, then reclosed by whoever broke in. And there may have been something inside."

"I love this!" said Gadgetive, rubbing her hands together and almost chortling. "Mysterious old documents, hidden artifacts... I feel like Indiana Jones!"

"Just remember that most of his adventures led to encounters with weird supernatural stuff," said Energia, shivering a bit.

"Well, it's a lot more likely in this case to have been someone's family jewels," said Blue Impact. "That, though, is a detective story. The museum doesn't really want me or Mano Dura messing around with their stuff, but the police have people working on the break-in and one of the people doing the work is a contact of mine. No breaks yet, but if there are we'll be notified pretty quickly.

"Moving on to the weird stuff, there's been several incidents over the past couple of weeks of people doing very strange things - usually involving minor crimes - and then denying they had done them. Some of those people had solid alibis, too. There may have been more than the half dozen or so events I know about. Most of those involved were public figures of one sort or another. Minor politicians, local celebrities. But there were at least two incidents where an innocuous person was caught doing something they shouldn't have, got away, and later denied all knowledge. This means there could be more which I just haven't found out about yet. It might be mind control, or a shapeshifter, but so far we can't figure out any pattern. We're trying to keep things quiet, to stop criminals from using these events to claim they're innocent, which would really muddy the waters."

"Cool," said Gadgetive, grinning. She looked thoughtful. "Wonder if it's a hologram? Maybe I can rig a spectralyzer..."

"Before you get too involved with that, could you fix my bike? I started it earlier to go on patrol and it was running so rough I gave up."

"Yeah, I heard it," said Gadgetive, with a grimace. "Sounds like the Fetzer valve. I'll get to it soon as we finish with the dishes."


***


"Are you ready for your form change?" said the Theengrumb tech.

"Is anyone sane ever ready to have their body altered into something alien?" muttered the operative. "Ah, well; fire away."

A subdued glow surrounded the unclothed, vaguely reptilian figure on the platform. A figure which shifted into something curvier and softer.

"This is odd," the agent said, hefting the soft mounds of tissue which had unexpectedly appeared on its chest. "Are you certain this is a male of the species?"

"That is a female of the species. One Thunder Maiden, to be precise."

"I specifically requested a male! Their form is more physically similar to mine, and their mindset easier to emulate!"

"Just because you request something doesn't mean you get it," said the tech. "Proceed to Outfitting and Equipping and then to Training."






Part Four: Opportunity Presents Itself




"This is Falcon Eddie! My wings are icing up! I can't hold altitude!"

"Can it, Eddie," said the voice over the com. "We all know your wings are purely decorative. I don't care if you're bored, keep looking for stranded motorists."

"Aye-aye, Cap'n Blye," the super muttered.


***


Randy and Karen had barely closed the door to his apartment when there was a knock on it. Randy, puzzled, opened it to find his niece standing there.

"Hi, Uncle Randy!" said Jenny, cheerfully, as she gave him an enthusiastic hug. "Hi, Aunt Karen!"

After the woman had received a similar greeting, Jenny moved into the apartment and flopped down on the couch.

"What are you..." Randy began, confused, still holding the door open.

"Mom and Dad are on their way up. I just ran ahead."

"Ah," said Randy, deciding to wait by the door for his sister and brother-in-law. "Well, Karen and I just got back from doing some shopping, so I guess it's a good time."

"So, did the Fearsome Blue Trio solve either of those mysteries Blue Impact wanted your help with?" said Karen.

"Not really, but we only had a week and a half."

Jenny's smile faded, and she twisted uncomfortably on the couch.

"What I actually wanted to talk to you two about is something else, before my parents get up here," she said.

Before she could say anything else, though, there was the sound of footsteps approaching the still-open door.

"Hey! Anybody home!" Randy's sister called out. "Brother mine, you better appreciate us getting out in weather like this to come and see you!"

"Oh, well," said Jenny, with a weak smile. "Later, I guess."

"So, how are the soon-to-be-married couple?" said Max, as he and his wife entered and were greeted.

"We've reset the date," said Karen, a bit embarrassed. "Again. After having to postpone two times, we're firmly aiming at early August. That will give us time for a honeymoon before Randy goes back to work at the school in the Fall."

"It still boggles me a bit that Randy is doing that," said Julie. "He never showed any interest in costumed heroes until he suddenly started working with the Intrepids as a volunteer."

"Just be glad Jenny has a place to go where she can be taught how to use her powers and can learn with others who have powers," said Randy, changing topic slightly. "There were many times I wished I'd had someone to help with mine."

The adults chatted while Jenny played computer games and engaged in an online chat on Randy's desktop. Her parents didn't catch on that it was rather more than a standard unit, and that the people she was in communication with were also students of the Pine Academy.

Eventually, the trio left, without Jenny ever being able to talk to Randy about whatever it was she had run up ahead of her parents to deal with.


***


The freak Spring snowstorm all across the northern part of the US was filling the news but Solange wasn't distracted enough by this to miss that something was bothering her friend. Energia had stopped by the Intrepids' base to catch a ride back to the Pine Academy after briefly visiting her family at the end of Spring Break, and she was looking down. Solange had thought at first this might be due to spending too little time with her parents, but after an initial exchange realized the problem was something less mundane.

"Zudalv, can you handle monitor duty for a few minutes while I take a break with my friend?"

"Sure," said the super, a new recruit since the last time Energia had been at the base.

Energia remembered her uncle remarking more than once on the number of people now with the Intrepids. Apparently, the publicity they had earned during the previous arrest of most of the team by the feds had jumpstarted the team. Neither were the Intrepids the only team experiencing such a resurgence. Her sociology teacher had noted that as a result of the efforts to restrain supers there had been an increase in membership in over half the legitimate teams, several new teams starting up and a surge in solo mask activities.

The older super guided the younger into a small break room across the hall from the monitor room.

"What's bothering you, honey?" said Solange, as she sat Energia down at the table.

"I tried telling, uhm, Template and Colossa yesterday, but we got interrupted and I wasn't able to before I had to leave."

"Well, you can tell me, here and now."

"I was flying here - to my folks' place, I mean - from Blue Impact's place three days ago and just outside Philadelphia I saw a major traffic accident. Thought it was caused by the blizzard."

"The big tie-up on the freeway? Yeah, I got that on the news."

"Well, there was a diesel tanker truck on fire. I put that out and made sure the driver was okay, then took a better look around. There were a lot of cars off the road. I melted the pavement clear, then some paths for drivers to get back onto it, and even tugged on some magnetically when they got bogged down in the thawed ground. I noticed, though, that some of the people were looking at me strange. Then I landed to try and get a woman out of a wrecked car, and she started screaming at me. Said I was the one who caused the accident, and she was gonna sue and put me in jail."

"The news said that a super had caused the tank to rupture and the fuel to catch fire, apparently by trying to get it back on the road and messing up badly," said Solange, frowning. "They didn't say who it was."

"Well, some of the other people there said a woman - she was at least in her late teens, obviously older than me, even with the padding in my costume - dressed like me and saying she was Energia was the one who caused the problem! With the tanker truck, I mean; the storm had already caused some problems, including the tanker truck getting sideways on a bridge. When she messed up she just hovered there for a while looking confused, then left, fast."

"We call them echoes," said the Black Mask, scowling. Neither of the girls had noticed him standing in the doorway, listening. "Whether they're clones, other-dimensional counterparts, mimics or simply someone in disguise."

"Yeah, well, whoever or whatever she is, she's not doing my reputation any good," said Energia, echoing the other's scowl.

"We need a press release," said the Black Mask. "Now."

That proved easy enough to do, and didn't take very long. The Black Mask contacted the team's law firm and gave them the basic information. The attorney then spoke with Energia, asking some specific questions. He promised that a formal statement would be released to the press shortly after lunch.

"Of course, now we need to alert other teams and singletons we know to be on the lookout for this echo," said Rapscallion.

"On a related note, there's a Mask Alert out for Falcon Eddie," said the Black Mask. "He hasn't been seen since the day before yesterday, when he was out patrolling between the storms which hit the northwest."

"That's the third super I know of who has been out of touch unusually long," said Bowman. "Of course, given the weather that's not too unexpected. With the combination of the missing supers and this fake Energia, though, I think we better send out a yellow alert. Someone could be targeting masks."

"Meanwhile," said Solange, to Energia, "you keep a low profile. No heroing unsupervised."

"Aw," said the younger Mask. "Okay. I can see why. I just don't like it. Anyway, I'm heading back to school, soon, so there's not much chance of action for a while."


***


"Well, I'm glad Falcon Eddie and some of the other missing supers are home, safe and sound," said Randy, when he checked in with the Intrepids himself later that day, and was updated on his niece's problems as well as the status of the supers folks were worried about.

"Yeah," said Bowman. "Turns out each had a pretty good reason for being out of touch. Falcon Eddie was holed up inside the back of a semi with a bunch of stranded motorists, keeping warm, and his com just wouldn't penetrate the metal walls. No-one who knows him is surprised he didn't simply go outside. Another missing Mask was working undercover, and so on. I think we're all a bit on edge from recent events and overreacted."

"This is just when they'd strike, though, to take advantage of that," said Rapscallion, muttering direly.


***


School was in session as scheduled the next day. Many of the students had arrived early, up to a week in some cases, but there were still many just arriving. Most of the student body were veterans of at least one semester, but sixteen were new to the school, the smallest growth since it opened. With all this, the first day was devoted to settling in and socializing, with teachers and experienced students showing the newcomers the facilities.

Late that afternoon the first staff meeting after Spring Break was held in the main conference room.

"Well, Congress tabled the matter of the island's status, again," said Eve, sourly, after more immediate business had been addressed.

"It's not really an urgent issue," said Andrea. "Most of the things we thought we needed the status determined for have either been postponed or handled in other ways."

"Frankly, I'm just glad to be back here," said Cyclone Ranger. "It seems anti-super sentiment is growing in some factions of the press, and among some politicians. There are several reasons, none of which seem connected to each other. Just coincidence - or bad luck - we're having several at once. Out here, we're away from most of that."

"True," said Andrea, nodding. "Just remember, we're not away from all of it, even out here."


***


"So, what did you folks do over Spring break?" asked Rubber Maid, flopping onto the couch in the lounge of the girls' dorm and stretching.

She had arrived late at the school, due to family commitments, only reaching the island shortly before lunch. Now, with supper over and bedtime nearing, she was finally able to finish catching up.

"Watch it!" said Allessandra, from across the room, where she was reading a magazine. "If I want your help turning pages I'll ask for it!"

There was excited chatter for a while about various vacation adventures. Gadgetive, grinning, waited for the others to wind down before making her big announcement.

"Well, the break was fun, but just before leaving for here I learned that this Summer I'm going to get to do something I've been dreaming of," said Gadgetive, eagerly. "I'm going to Camp Wannamakabigboom!"

"Camp... What?!" said Energia.

"A special camp for gadgeteers," said Rubber Maid, snickering. "It's out in Nevada, near the nuclear test site. They figure those with more enthusiasm than sense can't hurt much there."

"Yeah! I'm gonna test my new fractal bomb!"

"Completely missing the part about 'sense,'" said Energia, with a smirk.

"Huh?"

"It's the brain, you know," said Allessandra, dryly. "The part of the brain that in most people provides caution and common sense, in gadgeteers and mad scientists is used for gadgeteering and mad science."

"You all just envy my technical competence," said Gadgetive, scowling.

"Who was it needed help programming the CDR last month?" said Energia.

"Not my fault. The thing's not just not-intuitive, it's anti-intuitive. And you won't let me improve it."

"All right, children," said the dorm mother, entering and clapping her hands. "Time to get ready for bed. You'll need an early start tomorrow."

With a bit of teen protest, the girls started wandering off to various night time tasks.







Part Five: The Thick Plottens




Still the storm caused trouble, though it was by now greatly weakened. Mostly those working to correct the problems the blizzard had brought were in the cleanup phase now, finding the last few of the stranded motorists, restoring power to dark and freezing homes and tending the injuries of those unlucky or careless.

Situ and the Azure Fox had just finished helping some paramedics extract three people from a wrecked car which had been accidentally buried by a snowplow two days previously. Situ - aka Stu to his teammates - was irritated at Blue Fox for almost missing one of the victims.

"You know better than that, Foxy," said Stu, with a stern expression. "Paramedic Rule #8: Always look under the air bag."

"Fuck you," the Violet Vixen snarled, very much uncharacteristically. "Fuck them, too. I'm tired of helping people who don't deserve it."

She turned to glare at the shocked paramedics and firemen.

"And you can quote me! All you helpless, useless humans can go straight to Hell, and I'll be glad to see you gone!"

She turned and stormed off, seemingly oblivious to two people recording her tirade on their cell phones.


***


The weeks passed quickly for the students at the Pine Academy. A little less so for the staff, who were more closely connected to the outside world.

"Is this some form of mass insanity?" said Cyclone Ranger. "Over two dozen veteran Masks committing public faux pas in the past month. And all the enemies of costumed heroes are making hay from the events."

"I wonder if the political situation is getting to them," said Chestnut, chewing her lip thoughtfully. "I know a lot of folks are fed up with governments and TV networks basically blaming them for everything up to and including the AIDS epidemic."

"I'm actually worried for the students who are going back to the US this Summer," said Template. "Most of them aren't active supers, of course, but some are, and others have family who are. If things get really bad some of the others could be impacted too."

"I wonder if that would be a bad thing," said Andrea, musing. "Having children affected by their measures would give many politicians and self-appointed speakers pause."

"We can hope," said Cyclone Ranger, dryly.

"Still... we have an obligation to try and make sure each student is near someone who can keep an eye on them and help out of there's a problem. I mean, that there's someone nearby we can count on to keep an eye on the student."

"Oh, very good idea, Burgundy," said Template, leaning forward and nodding. "We'll keep this as quiet as we can, though. Not even tell the students unless we have to. We'll need someone to cross reference student locations with supers we can count on in the same area."

"Should we go even further?" said Chestnut. "Maybe have planned escape routes and safe houses?"

"Maybe... I'll contact the Black Mask and ask him for ideas. He probably has more experience with that sort of thing than even most spies."


***


"Adjustment of our schedule is required," said the Theengrumb manager in charge of the project to capture Maldren. "Matters did not peak soon enough, and now threaten to peak when the boy is not available. If the planned response to our stimulus occurs while the Primus is offplanet most likely he will not return. Therefore, I recommend a reduction in stimulus until school returns to session, then resume."

"Agreed. Be aware that this plan would likely require even greater stimulus to achieve the desired response later, given desensitization resulting from the initial effort."

"Understood. Projections show this would still allow completion of the project within budget."


***


For the next several weeks things calmed a bit. There were still problems with occasional supers making politically unpopular statements, and non-supers taking advantage of this. However, except for a few, isolated incidents there were no actual official actions taken against supers. As school ended for the Summer there were hopes that the students would have a peaceful vacation.


***


"How did I get talked into this?" muttered Blue Impact. She was dissembling, of course. She wasn't supposed to tell her charges that their Summer work with her was to help protect them.

"Gadgetive needed somewhere to go after her camp was cancelled, due to all this fuss over those supers losing their cool, and I need help with class stuff and this is better than Summer School," said Energia, answering a question intended to be rhetorical.

"And Gadgetive could also use some tutoring," said Blue Impact, giving the youngster a stern look. "You do fine on a lot of subjects, but you still need to work on others."

"Funny how all that 'fuss' just died away, once what I wanted to do was cancelled," said Gadgetive, scowling as she tried to change the subject.

"I didn't know you bought into conspiracy theories," said Energia, teasing.

"Only when they affect me personally."

Blue Impact gazed back and forth between the pair for a few seconds, deep in thought. Part of the reason for this, over and above the whole problem of possible actions by governments or self-righteous groups or individuals against unprotected young supers, was the matter of Energia's double. There had been three other appearances, all in the area but all outside the city. Blue Impact was hoping that actually having Energia here and publicly active would flush the dopple out and/or draw attention to the distinction between her and the real Energia.

That, unfortunately, meant putting the girl in the public eye and at potential risk. However, the consensus of the school staff - including her uncle - was that the risk was minor and bringing things to a head now rather than later was a good idea. Her parents had agreed, showing more sense and courage than Blue Impact had expected. As well as more trust in her, personally, and the others helping with this..

"Okay, back to work..."


***


"Okay," said Blue Impact, starting that evening's tutoring. "Name a super and that super's common nickname."

"This is trivial," snarled Gadgetive. "Literally."

"It serves multiple purposes," said Blue Impact. "Among them memory training. Now, do either of you have an answer?"

"Topo, the Swami of Origami!" said Energia, enthusiastically.

"Ooh, and a nice, obscure one!" said Blue Impact, pleased. "Gadgetive?"

"Cyclone Ranger," said Gadgetive, sourly. "Blowhard."

"Okay, valid, but too easy," said Blue Impact, with a sigh.

They went at it for two hours, alternating between things Gadgetive needed to work on and Energia's weaknesses. When Blue Impact finally called a halt both youngsters were quite glad.

"Okay, some relaxation time, then bed," she told them.  "Tomorrow we'll have more time, and will address a wider variety of issues. Including physical training."

"Great," muttered Gadgetive.

"Mens sana in corpore sano," said Energia, in a lecturing tone. "The more fit your body, the better your brain works."

"Yeah, yeah," said Gadgetive.

"Extra credit for Energia," said Blue Impact, laughing.


***


"Oh; here's a cell phone for you," said Gadgetive, the next morning, handing the object to Energia. "Specially shielded."

"Wow, thanks! What sort of account does it have?"

"Uh..." said Gadgetive.

"Figures," said Energia, rolling her eyes. "You focused on the physical object and neglected everything else."

"I'll arrange a cell phone account for you," said Blue Impact. "I've done it before, for myself and others."

"Thanks!"

"Hey, are you all right?" said Blue Impact to Gadgetive, while the other girl tested her new phone.

"I really wanted to have a chance to work with Dr. Device again," said Gadgetive, sourly. "Just this past year he was featured in Beaker and Electrode. He's even contributed to Maniagnosis and The New Journal of Malology recently. I haven't seen him since before I started with the school!"

"Oh, get over it," said Energia, pointedly, while waiting for someone to answer her call. "He'll be there next year. Oh, hi!"

"Gadgetive, if you really want to see Ike I can arrange a visit," said Blue Impact, sympathetically, while Energia chatted away.

"I don't just want to visit," she said, almost pouting, "I want to collaborate!"

"Well, we've been trying to get him to come to the school for some work with advanced students. I'll remind Andrea about that next time I talk to her."

"Thanks," said Gadgetive, brightening some.


***


The next morning, as soon as breakfast was digested, they did some physical training. Energia was still impressed with just how capable Blue Impact was in that area. Especially for someone who could pass as an unusually fit normal. After showers and clothing changes they started the more cerebral portion of the day's schooling.

"Okay," said Blue Impact, "name three Masks with musical names and give one interesting fact about each."

She had picked that particular trivia question because of Gadgetive's interest in music, hoping this would help encourage the young gadgeteer to participate more. The tactic seemed to work.

"Uhm, there's Guitar Wizard, who claims to be a direct descendant of the Norse god of rock," said Gadgetive, "and there's Drum Solo, who always works with the Crisis Intervention Squad. And..."

An alarm rang, and a synthesized voice calmly announced "Rogue super alert. Class two physical threat: Ironmonger. Ironmonger is currently assaulting an armored car with the weekly payroll for Carstairs Industrial. Location: Five hundred block of Gorton Court, cross street Harrison Avenue."

"Let's roll!" said Blue Impact, jumping to her feet. "And make sure you're prepared! Ironmonger is a real tough guy. He and Saint Louis Mo got into a brawl, once, and leveled two city blocks before the heroes showed up. Then joined forces against them. Turns out they were just fighting for fun, and didn't get mad until the do-gooders spoiled things. So you kids keep your distance. If anyone has to get close, let it be me."


***


They arrived too late to stop the robbery, but managed to track Ironmonger to an empty building nearby. This wasn't difficult; he had ripped the top off the armored car and used it as a travois to haul away the bags of money. The marks on the pavement were pretty obvious.

