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Masks X


Rodford Edmiston

Alterations and Additions

Part One

      "The time to corral supers is past," said Howers, a bit sadly. "Public opinion and the press, as well as the courts, are all moving more and more positively in favor of supers, and against any measures taken to restrain them."

      "Actually," said Gompers, carefully, "most of the public and press never supported controls on the majority of supers, and most courts soundly rejected such measures as unconstitutional. The anti-super press members, politicians and judges were the loudest, most strident voices, but turned out to be a very small minority. Which explains why we won, and Thurlin's party didn't."

      He looked directly at Sievers.

      "Every time you haven't followed through on your promises to treat supers decently, you had a drop in your approval rating."

      "I know that!" said Sievers, angrily. She made a noise somewhere between a growl and a sigh. "I think I'm going to have to reinstate all of Gould's holds and add a few more. There's just too much evidence coming in that they were justified, and too many complaints from too many people about letting things Thurlin did continue."

      "That's probably a good idea," said Gompers. "I know you wanted to get federal workers on your side by not interfering with their jobs until an investigation had found wrongdoing, but I'm seeing a substantial number of complaints from conscientious federal workers who feel that we're ruining the reputation and morale of their agency by letting certain activities continue."

      "That's it, then," said Sievers, nodding. "The holds are back on."

      "We also have multiple, independent confirmations of the teams hunting down and kidnapping random supers," said Howers, almost reluctantly. "The Department of Justice was already investigating. Because they weren't ready to take action, yet, their findings were all still in-house. However, when asked, they provided..."

      "You mean she was telling the truth?!" said President Sievers, aghast, finally able to find her voice.

      "Yes," said Gompers, looking as if he needed an antacid. "It turns out that your analysts and advisors were telling you what their staffs were telling them, and that was what they thought their bosses wanted to hear. Oh, some may have been deliberately lying, covering their asses, but most were living in a sort of fantasy world where they believed that what they said would be true if you accepted it."

      "I think we can blame Thurlin for that," said Howers, with a sour expression. "Well, most of it. That sort of thing happens in any large, powerful bureaucracy. Just usually not to this extent."

      "The fact that many of these events were reported by reputable news agencies and none of us knew about them is being used to criticize us," said Gompers, his tone making clear how unfair he thought it was that people expected them to watch network news.

      "Right. Find the people responsible, arrest them, release the supers. Now. I don't care who the responsible parties are. I don't care if this interferes with ongoing DoJ investigations. I don't care if we accidentally release some known criminals in the process; we can get those back later. Get those bastards out of power, and free their victims. Justice can pick up the pieces."

      They fell silent, partly because they had said pretty much all they had to say, but mostly because Sievers was obviously furious. The President had good reason to be. She had always prided herself on making informed decisions, while knowing that she, personally, simply didn't have the time to hunt down everything she needed to know. To have those responsible for keeping her informed betray her trust like this...

      "Wait," she said, as something occurred to her. "Is what she - Template - said about polls also true?"

      "Not as definitively," said Howers, with a bit of a shrug. "All polls have some bias; it's not really possible to phrase a purely objective question. However, it does appear that the pollsters we hired deliberately slanted things to tell us what they thought we wanted to hear."

      "Damn," said Sievers, burying her face in her hands. Her despair didn't last long. With a surge of determination she looked back up at her aides. "All right. Head rolling time. Fire the pollsters and find some honest ones. Moreover, I want you two, personally, to figure out how to independently learn the truth about all these matters. We need to check our assumptions, not just on super matters but on everything we inherited from Thurlin. We'll continue with the independent review of anti-super activities, but that will take months and years; I want info we can act on now. Once we have a trustworthy baseline, anyone who gave us information which deviated significantly from that is gone. Maybe even prosecuted. We have to clean house, gentlemen, and make sure the press and the public are convinced we mean it."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As Summer ended, things were stirring, deep beneath the Atlantic. Not far east of the Bermuda Islands, the fast attack submarine USS Habu was on patrol. What the crew were about to encounter was in the book, as was what to do about it, but those procedures hadn't been needed in decades.

      "Lieutenant?" said one of the sonar operators. "Got something odd, here. Sounds sorta like a whale, but unless I've got the range wrong it's much too big."

      The young officer picked up an extra pair of headphones and listened for a moment. The sonarman was much more experienced, but even the relative novice could tell the target was odd. He nodded, put the headphones down and picked up a telephone handset.

      "Wardroom, this is Jakes. Tell the Captain that we've got a strange target and I would like permission to go active."

      After a moment he nodded, thanked his Captain and hung up.

      "Let's go active."

      The forward sonar array was powered up and began pinging.

      "Jesus!" said the sonarman, actually frightened. "It's further away than I thought, and bigger. Thing's the size of a supertanker, and at over twice our crush depth. It's also doing sixty knots! But I know it's organic!"

      "Yeah, I think the Captain needs to be in here," said the Lieutenant.

      He was reaching for the handset again when Captain Howers entered the sonar area.

      "What's the problem, Jakes?"

      The younger man quickly and concisely relayed what had been learned. The Captain went from mildly annoyed to very concerned. He turned to the radio man.

      "We still got the long wire out? Good; prepare a message."

      "Sir?" said the sonarman. "What is it?"

      "Tritonicus is back."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Karen!" said Template. "Karen!!"


      "I'm in labor!"

      She stirred, not quite rolling over.

      "Whazz'a matter?"

      "I'm. Having. The. Baby."

      Colossa pushed herself up. Template already had her nightstand lamp on. In the dim light, with her tousled hair partly hanging in her face, she looked adorable. Just now, though, Template was not in a mood to notice.

      "You sure?"

      "Yes! I've been laying here for a while, hoping it was another false alarm, but my water just broke!"

      "Eeewww... Okay, Plan A, then. I call the hospital, while you get on minimum clothes, then I carry you."

      "Yes! And hurry!"

      Colossa actually managed to put on her basic costume, with mask, as she spoke on the phone, then help the struggling Template with her own dressing. Finally, Template was wearing her mask, and a robe over her nightgown. Colossa then grew as large as she comfortably could inside the bungalow, lifted her lover into her arms, and carried Template out through the already opened doors. She managed to shove the outside door closed with a foot, but saw no need to lock it. Not here.

      Growing to full height, she began walking across the island in the pre-dawn darkness.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You're kidding," said President Sievers, as she received the news about the monster. She sighed tiredly and shook her head. Then groaned, "What next?"

      Judith Harper had been given the task of waking the President and relaying the news. The two women were in a small study off the presidential bedroom, Sievers still in just her nightgown.

      "I wish I were kidding."

      "So, what do we do about this? Sic the Navy on it?"

      "Yes, but the procedures manual says that will just delay it. We're supposed to call in the supers."

      "That just flat figures. We finally start to get a handle on the problems we inherited from Thurlin and were actually getting useful things done again, and this has to happen. Okay. Call my core staff, we're meeting in the Situation Room in ten."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "No chance of the Specialists handling this?" said Sievers, fifteen minutes later in the Situation Room, after everyone had been brought up to speed. She was pleased to see that she was the most alert of those who had been sleeping when the news came in.

      "It's only been a few days since we sent them against Energex," said Gompers. He winced at recalling that debacle. "We're lucky we didn't have fatalities. As it is, some of the members won't be operational for months.

      "Listen, we're shorthanded on official super help. Very shorthanded," her aide continued. "There were five federally sponsored teams before Thurlin's crackdown, plus several other private teams who were sanctioned to some degree. Between Gould and our own efforts, we've managed to get enough of the old team members plus some new recruits to put together two teams, but they're understaffed and undertrained. Some members have even resigned since that... disagreement you had with Template broke in the news. Some supers were willing to give you a chance early on, but they just don't trust you any more."

      "You're certain we need super help," said Sievers, sourly, not asking but confirming.

      "Positive. Every appearance of Tritonicus in the past has required super help to handle, and our analysts say this one will, too. It's essentially a super, itself. A very, very large one."

      "There's also likely to be a public outcry for supers to deal with the monster, once word it's returned leaks out," said Howers. "And it will leak. Once it stops eating whales and giant sharks, and turns to ships. Like it always does."

      "It also always heads towards the Gulf of Mexico," said Harper. "If it continues on its present course it will walk across central Florida on the way. Only, the last time it did that, Disney World wasn't there."

      "God..." groaned Sievers. "All right. Figure out which supers are the best to ask and contact them."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Eve Hind had asked to be alerted when Template went into labor, no matter what the time. She was dressed and on her way out the door when her ear bud buzzed with an alert.

      "Yes?" she said, as she closed her door.

      "Tritonicus is awake and moving towards the mainland," said the third shift security chief. "He's already passed Bermuda and will go by here in about fifteen minutes."

      Eve thought quickly as she walked through the crepuscular light.

      "How close will he come to our island?"

      "He's veering away from high spots. Judging by the berth he gave Bermuda he'll probably go a few klicks north of us."

      "Keep me posted. Oh, I'll be at the medical center and they may not allow me to keep my com on. Have them page me for anything urgent."

      "Who's hurt?"

      "Template is having her baby," said Eve, smiling.


                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Tritonicus swam by us without anyone noticing except some sensors," said Lori Savage. The head of security looked tired. Also relieved. "He's on course for the Gulf, as expected."

      "Heaven help Florida!" said Andrea.

      "He'll be a few days getting there," said Eve. She was using a telephone in the waiting room. "He needs to feed, which means not only taking time for that, but veering away from his current course. Where he will come ashore is still unknown."

      "Well, our part of the crisis is over," said Lori. She yawned, audibly. "I'm going back to sleep. Let me know if there are any problems."

      "I'm heading over to the clinic," said Andrea. "I know she'll probably be in labor for a while, but tomorrow's - I mean, today's a holiday for the school, so I can nap all afternoon."

Part Two

      "Wonder if there's any significance to him being born on Labor Day," said Colossa, smiling at her spouse and child.

      "God, I'm tired," said Template, with a melodramatic sigh. "Super or not, that is a lot of work."

      "You two look so adorable, lying there, him sleeping on your chest."

      "It's surprising how maternal I'm feeling right now," said Template, looking down fondly at little Roy. She stretched a bit, and sighed again, but this time in satisfaction. "I thought I'd be eager to get back to being Randy, but right now I'm feeling far too mellow. Even though he won't need nursing again for a while, I'm just in no mood to..."

      "You, sleep," said Colossa, firmly. "You're so tired you're babbling. I'm going back to the cottage, clean up the worst of the mess you left, and nap on the couch."

      She leaned over and gave her mate a fond kiss on the forehead.

      "Good night. Or morning. Or whatever this is."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You gals doing okay this fine afternoon?" said Chestnut, cheerfully, as she, Energia and Hazel converged on a path to the beach nearest the school. All three were in swimsuits, with the teacher's the most daring. "Enjoying the day off from class?"

      "Pretty much," said Energia, who then yawned. "Sorry."

      "As well as can be expected," said Hazel, neutrally.

      "So, how did your Summer go?" Energia asked Hazel. "This is the first chance I've had to talk to you since school started."

      "Busy," said the iron woman, grinning and rolling her eyes. "I had to catch up with the high school I missed, learn about my new body, get tested and evaluated and experimented on because the bastards at that research company refuse to share what they learned... I'm actually glad for the required physical education classes, here. They give me a good way to safely work off my annoyance. I love the exercise equipment. I can go full out without worrying about damaging anything. So what have you been up to, Bubbles?"

      "For my Summer job, I worked with Blue Impact and Gadgetive again," said Energia. In spite of her obvious eagerness over that activity, she fought and lost to another yawn. "Sorry. Early morning."

      She'd been one of those waiting at the medical center for the birth of Template's child. Energia had actually been worried; this was the first baby born to one of her close relatives since that older cousin had twins eight years earlier. Fortunately, everything had gone well.

      "Everything tastes different," said Hazel, who had continued talking while Energia zoned out, missing part of what the older girl said. "Which is probably a good thing, considering what I have to eat. Sugar tastes like crap. Everything smells and sounds different, too. Things look about the same, and feel the same except softer."

      "I imagine even oak feels soft to you, now," said Chestnut, sympathetically. "I know I had some problems, and my strength isn't as, uhm, pervasive as yours. I imagine water doesn't feel much different from air, if you're like me."

      "I'm not even sure I'll go in," said Hazel, looking uneasy. "I'm terrified of going in deep water. I used to be a good swimmer, but now I just can't kick and stroke fast enough to stay up."

      "I hadn't thought of that," said Energia, alarmed.

      "The gadgeteers have promised to give me inflatable flotation gear and a small rebreather. Just in case."

      "Well, good luck," said Chestnut, sincerely. "Don't worry about deep water at the swimming area. The beach has a very gentle, smooth slope."

      Shortly after the teacher split off to join some of her peers, the girls saw Rubber Made hurrying to join them.

      "Hiyah!" she called out, cheerfully. When she got closer she lowered her voice and acted in a conspiratorial manner. "Katastrophe and her gang are already here. Let's go further down."

      "Good idea," said Energia, sending a glare towards an older girl with several hangers on.

      "She looks like a really unpleasant character," said Hazel, looking in the direction the others had indicated.

      "Yeah, watch out for her," said Energia. "She's one of the worst bullies I've ever met. She came here after the team she was interning with discovered what she was really like, and told the police about some of the things she'd done. The courts reached an agreement with the school that she'd stay here until she turned 18, and they sealed her records. She's okay in class or anywhere else there are teachers, but away from them..."

      "What about boy bullies?" said Hazel.

      "There aren't really any," said Rubber Made. "Oh, there are guys who try intimidation first and nothing else ever, but even they know better than to try anything serious."

      "Mostly," said Energia.

      "What?" said Rubber Made, looking at her curiously.

      "Early last year, some of the new boys got mad at me for the Elusive Spondulix joke."

      "We do that to all the new kids," said Rubber Made. She looked at Hazel. "Well, most of them. We never got around to you."

      "Isn't that old slang for money?" said Hazel.

      "Yeah. When we veterans show the new kids around we sometimes make jokes about the wild life on the island. Including the Elusive Spondulix, which is very valuable but hard to find. So these guys started hunting for it. Not realizing that it was just a joke."

      "How come you didn't pull that on me?" said Hazel, feeling both relieved and left out.

      "You got here at an odd time," said Rubber Made. "We usually do this first of the new school year. Like now, except that you're already here."

      "We also do it only with groups, because kids seem more gullible that way," said Energia. "Anyway, these guys - five boys - caught me outside, going between classes with no-one else around, to air their grievance. They'd finally found out - This after two weeks! - that it was a joke, and that all their sneaking around trying to catch one had done was make them look stupid. They decided to look even stupider and take their aggravation out on me."

      "Wow," said Hazel, shuddering. "What happened?"

      "They pointed out that I couldn't get away, even if I flew, since two of them flew, and they all had resilience so I couldn't hurt them. So I was going to get my lumps. I pointed out that whatever their powers, they still had nervous systems."

      "Uh..." said Hazel, not sure what she was getting at.

      "I just pumped up my plasma wall until it was glowing and spitting sparks, pointed a finger at the ringleader and said 'I call this my Mega-Taser.' They all left in a hurry."

      "I hope you reported them."

      "Oh, yeah," said Energia. "That made them madder than ever, but it also got them a serious talking to. About how lucky they were I had warned them first, instead of just zapping them. Since they did have working nervous systems, susceptible to electrical stimulation. And that as a veteran super, even though I was younger than some of them, I was experienced at real combat, and not just training and school fights."

      She gave them a tight, Glinda Eastwood grin.

      "There are times having a reputation as a powerhouse who has stopped major villains is a good thing."

      "So, who are you dating?" said Hazel. She looked back and forth between them. "Either of you. Someone on the island, or maybe that hunky Blue Dagger?"

      She was surprised that neither of them was dating anyone regularly.

      "Blue Dagger is too old and committed to someone else," said Energia.

      "Who has time, really?" said Rubber Made. "Between classes and supervillain attacks during school, and work, family and supervillain attacks when school is out..."

      "Oh, we date," said Energia, shrugging. "I've dated four - no, five - of the guys here, and a few others on the mainland, but nobody more than a few times."

      "Besides being busy, we keep moving around," said Rubber Made, a bit sadly. "I was dating R8 pretty regular, but he graduated last year. I graduate this year, and hope to get on the same team he joined, but that's nowhere near guaranteed."

      "I'm starting to think Allessandra is an optimist," said Hazel, sighing.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Aw, he's so adorable," said Julie, Randy's sister.

      She and her husband, Max, had flown to the island on tickets the school provided. Both sets of new grandparents had been offered the same trip, but had declined, saying they'd settle for photos and videos until Randy and Karen could bring Roy to them.

      Just now, Karen was the one in the bed, Roy asleep on her chest, while Randy sat beside them, holding his wife's hand. The visitors' daughter was also present, the only one in costume. Officially, Energia was acting as a guide to the visitors, and her parents had been reminded to address her by her mask name in public and not show any untoward affection. Whether they would remember all this was another matter; they still didn't seem to take the whole dual-identity thing seriously.

      Roy shifted a bit, fussed some, gave a short, tentative cry, then went back to sleep.

      "He'll want feeding or changing, soon," said Julie, with a knowing nod. "Probably both."

      "Why don't you two go on ahead to lunch?" said Randy. "I'll join you as soon as we're finished."

      "It's so good you two are sharing all this," said Max. "I helped when I was home, but my employer didn't give male maternity leave."

      "Well, it's more a matter of my duties being intermittent and postponable than anything else," said Randy, with a laugh. No way was he mentioning that he was the one on maternity leave.

      Once certain his sister and brother-in-law were gone, Randy hung a privacy sign outside the door and shifted back to Template. Karen carefully pushed back the covers and began standing.

      "Ow," said Template, wincing, as she sat in the recliner. "Okay, synchronization of bodily functions confirmed. My tits are full."

      "Here he comes," said Colossa, grinning, as she brought little Roy over. "Be sure to thank Andrea for coming up with a version of your costume designed for a nursing mother."

      "He has your nose," said Template, fondly, as she unsnapped one shoulder to free her left breast and brought the baby to it.

      "And your appetite."

      "Tell me about it," said Template, wincing again as the baby greedily seized her nipple. "I dread when he starts teething."

      "So just turn on your resilience," said Colossa, puzzled.

      "It *is* on. He takes on my powers when he's this close."

      "Oh. Then turn your strength off."

      "Oh," said Template, blushing. "Okay, strength off, and the power shifted to resilience. Yeah, that is better."

      "You mean to tell me that all this time..."

      "Give me a break," she muttered. "This is my first baby."

      With the privacy sign out she didn't even bother with a blanket, but just sat there nursing while Karen looked on.

      "They warned me this could feel pleasurable," said Template, looking briefly uncomfortable. "Wow."

      A surprisingly short time later he began fussing and refusing the nipple.

      "Okay, he seems to be finished with this side."

      She handed Roy back to Karen, cleaned herself with a wipe, fastened the left shoulder and unfastened the right.

      "Why do you always start with the left boob?"

      "I have no idea. Oh, and I think he just did something nasty in his diaper."

      "Well, that can wait until he's drained both tanks," said Karen, laughing.

      Which he soon did. While Template cleaned again Karen laid little Roy on the bed to change him.

      "Template..." said Karen, her tone odd.

      "What?" she said, concerned enough to hurry over and join her spouse, still fastening her costume.

      "Why is Roy a girl?"

Part Three

      "Now that is interesting," said Dr. Nagle, the super pediatrics specialist who was in charge of Template's case. She frowned. She normally worked out of New York but presented with the opportunity for an extended stay on a tropical island and an interesting case had moved here for an indefinite sabbatical. "I suggest you simply hold the child and change back to your male form. I'm surprised you didn't try that already."

      "We wanted to check with you, first," said Colossa, who was trying very hard to stay calm.

      "I'm glad you did, but it wasn't necessary."

      Template took Roy in her arms and shifted to Randy. A bit nervously, he looked down at the child. And heaved a great sigh.

      "Back to convex," he said, with a nervous laugh.

      Colossa joined in, almost collapsing from the relief.

      "You knew he was echoing your powers," said Dr. Nagle. "From now on, just make sure you're far enough away for that not to happen. Well, unless you want him to change."

      "I think there's enough gender changing in this family already," said Colossa, firmly.

      "Odd that the change doesn't cause him to react," said Randy.

      "At that age there is essentially no sexual identity, and he's not yet aware of his body enough to notice something so anatomically insignificant as the change from male to female is at that young."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "The government doesn't seem to be doing anything about Tritonicus," said Bowman. "So far they haven't even openly acknowledged its existence."

      "I have inside information that they are, indeed, working on the problem," said the Black Mask. "While the Navy keeps tabs on it they are dropping feeders to various supers and super groups about helping."

      "Oh, that's sure to go over well," said Solange, sourly.

      "Perhaps. The administration does seem to have made a turnaround on its attitude towards supers."

      "Too little, too late," said Bowman.

      "Hugh Manatee and Merma at the school have persuaded several other aquatic heroes to help them track the monster," say the Black Mask. "This is incredibly dangerous work, though so far they have had no problems."

      He checked the clock on the far wall.

      "Almost time for the conference call."

      Sure enough, in just a couple of minutes the Assembly contacted them. The two teams exchanged greetings, and chatted a bit while they waited for the other two participants. Next came Eve and some members of the Island's security staff. Finally, the British hero team The Bulldogs came on. Britannia was much more formal in her greetings, perhaps because of a special surprise guest the Bulldogs had arranged. Britannia presented a chubby man, with a huge mustache.

      "The Walrus..." breathed Sharma, awestruck.

