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Masks VII



by



Rodford Edmiston






Lest Old Acquaintance Be Forgot





Warning! Sexual situations and violence! Do not read if easily offended!




Part One



I slid on my furry belly down the muddy trough. The slide ended a bit above the current water level, giving me a slight drop, and a moment to position myself. My entry into the water wasn't quite without a splash, but it was very smooth. I was getting better.

I swam with my whole body, under the surface until my lungs insisted on fresh air, then threw myself upwards. I got almost completely out of the water, taking a quick breath before splashing back down. I resurfaced and swam towards the shore in a more leisurely fashion.

The other otters were watching, keeping their distance. I knew from my empathy that they knew I wasn't one of them, but as long as I didn't come close they left me alone. Which was fine by me. I had come up here to get away from human society for a while, and wasn't interested in joining otter society.

On shore I climbed the muddy bank in a series of elastic bounds. At the top I rolled in the grass for a bit to clean off the mud and most of the water, then went hunting for my clothes. Once at the bundle, still sitting on the stump where I had left them, I shifted back to human and dressed. I moved quickly; without fur I quickly became quite cold.

These past few months had been among the best of my life. However, the general situation outside my retreat had changed, and I was seriously considering moving back to Los Angeles.

As I walked towards the deceptively simple cabin my hackles rose. There was a strange vehicle parked in front of it, a ridiculously oversized SUV. Before I could decide what to do about it, though, I saw someone. Someone familiar. I felt an odd mixture of relief and aggravation.

"Hello, John," I called out to the very large man standing between my cabin and his vehicle. "I should have known it was you, driving such a behemoth."

He waved cheerfully, but didn't move to meet me. He knew I was coming his way, and didn't feel any need to cut the distance.

"Damned cars these days, most are too small to even fit in!"

"Well, if you weren't descended from Titans you wouldn't have so much trouble fitting," I chided him, grinning.

I knew he wouldn't be satisfied by any mere handshake, but even I was surprised by the fervor of his hug, and the passion of the kiss he bestowed on me.

"John, please," I said, rolling my eyes as I pushed him away.

"Ah, my friend," he said, holding me at arms' length and smiling warmly. "I have not seen you for a span long even by my reckoning."

"Well, come inside and tell me why you're here," I said, breaking free of his grip and moving to open the cabin door.

He ducked under the frame and entered, stopping just inside to look around. He glanced over his shoulder at me, an eyebrow raised.

"A bit rustic for you, isn't it?"

"Looks can be deceiving," I told him, smiling a bit.

"Why do you think I waited outside, rather than making myself at home?" he said, moving further in to make room for me. "I know your penchant for elaborate precautions."

"They keep me alive, John," I told him, seriously. "Not all of us can step outside the world for a decade or two to get away from trouble."

I directed him to the kitchen, where I brought out large tumblers and a bottle of the good stuff. John smiled as I filled his glass, and said nothing when I put much less in mine. He drained half his allotment before taking a break for breath, gave vent to a gusty sigh and smiled.

"You definitely know how to make a man feel welcome."

"Talk," I said, topping off his glass.

"Can't I just be here to see an old friend?"

"Not you. You wouldn't go out of your way to see someone you know is in hiding without a very good reason."

I didn't mention that this was due to not caring enough about anyone to go out of his way for them, rather than due to consideration.

"I have recently learned that an author has completed a book about super human activities in the Fifties." His pleasant expression was replaced with a very unpleasant one. "It is supposedly a serious look at the heroes, villains and background culture of the time, but the author's promotions are pure tabloid material. One of the people he has mentioned in interviews is your old mentor: Mack Risk. The hints being dropped are not honorable to his memory."

I scowled. Mack and I had never been great friends - I was his employee, primarily - but we had been partners in a dangerous business. We had also saved each others' lives more than once. The fact that he was in a profession many saw as rather sleazy, and had come out as gay long before it was fashionable, meant there were many through the years who tried to tear him down. Especially after his bizarre death in the Sixties. He had no living family by that time, so his friends - myself included - would leap to his defense. Only... There were fewer of us each year.

"Who else from the old group have you contacted?"

"No-one, yet," he said. "I felt that if I brought you on board, recruiting others would be easier. Or perhaps even unnecessary. You and he parted company a few years before the events being brought to light, but you still knew his methods and many of his secrets."

Another factor was that most of those folks would be more willing to work with me than John.

"So what's the dope?" I said, deliberately reverting to old slang.

"Did you know that after Sonic Jett disappeared, Mack was hired to find him?"

"Oh, yes. I was called before a Congressional investigation to testify in the matter, even though I hadn't been working with Mack for a while before that. He infuriated people because he refused to give any details, just a statement that Sonic Jett was dead."

"No body was ever found," said John. "There were rumors Jerome was still alive, maybe a prisoner of the Communists, or hiding from his enemies, or maybe just retired. The family accepted Mack's report, and used it to have him declared legally dead. Which is what got the government involved. They didn't want him dead, and if he really was they wanted to use him as an excuse for pomp and circumstance, with a hero's wake and tomb."

"Which was exactly the opposite of what Jerome Jett and his family wanted," I remembered.

"The fuss eventually died down, except for the occasional 'sighting.' However, this author is claiming that Sonic Jett's disappearance was part of some nefarious scheme. In interviews he vaguely hints at a plot by Jett which backfired."

We spoke for over two hours, by which time the bottle was empty. Mostly through John's efforts. I showed him around the cabin - he was especially glad to find the bathroom, though a bit bemused by the composting toilet - then we went back to the kitchen and talked even more while I started supper.

All this time I couldn't help but be aware of the effect he was having on me. I pride myself on being in control, but I was so aroused by his presence that at times I found myself becoming more feminine without consciously meaning to. There are times I wish I could turn my empathy off.

I was also extremely annoyed. John's larger than life attitude, his assumption that everyone else will simply go along with what he expects them to do, and - especially - his smug certainty that we would share a bed for the night were grating.

He can't help it. When your mother is a literal sex goddess you tend to have a large opinion of yourself. The fact that he's as personable a guy as he is has less to do with inherited abilities than a willingness to try and fit in. When he's not willing, things can get... ugly.

"So, Larry, are you in?"

I paused, knife on the cutting board, thinking. Not about helping - that was a given - but about how that would affect my current situation. John misread my hesitation.

"Sorry," said John, with an apologetic smile. "I forgot you prefer Lawrence these days."

"Actually, I'm back to Larry. Lawrence just sounded too pretentious. And, yes, I'm in. I was just wondering if the world is ready for me to reappear. As far as I know no-one was actually looking for me - I do have a radio and have checked with my lawyer occasionally - but the public attitude..."

"Has greatly improved towards supers," said John, nodding. "In large part due to the efforts of several teams. Especially that new one, the Assembly. Some politicians and news reporters have figured this out, but others are still determined to rid the world of the menace of supers."

"What's your current status, anyway?"

"Advisory member of the Olympian consul," said John, proudly.

I had to laugh at at that. And the problems it must be causing for the bureaucrats. A demigod with diplomatic immunity, loose upon the world! Especially with that name.

"When I tell people about John Love they think I'm talking about a black pimp," I said, laughing again.

"Well, they're half right," he said, joining in. After a few seconds he sighed, and sobered. "The new administration is reforming the Specialists. Remarkably, even some of the previous members are rejoining."

"Incredible," I said, shaking my head.

Supper was simple but tasty. Again, I tapped into the good stuff, partly because I had a guest and partly because I knew this would be my last night here. There were several opened cans with freeze-dried food left in them. What we didn't have for breakfast in the morning would be scattered around the woods. John refused to talk "business" while we ate, instead regaling me with tales of his family. I figure a bit less than half the stories he told were true, and of those less than half actually about his kin.

"So where do we start?" I said, as I cleared the supper dishes.

"I have an important clue," said John, seeming inordinately proud of himself.

John has many strengths, but investigative skills aren't among them. Neither is modesty. He can also be frustratingly indirect. The fact that he had uncovered something helpful was making him even more smug than usual, and he was milking it.