Regular law enforcement was still notably absent. Blue Impact had wanted to simply keep an eye on the building until they arrived - hopefully with heavy weapons - but Ironmonger spotted them. Yelling profanity, he began throwing chunks of concrete, continuing even after they moved out of sight.

Realizing this was endangering people in the area, Blue Impact went in, ordering her charges to keep their distance. Fortunately, neither youngster seemed eager to close with the brute.

Unfortunately, the brute ambushed her, then retained the upper hand in spite of every thing Blue Impact tried. Worse, he managed to maneuver her to a location where the floor had given way, and got her tangled up in debris.

Ironmonger was about to deliver a double downward hammerfist to the fallen Blue Impact when a bolt of lightning hit him in back, just below his right shoulder. He staggered... then spun around to look for the source.

"Oh, shit!" squeaked Energia, who, wide-eyed with alarm, quickly built up another charge. She was shooting through an empty window frame in the side of the building, but was well aware that the wall wouldn't be much of an impediment to the hulking super.

Her body pulsed with an auroral glow and her hair briefly fluttered from the building charge, before the glow surged into her hands and was spat out in concentrated form across the gap to Ironmonger. He staggered again.

Before he could recover, Blue Impact lunged to her own feet. Ironmonger dodged sideways, out from between the pair.

There was a muffled "Spoot!" as a launcher-deployed net dropped over him. He yelled in surprise and began tearing at it, but in the process was hit with another lightning bolt.

"Keep it up!" Blue Impact yelled, as she grabbed an I-beam from the rubble.

The next few seconds were frantic - and far from pretty - but by the end they had the brick subdued. Very thoroughly.

"Wow," groaned, Energia, sagging. "I am just about tapped out. There's nothing nearby for me to recharge from."

"And I'm out of nets and webbing," said Gadgetive.

"Just make sure that neural paralyzer is secured," said Blue Impact, from where she sat on a section of broken wall, massaging her left knee. She also had several minor cuts, plus bruises and abrasions and a rapidly blackening eye. "I'm going to have to carry him out of here, and I do not want him waking up halfway through. Just need a few minutes for my knee to heal."

The trip wasn't an easy one; given the uneven and uncertain footing the two younger members of the team scouted for the best path. Blue Impact could handle Ironmonger's weight, and thanks to her regeneration was soon almost back to optimum, but she occasionally found one or both feet breaking through the rubble into a cavity below. Still, they got him out of the building and into the middle of the street without serious incident.

"I hear sirens," said Gadgetive, looking around. "Lots of 'em."

"Good," said Blue Impact, with a groan, as she laid him on the sidewalk. "The more the better, as far as I'm concerned."

Moments later vehicles pulled up. Officers and plain clothes LEOs jumped out and leveled guns at the small group of supers from behind open car doors. The trio were just starting to wonder if something they weren't going to like was about to happen when Lieutenant Barris - whom they had met after stopping BlueBot - started yelling over a bullhorn.

"Drop your weapons and put your hands up!"







Part Six: Uncivil Arrest




The command was so unexpected, so disconnected from the situation as the trio knew it, that they just stared at the uniformed police officers pointing weapons at them.

"Uh, you do know we just stopped a major crime, right?" said Blue Impact, when she realized they weren't kidding.

"Drop your weapons!"

"What weapons?!" said Energia, raising her hands and turning slowly.

"Yeah, what she said," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.

"Gadgetive, drop your pack," said Blue Impact, raising her hands. "Carefully. I don't know what's going on, here, but they mean business."

"Okay, okay," said the gadgeteer, grumpily, as she shucked off pack and belt. "But what about you two? You have major physical powers. How do you drop those?"

Uniformed officers swarmed forward, and soon had the trio leaning against a wall. Barris, himself, made a show of moving in to pat them down. He started with Blue Impact, who grimaced at the man's touch. When he started for Energia, though, she spoke up.

"You do know she's underage, right?" said Blue Impact, icily.

"Then she shouldn't dress like that!"

"So it's the girl's fault you're aroused?"

"Yes! What?! I mean, no! Look, I'm not..."

"No wonder you've been through sensitivity training five times."

"I have never been through sensitivity training!"

"Past time you were, ask me," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.

The Lieutenant was left sputtering as the trio was placed in separate squad cars.

At the station the booking sergeant seemed as baffled by the arrest of the trio as they were. Barris moved in to take charge.

"Book 'em for armed robbery," he announced, loudly.

"We stopped the robber, you idiot!" snapped Gadgetive. "We put our lives on the line doing it!"

"Yeah, if we were in on it, why did we fight Ironmonger?" said Energia.

"A falling-out among thieves," said Barris, smugly. "A stroke of fortune for us."

The booking sergeant made clear his skepticism, and from the attitudes of the people around them he wasn't alone in that, but Barris bulldozed the process through and had them placed together in a cell with a neutralizer.

"I hate those things," said Energia, a bit sick and not entirely from the neutralizer.

"Feel like my head's full of cotton," said Gadgetive, looking green. "Wish we still had the countermeasure modules."

"There's something weird going on, here," said Blue Impact, scowling as she paced around the small space. "They have to leave our masks on, but they should have made us change into prison clothes, since costumes usually have hidden gadgets. They didn't even search us all that well, just went through the motions. And they shouldn't have put us all in one cell."

"Maybe they only had one with a neutralizer," said Energia, huddled on a bunk, knees drawn up to her chin.

Blue Impact tipped her head, then moved over to a corner of the cell, listening.

"Sounds like a mob. Or a group of reporters."

The others couldn't hear that, but trusted their teacher's keener senses.

"Yeah, I think I get this, now. Leave us in costume and then parade us like trophies in front of the press."

This is indeed what happened. Someone made an announcement that the "felons" were "too dangerous" to leave in the precinct jail. Therefore they were to be transfered to the courthouse downtown, where the facilities were better equipped for handling super criminals.

"Aren't they supposed to call us 'suspects'?" said Energia, as the door into the cell block opened.

"This is all a political power play of some sort," said Blue Impact. "Look as innocent and distraught as you can."

"Well, since I am innocent and am distraught, that will be easy," said Gadgetive.

The Masks were paraded through the building and out a back door, into a parking lot crowded with press.

"No neutralizers," said Energia, quietly. "Should we make a break for it?"

"No!" said Blue Impact, almost hissing. "Just think of the impression that would make on the evening news. In fact, I think that may be what the jerks who arranged this want!"

There was no opportunity to address the reporters and microphones. The trio was hustled into a prisoner transport van with a neutralizer already on inside. They were securely shackled to the benches in the vehicle and the rear doors closed. The van lurched into motion.

Not much later, at the courthouse, they were paraded through another gauntlet of shouting reporters and staring TV cameras. Inside they were taken to a small conference room, where the three supers were confronted by an angry Assistant District Attorney, one Clarence Langson, according to his ID badge. Oddly, he was also wearing a VISITOR badge, perhaps and indication he wasn't part of the workforce in this building. Heavily armed SWAT personnel stood wary guard. Again there were no neutralizers, but the SWAT members had weapons potent enough to be a threat even to Blue Impact.

For someone supposedly dealing with dangerous super criminals, Langson seemed inordinately happy. He beamed up at the trio from behind a heavy table.

"So, not only do we finally have you, we have your accomplices! And they're both underage!"

"What do you think's going on here?" said Blue Impact, outraged. "You do know I'm one of their teachers, right?"

"You'll be charged with aiding in the delinquency of a minor, under the guise of being a trusted classroom instructor. And whatever else I can think to throw at you!"

"Does anyone know what he's talking about?" said Gadgetive, looking around the room. "'Cause it's not us."

"This one," said the ADA, pointing at Energia, "we can hold on her own! And I'm sure once we dig into things more thoroughly, we can find charges against the short one."
"Hey!" said Gadgetive.

"Okay, I think I see where this is coming from," said Blue Impact, icily. "Part of it, anyway. Though it still makes no sense. You do know the 'Energia' who caused the damage on the freeway was wearing a different costume, right? And this Energia arrived on the scene less than five minutes after the culprit left. This was all explained in a press release, along with follow-ups each time the double reappeared."

"A typical Mask attempt at misdirection!"

"He's crazy," said Energia, creeped out and a little scared.

"No, he's politically ambitious," said Blue Impact. She leaned forward to rest her palms, arms straight, on the man's desk. In spite of its apparent solidity, the piece of furniture groaned a bit under her weight. "Took me a moment to place you. You're the same guy who tried to prosecute a teacher who took her class to the natural history museum. You said she was an atheist who was promoting godless evolution. Then had to rather clumsily take it all back when she turned out to be a deacon in her church, and the trip was one of several such outings which are part of the standard curriculum. Well, we're no more guilty than she was, and you won't be any more successful in using us to further your political aspirations now than you were with her then."

Langson jumped to his feet, face red, and began swearing incoherently.

"How dare you talk like that in front of children!" Blue Impact shouted back, quickly straightening to glare indignantly at the man.

The door was shoved open, and an older man in a suit barged in.

"Dammit, Langson! You were supposed to wait!"

"Not my fault you're late," said the ADA, smugly. "Pull up a chair."

"I'm not staying. Neither is anyone else."

He motioned six matrons in to quickly take the trio out of the room. Langson was left sputtering in incoherent rage.

"I'm sorry about that. He's not even authorized to interrogate you. Nothing said in there will hold up in court."

"Pity," said Blue Impact, in a tight, angry voice. "He was digging a pretty good hole for himself."

This time they were taken through the proper procedure. A short time later, freshly showered and in orange jumpsuits but with masks (and Blue Impact's wig) still in place, they were reunited in their new cell.

"Back together again," said Energia, looking wanly up at the neutralizer. "Why didn't they keep us separated?"

"Y'know, I remember something about budget cuts meaning they could only have one cell equipped with those per jail," said Blue Impact, regarding it with less trepidation. "Ah, well; people know where we are. Hopefully, we'll be bailed out of here in a few hours."


***


"They did WHAT?!" Randy shouted into the phone. "Why, those..."

"Please, calm down," said Eve. "They're not in any danger and our attorneys are already working on the problem. I understand your concern, but do not go flying off to rescue them. They don't need rescuing."

Randy took a deep breath, and nodded.

"All right," he said, realizing Eve couldn't see him. "I'll stay out of it."

"Oh, you don't need to do that. I'll put you in touch with the attorney handling this for us. As a representative of the school we may be able to get you in to visit them. However, I do request that if you go there you do so as Template."

"That's probably a very good idea," said Randy, a bit ominously.


***


"This is Radio Nowhere, coming to you from everywhere," said the sultry voice. "Rumor has it that the government of the United States has finally decided to take open action against the people who protect it against rogue supers. Besides numerous arrests by police, several major teams have experienced attacks from a mysterious paramilitary group. Some of those teams have had many or even all of their members captured. As well, many individual Masks have been ambushed and some of them captured, and more are missing in action. The administration is refusing to comment on these events, which itself is suspicious. Law enforcement agencies have uniformly denied involvement in these actions, including those in administrations known to be Mask friendly. Many law enforcement agencies are actually holding prisoner some of these paramilitary operatives, who are refusing to answer any questions. Stay tuned and we will transmit the updates as we receive them."

Her tone changed, became more intimate, as if she were leaning closer to the mike.

"You know, you keep seeing this, throughout history. Unless they are very noble or enlightened, those in power fear anyone who can defy them. Because they crave their power and don't want it challenged. And only those sufficiently noble or enlightened are able to resist that fear, and the temptation to remove the challenge which it generates."


***


"Good thing you contacted us so quickly," said Lucille Cedar, the attorney sent to help the trio. "Even then, if we and the judge hadn't given you top priority because there are minors involved you might have been here for days instead of hours. As it is we were able to get the judge to take prompt action in spite of the legal system being very busy right now. You see, it's not just you who's in jail."

"What do you mean it's not just us?" said Blue Impact, astounded.

"Yesterday, the administration in DC quietly sent out word that any actions taken against non-government sanctioned Masks would be supported by the President," said Lucille. "We're swamped. I don't normally handle super cases, but practically the whole firm has been mobilized. After someone leaked the story, the White House at first denied the whole thing, then announced the same policy publicly. The president went on live TV last night and stated flatly that because superhumans aren't human the Bill of Rights 'don't apply to them.'"

Template was there with the lawyer, but had hardly said two words. Even her brief hug of Energia had been perfunctory. She seemed distant, preoccupied. Angry. Which did not reassure Energia at all.

"What?!" shouted Blue Impact, both outraged and frightened.

"Any excuse whatsoever is being used to arrest supers, hero or villain. They've even called out the military to help. So far nearly half the established teams have been targeted, and over fifty freelancers. The rest are buttoning down and trying to figure out what to do."

"But... but... what about the Posse Comitatus Act?!" said Energia.

"Repealed, late last year," said Lucille, tiredly. "And civil liberties groups are outraged that the popular media ignored the fact."

"One thing in our favor, almost every judge with jurisdiction over the cases being brought against the supers targeted has granted bail, often on the charged person's own recognizance. The feds and all the administrators involved in this are screaming bloody murder at them for 'sabotaging' the effort and threatening to declare martial law. A few - fortunately only a very few - supers have taken direct action against those who are ordering the arrests. Which only encourages other politicians to take action against supers."

"How's the school doing?" said Blue Impact.

"They're fine," said Template, speaking for the first time in several minutes. Her voice was tight and low. "There's no local government to take action, of course, and so far the feds are apparently ignoring the Academy. Maybe because they're in a territory, rather than a state."

"Wait... don't you think that's odd?" said Energia. "I mean, that island is home - well, most of the year - to the largest group of supers on the planet, and even has a super team base on it."

"That does seem a bit strange," said Blue Impact.

"Well, we do have more stringent security measures than even most teams," said Template. "Especially after all those androids. And it's security in depth, with multiple layers extending out and up several kilometers, something most team bases don't have. There are also nearly a hundred foreign nationals there to consider. And there's still a UN presence on the island. Don't worry about the school."

"Good point," said Blue Impact, nodding. "Several of them, actually."

"So when can we get out of here?" said Gadgetive, for once looking and acting her age.

"Judge Messer started the paperwork and told me to get over here while it went through," said Lucille. "He's super-sympathetic, for several reasons. I'm just waiting for the clerks to finish and pass the word down, and we'll be good to go."







Part Seven: Civil Disobedience




"You're out of your mind!" said the radio conglomerate executive. "Not to mention exceeding your authority! Radio Nowhere is one of our most popular syndicated shows! No way are we pulling it!"

"You'll pull it or lose your license," said the FCC agent.

"That's a violation of our First Amendment rights!"

"You honestly think any judge or jury will care about an amendment when the main body of the Constitution is being violated by these seditious programs of yours?!"

"You can't do this," said the radio man, more weakly, as he realized just how fanatical these people were. "You can't..."


***


"Super Control Force Division Fourteen ready," said Stevens, quietly.

"You are go," came the voice over his secure radio.

"Move out," said Stevens, to the head of the assault unit.

He sat back - leaning back in his chair, actually - to take in the view of all the monitors in the mobile command center. They'd had to rush things, the order had been that unexpected, but given the time zone difference that meant they should have this wrapped up by normal quitting time. And one more group of costumed vigilantes would be out of business.

The three stealthed lifters approached from three different directions, one slightly in the lead. That contained - besides the vehicle crew and an assault team - the two psychics. Stevens had nothing against people with powers, he just wanted them in the chain of command, not "freelancing." The pair were well trained and experienced, and had worked together before. They knew what to expect from this mission, and what to do to achieve it.

Within minutes their influence had spread to the security staff. Though talented and trained, they were normal humans. The go-ahead was given, and the lifters moved to the rooftop heliport of the building. The team vehicles were all here, and from surveillance they knew most of the full-time members were, as well. The stragglers would be rounded up once the facility was secured. Stevens didn't have enough staff to chase them all down and take the base at the same time. Hopefully, once this was over that would change.

Each in turn, the lifters dropped off personnel and equipment, then pulled back to wait. The mission leader gave the high sign, and sedative gas was pumped into the building. With the security staff dominated, the sensors and alarms were safely off-line. Those few inside who were not susceptible to the gas would be taken out by the mentalists.

"All out but one," came the information over the assault leader's headphones. "Psis having a hard time getting a bead."

"That's what they get for not having a mentalist on the team," said Aftergood, with a slight laugh in his voice.

"We can handle one," said the assault leader, confidently.

"Just to be safe, put Analyzer with the team going after him."

"Roger."

The team expertly swept the building. With the building's security crew having unlocked all doors before the gas rendered them unconscious this went quite smoothly. However, the psis still could not precisely locate that one person.

"His mind is slippery and snarling," said one of the psychics, sounding dazed and perhaps a little drunk.

Well, she always did when working.

"He's using the ducts and crawlways," said Analyzer, over his radio. "He'll be heading for security."

"Head him off, then."

The Analyzer's team was almost there when they heard a garbled exclamation over their headsets. There was no response from two of the five teams.

"Somebody's been busy," said Analyzer, smiling.

"Everybody on your toes!" said the assault leader. "Report status every ninety seconds!"

In spite of those precautions, within minutes only Analyzer's team was still active.

"All right, we go back to that briefing room we just passed," he ordered the nervous team members. "Set up a defensive perimeter. Stevens, how soon until reinforcements get here?"

There was no response.

"Sir, no outside coms. Not even through the relay we left on the roof."

"He's already re-established security," said Analyzer, beaming. "Better and better."

He loved a challenge. The more so when a challenging opponent fell before his brilliance.

They were just entering the briefing room when a black-suited figure dropped down through the ceiling tiles. The team opened fire, to no apparent effect, as the mystery figure tore through them. Analyzer stood back watching. The costume was unfamiliar, but the moves weren't. Perfect; he knew how to beat Tiger.

The Analyzer watched with little concern as Tiger turned a crack unit into a group basket case. He'd already discerned the super's weakness from recordings of the man in action; he jumped around too much. Since he couldn't fly, each leap meant a short period when Tiger couldn't dodge. The Analyzer drew his pistol and waited. When Tiger had disabled the last agent the Analyzer made a point of deliberately aiming his gun at the super, right between the eyes. As expected, Tiger leapt... and his aura began glowing. All rational thoughts fled from the Analyzer's mind as the great, luminous cat leapt at him. Primal instincts kicked in, and he became an ape on the plains being attacked by a large predator. He screamed and turned to flee. The double impact of Tiger on his back and him against the floor rendered the Analyzer soundly unconscious.

Tiger quickly disarmed and bound the men and women who had invaded the Bay Area Guardians' base. He used his suit to patch into the building's communications array and update the people he'd already contacted.

"Threat neutralized. Air being flushed. Building sealed and secure."

"I hope you don't mind, but we're still sending a team over," said the Guardsman. "Just to be sure."

"Don't mind at all," said Tiger. "Just stay on alert. We may not be the only targets."

"We're sending out a general waring," the Guardsman reassured him.

Tiger stretched and winced at his bruises. The suit was tough, but these people had been armed to go against supers. Still, he was in much better shape than if he'd not been wearing it.

The outfit had been designed by Ike Kenniman to compliment Tiger's abilities. Normally a quiet mover, in this suit he was all but silent. It was transparent to his enhanced senses while providing more, including a multi-function radio. The suit did not augment his strength, but compensated for its own mass and inertia so Tiger felt almost like he wasn't wearing it. Or anything, for that matter. The suit roughly doubled his resistance to damage, and provided many accessories. Including air filtration. He was just lucky his magically-enhanced stamina had allowed him to reach an oxygen tank in time...


***


The police arrived only a few seconds after the group from the Planetary Guardians. Robertson, the San Francisco PD Detective in charge, had bad news.

"There's a major anti-super war on," said the Detective. "Looks like every government sponsored team has been ordered to capture every independent team. Since there are far more of the latter, mask hunter teams like this have been sent after other 'uncooperative' teams. Until we decide what's going on, for your own protection, we're going to station a SWAT team in your parking lot."

"That is an excellent idea," said Steel Lace, fighting a headache the gas had left her. "For several reasons."

"Well, we've always had good relations with your team and our Mayor and his council have already denounced the President's actions. Don't worry; we'll stick by you."