      "Greetings," he said, cheerfully, tipping his trademark pork pie hat. "I am glad to see so many of you working on this problem. I just hope I can provide some assistance."

      "As I mentioned before, our government has requested that we not take action against the monster," said Britannia. "They agreed we could provide information and advice."

      "Since it was created by an English scientist, I think that's the least you could do," said Maciste, a bit icily.

      "If I might ask, where is Champion?" said Britannia, icy in turn.

      "She is occupied with important private matters," said Sharma. "Most likely she will not be participating at all in this situation."

      "A pity. Well, then, let's get to it. Walrus? Please start with a general review."

      "During the Second World War, Professor Hackenbacker wanted to help the effort by making giant monsters," said the Walrus. "This turned out to be more complicated than anticipated and he didn't succeed until four years after the war ended. That creature didn't live very long, but he learned much from it. Including how to build bigger and better monsters. For which he saw great promise in several areas."

      "That... doesn't sound very practical," said Bowman.

      "It wasn't. For years he tried to solve various ills by designing giant monsters. Again, not very practical. Two of his creations are known to survive. Cetasaurus, a filter-feeder which rarely leaves the Sargasso and is affectionately known as Blue Boy. And the Gorgosaurus hybridus, known popularly as Tritonicus."

      "Three years after hatching it outgrew its pen and escaped into the Atlantic," said the Black Mask, sourly.

      "Ending his first rampage required the application of a superoxide compound developed and delivered with the help of the Immortal Three," said the Walrus. "Baker helped Hackenbacker developed it, then he and Potter put Butcher where he could deliver the package close enough to Tritonicus. They thought the monster was destroyed, though later we learned that while severely burned it survived. After five years in a healing hibernation it returned."

      "Then twice more," said the Black Mask, "at intervals of eight and three years. Then nothing for decades."

      "We think the radioisotope it was fed that last time, in 1973, instead of killing it required a much longer regenerative period than anything previous. It would have had to continuously repair the radiation damage, until it purged the material from its system."

      "You're sure it's not still radioactive?" said Solange, nervously.

      "Yes," said Britannia. "The isotope had a half life of a bit less than thirty years, so roughly half would be gone, anyway, but scans show only a slight trace."

      "That's a relief," said Bowman. "So, any suggestions on how to take it down this time? As I recall, it not only learns and remembers, but adapts."

      "At the moment, no," said the Walrus, reluctantly. "We have people familiar with the creature working on that problem."

      "We do have a suggestion for possibly diverting it," said Britannia. "Recall that it primarily comes ashore at night. We believe that once above the water it is attracted by light. If we can convince the cities on the Florida coast to turn off their lights it would not be drawn towards them."

      "Maybe we could provide other lights to lure it away!" said Bowman, excitedly.

      "Exactly," said the Walrus, beaming.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We have a problem," said Andrea, as she rushed into Eve's office. "Sidney Devall has made a deal with the feds. They moved him to a minimum security facility - no neutralizers - in return for revealing all the secrets he learned while here."

      "Gods..." said Eve, burying her face in her hands.

      "So far, from what little I've been able to find out, he's mostly told them trivial stuff, along with things actually made up on the spot. I'm pretty sure, though, he knows the civilian names of several students with secret IDs, and maybe even some staff."

      "Right," said Eve, with a deep sigh. "We changed the passwords after he left but change them again. Also, have the technical support staff check all computers for any tampering which might have taken place. Security to go to manual monitoring of all defensive and sensory systems until we're sure the automated controls are clean. You do that for the school; I'll call the base."

      "I've already done that for the school," said Andrea. "Also called a meeting for this afternoon to announce what the little rat is doing. That should get us the cooperation of his former friends and acquaintances."

      "Good. Gods..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I have been speaking with my contacts in the administration," said Beat Red, over the vidphone. "This guy is claiming he was expelled for refusing to help attack a cruise ship. Fortunately, the more he talks the more it's becoming obvious that half of what he says is pure fiction. Unfortunately, half isn't fiction, and some things could hurt people. He told them that there's an entrance to the Sub-Terran tunnels in the Museum of the Mask in New York, and the city police raided the place."

      "That will backfire," said Template, scowling. "That museum is a major tourist draw."

      "Yeah, but in the meantime the New York government is using this as an excuse to go on another anti-super crusade," said Beat Red, more sourly. "I've put our machine into motion, working to pressure the Mayor to back off, but he is rabidly anti-super, has serious political influence and so far we've only had bland assurances from his office that it will all be over soon."

      "Isn't the New York city government under a federal injunction to stop its anti-super activities?"

      "Yes, but they have taken the position that the injunction only applies to previous activities, and that other, similar activities begun later aren't covered."

      "I'm really wishing, now, that Tritonicus would change course and come ashore further north," said Template.

      "Me, too. And I'm from there."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We finally got a drone close enough for a look at Tritonicus, and it's not good," said Bowman. "Tritonicus has mutated again."

      The screens being used for the teleconference switched to a rather murky image of an underwater scene.

      "We sent the probe in close after the monster settled down for the day. It was so deep that we had to use some serious light amplification, because we know Tritonicus reacts badly to artificial lights. The silt it stirred up was also still hanging around."

      "Tritonicus hates light of any kind, actually," said the Walrus.

      The probe skirted slowly around some rocks on the side of an underwater mountain. The image was in an eerie, green monochrome.

      "We used a fiberoptic line to send commands and get images and other data. Here comes the first glimpse of the beast."

      A line of rock spires turned out to be the row of spines on Tritonicus' tail. The probe slowed even more, and approached cautiously. There was no reaction.

      "We got close enough for a good estimate of size - and, yes, it's grown - then backed off for a more overall view."

      One of the spines briefly filled the image; then the probe pulled away again, and turned to follow the tail towards the body. Soon they saw the massive swell of a hip.

      "We estimate it now stands nearly four hundred meters from sole to crown. Also, note the texture of the skin. Tritonicus' armor is now even thicker. The arms are longer and more muscular. We have evidence it is now capable of 'running' along the sea floor on all fours, augmenting its swimming speed considerably where the bottom is within its depth range. Even that has increased."

      Each feature mentioned was briefly outlined in white as Bowman spoke.

      "Now, here comes the real shocker."

      They finally saw the face, and gasped. The familiar features from the past had been replaced by something far more reptilian, almost crocodilian. Tritonicus was lying on its right side, giving them a view of the left profile.

      Suddenly, the eye opened, causing several different involuntary sounds among the viewers. The image went dark.

      "The fiberoptic line parted. From the last fragments of data, we think Tritonicus made a swatting motion, breaking the line without actually striking the probe. It should have automatically floated to the surface on loss of signal. However, we haven't recovered it, yet. Other priorities."

      The screens returned to the images of the team members. The Walrus cleared his throat a bit nervously and stood.

      "Hackenbacker thought if he gave his creation a cute pug face it would be more... acceptable to the general public," said the Walrus. "Unfortunately, he didn't carry the intent through with the rest of the beast's form, so it came out looking more sinister than it would have otherwise. Like an evil plush toy. Now, though..."

      "Is that the result of the radiation, or its adaptation, or simply maturation?" said the Black Mask.

      "Unknown. Perhaps some combination. One thing which is readily apparent is that Tritonicus is now much more formidable than during any previous encounter."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "They've doubled the number of spy ships, and moved them closer," said Lori Savage, Chief of Security.

      "I'm not surprised," said Eve. "Members of the anti-super press have learned of Devall's revelations and are clamoring for action. Which means anti-super politicians are clamoring for action. Sievers is obviously trying to win supers over, even if only to help with Tritonicus. So she's taking actions which won't actually hurt the school, but let her satisfy the anti-supers that she is clamping down on us."

      "The good news is, we haven't found any evidence that the boy's actions have resulted in our security being compromised. Our attorneys also managed to get an injunction on the revelation of any private information."

      "My contacts tell me they can alter the private information as soon as it is put on paper or into a computer," said Eve, confidently.

      "No offense, but do you really want to count on that?" said Lori.

      Eve smiled.

      "Remember, the Hero Directory files were seized during Thurlin's crackdown. Thanks to some timely covert action - much of it by these same people - the records were sabotaged before the feds could decrypt them. Before they figured that out, they were amazed to learn that several prominent members of the Thurlin administration were known supers."

      "All right, so they're good at what they do," said Lori, who couldn't help smiling at hearing that. "That still leaves the problem of the boy, himself."

      "We are working on that at various levels," said Eve. "It's probably best that you don't know the details. Please, focus on maintaining and improving security here on the island. I will handle matters off the island."

Part Four

      "I can't believe how good I feel!" said Carol, stretching like a jungle cat.

      "It is a heady experience," said Paul, smiling as he remembered his own response to realizing the sort of potential his new body had.

      Carol sobered a bit, and looked at her friend.

      "You still glad you made the exchange?"

      "Yes. You?"

      "Oh, yeah," she said, laughing. She looked at him. "You kept telling me you weren't anything special, but you look very handsome and fit."

      He frowned and patted his chest with both hands.

      "Then why I do feel like I'm missing something?"

      Carol mimed punching him, and was surprised at how he shied away.

      "Please be very careful," he said, slowly and emphatically. "You're a lot stronger, now, and could seriously injure someone by accident."

      "Oh, right," said Carol, abashed.

      She pulled her hand back, and put it with the other one in her lap. She looked at them, flexing them, wanting to test her new strength against something. Unfortunately, there wasn't anything suitable for casually destroying within easy reach. Something made her look up, and around.

      "Can you hear them talking?"


      "I can. I can even smell Dr. Piano's cologne. I can't actually understand what they're saying, though. Don't know the language."

      The two of them were sitting in the back of an elderly Land Rover, outside a secret jungle temple, waiting for Dr. Piano to finish talking to the priestesses who had arranged the transfer. Strictly speaking, his presence hadn't been necessary for the process, but Paul was very grateful for it, in spite of the effort required to get the priestesses to allow it.

      "I'm so glad I got to come here and see all this," said Carol. "The city, the jungle, the culture. And that old temple! Not only because it's very much worth seeing, either. Now, I'll at least be able to describe first hand what's here when I get back and talk to people who know me, even though I was only here a few days instead of the several months they think."

      "You haven't changed as much as I thought you would," said Paul, leaning back a bit to examine his companion. "A bit taller, a bit darker, much fitter."

      "Yeah, but I feel a lot different," she replied. She shivered. "I'm already feeling that libido thing you warned me about."

      "You should also have the off switch Atana gave me," said Paul. He grinned. "Hey, I can say her name again!"

      "I can't," said Carol, after trying. "That is so weird."

      "Compared to the other weirdities involved, that's pretty trivial."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Oh, dandy," said Lori Savage, her golden eyes darkening as she put the phone receiver back in the cradle.

      "What's wrong?" said her assistant.

      "Tritonicus went too deep for the swimmers tracking him to follow. We've lost him."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "There has been no sign of Tritonicus for three days," said Bowman.

      "We think it's hunting giant squid," said the Walrus.

      "Calamari!" said Rapscallion.

      "While I hate to see their population impacted, the deeper he stays and the longer, the better for us," said Dr. Gorgeous. "However... This does not fit with previous behavior. In every previous appearance he would spend far more time just under the surface, going after upper layer prey. Including ships."

      "I wonder..." said the Walrus, thoughtfully stroking his chin. "Professor Hackenbacker said repeatedly that we were seeing juvenile behavior. I wonder if he was right, with these changes in appearance and behavior due to it now being an adult."

      "As much as I'd like to make jokes about teenage temper tantrums," said Bowman, slowly, "if Tritonicus is now an adult, that makes it vastly more dangerous than before. It'll be bigger, stronger, smarter, and its behavior different."

      "Maybe its new behavior patterns will make it less troublesome," said Dr. Gorgeous, hopefully.

      "Don't bet on it," said Bowman.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Wow," said Buzz, staring at the new Champion, as she paraded around in her costume.

      "It's patterned after yours," she said, to Paul, as she preened in the main assembly room, "but with some changes to personalize it, since we're being open about me being a different Champion."

      "I like the mask," said Paul, nodding. "Very stylish, with the curlicues. But... the rest of it's a lot snugger than mine."

      "It's WonderCloth, a new fabric for super costumes," said Champion. "It offers the same benefits with fewer layers. So it gives a bit more freedom of movement."

      "Not to mention showing off every curve," said Paul.

      "What, are you jealous that she looks better than you did?" said Buzz, grinning.

      "No!" said Paul, blushing. "I'm... embarrassed, by proxy. I was never that daring."

      Champion, grinning, opened her mouth to deliver a verbal jab, but something stopped her. Sobering a bit, she turned to Dr. Gorgeous instead.

      "What do you think?"

      "Functional, attractive, closely resembling Paula's but different enough to help make the point that you're a different person. I like it."

      Sharma stepped closer, and walked slowly around the new team member.

      "It works," she said, nodding.

      She turned and walked out.

      "I will never get used to her," said Champion.

      "Welcome to the club," said Dr. Gorgeous. "So, when do you want to make your debut?"

      "In a couple of days, I guess," said Champion, sobering even more as the realization of what she was about to begin sank in.

      She shivered. She had thought that the transference was the big decision point, but faced with going public, in costume...

      "We'll plan a press conference for Friday, right after lunch, then," said Dr. Gorgeous.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I just had a baby a week ago," said Template, flatly. "I'm not going to leave h... her at home to do a TV interview."

      The figure on the vidphone's screen shrugged.

      "Bring her along," said Beat Red. "Help with the sympathy."

      "I am not going to play politics with my child!"

      "You're the one who decided to start playing politics," said Beat Red, flatly. "You can either go with that decision, or you can do things half-assed and watch them fail."

      He waited, staring at her, for a response.

      "I'll have to check with... some people," said Template, finally.

      "Do it. Get back to me by the end of the day. If you are worried about your child's safety, don't be. I'll arrange an escort of supers."

      "Do it," said Colossa, later. "But why did you say 'her'?"

      "Okay, we just had a baby boy as Randy and Karen. Template is known to have just had a child, too, though only a few people know the details. I'm trying to reduce the connections."

      "Hmmm..." said Colossa, thinking. "Yeah. And since Dr. Nagle says changing sex at this age won't have any effect, make Roy a girl before you even leave here. Make sure people see you changing her diaper, while you're there. Just don't mention a name for her."

      "You're okay with this?"

      "As a one-time thing, yes," said Colossa, firmly. "I see showing off your baby on a TV program as rubbing the fact that we're as human as they are in their faces, which is a good thing. There's not much danger - the baby echos your powers, you'll have an escort, the interview will take place in a super-friendly state and city. Sure."

      She grinned.

      "Besides, what parent doesn't want to see their child on television?"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You're makeup will be..." said the intern, as he came rushing through the dressing room door.

      He froze as he realized the blanket over her chest meant Template was nursing her baby.

      "Knock before you enter!" Template snapped.

      "I buh-just the makeup coming in fifteen," he managed, before retreating.

      Fireburst - one of the two women in Template's escort and the only mask besides Magni among them whom she knew - burst out laughing. Template scowled, but then smiled. Currently only those two women - veterans of a few operations together - were in the room, besides the contentedly suckling baby.

      "Isn't it amazing how many men become unnerved at such a natural process?" said Fireburst, smirking.

      "Uhm, yes," said Template, a bit embarrassed, recalling that Randy had occasionally had similar moments.

      "I thought I was smart, keeping it secret that Magni and I had a baby a few months back," said Fireburst, grinning. "Now, though, I feel jealous that yours is going on TV and mine isn't."

      "Let's see if you keep that feeling after this is all over," said Template, with a sigh. She looked over at Fireburst. "I didn't even hear you two had a kid until well after the last time I saw either of you. Congratulations."

      "Thank you," said Fireburst, blushing a bit. "I'm looking forward to him attending that school. Who knows, maybe my boy and your girl will hook up."

      "Anything's possible," said Template, with a sense of dread.

      She realized she and Colossa hadn't thought this through well enough. Of course their child would be expected to attend the Pine Island school. Now some people would expect that child to be a girl. Which would confuse those who already knew their child was male. At least Randy and Karen weren't known to be supers to the students and most of the staff, so their child wouldn't be expected to go there.

      Maybe we can explain him being a her right now as a hologram or something, thought Template, tiredly. A disguise. I don't know.

      Fortunately, by the time the makeup team arrived Roy was through nursing. Before they began, Template made a point of changing her, showing the baby off to the obviously charmed makeup woman and male hairdresser. Then she let a cooing Fireburst hold Roy while the artists worked. They didn't have much to do; only part of Template's face was bare, and her hair was short and functional. Still, when they finished Template was impressed by what she saw in the mirror.

      "Okay," she said, rising and taking the baby back. "Showtime."

Part Five

      There was still quite a bit of time before the interview started, but that was used for instructions on where to look, where the microphones were, how to signal the need for a break, and so on. Keeping busy like this helped reduce Template's anxiety, but didn't remove it completely. The host, Edwin Corrale, hadn't said much about supers in his career, but most of that had been uncomplimentary. However, it hadn't been openly hostile. Template was hoping to convert him to at least neutrality, and maybe some of the expected audience as well. Still, this man was not the sort of idiot reporter or Congresscritter Template was used to dealing with. This wasn't someone who could be easily flustered by simply correcting an error. He did his homework and he asked hard questions. If he were hostile or challenging...

      Template made sure to carry Roy in her left arm, so that when she was introduced to Edwin her right hand was free. As she hoped, he did shake hands, and while he wasn't smiling neither did he seem hostile. That was a relief.

      Corrale was a distinguished-looking older man. In his long-running syndicated program he was known for making close examinations of critical issues. He was a bit notorious for selecting evidence to "prove" a point, but that was common to just about every commentator in history.

      After the brief introduction, Template was escorted to her seat on the small stage. She made sure Roy was settled and sleeping, so that when Edwin asked if she was ready she indeed was. The overhead lights were turned on, the lighting checked, a few last minute adjustments made.

      The camera lights came on. Edwin introduced the show, himself, and then his guest. His opening words about Template were neutral, giving her hope. Then he turned to address her directly.

      "What do you have to say about that cruise ship which reported being attacked by supers near your island?"

      "Wait. You mean from those Navy missiles a couple of years ago?"

      "No, this was three months ago. A follow-up to the nuclear blast above your school."

      "This accusation is new to me," said Template, frowning. She realized that this was coming from Sid Devall. "Two of our students did go to a cruise ship, but in answer to a call for help. They did help, later receiving an official thanks from the cruise line. A third student went with them, but left when he realized there was actual work to be done. He was subsequently expelled, for that and other reasons."

      "That's the story from your side. His story is that he left the cruise ship when it became clear he was expected to help loot it. And what about Tritonicus?"

      "What about Tritonicus?" said Template, irritated at the sudden change in topic. "Keep in mind that Sidney Devall..."

      "Please answer the question."

      "I'm trying to answer your previous question before moving on to something..."

      "Was Tritonicus awakened by your nuclear blast?"

      "What?!" said Template, blind-sided. "No. When that navy sub spotted him he was well east of Bermuda and has been heading west since, like he always does. Even if they spotted him right after he awoke, he was still well away from the blast area horizontally, and probably on the bottom of the ocean. More likely he was much further away when the nuke went off."

      "Yet my informant is claiming mad scientists at your school were experimenting on the monster."

      "No! Until the US government contacted us, we didn't even know Tritonicus was still alive!"

      "Yet you built a school in that area. Shouldn't you have checked, first?"

      "Tritonicus didn't come near the school until hours after he was spotted by the submarine. The speed he swims, where he was hibernating was probably over a hundred miles away!"

      "But that device you detonated - in violation of international law - was huge," said Edwin.

      "We didn't detonate it," said Template, flatly. "It exploded when we shot it out of the sky. If we hadn't taken that action it would have exploded much lower, and caused much more damage."

      "It was still your action which triggered it," said Edwin, jabbing an accusing finger. "It was a massive blast. Easily large enough to disturb Tritonicus."

      "It exploded in the stratosphere," said Template, slowly and sternly, glaring at him. "The shockwave it produced was noticeable immediately underneath, and actually did some damage, but over a hundred miles away and miles deep it would have been swallowed up by ambient noise!"

      "Which brings us to where the nuke came from," said Edwin, looking at his notes again.

      "That was part of a plot by the international criminal mastermind Sung."

      "No-one has heard of Sung for decades."

      "He was recently arraigned before the international court at the Hague," said Template. "Partly because of the bomb, partly because of other recent actions, partly because of outstanding warrants dating back decades. The UN is also looking into filing charges against him."

      "Yet no information has been released by either body connecting him to this nuclear explosion. We still don't know where he was all this time. For all we know he was living in retirement on a tropical island until some bounty hunter found him, and all these charges are for previous crimes. With no connection at all to this nuclear weapon."

      "He was released by the Thurlin administration about a year before the resignation."

      "We only have your word for that."

      "No, you have the findings of an international investigatory panel, arranged by the UN through T.O.W.E.R." said Template, hotly. "That material was released. Why don't you know about it?"

      "We're supposed to trust foreigners to investigate things inside our own country?!" said Edwin, just as hotly.

      "The US had three representatives - two of whom were appointed by Thurlin, one by Sievers - on the oversight panel. They all agreed with the findings."

      "We'll be right back after this commercial break," said Edwin, unexpectedly.

      He rose and quickly walked off the stage, leaving Template gaping after him. She shook her head, then stood and went the opposite direction. Her supporters were waiting for her, and quickly escorted Template to her dressing room.

      "I've more than half decided to just leave," she snapped, as she dropped into her chair, the abrupt movement making Roy give a brief squawk. Something all the heated words on stage hadn't.