"Things are already getting better," said John, contemplatively, as he swirled his after-dinner whiskey around in its glass. "Lots of people quit the business - about half of them should never have been in it - and there are several major new teams in operation. The Assembly, as I mentioned before, chief among them. They took over - legally - the old Guild Hall, the one in the mountain. They've already handled - very ably - a number of medium-level threats and one major one. And that's how I came to know them."

"How's that?" I asked, curious in spite of my feelings about "super heroes."

"Well, I think you know that travel between planes is hard for humans, and for supernatural beings even harder. Just reaching across to do something takes major mojo. For some reason, though, it's easier for us hybrids than either humans or extra-planars. I was visiting Mother a few months back and there was - to use the modern vernacular - a major disturbance in the force. Turns out a demon lord was manifesting on Earth. Personally, through some sort of huge effort on the part of his cult. He got smacked down very quickly and thoroughly by the Assembly."

"Good news," I said, grudgingly, topping off John's glass.

"The other Olympians asked me to check the group out. They're good folks. They were organized by Dr. Piano, but he's on reserve status now that the major supernatural threat all the mystics were worried about is gone. They've got this gorgeous chick in charge, an avatar of Atana who calls herself Champion. Real hard-ass, though; couldn't make any headway with her."

"Do you have to evaluate every person you meet by their suitability for mating with you?" I said, tiredly. "You're centuries old. When are you going to grow up?"

"Hey, remember who my uncle is," said John, with a leer. "Anyway, I stayed on for a few weeks, helping them recruit more members so they could be fully staffed. While I was there they also had hirelings clearing out the last of the archival material from the base. The material will be copied and sent to teams and people they trust; the originals will go to the National Archives. They found a file cabinet full of unsolved cases. Since most of those occurred when I was an active hero I was asked to help update the status of any I might have information on."

I felt an odd chill. I'm not nearly as old as John, but I've lived longer than most humans. That's plenty long enough to have more than one event in my past which could come back to haunt me.

"Don't worry," said John, putting a reassuring hand on my arm and smiling. "You're only peripherally mentioned."

His touch was warm and gentle. I felt the warmth spreading up my arm and into my cheeks, which began flushing. I looked him hard in the eye.

"That's good. You're still not getting laid."

He laughed, as if I had made a very funny and ridiculous joke, and pulled his hand back. Then abruptly sobered.

"I found some of the lost files of Mack Risk."

The chill was back, stronger.

Many people are still surprised - even shocked - to learn that one of the most famous hard-boiled detectives was gay. Not bi, as some revisionists claim, but completely homosexual. The main reason I was usually in female form during the years I worked for him was not to "use my feminine wiles" on people for his behalf, but because I was uncomfortable around him as a male. I know, it doesn't make a lot of sense, but what does about human sexuality? Mack didn't mind; said it made me less distracting. I trusted Mack as I have trusted few other people. More importantly, he never violated that trust. And we never even mentioned sex unless it was relevant to a case.

"So, was the Sonic Jett case mentioned in those files?" I asked, with forced casualness.

"Oh, yes. Not everything, but what's there is very revealing. He and Nimrod went after The Master Assassin, who had some unknown connection to Jett's disappearance. Only Mack was ever seen again."

"So. Mack was asked to investigate Jerome's disappearance. He uncovered clues that the Master Assassin was involved, and figured he needed more muscle."

"Yes," said John, nodding, and gesturing for a refill. "If anyone could have put an end to Jerome Jett it was the Assassin. And if you are going after him you want the best brains and brawn you can find. Mack would do for the brains and Nimrod for the brawn, but they really should have had at least one more."

"Mack never talked to me about what happened," I said, remembering. "I wasn't working for him then - hadn't been for years - but we still got together occasionally and talked. But I never heard him mention Nimrod or the Assassin in connection with Jett. His reticence caused some bad blood in the community, and was a large part of what led him to retire for most of a decade."

"Yes, and if he had remained retired he might still be alive," said John, sourly. The demigod shook his head. "What possessed him to take on Dr. Fission? That guy was nuts and radioactive."

"Honor, I think. He knew Fission's family and wanted to help them recover their father, and also was trying trying to prove he was still in the game. He almost succeeded..."

I sighed, picked up my own glass and contemplated the amber liquid. John sat unusually silent and - even more unusually - kept his hands to himself. I took a swallow, put the glass back on the table.

"I have to admit, I've been bored up here," I told him. "Also had a lot of time for introspection. If what I'm hearing on the radio is true - and from what you said earlier it is - then it's safe for me to go back."

"Good," said John. He drained his glass. "I have some others I think will want to help, and having you along will make recruiting them easier."

I was surprised he actually mentioned that.





Part Two




It was one of those "smack yourself on the head" wake-ups the next morning. John was cuddled up behind me, with his hand on my breast. I sighed resignedly, moved his hand away and slid out of bed. He stirred, opened his eyes and looked up at me, smiling.

"You've still got it."

"You can change shape, too. Why don't I ever wind up being the man when we fuck?"

"You could be..."

"Guy-guy is not my idea of fun."

He reached for me, but I ducked away, my small, firm breasts bouncing. I looked around for something to cover my rapidly-cooling body with, but everything I saw was either on the bed or in the dirty laundry pile. Giving up on covering myself with cloth, I put fur on.

"Oh, now that I like."

"You like a lot of things, from boyish girls to men of all types," I said. I gestured at my current form. "Why do you never ask for something more curvy?"

"You've met my mother," said John, with a delicate shudder.

Okay, I could see that. A sort of reverse Oedipal effect, where he would either be worried about being attracted to women who looked like his mother or - more likely, given his family - simply knew they could never match her.

"Seriously, though, why don't you use your shapeshifting much?"

"I may be open in what I'm attracted to but I have a very clear image of who and what I am; a man," said John. He smiled and flexed. "A very masculine, attractive man."

Okay, now he was deliberately using his powers to make me aroused. Not so I'd get back in bed but to amuse himself with my reaction. I sighed and padded for the bathroom.

The problem about having sex with John is that he's so blessedly good at it. I am convinced he could give a marble statue a good time. While also getting himself off, of course. I couldn't even blame him for seducing me, because I knew he hadn't cheated with his powers. That's not how he operates, unless it's "for the cause." He prefers to use his natural attractiveness and charm and learned skills. It's a matter of honor with him. Neither could I blame the whiskey, since I had drunk little and my regeneration would filter that out in far less time than the interval between my last drink and when we wound up in my bedroom. No, the reason was both honest and simple. I'd been without sex for months, and he knew how to turn me on. When it came to sex, John had his own form of empathy.

I sighed again as I resumed my normal form, then used the toilet.

After breakfast we spent a couple of hours putting things in order at the cabin, something I insisted on. There was no telling how long this period of tolerance would last, or when I'd need to hide again. I made a list of what I needed to replace or add, packed what I was taking in the back of John's oversized SUV and we left.


***


John doesn't like flying - in planes, anyway - so we drove back to my place in Las Vegas. I called my attorney on the way, then the cleaning service, to make sure everything was ready. I also interrogated John in detail about our planned mission. We spent a day at my place - mostly eating out, since we weren't going to be there long enough to stock the fridge - making calls and plans.

The next person John wanted to add to our group was a generalist super, a man who had started with a brief career as a villain before turning hero. He'd worked with both Jett and Mack and many others. My job was finding him. John, meanwhile, worked on learning more about the last mission of Sonic Jett.

Finding Simon Levaunt was not easy. As the Heretic he'd been one of Sonic Jett's earliest opponents. After reforming, he'd changed costume and renamed himself Acolyte. The two had worked together many times, and become close friends. Some of their children had even dated. Simon would want to learn what happened to Jerome as I wanted to clear Mack's name. Though what he'd do if we found something bad for his friend's name was uncertain. I wasn't even sure what I'd do if we found that Mack had done something shady.

All that was contingent on locating him. Fortunately, I still remembered some of my investigative skills, and still knew people I could call on for information. Two days after John arrived at my cabin I located Simon in a retirement community in Santa Clara.

"Not a bad drive," said John, checking a map.

"I thought you were in a hurry?"

"Not really. We can take Interstates almost the whole way, so it won't be a long drive."