He sighed and shook his head.

"The weirdest part of this is that the feds are denying any involvement, even though federal resources are being used in the attacks."

"That's not weird at all," said Mesa, sourly. "If they say they're not involved, you're supposed to believe them, just like good little drones."


***


"You failed," said Stevens' supervisor, whom he knew only as Basil. "Not only did you fail in your mission, your failure allowed word to get out to other rebels. More, because of your failure the city government is backing the rebels. If you had succeeded they would have fallen in line with Washington. All because your people let one man get away from them!"

"But he's not a serious threat," said Stevens, in a protesting tone. "He's not even officially a part of the team; just some sort of mascot."

"He's the chief engineer," said Basil, hotly. "And if he's not such a big threat how did he manage to collect an entire elite capture team - including the Analyzer - and turn them over to the police?"

"They got careless. Besides, we don't know that was all Tiger's work. There could have been..."

The other person in the room - Barbara Thorn, a liaison direct from the White House - leaned forward. The others immediately turned their attention to her. Stevens found her difficult to read, but guessed she wasn't happy.

"You know how much damage a trained agent can do. Imagine someone who has been training like that for thirty years while remaining in peak physical condition. You know how much damage a competent engineer can do. Multiply those together. Then multiply those by a factor of twenty to account for his powers. That's what you're up against with Tiger."

Stevens scowled, but that faded as what she had said sank in. Finally, reluctantly, he nodded.

"Prepare Brute Force," said Basil. "The President is putting pressure on the Mayor. If he still refuses to see reason, send them in to take the base. We'll spin it as an impromptu alliance of criminals taking advantage of the situation."

"That won't be enough. Every super team on the planet will be on alert, now. I say we either use several covert teams and take the Guardians out individually, or we get a warrant and openly send at least our B Team in."

"No. We're still not ready to have federal forces move openly against the Masks. There's still too much support for them. So far, every action not taken by local governments is untraceable back to us. Let's try to keep things that way."


***


Back at the covert headquarters for his unit all Stevens wanted to do was put his head in his hands for a while. Unfortunately, his biggest gadfly was waiting with a report. And criticism.

"You sent a group of overconfident normals against a veteran Mask team in their stronghold," said Zolton, after he finished the briefing, "and then had the audacity to be surprised when the supers wiped the figurative floor with them."

"They just got lucky," snarled Stevens.

"No, they didn't. You consistently underestimate all supers not under government control, because you don't want to believe they can be effective. By the same token, you overestimate the capabilities of all supers under government control, because you want to believe that makes them superior to the freelancers. Any competent manager could have predicted this debacle would happen, from the histories of the involved parties alone. And upper management agrees with me. You should be hearing from them tomorrow by Noon, at the latest."

The man smiled, and spoke in an exaggerated tone.

"Expect a career change in your near future."

"You'll get this job over my dead body!"

"Well, you're safe from me, at least, since I don't want your job."

"If you didn't want my job," said Stevens, pointedly, "why would you spend so much time tearing me down?!"

"I want this project to succeed," said Zolton, heatedly. "This is a nation of the rule of law! And it's the government which determines the laws, and how they're applied! Not the press. Not the opinion polls. And certainly not the super heroes!!"

"That's the first thing you've said I agree with!"

"Your only consolation is that you weren't alone in failure. Nearly half the missions to take Masks into custody have come a cropper."


***


The release of Blue Impact and her charges took longer than expected. The city administration was being very petty over the matter, but in the end couldn't ignore the Judge's orders. Getting their belongings took even longer; seems they'd been lost. Template was doing a not-so-slow burn down to a spectacular demonstration of temper, when Lucille beat her to it and gave the clerk a verbal reaming which caused Template and Blue Impact to quickly escort the youngsters from the property room. Eventually their gear and costumes were returned, and they were given a room to change in.

"Bug," said Gadgetive, tossing a button into the trash. Next was what looked like a safety pin. "Bug..."

After nine miniature transmitters were so discarded she declared their items free of trackers and microphones.  With that out of the way, they began inspecting their belongings. The five of them noted that not only were several items missing but that some of the costumes had actually been cut in several places. Given how tough the materials were, that had taken considerable - and most certainly deliberate - action.

"I'm not going outside in these rags!" said Energia, outraged, as she held her costume up for examination. "I'd get arrested for indecent exposure!"

"Looks like they left my outfit alone," said Gadgetive, puzzled.

Fortunately, Gadgetive had some repair tape in her backpack, which had been returned along with her fanny pack. Oddly, the contents of those seemed untouched. Perhaps the police had been leery of even opening the belongings of a gadgeteer before specialists had disarmed them. Given several well known incidents of what had happened when someone did so, that attitude on the part of the rank and file cops would be quite justified. A few minutes of patching and the damaged outfits were good enough for the trip to Blue Impact's lair. Lucille pointed out that the ragged appearance of the outfits of the three arrestees would give the impression that they'd had a very hard time while in jail. Grudgingly satisfied, they changed out of the orange coveralls into their costumes.

"One more hurdle, and that's up to you," said Lucille. "There's a huge amount of press waiting for you folks out front. You can leave another way and just fly off. Or you can go out there and tell them what is happening."

"Oh, I definitely think the latter," said Template, lips thin with anger.

"If the kids are willing," said Blue Impact, quickly, giving Template an odd look.

"Oh, right," said Template, suddenly embarrassed. "I'm sorry, girls. You don't have to go out there, and if you do you don't have to say anything."

"Oh, I'm definitely going to say something," said Gadgetive, ominously.

"I want to talk to them," said Energia, more calmly.

"I think it would be better to let Energia do most of the talking," said Blue Impact, pointedly looking at Gadgetive.

They quickly went over what should be said by whom, then went outside.







Part Eight: Retrenchment




With the news conference over, they thanked Lucille and parted ways with the attorney, though only after making arrangements to contact her later. Template carried Blue Impact while Energia transported Gadgetive. Taking more than the usual precautions, they made their way back to where the fight had been.

They retrieved Blue Impact's bike - fortunately undiscovered by police, thieves or souvenir hunters - and quickly but surreptitiously made their way to the bakery. Once in her lair, they finally began to relax. Template insisted on the others resting while she handled everything they needed.

"I'm fine!" said Energia, irritated at the treatment. "I'm not sick or hurt!"

"No, she's right," said Blue Impact. "It was a traumatic several hours. Rest for a while. Kick back and watch some TV. If nothing else, we need to catch up on recent events."

She grinned at the two girls.

"Besides, it's nice to have someone else do the work around here for a change."

"Hey!" said Gadgetive.

"I just can't believe how... petty those jerks were," said Energia.

"It's always the same," said Blue Impact, leaning back on the couch with an exaggerated sigh. "Even when the politicos are pretending to be nice to masks, they can't help being jerks. There was this one time when a big political boss took the Bay Area Guardians out on his boat as part of a 'reward' after they very publicly saved the city from a major disaster. He made sure there was press along, too, despite telling the team it was just for them. As they were cruising around the Bay the guy for some reason targeted Tiger, and kept trying to get him to drink. I guess in a simple-minded effort to establish dominance. Now, given his metabolism, even several drinks of hard liquor wouldn't affect Tiger much, but because of his heightened senses he can't stand the smell of alcohol."

"I've heard you mention that about your own heightened senses," said Energia, nodding.

"And his are keener than mine. The guy said 'It's good Scotch! Be a man and drink up!'"

"Uh-oh," said Gadgetive, grinning.

"Tiger repeated that he didn't drink. So they guy shoved the glass at him and said 'You're being a bad guest. Drink or swim home.' Tiger said 'All right.' He poured the drink over the side, stood, stepped over the edge of the boat and went into the Bay. And, yes, he did indeed swim home. He and Tal have a home near the Bay and go swimming in it anyway."

Both girls laughed out loud at that.

"That is so like Tiger," said Template, returning from the kitchen with a tray of refreshments. "How did you happen to hear about this?"

"I was there. Was in town to consult with the team's engineering staff about a device I'd found, and joined the response when the alert sounded. That idiot pol didn't even know I wasn't part of the team."

The mood was more relaxed, after that. The four of them chatted about various things until Blue Impact noted that the news should be on soon.

Every news agency was covering the "Super Crackdown" of course, though some with less bias than others. One of the first relevant news items those in the old bakery found was that CNN was scrolling a list of all the Masks known to have been arrested, at the bottom of the screen.

"Rollerman?" said Energia, startled, as the names streamed past. "I thought he was a non-super street artist."

"Not according to the Detroit District Attorney," said Blue Impact, sourly.

They waited until the scroll started to repeat, then switched to the live BBC feed from the local cable company. The BBC, which normally was harshly critical of any super operating inside Britain, tended to treat supers outside the nation more objectively. The were currently showing a real-time update, the anchor reading from a printed sheet, with a slight pause between each name to add impact.

"Famous rapper superhero Sheik Yabooty," the dark-skinned woman behind the news desk intoned.

"Okay, he's a super, but he only uses his powers to perform," said Gadgetive, disgusted.

"Meridian."

"He works for the USGS!" said Template. "He doesn't even wear a costume!"

"Colonel O'Truth?!" said Blue Impact, a bit later. "He's a kids' show host!"

On and on the list went. Many of those named weren't even recognized by the small group in the bakery.

"This is... NUTS!" said Energia, so upset she was causing interference on the TV.

"It's a witch hunt," said Template. "This is being used to justify arresting anyone whom someone with a voice in a local or state government has a grudge against. Folks who have just been waiting for an excuse to punish someone they see as having done them wrong in some way. That's what happens when the normal legal protections are bypassed. You don't catch more bad guys, you hurt good guys."

"Yeah, I noticed that none of those on that list are known criminals," said Blue Impact.

Then came the announcement of the release of Blue Impact and the two youngsters. The image cut to the courthouse.

"All right!" crowed Gadgetive. "We got international coverage!"

On the screen, they watched Lucille step forward to announce that her clients had a brief statement to make. She then moved aside to let Energia take her place.

"All we did was help people," she stated, lower lip quivering but voice firm. "I guess some folks would rather stop us from doing that than try to do it themselves."

She glared at the cameras for a moment, then turned and walked back to the other costumed figures. Lucille moved back into the focus of attention.

"And I think that about sums it up."

There were shouted questions, but she ignored them, as did the four costumed women beyond her. She walked back to the Masks, spoke with them for a moment, then walked off the side of the porch while the supers flew away.

The reporter for that particular news agency turned to the camera and added a few comments. Including notes that the unexpected and unplanned crackdown on supers had left the personnel who normally handled them swamped. Other specialists - such as the bomb squad, who normally examined captured gadgets for traps - had also been falling farther and farther behind the rate of arrests.

"Well, that explains why my stuff wasn't tampered with," said Gadgetive.

"I sounded like a baby!" said Energia, outraged and embarrassed.

"Oh, that little pout was just darling," teased Template, laughing as she put a hand on her niece's shoulder.

The TV cut back to the news room.

"I don't believe there's anything more I can add to that," said the anchor, chunking the edge of her stack of papers even on the desk top for emphasis. "Now, back to the list of law-abiding supers know to have been arrested during this pogrom..."


***


There was a hastily arranged press conference in Washington that evening. President Thurlin denounced the arrests of so many known Mask heroes, claiming that his political enemies had deliberately misinterpreted his previous order. He was now ordering all arrested "known heroes" released "on their own responsibility."

"He didn't have the authority to order them arrested in the first place!" said Template, angrily.

"So I guess that makes the release order just as legal," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.

"You folks are missing the point," said Blue Impact, hotly. "He didn't rescind the first - overtly illegal - order. He didn't order charges dropped. He just ordered the arrested supers released. Which means their arrests will still stand. They'll probably never go to trial, but the arrests are still on their records. And you know how hard it is for a Mask to sue anybody over something, especially a government agency."

"There might be enough non-Mask supers affected for a class-action lawsuit," said Energia, remembering something from a civics class.

"What has this country come to?" said Template, angrily. "That the people who do the most good for others - individuals and the nation as a whole - are punished for doing so?!"

"Don't blame the whole country. Just the lazy people who let scurrilous characters abuse its laws and their authority."


***


"They can't just call this off!" yelled Stevens. "Not when we're actually winning!"

"That's politicians for you," said Basil, scowling. "More interested in public opinion than getting the job done."

He looked thoughtfully at Stevens for a moment.

"Looks like you get a reprieve. The big guys are too busy spin doctoring and covering up to worry about you and your mistake for the moment."

Stevens glared at him, but kept quiet.


***

Within hours, hundreds of Masks had been released. This was often accompanied with an apology - of varying sincerity - from upper rank elected officials. Many of the men and women in charge blamed those under them for taking action without consulting their superiors. Some claimed they had been lied to by their staffs, about the legality of the action, who was being arrested, what offenses had been committed, or some combination. None took responsibility for these misbehaving civil servants.

"I'm hearing word through various Mask grapevines that several are still missing, including a couple of entire teams," said Template, the next morning. "Besides actions by local law enforcement, there seem to have been some covert operations. Government officials at all levels are claiming ignorance, with some speculating that criminal groups taking advantage of the fuss are responsible."

"But... what about all those people caught when they  attacked some super bases?" said Energia, boggled.

"None were carrying any form of ID," said Template, snarling. She walked around the large common room of the old bakers, fist clenching and opening. "Many were identified by fingerprints and such, and those were all supposedly in the employ of one federal LEO or the other. However, when contacted those agencies denied all knowledge of the person. Sometimes they never heard of them at all, other times they 'used to work here, but have been gone for years.'"

"It's the attack on the Island all over again," said Blue Impact, with a tired sigh.

"I hope someone is checking to see if it's the same group behind this," said Gadgetive.

"Oh, you better believe it," said Template, sternly.

"Well, at least this crisis is over," said Blue Impact. "Thank you for coming by to help. I'll be sad to see these two go, but..."

"We're not going!" said Energia, quickly and loudly. "You just said it's over. We're fine here!"

"You really..." said Template, starting to protest.

"Hey, it's important to get back on the horse, as Chestnut likes to say," said Gadgetive, jumping in. "Show them we're gonna still be out there, protecting people, as long as we're not actually in jail!"

There was a lot of intense arguing for the next several seconds, before Template finally out-yelled everyone.

"Okay, enough!" She glared at the two youngsters, then sighed and looked over at Blue Impact. "Do you really think it would be safe?"

"From what the Mayor has said, and the attention the press is giving this, yeah," she said, finally and a bit reluctantly. "Neither of them planned to be here more than another month, and I seriously doubt there'd be any more government mischief in that time. And we do need to make a statement, to those behind this, a demonstration that we're committed to the mission. That no matter what they throw at us we won't just quit, but will fight back and keep on helping people."

"You tell her!" said Gadgetive, almost cheering.

Template scowled, but realized the other Mask was probably right. And what sort of role model would she be if she made the girls go into hiding after the worst was (hopefully) over?

"All right," she said, after thinking things through, "but I want all three of you to promise to be extra careful."

"Hey, I've been at this longer than you," said Blue Impact. "I've also been through this sort of harassment before. I know the drill. And from past experience I think the girls are right."

"All right," said Template, with a slow nod. "I've already spoken with Energia's mother, and I know Energia has, too. She's not too upset over this; she was in several political demonstrations in college and was arrested a few times, herself, and seems to feel this is the same sort of thing. I want you to call her, though, Energia, with me listening in, and make sure she's all right with this. And, Gadgetive, you check with your guardian!"


***


Thankfully, the next few weeks were quiet, at least on the political front. However, there were three more appearances of the fake Energia. In those, she claimed that she was the real item, and "That little girl" the fake. And still they had no break tracking this woman down.

As the school administration began working to prepare for the Fall session, a huge bundle of mail was forwarded to Blue Impact's lair.

"Look at all that!" said Gadgetive, envious. "I only got a few, all from family and friends!"

"Be glad," said Energia, sourly. "I have to answer some of this stuff!"

"How do you deal with it?" said Blue Impact, who'd never had more than a fraction this much mail.

"Well, they have my permission to open it and prioritize it," said Energia. "The stuff that goes through the Young Guardians, I mean. They have a mail service. They code each item with a color streak, like this. Green means it's just an ordinary fan letter, blue means something they think needs special attention, yellow something to be careful about, and red an outright threat."

"I see some red ones," said Gadgetive, concerned for her friend.

"Yeah, there always are. Mostly from nutcases who can't spell or punctuate and couldn't hurt anyone except by accident."

"I find it disturbing that a teen hero would get actual threatening letters," said Blue Impact.

They sat around the large, open, main room, chatting as Energia opened her mail. Blue Impact and Gadgetive were on the couch, Energia on the floor in front of them, sorting through the huge stack of mail. Occasionally she would read part of something or hand it to the others to read. Some were sweet, some laugh-out-loud hilarious, a few worrying. One red-marked one made Energia go wide-eyed.

"This says it's from the fake Energia! And it gives details I don't think were in the news!"

Blue Impact grabbed it before Energia or Gadgetive could even move.

"Says 'this will teach you to ignore your fans,'" she said, after reading it. "Signed... Poiuy Trewq?!"

"Poiuy Trewq," said Gadgetive, carefully reading the document over her teacher's shoulder. She frowned. "Sounds foreign."

"Get out your palmtop," said Blue Impact, sighing. "Look at the top row of letter keys."

"Yeah, so what's...

"Oh!" said Energia, who had risen to see what they were looking at, over Gadgetive's shoulder. "I get it. That's funny!"
"Huh?" said Gadgetive. "What are you talking about?"

"Read it backwards," said Blue Impact, tiredly.

"Oh..."

"So, our first real clue," said Energia.

"I've very glad we all had our gloves on," said Blue Impact. "I'm going to put this letter through every form of analysis I know to do, then send it to a friend of mine who will do more!"

"Yeah, and the letter opening service people wear gloves, too," said Energia, remembering what Fantasy Child had told her about it. "Just as a safety precaution."

"Better and better..." said Blue Impact.

She folded the letter, stuffed it back in the envelope, and rose.

"Go through the rest of these and see if there are any more from this person."

"Gotcha!"







Part Nine: Getting Closer




They found three other letters from Poiuy Trewq. By Noon of the day after Energia found the first letter, they had finger prints and DNA.

"It's a guy, but not one in the database," said Blue Impact.

"Cool. Did Gadgetive build the DNA tester for you?"

"No, I've actually had that for a couple of years. I helped the Libertarians on a major case and they gave me some equipment."

"So, how do we find this guy?" said Energia, eagerly.

"From what he writes he almost certainly sent you mail before, presumably under his real name. Go through past fan mail and see if you find any with the same postmark. Then test for fingerprints and DNA."

"I toss most of my fan mail," said Energia, with a tired sigh. "I'll check when I get back to the school, but don't have much hope. What else?"

"Hmmmm... I know a guy who can locate people from a sample of their person, such as the saliva used to seal an envelope. But... contacting him is difficult. I'll start the process but don't get your hopes up."

"Well, at least one of the two mysteries is having some progress," said Energia. "The assault on the translator and the museum theft, though..."

"We're running out of time," said Gadgetive, fussing. "School starts in a week, and Energia wants to spend some time with her folks before that. I really want to solve those two mysteries before we break up."

"I'm sorry, but sometimes mysteries take time to solve," said Blue Impact. She shrugged. "Sometimes they're never solved."

According to Blue Impact, Mano Dura had spoken with the elderly translator as soon as he had recovered enough. The old document he translated had been very cryptic about the contents of the hidden compartment. Since the museum had no idea what was missing, they had no way to tell the police what to look for. Another dead end.

"They caught two of the three guys who stole the satchel," said Blue Impact, reviewing details out loud to mentally chew them over again. "They're local toughs hired by a guy from outside the neighborhood through a local gang chief. The hirer was probably two or three steps from whoever is behind this. And it's pretty certain the museum job was an entirely different crew, since that definitely required high technical skills of a specialized type."

"No clue about what was in that box?" asked Energia, also down about the unsolved mysteries.

"There were some unspecified pieces of jewelry, some documents and something 'of interest' I think is what he said."

"Wait," said Gadgetive, sitting forward from her deep slump on the couch. "I'm trying to remember..."