      "Are you kidding?!" said Beat Red. "You're slaying him out there! That's why he called the break."

      "You think so?" said Template, uncertainly.

      "Definitely. He needs a time out to regroup."

      Nearly everyone among her escort agreed, though some less emphatically than others.

      "You're keeping your cool, with just enough emotion to show you're sincere," said Beat Red. "You counter his accusations with verifiable facts, you point out his rudeness, you stand up to him. He's fighting hard, but you're winning."

      "All right," said Template, though she still seemed uncertain. She sighed as Roy fussed. "Can you find out how long we have? He wants feeding. Again."

      "Take as long as you need," said Beat Red, smirking. "I'd love to see his face when he comes back out and you're not there because you're nursing."

      "They always run other things right after breaks, so guests can have time to use the restroom and such," said Ionica, perhaps from personal experience. "Speaking of which, be sure you do that. I'm pretty sure Edwin will also want the extra time, to try and prepare. You obviously rattled him."

      "If he does make a fuss, ask to nurse during the rest of the interview," said Fireburst, smirking. "That would really put him off his stride."

      "Okay, then," said Template, nodding. "Everyone with a Y chromosome out."

      As it turned out they weren't called back until the nursing was finished. Roy didn't need changing again just yet, though from experience Template knew he would soon. She decided not to wait. If he started crying she would use that to also rattle her host.

      The rest of the interview was less aggressive, but still had a hostile tone. It was also more concise. By the time Roy started fussing Edwin was ready to wrap up, and used the baby's noises as an excuse. He was obviously annoyed at the child, which irritated Template, though she knew his attitude would lose him sympathy with some viewers.

      Back in the dressing room Fireburst offered to change the baby. Template, surprised to find herself suddenly very tired, had no objections. She didn't order the men out, but most found a reason to leave.

      "You did great out there," said Ionica, patting Template on the shoulder. "You were hard when you needed to be, but sounded cool and calm when you needed to be. Even if you didn't win him over, a lot of people viewing this will believe you over him, now."

      "If they don't edit out everything I did right," muttered Template.

      "I thought you knew," said Fireburst, startled, looking up from where she was just finishing with the baby. "This was a live interview for a local cable station."

      Template gaped at her for a moment, then shook her head.

      "You've got to be kidding me! I thought this was being taped!"

      "Nope," said Ionica, grinning. "Live TV. Estimates are at least half a million were watching locally, with a feed to the network for use later. There's where you have to worry about the editing. They use the response from the live audience to decide how to pitch the taped interview."

      "I'm glad I didn't know," said Template, feeling faint. She gave a humorless laugh. "Though if I find out Beat Red deliberately misled me he'll be in very serious trouble!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The other juvies had learned not to mess with Sid. Thanks to his powers, he'd had a sudden rise to the top of the pecking order. Thanks to his deal with the feds his accommodations were almost luxurious, and he had good food. The feds were practically fawning over his every word. On top of all that, he was getting back at those jerks at the school. Sid was a very happy camper.

      The usual interrogation team wasn't in the room when he walked in, but that didn't bother him. Right now, nothing could bother him. He was on top of the world. He smiled, as one of the feds walked up, flashed a badge and identified himself as an FBI agent.

      "Sidney Devall, you are under arrest for violating the provisions of Coltman v. Dachshund. You have the right to remain silent..."

      "Wh... Wha... What?!" said Sidney. "I made a deal!"

      "That deal was a personal matter between you and Agent Thompkins, and not authorized by the Bureau to offer it. Agent Thompkins has already been arrested in this matter. Now, you will come with us."

      "But... My stuff!"

      "Your personal gear will be examined, and that which is allowed forwarded to your new residence."

      "Which is where?!"

      "The Slippery Elmer Holding Facility."

      "No way! That's a super-max prison! I'm not going there!"

      He lunged to his feet and bolted for the door. He was superhumanly fast, but the FBI agents were expecting this. While Sid's attention had been on the one man, the other two had surreptitiously pulled out some of the new, ultra-small neutralizers. They both zapped the boy before he could reach the door. He slammed into it hard enough to leave a dent.

      "Better check him out," said the lead agent. "He could have broken some ribs."

      The other two nodded, put their neutralizers away and pulled Sid clear of the door. They examined the boy for injuries while the lead agent stepped outside. Before, the corridor had been empty. Now there were two teams with the larger, semi-portable neutralizers, one each way down the hall and pointing towards the door.

      "We got him. Bring the stretcher."

Part Six

      "Something wrong?" said Lucille.

      "Well... While I'm glad to be back, this isn't exactly me," said Paul, gesturing at his body with both hands. "I'm fitter, leaner, stronger... I think I'm even taller."

      "Retirement benefits?" said Lucille, innocently.

      Paul laughed.

      "Could be. Could very well be. Atana told the priestesses she was pleased with my work. Hopefully, I'm enough like my old self my relatives won't make too much of a fuss. Unlike the last two years."

      "She didn't tell you directly?"

      "No. I mean, I don't know. Neither Carol nor I remember what happened. Dr. Piano says that's because while we're worthy people, neither of us is a worshiper and neither of us is a mystic. Apparently, that was to protect us, or something."

      "Hmph," said Lucille, making clear what she thought of anyone denying knowledge to the curious.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Good news, everyone!" Rapscallion cried, as he walked into the ready room. "The DC federal court has ruled that supers can access all the legal methods of lobbying available to non-supers! Just heard it on NPR."

      "But what about the illegal methods?" said Solange, innocently.

      "Good news, indeed," said the Black Mask, nodding. "I do believe a call to both Template and Beat Red is in order."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Rio was in Bermuda for a four-day weekend with her current boyfriend. When he had to leave early due to a business meeting being rescheduled, she decided to visit her friends at the school. She didn't even bother changing out of her bikini. She didn't consider it inappropriate to wear for her visit; that and her mask were all she felt she needed. Rio did take her com, clipping it to a strap on her swimsuit bottom.

      Rio gave the com a pat and smiled. She kicked off her sandals and ran. She held her speed low the short distance to the beach, due to vehicles and pedestrians, running just fast enough to keep people from seeing who she was or where she'd come from. As she approached the water, though, she hit the gas. Her passage to the breakwater was punctuated by a rapidly accelerating series of pops and bursts of water, as she crossed the low waves. Then she hit the true ocean.

      The weather was gorgeous. Normally, open ocean crossings were to be avoided. Today, though, the waters of this part of the Atlantic were nearly dead calm. Rio turned in a wide curve, a smile on her face, leaving a large rooster-tail of spray behind as she ran. She dodged around a cruise ship, waving at tourists taking photos and videos. She was so busy acting for their cameras she was caught by surprise when she ran across an odd swell. Rio almost fell, recovering only by slapping the water with both hands to get back up.

      Rio looked around, and realized that there were more swells following the first, each larger than the previous one. Wide-eyed, changing course to take the swells at a better angle, she watched as water rose and cascaded away from something rising through it. Then screamed as that something finally broke surface, almost within reach.

      Tritonicus looked around as it walked up the slope towards the shallow water around Bermuda. It took no notice of the tiny figure skimming across the surface. Instead, it turned towards the cruise ship.

      Rio was a veteran super and by no means a wilting flower. This, though... She turned and ran, breaking Mach 1 as she passed the cruise ship. Being a super speedster, she recovered in seconds, though to her it felt more like several minutes. She grabbed her com and blurted a warning, snarled, and repeated it at a speed someone on the other end could understand.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      His head pounding, Paul tipped the bottle. Two caplets fell into his hand. He tipped his hand back. Both returned to the bottle. A bit irritated, he tried again, with a shallower angle and tapping, instead of relying on gravity alone. Two caplets fell into his hand. Paul closed his eyes, took a deep breath, let it out slowly. He put the bottle down, then used his right hand to put one caplet back in it.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "This makes no sense!" said Bowman, as the hastily called video conference call got underway. "Tritonicus never comes out during daylight! Its photophobia was one reason it broke out of its original containment pen."

      "And why did he turn back?!" said Rapscallion, throwing his arms wide.

      "I think... we may be responsible," said Dr. Gorgeous, uneasily. "We were steering ships away from his location. When he finally got tired of squid, he went back to the last place he found ships."

      "Oy..." said Rapscallion.

      "The school is sending everyone who can get there quickly or can be brought by someone who can," said Eve. "There's no time even for a hopper. We just have to hope they can turn it away."

      "The Navy?" said the Black Mask.

      "Scrambling fighters from two carriers. The closest is half an hour away."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Rio was gone. There was nothing she could do against a monster like that. Instead, she headed for the school. Maybe she could ferry equipment or something. She saw others heading the opposite direction as she approached the shore and wished them luck.

      The call for help had deliberately omitted anyone under eighteen years of age, but a few of the students responded anyway. Those first on the scene took up station on the fantail of the cruise ship or in the air above it. The propellors were thrashing the water furiously, pushing the ship away from the monster, but a large ship like that needed a long time to change speed. Fortunately, the water here was just a bit too shallow for Tritonicus to swim, but deep enough to slow its walking. The race between the ship and the monster was a close one, with Tritonicus currently winning.

      Myna was their first line of defense. He flew above and just behind the ship, widening his force field to cover as much as he could. Tritonicus drew closer, close enough that he could see the tiny figure and the shimmering, transparent green barrier around it. The giant creature swatted at the annoyance. Its claws skittered off the glassy barrier, not penetrating but jolting Myna with the impact. He gritted his teeth and held position.

      Tritonicus fell back a bit, considering. Then opened its mouth and inhaled a breath which could have deflated a blimp. The defenders braced themselves.

      First came the spray of catalyst, from a special gland on its snout. Then came the exhalation of methane, stored in a special bladder, mixed with the inhaled air as it left the beast's throat. Being a biological product, it stank. Horribly. Especially once it started burning. Tritonicus had learned from long experience to only do this downwind.

      The resulting fuel-air explosion literally knocked Myna out of the air, but his force field held long enough to block the effects of the blast. He was caught by Eagle and taken to the forward part of the ship.

      Tritonicus advanced on the ship again, and this time was met by a swarm of attacks of multiple types. Many powers and devices were used to try and drive the creature back, but succeeded only in annoying it. Not close enough to physically strike back, it again drew in breath.

      This time Payback was the primary defender. As the explosion swept towards them it struck his "instant karma" field and rebounded. Some of the fireball curled around him, but between Cyclone Ranger to the port blowing it aside and Valence to starboard stopping the chemical reactions there was no damage, to ship or defenders. Tritonicus ducked and screamed in shrill rage as the ball of flame flew back at it. The attacks, meanwhile, continued.

      Tritonicus stopped dead in the water, looking for all the world like a hurt puppy. Then it turned away, heading back to deep water. Soon it was completely submerged.

      "We did it!" Eagle yelled, as he flew back to the stern.

      They began cheering. Soon they were joined by the ship's crew and passengers. The celebration was just getting started when someone spotted a pall of smoke on the horizon.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "This isn't just about a headache and problems with a pill bottle," said Dr. Gorgeous.

      "I was in that form for about two years," Paul said, tiredly. "Did I really become that used to it in such a short time?"

      "It wouldn't surprise me if you did," said Lucille. "I've never had physical powers, but have studied the effects on those who have. Part of the power is often the ability to adapt to it. While there is an element of ego involved in the emotional response when they're lost, for most people the reaction is more like a normal human who has suffered an amputation or other severe impairment of their physical or mental abilities."

      "Is this what you were talking about when you told me to make use of that psychologist if I needed to?"

      "Yes. I admit, after seeing the result of the power transfer I thought the effects would be minor. You are no longer a super human, but you are now a superior human. However, it appears I underestimated the effect the power loss would have on you."

      "It's so aggravating!" said Paul, loudly, waving his arms. "It's not the big things I miss. I rarely did those. It's the little things. I don't think I ever dropped soap in the shower once the two years I had that body. Now I do it about every third time."

      "Part of it is that you got lazy," said Lucille, flatly. "You were using superhuman reflexes to compensate for not paying attention or taking normal precautions. I remember being a bit concerned every time I rode with you in that little car. Instead of looking around preemptively, the way you're supposed to, you depended on your senses and reflexes to get out of trouble you should have avoided."

      "Oh," said Paul, a bit startled. "I hadn't realized..."

      "I sincerely hope you're being more careful, now," said Lucille, sternly.

      "No worries. I gave the roadster to Carol."

      "Oh," said Lucille. "That must have... been hard."

      "Well, I knew I couldn't drive it to its potential, now. And it's associated with Champion."

      Lucille looked at him for a moment.

      "There's something else, isn't there?"

      "Well, yes," said Paul, shifting uneasily. "I mean, Carol and I were good friends before I changed back, but she's straight. The problem is that we're still good friends."

      "Ah," said Lucille, with a sympathetic smile. "I believe you made certain assumptions beforehand which did not turn out to be true."

      "I guess..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "By the time our people got there the cargo ship was already in pieces," said Eagle, sourly, reporting via the conference call of heros who were operating to stop the monster. "The crew was in the water, many frantically trying to swim around flames and Tritonicus. The weird part is that while it did slurp down a few of them, it seemed mostly interested in lapping up the fuel oil."

      "Of course!" said the Walrus, bushy eyebrows threatening to dislodge his hat. "All those times it attacked ships, it wasn't looking for meat! It was looking for petroleum!"

      "Is that possible?" said Bowman, stunned. "I mean, yeah, there's plenty of energy there..."

      "There are many microorganisms which feed on petroleum. It would have been a small step, biologically, to adapt their metabolism to something larger. Tritonicus may even have some of those microorganisms in its gut, acting much like the bacteria in the intestines of termites which do the actual digesting of cellulose."

      "No-one saw this before because it always happened at night," said Dr. Gorgeous, nodding. "Oh, there would be some illumination from fires, flares, even searchlights, but not enough for those watching to understand what he was doing."

      "We rescued fifteen out of the twenty-one crewmen," said Eagle, sourly. "Three were too deep inside to get out before it sank. Two went down Tritonicus' gullet. One is still missing. Half of those we rescued were badly injured in various ways."

      "Still, compared to the loss of life had he sunk the liner..." said the Black Mask.

      "We were stupid," said Eagle, angrily. "We should have known it wouldn't just go away. That if we chased it from one meal it would go after another."

      "At least the Navy jets drove it back into deep water," said the Black Mask. He sighed. "After it managed a good meal of petroleum."

      "Yes, but now we've lost it again," said Dr. Gorgeous.

Part Seven

      "All right, here's the plan," said Template. "We work with civilian and military sources to find Tritonicus again. Mr. Limpet has finally agreed to join the effort, which should be a big help. Once we do, we lure him to the surface with a bait ship, then we use the same devices and supers we used to freeze the water around the Atlantis Seamount."

      "That would work," said Bowman, nodding.

      The primary difference between this monster control conference and previous ones was that a special link had been installed in the Pentagon to allow representatives of the government to participate. Besides high-ranking officers from four branches of the US military, President Sievers and two of her chief aides were also present in the Pentagon conference room.

      "Will freezing it kill it?" asked Admiral Naismith.

      "Probably not," said the Walrus. "However, it will serve two purposes. It will put the beastie out of action for as long as we can maintain the low temperatures. It will form ice around it, making it float. This means the Navy can then tow it to a permanent facility. Perhaps somewhere in the Antarctic."

      "With the polar ice caps melting, even that might not hold it for long," said Dr. Gorgeous. "However, this solution would give us time to study the situation - and the creature."

      "Why not just kill it?" said Maciste.

      "Every time we thought we had killed Tritonicus before, it came back stronger," said the Walrus. "This is a longer-term project, but one which promises to provide a permanent solution. Keep in mind that the only other surviving example of Professor Hackenbacker's monster-building expertise is a sedate filter feeder which lets tourists pet it. We might even be able to figure out how to let Tritonicus live out its life peacefully."

      "Well, I think you're an idealist, but the rest of the plan seems likely to work," said Admiral Naismith.

      There were many details to work out, with little time, since the monster had attacked two other ships in the two days since it went after the cruise ship. Finally, though, they wrapped things up. Now they just had to wait for Tritonicus to be found.

      "If I may..." said President Sievers, standing, before the meeting could be adjourned. "I have some questions. I want to emphasize that these are questions and not accusations. I need information."

      "Shoot," said Template.

      Due to her previous experience with the President the assembled supers had asked her to moderate. They felt that her ability and willingness to stand up to Seivers might be useful. Also, knowing Template would not easily yield before her would hopefully make Sievers more reasonable.

      "Why didn't this Rio handle the problem, instead of running away?" said President Sieves.

      "Just how would she do that?" said Template, tightly, trying to control her resentment. "Challenge it to a race?"

      "She's a super speedster," said the President, making a serious effort to keep her tone level. "Why didn't she just run around it, creating a water spout and carrying it away?!"

      "Yeah, and for her next trick, she'll reach down its throat, grab its tail and turn it inside out!"

      There was a moment of angry silence. Followed by stunned realization on both sides.

      "Wait... Did you seriously mean..."

      "Well, why couldn't she?!"

      Template looked over at Dr. Gorgeous, who stood to answer.

      "In the first place, no matter how fast she ran, she'd never create a waterspout."

      "But that's what speedsters do!"

      "In comic books and movies. Not any place where physics actually works."

      "Wait, wait, wait... You mean that no speedster or fast flyer can actually create whirlwinds and..."

      "No. Oh, they could create a circular flow of air, but high speed requires low drag, so the energy transfer would be minor. Even if one of them had enough energy, could move fast enough, and could resist the heat and the centripetal acceleration, going fast in a circle only creates a ring of moving air and detached vortices. Waterspouts are caused by tornados, and those start with a vertical movement of air, which rotates due to coriolis effect."

      Template bit back on demanding to know why Seivers - who had a doctorate - didn't know that.

      "I apologize," said Sievers, after a moment. She looked at Template. "This... this just reinforces my decision. I am creating a cabinet level post of Super Liaison. I would like you to spread the word that I am looking to the super community for suggestions as to who could fill this position. It requires someone who will be known to and respected by super society, and who is knowledgeable in super matters. Such as exactly how powers can be applied."

      That caused a stir, in every room involved in the video conference. The reactions of the military personnel in the Pentagon image made obvious the fact that only Sievers and her aides knew about this ahead of time. Also obvious was the dislike some of those with her felt for the idea.

      "We will definitely pass the word," said Template, impressed. "Well, unless anyone else has other business, that's it until we find Tritonicus."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The beast had learned. Several more ships disappeared over the next few days, with Tritonicus sneaking in, committing mayhem, and slipping away without detection. Testimony from survivors and examination of debris revealed it was lunging upwards from deep water to strike a bit behind the center of the ship.

      "Limpet and his cetaceans have uncovered evidence that Tritonicus is hunting by silhouette, much as sharks hunt seals," said the Walrus. "Whether it ever did this before is unknown, but it is making use of daylight now to spot ships well above it, while it stays deep until ready to attack."

      "Any way to use this behavior to trap it?"

      "That is possible but unlikely. I think we just have to get lucky."

      "The seabed microphone submarine detectors just aren't meant to find something like this," said Bowman. "It doesn't sound like a submarine or even a whale. They're writing new filter algorithms to try and hear it, but so far it's slow work."

      "Several mystics are trying to scry the beast's location and activities," said Dr. Gorgeous. "So far the results are vague."

      "Answer hazy; try again later," said Rapscallion, tiredly.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The captain of The Sunset Grove was being paid a premium, as was all the crew. They would also get a percentage of the profit if they made it through. They were worth it. These men were all experienced sailors with useful skills. The ship was also outfitted with special equipment. While the odds of any one ship in the busy Atlantic being attacked were low, fear was making people delay at every stage in the business, and when those ships did sail they would swing wide of the central Atlantic. Traffic was down, costs were up, demand was high. The Grove was loaded with a variety of the goods currently the most profitable, much of them time-sensitive. The ship was heading across on the normal course for the trip it was making. If they got through they would all be wealthy, a few even rich.

      Just now the captain was standing on a wing off the bridge, taking in some fresh air as he watched the ocean. His musings were disturbed by a worried-looking seaman bringing a message.

      "Captain Pausert? Sonar reports an odd disturbance deep below us."

      Civilian surface ships rarely used sonar in deep water. The Grove was using passive mode, listening. There had been two previous alarms, one triggered by a whale and the other a submarine. Given Navy activity in the search for the monster, and the nervous behavior of whales because for once they were prey to something both alive and bigger than them, the false positives were certainly understandable, if nerve-wracking.

      The captain went inside, straight to the sonar station.

      "Any idea what it is?"

      "Captain, the contact is getting closer rapidly, approaching from directly below. And it is big."

      The Captain moved quickly to a phone and punched a particular button.

      "Get the thumper ready." He turned to the sonarman, waiting.

      "It's further and bigger than I first thought. Maybe... eight hundred meters, now, and getting closer rapidly."

      "Count down every hundred meters."

      Their main countermeasure had a short range. Very short. More, the closer the beast when it was used, the greater the effectiveness. Pausert was glad those attending to it weren't on the bridge. They would wait until he told them to fire. If only he could hold off long enough.

      "Seven hundred. Six hundred. Five hundred."

      The captain took a deep breath, let it out slowly.

      "Two hundred! One hundred!!"


      There was a massive thump from somewhere under the ship, and a huge wash of froth foamed up around the midsection.

      "It's he...!" the sonarman yelled.