***


Simon recognized both of us as soon as he opened the door, and seemed both surprised and pleased to see us.

"I'll be damned," he said, taken aback by our unexpected arrival.

He recovered quickly, smiling and extending his hand first to me, then to John. I was relieved when John didn't take things any further than a handshake.

"I haven't seen either of you in decades. Damn! You both look like you've hardly changed."

"You don't have any grounds for complaint," said John.

He wasn't just being diplomatic. Like many supers, Simon looked younger than his years. I've learned that partly this is due to powers, partly due to avoiding many vices, partly due to access to advanced medical science and even magical healing, and partly due to simply having the habit of staying in shape.

The home was small but nice. And expensive. Simon had never been short on money, and had occasionally even helped Jett's family when their father's devotion to his profession - heroing, as opposed to his mundane jobs - put him in financial trouble.

John quickly and succinctly explained the reason for our visit. Simon sat there for a while, frowning in thought.

"Hard to believe, after all these years, anyone would make trouble for Mack. Plus, I've always wondered what happened to Jerome."

"You're in?" I said.

"Oh, yes."

We pooled information. We already knew Mack's last case had involved the northern Rockies. Simon narrowed that down, informing us that the area was right on the Canadian border.

"Jerome knew I'd vacationed in the region several times and asked me for information," said Simon. He chuckled. "No Internet then. Just libraries and people you knew. When Mack came looking for clues about Jerome's disappearance, I told him what I just told you."

"What was Sonic Jett doing up there?" I said. "I know the Canadians welcomed him as much as we in the US did. Was he working on something for their government?"

"That could explain why it's been kept quiet," said John, nodding.

"I honestly don't know," said Simon, spreading his hands. "He barely mentioned the actual case. Something about investigating illegal mining. That reticence was pretty normal by then. He wasn't keeping secrets. The old enthusiasm was just... gone."

"What happened?" I said, feeling a deep hurt behind his words.

"After Madge died, he just wanted out," said Simon, sadly. "He was sick of everything to do with heroing, but especially the front he had to put up for the media. He was tired of being Sonic Jett, but how could he stop? People knew who he was. Only his kids and I knew he was suffering. I actually wasn't surprised when he didn't come back. I figured he'd planned things that way. However, he never contacted any of us. Then Mack came back and told us he really was dead."

"What was his plan?" said John.

"I don't know that he actually had a plan. My guess - and that's all it is - is that he wanted to disappear in a way where people would be convinced he'd died in action, and in a place where they couldn't easily check."

"Sounds like a good plan," said John, nodding. "He was clever enough to either pull that off himself, or find someone who could."

"Which makes me wonder if this whole Master Assassin business was something else entirely," said Simon. "He'd never make a deal with a monster like that!"

I didn't agree with all of their speculations, but didn't say anything.


***


Our next target was Tulio Pagano. As Maciste he had been an active hero in the Forties and Fifties, and even made a minor comeback in the Sixties. He had worked with all of us, as well as Sonic Jett and Mack Risk. Showing how incestuous the super community now was, he was the grandfather of the current Maciste, the guy with The Assembly. That - combined with John's contact with them - could be a big help, depending on what we found.

These days he was living with his wife in the central Rockies, near a ski resort. When Lucinda escorted us into his den I was surprised to see that he now sported a bushy mustache, which gave him an unfortunate resemblance to Stalin. That, and the fact he was as big as John, made him appear very formidable. Despite his long retirement he looked like he could still juggle anvils. Large ones.

"Oh, no, no, no," he said, waving his hands and giving us a self-deprecating smile, after John made his pitch. "I'm retired. My grandson is Maciste, now."

"We're not asking for Maciste," said John. "We're asking for the man who knew Sonic Jett. A man who, presumably, would not want to see his friend's name dragged through the mud."

The big man scowled, not liking having the friendship card played with him.

"Don't pull that on me, John. I liked Jett, but we were never close. Why do you need me along, anyway? Surely whatever happened half a century ago would hold little danger now."

"The Master Assassin is involved," said John, flatly. "Even if he really is dead, there could still be danger. The more people, and the wider the range of powers, we have along, the better. So far we don't have a brick."

"So call my grandson," said Tulio, shrugging. "Get him to put his team on it."

"This isn't a matter for a super hero team," I said. "It's a matter for those who knew and respected the people involved. You weren't close with Jett or Mack, but you worked with Nimrod off and on for years. I don't think there's any danger of traps or attack, but this is an isolated wilderness area in serious terrain. We could use someone with great strength."

"That sounds a lot more convincing coming from you," said Maciste, nodding. "However, I have a question. Have you spoken with Jett's family about this adventure?"

"By phone, yes," said John, nodding. "We're actually on our way there next. You were almost on our route, so I thought we'd stop and see you first."

"So they know you plan to investigate the death of their father and grandfather. Even though that investigation might uncover something unfavorable about him."

"They trust Jett's integrity," I said. "I think they also trust our discretion."

He asked us to stay for supper while he thought it over. John knew better than to press, instead chatting about Tulio's family. This was a topic definitely to the liking of both him and Lucinda. John had actually seen Milo since Tulio had, and spoke flatteringly - and honestly, as far as I could tell - about the boy.

In the end he agreed, and even invited us to stay the night. We regretfully declined, since our luggage was already in rooms in the main hotel at the ski resort.

"Tomorrow, Oregon!" said John, as he and Tulio shook hands on the door step. "Coos Bay, to be precise."


***


As I prepared for bed that evening, there was a knock on the door. John was outside, smiling.

"What?" I said, through the door.

"I have something for you," said John, reaching into his pocket.

"Keep it in your pants for just one night," I muttered, tiredly.

"No, no, this isn't sex," he said, laughing. "What do you think I am?"

"A horny demigod."

He pulled out a plain, silver band, holding it up to the peephole.

"Are you proposing?" I asked, warily.

"No. This is a magic ring. It will change your clothes with you."

Okay, that was worth opening the door for.

John came in and closed the door behind him before handing me the ring.

"Just put it on. If you change it will change with you, into something appropriate, and also cause your clothing to change. Even if you change into an animal. You can also will it to alter your clothing, though that takes practice."

I'd long dreamed of something like this, yet I hesitated before putting it on, looking at John.

"Why?"

"We have a full team. After checking on a few things with the family and buying supplies, we're heading north. This seems like a good time."

"No strings?"

"None. Just a gift to a friend, which could help us on our mission."

I put it on. I was currently wearing flannel pajamas. I made myself larger, and the pajamas continued to fit.

"Wow..." I breathed.

I made myself smaller. Again, the pajamas changed to fit. Grinning, I changed into a German shepherd. I was now wearing a cloth collar, presumably the color of the pajamas. I changed back to normal, grinning like a kid at Christmas.

"See?" said John, smiling.

I frowned in concentration. The flannel changed colors.

"That's impressive," said John, surprised.

Thinking hard, I tried something else. This took longer, and I was beginning to think the color change had been beginner's luck. Then I found the mental switch I'd used before, and my pajamas were now satin.

"Hah!" I said triumphantly.

"Sometimes you actually frighten me, a little."








Part Three






The next morning was another "smack yourself on the head" moment. This time John and I were face to face, both his arms around me. The sensation was a bit claustrophobic. I was larger this time, but again female, and still small compared to John. As I tried to free myself from his hug, he opened his eyes, smiled, and kissed me.

"It's almost time to get up," I pointed out. "You're in my room. You need to get to yours."

"I'm in no hurry," he said, nuzzling my neck.

I pushed free and stood. Remembering something, I looked down at the ring, and imagined myself dressed appropriately for this form. Nothing. I thought for a moment. Then I put on my boxers and repeated the experiment. Instead of a full outfit I got panties.

"It can't work miracles," said John, watching me from the bed, hands behind his head to get a good viewing angle. "I figured out why you caught on to that ring so quickly. You're a shapeshifter. You're used to visualizing and changing things."

Only half listening, I put on the rest of my clothes from the night before and soon was wearing a knockout red dress with matching red heels.

"Wow," said John, rising to attention.

I smirked, then shifted to male. The outfit became a Las Vegas lounge lizard outfit.