She rose and went over to the computer. In a few moments she had called up a site on Jewish mysticism.

"Thought so," she said, with a satisfied nod. "Depending on what old Hebrew phrase was used, 'item of interest' could be a code for a magical item."

"If so, how likely is it to actually be a magical item?" said Blue Impact. "Not just something of mystical significance with no real power?"

"Uhm, no idea," said Gadgetive, frowning. "Still, if I could talk to the guy, I could at least confirm if that was the actual phrase."

"I have his phone number," said Blue Impact, grinning. "He said to call if we needed more information."

One carefully routed phone call and a brief conversation partly in Hebrew later, and Gadgetive was beaming.

"I was right! That was the phrase! He says that in context it was obviously something thought to be magical. Whether it actually was he has no idea."


***


Three more days passed. If there had been much to do the thought of those two cases wouldn't have weighed much on the minds of the youngsters, but this happened to be a quiet period.

Then came an alert about a major pileup in a highway tunnel through a nearby mountain. Emergency services were having trouble getting access, and dozens of vehicles were known to be inside. There were no reports of fire, yet, but evacuation was going slowly.

"Just the sort of problem supers are good at solving," said Blue Impact, sounding satisfied. She looked over at the youngsters and grinned. "You kids up for some excitement before school restarts!"

"Oh, yeah!" said Gadgetive, eagerly.

"Let's go!" said Energia.

Gadgetive hadn't managed to get her apergy device down to backpack size, but had finished a two-person flyer using the same principle. With Energia leading the way under her own power, Blue Impact and Gadgetive followed in the streamlined pod. The former's weight had proven something of a challenge. The problem was less a matter of providing sufficient lift as it was keeping her off-center presence from making the craft lean. Fortunately, Gadgetive had proven equal to the challenge.

They reached the site in less than ten minutes, under the radar the whole time. They landed at the end of the tunnel at the end near the edge of the city. There were several emergency vehicles already there. The people on site looked startled as the nearly-silent vehicle - a flying girl beside it - landed in the grass well out of the way of the people working.

"You sure it's safe to leave this here?" said Energia, as Blue Impact closed the canopy and the trio started walking towards the tunnel.

"Gadgetive installed some security measures I approved," said Blue Impact, absently, as they walked towards a fireman not obviously doing something at the moment. "Excuse me, who is in charge here?"

"Uh, that would be Captain Fortier, Engine Twenty-Seven," said the startled fireman.

They found him giving orders to several rescue workers, and waited for him to have a moment.

"Captain, is there anything we can do?"

"Actually, yes," he told Blue Impact. "The evacuation is being hampered by wreckage. If you can help clear a path it would be a big help."

"We'll get right on it," said Blue Impact.

The Captain called a fireman over, told him what he wanted, and sent the impromptu group into the tunnel.

"You ever worked with supers before?" said Blue Impact, as they approached the tunnel.

"Yes, Ma'am," said the man, who had the name Brown on his coat. "Couple of times. Even saw you in action at a distance, during the big fire at that J. C. Penny's two years ago."

"Good. You show us what needs doing, and watch to make sure we're doing it right, and we'll clear that path."

For the next half hour things worked pretty much as planned. The fireman - sometimes working with people already in the tunnel - would decide what needed moving, and Blue Impact and Energia would move it where he directed, with Gadgetive and the fireman watching carefully and giving advice. The latter sometimes got a bit too aggressive with this and had to be warned by Blue Impact to let the pro (the fireman) have his say, but overall there were few problems.

"That's the halfway point," said Brown, finally, pointing at numbers painted on the concrete wall. "That's also the end of my jurisdiction."

"Do you think it would be better to keep going from this end, or go outside and start from the other end?" said Blue Impact.

"Looks everybody is already out of the middle," he said, peering into the darkened tunnel. "Go check at the other end and see if they even need help. No sense doing more work than you have to."


***


Their reception they received at the other end of the tunnel was far less friendly. A fire chief saw them walking towards the scene and hurried to intercept them, looking angry.

"I thought I told you to get out of here!" he snapped.

There was a moment of stunned silence on the part of the supers. Then a flash of realization.

"She's been here!" said Blue Impact, with sudden anger, as she gave the girls a quick look. Then she turned back to the fire chief. "Chief, we just spent most of an hour working the disaster from the other end. If you think you've seen Energia here, it was a trouble-making impostor we've been hunting."

He looked startled, then peered at Energia. And nodded.

"Yeah. Her costume was a bit different, and she looked older. Sorry, miss."

"You can make up for it by telling us which way she went," said Energia, angrily.

"No, first, do you need any super help? We already cleared a path from the middle to the other end."

"No, we're good, here," said the Chief. He turned and pointed. "She flew off northeast, not ten minutes ago. Hope you catch her."

They said quick goodbyes and hurried back to the travel pod.







Part Ten: Impostor Unveiled




"Tracking a flying object, human size," said Gadgetive, after making sure Energia could hear over the com. "Staying low, following terrain... moving pretty slow, too."

"Get us close enough to take a look," said Blue Impact. "If that is the fake Energia we want to follow her."

"I see her!" said Energia, surging forward.

"NO! Don't go after her now. We want to see where she's going."

They could almost hear her pouting, but she fell back beside the flying machine.

"We need to name this thing," said Gadgetive, absently, as they followed the impostor.

"Blue Streak?" said Blue Impact, smiling as she glanced at the gadgeteer.

"Thought you didn't want any team names," muttered Energia.

"That's not a team name. That's based on my Mask name."

"Blue Impactor," said Gadgetive, with sudden eagerness.

"Ow..." said Blue Impact.

"Is that... a mansion?!" said Energia, a bit later.

"I do believe it is," said Blue Impact, frowning. "Okay, hold us well back until we make sure that's where she's actually heading."

The costumed figure swooped down towards an outbuilding, flying behind it. She didn't reappear.

"Either of you see her?" said Energia.

"Nope," said Blue Impact. "Okay, I see people over there, to the east of the main building. Remember, this is private property; don't land unless we're invited. Gadgetive, can this thing hover steadily enough close to the ground for us to have a decent conversation?"

"No prob."

They dropped down beside the rather startled trio on the ground below. As the flyer hovered, Gadgetive opened the canopy and Blue Impact addressed the man in a suit who had apparently been supervising a pair of gardeners working on some planting.

"Excuse me, sir," said Blue Impact, gesturing to Energia, "did you see a woman in a costume similar to that of this young woman fly onto this estate a few minutes ago?"

"No, nothing like that," said the man. "I'm Herman Fergusson, the owner. I sincerely hope there's not going to be any trouble, here."

"We're just looking for someone, sir," said Blue Impact.

"Well, I think you should look elsewhere," said the man, sternly. "My family has had unpleasant experiences with you costumed types and want no further contact with you."

Blue Impact suddenly looked startled.

"Wait! Fergusson? Any relation to Othar Fergusson, the Fifties villain known as The Cackle?"

"My grandfather," said the man, stiffly. "And that was a long time ago. Now, please get that contraption out of here. You're disturbing our work."

"Well, we just chased a suspected criminal onto this property. Do you have a daughter who might be carrying on the family business?"

"My daughter," said Fergusson, icily, "is currently at college. Dartmouth."

"Sorry," said Blue Impact, meaning it. "Jumped to a conclusion. But we did see a woman in her early twenties fly onto this property in a costume mimicking Energia's, and we didn't see her leave."

"The only one here besides myself and the permanent staff is my son. And I'm quite certain none of us have powers or flying gadgets."

"We'll leave, then. But I want to urge you, if you see this woman, to call the police. She's wanted for questioning and is potentially dangerous, if only through incompetence."

"How dare you!" came a shout. A young man, perhaps eighteen or a bit older, can trotting up towards them. "The new Energia is five times the hero that one is!"

"Gregory," said Mr. Fergusson, voice low and deadly. "If you know anything about this woman..."

"I saw her fly over, and off that way," said the young man, pointing vaguely north. "And I've seen her on TV. But that's enough to know that she isn't worthy of the name or costume!"

He was, of course, now pointing at Energia.

"Wh-what..." said the youngster.

"Gregory, do you know anything more about this matter?" said the elder Fergusson.

"Only that there's been someone posing as the real Energia and trying to ruin her reputation!"

"That's who we're after," said Blue Impact.

"No, that's the fake!" said the young man, pointing at Energia, who was obviously quite disturbed by this.

"Let's get out of here," said Blue Impact. "Go, Gadgetive! Energia!"

Reluctantly, Gadgetive closed the canopy and lifted the pod higher. Energia shook herself, turned, and not only caught up but passed them.

"You all right?" said Blue Impact, a few minutes later, looking out through the transparent canopy.

"Yeah, it's just... That young guy sounded a lot like those letters!"

"Yeah, that struck me, too," said Blue Impact. "I think we definitely need to check into this further. It's possible the boy has some contacts and hired someone to be this older Energia, and..."

They were interrupted by a fat, blue bolt of lightning, spearing down from above. The pod was enveloped in actinic glare and jerked and swayed. Gadgetive fought for control, swearing a blue streak as breakers reset. Fortunately, after a few seconds the flyer recovered.

"Knew that extra shielding would come in handy!" said Gadgetive, triumphantly.

"Where's Energia?!" said Blue Impact, a bit dazed.

"Here," she called over the com. "Got... Ah! Got the fake in my sights..."

"There!" said Gadgetive, pointing through the canopy.

She aimed the pod down at a steep angle and swung it around, until they were chasing after the flying pair.

"Felt the tingle as the charge built and managed to dodge it," Energia said, almost shouting. "Still stunned me for a moment. Was starting after - Whoops! Tree... - you two when I saw you get control, so changed to go after her. We exchanged a few zaps, and now she's running."

"Don't get too far ahead of us!" said Blue Impact. "Gadgetive, closer!"

"Okay, just want you to know another few hits like that and this thing is toast," said the young inventor, stepping on the gas.

The fake Energia was fast, but not a skilled flyer. Looking back over her shoulder, she saw not only Energia - the real one - gaining, but the pod, too. She dove down among the trees on the hillside below, obviously intending to lose them.

However, Gadgetive had built a good sensor suite into the pod, and Energia could directly feel the other's fields. Moreover, while the pod wasn't as maneuverable as the fake Energia, the real Energia had been trained by some of the best flyers on the planet. The fake soon ran into trouble... when she ran into a scraggly old cedar tree.

Her plasma wall left a ball of aromatic smoke at the tree from ignited branches and needles, and she went spinning off in a sharp veer to the left. Before she could regain control she slammed into the ground just below the crest of a low ridge.

"Got her!" Energia shouted, unnecessarily.

"Don't engage until we reach you!" Blue Impact shouted.

Energia almost ignored her, but the training and experience she had received kicked in. She landed nearby, able to see the fake clearly among the stunted trees and brush on the rocky hillside. The other was already sitting up and shaking her head.

As the pod came in behind Energia, though, the fake suddenly raised her hands towards it. Energia responded as she felt potential gather, and the plasma bolt which would have hit the flying machine was instead deflected into an innocent boulder, causing a shower of sparks and rock fragments to shoot out. Energia decided enough was enough and darted forward. The plasma walls of the two energy manipulators crashed together, sending electrical arcs and ball lightning flying in all directions. Then they began actively fighting, and the fireworks doubled.

"Shit!"

Gadgetive frantically shoved the pod towards the ground, as electricity, plasma and debris erupted all around them. They landed with a hard thump, and then the control lights flickered and the power died with a weird moan. Induced currents gave the duo inside multiple, tiny shocks and even some mild burns as the fight outside raged. It was over in seconds, but seemed much longer. Finally, though, only one figure was left standing, barely visible in the smoke and steam.

"Open this thing!" yelled Blue Impact, shoving at the canopy.

Gadgetive was barely able to get the latch released before the super-strong Blue Impact forced her way out.

The pod was custom designed for the two occupants, with Blue Impact's seat being specially reinforced for her strength and mass, and Gadgetive's having recesses to allow her to wear her packs while inside. Both supers were therefore fully equipped and ready for action as they ran forward. Fortunately, the real Energia was the one left standing.

"You all right?" said Blue Impact, quickly.

"Whew!" said Energia, wiping her forehead with the back of a hand. "She's a lot stronger than me, but didn't know much about her powers or fighting. Didn't last long, once I figured that out."

She grinned tiredly at her teacher as she pushed a stray lock of hair back in place.

"Her bolts were sloppy and badly aimed, and her plasma wall not tight at all, just had a lot pumped into it. Hit her with a narrow blast which just punched right through."

"How do we hold her?" said Blue Impact, turning to stare at the fallen figure.

"Got some stuff should work," said Gadgetive, hurrying across the still-smoking ground towards the fake. "Got some superconducting mesh will make a good Faraday cage... long as it's grounded."

She was still muttering to herself as she set to work. Meanwhile, Blue Impact took the time to actually check Energia.

"I'm all right," the girl said, almost pushing her away. "You act like this is the first fight I've been in."

"You're my responsibility," said Blue Impact, firmly, as she finished her check. "Okay, you seem all right."

"Well, I'm tapped out... but so is she."

They walked over to join Gadgetive, who was almost finished. Energia scowled down at her imperfect double, then bent over and reached for the still figure's mask.

"No," said Blue Impact, actually grabbing her arm. "The law has to apply equally for all. So far she's just wanted for questioning, and - aside from the attack on us - the problems she's caused were more likely due to incompetence than malice. Let the courts decide whether to do a big reveal."

"All right, all right," said Energia, muttering sourly.

"Listen, this is important," said Blue Impact, emphatically. "The United States is a nation where the rule of law is supreme. Congress makes the laws. Law enforcement agencies enforce them. The courts figure out how to apply them to specific cases. And the Supreme Court figures out which ones are allowed under the Constitution.And they have to apply to everyone, equally, or they will only apply to people those in power want to punish. You can't expect the Mask law to protect you unless you accept that it also protects her."

"Yes, Ma'am," said Energia, contritely.

"Good. Okay, it looks like she's stirring. The law does allow us to question her, so lets go make with the interrogation."

The fake Energia moaned and struggled a bit, then suddenly opened her eyes. She looked around in shock.

"Oh, God," she said, sounding panicked. "Oh, God. Listen, you gotta let me go."

"Fat. Chance," said Energia, presenting an air of quiet anger.

"No, I mean, you gotta. I gotta go back..."

She bit her lip.

"Listen, I only wanted to show you how to do it," she said, looking at Energia, almost begging. "I didn't mean any harm."

"Intent will be taken into account at your trial," said Blue Impact, looking very stern with her arms folded across her chest.

"What?! No, wait, there's no need for this to go to trial! You GOTTA let me go!"

She began struggling against the mesh, even managed a few sparks, but was held securely.

"Look, this isn't me," she said, desperately, actually starting to sob. "It's just... a disguise."

"I noticed," said Energia, sarcastically.

"You don't understaaaannnd! I used magic to change into this! It isn't meeeee!"

"Something is starting to click," said Blue Impact. She leaned over to look at the woman. "You're Gregory Fergusson, aren't you?"

"What?!" said Energia and Gadgetive, in almost perfect chorus.

"The reason I recognized Herman Fergusson so quickly is that I noticed his name on the list of museum directors. Looks like old Cackle's genes ran true, eventually."

The woman on the ground was crying openly, now. She bit her lip again and nodded.

"I r-read the e-mail the translator sent the board," she stammered. "I f-figured that since E-energia had ignored my letters I'd use the magic item in the secret c-compartment to m-make her listen. Had some guys steal the

old man's notes and used D-dad's keys to go in and steal the rock. Took me a while to f-figure it out, but then I was so excited wh-when I realized it would let me change myself to sh-show you..."

"It's a Wishstone, isn't it?" said Blue Impact, suddenly.

"Y-yeah," said the woman, looking startled. "How'd you know."

"Encountered one a few years ago," said Blue Impact, sourly. "They're one of the more common cursed magic items."

"C-cursed?!" said Gregory, voice going up more than an octave in that one word.

"Yes," said Blue Impact, nodding slowly. "They attract the weak-willed and morally corrupt, and arrange to fall into their hands. Your obsession with Energia made you an easy target. You probably walked right by it in the museum, before you knew it was there, right?"

"Yes," said Gregory, meekly.

"So you're a guy," said Gadgetive, staring pointedly at the curvaceous figure on the ground between them. "That's sick!"

Energia started to protest, but bit it back.

"Well, Gregory, I'm sorry, but you will have to go to the police. We can take you back to wherever you have the stone stashed, first, if you want to change, but you are going to the police."

She smirked down at the resigned-looking woman.

"That is, if the stone is still there. They have a disturbing tendency to get found by someone else once the current owner is defeated."







Part Eleven: Storm Breaking




"So, first, let's get some legal issues cleared up," said Blue Impact, scowling down at the fake. "Are you a legal resident of that estate?"

"Yes," said the shapely young woman, looking distraught and miserable as she lay on the rocky ground, wrapped in makeshift Faraday cage.

"Do you give us permission to escort you to where you have the Wishstone hidden?"

"Yes!"

"Good. Let's go, then. We'll try to sneak in - I'm assuming no-one there knows about your little masquerade?"

"You think I would tell someone I've been turning into a girl and parading around in a fetish costume?!"

"You admit it!" yelled Energia, getting angry all over again.

"Later!" snapped Blue Impact. She looked back down at the fake Energia. "Okay, we're going to take you down there. We're keeping you wrapped; I'll carry you. Try anything and you better believe we'll drop you off with the police as is. Got it?"

"Yes, Ma'am," said the faux woman, timidly.

Fortunately for Gregory the Wishstone was still where it had been left. Unfortunately, this was inside a remote storage shed which Gregory had turned first into a shrine dedicated to Energia, and then used as a headquarters for getting revenge against her.

"Unbelievable," said Blue Impact, looking around the inside of the shed at the photos and artwork. "You realize some of this might count as child pornography?"

"All the models are 18 or older!" said Gregory, firmly. "And the art, well, if there's not a real child involved, there's no crime."

"I'll show you crime," said Energia, blushing furiously, as she reached for one of the posters of a buxom model dressed approximately as her.

"No! Energia, stop! That's his property, and no matter how disgusting it is - And that one over there is really disgusting, you pervert! - you'd be guilty of vandalism."

"You realize you could get arrested just for bringing us in here, right, teach?" said Gadgetive, smirking.

"Let's try to stay on track!" snapped Blue Impact, uncomfortable and feeling rushed for several reasons. "Someone may have seen the travel pod. We need to get Gregory back in the right form and out of here before anybody comes to see what's going on. The last thing we need is more complications."

Gregory, still over Blue Impact's shoulder, directed them to an old safe by a desk in a back corner. Reluctantly, she gave the combination, which Gadgetive used to open the safe. One of the items inside was an antique wooden box, about the size of a recipe box.

"That's it," said Gregory, with a sad sigh.

"Now, I'm going to open the box and put it where you can touch it with your hand. You wish yourself back to normal and nothing else!"

She put Gregory on the floor and opened the box. The actual Wishstone was a small, engraved tablet, shaped roughly like a large eraser.

"But, I..." said Gregory.

Blue Impact suddenly shoved the open box at her hand, then started immediately to pull away.

"Wait!" shrieked Gregory, frantically reaching for the stone.

There was a momentary contact, and suddenly the figure in the net was the young man they had seen before. Blue Impact quickly finished pulling the box away and slapped the separate lid back in place.

"And now we're going to the police," she said, firmly.

"Buh-but I did what you wanted!"

"Part of it," said Blue Impact, again lifting Gregory to her shoulder. "You're still wanted for questioning on several events, and we're going to file assault charges."

"What?!" said the young man, voice rising to a shriek.

"Good!" said Energia.

"Aren't you even going to untie me?!"

"When we have time," said Blue Impact, casually.

Outside they could see several people hurrying across the vast lawn towards them. Blue Impact scowled and quickly shoved Gregory into the small storage space behind the seats.

"In!" she urged Gadgetive. "Last thing I need right now it getting into an argument with the son of a known supervillain."

They barely lifted off before the men arrived, their angry shouts cut off as the canopy closed.

"Okay, police headquarters," said Blue Impact.

"Aye, captain!" said Gadgetive, all too cheerfully.