      The previous disturbance was a pale shadow of what came next. The massive blast of sound from their weapon had literally knocked Tritonicus off course to port, and probably out cold. The wave generated as the monster broke surface on momentum still washed over the deck, and caused the Grove to heel over until water cascaded over the starboard gunwales, the port propellor thrashing half out of the water. As the monster crashed back down more water sprayed into the air and the ship heeled the other way, more water washing over the other side. Captain Pausert prayed the hatch covers stayed in place, as he desperately held on.

      Most of the covers did hold. The amount of water which drained into the ship was survivable, and with the bilge pumps working full blast was soon back where it belonged. As the Grove continued forward, however, she ran over the monster's tail, wrecking two of three propellors.

      "Sonar, go active! I need to know if that thing is still conscious!"

      The captain watched out the port windows as the monster slowly sank back into the depths.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "My GOD!" said the sonarman on board the Habu. "It sounded like someone set off a nuke, just under the surface!"

      The attack submarine had been trying to intercept Tritonicus before it reached the ship, futilely. They had managed to get close enough for everyone on board to feel the thump from whatever the ship had used against the monster.

      "Periscope depth," said Captain Howers. "Sparks, send to monster command that Tritonicus has attacked a cargo ship which used some sort of sound pulse weapon against it. Effectiveness unknown. Will update when further information is available."

      The ship was still afloat, still moving. There was no sign of the monster.

      "Sonar, you got anything?"

      "No, Captain!"

      "Go active."

      "Got it! Sinking slowly, looks like it's tumbling. Don't know if it's dead or just stunned."

      The Captain passed the update along.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Any way we can charge those Bozos?" said Bowman.

      "No," said Dr. Gorgeous. "Unfortunately, there's no law against defending yourself from a monster. As for putting themselves at risk, the advisories were non-binding."

      "They declined offers of help," said the Black Mask. "On one propeller it will take them longer to complete their trip, cutting into their profit margin, but if they had stopped for help they would have been even later."

      "I don't know whether to commend them or condemn them," said Dr. Gorgeous, obviously impressed. "They came up with a civilian-legal weapon which stunned Tritonicus. According to the latest reports, it's awake but still groggy, and staying shallow. We should have no problem freezing it, if we move quickly."

      "Make it so!" cried Rapscallion.

Part Eight

      After all the work, all the tension, all the death and damage, the end of the problem was almost anticlimactic. Several supers with mind or animal control powers were quickly moved into the area. Those which could contact Tritonicus managed to persuade it to move back to the surface. They lulled it into a somnolent state - not difficult considering its injuries - and then the cold crew went to work.

      First they froze it into a disk of ice, to keep it afloat and create a working platform. Then they really set to work, pumping heat out of the monster and the water immediately around it.

      They needed hours to freeze a thick enough layer of ice to satisfy everyone. Then they installed coolant tubes, and wrapped the whole mass in sheets of buoyant insulation. A rotating contingent would maintain the ice sheath while three Navy super tugs towed the monster to the Antarctic. Though a specific location had not yet been selected, the UN was actively working with the US on the problem. By the time the monster was south of the Equator they would have a place to put it, and a way to get it there.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I mean, what kind of name is Hotfoot?" said Paul, sourly.

      "He's just young and eager," said Dr. Gorgeous, seriously. "He'd be our first new member since... Excuse me, I was going to say Sharma but, of course, the new Champion is the newest member."

      "Okay, he's a bit of a hothead - no pun intended," said Maciste. "He has a good record, he's highly recommended, and he's been looking for a team to join because he's new enough he could use some coaching and smart enough to admit it."

      "The guy is a jerk," said Sharma, surprising them with her phrasing. "When we interviewed him I had to perform an etheric disconnection just to keep his hands off me."

      "Bad manners aside," said Dr. Piano, "the team needs to expand, and he offers powers not already present. Perhaps training with us will help with the hands problem."

      "Especially since most of the women here could hand him his hands if he persisted," said Champion.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I have to admit, I'm impressed with the speed with which you put all this together and then pulled it off," said the President. "This is the shortest Tritonicus rampage on record, with the least damage. Your solution is also more certain and promises to be more permanent than any previous one."

      "That's the advantage of the concentration of resources supers provide," said Template. She could have taken personal credit for the idea of freezing the monster, but if she was going to be a political creature for the sake of supers she had to sacrifice personal glory for the sake of supers.

      The current meeting between these two was far more cordial than their first. It was also more private. Just Sievers and a few of her staff, speaking with Template and Beat Red. More than one participant wondered if the presence of a camera crew had contributed to the acrimony of that previous session.

      "Your powers are, indeed, useful."

      "No, that's not what I mean," said Template, firmly. "I'm saying we're much smaller and better organized.

      "Think about it. There are fewer active supers in the whole world than the number of law-enforcement employees in the US government, with the military not counting, of course, due to posse commitatus. Yet we embody resources equivalent to millions of normal humans and their equipment. Moreover, being a small community we have lots of interconnections. While there are secrets between us, those are few and generally personal. We know each other, we talk to each other, we know who can do what, and whether they can lead well.

      "So when it comes to getting something done, we know who to go to, how to ask for help, and don't have to worry about going through channels when the situation is urgent. Though there are channels, which are used most of the time."

      Sievers nodded, and seemed to get it. Whether she actually did time would tell.

      "Have you chosen a representative, yet? Because what you just said reinforces the need for one. While there are formal methodologies for governments to ask for super help, and they do work, I can see that they are often slow. Sometimes too slow."

      Maybe she did get it.

      "We have several suggestions," said Beat Red, "though most of those whom people thought of were unsuitable for one reason or another. The Veiled Threat would be fantastic at the job, but probably has an image too sinister for most people to accept her, as just one example. So here's the list we did come up with."

      He handed the list over. The President and her team began reading. That didn't take long.

      "I'm surprised there are so few."

      "We wanted people who were competent and knowledgeable on the topic of supers, apolitical, had a good reputation - even if it's an old one - would be accepted by the majority of supers as trustworthy, was not currently active as a mask, and was willing to take the job."

      "I don't recognize most of these names," said Sievers, frowning. "And where's the Revolutionary? She's middle-of-the-road enough to appeal to many on both sides of the aisle."

      "She's even more shy of organized politics than I am," said Template, perhaps a bit too quickly. "Besides, she's in semi-retirement."

      A check with Sievers' advisors revealed that while none of them knew more than a few of the supers listed, all of those on the list were known to at least some of those present. Which brought up another problem.

      "Some of these people are criminals!" said Judith Harper, obviously outraged.

      "All of them served their time," said Beat Red. "Everyone on that list, as mentioned before, is respected by the hero community. Most of the ex-cons on there were never hard-core criminals. The two who were have definitely reformed. None of them have been in any kind of legal trouble for decades."

      "I'm sorry, but even reformed criminals should not be considered for this," said Sievers, firmly.

      They had expected that, actually.

      "Here," said Beat Red, taking the list back and crossing out several names.

      "A couple of those were never super criminals but did have arrest records," he explained, handing the sheet back. "Just to be on the safe side."

      Sievers and her crew examined the pruned list.

      "That's fewer than twenty names," said Howers.

      "Remember, we've already weeded this several times," said Template. "That is, several different groups have had a go at it. This is who was left."

      "Who is this Raven Coat?" said Sievers.

      "Native American super," said Beat Red, nodding in approval. "Active as a mask in the early Seventies, mostly in civil rights. His primary activity was making sure peaceful demonstrators weren't attacked, by police or violent members of the opposition. Still active in civil rights matters."

      "Can't have him," said Howers, reaching for a pen. "Too many veteran politicians still believe all those radicals should have been deported, at the very least."

      Template's jaw muscles clenched, but only Beat Red noticed it. He just sat there, his goatee perfectly groomed at the bottom of his Buddha-like face, complete with serene smile. Template wondered again about politicians and their waffling. Didn't these people believe in standing up for their own beliefs?


      "He has the power to shut down chemical or nuclear reactions," said Template.

      "We're trying to get new, green reactors and coal-burning power plants built," said Gompers, taking the pen from Howers.

      Several people in the meeting room looked around, puzzled, at a muffled crack. Not realizing it came from the chair arm under Template's right hand. How could the nature of his powers cause any conflict with that goal?

      One by one, they eliminated all but three names, to the increasing frustration and aggravation of Template. She didn't understand how Beat Red could stay so relaxed.

      "Only one of them is a woman," said Howers, frowning. "Brade."

      "I've never met her," said Template, "but folks who have speak highly of her."

      "She worked as a fed for a few years, drafted into that ill-advised super team set up by Richard Nixon," said Beat Red. "She stayed in after she had served the minimum time to help the younger members. Later, she saw what was coming and resigned, getting out eight months before it collapsed, taking as many as she could with her. Active as a mask off and on since, she's worked on several teams and with many supers and maintains connections among the community. Either a natural genius, or a low-level mastermind. Strong physical enhancements. She's a grandmother, now, but still keeps fit. And I mean superhumanly fit. Her husband died a little over a year ago and her children are all grown, so she's largely free for the job."

      "This could be the one," said Sievers, actually enthusiastic.

      Template was surprised; she half expected them to object to Brade because of the Nixon connection. Either because there were people in power who still admired Tricky Dick, or because there were so many who felt any connection to him was too embarrassing.

      However, after several minutes of intense discussion, the team on the other side of the table agreed: Brade was the ideal choice.

      "I think it would be better if someone from the super community contacted her," said Sievers.

      "The Deacon worked with her on Dick's Boys," said Beat Red. "We'll ask him to do it."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      A small crowd had gathered under the tropical sun to wait for their guest to arrive. The doors to the utility building opened, and the Deacon escorted her out. She was much larger in person than expected. Knowing that a woman in her nineties was 208 centimeters tall and built like a linebacker was one thing. Meeting her, having a hand swallowed in hers, was much more intimidating.

      Except for her size, though, the woman looked like a grandmother. Iron-gray hair, conservative dress which included a long-sleeved sweater, and what Template's mother would call a granny skirt. She sounded like a mature woman, too.

      "My, Deacon, you weren't kidding when you said to bring clothes for warm weather," she said, with a laugh, as she peeled off her sweater and fanned herself. "I'll be glad to get where I can change. Didn't want to in that tunnel because it's so cool and damp."

      "Mary Alice Kramer, aka Brade," said the Deacon, "this is Template. One of our founders, a teacher and manager, and occasional political shill."

      He smiled as he said that. Even if he hadn't, Template would have known not to take it seriously. The Deacon didn't have a mean bone in his body, and even his teasing was always gentle.

      "I'm very glad to meet you," said Template, shaking hands with the older woman.

      The Deacon introduced Eve, Andrea and the other senior staff members who had assembled to meet Brade.

      "I'm very glad to be here. Though I wasn't expecting such a large welcome."

      There had been no plans for any sort of ceremony, but this was a Saturday and staff and students both were curious about the special guest. A large crowd had somehow managed to "casually" gather around the small structure which was the ground-level housing of the modern elevator shaft to the ancient sub-terran tunnels.

      "All right, everyone!" said Template, addressing the onlookers. "Let's back off and give her a chance to get settled in and have some lunch. You can talk to her at the beach this afternoon."

      "So, is it safe to go back in the water?" said Energia, grinning.

      "Yes," said Template, rolling her eyes. "Tritonicus is past the Equator, now, and still on ice. Go. Swim."

      There was some good-natured grumbling at the delay, but the crowd wandered away in the same casual manner it had gathered. With a bit of a sigh, Eve and the others began escorting Mary Alice to the guest cabins.

      "You don't look like you just had a baby," said Brade, to Template.

      "Thank you. I have to say you don't look like you've had three! And four grandkids!"

      "My powers account for that," said Mary Alice, with a warm smile.

      They chatted about various things, mostly the school and the students. Once inside the cottage, Mary Alice opened her suitcase, and the guests excused themselves while she changed.

      "She seems nice enough," said Eve.

      "There's something in your tone..." said the Deacon.

      "It's just... You know I don't pry, telepathically, without permission unless there's an emergency. However, I do still get impressions from people. The one I get from her is... mixed."

      The cottage door opened. The staff members turned around... and froze.

      "There," said the young woman facing them, smiling. "I feel much better out of that rig."

Part Nine

      "Not bad for an nonagenarian, eh?" said Mary Alice, preening.

      She now wore shorts and a t-shirt, and her hair was short and black. Without the bulky, old woman clothes she looked even larger.

      "Ah," said Eve. "Of course. Regeneration."

      The principal looked over at the Deacon, who was smiling at the reactions of those who hadn't known ahead of time.

      "She is actually a few years older than me," he supplied.

      "I'm not sure whether that would help or hurt if you became our cabinet nominee," said Template.

      "I could wear my wig and makeup with my costume," Mary Alice offered. "Although I've been doing without those while in costume, and my last appearance like that was just a year ago."

      "Before we make any sort of decision, I need to know more about you," said Template. "I apologize for prying, but if you are going to become a public figure representing supers, I need to know about you and your life."

      "I understand. Most of my life is either a matter of public record, or quite private, involving family and friends. I'll gladly talk endlessly about the less personal parts of the latter, but there are other parts which are no business of anybody outside my family."

      "That's acceptable."

      "I think we should head for the beach, instead of standing around here," said Coach Tyler.

      "You folks go ahead," said Template, smiling but also showing a trace of annoyance. "I've got a hungry baby to feed."

      As she lifted into the air, however, Rubber Made stretched her upper body in the way, waving to get her attention.


      "Template, have you seen Energia?" said Rubber Made. "Hazel got stuck in a patch of soft sand."

      "Not since she was at the elevator shed," said Template. "I just saw Eagle heading for the lagoon. See if he can help."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Energia was looking for Maldren. He had only recently returned to the school, actually missing the first week of classes. There had been some sort of political hubbub on his home world and he'd been safer in the palace than on a ship to Earth. He'd expressed regret at missing Tritonicus, as well as a few other events, but that couldn't be helped. Energia had planned to change into the swimsuit version of her costume and spend some time at the beach with him, but he hadn't shown up at the "reception."

      Still wearing the fancy, formal version of her usual costume, Energia circled the area. Several minutes and several ever-widening circuits of the elevator shed later she realized that she was alone in the area. Frowning, she hovered over the shed, thinking. Maldren had been in a late class right before their guest arrived. Would he have flown straight here, or gone to his dorm to change, first?

      "He'd have changed into his best," said Energia, nodding. "Just like a lot of us did."

      Energia flew to the boys' dorm and asked after Maldren, then along the line to the elevator, but no-one had seen him in over an hour. Could he have skipped the reception and gone straight to the beach?

      Energia remembered that Maldren liked to fly alone. So, he could have swung wide. She also remembered that he enjoyed playing at terrain following. There was a gully which ended not far from the shed, to the northeast. She headed in that direction.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Biology is so damned inconvenient," Template muttered, as she looked down at Roy, who appeared to be asleep while still latched onto her nipple. "Why can't he hurry up and finish, already?"

      "Remember what the doctor said," said Colossa. "Don't rush the baby; encourage him. Just a gentle squeeze to make sure he's getting milk if he stops nursing."

      Template gave a tired sigh, and gave her breast a squeeze. Sure enough, Roy stirred and swallowed. Then went back to sleep.

      "At this rate I'll be here until the day at the beach turns into an evening at the beech," Template muttered, squeezing again.

      "I could go represent you, if you want," said Colossa, helpfully.

      "I'd rather you could take over this job," said Template, almost growling.

      "Oh, no. This one's yours. When I have mine I'll do the feeding, but for now it's your job."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Paul met the team as they exited their Hawk. 

      "That was some mission," he called out to them. "Good work."

      Paul had taken over the task of mission controller. His familiarity with both the veteran team members and hero operations made him an ideal choice for that job. It also helped ease his feeling of missing out.

      "I'm going to shower, then soak in the spa for an hour or five," said Maciste, groaning.

      "That sounds like a very good idea," said Champion.

      One by one the entire team walked past Paul with tired greetings, the newest in trail.

      "Hey," said Hotfoot, with a smirk, "why don't you wax the plane, or something."

      Paul stood there for a while after the team members were gone, staring wistfully at the Hawk. Then moving to help the maintenance staff. Figuring he might as well do something useful.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Energia didn't find Maldren, but she saw someone else, walking down that gully towards the shed. She flew lower. The person was wearing a mildly daring costume, basically a very snug one-piece with knee-high boots and short gloves, plus a mask, all in shades of red. She also had several lengths of chain wrapped around her. Energia didn't recognize the woman, but there were new people arriving every day, as witnessed by their special guest.

      "Hi! Have you seen Maldren? He's a young man..."

      The woman's reaction was to jump in surprise, dodge to one side while spinning around, and unwind one of those chains. Except Energia now saw it was all one length of chain.

      That response immediately sounded alarms in Energia's experienced mind. She reflexively dodged and put up her plasma wall. The combination of actions caused the chain to miss her, but it still sweept through the outer fringes of her protective barrier. This induced a substantial current, lightning jumping from link to link until it blasted the woman. The discharge was brief, but enough to kill a normal human several times over. The strange woman stood there for a moment, frozen, clothing and hair smoking. Then she shook herself.

      "You little bitch!"

      She leapt for Energia, swinging her chain as the younger woman dodged again. Not being grounded, the effect on her was much less this time.

      Energia suddenly recognized the woman: Allison Chains. One of the luckier subjects of a US military attempt from a decade before to create supers on demand. She was supposed to be in Leavenworth...

      Still rising from her jump, Allison swung her trademark weapon again, this time wrapping it around both Energia's legs. She yanked the chain short, swinging the younger woman down towards the ground while slowing her own descent.

      Energia hit hard. Her plasma wall protected her from actual contact with the dirt and rock, but the impact stunned her. Despite her powers, Energia was merely human, physically. Allison yanked her chain again, sending Energia spinning roughly against the wall of the gully. The woman finally landed from her jump, and began whipping at Energia.

      Each strike took part of the charge from Energia's primary protection, weakening it. Conversely, the weaker plasma wall meant less effect on Allison, so her attacks came closer together. Energia, in sudden fear, threw herself downhill, trying to dodge. Allison missed once, but the next time connected, and not only finished the plasma wall but went through and hit Energia. She cried out from the impact, which lifted her off her feet and threw her against a boulder. She fell to the ground, and screamed; her left arm was probably broken, and maybe some ribs. Her store of energy was down to almost nothing, far too little to restore the plasma wall. She thought about trying to use a magnetic field, but realized that wouldn't work either at her current power level.

      Energia remembered her combat training. Specifically, the rule "Make the best use of available resources." She pumped all her remaining store into a strobe. The effectiveness was reduced, out here in full sunlight, but Allison was close and looking right at her.

      Allison screamed, now, and staggered back, hands going to her eyes. Energia, tapped out, lay as still and quiet as she could. Unbidden, another bit of advice came into her mind: "Playing dead only works against someone who just wants you dead." She needed to move, soon, and before the other regained her sight... and before shock set in. Slowly, as quietly as she could, Energia rose to her feet, barely containing several moans of pain. She waited until Allison was yelling and pulled her cape loose, then clumsily wrapped it around her left arm. Energia felt glad she was wearing her dress costume; it had a longer, heavier cape.

      The sun now worked for her. Energia's skin actually turned black as she began soaking up sunlight. While the sun was helping, the charge rate was low, since she was only showing a small amount of skin. Allison would likely recover her sight soon. What would Energia do then?

      She began creeping uphill, the opposite direction she had headed before. Hopefully, that change would buy her at least a few seconds.

      Allison, one hand still over her eyes and swearing fulminously, gathered her chain in the other and began swinging it around, over her head but at an angle, low part downhill. Energia reflexively ducked, sending a stab of pain through her injured ribs, but the angle on the swing meant the chain passed well above her. Allison began walking downhill, stumbling and cursing, still swinging her chain. It sparked as it struck boulders and the rocky wall of the gully, occasionally knocking chunks loose.

      "How many of you brats do I have to kill?!"

      Energia found a crack to hide in, but held off for a moment. The more time she could spend out in the sun the better. Unfortunately, as she turned to watch her attacker, her foot slipped and knocked a rock loose. Allison started at the sound, then froze, letting her chain wrap around her torso. She cocked her head listening. Energia turned to head for the crack, but her quick movement caused a stab of pain from her ribs. She couldn't help giving a little sob.

      Allison spun around, yanking her hand from her eyes and squinting. She smiled.

      "Found you," she said, unwrapping her chain again.

      Energia gritted her teeth, and turned to face the madwoman. She had enough for a good shock. She was determined to make the most of it.

      Fortunately, they were not alone on the island. Also, some of Energia's powers created a great deal of very distinct radio interference. Three security flitters swooped in, each carrying a pilot and two gunners.

      "Halt!" the lead pilot yelled over his flitter's PA.

      Allison was still having trouble with her eyes, but by shading them she could easily make out something as large as a flitter. She swung her chain at the closest machine, smashing through the light armor on the underside and sending it tumbling to the ground. A second followed it down immediately after. The third narrowly escaped, climbing steeply. The two security guards in the back of that began firing at Allison, who spun a short length of her chain to block the blasts.

      Energia stumbled as quickly as she could to the nearest crashed flitter. Fortunately, its emergency air bags had taken the brunt of the impact; the guards were stunned but alive and not seriously hurt. Their rifles were chemical cartridge types, not useful to Energia unless she was shot with them. The flitters generated a lot of energy when the engines were running, but those were were wrecked. However, they had batteries...

      Energia draped herself over the rear of the flitter and drained its power cells. It wasn't a lot, but at least now she was partially recharged. The third flitter was staying high and taking evasive action. That kept Allison from hitting it, but also kept the guards from shooting her.