"Ugh," I said, willing it to change my clothes to their original form.

I sniffed, and made a face.

"Okay, it looks clean, but I still smell like a cheap whore," I said. "You scram. I'm going to shower and change."

"Into what?" said John, standing slowly, smiling at his pun.

"The usual," I said, firmly. "Out!"


***


"Why are we driving, again?" said Tulio, obviously a bit impatient.

"John hates to fly," I supplied.

"I don't hate to fly. I just don't trust airplanes. It's not that long a trip."

"Sure, if you're immortal," said Simon, muttering loudly enough for us to hear.

"I'm not immortal. I just age well."

"I think that covers most of us in this car," I said, laughing. "We're a bunch of old fogies who look - and feel - young enough to still get into trouble."

"God help anyone who thinks we really are just a bunch of old men out on a lark," said Simon, joining my laugh, "and thinking we'd be easy victims."

We all laughed at that image, a cheerful beginning to our trip together. We spent the time mostly in pleasant conversation, regaling each other with "Do you remember when?" and "Did you know?" tales. I was actually surprised when John slowed and exited the Interstate.


***


Unfortunately, some of us had things in common with each other but not with the rest of the team.

"Do you remember the Amber Waifs of Pain?" said Tulio.

"Oh, God, those nutcases," said Simon, groaning. "They're all in their sixties, by now, but none the saner."

"They were all named after flowers," said Tulio. "Violet. Lilly. Crocus. She was the dangerous one..."

"I remember Stu Phelps tried to get her professional help, but she escaped from the institution."

"He was the third Guardsman, right?"

"Yes. He retired for a while and let the fourth take over, but Hiram got badly injured after just three years and had to retire. Phil took the job back for another five years. That's when we knew him."

"Listen, can we talk about something besides superheroes and supervillains?" I asked.

"How about the fact that we're here?" said John.

Indeed we were.


***


"I appreciate your help, Mr. Love, but I'm not sure why you're here," said Marcia, Jett's oldest child and current head of the family. "We scoured Dad's notes after he vanished and never found a clue. Even if you thought you could find something we missed, his papers are all in a museum."

"Actually, what I need is something we can use to, well, identify him if we find him," said John, for once looking a bit awkward. "Tulio's grandson helped me obtain this."

He pulled a device about the size and shape of an old-fashioned transistor radio out of his coat pocket.

"It's a field DNA analyzer. All I need is a sample from you or one of his other direct descendants."

"What sort of sample?"

John opened his mouth... and froze.

I glanced over at Simon - as a mastermind he was better than most people with technology, though not in the gadgeteer or mad scientist class. He just smirked.

"You didn't listen when they explained this, did you?" I asked, looking back at John and raising an eyebrow. "Where's the manual?"

"Oh! It's right here."

He pulled the booklet out of another pocket and handed it to me. I skimmed through it, and after a few minutes nodded.

"Okay. It can work through a blood sample, a saliva sample, or a hair follicle. What they call a tag. Those are sometimes on the ends of hairs which have been pulled out."

"I saw that on TV," said little Jenny, just nine years old.

"I have still have Dad's old hair brush and comb!" said Marcia, excitedly.

"Well, it it's not too much trouble..." said John.

"Will it work with something that old?" said Gregory Fronckowiak, one of Jett's grandsons, as his aunt rose and left the room.

"Well, if this gadget can't get a good reading, we can use something from one of you," I said. I was still leafing through the manual, and noticed something. "Actually, if Jett's DNA can't be read directly, we can take samples from several of you, and it will integrate to find the common alleles. Whatever those are."

There were certainly enough of them there to take samples from. The den of this modest but well-kept home was almost overflowing with people. All three of Jett's children were here, and their spouses. Half his grandchildren - five, currently - were also here, and two great-grandchildren. Simon was actually sitting with the family members, arrayed in a rough arc focused on John, Tulio and me.

"I just thought of something," said Tulio, looking around the room. "Don't any of you have powers?"

"Not a one of us," said Jeff, Jett's son and middle child. "We kept thinking some ought to show up, but none ever have."

"Here it is!" said Marcia, hurrying back into the room. She handed me an old hair brush. "Dad was the only one who ever used this."

I used the built-in tweezers - just like in a Swiss Army knife, only with disposable plastic covers - to pull a few out. Three had roots. I carefully clipped those off and put them in the sampler. In a few minutes the thing beeped and the readout lit.

"Well, we got lucky. Better than eighty percent of the DNA was recoverable."

We ended up taking samples from all three children, and then integrating to get what was likely a full set of DNA for Sonic Jett.

"I'd say our mission was a success," said John, happily.

"I'd like to go with you," said Gregory.

"Sorry, but all of us have powers, and this could be dangerous," said John.

"I'm an experienced hiker and camper," said Greg, eagerly, almost anxiously. "I'm single, thanks to a recent divorce, with no kids, so it's just me."

"Gregory!" said Julia, Jett's youngest.

"You know what I mean, Mom."

"I don't know," said John, a bit surprised by this offer.

"This is my grandfather you're talking about. He died before I was born, but I've seen photos and heard the family tales. I want to help clear his name."

"And what if we can't?" I said, sternly. "We may find nothing. Or we may find some sign that your grandfather really was involved with something nefarious."

"Why do you always have to be such a cynic?" said John. He turned to the young man. "If you are really determined to come along, we'd be glad to have you. Just be warned that this could, indeed, be dangerous."

"I understand," said Greg, seriously.


***


I was talking to my attorney on my hotel room phone that evening, checking on things. There was a knock on my door. Distracted by the call I opened it while I continued to talk. There stood John.

"Do you have a minute?" he said.

"Hold on," I told him.

I needed a few minutes to finish my business, then hung up.

"Okay," I said, from where I sat at the small desk.

"Just wanted to go over some things," he said, hitching his left butt cheek onto the desk. It groaned in protest. "We'll be pretty close to Canada, and may have to cross the border. Do you have a passport?"

"Several," I responded, dryly. "Depending on who I need to be."

He laughed at that.

"I should have guessed. I checked, and everyone else does, too. Have a passport, I mean. We also have plenty of gear and supplies, supplemented by Greg. He really is a serious hiker."

"Is that the main reason you're here?" I asked. "Because anything beyond that is out of the question."

He just smiled.


***


"How do you keep doing this?" I demanded, the next morning, as I rushed to get ready for breakfast with the rest of our expedition, minus the newest member. Greg was meeting us at his aunt's house, since it was close to our hotel and we already knew the way. "No. Scratch that. Why do you keep doing this?"

"It's... I enjoy the challenge," he said, actually looking a bit sheepish. "You keep declaring that you won't... getting you to change your mind, through persuasion and subtle manipulation, is fun."

He grinned.

"Besides, you're always entertaining in bed, no matter what form you're in. You enjoy sex so much..."

Well, he had me there. But...

"Okay, now you've given me a challenge," I said, staring at him. "Tonight, if we share a bed, you're going to be a woman. I don't care if I'm male or female, or if we even have sex. But you're going concave."

"Lots'a luck," said John, smirking.


***


By driving like a maniac, John covered most of the remaining distance to our search area in a surprising few hours. I'm not certain, but there was most likely power use involved. To keep us from being stopped by John Law, if nothing else. We reached the town with an actual motel closest to our destination in the late afternoon. This would be our last stay in a place with the full amenities of civilization for perhaps weeks. While John seemed confident of his vehicle's off-road capability I figured we were more likely to use it as a base and supply cache while we covered the rugged terrain on foot.

Previously, we had all had rooms of our own. This time, though, the small size of the motel and John's failure to call ahead for reservations meant we were two to a room, except for Greg, who got the sole available single. Guess who I was with.

"Well, this was fortuitous," said John, smiling at me, as he dumped his suitcase on the single bed.

I just smiled back. I'd had that whole, long trip to plan my campaign, and was already starting work. Demigod of sex he might be, but I knew him and was far from a novice myself.


***


When I awoke the next morning my tongue was still tired, and my face sticky, but I was smiling. I reached around and squeezed John's breast.

"Mornin' beautiful," I said, softly, into her ear.

"Bwah?!" said John, starting awake, then freezing. "Oh, right."