They didn't actually land at the building. As they flew, Blue Impact used a supermarket cell phone to call a contact among the police. She arranged a rendezvous in an empty lot near the courthouse.

"Boy, does that place bring back memories," said Gadgetive, sourly, as they circled the building.

"Hey, they apologized," said Energia, a smirk in her voice over the radio.

"My left foot's gone to sleep," said Gregory, timidly.

"You'll be out, soon," said Blue Impact.

Gadgetive set the pod down on the pavement, Energia landing gracefully beside it. The canopy opened, the two in front got out and Blue Impact hauled their prisoner onto the pavement. Gadgetive almost had him completely freed by the time a trio of police officers arrived.

"Wait," said the woman in charge. "This is the Energia impostor?!"

"'Fraid so," said Blue Impact, glaring at the very contrite Gregory. "He used a Wishstone."

"Oh, God," said the woman, paling. "Standard procedure?"

"Yeah. I'll take it to Doctor Piano."

"Uh, Lieutenant?" said one of the two uniformed officers, hesitantly.

"It's all right," she said, not even looking at him. "The good Doctor is an approved repository for dangerous magical items."

"How do you know any of this is true?" said the other officer, uneasily.

The Lieutenant did turn to look at him; scowl actually. Then she looked back at Blue Impact.

"You're willing to file formal charges?"

"Oh, yes."

She turned to Gregory. With no expression, the Lieutenant formally arrested Gregory and read him his rights. Once confirming he understood his rights, she relaxed a bit.

"Do you have anything to say for yourself? Realizing, now, that anything you say may be used against you?"

"I just wanted to show her up," he said, tiredly. "And, well, things kept going wrong."

"Part of the curse," said Blue Impact, nodding. "You're lucky you were able to turn back to normal."

"So you are willing to confess?" said the woman.

"Yeah," said Gregory, with a sigh. "I just... Well, it all seems so stupid, now."



***


The Lieutenant - one Sandra McCorsky by name - led them into the headquarters building by a back entrance, Gregory limping a bit and occasionally shaking his left foot. They took stairs up three flights and exited onto a floor which seemed unusually dark and dingy. They could see no-one else as they walked down a hall to the Lieutenant's office.

The sign on the door stated that this was the headquarters for the city's supernatural division, which explained much.

Lieutenant McCorsky dismissed the officers, settled down behind her desk with a tired sigh, and started pulling out forms.

They spent hours there. Longer than Gregory did, actually, by a considerable margin. He got taken off for processing after just forty-five minutes. By the time the trio was allowed to leave the sun was approaching the western horizon.

"Okay, girls, back to the lair," said Blue Impact, tiredly, as they walked to the pod. "We'll get cleaned up; then I'm taking the box to Doctor Piano on my 'cycle."

"We don't get to go?" said Energia, disappointed.

"Sorry. Adam doesn't like company. He knows me, and barely tolerates my presence. Besides..."

The others looked at each other them back at their teacher as she fell thoughtfully silent.

"What?" said Gadgetive, finally.

"He went too easily. I'm worried about what he actually wished. So I may be there a while and it's already getting late. I want you to in bed on time. School starts soon, and you need to get back on schedule."

"Yes, Ma'am," said Energia, with a sigh.

Gadgetive wasn't quite so gracious, but didn't protest.


***


"Why me?" said Energia, later, as they relaxed in the lounge of Blue Impact's lair.

"Huh?" said Gadgetive, around a mouthful of pistachio ice cream.

"Why did he - and it's not just him, I get a lot of weird mail, but he's the only one to actually do anything - why'd he pic me?"

"You're the innocent but sexy one," said Gadgetive.

"Say what?!"

"You can blame the padding you use," said Gadgetive, with a smirk. "Makes you look older and more developed, but you still act like... Well, truth be told, you act younger than you even are."

"Gee, thanks," muttered Energia. She frowned. "You sure that's it? I don't pad that much. Maybe it's because I'm the one with the flashy powers."

"Trust me. I don't pad. Blue Impact doesn't pad. We don't get stalkers. You pad. You get stalkers."







Part Twelve: Same as it Ever Was




"So good to be back at school," sighed Energia, laying on a float in the nearly waveless lagoon. "Away from politics and reporters..."

She was wearing the swimsuit edition of her usual costume - as were most of those with her, this last, lazy day before the actual start of classes for the Fall semester. This was actually a new suit for her, a special back-to-school present from her parents, since she'd outgrown the old one.

"I hope Thunder Scout is back this semester," said Rubber Made, who was being her own float. Her tone was wistful and sympathetic. "That was such a shame, losing so many in his family, like that."

"It's just... so many bad things happened the last six months," said Glomahr, resting her arms across the floating rope supporting the net which cut the back part of the lagoon off from the ocean.

"Yer gettin' a bit pink, there, elf," said a voice from above.

"Shouldn't be," said the small girl, peering at her shoulders. "Used sunscreen."

Given where and who they were, having someone speak to them from the open sky didn't surprise any of the swimmers in the least. Though, if the voice had been male there would have been teasing accusations of lewd intent.

"Hey, Allessandra!" said Energia, waving up at the older girl. "Looks like that stick is really working."

"Staff," she said, from a rock-steady hover. The topic of discussion, a pole her height in her costume's colors, was held horizontal securely in both hands. "Yeah, I have to admit it surprised me. The ear therapy helped, but my balance still isn't as good as it should be. The staff gives me a good reference, and helps stabilize me."

To demonstrate, she curled around the staff and did a backwards somersault, as if playing on a swing set's horizontal bar. Her position above the lagoon wavered some, but the improvement over even the previous semester was remarkable.

"So, you actually like to fly, now?" said Rubber Made, perhaps a bit envious.

"Yeah," said Allessandra, somewhat reluctantly. "Since the gyrostabilizers help reduce the workload to keep steady and on course, I actually like to fly, now."

She lowered gracefully to the water, hovering with her feet just touching the surface, looking like a dancer in her pose, with the way she held her staff. Like an exotic dancer, given her swimsuit.

"Man, the best thing I ever did in my miserable life was agreeing to come here," she said, holding the pose with a smug smile and a satisfied sigh.

"Way I heard it, you didn't have much choice," said Energia, actually feeling a bit envious of the older girl.

She'd reluctantly cut down on the padding in her costume. The only comments she'd gotten were queries that she'd lost weight, and concerns she might be ill. Allessandra was not only naturally stacked, she carried it well, and being older was much less concerned about showing it.

A year before this sort of comment would have led to an angry confrontation, but these days Allessandra was far less defensive. She just smiled and lowered herself into the warm water. Her staff was waterproof, of course... and included GPS and satellite radio.

"Too bad Beverly can't enjoy this," said Squirrel Girl, joining the group gathered at the rope.

"She's terribly shy..." said Glomahr, defending her friend.

"Not to mention not lightfast," said Energia, teasingly.

That started a water fight among the younger girls which lasted until they were called in to supper.


***


The Theengrumb leader of the effort to capture Maldren was satisfied the humans were ready for the final push.

"Prior to additional analysis, the too-early triggering of official paranoia was thought to have inoculated the population to further attempts," the report told him. "However, it is now understood that there are many unresolved issues involving super humans, in some part due to the premature reaction of the teran leadership and in larger part due to other factors which run much deeper. The humans' own public opinion polls and gadflies are noting this unaddressed conflict. Some influential speakers - whether speaking in favor of eliminating superhumans or trying to spread reason - are warning that the matter still needs to be addressed. The estimated optimum time for the final stage of the plan will be twelve days after the superhuman school resumes classes."


***


The next two weeks were busy ones at the Academy. Understandably, the students and staff paid little attention to the growing tensions in the world outside. Others were more aware of these matters, but even they - no matter which side of the issue they were on - underestimated the social trauma about to be unleashed.


***


The word was given. Overnight a number of events which would not become widely known until much later took place. All over the world, in team headquarters and secret lairs, files were copied, passwords changed and evidence planted. All over the world, public officials - elected and appointed - and self-appointed watchdogs received messages from anonymous sources warning of plots and crimes, all of them pointing a finger at masked heroes or non-super supporters of same.

And all over the world, people who had been waiting for the chance to crack down on these costumed troublemakers leapt into action.


***


"Okay, we're getting weird reports from several sources of veteran Masks doing things which are resulting in some horrible publicity and very unfavorable attention from authorities," said Steel Lace. "Contacts within various governments and non-governmental organizations are warning about data files and e-mails being sent to their agencies ostensibly from disgruntled members of super hero teams. And some teams have caught members in good standing - though in some cases with a recent history of acting out of character - sending files, e-mails and even physical packages to enemies of supers."

"Told you those two didn't smell right," said Tiger, almost growling.

Technically, Tiger wasn't even on the actual team, but instead was their chief engineer. Still, he had a strong voice among the Bay Area Guardians.

"I know, and their teammates were keeping Falcon Eddie and Suzinike under surveillance. That's how they got caught."

"So, is it mind control, clones, or what?" said Mesa.

"Still being checked. They are well guarded, physically, mentally and even mystically, so this could take a while. And those guards, themselves, are very suspicious."

"We may not have a while," said Andrea - not the one from the Academy, but the synthezoid built by Ike Kenniman several years earlier and long a member of the team. She tipped her head a bit to one side, as if listening to something. "Newsfeeds are picking up on the revelations and early responses. We're facing a major reaction on several levels."

"They just got through making fools of themselves going against us illegally," said Tiger, now almost snarling. "How can they be stupid enough to try again so soon?"

"Thurlin denied all knowledge of federal government agencies taking part in the pogrom," said Mesa. "He thinks that means no-one knows he actually did organize those teams and sic them on us."

"Oh, great," said Andrea (still the synthezoid, here). "The Grant Major talk show is having Daisy Mayhem on as a special guest. Promising major scandalous revelations about various supers she knows."

"Well, at least she's not acting out of character," said Steel Laice, sourly.

"With her, boobs are a super power," muttered Mesa.


***


Without the advantage of being on West Coast time, the Intrepids instead had to call a pre-dawn meeting the next day.

"Someone leaked all the Hero Directory files to the government," said the Black Mask, obviously angry. "We don't think they managed to decrypt them first, but even the encrypted files could be read eventually. We've already started legal proceedings to get them back, but the feds are stonewalling and the federal court we're having to operate through is unsympathetic."

"I knew that registry was a bad idea," said Rapscallion.

"It was that or have the feds do it," said Colossa.

"And now the feds have all our secrets IDs anyway," said Bowman, pointedly.

The younger team members were watching the veterans in stunned silence. They hadn't been in the hero life for long, but so far it had been largely one of glamor and excitement, full of colorful costumes and personalities, and activities larger and more important than those of mundane life. Now, the mundane world was threatening to drag them down to its level. Perhaps even lower.

"Excuse me for interrupting," said Bunter, deferentially, his synthesized image appearing several times larger than life on the main monitor screen. "There is a special news bulletin in progress. If you wish, I will begin play from the start."

"Yes, please do, Bunter," said the Black Mask.

There was some preliminary blather from the network announcer, but in surprisingly short order the President came walking out to the podium.

"Oh, this isn't good," said Rapscallion. "He's smiling."

The President walked up to the podium, took a firm hold on it with both hands, and rose slightly onto his toes, glaring out at the cameras.

"Okay, I've had it," said President Thurlin, with a jerking nod of his head. "First they do all those crazy things, and we take definitive action, then they say 'Oh, we didn't really mean it' and the press just weeps for them and we have to stop. Now they're doing it again! And that's it. No more. I've issued an executive order for all supers to be arrested, and if they resist the cops can use appropriate force. That means they're allowed to shoot. We're gonna end this nonsense once and for all."


***


"I hate to do this," said Randy, holding both Karen's hands. "Hate it so much it makes me sick."

"I know, hon, and me too. But we can't have a wedding with all this going on."

"Let's just go elope. Find a justice of the peace..."

"Your parents would kill us. Well, they would keep us distracted while your sister did. And then my parents would help them hide our bodies."

He couldn't help but laugh at that, despite the gravity of the situation. Once that was over they kissed, long and hard.

"Gotta head back to the school," said Randy finally, reluctantly.

"And me back to work. But I'll be spending all my time otherwise with the Intrepids."

"Be safe," Randy whispered.

"You to," said Karen, equally softly.

They kissed again, and parted slowly, hands trailing to the last touch of fingertips.







Part Thirteen: Under Siege




Pine Island, even further east than the Intrepids' base, was already closed down when the word of the strange activities began to spread. As a result, its occupants had a relatively peaceful night. Security had been notified, of course, and upper management, but the latter decided to let everyone else sleep in while they stayed up, tracking events.

Early the next morning, though, first class was replaced by an assembly of the entire student body and faculty in the auditorium.

"Some of you already know what this is about," said Eve, seriously. "For the rest, well... Governments all around the world - including the federal government of the United States - have declared open war on supers. So far most of them are not resorting to violence unless targeted individuals or groups refuse to submit to arrest. About half of those whose arrest has been sought have gone peacefully. Most of the rest simply evaded location, in part due to forewarning. Among the remainder, though, there have already been many injuries and several deaths.

"Some of you have family or friends who have been affected. So far, that only includes arrests or warrants for same. No injuries. No deaths. We hope that will continue but I would be remiss if I gave you false hope.

"For now, none of the efforts appear to be aimed at our institution. The United Nations is holding an emergency session and is expected to condemn the hunting of supers outside the rule of law. While that is unlikely to stop such activities inside those nations engaged in this folly it should ensure our continued freedom, since the island is still under direct UN protection. The Pioneers say they will be moving all active personnel to their base here, which should help both them and us.

"I know many of you are eager to jump into the fray. Don't. The last thing this situation needs is more confusion. Those already under arrest are unlikely to be harmed. Those being hunted are unlikely to be found. If the UN does, indeed, condemn these actions, we will ask if that institution will support us inviting outside supers to seek refuge here. Meanwhile, you should all carry on with classes as normal.

"Now, to more mundane business. Once you are dismissed classes will begin with a half-hour delay, which will carry through the entire day. Hopefully, tomorrow we will be back to our normal routine.

"Are there any question?"

There were many, mostly about the status of specific individuals and groups. Eve answered some of these, but for most instructed the students that a database was being prepared which would be available on the school's intranet.

***


"Why?" was a question on many lips as the students moved in stunned fashion to their classes.

"I just don't get it," said Baleful, shaking her head. "Besides Posse Commitatus making the use of the military illegal against civilians, why would any soldiers or police just... do these things?! Do normals actually hate us that much?!"

"Posse Commitatus was greatly weakened a few years ago," said Folger, who taught civics. "The action was disguised as a measure to make it easier for governors to send their National Guard units into action. And don't you remember talking in class about those multiple, different experiments, back in the Seventies, showing that most people would do what an authority figure told them to do, even when they not only knew it was wrong, but thought it was directly harming someone?"

"Yeah, but..."

"It just doesn't seem real," said Allessandra.

"One reason - though far from the only one, or even the most common one - so many Jews allowed themselves to be sent to death camps without resisting was that they couldn't believe anyone would actually do what was being done to them. That it must be a mistake, that someone would fix things."

"All that is necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing," said the Deacon, solemnly. "That includes not vigorously defending themselves against unwarranted infringement of their rights by a government."


***


At several locations around the US uneasy sieges were underway. No matter how emphatic the orders, no matter how fanatical the agents carrying them out, none of those in the field were eager to attack a super base.

"Standoff," said the Black Mask, face and voice emotionally neutral. "We're not under arrest, but still effectively bottled up."

"I'm starting to understand how Template felt, when we were all in the pokey and she was stuck in here," said Rapscallion.

"What I don't understand is why even government sanctioned teams are being arrested," said Colossa. "Including the Specialists."

"They were the easiest to find and get into," said Rapscallion, innocently.

"He has a point," said Bowman. "One of the problems with being an officially sanctioned team is that the sanctioner knows all your secrets."

"I'm bothered by some of the reports of disappearances," said the Black Mask, frowning. "Some could be due to captures the feds are keeping quiet about, but some actually happened before any known arrests. As if the Masks involved knew trouble was coming and instead of warning their teammates simply left."

"I smell set-up," said Bowman, scowling. "I bet all those in that category were also those who, a few months back, were causing uncharacteristic problems."

"Not all," said the Black Mask, nodding, "but many..."


***


"They shot Mano Dura," said Blue Impact, numbly. "Just... shot him in front of a crowd of locals cheering him as he tried to make his escape. They think it was actually a sniper, got him. He's alive, barely, in a prison hospital. They're not sure he'll ever regain consciousness; it was a substantial fall, and he hit his head on the way down."

She had made a point of getting together with Energia and Gadgetive to privately break the news. Blue Impact hadn't expected that revealing it would affect her as much as it did them.

"Damn," said Gadgetive, for once getting away with swearing in front of a teacher. "That'll cause riots in the streets."

"These people have actually literally been kicking down doors!" said Energia, outraged. "Know supers, suspected supers, known relatives and close friends... Anyone with a firm connection to an active Mask is at risk! I just heard from my mother that they arrested my grandmother! She was fussing about all this to a friend and someone heard her say that if they were rounding up everyone with powers they could just come get her, too, since she could change the color of her eyes at will. She was stopped in her driveway by a SWAT team. My granddad's about to pitch a fit."

"We heard just an hour ago that they surrounded a meet of the Flying Club with attack helicopters and forced them to land," said Blue Impact.

The trio sat in miserable silence for a moment. Then all three jumped as the rarely-used PA system blared a notice from Andrea.

"Your attention, please! We just heard from Lady Carver that the UN has declared the detention of someone just because they have powers to be a violation of human rights."

"Good," said Energia, with a quick nod.

"Lotta good that'll do, though," said Gadgetive, sourly. "The people behind this don't believe we're human, anyway."

"Listen, I need to go," said Blue Impact, reluctantly.  "We'll talk more later."


***


"On your feet, Fergusson," said the guard.

Gregory looked warily out at the strangely-uniformed men waiting in the corridor.

"What's going on?"

"You're being transferred to a federal holding facility for supers."

"But all my crimes were local! And I'm not a super!"

"You confessed to being a super," the guard pointed out. "Now move; these men don't have all day."

"But I don't have powers!" Gregory, panicking, backed into the corner behind the bunk. "Not now! They took the Wishstone from me! I don't have powers!"

They wound up tasering him and dragging him away.


***


"What the fuck is going on!" shrieked X-Burst. "I'm a federal law enforcement agent! You can't do this to me!"

The men and women physically pulling her along didn't reply. The Specialists' base had been stormed while the team members were having breakfast and receiving the morning status report. The intruders had poured through every entrance, including the secret ones. They had been obviously trained and equipped to capture team members. Worse, the non-super staff - at least some of them - had been in on it.

X-Burst had been taken out quickly by a portable neutralizer, left barely conscious while these unknown people put her in restraints. She had needed time to understand that they were FBI and Federal Deputy Marshals, plus a few local police specialists. And longer to believe it. Now they were moving her from a super capture vehicle across a short expanse of pavement to the doors into a facility obviously meant to hold supers long-term.

She didn't know what was going on. She didn't know what had happened to her teammates. She didn't even know where she was. X-Burst screamed in frustration, struggling against the hands forcing her along. She was tasered again, staggering and almost falling, the ragged dregs of her power barely keeping her from collapse.

They manhandled her inside, rushed her through processing, and then down a corridor into an elevator. Several floors down, out and along another corridor, then into a cell. Under those horrible neutralizers the whole time. Neutralizers which were supposed to be expensive and rare.

The undid her shackles and left her lying on a bunk, sobbing.

"It's not fair," she moaned. "It's not fair. We did what they told us. They said we'd be protected. It's not fair."





Part Fourteen: Opportunism




Where was I when it all went sour? Sound asleep.

I didn't have the sort of contacts who would have noticed anything suspicious ahead of time. In fact, I was still trying to piece my life back together after the fire took nearly everything which meant something to me. After Dr. Gaunt...