      Energia painfully pushed herself up with her right arm. She bit her lip to avoid moaning, as she raised her left arm. Energia put the heels of her palms together and concentrated, ignoring the growing pain in her arm, her ribs. A glow appeared. It was a shadow of her usual attack, but it held every bit of energy she had left. Now, if she could only get a good shot...

      Allison seemed to sense something. She turned, saw Energia, saw the glow... and for just a moment froze, an expression of pure surprise on her face. Energia fired.

      The blast shattered her chain, burned away her clothing and hair, and left Allison lying on the ground, body scorched and smoking. Energia collapsed, barely managing to land on her right side.

Part Ten

      "I understand your powers were triggered by a blood transfusion," said Template.

      She and Colossa were sitting in beach loungers in swimsuits and masks, little Roy between them, sleeping peacefully in a baby carrier with a sunshade. Several of the staff were with them, as well as their guest. The proud parents had already gone through the routine fuss over the baby. Template found the expression of social instincts the baby's presence stimulated to be rather unnerving, but Colossa just ate it up.

      Template was not treating this conversation with Mary Alice as a job interview, but as a chance to learn more about super history. As far as she was concerned, Brade had the job; she had come highly recommended by several people whose judgment Template trusted, including the Deacon.

      "I was badly injured in an attempt on the life of my cousin, the female Tempest from the Sixties and Seventies. She knew we were the same blood type, so she donated a couple of units, in the hope that her regeneration might help me. It did, by activating my latent powers."

      "Then you got caught in the draft," said the Deacon, sourly. He took a swig of his fruit punch and gave a wry laugh. "I didn't have that excuse. I volunteered."

      "Nixon was looking for a way to win in Vietnam," said Mary Alice, scowling. "He had a political friend introduce a bill in Congress to draft supers for the war effort. He specifically wanted supers from eighteen to twenty-six who weren't already part of a recognized team. All of them were included. Not telling the government you were a super of draftable age if you were eligible became a federal felony. Which led to a rush of young supers joining teams, well before the law passed, even though many of them never intended to take up the mask. Then people started pointing out that the US was a signatory to an international treaty prohibiting the use of supers in combat... one Nixon had supported while veep under Eisenhower. When the news broke, the administration did a quick two-step and stated the purpose of the bill was to draft supers to work at home, replacing law enforcement and emergency workers so they could go fight. The law was changed in committee to do that, and passed while I was still in the hospital. Since my injury and subsequent acquisition of powers were national news, I was picked as the first victim of it."

      "Complicating things in her case the law, being patterned after military draft laws, only went up to age twenty-six," said the Deacon. "Mary Alice was nearly twice that. However, the regeneration had removed over thirty years from her physiological age, and the recruiters had only seen the 'after' photos."

      "When I pointed out that I was well over the age limit, they didn't want to believe me," said Mary Alice, with a tired sigh. "Even showing them my driver's license didn't work. 'That's not you!' They had targeted me and they were going to have me.

      "When we finally did convince them, they went into a huddle, then made the announcement that the law put that upper age limit on there because of physical requirements, not because of the age itself. Since I was physically in my early twenties, was a super and wasn't in a team, I still qualified. In their minds.

      "This was during a time when lots of people in power refused to believe that most supers got their powers genetically; Nixon hated the idea and his people knew that," said Mary Alice. "They tested my poor cousin so many times she got anemia. Never found what was in her blood that gave me powers, because her blood didn't give me powers. My genes did; her blood just triggered them.

      "Anyway, I had to go through LEO training while my attorneys tried to get me un-drafted. We won at every stage, and the feds appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court. Which decided that if the law said it only applied to people from sixteen to twenty-six, they couldn't include someone who was fifty-one. Of course, by that time Nixon was gone, I was fifty-four, and was staying on voluntarily to protect those poor, naive kids the law had caught."

      "Officially, we were the US Super Resources Agency," said the Deacon. "One of the more printable nicknames for us was Dick's Boys. Even though more than a third were young women."

      "I'd been given thirty years of extra life," said Mary Alice. "I figured I could spend a few of those helping those kids. I didn't realize I'd stay this age, physically."

      "Mary Alice was a history teacher before all that business started," said the Deacon. "Most of the kids caught in the draft during the five years it was law were poor and badly educated, many of them minorities. She and I and a few others helped most of them get their GEDs and taught them as much as we could, while trying to spare them the worst of their imposed task."

      "I have seen photos of the various teams," said Template. "Those outfits didn't look legal for underage kids."

      "They made us wear that horrible SecondSkin," said Mary Alice, with a grimace of distaste. "The Deacon made a fuss about the image that presented to the public, and several of us - me included - also protested wearing the stuff. The administration finally compromised and let us customize our 'uniforms' by wearing stuff over the SecondSkin."

      Template was about to ask something else when a Security flitter landed nearby. The shift Deputy Supervisor - Kathleen McCreary - hurried over, straight towards Template.

      "Energia got in a fight," she said, leaning over and speaking quietly. "She's banged up but not in danger. I figured I'd better tell you myself instead of sending it over the com, since it's not urgent."

      "Thank you," said Template, standing quickly. "She in the school infirmary?"


      Template and Colossa made their apologies, grabbed Roy's carrier and hurried to the flitter.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "She's awake but pretty doped up," said Dr. Nief. "She had a pretty bad break of the radius, a simple greenstick of the ulna, a couple of cracked ribs and numerous contusions and abrasions. We've already set the arm and put it in a cast and she's resting comfortably."

      Dr. Nief knew Energia was Template's niece. Kathleen didn't, but knew Template, Colossa and Energia were friends on some level. Once again, Template felt aggravated at having to keep straight who knew what about whom.

      "Do you think she could answer some questions?" said Kathleen. "We're still missing a lot of details about what happened."

      "Don't be surprised if what she tells you doesn't make any sense. She's pretty out of it."

      "How are the security guards?" said Template, forcing herself into administrator mode, as the small group walked towards the emergency area of the clinic.

      "No life-threatening injuries," said Dr. Nief. "Between their armored uniforms and the safety gear on the floaters none of them are hurt as badly as Energia."

      Energia was dozing but came awake when they entered.

      "Maldren..." she said, trying to sit up. "She said she'd killed Maldren."

      "Hon, he's fine," said Template, easing her back down. "I saw him at the beach. He was wondering where you were."

      "Looking for him," the teen muttered, yielding. "If she didn't kill Maldren, who did she kill?"

      "What makes you think she killed someone?" said Kathleen.

      "She said 'How many of you brats do I have to kill?'"

      "Oh," said the Deputy Supervisor, looking startled. "She was talking bout the Moon Scouts. She's killed three, and tried to kill most of the rest."

      "She thought I was a Moon Scout?" said Energia. This must have struck her as funny, since she began giggling. "Different costume design, different color scheme, different everything."

      "Well, no-one here is claiming Allison Chains is rational," said Kathleen.

      She asked a few questions, thanked Energia for the information as well as for both finding Allison and stopping her.

      "You did a hero's work today," she said, patting the girl's right shoulder. "Rest, now."

      Template and Colossa stayed for nearly an hour, at one point drawing the curtains so the former could feed Energia's cousin, then change him. Finally, though, came time for Energia's next dose of pain killers.

      "She'll be out the rest of the night after this," said Dr. Nief. "You two might as well go home."

      "Thank you, doctor," said Template. "Do you think this is worth bringing Ettienne in for?"

      "No, but we have three magical healers on the island, now," said Dr. Nief. "They've been complaining they don't have enough to do, supers being a healthy and robust lot. If any of them has enough juice left after treating the security personnel I'll have one or more stop by."

      "Thank you," said Template. She smiled down at her niece. "Hear that? This time tomorrow, you should be back to helping change Roy."

      "Oh, joy," said Energia, her voice a fading mutter as her eyes drifted closed. "Don' tell m' parents 'till I c'n..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What was a major villain like Allison Chains doing on this island?" Eve demanded, in a meeting with Security later. "Just as important, how did she get here without anyone detecting her?"

      "We can detect - and stop - just about any group, military or super," said Junker, sighing. "Nearly every individual arrival or departure of supers is also monitored. But! If someone knows what to do, and has gadgeteering help, they can still sneak in or out. There's just no way to make this place a hundred percent secure barring putting a sealed dome around it. Probably not even then."

      "According to my contacts with the feds, she escaped from Leavenworth sixteen hours ago. Which means she pretty much came straight here," said Lori Savage. "Someone had a mission for her."

      "Did your search turn up anything?" said Eve.

      "We did track Allison Chains back to where she arrived on the island," said Lori. "She swam ashore in an isolated cove on the northeast side. Given her physical abilities she could easily have covered the distance from Bermuda in a few hours, but more likely she was let off by an innocuous pleasure boat passing just outside our security limit."

      "With all the traffic out there, there's no use trying to figure out which one," said Junker, resignedly.

      "Not my mundane means," said Eve. "I will have the mystics worry that bone."

      She paused to look slowly around the assembled personnel.

      "I know you all understand this has priority," said Eve, flatly. "I'm still going to emphasize this, and I want everyone here to listen. This has priority. We came close to losing a student, today, and didn't only because she's an experienced super who has been in super fights before. We will find out how and why this happened and who is responsible."

      They were breaking up when Lori stiffened, hand going to the com in her ear.

      "This day just keeps getting better," she said, after a moment. "Someone stole Tritonicus!"

Part Eleven


      "What do you mean someone stole Tritonicus?" said Eve, tone threatening.

      "Uhm, dawn came, and instead of the iceberg with the monster inside they were towing an old barge," said Lori, actually a bit cowed. "Right now they're trying to track the origin of the barge but with no luck. Submarines and surface ships are looking for the iceberg or the revived monster or even any ship large enough to tow it which isn't supposed to be in the area. So far, nothing."

      "This is disturbing," said Junker, "but it's not our problem. Well, unless President Sievers asks us for help."

      "You're right," said Eve, after a moment of thought. She took a deep breath and relaxed. "Though I have a feeling of dread certainty this will somehow come back to involve us."

      "Is there something else?" said Junker, after several moments of silence.

      "Just a hunch," said Eve, appearing to be deep in thought.

      "Well, your hunches tend to be closer to the truth than many people's thorough investigations," said Junker. "What is the hunch?"

      Eve looked up, towards a spot high on the far wall, her gaze distant.

      "That these two incidents are somehow connected."

      Eve shook her head, coming back to the meeting.

      "I doubt anyone else came ashore with her, but will check her mind as soon as she regains consciousness. I also doubt there will be any follow-up to this intrusion. That does not mean there will not be other, unconnected intrusions, possibly soon. We must work on ways to better track individuals entering and leaving our island."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Early the next morning, two of the school's magical healers paid a visit to the still groggy Energia. They not only healed her completely, but cured her grogginess and the sedative hangover which normally accompanies such drugs. The downside was that now she no excuse for not attending a full day of classes.

      Energia preened in the peer acclaim she got from most of the other students. Allison Chains had been a serious threat for over eight years, and had repeatedly taken down even experienced supers. Many of whom did not survive the experience. A few of the students were resentful, and tried to make light of her victory. A few others - mostly kids who had given her a hard time - were obviously wary. Energia wondered if they expected her - drunk on her victory - to come after them. She sighed, and continued to class.

      During a free period, though, she sought out the Deacon in his office.

      "I never did hear any details about those Moon Scouts."

      "Hmmm," said the Deacon, thinking. "Jimmy Kent would be the best person to ask about that, since he's from the Moon. I believe he may even have some personal knowledge of the associated background."

      "Wait... You mean they actually have some real connection with the Moon?!"

      "Oh, yes. Yes, ask Jimmy."

      "There's a senile old alien computer on the Moon," said Jimmy, when Energia found him after the day's classes were over. "Part of an ancient spacecraft which crashed there millions of years ago. The crew were all killed and the computer badly damaged. Automated repair systems got it back in operation - along with much of the ship - when we accidentally stimulated them about thirty years ago. The computer doesn't remember the details of the mission, but knows it's supposed to be looking for something. 'I'll know it when I see it.' It recruits teenage girls and empowers them - something about the tech it uses works best for them - and sends them off on nonsensical missions. The UN and our own techs have tried repeatedly to get it to stop, but it has threatened to detonate its self-destruct - and I mean the one for the whole ship, which is the size of two major aircraft carriers - if we interfere with its mission. So we try to help the girls and figure out what the computer is looking for."

      "Okay, I'd heard a bit about them, but didn't realize they were artificial supers."

      "Oh, yes. When that was realized it caused all sorts of pandemonium among folks who investigate super powers. The thing is, the powers are temporary, due to a transformation caused by various artifacts the computer keeps sending to Earth. Once the charge used for the transformation wears off, they revert back. The device needs several hours to recharge, normally."

      "That's... they... it's..."

      "Look," said Jimmy, shrugging, after Energia wound down, unable to properly voice her opinion of that situation. "The computer has a compulsory morality algorithm built into its core programming. It never deliberately puts anyone in danger. Most of the Moon Scouts live long enough for the devices to stop working for them."

      "That's still... wrong."

      "I know. But right now letting it happen causes less trouble than making a serious effort to stop it would."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You've got a message," said Colossa, when Template came home to their bungalow after classes that day. "Or, rather, Randy does. From your brother-in-law."

      "Lord," said Template, groaning. "It'll have to wait. It's time to feed Roy, and I don't want to sit there talking to Max as Randy feeling like my tits are full."

      For some reason, Colossa found that hilarious.

      Private vidphones were still a rarity outside the super community, so Randy had to settle for sound only. Max picked up on the second ring. Randy felt a bit relieved that it was Max. His sister was never at her most rational when risk to her family was involved.

      "Jenny called this morning," said Max, after they had the greetings out of the way. "Said she'd been hurt in a fight at the school, yesterday, but was all right now."

      "Not quite what happened. She found an intruder on the island and was attacked. She managed to beat the woman - a major-league menace, by the way - but was hurt in the process. She was well enough this morning to get to her first class with no problem."

      "Seriously, how bad was it?"

      "It could have been very bad," Randy admitted. "It wasn't. She wasn't hurt any worse than many kids her age are playing organized sports. Broken arm, fractured ribs, bruises and scrapes. I think that's the worst she's ever been hurt, too. She was lucky, but she also knew what she was doing and did it right."

      "Do you know why we allow Jenny to go to that school, to work with these super teams, to put herself in danger?" said Max, quietly. "We know that there are people out there who want to hurt or kill supers. It doesn't matter whether they wear costumes and fight or commit crimes. They don't like supers. Jenny is a super, and we can't change that. That means she's going to be in danger from them even if she never uses her powers again. So we want her to know how to protect herself. Going to that school, working with superheroes, are controlled situations with adult supervision, where she can learn that."

      "That makes sense," said Randy, nodding slowly. "I want to point out that she's also doing a lot of good in the world. She's got the makings of a world-class hero."

      "Julie and I are terrified by what she does, and worry about her. We cringe every time she gets hurt. However, the fact that she not only survives these fights, but comes out on top gives us confidence that this is the best course of action for her. We know she can take care of herself. So we want her to continue."

      "I'm glad to hear that. Jenny loves it here."

      They talked for a few minutes more, then said their farewells and hung up.

      "Well, that's surprising," said Colossa, after hearing the substance of the call.

      "Not really. Both her parents do think well of heroes, both super and mundane. Besides the specific reason he gave, I think they're both proud of Jenny for not only wanting to be a hero, but being well on her way to that goal."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Magnificent, isn't it?" said Dr. Eugene Herford, smiling at his latest - and definitely largest - acquisition. "Oh, what secrets of genetic engineering and biological manipulation this creature will provide!"

      "Yes, Doctor," said Bunny, smiling at him. The smile turned into a thoughtful frown. "I still don't understand why you had me arrange for Allison Chains to be sent to the island."

      "Pure misdirection," he said, preening. "They'll be far too busy looking for other intruders and trying to figure out the reason for her intrusion to bother with Tritonicus."

      "Genius!" said his protégé, Byron Loren. He tended to be a bit too sycophantic even for the assistant of a super scientist, but he was bright and knew where his bread was buttered so Herford tolerated him. He looked towards the image on the viewplate, literally rubbing his hands together in eager anticipation. "So, when do we start with the dissection?"

      "Oh, that won't be necessary," said Dr. Herford, with a casual wave of his hand. "We have components to build both a CT scanner and an MRI scanner large enough to cover the entire beast, as well as its icy coating. That, plus tissue samples, will be quite enough to unravel the secrets of its creation. We want to leave it in hibernation, after all."

      "Aw..." said Byron.

      "Now, now... Tritonicus has repeatedly shown that it will awaken from supposedly deep, drugged sleep with the right stimulus. We don't want to learn the hard way that even hibernation wouldn't keep it under if we actually started cutting it into pieces, do we?"

      "I guess not," said Byron, with a sigh.

      "Good boy. You're learning."

Part Twelve

      Paul heard voices as he approached a crossroads in the Assembly base. Two. A man and a woman. He quickly recognized the man as Hotfoot, but the woman was a mystery. As he rounded the corner into the main corridor he saw why: she was a civilian. That is, someone who wasn't a member of the team and wasn't wearing the uniform of the support staff, as Paul was. She also wasn't wearing an ID badge.

      "Excuse me, miss," said Paul, stopping to block their way. "Where it your ID badge?"

      "Oh, don't be such a hardass," said Hotfoot, pushing past Paul. The woman laughed.

      Paul went to the nearest com panel and called in a security alert.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "That son of a bitch had no right to snitch on me!" said Hotfoot, at the disciplinary hearing.

      "He had not only the right, but an obligation to," said Dr. Gorgeous, completely without sympathy. "Standard procedure. If you see someone you don't know who isn't wearing a visitor's ID tag, you call it in."

      "All he had to do was ask me who she was! Hell, he should have been able to guess."

      "You're missing the point," said Maciste. "We don't care if you bring your girlfriend to the base. We don't care what you two do in your quarters. We do care about keeping track of who comes and goes here."

      "These security procedures were instituted for very good reasons," said Lucille. "They've already caught three intruders since we opened this base. If you don't follow them you endanger everyone here."

      "But this wasn't like that!" said Hotfoot. "I know she's trustworthy, and I vouch for her."

      "Still missing the point," said Buzz, swinging back and forth in his chair.

      "We didn't know she was here," said Lucille. "Security didn't know she was here. The best locks in the world are useless if one person leaves the door open."

      "I didn't leave the door open," said Hotfoot, exasperated. "I made sure it was closed behind us."

      Lucille gave him a long, hard look.

      "Are you deliberately being dense or did you truly not recognize my use of a metaphor?"


      "I vote the latter!" said Buzz.

      Dr. Gorgeous leaned forward, to emphasize that she was serious.

      "This isn't your first breach of security. You're a valuable asset to this team, but if you leave us vulnerable due to ignoring basic rules and even common sense, you'll be dismissed."

      Hotfoot stared at her for several long seconds, jaw muscles working as if he wanted to say something but couldn't think of what. Then he spun around and left.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We've had some of our best brains working on the physical and chronological constraints of the problem," said Dr. Gorgeous. She sighed and briefly rubbed her face with both hands, looking tired. Too many different things going on for too long were wearing her down. "Sorry I didn't get back to you sooner, but we've had some problems with our newest team member which had to be taken care of. I have the our analysis, now."

      The President nodded.

      "First, it's all but certain Tritonicus was physically moved to wherever it is being kept, rather than being teleported, or simply sunk. Too many complications, too large a signature for either option to be well hidden. Probably towed underwater, to reduce chance of detection. The tow vehicle for this was probably a submarine. The barge left in the monster's place was mostly flooded, to ride low in the water and provide drag to match that of Tritonicus, as well as not show up on radar when it was being towed into place. Blocks of flotation material were installed to keep it just on the surface. The most likely scenario is that the submerged submarine towed the barge, itself awash, alongside the artificial iceberg, and a crack team then switched towlines and erected a radar screen to simulate the iceberg's signarture."

      "That's pretty much the scenario the Navy came up with," said Sievers.

      "At the time of the exchange the monster was equidistant from land to the east and the west, in terms of energy required to move it to shore, taking in to account prevailing winds and currents," said Dr. Gorgeous. "That must have been deliberate."

      "Again, the same evaluation."

      "Most likely, it was taken to neither southern Africa nor southern South America, but somewhere else. One suggestion is an abandoned whaling station in the Antarctic."

      "That last is news to me," said Sievers, thoughtfully. "I can see how moving in the same direction it was already going would help throw us off the trail, though. Those installations would have equipment for handling large aquatic animals... But something as big as Tritonicus?"

      "If this plot were begun shortly after Tritonicus was captured, and whoever responsible is a gadgeteer or could hire one or more gadgeteers, that would be plenty of time to modify one of those old stations."

      "I'll have our intelligence people check satellite photos, but don't hold out much hope. That area isn't covered very often."

      "There's one other thing," said Dr. Gorgeous. "If they did use a submarine it would be a large one. We are checking on the disposition of every conventional and nuclear submarine large enough. Even those known to be decommissioned but otherwise intact."

      "That will hopefully narrow things down some," said the President, hopefully.

      "Not as much as you think. Submarines large enough for this task go back to World War Two. Germany had some long-range cargo submarines which could stay under for weeks, recharging their batteries by running their diesel engines through a snorkel. They even had two classes of nuclear-powered ones, which Odessa used to evacuate high-ranking Nazis after Germany fell. For some reason, those are very popular with masterminds and mad geniuses."

      "God..." said Sievers, paling.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Wish you could stay longer," said Template, hugging Colossa.

      "Me, too," her lover replied. She laughed, softly. "At least I got to work on my tan."

      "Yeah, about that... They did catch the students who took photos, but Andrea still is upset about you nude sunbathing on the roof. There's just too many flyers on this island."