"You were wonderful," I said, rubbing her nipple.

"My face feels strange. Actually, all of me feels strange."

"Well, let's take a shower," I said, giving her tit another quick squeeze before throwing the covers back.

"Why do I feel embarrassed?" said John, vaguely reaching for the covers, which were deliberately out of reach.

"You sure it's embarrassment?" I said, giving her a playful whack on the ass to get her moving. "Or are you just irritated at the circumstances?"

"How did you do this, anyway?" she said, swinging her long, shapely legs over the side of the bed.

"Welcome to my world," I said, almost drooling. "C'mon. I'll show you a few tricks with the shower massage."

He got revenge, of course, changing to his usual self while my back was turned and taking me from behind. I didn't care. (Actually, I greatly enjoyed it, the way I always do when I have sex with John. Just don't tell him that.)

"Tonight," I gasped, as I leaned against the shower wall, enjoying a wonderful afterglow from multiple orgasms, "you're the woman... and I'm the man."

"We'll see about that," said John, hip-bumping me playfully.







Part Four







"We're still in the US, but you can see British Columbia from here!" said Tulio, a bit breathlessly.

I was enthralled by the scene, as were my companions. To my vast surprise, John's huge SUV had proven capable of following not only the heavily weathered gravel road leading deep into the area, but once that ended it had forged across rough woodlands and forded creeks. Finally, even John had decided that going further in the vehicle was neither practical nor safe. By that time we were at the foot of the ridge separating us from the mountain valley which was the most likely destination of what we sought.

Greg and I convinced the others to set up camp before starting off. We had the tent erected and equipped, a camp kitchen in place, and even a gravity filter dripping purified water into a jug. Now it would all be ready when returned, most likely tired and hungry.

First we walked along the base of the ridge, looking for the best way up. Then we hiked that to the top of the ridge to get a good look at the land beyond. The land where first Sonic Jett, then Nimrod and Mack Risk had ventured, with only the last of those returning. Greg made a sweeping gesture, taking in most of the valley below.

"According to what I was able to learn about this area, about a hundred years ago there were some small mines down there. None of them ever turned a profit and the last closed after just five years. They were supposedly all around the shore of the lake."

"That fits with both Mack's notes and what the Assembly told me," said John.

We were carrying only light packs, since this was just a scouting mission. As we stood there, on the crest of our adventure, I shifted my eyes to long distance vision and squinted a bit.

"I see what could be mine entrances in several places."

"You can see those from here?!" said Greg, startled.

"You've improved," said Tulio. "Used to be you had to give yourself eagle's eyes to do that, but they still look normal."

"You hadn't seen me in decades before this started. Why are you surprised I'm better at what I do?"

"Well, I'm a tool user," said Simon, pulling binoculars out of a side pocket of his pack.

John and Greg also had binoculars, and we all four spent nearly half an hour looking around the valley and describing what we were seeing. Tulio simply stood around bored at first, until John handed him a map and asked him to make notes.

By the time the sun was low enough that we needed to start back down we had mapped out a proposed route into the valley. Back at the campsite we fixed a hot supper, chatted and watched the stars come out for a while, then went to bed early. I was a bit relieved we were all together in one big tent. I still had no idea how I was going to carry out my playful threat to John.


***


Greg and I woke about the same time the next day. After our morning ablutions we set about starting breakfast. Though the season was late Summer and the days here still only cool, night had brought a trace of frost. I enjoyed it, and Greg seemed to as well. The others were less seasoned.

We needed nearly an hour to get started. Though they were superhuman, Simon and Tulio were city boys, and John too much of a hedonist to endure any discomfort gracefully. We finally got under way about half-past eight.

Again, we carried only light packs, though there was more in them today. Tulio and John both carried far more than any of the rest of us, and Simon - neither superhumanly strong nor an experienced hiker - much less than Greg and I.

Fortunately, even Simon was in good shape. We made quick progress, climbing the ridge along a new route. We reached the notch in the ridge well before lunch, intercepting an old trail. We pressed on, and made the shore of the lake just before Noon. While Greg and John started lunch - we all agreed on a hot meal, given the cool air and strenuous activity - I went to fetch water. No need to use what was in our canteens when there was a creek nearby, especially since we'd be boiling it, anyway. I brought back enough water to rehydrate the food and make coffee. Though we weren't high enough in the Rockies for permanent snow even on the nearby peaks, I actually saw ice on the creek in deeply-shaded areas. Winter would come early, here.

"I read that when this valley was first explored the lake was largely frozen even in Summer," said Greg, as we ate. "By the time Grandfather was here in the late Fifties that wouldn't have been true, but he came here in Winter. Of course, with his powers that actually gave him an advantage. He wasn't much affected by cold, and even most supers are."

Greg had occasionally asked us about Sonic Jett during the trip up here, but hadn't actually pumped us for reminiscences. I got the impression he already knew a lot about his illustrious ancestor. There wasn't a strong emotional connection, since he'd never known Sonic Jett, but the curiosity was certainly understandable. However, there was something else there, some overtone I couldn't quite place.

"I think we should check the nearest mine entrance," said John.

"I think we should scout all around the shore," I said. "The lake is small enough that we could get that done and still have plenty of time to head back, even if we find some things worth checking right away."

We discussed this for a while, and my suggestion prevailed. After making sure the small stove was cool enough, we packed everything - including our trash - and set out.

My idea proved sound sooner and more dramatically than even I expected.

"Hey, look at this," said Tulio, reaching down for something half buried in loose rock. He held up a badly-weathered container. Only the part which had been under the dirt and rock hadn't faded to illegibility, but that was enough. "It's an old tub of Doc Wilson's!"

It was, indeed, some of Doc Wilson's Whiz-Bang Antifungal Ointment. A general-purpose, non-prescription medicine taken off the market by the FDA more than forty years earlier. Most probably because they couldn't figure out how it worked. "Elfin magic" wasn't an approved ingredient.

"If it's a plastic tub, it's from the late Fifties or very early Sixties," I said. "Waxed card stock and it's from any time earlier."

"What difference does it make when this was made?" said Tulio, turning the thing around in his hands as he peered at it.

"Mack was a fiend for the stuff. Always kept a tub that size in his coat pocket."

That got their attention.

"It's plastic," said Tulio.

"Okay... so it could have been left by Mack, or someone who came along that time or later," I said, realizing this wasn't as definitive a clue as I had hoped. "It would still be a pretty big coincidence for it to have been left here by someone else."

"Let's spread out and search for other clues," said John.

We moved away from the shore in a fan, directly uphill. There were several false alarms, but nothing which stood up to examination.

"Let's finish going around the lake!" Greg called out, from his position to my right.

"Yeah!" John called back. "I don't think we're going to find anything else here, and this side of the valley will be in the shade soon, anyway!"

A few minutes later I noticed the ground had changed color and texture.

"What's this?" said Simon, who had already stopped and started scuffing the ground with the toe of a boot.

"Let's spread out and find the edges of it," said John.

It was an fan-shaped area, where the rocks were smaller, with sharper edges. Near the point - further around the way we were going and right at the shore - the change was more striking, and the rocks even looked a bit glazed.

"I've got it," said Simon, snapping his fingers. "This looks like the effect of one of Jerome's full-power sonic blasts!"

"You're right!" said Tulio. "He must have really let rip, too, to cover this much area!"

"The last stand of Sonic Jett," said John, quietly.

"Maybe," I said, looking around. "This certainly bears the hallmark of his powers, and it certainly looks like he was going all out. But he could have survived. This might simply have been an opening shot in a prolonged encounter."

Scouring the land as it sloped upwards towards the ridge, we found several smaller patches.

"Okay, let's try to piece this together," I said, frowning in concentration. "Big blast there could be either the start or the finish of a long fight. Given the directions of the other blasts, I'm assuming that was the start. He may have ambushed a large group of minions or small group of supers there. Then he fought his way up towards that mine entrance, there, shooting ahead, left and right."

"That fits," said Simon, nodding. "Jerry was a good swimmer, and often carried short-term breathing gear. During Winter, he could have come in under the ice for concealment."