I caught it on the news the next morning, of course. I was surprised they'd gone ahead with that insanity, but not that I wasn't targeted yet. The cops knew they could pick me up any time they wanted. It was the elites they would go after, first, the masked ones who had frustrated them in the past. Eventually, they'd find time for me. The problem for them was that by then either they'd have been stopped by the courts or I'd have put one of my contingency plans into action. Given how extensive this crackdown was and how fast it was moving, I was not going to just sit around, waiting for them to come for me.

I thought hard, as report after report of masked heroes being arrested or hunted came in. I called my lawyer - no matter if the phone was bugged, it would look odd if I didn't and I figured nothing we'd talk about would hurt me. Her advice was to stay indoors, wait to see what happened, keep out of trouble. Which what I told her I'd do. That's also what I usually try to do. Most of my trouble comes from others.

I dug out and reviewed my bugout pack. I tossed some stuff and added some stuff, but mostly just confirmed it had what I remembered and none had gone bad. There was enough gear in there to keep me going for a week, all by itself.

People who know me casually would be surprised to learn that I am an experienced hiker and camper. They tend to see me as a city type. I spent my first fourteen years on an isolated farm, and can still carry half my weight in a pack for extended distances and live off the land for days at a time, and not just because of my powers. (Though they definitely help.)

With that out of the way I sat and pondered. Thanks to being the beneficiary of several wills and insurance policies (and hadn't that caused some suspicions) I wasn't hurting for money. I could try to leave the country, but both Canada and Mexico were pursuing the same policies in re. supers as the US. Switzerland was an option, but getting there would require more than a simple drive. If they did come after me, and I could evade them for the first day or so, they weren't likely to ever catch me. I had enough resources - in terms of money, food, clothes and shelter as well as skills - to evade any sort of non-super search and many super ones. A day would be long enough to get to a backcountry area and lose myself for however long it took this mess to blow over.

If it did blow over.

The market was going crazy, of course, but the general trend was down. I called both my brokers and made some recommendations. I didn't cash anything in, though. I had several thousand on hand in silver coins, cash and traveler's checks, as well as money in several bank and savings accounts I could tap through ATMs. At least some of them should escape notice for a while if I needed more money.

For now, I waited, only keeping tabs. Everyone I would have wanted to warn or make private plans with had died a few months before.


***


The safe house was an innocuous structure. It was situated well back on a lot with a big front yard full of old trees. Tall but well-trimmed hedges surrounded the property on three sides, and a row of forsythia blocked most of the front. It was concealed without looking like it was concealed.

The property gave the impression of a model home; that is, a place intended to showcase the talents of a constructor or the wares of a real estate agency. It was too neat, too un-lived-in.

All the neighbors knew the story. How it had been purchased as a Summer home in the suburbs, mainly so the young wife could get away from the heat of the city. Of how before they could use it she had died of some unspecified but obviously tragic illness, or maybe accident. Of how the husband had never stayed there, but couldn't bring himself to sell. How he kept it in pristine condition in the memory of his wife, though occasionally renting it out or letting friends stay.

All of it true. The details, however, would have amazed the neighbors.

The couple had been small-time Masks, mostly independent but occasionally working with teams in the area. The wife had died saving innocents in a tenement fire. The husband had reacted as the neighbors thought. However, the occasional guests were all Masks in need of a place to hide.

Just now, it sheltered five children and a teacher from the Pine Academy, plus another. But not for much longer.

"We leave tonight?" said Miss Abernathy, pacing nervously now that the children were all down for a nap.

"That's the plan," said Tiger, from where he reclined on a couch. "Just don't assume things will go to plan. Kids all sleeping?"

"Yes, surprisingly. Thought they'd be too wound up, but I guess the past couple of days have been too hard on them."

"Five different stories," said Tiger, softly, "one common problem. Kids known to be supers and without anyone but us to get them to safety."

"You left out that monster, Chief Taggert," said Miss Abernathy, venom in her voice. "He's been vocal against supers for years. As soon as he thought he could get away with it, he started rounding up supers. Even the... even the children. When I think of what he did to those others..."

"He'll get his," said Tiger, with a quiet fury which alarmed her. "It may take years, but he'll get his. If nothing else, we long-lifers will make sure his acts get into the history books."

"No offense, Tiger, but I don't take much comfort in revenge, especially if it comes decades later. For all I care, Taggert can live a long, full life, as long as he never hurts anyone again."

Time passed. The teacher was too nervous to rest, but did restlessly channel surf. She was a bit put out that Tiger appeared to be calmly napping. She knew he had a good reputation, at least among the Masks who knew him, but she wasn't impressed so far. She did grudgingly recognize that he was good with children, and competent at this secret stuff, but...

Tiger suddenly sat up, head turned, listening.

"Trouble. Cars approaching. Several of 'em."

He rose and looked carefully out a front window.

"Oh, yeah. Not the SWAT team, either. Ordinary cop cars, plus a Black Mariah. Looks like about eighteen cops. Get the kids up and into the tunnel. I'm going to make sure the other end is still open, then use some of the equipment here to help with a diversion."


***

The police chief wasn't in his jurisdiction, but sorting that out could come later. He knew he'd be able to make a good case for tracking down known, dangerous fugitives. The local law were all pussies, afraid to do their duty. These abominations wouldn't have felt safe hiding here, otherwise. He glanced at his own men, as they disembarked and assembled, surrounding the house on all four sides. He felt proud, but also disappointed. He thought he had enough for the job, but he'd expected more. Some just didn't have the guts for the job, others couldn't be depended on. All the rejects were back home, manning the fort. Officially, they didn't know where the Chief and his hand-picked team were.

Bizarrely, those he'd had to weed out had come from both sides of the political spectrum, bleeding-heart lefties pleading that what he was doing wasn't "right" and supposedly staunch conservatives angrily accusing him of "violating the Constitution." He didn't care. He didn't care about any of them. He was going to get rid of these freaks. Catching them young was just a bonus. They weren't all that strong, yet, and hadn't had a chance to breed. Anyone who couldn't see the rightness in what he was doing could join them, as far as he was concerned.

He just prayed that all the shootings would be legally justifiable. There were too many involved; he'd have to make a full and honest report. Anybody who acted without provocation would just have to take one for the team.

Abruptly, all thought was shoved aside by noise. Every radio, every PA, came on at full volume, playing... AC/DC?!

Before the policemen could adjust to the strange occurrence of "Thunderstruck" blaring from every speaker, the front door departed from its frame. It not only flew out into the yard, the door knocked two of the officers flat to the grass. A figure followed close behind the door, bounding out to plant feet in the chests of two different officers.

Tiger danced. Part of the concept of the form of martial arts he practiced was that it had no style. It was based on a natural, almost instinctive response to the actions of others, the mushin no shin, the mind of no mind. They had weapons which could have hurt him in the right place, and there were some shots fired, but they all missed. Tiger focused his attacks at first on their weapons, using strength and claws to destroy them.

With their capacity to harm greatly reduced, he dealt with their ability to pursue. Here he decided to get creative, varying his method from rupturing a radiator to removing a wheel to flipping the prisoner van on its side. Finally satisfied, he turned and smiled at the stunned policemen.

"Have a nice day!" he said, with a mock salute, before leaping away.

"Holy fuck," one young officer said, voice cracking, as he watched the man drop beyond the tall shrub.


***


"You are not leaving the island," said Eve, firmly.

"They've got my Mother!" shouted Template, throwing her arms wide. She lunged to her feet and began pacing the modest office, cape trailing behind her. "I can't just..."

"Your attorneys are working to free her," said Eve. "They can do that not only legally, but more safely for her than..."

"They. Have. My. Mother."

"You will stay here," said Eve, with all the calm firmness and authority acquired in over a millennium of living. There was an odd stirring in the air, a sensation of power being mustered. The true nature of the ancient demigoddess began showing through her usual, casual demeanor, and that presence alone was enough to give Template pause. "I will place a compulsion if I have to. There is more than just you and your family at stake, here. There's the school. The children!"

That got through to her. Template sagged. She dropped back into the chair and began sobbing.

"I-it's just that... I feel so helpless! I have all these powers..."

"Against human folly, even the gods strive in vain," said Eve. "That's why we have lawyers."


***


"Dr. Kenniman," said the fed, by way of introduction, as he seated himself. "I am Agent Foster."

Ike nodded, seeming unconcerned.

"Doctor, I'm told you refuse to unlock your laboratory doors for us."

"I do a lot of classified work. You don't have security clearance."

"I see," said the fed, just as unconcerned. "And who would have clearance?"

"Sorry; that's classified."

"You do know we will break in eventually."

"I strongly recommend against trying. In the first place, it won't be easy. In the second place there's things in there which could present a danger to your people. In the third place, the folks I do much of my work for are a lot blacker than the FBI and won't take kindly to you looking into their projects."

"Enough, Doctor," said the fed, sternly. "You're spinning lies and fabrications to stall us. According to our research all of your current work is for legitimate businesses or supers. We don't care about the former, but the latter are all out of business and we're taking charge of their affairs, including all equipment they have or are acquiring. As far as safety matters are concerned, the members of our team know what they're doing."

"I have to wonder why you picked me up on the street while I was grocery shopping, instead of waiting until I got home," said Ike, staring him in the eye. "Makes me think you're not nearly as sure of yourselves as you're trying to appear."

The fed was about to say something, but was interrupted by a knock on the interrogation room door. He scowled, and started to rise, but it suddenly opened and four men in dark suits and darker glasses entered.

"Agent Foster, we're relieving you of this prisoner," said one of them, flashing a badge. "Your field agents have already been sent back to their headquarters. Go find something else to do."

"Now, just a moment..." said the fed, finishing the rise to his feet.

He was unceremonially shoved back into it by two of the strangers, too startled to protest.

"Dr. Kenniman, let's go," said the one who had spoken before.

"I'll have security on you before you leave this room!" shouted the fed.

One of the black-suited men pulled out a large pistol and pointed it right between the fed's eyes from a distance close enough to read the serial number.

"Don't be stupid," said the leader, the only one speaking. "We know who you are. We know who you work for. We know where you live. We know where your kids go to school. Be smart. This never happened; Dr. Kinniman was never here."

He turned and turned towards the door, the pair of his men escorting Ike close behind. The fourth held the gun on the fed for a moment, then deftly put it away and turned to follow.

The bullet caught him in the back of the head.

The men in black were so surprised they simply turned and stared, expressionless, as Agent Foster opened fire on them. Ike Kenniman immediately dropped to the floor.

The fed wasn't a very good shot; he emptied his pistol and only hit two more. The black suited men returned fire with greater skill, hitting the fed several times before themselves being gunned down by security guards, who were waiting outside, already suspicious.

In seconds three of the mysterious visitors were dead and the other two wounded badly enough to be out of the fight. Ike looked over at Agent Foster, laying on the floor, breathing hard. His vest had saved him; he was hurt but alive, and still conscious.

"Damn," said Ike Kenniman, slowly sitting up as the guards hurried in. He shook his head at his interrogator. "You are the stupidest son of a bitch I've ever met. Their bosses are vindictive as Hell, and don't take kindly to having their wishes frustrated."

"S-screw... you," said Foster, as Ike was hauled to his feet and hustled away. "You and I both know they were some of your super buddies in disguise."

"They why did bullets work on them?" was Ike's parting question.

Foster looked at the fallen men, and started to doubt. And with doubt came a deep, nagging fear.


***

Despite the dour atmosphere at the school there were occasionally pieces of good news.

"Did you hear?" said Gadgetive, excitedly, as she caught her teacher in the hallway. "Mano Dura woke up! They're saying he has a low level of regeneration they didn't know about!"

"Yeah, I heard," said Blue Impact, tiredly. "He's still in a prison hospital, remember."

"Yeah, but they still haven't charged him."

"I'm afraid that's SOP these days. They know if they charge the legal process starts, and that most of the charges won't hold up even at a preliminary hearing. So they hold off as long as they can. Which is pretty much forever, right now."


***


Civics classes the next few days were understandably focussed on matters related to current events.

"Keep in mind that one reason so many laws are overturned is that most members of Congress have never worked in a courtroom, and don't really have any feel for how laws actually work. So when someone complains about judges interpreting laws, this is actually an important part of how our system works. They have to interpret the laws to apply them in the real world."

There were new students in class today, Energia noted. The five of them had been brought in by Tiger and Miss Abernathy, a mathematics teacher who had been an open super in her teens before retiring to teach. Energia only had part of the story but apparently things had been exciting for the eight of them for a while.

She made a mental note to help welcome them to the school. They looked like they needed friends.

Of course, who in the super community didn't, these days? 


***


The newscaster - one of the most trusted faces and voices in America - looked sternly at the camera after it came back on him following a segment with footage of a police raid on a superhero base.

"Meanwhile, reports of crime have skyrocketed. Not only are the masked heroes not out there, protecting us, but a huge portion of the regular police are busy hunting them down, leaving criminals with opportunity for a near-riot level of a crime spree.

"Is this what you wanted, President Malcolm Thurlin?" he demanded, angrily "To remove two sets of protectors from their tasks of looking after innocent citizens, just because you don't like the fact that one of those groups isn't under your control? What next; disbanding the federal courts because you don't like the balance they provide against your misuse of presidential power? Suspending Congress because they won't pass your laws?

"Almost none of the crimes in this spurt are being committed by people with powers. And not because there has been an upsurge of super criminals being apprehended; the arrest rate for them has actually dropped since this action against the masked heroes was put into action. The super villains were as much caught by surprise as the super heroes. They just were more prepared to go into hiding.

"As bad as this situation is - as incredibly stupid as this is - how much worse will things be once the super criminals have a chance to react? What will you do then, Mr. President? What will you do when The Matriarch comes knocking on your door - Your White House door! - and you don't have MindMaster or Strongson to stop her? What will you do when Crunch - Literally! - walks through the doors of Congress and you don't have America's Guardsman to stop him? What will you do when the Shurben land their spaceships on the Mall in Washington in force and the Planetary Guardians are all in jail or in hiding, because of your insanely stupid actions?!?!

"The people of this country have had enough. I have had enough. You will stop now, or you will be stopped. If I have to do it myself."


***


"What do you mean he was right?" said the President, outraged, at a briefing the next morning.

"Sir, mail to the White House, to Congress, to all the news media are overwhelmingly against these measures."

"But... but... the polls are overwhelmingly in favor!"

"Mr. President, we have found evidence that the polls were influenced by someone."

"Those damn supers!"

"But, sir... why would they change things to make it more likely that you would..."

"Oh, there's no end to the deviousness of those creatures! Find out who meddled in this and arrest them!"







Part Fifteen: Breakpoint




Most of the Pine Academy management was touring a large room in the old supervillain base, empty except for supplies being brought in.

"I am so glad we managed to clear most of the old installations the past year," said Junker. "Plenty of room for all these folks seeking refuge. Which is good, since we've got entire families coming in!"

His voice echoed oddly in the large, metal-walled chamber.

"We're still going to be short on beds, clothing, dining facilities..." said Andrea, tiredly. "Well, some are brining what they can with them, and we already have offers of help from several sources. Including the UN."

"I have to wonder if we're being allowed to continue operation unmolested deliberately in order to concentrate supers who have escaped the mainland," said Eve, scowling.

"It's possible," said Template, with a similar expression. "But... with so many experienced supers here - more than at any other time - they'd be stupid to try anything conventional, and we can pretty much out-unconventional them if they try that."

"Thanks to the combined efforts of our own gadgeteers, outside contractor gadgeteers, the Lunies and Queen Tolnar's technical support, we can, indeed, easily defend our island against anything we know the government has," said Captain Hazard. "That doesn't mean they don't have something which can get through our defenses."

"Good point," said Andrea, nodding. "We need to be on alert, and keep working to improve our defenses."


***


"The time is optimum," the Theengrumb agent reported. "There is currently enough confusion to help cover our operation, but they are aware of the vulnerability this presents and are planning to improve their security measures soon."

"Then we begin after as many as possible are asleep tonight, their time," said the supervisor.


***


Late that night, when all was still in the dorms, several figures converged from multiple sources. Adult and child, male and female, student, teacher and support staff, the seven converged on the dorm room containing Maldren and Richard. They had overrides for all security and the right set of keys; no alarms sounded as they unlocked the door.

As they opened it, however, it pushed on a ruler positioned so that one end projected past the edge of the door. The other end was braced by a heavy paperweight, and the middle against a can with a few marbles inside, which was also carefully positioned at the edge of the desk. The makeshift boobytrap did its job. The can of marbles toppled off the edge of the desk and onto the floor, producing a loud rattling.

The seven were all trained professionals, experts at intrusion, snatch and escape, but this was so unexpected they froze, for just a moment. That was almost enough.

Both the occupants of the room were good at waking quickly. The seven had timed their attempt with the natural sleep cycles humans and Shilmek shared, due to their common genetic heritage. Both of the young men were sound asleep. Even they could not quite fully awake immediately, but they still put up a good fight. That was not enough. The seven had done their research. Quickly, both boys were rendered unconscious by carefully selected methods safe and effective for them.

Still, the time and noise had given others opportunity to intervene. The Theengrumb had teleportation technology, but it could not be used on the island, thanks to recent improvements in screening technology. They now had to secure their target, leave the building and the island, reaching the rendezvous point without being caught.

Their success in doing this was in large part due to the sabotage the kidnappers had performed. During the course of their stay here they had carefully prepared for this night. Pieces of equipment had been altered, so that they appeared operational but weren't. Planted devices had been triggered to actively hamper detection and pursuit. There had, of course, been restrictions to what they could do, given limits to access and the constant checks. Still, they were experts, and had spent their time well.

They had several close calls, and the island was rapidly coming alive behind them as they raced away in the primitive seacraft they stole, but they reached the location of the submerged fast courier ship without further mishap. They gave the signal, the ship surfaced, they hurried inside with their precious cargo, and the ship lunged into the night sky before the locals could learn what was happening.


***


"We're tracking an unauthorized craft lifting off from the Atlantic just east of you," said the Lunar Space Traffic Control officer. "Is that one of yours?"

"No," said Jimmy Kent, trying desperately to finish coming awake. "There's been some sort of security problem, here. I don't have all the data, but you should definitely track whatever that is. If it goes beyond the treaty limit have something ready to intercept it. But don't shoot! We don't know the situation..."

Andrea came charging in, hair in disarray, wearing a housecoat and slippers over a nightgown.

"They've got Maldren! We're organizing space-capable flyers."

"The target we're tracking is maneuvering to avoid Teran defenses," said the luny on the actual Moon, after the lightspeed lag allowed. "We project they won't be beyond the treaty limit for at least another twenty minutes. You need to contact the UN Space Defense."

"Roger. Please stay on the line."

"You keep talking to him," said Andrea. "I'll get Lady Carver to call UNSpaceDef directly."


***


"We cannot intercept," said man at UNSpaceDef. "We can launch three capture missiles, but they have a low chance of success."

"Please do so," said Andrea. "The Lunies predict that if they can't be impeded they will reach a transition point in about half an hour."

I am attempting to contact Zeep, came the thought from Eve. It seemed oddly strained. So far without success. There is some sort of jamming effect blocking all but short-range telepathic communication.

Several space-capable supers are already on the way, Andrea replied. We don't know if any...

A huge gust of wind presaged the entrance of Cyclone Ranger, flying indoors in spite of rules against that.

"Energia just took off after them!" he gasped, settling to the floor. "Don't know how she found out what happened, but she was suited up and in the air before anyone could stop her. I came here to tell you directly instead of talking over the radio, 'cause I didn't want Template hearing."

Andrea clenched her teeth, head beginning to throb.

Did you get that?

Yes. I don't know whether to expel her or praise her.

Hopefully, she won't get into too much trouble. She's unlikely to catch them, and she's an experienced space flyer.


***


A small, silvery figure accelerated into space, pushing hard.

Energia was trailing far behind the other space flyers, who were moving in two groups up into space. However, that gave her an edge. The others had been sent to intercept the two most likely projected courses of the fleeing craft, before Luna provided hard data. However, her live feed from Lunar Traffic Control showed that the craft had performed a dangerous but effective atmospheric bounce maneuver to abruptly change course. She now appeared to be the only one with a chance to catch it.