      "I know, I know," said Colossa, rolling her eyes. "I just didn't think of that, okay?"

      They hugged for a while longer, then slipped apart, though they still held hands for a bit.

      "Miss you already," said Colossa, quietly.

      "Bet you won't miss your share of diaper work," said Template, snickering.

      "Believe it or not, I'll even miss that."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Hotfoot was storming aimlessly around the Assembly base, staff members giving him a wide berth.

      He wanted to hit something. When he saw Paul, talking with two of the techs, he knew what he was going to hit. He walked quickly up to the trio, grabbed Paul by the shoulder, yanked him around and threw the hardest punch he could.

      Paul, caught by surprise, reacted as he'd been trained. Hotfoot slammed into the floor hard enough to break his right shoulder and collarbone.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I have to say, I'm very glad to see you," said the President, as she shook Brade's hand. She managed not to look intimidated, despited the difference in height. And weight. "We're definitely going to need super help with this mess. Not just because Tritonicus is involved, but because it looks like supers were responsible for its disappearance."

      "I'll do what I can, Madame President," said Brade, formally.

      "Eventually you'll have to start calling me Livia," said Sievers, with a smile. "Madame President sounds just... awkward."

      The President indicated a chair in front of her desk, and moved to sit in her own. For now it was just the two of them. Brade sat with the care taught by several decades of living in a world too small for her.

      "I'm sorry about the confusion in titles. I do expect you to eventually be approved for the Cabinet position I described, but that takes time and I need your help right now. So, for the present, you're a Deputy Assistant to the President, part of the Executive Office staff, on the National Security Council. Your official title is Deputy National Security Advisor for Super Affairs. Eventually, you will be in the Department of Defense, as a special advisor to Secretary Carver. That will distance you from me, personally, but give you more authority and better access to intelligence. However, that depends on when all the political wrangling can be finished, which could take months."

      "I actually understood that," said Brade, with a slight smile. "I do have some experience in these things."

      "There will be a formal meeting of senior staff in the Situation Room in a bit, but I wanted to have a private talk, first," said the President, her own smile fading as she thought of something. "From what you just said, I take it this isn't the first time you've been in the Oval Office?"

      "Oh, Lord, no," said Brade, with a wry laugh. "First time, it was with the rest of the original team of recruits, here to be formally inducted in a ceremony performed by Richard Nixon. The room was crowed with press, of course. Including live television."

      I keep forgetting how old she is, thought Sievers.

      "Someday - maybe several somedays - we need to sit down and talk about history," said the President. "For now, what does the super community have to offer to help with this situation?"

      "Several psis and mystics have a vague indication that Tritonicus is actually on an island off the western coast of South Africa," said Brade. "It's privately owned, but officially part of that nation, so I suggest we ask them, officially, to check for us. South Africa has promised to look into things, but considering that several of their major businessmen have vacation homes there - including three of those who manufacture armaments - that could be difficult. Allowing us or the UN to investigate would be even more difficult. An official request from the US and the UN would definitely help."

      "That location is a surprise, since everyone had come around to thinking it would be on an Antarctic whaling station. Though, if a mastermind is involved, of course it would be. They would take the monster to somewhere near the first place we thought of, knowing we'd dismiss that after we thought for a bit."

      "Exactly. Another bit of good news, we know there is a device for detecting Tritonicus. We believe it is in the old Guild Hall, now under the management of the Assembly."

      "There's actually a device for detecting that specific monster?" said the President, startled.

      "It was built by the Society of Covert Adventurous Masterminds, as part of one of their extortion schemes. The Border Patrol stopped them, in the process confiscating a lot of equipment. Among that was the gadget they used to locate the monster."

      Brade shook her head, looking serious.

      "People are lucky SCAM didn't get around to actually waking that monster."

      "I'm surprised the Border Patrol was allowed to keep that device."

      "International treaty," said Brade. "Seriously, this is something you need to know, though I'm not surprised you don't. Anything which limits the exercise of power by bureaucracies tends to fade from their awareness. The Deacon was the one who got the UN to vote that super villain weapons were to be rendered inert and kept in the custody of the super hero(s) who capture them. To keep them out of government hands and avoid political complications. Before that there had been several problems with super weapons aggravating the arms race."

      "That explains all those bizarre collections!"

      "Uh, no," said Brade, grinning. "Supers like trophies. The treaty just legitimizes the practice."

      They spoke for several more minutes, mostly briefing each other on what the super community and the various governments involved were planning to do. Then it was time for the formal meeting.

      "One more question," said Sievers, as she gathered her notes. "Why Brade? For your mask name, I mean."

      "Oh, that," said the super, with a laugh. She smiled at some memory. "The suit in charge of our public image kept harping on me to wear a braid. More than once he said 'There needs to be a braid in there, somewhere,' as if I were an object, and a particularly voluminous one. I was already sensitive about my new size, and felt really annoyed at his insensitivity. I finally promised that I would have a braid, somewhere. He nearly blew a gasket when he found out it was my mask name."

      The President tried not to laugh. Really. She failed.

Part Thirteen

      "I want him arrested!" Hotfoot yelled.

      "Actually, you attacked him," said Buzz, smirking.

      The heat manipulator was in the base infirmary, a large percentage of his body in a cast.

      "Look what he did to me!"

      "In self defense."

      Sharma stuck her head in the door.

      "Buzz, stop teasing him."

      "How the Hell did she even know I was in here?" said the speedster, looking at the now empty doorway. He shook his head, and turned back to Hotfoot. "Anyway, the good news is Paul decided not to press charges. The bad news is this was the last straw, and you're off the team."

      "What?! I'm the one who should be pressing charges!"

      "You attacked him. In front of witnesses. And were caught on security camera."

      "I was just gonna mess him up a bit for interfering where he shouldn't'a! He put me in the hospital."

      "Yeah, you hauled off with a sucker punch which could have killed him, and he responded with an aikido technique which does damage in direct proportion to the force of the incoming punch. Let's see how far you get with that."

      Hotfoot looked at the wall, scowling.

      "We're gonna keep you here until the doc says you're okay to leave, and pay your medical until you're out of the cast and finished with any physical therapy. Your stuff is already packed."

      "You can't treat me like this! I'm part of the team."

      "Yeah, and Paul's been on this team a lot longer than you have."

      "What are you talking about?! He's not even on the team! He's just hired help!"

      "That is the attitude which is the main reason you are being released from the team," said Dr. Gorgeous, who had heard part of the loud exchange as she approached the infirmary. "The arrogance and elitism. We've had complaints before this from staff members. Including people who are supposed to train you. Even without this attack, you were on probation. Given all the warnings, you have no grounds for complaint."

      "What warnings?!"

      "Exactly!" said Buzz, smirking again.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "No Tritonicus for over two months," said Chad Dunnerton, at Brade's weekly team briefing. "Hopefully, the Assembly will have that SCAM device working, soon."

      "Even if we find them, maybe we should let whoever stole him keep him," said Sharon McGuinness, wryly. "They're doing a pretty good job of holding him."

      "We're the ones who froze him," said Joe Phorbes, pointedly.

      "You mean the masks did," said Brade. "Okay, I think this is a case of no news being mixed news. Tritonicus isn't on a rampage, but whoever stole it has had plenty of time to do whatever it is they stole it for."

      "In other super news," said Chad, getting back to his part of the briefing, "we have dealt with almost all of the supers the Thurlin administration administration captured. There were some close calls with real wanted criminals being released - people were very demanding they all be released, and those doing the work were so fed up they sometimes just rubber-stamped the process - but we think everyone wanted for some actual crime who was caught is still inside."

      "I hope someone made sure that those held illegally were told there were no strings attached to their release," said Brade, firmly.

      "Again, there were some in the bureaucracy who tried to tell them otherwise, that a condition of their release was agreeing not to prosecute, but we think we found and corrected all those cases. Some of the people telling the released supers that honestly thought that was what they were supposed to do, and a few insisted that they had to do it, because otherwise *Gasp!* the released supers could sue."

      "Surprisingly few actually have started legal proceedings," said Joe, who handled legal and Constitutional matters. "They understand that this is a different administration, and that any lawsuit would probably have to target people no longer in power. The majority of lawsuits which have been started name Thurlin, personally, in addition to those more directly responsible for their incarceration. Thurlin's press agent released a statement that ex-Presidents are immune from all prosecution. Which is a lie."

      A few more matters connected to supers were discussed over the next half hour. Brade checked her notes and nodded, satisfied.

      "Unless someone has a last-minute addition, that's it for the week," she announced, looking around. "Good work."

      In just two months Brade - with the help of people like Beat Red - had set up a small but talented staff and gotten the new Executive Office position rolling. Already both super relations and public opinion of supers were improving. While there was still a great deal of misunderstanding about what Brade and her people actually did, they were doing it well.

      "Did you finally decide on your new costume?" said Sharon, as everyone stood.

      The question was motivated by multiple factors, since job was to monitor public opinion. That included handling how Brade and her office presented themselves to the public. A new costume - especially one designed to play down her intimidating size - was definitely required.

      "Yes," said Brade, smiling tiredly. "I decided on the Branton Studios design. It's comfortable and practical, but looks elegant, while also closely resembling all my previous costumes. They're also giving me a huge discount."

      "It's still pretty expensive," said Chad, who handled intelligence gathering.

      "All super hero costumes worth the name are expensive," said Brade. "The materials alone can cost as much as a small car. I'm paying for this out of my salary, so there shouldn't be a problem."

      "We just need to get those facts out to the press and public before someone complains," said Sharon, making a note.

      "Well, I think I have everything I need for the cabinet meeting day after tomorrow," said Brade, as she and Sharon exited the room, followed closely by the others. "Unless there's some emergency, I'll see you folks Thursday."

      "I half hope there will be an emergency," said Chad, "if it means learning where Tritonicus is."

      "Be careful what you wish for," said Joe.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template gave one last effort, and managed to lift the bar a little higher. The school's exercise equipment had been greatly improved since that first year. The really high-end devices could challenge - and had challenged - Magni. Template held the load for a few trembling seconds, then backed off with a gasp. She stood for a bit, breathing hard. Then she grabbed her towel and headed for the control room.

      "How did I do?" said Template, still drying as she walked over to the tech.

      "You're within five percent of your peak readings from before you were pregnant," he said. He grinned at her. "Ready for action!"

      "Let's hope there isn't any, at least for a while," said Eve.

      "Are you kidding?" said Template, smugly. "I feel like I could take out Tritonicus, single-handed!"

      "Don't say things like that!"

      "Seriously, for someone without regeneration, you've made a remarkable recovery," said the tech.

      "Come one," said Template, shrugging. "I wasn't hurt in battle. I had a baby."

      "Well, you're off light duty," said Eve, dryly.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Workin' my Christmas job," Energia sing-songed, as she carried the metal net with her powers.

      "We don't get paid for this, so it's not a job," muttered Gadgetive.

      Sifaka and Anvil Lofter were a good mix of agility and strength, speed and resilience. They were also a veteran team of masked thieves. The pair had been hitting jewelry stores in the city, but in an apparently random order.

      Catching them had not been easy. Blue Impact had finally figured out they were raiding every other jewelry store in the phone book, in the order of their phone numbers. She had made an anonymous tip to the police, then organized the team, on the assumption that more would be needed to stop the thieves.

      The trio got there just as the pair were finishing their escape from the police. Even with surprise on their side, corralling the duo involved effort and risk. They were an experienced team. Fortunately, so were the heroes.

      What finally gave them a break was Energia noticing a construction site. Remembering something Template had told her about working rescue in New Orleans, she broke from the fight and did a quick check. They did, indeed, have a heavy lifting net, made from woven cables. Better, it wasn't in use, but was simply laid out on the ground.

      Telling the workers that she would return it later, Energia lifted the net, carried it back to the fight, and used it to catch Sifaka in mid-jump. Anvil Lofter was so distracted by this Blue Impact was able to throw him into the net as well. Realizing they were caught and that the police were about to catch up to the fight, the pair promptly surrendered.

      "Here you go, boys!" Energia called out, as she not only set the net down in front of them but opened it.

      "Not a bad day's work," said Blue Impact, watching the police take custody.

      "I don't think it's over, yet," said Energia. Flying above the others, she had caught sight of some disturbance in the nearby harbor.

      "Scout but don't engage!" Blue Impact shouted, as Energia flew off.

      The non-flying pair hurried to their flitter. They lifted above the surrounding buildings just in time so see the huge boil of water in the harbor burst, and a gigantic head lunge upwards.

      "Tritonicus!" said Gadgetive, her voice a shriek.

      The monster walked towards the main docks, casually brushing tugboats and cargo ships aside. It stepped onto the huge loading facility, concrete crushing under its massive feet. It looked around, shuffling clumsily in a full circle. Deciding on a target, it turned square on towards a liquid natural gas tanker and opened its mouth. A brilliant blue bolt stretched briefly from its mouth to the tanker. Which went up in a truly massive explosion, wiping out much of the dock.

      "Since when does Tritonicus breathe lasers?!" shouted Blue Impact.

      Gadgetive fought to keep the flitter under control, managing a rough but safe landing behind a warehouse.

      "Energia, where are you?" Blue Impact shouted into her microphone.

      "Don't know," came the staticy reply. "It's all confused."

      "Can you home in on our radio signal?"

      "I... Yeah! Keep talking!"

      Blue Impact did so. In less than a minute Energia landed beside the flitter. Gadgetive popped the canopy.

      "You all right?" she yelled at Energia.

      The gadgeteer hadn't realized how much noise there was outside the insulated flying machine before coming out.

      "Yeah!" Energia yelled back. "Got blown several blocks by the blast, but my plasma wall protected me."

      "My God," said Blue Impact, joining the two girls. "This... this is horrible. There must be hundreds dead, billions of dollars in damage..."

      "Why?" said Gadgetive, franticly. "Why did it do this? Tritonicus doesn't target something unless it's hungry or attacked!"

      "That's not Tritonicus!" said Energia. "I felt it right before it blew up that LNG tanker. Tritonicus is all organic. This thing is full of metal!"

      Blue Impact stared at her for a moment, then hurried back into the flitter.

      "Gotta call... I guess the Assembly is closest."

      "It's walking back into the ocean," said Gadgetive, peeking around the corner of the building, using a heat-reflective faceplate on her usual helmet. "Guess it did what it came here to do."

      "Yeah," said Energia, worriedly. "Wonder what's next on the agenda?"

Part Fourteen

      Primary cleanup of the disaster took the rest of the day, and that was with help from several other supers, including the Assembly. There were more on the way, as well as firefighters and paramedics from neighboring communities. Energia wished some more supers would get there soon; she was nearly at her limit.

      "Hotfoot would sure be a big help with handling these fires," said Energia, who looked exhausted. "I'm about worn out."

      "Sorry; he's in the infirmary," said Champion.

      They hadn't made a public announcement yet that he was off the team, so she didn't feel free to reveal that.

      "Break time's over," said Buzz, blurring in. "They found some more survivors up on one of those big frame thingys the cranes run on, but have no way to get to them."

      Energia was the only flyer present. Helicopters - and the flitter - couldn't reach the trapped men due to blowing smoke, and ladder trucks couldn't couldn't get under the gantry due to spilled fuel which could light at the least spark. Thanks to her plasma wall and a breathing mask Gadgetive provided, Energia could easily fly up to the men, hauling breathing gear provided by the firefighters. Getting the men down would be difficult, but with their immediate problem, the choking smoke, solved they had time; the fires weren't coming anywhere near their location.

      "The valves are already on," said Energia, shouting through her own mask to be heard over the ambient noise of the ongoing disaster. "It's a demand system; just breathe normally."

      "Thank you!" one of the men shouted back, as he pulled on the mask.

      Energia sat on the small platform on the crane, letting her plasma wall ground out. There were six men here, four crowded into the control cab of the crane and the other two on a platform on the other side. Energia faced a situation unusual for her; she had plenty of stored energy, but she was physically exhausted. This made concentration difficult, and her powers depended on concentration.

      "Miss," said the crane operator, apparently senior among the workers. "We really appreciate what you've already done, and I hate to seem ungrateful, but when are you gonna get us down from here?"

      "Give me... a minute," said Energia, surprised to find that she was still breathing hard. "I've been working almost... non-stop for over three hours."

      He seemed to notice for the first time how tired she was. And how young.

      "Are you all right?"

      "Yeah. Just need a breather," she said. And a plan.

      She looked around, sizing up the situation. The best course was southwest, which would take them away from the fires and out of the smoke, to a command center the emergency services had set up. But how to get them there?

      Something like the construction net she had used on the jewel thieves would work, but with six people that would be a tight fit. The likelihood of someone getting hurt in the squeeze would be high.

      She looked at the man who had spoken, mouth open to ask a question... and noticed something which led her to ask something different.

      "Do you all have those safety harnesses?"

      "Yeah. Regulations."

      "I think I know what to do."

      Energia cut a section out of one of the crane's heavy steel cables and held it straight and rigid. Carefully - and more than a bit timidly - the men hooked their safety harnesses to this. They were rather uncertain at first, but as each added increment of weight barely moved the cable they became more confident. Energia smiled. This gave her just one thing to handle - besides herself - and its nature made it very suitable for her powers to handle well.

      "Everyone ready?" she called out.

      She got six thumbs up and several voiced affirmatives.

      Cautiously, Energia lifted the cable a bit, then moved beside it. Carefully, she rose above the smoke, the cable and attached men with her. Then southwest. They flew in a long, easy slope down to the concrete, where Energia, with a sigh, carefully landed, waited for the men to all unhook and get clear, then just let the heavy length of braided steel drop.

      Paramedics swarmed around the group, hustling them into triage tents, Energia included.

      "I'm okay," she said, pulling off the breathing mask. "Had this on the whole time."

      "That smoke is toxic," said the female EMT who guided her inside. "We don't know, yet, if any of it can be absorbed through the skin but we're making everyone exposed shower, just in case."

      "Ewww..." said Energia, as she caught a whiff of herself.

      They made her strip off everything but her mask to shower, then gave her a set of disposable coveralls.

      "I really need my costume back," she said, firmly. "I've got a dose of the usual cleaning chemicals in a belt pouch."

      "We've got it soaking in a tub of hot, soapy water, just now," said a nurse. "You can have it back in a few minutes."

      Energia felt very naked without her costume, even though the baggy coveralls were more concealing. She did manage to get someone to pass word to her teammates that she was all right. Which elicited an interruption from the EMT.

      "Your vitals show you've been pretty severely stressed," she said, as insistently as Energia had demanded her costume. "You're staying right here until you've had some rest, some fluids, and hopefully some food."

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

      The flitter arrived shortly after, Blue Impact and Gadgetive hopping out and heading for the area full of folding tables where emergency workers - many of them also in the disposable coveralls - were resting, chatting and have something to eat. Energia had to actually fly up and wave before they spotted her.

      "Love your new look," said Gadgetive, after she stopped laughing.

      "Do you want your hair given a static charge again?" said Energia, sourly. "Anyway, I've got my costume soaking in the cleaning solution. Should be ready by the time I finish this soup."

      "Smells good," said Blue Impact, whose metabolism required more food than most.

      "The kitchen's over that way. I asked when I got mine and they said everybody who's helping is eligible."

      By the time they returned, Energia had rinsed her costume and laid it out over an otherwise empty table to dry.

      "Well, things should get easier, now," said Blue Impact, as she and Gadgetive sat. "The Specialists just arrived."

      "Ugh," said Energia. "Some of those people are just inept, but a few are traitors!"

      "Now, now; remember, the President issued an amnesty for all supers who cooperated with the roundup."

      "Shouldn't'a," muttered Gadgetive, around a plastic spoon full of hot soup. "Trust me. You let a few people get away with this pogrom, next time more will join in, until eventually they don't even stop them."

      "Given that the whole previous incarnation of the team was imprisoned as part of the roundup once Thurlin's people thought their usefulness was over, I don't think they're going to cooperate in any more such operations," said Blue Impact, dryly.

      The trio hung around for three more hours, but actually found little to do. By the time they were rested and fed, all the fires were out except for a few deep inside wrecked ships. Most of the out of town supers had left, and over half the emergency workers. Since they were based in this city, the trio stayed on a while longer. Long enough to see the press conference. Which presented the Specialists as the heroes of the day.

      "Can you believe it?" said Gadgetive, outraged. "We and the Assembly do most of the work, and all the dangerous stuff, and they hog the cameras."

      "You know I don't do this for publicity," said Blue Impact. "Neither do the Assembly."

      As they walked to the flitter, though, they were intercepted by a reporter and camerawoman.

      "Hi! Teddy Jones here for Channel Two - We Try Harder - hoping to interview some of our local supers! How are you doing this evening?"

      "We," said Blue Impact, "are tired. We came straight here from the jewelry store robbery and have barely had a break except for some chicken soup at the Red Cross kitchen."

      She was exaggerating a bit, but could be excused that.

      "I understand you folks saw Tritonicus on a rampage."

      "That wasn't Tritonicus," said Energia, tiredly, blowing a stray lock of hair out of her face. "Too big, and it had lots of metal in it. Some sort of robot, or maybe a bionic monster."

      She had told all that to the police earlier, but didn't know if it had even registered in the hectic air immediately following the attack. Maybe this would.

      "A robot?!" said Teddy. "Did you try to stop it?"

      "You kidding?" said Energia. "That thing was huge!"

      "You weren't here," said Blue Impact, seriously. "The thing did all this damage with one attack. The explosion from that sent poor Energia hurling through the air. She's lucky she wasn't slammed into a building. By the time she got back - Gadgetive and I had just gotten to the docks, ourselves - it was already leaving, and there were people who needed help."