"This is fascinating," said Greg, grinning like a kid. "There was an actual super battle here, my granddad attacking who knows how many enemies!"

"Let's keep in mind that he may have lost," I said, hating to be a spoilsport, but feeling that was necessary. "Also, while there doesn't appear to be anyone still here, automated defenses and booby traps could be."

"Good point," said Simon.

We began slowly making our way up the increasing slope towards the mine entrance. We could see where someone had once dumped tailings, but there was no sign now of ore carts, rails or tools. Only...

"Look," said John, puzzled, as he pulled a twisted piece of metal from behind a boulder.

"It's an aluminum pack frame!" I said, startled. "See, it still has bits of nylon attached in several places."

"That's newer than when Granddad was here," said Greg, "but it could be twenty or more years old."

I felt an odd chill.

"Remember what I said about booby traps? I think some hiker found one."

We all felt the chill, now. However, we didn't have long to contemplate what this find meant. A shifting of small rocks from uphill, near the mine entrance made us all jump.

"Some defenses and traps were living creatures," said Simon, in a low voice.

He, Greg and I held back, unconsciously moving together, while John and Tulio moved cautiously towards the sound. They had almost reached the mine entrance when something the color of the rock moved towards them. It was difficult to see, it blended so well, but as it moved I was able to get a pretty good idea of its appearance.

The thing was some sort of biological construct. It didn't look more than vaguely like any normal creature, but that wasn't what clued me in. It moved like a construct. They generally don't go through the normal development phases where natural creatures do most of their learning about how to interact with their environment. They're always clumsy, no matter how otherwise formidable they might be.

"Careful," said Tulio, moving to the front. "This thing could spit acid or have laser eyes."

"Or just have really big fangs and claws," I said.

The thing realized we knew it was there. Giving up all pretense at hiding, it suddenly changed color to a bright red, and began shambling down the hill.

Tulio alone could have handled it. John alone might have been able to. Together, they made short, violent work of killing the monster.

"This must be the place," said John, grinning and breathing a bit hard, after we were sure the thing was dead.

"Just don't let your guard down," said Simon. "I doubt this area could support more than one creature that large, but there could still be other protections."

We made our way cautiously to the mine entrance with no further trouble.

"Whew," said John, waving a hand under his nose. "Definitely denned here."

"The thing was probably an omnivore," said Simon. "Designed to eat everything from people to trees. That's definitely a fishy smell, but there's also a hint of pine."

We brought out our lights and entered, slowly. A short walk in we found where the thing had bedded down. Right at the base of a cave-in which blocked the tunnel.

"Bones," said Greg, looking sick.

I wasn't feeling much better, though that was helped when Simon announced that all but a few were small animals.

"Looks like it was just that one hiker."

"That's more than enough," I said, fervently.

Realizing we were going to be here a while, we set our packs in the closest clear spot. We set up some larger lights, most of them shining on the cave-in.

Again, our strongest members moved to the front while the rest of us held back. As we directed light for them to see by, John and Tulio began digging. For over half an hour they carefully shifted rock from the fall towards the front of the tunnel, piling it against one wall. Suddenly Tulio froze.

"I need some light, here!"

He'd found a boot. A costume boot. In Sonic Jett's colors.






Part Five







"Careful," said Simon, as Tulio and John resumed digging. "That roof doesn't look very stable. Just... move small stuff."

Tucked into the boot was the leg of a costume, again in Sonic Jett's colors.

"Should we really be disturbing this?" said Tulio, pausing in his efforts.

"I want to know if that's my Grandfather," said Greg, firmly.

"That's permission from next of kin," said John, with a shrug.

"How about we just dig enough to get a tissue sample?" I said, pulling the portable DNA sampler out of my pack.

I turned it on. Nothing happened. I fiddled with it for a bit, but still couldn't get a response.

"What's wrong with this thing?" I muttered, opening the battery compartment. "Great. These are some weird size I bet we don't have any of."

"Did you leave it on?" said John.

"No, I didn't leave it on. The switch was off when I pulled it out, and it's not easy to move."

"Damn," said John, obviously irritated. "Well, we can take a sample and have it tested later."

"If you don't mind, can we leave that for last?" said Greg.

That suited all of us. Taking a sample was going to be a grizzly task and not one we were eager to perform. Besides, we were all but certain this was, indeed, Sonic Jett.

"Greg, if we can do it safely, do you want us to recover your Grandfather's body?" said Tulio, gently.

"No. I talked it over with the family. We may hire a forensic team to come in later. There was even talk about having someone make a documentary, and pick up most of the tab."

That settled, we decided to examine what we could see of the tunnel more thoroughly. We'd really jumped into the digging when we should have looked the situation over more carefully, first. Soon, Simon noticed something.

"There's a draft, up here," he said, holding his hand up near the right side of the collapse, just below the roof. "I think I see a small opening."

We brought more lights to bear on the spot, and could indeed see a hole which appeared to go all the way through.

"Larry?" said John, looking at me.

"Yeah. A groundhog could get through, I think. No, a gopher."

The others immediately realized what I was talking about, but Greg just looked puzzled. He looked totally astonished when I shifted form.

I shook myself a bit to get used to the new shape, then carefully began climbing. I knew from previous experimentation that my clothes were now a fur-colored collar, the ring shrunk down around a foretoe. I was light enough to scamper up the debris with little trouble, and indeed small enough to walk through the opening.

The path was very irregular, but never too small for easy passage. I soon came out into a large chamber on the other side. The debris was looser here, but with little trouble I half-scampered, half-slid down to solid footing, and shifted back. I could see light shining through the opening behind me, but it revealed little. I pulled out the flashlight I had tucked into my jacket pocket and turned it on. Looking around, I saw something on this side of the collapse.

"Someone did some digging in here," I shouted. "They uncovered enough of the body to show Sonic Jett's helmet and mask."

"I bet that was Mack and Nimrod," Simon shouted through the hole.

"The tunnel continues into the mountain," I called back.

"Can you see how far?" said Simon.

"No. But the air is fresh. There's probably at least one other opening."

"If you can find it, and we can get in, go out and around and back in the first entrance so you can guide us there," said John.

"Just be careful!" Tulio called out.

I started slowly down the tunnel, shining my light all around - floor, walls and ceiling - well ahead of me as I went. Except for that one roof fall - which I realized might have been caused by Sonic Jett's powers - the tunnel seemed sound.

While I now had less worry about the security of the tunnel, another concern was nagging at me. Something wasn't right, here. At first I'd just attributed the malfunctioning DNA tester to dead batteries. However, while the others discussed what to do I looked around inside the machine. And found a cut wire. That was deliberate sabotage. Any of us could have done it during the past couple of days. With no way to screen for opportunity, I considered motive. That also led to a dead end. While any of us might have a reason, I couldn't think of anything solid which made sense. So, what about behavior? There something stood out. Ever since we'd found that boot, John had been acting more restrained than usual. That could simply be the emotional reaction to finding the body of Sonic Jett, but was that enough to explain the change? Or was it him realizing that he now had to betray us?

Everything kept coming back to John. All the way to when he recruited me for this mission. Had he been put up to this for some reason?

Could it be him? I doubted it - while he was far from a saint and often acted in his own best interest without concern for others, he had never betrayed a trust for as long as I'd known him. Could a man grown into himself for centuries change so much in fifty years? However, I could easily believe that there were people he would feel a higher obligation to than he did to any - or all - of us. If his family were involved, all bets were off.

I came to a branching: sharp right, shallow left and sharp left. It was if I were in the slanted leg of a backwards K. I gave myself a bloodhound's nose, stepped a short way down each leg, and sniffed. From the sharp left came moving, fresh air. From the shallow left, still and stale. From the right a scent of water. I realized that the right tunnel led under the lake, and was probably flooded. Left it was, then. I took a moment to sniff the DNA tester, nodded, and put it away. We'd all handled it, of course, but except for the saboteur I was the only one whose scent should be on the inside. It wasn't proof - not nearly strong enough for me to make accusations - but it was good, solid evidence.

Nose back to normal, I turned down that tunnel. Soon it started to rise. After a few minutes I came to a chamber - empty except for some dust and debris which must have blown in from outside. I knew I was close, but not there yet.