Energia was burning her power reserves faster than she could replenish them, but soon she would be high enough to start tapping better ambient energy sources. She was accelerating so hard she was actually greying out a bit, in spite of the suit squeezing her lower body to help keep blood in her brain. The protective garment was constantly warning her to slow, to change course, but the only time she heeded those warnings was once when the collision alarm screamed, forcing her to divert a bit.

There. Now she was close enough that not only could she see the ship as a symbol on her HUD, but feel it with her super senses. It didn't seem to be preparing to fight; it probably wasn't even armed, though she wasn't going to take that for granted. Instead of fleeing for the nearest place they could go FTL, they were heading towards an old, expended upper stage from some European reconnaissance satellite launch. Except they weren't slowing, so it wasn't an actual rendezvous. Maybe they were going to use it to cover another course change? Whatever, she would be close enough to act before they reached it.

Not long after she began reaching out with her power, feeling for contact. Still too far, and she didn't want to warn them, yet, anyway, but she knew she was almost close enough. She forced her hands out in front of her, against her acceleration, making ready. The contact grew stronger, but she made herself to wait. She had time. Besides closing the distance, she was moving towards a more advantageous location in the magnetosphere, a place where she could better tap the awesome forces of the Earth itself.

Now.

Energia's contact formed into a powerful tug on the ship, markedly slowing it. She felt it struggling, adding more power, jinking. To no avail. She was only minutes away.

The old, expended stage suddenly forced itself into her awareness as it burst asunder, and a ship three times the size of the one she had on a lead was revealed.

Oh, she thought, stunned. That's why they...

A powerful beam grazed her plasma wall, overloading it. Though it punctured, the protection it supplied deflected the beam enough to miss Energia. Keeping most of her power in the beam on the small ship, she began frantically maneuvering.

The smaller ship abruptly reversed acceleration. Energia's HUD showed closing vector arrows. The smaller ship and the larger would meet in a matter of minutes, and be traveling at about the same speed in the same direction when they did. Energia cut her own acceleration; with her target slowing she could reduce her energy expenditure sharply and still close. Expecting trouble, she strengthened her plasma wall. Just in time.

Multiple energy and plasma beams shot through space. The larger ship was still several times as far from her as the smaller, giving a fraction of a second of lightspeed lag. That helped her immensely. Energia swung wide, feinting and dodging as she flew, trying to use the small ship as a shield.

The kidnappers weren't shooting. Even the larger ship wasn't as well armed as she expected. It was still doing a good job of trying to kill her. She decided, belatedly, that maybe calling for help was a good idea.

"Mayday, mayday!" she yelled, knowing the suit would automatically broadcast that appropriately. "This is Energia! I have the ship which took Maldren, but there's a bigger ship here and I need help!"

Thanks to lightspeed delay, the response came as a rapidly increasing wave of bedlam, with dozens of increasingly distant voices rolling in. Energia thought she could pick out Template's among them, but couldn't spare the concentration to make sure.

She was in trouble, bad trouble. So far, her powers, her suit and her experience - plus some luck - were keeping her alive, but for how much longer?






Part Sixteen: Retrieval




Energia maneuvered frantically, keeping the small ship between her and the large one. Since both craft were maneuvering to prevent this, she was having a difficult, frantic time. Still, she not only avoided getting hit but managed to actively slow the small ship, delaying the rendezvous with the larger craft. She was giving a play-by-play of the action over her suit's radio in a near-constant transmission, almost babbling, only occasionally stopping to listen for a reply.

Many people were offering encouragement, but no-one was saying when they could get there. Energia was beginning to realize that they might not be able to make it before the ships were far enough from Earth to go FTL.

She changed from impeding the small ship to trying to cut through the hull, but it was too well shielded for this to be a quick solution.

Energia now faced a difficult choice: Try to get close enough to get taken along when the ship went FTL... or letting Maldren go.

She didn't want to... but the idea of being carried along to who knew where... it wasn't just that she was afraid... Template would be frantic, and her parents... But to leave him with them...

She sensed something approaching. It was so fast it arrived before she could even fully realize it was coming. A body of pure force, finely patterned and exquisitely organized. It reached out to the aliens. Immediately, both ships simply... stopped. Weapons, drives, shields... only life support was still operating. Energia gaped.

"Hello, youngster," said a voice over her radio. "Thank you for delaying them."

"Wh-who are...?

Even as she asked, she knew. There could only be one being which could to all that. At least, anywhere near Earth, right now.

"I'm called Zeep. Pleased to meet you."

"I... I'm Energia," she replied, tentatively.

"I knew that, actually. Eve and several other telepaths on the island ganged together and managed to break through the block; they filled me in as I headed out here. They were very worried about you, youngster."

"I'll be sixteen in a couple more months," said Energia, defending herself before this staggeringly powerful being.

He actually chuckled.

"I'm relieved you're not hurt. And that I was able to arrive before they got away. You delayed them long enough for me to catch up. Now, what should I do with them?"

She could almost hear the smile in the synthesized voice.

"Make sure Maldren is safe!"

"He's fine. I've already told them not to try anything, and I'm watching them."

"Oh. Well, we need to head to the island, then."

"Already on the way."

Shocked, Energia checked her suit's navigation display, and saw they were, indeed, heading back towards atmosphere.

"Wow," she said, amazed. "I didn't even feel it!"

"Well, I've been doing this a lot longer than you."

Not long after the members of one of the pursuit of space-capable supers joined them, Template separating from their formation to quickly fly over and give Energia a hug.

"Private channel," she said, her voice flat.

"What were you thinking..." Template began, very angrily, before Energia could say anything.

"Zeep can probably hear us," said Energia, quickly. Not because she thought he really would be listening, but to postpone the tongue lashing.

"No, he's not. Child, what would I have told your parents if something had happened to you?"

"They know what I do is dangerous," said Energia, defiantly. "I do know how to protect myself and I'm not hurt. Honestly, I expect you to be worried but I also expect you to know that I'm competent."

The second pursuit group soon joined the formation on the other side of the two ships. A couple of them - folks who knew Energia - started over towards her. Template bit back whatever she had been about to say.

"Okay, reprieve. But later..."

"Yes, ma'am," said Energia, resignedly.

Zeep - due to an agreement with the US government - was not able to actually approach the island. Working from a distance, he placed the two craft at the island's spaceport and held them there until the locals could crack them open and extract the occupants.

The larger ship contained just three Theengrumb. The thing was a lightly armed FTL transport, with an oversized drive to carry the small ship with it.

The small ship held Maldren, drugged and in a special confinement harness which neutralized his powers. It also held Albert Flash, Lasher, Invicta and Myna, and two techs.

"Doubles," said Eve, after scanning their minds. "They have surface implants to make them seem like the originals, but a deep scan showed me their true thoughts."

"They're not hurt!" said "Myna," quickly. "We weren't hired to kill anyone, just kidnap the boy!"

"Yes, well, you still have a lot to answer for. Now, where are those you replaced?"

"We don't know, actually," said "Myna." "We weren't told, just in case we got caught and our superiors needed to bargain for our release."

"How many others are there?" said Template, quickly.

The doubles didn't say, but that didn't stop the information from being retrieved.

"None, here on the island," said Eve, after a quick scan. "Well, that they know of. They do know there are several other Theengrumb masquerading as various people, scattered around the planet. They were all recalled once the grab operation on Maldren began."

"Argh!" said Andrea. "We'll have to scan everyone on the island! And scan the scanners, first! Oh, and don't forget informing teams and governments! What a nightmare!"

They broke up, security taking the prisoners to cells, Maldren being hustled off to the infirmary. Gradually, teachers and students returned to their quarters. Template approached Energia, looking stern.

"You, young lady, go to the Number Three guest cottage," she said, quietly. "Your uncle will see you there later."

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


***


Energia was actually dozing on the couch in the small but well-appointed cabin by the time her Uncle Randy arrived. He was too tired to be angry, settling for an unemotional recitation of her offenses and a note that proper punishment would await her parents' decision. Then he sent her to sleep in the bedroom and took the fold-out couch. Fortunately, the latter was of good quality. Though, as tired as Randy was, the floor would have made little difference.


***


At the staff meeting the next morning Jimmy Kent was the featured guest speaker. Like all the teachers and staff he looked tired. They had been up late checking into details and securing loose ends.

"Luny security got a message from a Theengrumb operative we know who said there were some humans who needed rescuing, there on the Moon," said Jimmy. "They found half a hundred supers unconscious in a survival hut, with a few non-super but influential people mixed in. All are safe and well and on the way back to Earth."

"We have Energia and Zeep to thank for them failing," said Eve. She shook her head. "I doubt Queen Tolnar would have physically attacked us, but if they had succeeded it certainly would have been bad for the school. May even have put us out of business. What I want to know is how they executed such an extensive plan without anyone discovering it."

"The Theengrumb have some really good stealth tech," said Jimmy, reluctantly. "Better than we knew about, actually. They are professionals, they have a very high tech level and they've been around a long time."

"Yeah, we found that out, ourselves," said Andrea, sourly. "None of our tech spotted them. Neither did our mentalists. It just happened that some of our magical types had set up their own alarms, and a few others of them - plus some supers with heightened senses - noticed there was something odd going on. The closest they came to actually being caught, though, was due to something Richard Fleming set up. Something so primitive and simple the Theengrumb moles never thought to check for it. They still got away."

"Is there anything urgent you need to talk about?" said Jimmy.

"No. Thank you for the information. You keep us posted and we'll do the same."

Due to the very late night on the island, classes had been cancelled the day. However, right before lunch Eve called another gathering in the auditorium. She explained what had happened, and called Energia up onto the stage for special recognition.

The young super found the reaction of her peers far more embarrassing than just about anything else she had experienced in her short career. And far more rewarding.







Part Seventeen: Siegebreaker




The news about the alien doubles broke hard. Most governments either denied that alien doubles had been influencing them or temporized, saying the matter was still "under investigation." The press wasn't buying any of it.

Sadly, many super teams were likewise demonstrating denial. Worse, for some hero groups the suspicions of infiltration had sprouted in the compost of persecution and done what the hunters could not. Bases which had remained hidden from detection were thrown open by violent conflicts, and others which had withstood sieges by police or military exploded from within.

Then there were those cases where the besiegers had held back, worried about public opinion. With the revelation of "alien spies disguised as supers" they felt the time had come to act. Several teams who had grown complacent over the inactivity of their watchers were caught by surprise. Aggravating this was their attention was split due to their own efforts to make certain none of their members were Theengrumb in disguise.

Fortunately, these events were rare. Each, though, was a separate tragedy, adding a bitter punctuation to an already dire drama.


***


"Whose brilliant idea was it to use Brute Force against the Planetary Guardians?!" yelled Barbara Thorn. "They were reported to the local authorities, and the press!"

"That was the order for the next opportunity..." began Stevens.

"But by using them as an adjunct to legal operations against super teams you've connected them to us!"

"Oh, nonsense," said Basil, with a dismissive gesture. "They'll just think this is a group of bad guys taking advantage of legal operations. In fact, I think doing this again would be a good idea."

"We got them all," said Stevens, firmly. "After the fight they were too beat to resist. Even the Guardsman! Who cares if there are suspicions? It's too late for that, now."


***


At President Thurlin's next news conference - the morning after the kidnapping attempt - he was obviously off his game. He appeared flustered even as he walked to the TelePrompTer. He stammered, halted and restarted. He said even less of substance than usual. In fact, he barely addressed the issues on the minds of the people of the nation he headed. Instead, he delivered a rambling mess of vague assurances which left even his handlers confused.

"These event just proves that the super so-called heroes make this country more vulnerable," he said, in closing his address.

Finally finished he - with a sigh of resignation - took questions from the Press.

First up was a sharp-tongued commentator who normally didn't deign to attend presidential press conferences.

"Mr. President," the woman called out. "Who is your nomination to replace America's Guardsman?"

The question obviously caught the man off guard.

"There are no plans for a replacement," the President mumbled. "Never needed 'em."

The Guardsman slot was not actually sanctioned in the same way as the few government-affiliated teams. The role had been a spontaneous creation of the first America's Guardsman shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. He was largely inspired by San Francisco's Shepherds and a couple of other groups of colorful "Mystery Men" who started showing up in the mid-Thirties.

Eventually, a tradition was adopted that the sitting President would select the replacement for a fallen or retiring Guardsman, though there was nothing official about that. Certainly not a law. The current Guardsman had been suggested by Jimmy Carter, but was a shoe-in, being the grandson of the second Guardsman and already a veteran hero.

The reporter's question was intended to be sarcastic, to force President Thurlin to either announce the replacement, say he needed more time or state that the current Guardsman would be released after investigation to make certain he wasn't a double. She wanted him to admit - if only tacitly - in a public forum that even he approved of at least one Mask. She didn't think that he would simply state that the line should end there, and never dreamed he'd say it never should have existed.

"But, Mr. President..." said the woman, startled.

"Next question!"

"Why is the federal government using known super villains - in some cases still wanted, in some cases supposedly in custody - in these attacks against known super bases?" said another reporter.

"Never happened," said the President, glaring at the man. "Next question!"

The press conference went rapidly downhill. The reporters pressed harder and harder for answers, and the President became more and more angry and agitated. Finally, he simply stomped off.


***


In the Intrepids' base the next morning the events of the previous day were understandably the topic of conversation. They were still under siege, a National Guard unit surrounding their base. They had managed to assure themselves that no Theengrumb were or had been among their members or staff, and released a press report stating same.

"Why does he even bother holding these press conferences if all he's going to do is tell obvious lies?" said Colossa, sourly.

"According to the psych profile I read, he honestly believes that if he tells someone something, they will accept it," said the Black Mask. "Most people are too polite - or too intimidated - to confront an important person who is obviously lying, which simply reinforces his belief."

"That actually works with a distressingly large proportion of the people," said Rapscallion, sighing. "The lying thing, I mean. Most folks are too mentally lazy to bother thinking things through, and want someone else to them them what is."


***


The Pine Island Academy was again holding regular classes, but that didn't stop staff or students from holding similar discussions whenever they had a moment.

"What gets me," said Chestnut, as she and some others watched CNN in the teacher's lounge, "is everbody in the news talkin' like this is the first time this ever happened. I'm old enough to remember the same thing - only better organized and less out in the open - takin' place in the early Seventies. That was part of what caused Nixon to resign."

"Only in this case, several nations have taken similar actions," said Eve, sourly. "Fortunately, those actions are so extreme that even in the face of the revelation that several super teams were infiltrated, public opinion is turning in our favor. Some news commentators are even stating that it was the persecution which allowed the infiltration to take place."

She looked over at Template, sitting quietly by herself, slumped down in a chair, scowling. Carefully, not showing the concern she felt, Eve rose and walked over to her.

"I heard your Mother was released, with an apology," she said, lightly.

"And I wasn't there," said Template.

"Well, you didn't really need to be. You were here, helping..."

"I didn't do squat!" Template suddenly yelled, lunging to her feet. "I didn't help my Mother! I didn't help Maldren! I didn't help m-Energia! I was useless!"

"You can't be the one who saves the day every time," said Eve, softly.

Template took a long, deep breath, relaxed her fists, and slowly exhaled.

"I'm going flying. I need some air."


***

Without consciously meaning to, Template found herself approaching the Intrepids' base. After realizing this, she decided that was actually a good idea. There were people - long-time friends - there she could talk to. Especially Colossa.

Only, as she approached the mountain, a formation of F-16s approached. Template realized she didn't have a com button in her ear. Of course, their intent was obvious. Scowling, she put on a burst of speed, then abruptly dove. She easily lost the jets in the trees. As she flew onwards, however, someone below began shooting at her. Rifles, machine guns, even a shoulder-fired missile.

She heard an audible snap, somewhere inside her head. Furious, she looped back hard and threw herself towards the source of the fire.

Shocked soldiers dove for cover as she slammed into their HUMV. Template shredded the vehicle, then whipped around, looking for another target. There. A communications truck. She smiled as she launched herself towards it.


***


"I think you folks better get in here!" said Snare, over the base's PA system.

Something in the tone of his voice put everyone who heard it on red alert. In moments, every team member present was in the monitor room, staring up at the huge screen.

Template was on a rampage.

"My God," breathed Bowman, as he watched her tear through equipment. "We... Should we try to stop her?"

"No," said the Black Mask. "Watch. She's not attacking people. Just destroying vehicles and weapons."

He moved to one of the terminals and began searching through the automated log.

"Ah. They shot at her. Attacked her without provocation. That's actually a good thing."

"How is her making war with the Army a good thing?!" said Colossa, concerned for her lover.

"As long as she continues demonstrating such control we can spin this as self-defense. And I think she needs to blow off steam."

"If that's just her steam," said Rapscallion, "I'd hate to see her fire!"


***


Template tore the turret from a tank with obvious effort and tossed it carelessly aside, scattering troops. The ground shook from the impact. She could have disabled the thing with much less trouble, but wasn't in the mood to be forbearing. The tank had just fired on the Intrepids' base. Not at her; not in response to anything the base had done. Apparently simply because everyone else was shooting at something (that is, Template) and that was a target they could see.

"Anyone else?" she demanded, standing on the hull, one hand on a hip, glaring around.

She got her answer when another tank swung its turret towards her. Template threw herself off the first tank, out of the line of fire, moving more quickly than the turret could traverse. She quickly grabbed one of the scattered anti-tank shells spilled on the ground and hurled it at the second tank. There was a huge ball of flame as the propellants - never intended to withstand this sort of abuse - ignited. That didn't really hurt the tank, but the depleted uranium penetrator gouged deeply into the armor on the front of the turret, jamming the mantlet. The barrel of the M-60's canon was also dented, and obviously bent.

Template gathered several more shells and leapt upwards, to get an overall view and then to hurl the shells downwards. Her attacks struck only dirt, and were intended to intimidate and unbalance the ground troops while also making obstacles for ground vehicles. She landed behind a row of tall trees, and immediately came charging out, towards a nearby tank.

It had swiveled the gun around towards the tree, but was elevating, the gunner anticipating additional areal attack. Instead, Template came in under the gun and rammed her shoulder into the track, wrecking it. Next she hopped onto the hull and ripped the commander's cupola completely off, revealing a frightened young man underneath.

Template was a bit taken aback by his youth. Then scowled as he drew his sidearm and opened fire. He was so panicked most of his shots missed.

"You have got to be kidding," she said, sourly, glaring down at him.

She tossed the cupola aside, started to grab the man, then stopped, shook her head and instead grabbed the canon barrel. She heaved upwards with both hands and shoved down with a foot, giving it a distinct kink, and then flew off.

That was the last tank. In fact, very little equipment larger than small arms was intact. Multiple columns of smoke rose from the forest around the Intrepids' base. Men and women in uniform staggered around, dazed and shocked, trying to understand what had just happened.

Template flew the rest of the way into the base unimpeded.







Part Eighteen: Stalemate Relieved




Leaving the battle and entering the Intrepids' base, Template was met by Colossa. She looked at Template with a worried expression, gave her a quick hug, then wordlessly led her into a meeting room occupied by the Black Mask, Bowman, Rapscallion and Solange.

"My, you were rather vindictive out there," said Solange. She was trying to sound snarky, but Template could tell she was actually frightened.

"None of them killed," snapped Template. "Most of them can still walk."

"Sit down," said the Black Mask, calmly indicating a pulled-out chair.

She sat, but almost didn't, for some reason feeling surly.

"We would like you to change back to Randy, please," said the Black Mask.

"Present," said Template, flatly.

"Please?" said Colossa.

Template sighed and shifted to her base form.

"Satisfied?"

"Yes," said the Black Mask. "That was quite a temper tantrum."

"You folks know what I've been through, lately," said Randy, scowling. "Can you blame me for blowing my top, when someone actually shoots at me?"

"No. But your reaction was... exaggerated," said the Black Mask.

Colossa reached over and took Randy's right hand in both of hers.

"Hon, I've noticed that sometimes when you're Template you... overreact." She frowned. "No, that's not it. You... tend to have different reactions to things than you do when you're Randy. And don't tell me it's just female hormones. You react different at Template than you do as the Revolutionary, too."

"Well... they are different bodies," said Randy, shifting uncomfortably. He had noticed slight differences in his reactions, but hadn't thought they were significant. "I mean..."