      "Sounds like a very bad situation," said Teddy, neutrally. "So, what did you think of the efforts by the Specialists?"

      "Oh, they were a big help," said Gadgetive, eagerly, before either of her teammates could reply. "After spending hours putting out fires, containing toxic spills and rescuing workers, we were exhausted. We really appreciate them coming in to do the cleanup."

      Energia smirked, briefly, but was too tired to follow up on this. Blue Impact just sighed, and ushered her charges towards the flitter. Even Energia was riding, this time, being as tired as she was.

      "Did you get all that?" said Teddy, watching the trio walk away.

      "Still getting it," said Sue. "Gonna keep recording until they're out of sight."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I wonder when my tits are ever going to go back to normal?" said Template, examining herself in the bedroom mirror as she stood there in just panties.

      She had called Colossa to chat on speaker as Template got ready for bed. For some reason, though, this innocent question caused her spouse to break out in laughter.

      "Dear," said Colossa, "sometimes you really do forget you're a man. 'Normal' is you without tits."

      "Yeah, tell that to the baby," said Template, casting a wary eye at the crib beside the bed.

      "Well, I need to go," said Colossa. "We're having an inter-team video conference in a few minutes. Among other things, to discuss this new Tritonicus. Blue Impact and her group will be joining in, thanks to Gadgetive's most recent upgrading of their equipment."

      "Say hi to Energia and the others for me," said Template, stifling a yawn. "Glah. That workout today really left me worn out."

      "I'll tell her," said Colossa, smiling. "I'm so glad none of them were hurt."

      "Me, too," said Template. "Squared."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Unbelievable," said President Sievers, looking tired at that evening's crisis meeting. "They're certain it wasn't really Tritonicus?"

      "Estimates from security cameras confirm that this monster is larger and slightly differently shaped," said Conrad, the President's specialist on data analysis.

      "The consensus among the brains is that this confirms the original Tritonicus was captured by either a mastermind who is a master of biology and mechanics, or someone who has hired gadgeteers who are good at those," said Brade. "We expect this was a trial run, the specific target most likely chosen due to some personal history."

      "Could that give us a clue as to who is responsible?" said Howers.

      "Maybe. Most likely, the reason was an offense so minor that it is only important to the person. However, if we can get more information on this new monster the style of design could tell us a great deal."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Now we're a member short, again," said Dr. Gorgeous.

      "Not really," said Maciste. "I mean, Hotfoot was an addition."

      "We added him because the team needs more muscle," said Lucille. "With him gone, we still need it."

      "I agree," said Sharma.

      "Too bad Paul's a norm," said Buzz. "He's got the training and the experience."

      "Is there any way we could get him power?" said Champion. "I mean, you know from past experience he's responsible."

      They discussed this for a bit, but aside from a few examples which weren't really repeatable had no firm suggestions.

      "Why couldn't he just... Do it like he is?" said Champion, throwing her arms wide. "There's plenty of operational masks who don't have overt powers. I mean, you, Lucille, are a good example."

      "You'll notice I rarely go on missions," said Dr. Gorgeous, flatly. "Being a super-genius who can process data faster than a norm is a bit useful in a fight, but only a bit."

      "Paul is almost superhuman," said Maciste, thoughtfully. "Including strength and reflexes. Maybe, with a protective costume, some other equipment..."

      "You can ask him," said Dr. Gorgeous. "I doubt he'd agree. He's seen what happens to normals who go up against supers."

Part Fifteen

      Carol and Paul were on top of the mountain which housed the Assembly. She was hitting golf balls at a large steel plate nearly two kilometers away, while he watched. The incomplete bag of clubs had been found during the tail end of the renovations, previous owner unknown. They weren't old enough to be antiques, but were definitely out of style. The steel plate was a section of the base's old armor, replaced during the upgrades but somehow left behind after the cleanup. Carol - with help from Maciste - had hung the plate between two large trees, so that it would ring like a gong when hit.

      "Fore!" Carol called out, melodramatically.

      Paul could barely tear his eyes away from her to watch what happened next. She was wearing slacks and a t-shirt, no bra, and the morning was cool.

      She swung, and the ball shot away with a visceral Whock! Both of them could clearly see the ball in flight. It struck the plate almost dead center. Seconds later a distant Clong! was heard.

      "The secret," said Carol, handing the club to Paul, "is not to hit harder than the club or ball can take."

      "Not much danger from me on that account," said Paul, muttering as he placed another tee and ball. He looked around. "No wind this early. That definitely makes it easier. Well, less impossible..."

      He swung, but muffed it, sending the ball bouncing down the slope. Paul swore.

      "No, no," said Carol, moving up close behind him.

      She molded her body to his, guiding him in stance and movement in a slow, practice swing-through.

      "Feel that?"

      "Oh, I'm definitely feeling things," said Paul.

      "Idiot," she said, with a giggle. "Mind on business."

      Just which business do you mean? he wondered.

      She guided him through it again, this time at speed, hitting the ball. Which passed just over the plate.

      "Wow," said Paul, not sure what he was applying it to.

      "Now, you try it."

      Paul had definitely learned the zen approach to things in his career as Champion. Or, more aptly, the martial arts philosophy of mushin no shin. The mind of no mind. He took the starting position and emptied his mind, letting his body do what it needed to do. Club back, swing, follow-through. The ball arced through the air, striking the plate a little high and to the left

      "Wonderful!" said Carol, applauding. "You sure you don't want to put on a mask and fight crime?"

      Her tone was teasing, but there was a genuine invitation behind it.

      "Yes," said Paul, flatly, handing her the club. "Listen, I beat Hotfoot because he didn't use his powers. Physically, he's a norm, and I'm a more fit and better trained norm. If he had used his powers, though..."

      "You're underestimating yourself," said Carol.

      "Maybe. But it's my choice."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "So there I was, the only healthy woman on board a ship with six hundred horny sailors who hadn't had shore leave in months. Remember, this was before the Navy posted women crew aboard ships, which didn't start until seventy-nine. Finally, after four days, I stood up in the middle of mess, walked over to a bulkhead, put my fist through it and loudly announced that the next person who touched me without permission would get the same treatment."

      "Oh, my God!" said Sievers, laughing so hard she was rocking back and forth behind her Oval Office desk.

      "The Captain gave me Hell for it, of course. Not because I'd damaged his ship, but because I'd 'undermined his authority.' He dressed down the whole team in his wardroom, gave us a real reaming. At least, in his opinion. Forgetting that any of us there could have sunk his entire command in less than an hour, given cause, and weren't impressed with him, his ship, his crew or his little speech. After he finished, Skyblaze sniffed disdainfully and said if the Captain had maintained proper discipline there wouldn't have been a problem."


      "Yeah. The big stuffed shirt had no idea what he'd done. His ego was so formidable that it never occurred to him that a captain literally has the authority of life and death aboard a ship."

      Brade shook her head, her gaze distant with memory.

      "I thought the Navy was giving us the cold shoulder before that, but afterwards we were being actively sabotaged. The Captain and some of the other officers were actually brought up on charges, later, for interfering with our operation. Even though we never actually did anything but wait."

      "When did you learn you were there to support a possible rescue of the plane's crew?"

      "When we got back. That whole time, sitting there, waiting, not being told anything because it was top secret, while it was all over the TV back home. Story broke right after we were flown out, including our part in the proposed rescue plan. They didn't even tell us where we were! We just knew at the time that it was somewhere in or near the tropics, north of the Equator. Hot, humid and miserable, with bad weather nearly the whole two and a half weeks. Most of our team were seasick. Poor Candy Flinders was barely out of her bunk the whole time, which may be the reason she didn't do something about relieving the sexual tensions aboard. We never saw land until they flew us back. Then they gave us special training on military protocol, with the Sailor one of the instructors for the Naval part. Only, he spent most of his lecture telling us stories about his adventures. Most of them so ribald he really shouldn't have been relating them in mixed company."

      Sievers sighed and shook her head, then leaned back in her chair.

      "Anyway, thank you for the information on the Sailor," said the President. "I had heard of him, of course, but had no idea he was so formidable. Or so old."

      "I'd trust him with anything except my granddaughters," said Brade, wryly. "If he is asked to help in this matter, he will certainly do his part. Just be aware that under certain circumstances he could be worse than Tritonicus or its clone. Though I wouldn't be surprised if, given the opportunity, he could handle either of those monsters on his own!"

      "Well, it's almost time for the meeting," said Sievers, looking at the clock over the double doors into the corridor beyond. "We better get started."

      Many of those participating in the meeting were still openly resentful of Brade's presence. She took note of which ones, but otherwise ignored them. As she had told the President - and as typified by her story of a few minutes before - she had encountered and generally dealt successfully with such bigotry and chauvinism many times before.

      "Gentlemen and ladies, what news do you have?" said the President, after seating herself.

      First up was an Air Force Intelligence officer.

      "We have an older Keyhole ELINT satellite which was officially retired but still mostly operational," said the General. "Some of our brains noticed it was passing over the area where the new Tritonicus was last seen, right after the attack, got permission to try something with it, and to everyone's surprise including theirs, got lucky."

      He clicked his remote and the main display in the situation room came to life, revealing a map of the Atlantic just offshore from where the bionic monster had made its attack. There was a small, red X in one spot.

      "They detected a spread-spectrum burst transmission in an unassigned band, right there. They're still working on decoding it, but it appears to be pure telemetry. Photoreconnaissance and other evidence gives us high confidence that the monster rose to just below the surface, perhaps deployed an antenna above the water, and made the transmission. We don't know why. Speculation is that the thing had a failure of some sort."

      "Any chance it failed enough to just sink to the bottom of the ocean?" asked Sievers, in a tone which suggested she thought there was little chance of that.

      "Uhm, no. Our ocean surveillance microphone array detected underwater movement of something very large and organic. It didn't even stop to send the burst, but simply rose, swam shallow for a while, and went back down. We lost it as it went southeast, outside the range of our array. Presumably, it was heading back to that South African base."

      "So far, the authorities there have still have performed only a perfunctory search of the island," said Sievers, scowling. "I wish we could prove it came from there. Or wherever it did come from."

      The President was taking advantage of this meeting to update everyone in attendance on super matters. They spoke for a while longer about Tritonicus II, making sure that they were all up to date on what was known and brainstorming on what it might all mean. Then Sievers went to the next item on her agenda.

      "Energex is still missing," she said, flatly. "It's not unusual for him to lay low after a major caper, like that raid on the Library of Congress, but given what he did there every law enforcement agency and mask team on the planet has been trying at least part time to find him. No-one has uncovered even a single clue which has panned out."

      There were several minor facts revealed by others in the meeting on the Energex situation, and much speculation, but nothing solid. However, there was one holdout.

      "Brade, you're being awfully quiet," said the President.

      "I'm waiting to hear if anyone has anything which would discount some disconcerting ideas which have come my way," the super responded. "So far, no such luck."

      "Let's have it, then."

      "Several of the supers who vanished during Thurlin's administration have still not been found. We're pretty sure they're simply not in federal custody. In fact, supers are still disappearing."

      "Worrying, but how does this connect to Energex laying low?" said Howers.

      "The Library of Congress finally finished an inventory of what they think was taken. The missing documents are an odd mix, but they all involve ways people have gained non-genetic powers."

      "And Energex's powers are non-genetic," said Sievers, feeling pale. "You think he's looking for a way to upgrade again?"

      "That's a distinct possibility. However, that's not the most worrying part. A startling number of devices, artifacts, scrolls and formulae known to have given people powers are missing. Some were overtly stolen, some were simply gone when someone checked on them. The super community put out an alert when this came to light, and more of these things were found to have been replaced by duplicates which fooled the keepers until they were examined closely. While outright theft is part of Energex's schtick, that sort of stealthy acquisition isn't."

      "So he's working with someone," said Howers, nodding.

      "Worse. Energex hasn't been able to avoid mystic detection before without help. Those I've spoken to, such as Sharma of the Assembly, say 'the fog concealing him bears the same stench as that concealing the monster.'"

      "My God," said Seivers, getting it faster than most. "He's one of the missing supers!"

      "Someone could be planning to create an army of artificial supers," said Brade, nodding. "Or, worse, an army of cyborg Tritonicus clones with powers."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Sievers told the US representative at the UN. He told the Security Council. They contacted South Africa. Which dithered for three hours, then gave permission for T.O.W.E.R. to raid the island.

      Much which was illegal, immoral of or questionable taste was uncovered, but a super villain base was not among that assortment of human failings. However, someone checking the history of the island noticed that in 1945 the Nazis had constructed massive submarine pens just offshore, intending to use them for their new, nuclear-powered cargo submarines. The facility was entirely under water even at lowest tide, and very heavily protected against bombardment. However, with the fall of Berlin and the capture of Hitler in 1946 they had been left unused. Today, they were thought to be long flooded and derelict.

      A special contingent of T.O.W.E.R. agents trained and equipped for underwater operations were flown to the island and sent to make a reconnaissance in force. They did not return. There were no signs of battle; they simply did not come back from their mission.

      Now T.O.W.E.R. was in a quandary. Obviously, there was something down there, but another team would take hours to assemble and had no guarantee of doing any better. They could attack the base from above, but that would put at risk any of the team who were still alive, along with any other hostages and prisoners.

      While T.O.W.E.R. considered its options they ordered the evacuation of the island. That was far easier ordered than carried out. Numerous influential people strongly protested, many barricading themselves into their surprisingly fortified homes and posting armed guards to keep UN personnel out. Colonel Green, the T.O.W.E.R. officer in charge of this operation, had already sent out calls for reinforcements, as well as asking the super community for help. He left the holdouts hiding in their luxury bunkers while he organized and waited.

      The evacuation was about half complete when Tritonicus II broke the surface and began walking towards the UN forces.

Part Sixteen

      "The thing is, I remember what it's like," said Paul, later, to the other original team members at the base. He shuddered. "I even remember how good the sex was."

      "After a somewhat blatant start, she's being discreet," said Lucille. "Though far from chaste. Champions aren't fertile and are very resistant to disease, so besides propriety she has little reason to abstain. I'm not surprised she made a pass at you, but I thought you were attracted to her."

      "I was," said Paul. "I was attracted to all of her, personality foremost. A personality which has changed. I'm not sure she's the same person, any more."

      "You have repeatedly mentioned how intoxicating being Champion was for you," said Maciste. He shrugged. "I've been strong and tough all my life. I don't really have a good comparison point for how she must be feeling. Even with your male mind fighting, though, you got together with men enough times that it couldn't have been simply to satisfy your curiosity."

      "She is doing her job and doing it well," said Lucille. "She took a polite no for an answer from you. I don't think there's any serious concern."

      "From what I'm hearing, she's doing her job better than I was."

      "She's better than you were at this stage," said Lucille, distinctly. "That's because she's had you to teach her. There's no reason for you to feel ashamed in any way about your performance as Champion."

      "Sounds like someone's having a touch of inferiority complex," said Buzz, with a smirk. 

      "I can still take you, bud," said Paul, mock seriously. He grinned. "I know where you're ticklish, remember?"

      An alarm sounded, and the intercom chirped.

      "The T.O.W.E.R. team on that island is calling on all available supers for help," said their security chief. "The second Tritonicus is attacking them."

      "Paul, I don't know what to tell you, but I will keep thinking on it," said Lucille, pausing to put a hand on his shoulder as the others scrambled for their hopper.

      "Thank you."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What do you mean I'm not going!" said Colossa, angrily, as the Intrepids scrambled for their own hopper.

      "Template is already on the way and we're not going to risk both of you, for the baby's sake," said the Black Mask. "No arguments! You stay here and help coordinate."

      Colossa didn't like it, but saw the wisdom. This looked like a bad one, and Template was more likely to be effective than she would in such a fight. If they were both lost... She sighed, slowed to a stop, and stood in the team's underground hanger while she watched her friends and teammates launch.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The Pine Island school was on lockdown, only a few days after resuming operation in the new year. Classes were canceled, students were confined to dorms, all teachers not already on the way to the fight or on security duty in one of the island's bases were with the students. That last was primarily to make sure none of them snuck off to help.

      One of the exceptions was Energia. She, with Roy and his support equipment, was Pine's old base, in a section reserved for school staff as a secure shelter. There was currently no-one else there, leaving the two children alone. Energia had already called her parents to assure them she was safe and would stay put. Now came the waiting.

      "Please come back," Energia whispered, as she gently rocked her cousin.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As their hopper approached re-entry at the end of its suborbital flight, the Assembly were already hearing bad news. Tritonicus II had only been the most noticeable of what came out of the submerged base to attack the UN troops. The T.O.W.E.R. agents had been swarmed by at least thirty uniformed supers with multiple powers, though they all appeared to have the same set. Worse, the aircraft of the first super teams and UN reinforcements to arrive had been shot out of the sky by advanced weapons. Nearly half those on board the destroyed vehicles were missing, presumed dead.

      "Blast back to drop short," said Dr. Gorgeous, working a simulation of the team's flight path from the base. "Then dive down to just above the surface and come screaming in across the ocean at Mach three, while swinging north, then back south. The denser air will scrub off the speed to subsonic by the time you reach the island, but you'll make a big ess curve and come in from the north, hopefully out of range of the defenses. Should be able to put down close enough to get to the fight quickly but not so close that you'll be targeted. You'll have to refurbish the thermal protection and refuel before you can make the return flight, but that's something to worry about later."

      "Making the changes now," said Champion, turning the ship to use the main engine for the burn.

      She sounded the acceleration alarm, burned at full throttle for nearly ten seconds, then turned the ship around again. She immediately pulled the nose up for the initial deceleration as they dropped steeply into the outer fringes of the atmosphere. Once re-entry was over and the plasma sheath began to fade she put the nose down in a steep dive.

      "I new I should'a walked!" Buzz yelled, as the ocean loomed in the forward viewport.

      Champion pulled up as directed, everyone but her and Maciste greying out. As soon as the hopper leveled off she pulled a hard turn to port, heading north. After a few seconds she straightened out, waited several minutes, then pulled an equally hard turn for longer to starboard. When she leveled off again they could see the west coast of South Africa out the windows to their left.

      "Okay, we're subsonic and at five thousand meters," she announced. "Just about to cross the coast. Airbrakes out."

      "You're too fast," said Dr. Gorgeous. "Sideslip to kill some speed."


      "Good. Now straighten out, and look ahead and to the right. You should see a large golf course."

      "Yeah. There's already a hopper there."

      "That's the team from Pine Island. There's more on the way. You're still pretty fast; you'll have to drop in steep."

      "I hope Template is here," said Champion. "I have a feeling we're going to need all the heavyweights we can get, and maybe more."

      "We got airborne supers heading this way!" Maciste shouted, pointing to the west. "They're all wearing the same, grey uniform!"

      "There are some flyers from the school already in the air, intercepting them," said Champion. "Hope none of the attackers get through before we're on the ground."

      They made it, but just barely. Maciste actually opened the hatch and jumped out while they were still well off the ground, Sharma levitating out after him. The hopper continued on a steep, downward line, belly jets screaming and the plane still moving forward at a good clip. They hit, tearing large gouges in the manicured grass, bounced back into the air, then slammed down even harder as Champion cut the engines. The wheels never had much chance to roll; they buried themselves in the soft ground and quickly dragged the hopper to a stop.

      "Whew!" said Champion, flipping switches to shut everything off. "You all right back there?"

      "I'll let you know after I count my fillings," said Buzz, groaning.

      He still beat Champion out the hatch, but not by much.

      "Wow," he said, looking around as he and Champion ran to form up with their teammates and the ground-bound supers from the school. "I hope we don't have to replace our divots."

      That was the only frivolity any of them had time for. Several of the enemy supers were already engaging the main group of heroes. Besides flight, they were fast, tough and very strong. Only Maciste and a couple of the school staff were a match for their strength. However, they were inexperienced to the point of being inept. Enemy after enemy, all of them young men and women, fell, while only two of those they attacked were injured. Still, the heroes had a frantic few minutes.

      "I hope that's all of those," said Champion, panting, as she took stock. "We're not even to the T.O.W.E.R. troops, yet!"

      Said troops were not faring well. They had expected to fight the monster and brought appropriate weapons. However, those supers had been waiting for the heavy weapons to be brought into play. Before they could be turned on the monster, the supers attacked the weapons, and then the troops trying to use them. They didn't have time to do much to the T.O.W.E.R. troops, though, as they were called to intercept those hoppers which had avoided the base's defenses. Unfortunately, that left Tritonicus II to deal with the troops.

      "What've we got left to use against that thing?" Colonel Green asked his chief subordinate.

      Both men were banged up from having their command and control vehicle overturned. A medic was currently putting a sling on the Colonel's left arm.

      "Some man-portable anti-tank weapons," came the reply.

      "Those would hardly annoy the original Tritonicus," said Green, snarling. "Tee-Two would barely notice."

      "We've got carrier planes inbound for an supporting airstrike in three minutes!" shouted the Colonel's communications officer.

      He had managed to salvage enough gear and operators to maintain contact with the troops on the ground, the carrier and the incoming supers, but just barely.

      Colonel Green watched with a sense of dread as "Tee-Two" opened its mouth. A blast of laser "breath" targeted several of T.O.W.E.R.'s air-transportable armored vehicles. They were too light to take such punishment. Dozens of soldiers were gruesomely flash-fried with their rides.

      "I just hope there's something left of us for them to support." The Colonel thought of something. "Contact the heroes. Tell them to stay away from the monster until the air strike is over."

      "Yes, sir!"