This chamber looked like a natural cave of some sort, perhaps entered by accident during the mining. Or maybe the miners had started here; I knew very little about mining in general or the history of this place. An opening in the far wall was the only exit.

Something caught my eye, lying in the dust. I moved closer, and the odd shape came into focus, giving me a start of recognition.

It was one of Mack Risk's trademark pistols. A .38 Super automatic, which he usually carried in pairs. How it came to be here - and all by itself - I could only guess. The dry, cold air of this dead cave had preserved it so well I had no doubt it would still fire. A quick check showed a round in the chamber and four in the magazine. I dusted the gun off and concealed it, using John's gift to make a holster inside my clothing.

A little further on and I began to see light. I also saw another chamber ahead. This one wasn't empty.

I stopped to take the scene in. There were several bodies here, and only two were human. One of those was clearly Nimrod; there was his characteristic deerstalker cap and high boots. The other I didn't recognize - even though the cold, dry air meant the bodies were well preserved. For the moment I assumed he was the Master Assassin. I didn't really care. Because I recognized the aliens.

Korbal mercenaries, plus a couple of Ferg. Back in the Fifties the latter had caused a great deal of trouble for humans. Because Earth was not part of any recognized interstellar empire the Ferg considered everything here to be up for grabs. They weren't stupid about it, usually working covertly. One of their typical schemes was to mine a resource well away from civilization. Something which the geological processes of a planet would create or concentrate.

"It all fits," I said, nodding.

There had been some sort of intense fight, here. Besides obvious damage to most of the bodies, there were bullet and blaster marks on the walls. And I began to put together what must have happened.

"So that's it," I said, nodding, as the twin scenarios fell into place. "No secret plan to retire, no collusion with the Master Assassin. He was on the job to the end. Only it proved too much for him. The Ferg just kept on mining after dealing with him, using other entrances - they must have equipment, maybe a spaceship, under the lake - until Mack and Nimrod stopped them."

I realized I was speaking aloud - I'd gotten used to talking to myself during my retreat - and blushed.

The tunnel collapse had killed Sonic Jet. Knowing the Ferg, that was most likely a deliberate trap. They had cleaned up the signs of the battle - well, most of them - and gone on with their work. Strictly business.

The opening to the outside was to my left. As I exited I carefully noted the location; this entrance was about halfway up a gully and screened by boulders and bushes. I walked down the gully to the lake, got my bearings, and headed for where the others were waiting.

They were all outside, and we soon saw each other. I couldn't blame them for not wanting to spend the time inside that tunnel.

They welcomed me and congratulated me and I told them what I had found in the tunnels. I also told them some - but not all - of my conclusions.

"But what was the Master Assassin doing here?" said John, baffled.

"He often took jobs for unscrupulous businesses," said Simon, nodding. "I bet the Ferg hired him to help with their security."

"So, what do we have, then?" I said, thinking about what we'd learned. "A massive cache of alien hardware under a mountain lake? And that's besides two superhero and one supervillain bodies. Plus a bunch of dead aliens."

"We definitely need to alert the authorities," said Simon. "This is a pretty serious business."

"Do you think there'll be a reward?" said John, eagerly.

"Probably," said Tulio, laughing.

I watched them, carefully, playing along. Only one reaction wasn't open, wasn't appropriate to the situation. He wasn't happy to have the mystery solved. He wasn't sad over the deaths which had occurred. He was irritated, and worried.

"I do have some bad news, though," I said, after a few moments. "The DNA tester was deliberately damaged, and Greg did it."

"Gregory?!" said John.

We all turned to look at him.

"Think about it. He insisted on coming along. He was in no hurry to have the remains tested. He's not responding to solving the mystery in an expected fashion."

His expression, his posture, the fact that he had put himself a bit away from the rest of us, all spoke volumes.

"Gregory," said Simon, sourly. "But why?"

Sonic Jett's grandson shifted uncomfortably.

"You planned to come back later and claim you'd solved the mystery all on your own, right?" said Simon. "You had some vague plan to keep us from getting the sample, maybe claim you'd changed your mind about desecrating the body."

"Prove it," he snapped.

"I'm not a judge. I don't have to. Are you in financial trouble?"

"Prove it," he repeated, though his defiant attitude was slipping.

"I don't care," I told him. "The others may, but what you did was only an inconvenience. We figured out the mystery anyway, and it's something anyone who cared about those involved can be proud of. All three of those we came seeking were heroes, two of them giving their lives to stop the Ferg. You have to live with the fact that you tried to cheat us and failed."

He was still defiant, but fading quickly. In another moment he might have given in and confessed. I doubt any of us would have given him too hard a time. His only real action against us was the cutting of a single wire in a non-essential piece of equipment. However, we didn't get that moment.

We had been so focused on Greg that the newcomers had been able to approach to within easy gun range without us seeing them. It wasn't entirely our fault; they were good, taking advantage of terrain features for cover. On some signal, they stood. Twelve figures in battle gear, light powered armor of unfamiliar make. They had us encircled, two of them actually in the frigid water of the lake.

"Do not move!" an amplified voice shouted.

We froze, mainly out of uncertainty. They wore no insignia. Were they agents of the Ferg? The US? Canada? The UN? Or yet another party?

Moments later an odd, little egg-shaped vehicle came skimming silently along the beach. From the behavior of the ground under it I realized it had some sort of repulsor field holding it off the ground. It stopped just outside the ring of armored people, spun side-on towards us, and settled to the ground. One of those armored figures quickly opened a door on the far side.

Out stepped a dignified-looking man of perhaps forty years of age, wearing a white three-piece suit. He seemed familiar, and that familiarity was giving me twinges of unpleasant association, but I just couldn't place him. Then a head appeared further forward on the far side of the car, as the driver exited. A familiar head, followed by familiar shoulders.

Bruno.

That meant the boss was... I jerked my gaze back to the man, who was giving us a nasty smile.

"Dr. Gaunt," I said, with a rising sense of panic.

"At your service," he said, smiling and mock-bowing.








Part Six










This was not the wizened gnome I had dealt with before. Indeed, that figure might have been a caricature of this man.

"So that wasn't you in the desert," I blurted.

"I am astounded - not to mention insulted - anyone thought that homunculus was me," he said, seeming offended. "I wrote the rule about never turning yourself into a giant monster!"

"What are you doing here!" I demanded, voice shrill with the unfairness of it all.

"Oh, come, now. I've been keeping track of you since you attracted the attention of my construct. When you reappeared after being gone for several months, in the company of an old confederate, I was suspicious. When I saw you recruiting veteran supers I became even more so. When I saw you coming here I reviewed events in this area, and realized you were after something which at least two heroes had died to protect. I don't know - yet - what it is, but for you to go to all this trouble it must be something significant. The perfect opportunity for me to gain revenge and recoup some of my losses in one maneuver."

The whole thing made sense... if you were a paranoid egomaniac with a persecution complex. The "Gaunt" I had interacted with before had assumed that since he was important that every action by anyone which intersected his schemes, however peripherally, must be part of a deliberately planned effort against him. This Gaunt had conflated several different events and come to the conclusion I was some sort of master planner, who had arranged for the defeat of his "homunculus."

I was actually too stunned and outraged to be afraid. Well, more than somewhat afraid. Protests, evidence to the contrary, pleas for mercy, would all be ignored. I would have to play along, act as he expected me to act - though not exactly - to buy time.

"All right," I said, not merely calmly but boldly. "You have me... for the moment. But you need me. I know what's here, and how to access it. You don't."

That last was a calculated risk. That sort of challenge was guaranteed to raise his ire, but if he held true to form he'd rise to the challenge, rather than simply have me killed for insolence.

"Very well," said Gaunt, a bit peeved. "For the moment you live. But your companions..."

"We need them, too," I said, as calmly as I could manage. "There's debris to clear, alien language to decipher, and the young one bears Sonic Jett's DNA."

Now I had intrigued him. By providing vague hints that each member of my group had a specific, necessary purpose for being here I had strongly implied a detailed, mastermind plan of the sort he, himself, enjoyed arranging.