"I know all teachers and students at that school of yours are required to have annual physicals," said the Black Mask. "When was your last exam?"

"Beginning of the school Fall session," said Randy, a bit puzzled. "Just a few weeks ago."

"Uhm, you'd think... No, they might not." He looked Randy in the eye. "I want you to have Dr. Whiskers give each of your usual forms a full examination. She's more familiar than your school physician with even Template."

"I don't think that's really necessary," said Randy, a bit offended, and somewhat worried.

"Please?" said Colossa, again.

"All right," said Randy, with a sigh. He shivered. "Three physical exams, two of them female. Oog."

"Pelvic karma!" said Rapscallion, eliciting a number of different reactions, none of them friendly.

"All right. Guess I've got time this weekend. But if something comes up at the school..."

"Understood," said the Black Mask.


***


Though many of those with personal interest in the matter were incarcerated or otherwise indisposed, the interrogation of the Theengrumb prisoners was something which could not be delayed.

At the school, Eve Hind and a number of others thought suitable for the activity were making time to find out what the aliens knew.

"We had just fifty-three doubles emplaced," said "Mynah." He appeared to be the leader of the group which had infiltrated the island. "I don't know who all of them were, but that's how many prisoners we had in cold storage and there was one of those for each of us."

"Truth," said the board of telepaths.

Dr. Gorgeous nodded slowly, thoughtfully. Besides these seven, fifteen others had been captured. They had also found evidence of several small craft launching from Earth shortly before the kidnapping of Maldren. Finally, every one of those found on the Moon had their duplicates disappear - or attempt to - during that same period.

"I would love to have a detailed description of your methodology," said Dr. Gorgeous, with more than academic interest. "While we have long known that the right stimulus in the right way could move mountains - literal or figurative - the degree of change you invoked in a short time with indirect means is surprising."

"It's not so difficult," said "Mynah," shrugging. "We've just had more time to develop the methods you already know about. Social dynamics, mass psychology. Say, when are you gonna let us go?"

"That's for the courts to decide," said Eve, sternly.

"Ah, c'mon! We blew our contract, nobody got really hurt, it's all over. What more do you want?"

Dr. Gorgeous shot Eve a meaningful glance.

Do they really expect...?

No. He's dissembling. Trying to convince us that "mature societies" aren't "vindictive" enough to punish someone just for doing their job. Even in his culture, there would be punishment for such acts as they committed.

"Part of the problem is that your particular offenses took place here," said Dr. Gorgeous, turning her attention back to the operative, "where we're still establishing a legal system."

"World court! Even this primitive, we know you have a world court!"

"Yes, and I'm certain they'll become involved. Eventually. Given the legal complications, the current political situation - which is largely your people's fault, by the way - your final disposition could take many years, perhaps even several decades."

"But... but... you can't keep us like this for that long! These aren't even our forms! They're... uncomfortable for us."

"You should have thought of that before you started this," said Dr. Gorgeous, smiling.


***


"Vice President Gould has begun impeachment proceedings against President Thurlin!" gasped Junker, bursting through the door to interrupt a Monday evening meeting of the school's staff. "He waited until both the House and Senate were up late anyway with preexisting legislative matters, checked to make sure that Thurlin and most of his cronies were asleep, asked for the floor of the Senate, made a dramatic speech giving the Articles of Impeachment against Thurlin, moved for a vote to begin the process, and got a huge majority. Then had it sent immediately to the House, with the same result."

"Wonderful," said Template, actually sagging with relief. She wasn't particularly fond of Gould, who had struck her as rather a wimp, but if he was finally taking legal action against Thurlin...

"He made sure he had people on both sides and in both parties ready to support it, then took the plunge."

"This whole mess is your fault, you know," said Template, mock glaring at Eve, and mystifying most of the others in the room.

"Ohhhhh, no," she said, firmly. "You're not putting this on me. I removed myself from the situation as soon as I saw Thurlin was actually going to become nationally significant. Too much scrutiny in that milieu for me to risk continuing. No, Thurlin and his cronies continued to the Oval Office entirely without my help."

"Wait," said Chestnut, in confusion. "You mean..."

"It was years ago," said Template. "I apologize, Eve, for bringing it up. I'm still tired, and, uhm, had to have three different physical exams over the weekend."

"Wait, what?" said Chestnut, now even more confused.

"Later, all right?" said Template. "For both things. Right now, we've got some stuff to settle before class starts tomorrow."


***


The meeting the next afternoon in the Oval Office was uncomfortable for all involved. President Thurlin had five of his people on one side of the low table which had been brought in; Vice President Gould five of his on the other.

"Malcolm, you're not going to win this," said Gould, flatly. "The past fifteen months, while you've been obsessed with supers, I've been building a power base. If you don't resign, impeachment will proceed. I already have far more than enough votes. It would be better for both you and the country if you avoid being kicked out of office and leave gracefully."

"You'd like that, wouldn't you, Oliver?" said Thurlin, snarling. "Oh, yeah, you'd really like that. Taking my place!"

"For a little over a year?" said Gould. "No. And you have my word I do not plan to ever run for elected office again."

"Your word! Your word! Since when does anyone take someone's word for something important!?"

"Some of us did before you came along," said Gould, hotly. "You've just about ruined this country. Its reputation, its economy, the trust of the people in the government, in large part because you - being dishonest - don't believe anyone else is honest."

"Big talk! But let's see you back it up!"

"I am backing it up," said Gould, darkly. "And I'm doing it entirely within the law, by the rules laid down in the Constitution."

"The people won't stand for this!"

"The people are almost unanimously in favor of it! As I said, the best action for all involved is for you to resign. It's your choice."

Thurlin, purpling, started to rise. One of his men, worry showing through his carefully schooled expression, put a hand on his shoulder. Thurlin allowed himself to be pushed back into his seat. The man leaned forward and whispered something. Thurlin looked surprised. Then petulant.

"This... isn't something you can expect me to decide right away."

"Take your time. Just keep in mind that the impeachment proceedings are going ahead at a record-setting pace."


***


Meanwhile, several people with a personal interest in the outcome of those proceedings were having a quiet conversation in a rec room at a federal prison. A room hurriedly equipped with neutralizers. To make certain there were no shadows in the effect, more than were strictly necessary had been installed.

"Damn," said HighTop, as he saw a familiar costume. "I'm surprised to see you here, Guardsman. And distressed."

"I'm glad to see you, too," said the other Mask, warmly shaking his hand. The two men were similar in build, age and manner, though one was Caucasian and the other Black. "This is the first time they've let me out of my cell. I haven't seen any other familiar faces, don't even know what happened to the rest of the Guardians."

"Grapevine has it they're splitting teams, to reduce the chance of cooperation in an escape attempt. Problem is, they have so few facilities which can hold supers, they've had to transfer dangerous non-super prisoners to less secure facilities just to have someplace to put us."

The Guardsman nodded, looking slowly around the room.

"All heroes. And all still in costume! I thought Thurlin stated he was ordering those going after Masks to ignore Coltman v. Dachshund and remove masks."

"Most people didn't bother unmasking the captured heroes even with those instructions," said HighTop. "Or if they did, didn't bother finding out who they were. They weren't interested in who was wearing the costume, they just wanted it off the street."

"Image vs. substance," said Tumbler, approaching the older men. "Most people don't care who's inside the outfit. They only see the outfit."

"Still, there were many known Masks whose identity was illegally revealed," said the Guardsman, quiet but deep anger in his voice. "Not publicly, yet, but the government knows. Several of us were already taking legal action, before my team was brought in."

"There will be retribution," said the Deacon, ominously, as he joined the group rapidly forming around the Guardsman. "And it shall be dire."







Part Nineteen: Reaping What Was Sown




"Nobody appreciates me, or what I've done for this country," said Thurlin, actually pouting. "Well, what I've done will stand the test of history! Mark my words, long after I'm gone people will look back on this as a terrific time to be an American!"

Thurlin had officially resigned less than an hour before. This press conference had been called presumably for him to announce the act. So far there had been no mention of the words "resignation" or "resign."

"I will be back! You can't keep a good man down. And I am a good man. History will tell you that. Like Lincoln or Roosevelt. I helped hold this country together in its hour of greatest need."

"Well, he's right about that," said Rapscallion. "He united the nation against him!"

"Hush!" said Colossa.

The speech didn't conclude so much as just stop. Thurlin gathered his papers, thumped the edge of the stack on the podium with a vindictive gesture, gave the cameras a final glare, wheeled around and stalked off.

"How long until they swear in Gould?" said Bowman, glancing at his watch.

"At least three more hours," said the Black Mask. "There's a lot of protocol involved."

"I won't feel safe until he's declared President," said Colossa, uneasily. "Maybe not then. The government - several governments - has a long way to go to regain my trust."

"I won't feel safe until two administrations from now," said Solange.

"I won't feel safe until several different cases reach the Supreme Court and are decided in our favor," said the Black Mask, direly.

They all jumped as an alarm sounded. Bowman quickly jumped up and answered.

"Gould wasn't quick enough," said Steel Lace. The Bay Area Guardians were currently one of the largest teams still in their base, and were therefore acting as a communications center for most other free Masks. They were  helped in this by the fact that the few members of the Planetary Guardians who had escaped capture were there as well. "A group - a very large group - of super criminals has organized under the leadership of the Broker and is planning to attack DC. They figure that during the confusion following Thurlin's resignation and before Gould takes the oath they can literally take over the capital. Failing that, they can do enough damage that the nation would need years to recover."

"So what do we do?" said the Black Mask, concern showing through his usual air of calm.

"We're calling for everyone who can make it to go to Washington now. We can organize faster than the National Guard or the police. NightMist is assigning everyone who contacts her a rallying point. We have fifteen, scattered around the city near expected targets."

"I'll spread the word immediately," said the Black Mask, reaching for the controls.

"One last thing," said the Steel Lace, quickly. "Some police and military have stated they will continue following Thurlin's orders until Gould is sworn in and rescinds them. So not only will they not cooperate, they may actively hinder."

"Right," said the Black Mask.


***


Some of the bad guys apparently jumped the gun, or perhaps were independent opportunists taking advantage of the more organized effort. The attack was supposed to be synchronized and coordinated, but by the time the first Masks arrived there were already sporadic reports of super criminals in a few areas. They were quickly and decisively apprehended by the early-arriving Masks.

Roughly half of the Masks in the US had been imprisoned or were in hiding. Many of the rest had trouble of one sort or another making the trip, or simply refused to help. Still, within an hour and a half there were sixty costumed heroes stationed at the fifteen gathering points. This was due in no small part to those who had transportation picking up some who didn't.

The turnout was impressive. Lord Hammer had come out of retirement. Stagger, not seen for over eight years, was there. The Wrath swallowed his ire over politics in general and DC specifically to participate. Even Sword was there, despite her repeated declarations to have nothing to do with "costumed weirdoes."

There were nearly twice their number of known super criminals already approaching in a unified wave, from several directions.

"I hate to say it," Steel Lace told each group, as they made ready to defend the nation's capital, "but this is a killing situation. I'm not telling you to go out there with the intent to kill; just that the potential for civilian casualties from extended battles is outrageously high. Also, you do have the right to protect yourselves. Just remember, the effort you expend to take someone down in a non-lethal manner might mean two others get past you."

There was an uneasy stir at those words, but Steel Lace was a veteran Mask and her judgement much respected.

Small groups were assigned to each land approach into the heart of the city. Other small groups were sent to specific targets. Most of those who could fly were assigned to four groups; three sent out to surround the governmental center of Washington in a triangular formation, the fourth held in reserve, with that reserve placed in the heart of Washington, the National Mall. Also held in reserve were several of the most effective fighters. All those could either move quickly on their own or were light enough to be carried by a flyer or speedster.

The speedsters were their communications corps. There wasn't enough commonality among the various com systems used, as well as expectations of eavesdropping or interference by villains. The word "runner" had taken on a whole new meaning for this conflict.

To improve function, people who had worked together before were grouped together. As she approached the assembly point, not far from the Capital building, Template was pleased to spot among the early arrivals a couple she hadn't seen since the Katrina cleanup, standing there, just east of 7th Street.

"Magni! Fireburst! It's good to see you!"

Template gave them both welcoming hugs, which the other supers returned. They chatted a bit, standing there on the grass, as the rest of their impromptu team assembled. Then they waited, an uneasy silence falling over the eleven.

"This isn't enough," said Template, worried.

She looked around, at the Smithsonian buildings, the monuments and memorials, the famous government structures. She was very glad Eve and those of the staff staying at the school - which was most of them - were making certain those students under the age of consent also stayed there.

"Not enough."

"There's more coming," said Tiger.

He was, once again, in the combat suit Ike Kenniman had made for him. He seemed oddly calm.

"Aren't you worried?"

"Sure. But no use wasting energy."

He started to say something else, but suddenly stiffened and looked up.

Template looked as well, but saw nothing unusual. Still, one of the few powers she didn't have was heightened senses, while Tiger...

"Scatter!!!" he suddenly yelled.

They all - barely, with some requiring assistance - got out of the way of the something which suddenly appeared, hurtling down at them. It struck with a thump and crash which jarred the ground, actually knocking some of the defenders off their feet. The collapsed mound of debris lodged itself at least a meter deep in the soil of the Mall.

"Is that a piece of... building?!" said Falcon Eddie.

Tiger abruptly jumped onto the top of the thing, and from there bounded upwards. He swatted at something only he could see. There was a shrill scream, and suddenly they could all see the roughly two dozen villains dropping towards them.

Tiger's target was Redwing, who was carrying Demento, a mind controller and illusionist. The former had been so startled - and injured - by Tiger's clawing strike he nearly dropped Demento, breaking the mentalist's concentration.

Their surprise ruined, the villains were quickly engaged. Template, Falcon Eddie and Rocket Bob took to the air. Template quickly developed the tactic of swatting less powerful fliers down to where her ground-bound teammates could reach them.

"These are all second-stringers!" Falcon Eddie shouted. "Third-stringers, a lot of 'em!"

"I'll show you third-string!" a flying super Template didn't know shouted, as he rammed Falcon Eddie.

However, the bewinged Mask's evaluation proved correct. Most of the attackers were handled quickly. The remaining few weren't likely to last much longer. Unfortunately, that was just the opening salvo.

A massive figure came charging across Independence Avenue.

"Erfit!" shouted Magni.

They braced themselves. Count Erfit was a long-time bad guy, a major force, actually stronger and tougher than Energex, though slower and unable to fly. This would be a bad fight.

Suddenly "Along Came Jones" blared over all the speakers in the area. The Coasters version.

"No..." said Count Erfit, stumbling to a stop to look frantically around. "It can't be. He's dead! Dead, I tell you!"

The heroes didn't know what was going on with that, but took advantage of his confusion. Multiple attacks of many types landed; most served only to further unbalance Erfit, but one actually first stunned him, then dropped him.

The Mad Baker's calming pie had done the trick.

"Scatter!" yelled Dogpile, on seeing their brick down.

"Psychological warfare," said Tiger, as the music abruptly stopped. "Used the suit to interface with the PA systems around here."

The Black Mask quickly prioritized the super criminals according to how much trouble how quickly they were likely to cause and sent people after them, usually in groups. The exception was Demento. Since Tiger was strongly resistant to the mentalist's powers and Demento was physically a normal human, he figured that would probably be enough.

"Template, you Fargo and Arizona go after Dogpile, Deadlock and Scurry. Magni, Fireburst, Sculpy, after Succor and TrainBust. The rest of you, stay here and help make sure none of these get loose."

***


Within minutes, Template, Fargo and Arizona had returned with their three targets, and were immediately sent after Thud, who had gotten past Colossa and Sizematic and was battering at the doors of the Capital. The second trio also quickly captured their assigned targets. Almost all those who had attacked them were soon being securely held, there on the Mall. One of the few exceptions was Demento.

"Shouldn't have taken Tiger that long to find and subdue him," said the Black Mask, starting to worry. "Unless he ran into someone else..."

That appeared to be the case, a few minutes later, when Tiger returned to the group. He looked considerably the worse for wear, his combat suit heavily damaged. He was alone.

"Wow," said Rapscallion. "You look horrible."

"I just took a house to the face," said Tiger, sourly. "Constantine showed up and decided he didn't want me carrying Demento around."

"Constantine!" said the Black Mask, startled. "It's... not like him to become involved in something like this."

"Unless he's decided to take advantage of the confusion," said Bowman. "He could get rid of a bunch of rival super criminals and super heroes at once."

They needed time to finish subduing the few remaining attackers in the area, and more time to arrange pickup. Only then, in groups of no fewer than three, did they begin the search.

Template, Magni and Tiger found Constantine. He was standing in the Lincoln Memorial, starting up at that face. That noble, tortured face. The heroes stumbled to a halt, as much because of that wonderful sculpture as because Constantine simply wasn't... doing anything. After a moment of mutual silence, he turned calmly towards them.

"You will have no fight from me today," he said, quietly.

And he simply vanished.


***


Ironically, word that Constantine had been sighted made their work easier. Few villains wanted to tangle with him, and his disdain for them was not only well known but had been personally experienced by some of the attackers. That, plus the quick and effective defense quickly routed the attackers, even though only a quarter had actually been captured.

The defenders were sent to a half dozen indoor locations to rest and stand ready, in case the lull in the attack was merely a regrouping. There they caught the tail end of the inauguration. Though arranged in a hurry, and held inside due to the attack, it had not been rushed. The crowded assembly of politicians, newspeople and general public broke out in a heartfelt cheer when it was completed.

Hours later, with no further sign of attack, people finally began to relax. Their celebration was tempered by the news that seventeen fatalities had been caused by the attack, half of them civilians.

"It's so good to hear a different name after President," said Rapscallion putting his feet on the table and crossing his ankles, as they watched a replay of the inauguration on the evening news. "And thus we bid goodbye to Thurlin!"

"Feet on the floor!" said Colossa.

"Okay, okay," said her cousin, resignedly.

"I think he got off too easy," said Tiger, almost growling.

"Notice there was no mention of amnesty or pardon of Thurlin in Gould's acceptance speech," said the Black Mask. "That surprised me. You would think Thurlin would have insisted on that."

They were in a local meeting room at a large hotel, rented by the Black Mask. He claimed the owner was a Mask sympathizer, and so far their treatment by the establishment supported this. There was no press, and a sagging table at one end carried a rather plush buffet. Many of those who had come to Washington to defend it were staying here, as well, most of them too tired - or busy celebrating - to bother with getting out of costume.

"So there could be lawsuits and prison time in the future for Thurlin," said Colossa, sounding only a bit satisfied.

"Well, people got killed because of him, but it's not like he ordered their deaths," said the Night Master. He shrugged. "Thurlin had people arrested illegally, but it's not like he had them held in camps and tortured. In a way, we got off easy. It could have been a lot worse."


***


The next morning the assembled Masks dispersed in their various directions. Joining them were those who had been held on Thurlin's orders. There was no sham of "pardons" for them. Gould stated, flatly, as his first official act as President that their arrests had been illegal. Further, he said that the governments responsible would make restitution, and the individuals who had carried out the illegal orders held responsible.

Among all this good news, Template approached her appointment with the Intrepids' team doctor with a great deal of anxiety.

In the surprisingly ordinary-looking office Template sat a bit timidly in the chair across from Dr. Whiskers' desk.

"I knew already that your neurotransmitter balance was off from earlier tests," said the feline medico, after a bit of preliminary. "Your psychological tests were within limits, so that didn't worry me. However, I now believe that the disdain you occasionally show for normals, the ruthlessness you exhibit in fights, perhaps a few other traits, all come from one or more of the villains you included in the template you used for that form."

"Wait... You mean... I'm crazy?!" said Template, alarmed.

"No. The effect is, rather, a slight reduction of inhibitions."

"Oh," said Template, startled, as several things occurred to her. "Jumping into the hero life. Posing for that charity calendar. Mouthing off to authority figures."

"Medication is neither advised nor necessary, in my educated opinion. Being aware of the condition, plus counseling, should be sufficient."



END



This work is Copyright 2008 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reprint this material may obtain permission by contacting me at stickmaker@usa.net