      As it happened, some of the supers managed to stage ranged attacks against the monster from a safe distance, deterring its rampage against the UN troops until the aircraft arrived.

      The fighters and attack planes targeted the monster; the bombers went after the submerged base. Technology had advanced much since it was built; hypervelocity armor-piercing missiles both punched holes through the thick, reinforced concrete and plowed deep into the seabed around the base. In both cases, the explosive warheads wreaked havoc. Debris began floating to the surface, some of it human bodies.

      Unfortunately, the effort against Tritonicus II was much less effective. It actually destroyed several of the planes with missile launchers and small energy weapons. Beams and rockets sprouted from its hide like bizarre bristles.

      The first wave of aircraft broke off, their effective munitions expended.

      "Next attack in ten minutes," said the Colonel's communications officer.

      "Have the supers move in but make sure they know they have a time limit!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template had fought monsters before, but never anything this size. She flew up and then down, landing with both feet on the crown of the thing's head. She nearly broke her ankles. Worse, it noticed her.

      It snapped clumsily at Template as she hurriedly climbed for altitude. Small lasers and anti-aircraft missiles searched after her and other flyers, occasionally finding them. Template yelped as a brief flash of actinic light swept across the front of her body. It wasn't enough to actually injure her, but it stung. Some of the others weren't so lucky. Template felt a shock as she saw Eagle tumbling towards the ground.

      "We need super-strong flyers to help with a coordinated attack," the Black Mask called over their coms.

      Template followed his directions and found three others gathered around a large, reinforced-concrete beam. Quickly grasping their intent, she joined in.

      With some of the other flyers distracting the beast, they moved into position. When it opened its mouth to use its main weapon, the beam team quickly launched. Thanks to the distractions and the timing, they managed to ram the beam deep into the monster's mouth. Template and Jet Jaguar, both near the front, barely escaped those horrible teeth.

      They scattered as the beast clawed at the obstruction, sending large chunks of concrete flying.

      "All of those artificial supers are dead, captured or fleeing," said the Guardsman. "Another wave of aircraft is inbound. Everyone pull back. Get on the ground and help with search and rescue for the troops."

      As Template descended towards some mangled vehicles she saw Tritonicus II dislodge the beam.

      This is going to be a long one.

Part Seventeen

      "You moron!" Dr. Herford yelled, throwing his arms wide and splattering salt water. "You and your stupid schedule!"

      "You do not speak to me in such a way," said Helstrom, in a dangerous voice.

      "Or what? You'll kill me? Look around; we're already minutes from drowning. You told me this base would be ready for anything by the time they found us!"

      "They are here early," said Helstrom, almost petulantly. "We did not have enough missiles stockpiled, nor enough of your augments ready."

      They were standing in chest-deep water, screaming at each other to be heard over the noise, only a few emergency lights sill glowing. The control room - like the whole base - was flooding rapidly. Bunny, Byron Loren and the few others remaining with their bosses looked at each other warily.

      "We will have our revenge," said Helstrom, raising a fist and shaking it. "My last command to Ultra-Tritonicus was to head east and destroy all around it!"

      "A lot of good that will do us!"

      "Fool. I should leave you and your servants here for doubting me. I plan for every contingency. However, you are still of value to me. Follow, if you wish to live!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Tee-Two was walking east across the island. In the process it was crushing multi-million dollar homes and the entertainments and diversions of the island's wealthy inhabitants. For now the battle was over. Thanks to the evacuation there were few lives at risk, and those were holdouts who had refused to leave despite warnings. Among the combatants, norm and super alike were performing cleanup, rescuing those trapped, putting out fires and so forth. The monster was headed for the east coast of the island. Assuming it held course crossing the ocean, it would come ashore in a sparsely-populated area and not be an immediate threat.

      Another ongoing effort was taking a tally of the dead and wounded, both soldier and super. Template went to the table which had been set up for checking in and told them she was alive and unhurt. She was relieved to learn that Eagle was alive, though out of action for a while. He'd taken less damage from the monster's beam weapon than from hitting a concrete porch on landing. The porch was a write-off. Few major name supers were listed as dead, but a distressing number were missing.

      "It's heading straight for the mainland," said Dr. Gorgeous, by voice only over satellite relay. "The South Africans are saying to let them try and stop it."

       "That suits me just fine," said Colonel Green. "Effective measures against that thing start with sixteen inch naval guns."

      Gadgeteers were still busy, taking communications equipment the military techs had given up on and using it to make something useful. Not always something required by the situation, but useful. By their definition. Junker promised they'd have full video conferencing capability by sundown, in spite of that.

      "We're getting reports of a large chunk of ice floating in the ocean," said the Black Mask. He was as banged-up as Green, but handling it better. Of course, he usually handled everything better. "Given the water temperature and the full sun shining on it, the ice is melting with surprising speed. They must have kept it right at freezing point."

      "Typical," said Template. "Why waste energy keeping it colder? Their devices wouldn't fail."

      "That's all we need," said Green, sourly. "For that thing to get loose as well."

      He was about to say something else, but a runner arrived, saluted, and handed him a message. Green read it, nodded to himself, and turned to the assembled supers.

      "Well, the UN has now declared this a military matter," he announced. "They're brining in regular troops, with the permission of the South Africans, to reinforce their military. That means all super aid against Tee-Two stops now. The plan is to confront Tee-Two in an open area far enough inland that we can encircle it with heavy armor."

      "What about supers continuing the cleanup?" said the Guardsman. "For that matter, will we be allowed to help keep the original Tritonicus on ice?"

      "Both those areas are free for you to operate in. My forces will coordinate, but given our casualties you'll be doing most of the work. Especially keeping Tritonicus on ice."

      "Maybe we shouldn't," said Dr. Gorgeous, thoughtfully, over the radio.

      "You can't be serious," said the Guardsman, who aside from looking a bit scuffed had come through the battle unscathed. Largely due to those from the west coast of the US being late arrivals.

      "Listen!" Dr. Gorgeous said, quickly. "I need you to get something flammable on the water around that block of ice and ignite it. A lot of something flammable! Once the monster is thawed, use the same stuff to lay a trail to the shore. Petroleum based would be best."

      "You want to free the original Tritonicus?!" said Champion, wondering if her teammate had lost all reason.

      "Think about it. It wakes up, follows a trail of food and notices a big, strange creature nearby. It will attack!"

      "It's already injured," said Green. "It'll be slaughtered! Not that that's a bad thing, and it'll probably do at least some damage to..."

      "One reason Tritonicus is so formidable is that it's very fast and agile for such a large creature," said Dr. Gorgeous, confidently. "The new monster is a construct. It's slow and clumsy. The original will probably rip it apart."

      "I'll contact my superiors and ask if they approve," said Green, frowning. "Since supers won't be directly involved in the actual combat operation, but only in the preparation for it, it should be legal. That doesn't mean they'll go along with it."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      To the surprise of most of those on the resort island, the UN approved the plan. The consensus held that not only was the suggested action legal, but anything which could potentially cause injury to either of the monsters without risk to human life was a good thing.

      "Now watch them team up against us," said Buzz, wryly, as word spread of the plan.

      "Hush!" said Champion.

      "Tee-Two is moving slowly," said Green, pointing to the situation map he'd ordered set up. "We don't know its swimming speed, but if it is the same proportion to Tritonicus' as its walking speed is, it won't reach shore on the mainland until tomorrow morning."

      "Good," said the Guardsman, with a curt nod. "That will give us time to thaw Tritonicus, check its injuries, wake it, lay the trail of fuel for it to follow, and do a lot of praying."

      "There's more good news," said Colonel Green, "We had subs patrolling all around the island, partly to look for either Tritonicus or its bionic clone, and partly to look for escapees from the submarine base. We caught a submersible full of people, including some of those who planned this mess. Better, they've located several of the supers whose planes were shot down. Unfortunately, they've also recovered a few super bodies."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "The ice is melting faster than we expected," said Junker, when Template flew out to see if she could help. "The bio people think it's generating its own heat."

      "Wait... You mean Tritonicus is metabolizing?!"

      "Yeah. Don't ask me what it's using for oxygen."

      "In hibernation mode, Tritonicus uses an anaerobic metabolic process," said one of the "bio people." "That's why it can heal while it hibernates."

      "So not only could it become active and break free at any time," said Template, slowly and clearly, "but it will already be at least partially healed from the sonic attack."

      "The biopsies, too. We think they used tree-coring equipment."

      "Ow," said Template, wincing. "So, what are you doing to monitor for when to run?"

      "Huh?" said the biological genius.

      "How will you tell when Tritonicus is warm enough to break free of the ice and become active?"

      "Oh, we're not planning for it to become active until well after the last of the ice is gone."

      "Yes, I understand what you want to happen," said Template, persisting in the face of his preoccupation. "What are you doing to keep tabs on the monster's condition, in case it wakes before you expect it to?"

      He stared at her as if she were speaking Swahili.

      "Right," said Template, shifting her powers to gadgeteering. "I'm going to need strain gauges suitable for use on ice, thermocouples..."

      Within forty minutes she had an early warning system set up. Ten more minutes and she had an alert and evacuation plan. Getting the mad biologists who were swarming all over and around the frozen form of one of the most dangerous creatures ever to walk - or swim - the Earth to understand what they were supposed to do when the alarm sounded took over an hour. Even then she wasn't sure they'd do it.

      "Don't worry," said the head of the T.O.W.E.R. forces in charge of Operation Tritonicus Vengeance. "We'll make sure they leave. By picking them up and running with them, if we have to. I have a soldier assigned to each civilian, just to make sure."

      "Thank you," said Template, with a sigh of relief.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      With that out of the way, Template went to the dock, where a welcoming committee was waiting for the destroyer brining the captured base personnel to the island. Part of the reason for the wait was that it was towing the submersible.

      Video pickups had been installed on the dock, along with a full videoconferencing rig. Those on the island and elsewhere planned to do preliminary interviews, one at a time, as soon as the suspects reached land. As the prisoners - dressed in orange coveralls and securely manacled, some also under power dampers - were marched onto the dock, Template was startled - and very pleased - to see some familiar faces among them.

      "Well, well, well," said Template, gloating. "Look what the catfish dragged in."

      Herford muttered something under his breath.

      "What was that?"

      "He said the only thing which could make this worse was if Randy was here," said Bunny, helpfully.

      Fortunately, someone had recognized the pair and remembered that Bunny was a mentalist. They had put a damper rig on her while she was still groggy from nearly drowning.

      Template decided not to taunt the obviously defeated scientist, and went to take her place among the interviewers.

      The first man - easily identified as the mastermind behind the project, and proudly confirming this - was tall and well-built, and looked vaguely familiar. No-one there knew who he was, even when he gave his name.

      Once he reached the improvised stage, though, and his image sent out, there were several announcements of recognition. One of them especially startling. 

      "By the gods," said Eve, faintly, obviously stunned. "It's my cousin, Hiran Helstrom. Hiran, I thought you were dead!"

      "Eleanthe," said the mastermind, nodding. "Good. Tell these mortal fools who I am, so they may know the source of their doom."

      "Oh, really, Hiran," said Eve, disdainfully, "what would your mother think?"

      "You refuse to help your own kin?" said the mastermind, outraged.

      "Hiran, I am helping you," said Eve, sympathetically. "However, you need more help than I can give, and of a different class. Professional help, the kind that can write prescriptions."

      "You dare speak thus to me?!"

      "Miss Hind, are you serious?" said Colonel Green. "Both that this man is related to you, and that he is... That is, he might be considered mentally incompetent?"

      "Oh, definitely. To both. He's never been normal, even for my family. Some sort of megalomania. Not that he isn't brilliant. Oh, and he's a little beyond human limits, physically, so be careful."


      Getting information from the man proved very easy. He egotistically bragged about everything. Indeed, getting him to stop talking so the interviewers could ask more questions proved somewhat difficult.

      The most depressing information was that Tee-Two - or  Ultra-Tritonicus, as he called it - could only be controlled by coded signals... and all the equipment for doing this was in the flooded base.

      "Merely unlocking the encoding algorithm I designed would take all the computers on Earth a thousand years!"

      "What about all those supers you captured?" said Colonel Green.

      "Eh? Oh, yes. They were for Herford's augments. We were going to use the results of his studies to further improve the next generation of Tritonicus. The Tri-Tritonicus!"

      "We figured that. I meant, what happened to them?"

      "They're still down there," said Hiran, with a careless shrug. "In stasis."

      He preened.

      "It was my discovery of how to shield the base which made that possible!"

      "We'll need a list."

      "Ask Herford for that. I don't deal with such trivialities."

      When his time came, Herford only gave his name and occupation, then stated he would not say anything else without a lawyer. Bunny and Byron Loren followed their master's lead.

      "At least their captives should be all right," said Green, after they finished with the interviews. "We will need to send divers and aquatic supers down for a full search, but that can wait."

Part Eighteen

      Paul was one of the few staff members of the Assembly who had living quarters at the base. In fact, his chambers were larger and better equipped than those he'd had while serving as Champion. The completion of the remodeling meant that everyone who actually lived here had a small suite - with bathroom - rather than a single room.

      That suited Paul just fine. Especially with the Hotfoot situation being somewhat unsettled. After Paul had declined to press charges, Hotfoot had gone ahead and done so against Paul. At the preliminary hearing the team's attorneys had presented both notarized statements and security video showing that the super had started the fight. The judge dismissed the case. Hotfoot stormed out, fuming and leaving smoking footprints in the linoleum floor. From what the psych staff could tell, he honestly believed that his attack on Paul had been fully justified, while Paul's "attack" against him had been pure, unprovoked assault. Where the fire controller was now was unknown, though there had been reports of him drinking in a bar or two.

      Better that I stay in here for a while, until he cools down, thought Paul. Assuming he ever does.

      "What's happening?" Paul asked Lucille, as he returned to the monitor room from a short break.

      "We're starting to see movement inside the ice. They're trying to get the biologists to leave."

      In the end, the plan to have them carried away by soldiers was unnecessary. Some of them were actually leaving before the alarm sounded. All were clear when the ice finally began cracking.

      "Here we go," said Paul, quietly, hands kneading the arms of his chair as he leaned intently forward, staring at the huge, main screen.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template made sure everyone was clear, then flew high and watched. In spite of her own power, and the powers of the many supers she had seen in action, the sheer might of Tritonicus was impressive, even frightening. Breaking that much ice into large chunks would have taken her perhaps twenty minutes. Tritonicus did it in a bit less than three.

      The monster thrashed and wriggled its way free of the last of the ice to stand in the shallow water, obviously still groggy. It made a massive intake of breath, then threw back its head and let all that air out in a great, hissing roar which was heard on the mainland. Template clapped her hands firmly over her ears, keeping them there even after the roar ended. Because the monster was inhaling again.

      This time it blew a huge gout of fire, all around. Template realized this was the monster, still dazed, warding off any potential enemies while it gathered its wits. The massive head shook, there was another deep breath, and another roar.

      By now there was intelligence in those very non-reptilian eyes. Nostrils large enough to hold an SUV each flared, and the head turned. Towards the mainland.

      "It's taking the bait!" Dr. Gorgeous yelled over their coms, Template hearing it through her ear bud.

      Indeed, the monster bent to sniff at the trail of heavy bunker oil, then actually tasted it. It started moving towards the east.

      As the water deepened, Tritonicus leaned forward and began swimming. Its speed in the water was definitely faster than that of Tee-Two.

      "Wow, it's really moving," said Template, following overhead. "What's the situation on the mainland?"

      "They've managed to keep the second monster confined to an uninhabited area," said Dr. Gorgeous. She sounded excited. Happily excited. "This should be incredible!"

      "Battle of the century!" came another voice, one Template didn't recognize.

      "Please keep this channel clear for super coordination," said Template.

      "My fault," said Gorgeous. "Had my mike set on VOX and it picked up the guy next to me."

      Tritonicus needed less than an hour to reach the coast. Once there it stopped to feed from the pool of oil the UN forces had left for it. By the calculations of the biologists, there was enough to fuel it while leaving it a bit hungry. Then, as hoped, it followed the trail inland.

      Tee-Two had been drawn into an area of rolling hills. These were much shorter than the monster, which was looking down, preoccupied by the annoying gnats swarming around its feet.

      The "gnats" were drone tanks, a recently developed product of the South African arms industry. Several million rands worth of high-tech weaponry had already been wrecked, but the nation's leaders considered this cost well worthwhile. Besides helping keep the monster away from anything important the drones were providing their owners with valuable data. Data of a kind they had never dreamed of getting before this.

      Tritonicus was not being harassed or encouraged in any way beyond the laying of the trail of heavy oil. As it came within a couple of kilometers of its bionic clone, the original suddenly came alert. It's entire manner changed. There was no more roaring or flaming or other posturing. It abandoned the oil trail and simply charged.

      The clone noticed, of course. If nothing else, the thunderous footsteps of Tritonicus were registering on seismographs. The clone straightened, turned and stared. It was still staring, obviously having no idea what was coming or what to do about that, until the original slammed into it.

      The impact would have uprooted a young mountain. Yet Tee-Two remained standing, braced by its heavy tail. It clawed feebly at Tritonicus, which in turn swiped at the clone's face, digging deep furrows in its armored hide. Chunks of that engineered biological armor flew for over a kilometer.

      The clone still made no vocalizations. The silence was unnerving for humans, and appeared to further irritate Tritonicus. It reared back, gave a scream to the heavens loud enough for both of them and bit down on the clone's shoulder. Tee-Two Thrashed free, leaving a big chunk of flesh in its parent's mouth. Flesh which was deftly gulped down. Metal gleamed deep in that gaping wound.

      The young, larger monster stepped back and opened its mouth. Tritonicus dodged to the right as the beam fired, completely missing the older, smaller beast.

      "How did it know?" said Dr. Gorgeous, amazed.

      Tee-Two turned clumsily, tracking Tritonicus to try again. Too far away to physically attack, Tritonicus used its breath weapon. The billowing fuel-air conflagration burned deep wherever Tee-Two was wounded, but also cauterized those injuries. Whatever pain it felt - if any - it kept to itself. It fired its beam through the flames, but Tritonicus was already moving.

      Whether learned from fighting submarines or whales or giant squid, somehow Tritonicus had picked up the basics of tactics. It did a fire and move, coming in at Tee-Two from its damaged left side. The new monster opened its mouth and turned to intercept, but too slowly. As predicted, the construct's movements were clumsy. Tritonicus clamped down on its muzzle, just as it fired.

      The new monster's head exploded.

      Tritonicus was hurled backwards, its own mouth and face damaged by the blast, to land on its back and roll onto its side. The construct, however, was very thoroughly dead. The gigantic body toppled to the ground like a felled redwood of impossible size, in seeming slow motion, kicking up huge gouts of dirt and rock when it finally hit.

      Several minutes passed. Then, Tritonicus sat up, shaking its head in an almost human manner. It clambered to its feet, went to the fallen clone... and began feeding.

      "Many reptiles are quite enthusiastically cannibalistic, given the opportunity," said Dr. Gorgeous, gleefully.

      Tritonicus fed for hours, carefully avoiding the wires, metal reinforcements, missiles and other inorganic parts. Then it slept.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "So, the clone is dead, the original is sleeping off its feast, and the bad guys are on the way to UN jail," said Buzz, summing up later that evening. "What next?"

      "The plan right now is to let Tritonicus sleep it off, then see if it will head peacefully back to the ocean," said Dr. Gorgeous, over the videoconferencing link in the team's hopper. "I expect it will."

      "Then what?" said Maciste. "Just let it go?"

      "Oh, by no means. They're currently using drones to plant several tracking devices on it. The plan is to keep tabs on it, guide ships away from it, feed it when it seems hungry, and otherwise just observe."

      "That seems rather irresponsible," said Sharma.

      "Well, it was kidnapped, rescued, and then put paid to a much worse monster than itself in a world-class battle," said Gorgeous. "That generated a lot of sympathy among supers, the UN forces and the civilians following these events. The current sentiment is to see if we can find a way to peacefully coexist. The brains are willing to work on that."

      "The aquatic heroes here have already started bringing up the supers in stasis," said Maciste. "The gadgeteers are eager to examine that base and find out how Herford concealed the rather distinctive signature of his stasis guns."

      "They're going to leave the known criminals in stasis for now," said Buzz. "Along with anyone who looks badly hurt. The rest will be freed, one at a time, when someone can build or recover one of the guns."

      "This has been quite a day," said Gorgeous. "Paul and I are yawning, and we're several time zones west of you. Not to mention having spent all our time just sitting around watching, while you three had all the action."

      "Yeah, we're about to turn in," said Maciste, with a stern look at Buzz. "Already have the tents up, thanks to some help from the soldiers. We'll call you in the morning."

      "Good night!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Most of the supers on the island stayed there, in case they were needed for Tritonicus or something involving the base. One of the exceptions was Template. She donned her space suit, rose above the atmosphere, and flew back to Pine Island in a suborbital arc.

      There she had a very enthusiastic greeting from Energia in Eve's chambers in Pine's base. The school had gone off lockdown, island security was on condition green, and everyone was settling in for the night.

      "Wish I could've been there," said Energia, wistfully, as she and her aunt flew to the latter's bungalow.

      "Sorry, hon. Too dangerous for any of you students for us to allow it. Besides, I needed you to watch Roy."

      "He was a little gem," said Energia, enchantedly. She laughed. "When he first tasted the formula he made the funniest face, pulled back from the bottle, considered for a moment, then scowled and started sucking. He was definitely letting me know I was giving him substandard sustenance."

      "Well, after I get changed, he can have some homemade," said Template, with a laugh of her own.


      This document is Copyright 2010 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net