I was sweating bullets trying to keep this game going, but I wasn't so distracted that I didn't notice Greg was frozen in place, while Simon, Tulio and John were subtly preparing for action. Unfortunately, that preparation didn't escape the attention of our captors.

"Don't!" said the same amplified voice which had spoken before.

"Please," said Dr. Gaunt, disdainfully, with a short, choppy gesture. "We know who you are, and are prepared. If you give us any trouble we will simply kill you. As it is, you are just barely worth keeping alive."

I knew that Tulio and John would not just give up, but they wouldn't do any thing rash, either. I figured Simon would also be careful. We were in a bad situation, backed up against the slope, the cave out of reach, men in powered armor arranged in a arc to prevent us from going anywhere else. We needed time, to negotiate, to plan. If I could keep this pretense going that would give us the time. However, Greg was a wild card. All it would take was for him to panic. I certainly wasn't going to start anything; if - when - trouble did start there was no place to hide, and I'm not blasterproof.

"P-please," said Greg, hands raised in a pacifying gesture. "I'm not with them. I'm just a normal guy."

He looked desperately around at the faceless, armored figures, at Bruno, at Gaunt himself. I didn't need my empathy to know that the response was unfavorable.

"You won't get anywhere with that," said Simon, a bit too loudly. "Gaunt conditions all his minions to obey him unquestioningly."

It was as if Simon - a mastermind himself - was talking directly to me. Some people claim to literally see a light when they have a brilliant idea. I'm more of an aural person. There was a clear, distinct tone in my head.

"Precisely," said Gaunt, with a suave smile. "There is no appeal. No mercy. You gentlemen will stay alive only so long as you prove useful to me."

"Well, then," said Tulio, doing some smiling of his own, "we might as well get started."

He launched himself at Gaunt. Bruno lunged forward, punching him back in the direction he'd just come from, and beyond, well back towards the tunnel entrance. It seemed that Gaunt had improved Bruno since I last saw him in action. That punch didn't really hurt Tulio, though. Being shot by half the powered armor guys did. Even that wasn't enough to down the man who once bore the title of Maciste. Especially since he wasn't alone. John tackled two of the men, taking them off their feet but not really hurting them. Simon, pulling something from his pocket, jumped between the attackers and Tulio. The object turned out to be a compact shield projector. It was a small thing, and I knew it wouldn't last long, but for the moment the device was protecting the two of them.

I had thrown myself to the ground as Tulio jumped. Greg was scrambling on all fours towards Simon and Tulio. Tulio was getting back to his feet, trying to shake off being shot several times with force rifles. Bruno was charging Simon and Tulio.

Dr. Gaunt was back behind the flitter, watching from its cover. None of us were known to have a ranged attack, except possibly Simon. As a mastermind he was likely to have any number of interesting gadgets on his person. Still, he was busy for the moment. Gaunt - like all his ilk overconfident - calmly planned to quickly duck into the car if the fight turned dangerous for him, but otherwise saw no need to move.

No-one noticed the groundhog - nearly the same color as the dirt and stones - scurrying from rock to rock. No-one noticed as the groundhog made its way safely behind Gaunt, now sheltered by the egg-shaped vehicle and shielded from view. No-one noticed the groundhog flow into a duplicate of Dr. Gaunt, except for holding a large automatic pistol.

I aimed at the center of the back of Gaunt's head, waited for a particularly noisy moment, then fired. Gaunt's brains splattered over the rear of the car, and he dropped to the ground. The gun jammed, the lubricant having dried too much for proper function, but it had done enough.

Thanks, Mack, I thought, as I shoved the gun into my pocket.

"Stop!" I yelled, raising my arms.

The fight halted. None of Gaunt's men looked around at me.

"All of you, return to base! Immediately!"

It was an absurd order. Even with their conditioning, they hesitated. I waited, tensely, standing in a typical Gaunt pose, not repeating myself because, well, once was all the actual Gaunt would say it.

My side waited, tensely. I didn't know how much they had seen, but at least some of them knew who this "Dr. Gaunt" was.

At last, Bruno grunted something at those in the armor, and as they turned and began marching off he started for the car. I had a moment of pure panic when I realized he would see the body when he came around the front of the car. However, the body on the ground no longer looked like Dr. Gaunt, having lost much of its face. Bruno didn't even glance at it as he got in.

I stepped back a bit as the car lifted and whirred away.

Weak in the knees, I forced myself to stand there until they were complete out of sight. Then I dropped the form and sagged to the ground, beside the gorily dead Dr. Gaunt.

The cheers of relief, joy and congratulation sounded muffled and distant, thanks to the blood pounding in my ears. They clapped me on the back and flattered me. All but Greg, who was sitting on the ground, arms wrapped around his knees, sobbing. I felt like joining him.

"That was brilliant!" said Simon, laughing. "When I realized what you were doing, leading him on by his own preconceptions, I kept trying to think of ways to help. Then Greg said that, and gave me an idea, and..."

"I just wish there had been a way to take him alive," said Tulio, glancing at Gaunt and turning quickly away. "Though I admit I can't think of one."

"Forget him," said John. "He lost. We won. Let's celebrate!"

I knew what he meant by "celebrate," and was definitely not in the mood.

"No, before that, we need to call someone in," said Simon, sobering. "Not the cops. Not the FBI. The Guardians?"

"I hate to admit it, but I agree," I said. "This is something which needs quick response by someone who knows how to handle both Gaunt and alien tech. And we need them quickly."


***


As it turned out, the Guardians and the Assembly both decided to send people, and called up specific individuals from other teams to boot.

The first to arrive, less than half an hour later, was a figure in a silvery space suit. It fit snugly enough to tell that the person inside was not only female, but about six months pregnant. She landed and took off her helmet. To my vast surprise, it was Template.

She nodded curtly towards me and introduced herself to the others, as she stripped out of the suit. Underneath was her regular costume, minus the cape. That turned out to be in a storage compartment in the suit's backpack.

"I flew above the atmosphere and boosted here suborbitally," she explained, casually, as if that were nothing special. "Should be a few others here shortly. Is that Gaunt?"

"What's left of him," said John, with a smirk. He moved closer, turning on the charm. "So, I assume congratulations are in order. When are you due?"

She actually looked confused for a moment. Then irritated.

"Let's try to keep this professional," she said. "What happened to Gaunt's men?"

John was as confused as I'd ever seen him. Despite my recent trauma, I almost laughed.

Next to arrive were another fast flyer and a speedster, arriving almost simultaneously. Then several of the Guardians, in one of their hoppers. Finally, an Assembly hopper landed on the beach.

By now we'd had to tell the story four times, and reaction was also setting in. We were starting to get punchy. At my lead, we didn't tell them about Greg's sabotage. I figured he'd suffered enough, and the others may have agreed.

Some of the older members of the Guardians knew John, Simon and Tulio. The warmth of the greetings varied from person to person. A few showed active dislike of John, which he didn't seem to notice. The current Maciste and Tulio had an enthusiastic reunion which would have pulped a normal human.

By sundown we had a serious camp established, there in that mountain valley. They'd even brought our gear - and John's SUV, which still held much of it - in to join the party.

The supers had quickly surveyed the scene, confirmed that the one body was that of Sonic Jett, and the other two Nimrod and the Master Assassin, respectively. They also agreed that my scenario was either the right one or very close to it. Finally, they confirmed the existence of some serious alien technology under the lake. Things were moving so quickly I was feeling dizzy.

"You five are heroes," said the Guardsman, as we sat around a campfire that night. "You solved a double mystery which had lasted for decades, in the process vindicating three heroes. You found equipment which very much needed to be brought to the attention of the right people and kept out of the wrong hands. And you kept it out of the wrong hands. Congratulations."

"A pity you couldn't capture Gaunt alive, though," said Champion, staring over at the body, now covered with a sheet.

"Yeah, right," said the young Maciste. "How many times does this make he's been dead? Seven, eight?"

"If you count actually having a body left behind, just four," said the Guardsman.

"Great," I said, feeling a churning in my gut. "You mean he's likely to come after me again."

"Don't worry about it," said John, putting his arm around my shoulders. "You've got friends in high places. And me, too."





End




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