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Masks XI




by




Rodford Edmiston






Complicated Life






Part One

Music: "Dreams" by Van Halen


      Roy shrieked with glee as his mother entered another loop. Template was pretty close to shrieking with glee, herself. As she came over the top Template rolled face down and threw her arms wide like a diver coming off the board. Then she pushed her hands together in front of her as the speed increased, her cape snapping and rattling in the slipstream. Since learning that the baby not only copied her powers when in close proximity to her, but also shared her love of flying, life had gotten much more fun. 

      Template come out of the bottom of the loop and went into a zoom climb. She couldn't see or hear him, but knew he was making his "Ooooooh..." face and sound. She stopped, higher than most aircraft could go, the sky black overhead, to check on him. Roy was smiling and bouncing in the harness strapped to his mother's chest. Template was grinning so hard her cheeks hurt. She spun slowly, to enjoy the view and get her bearings, then dove again. 

      She was still being cautious with the tandem flying; Template didn't want to find out the hard way that his resilience wasn't as good as hers. Still, by working up carefully she had a very good idea of what would thrill him without harming him. They hit dynamic pressures and pulled gees which would have pulped a normal human. Roy loved every moment of it.

      They pulled out of the dive over the highlands of the island. Template did a quick circuit around the dourly smoldering volcano, then made a high-speed pass down one of the valleys on its flank, a small stream below producing flickers of reflected sunlight as they followed its course. Mother and child screamed along, the valley opening into scrabble, the stream slowing and growing wider as it entered the jungle. Soon after that they saw the sea ahead. They surprised some early risers jogging on the beach, then pulled up again. 

      Slowing and turning, Template flew back inland, over the jungle, heading for their home. Roy became quiet, obviously realizing the flight was nearly over.

      As they landed at the bungalow Colossa was already waiting. She smiled as Roy saw her and reacted with obvious recognition and anticipation. 

      "Bbbb-bbbb-bbbb-bbbb!" he shouted, reaching for her and kicking his mother in his efforts to reach Colossa. 

      "C'mere, big boy," said Colossa, unstrapping him and pulling him out of the harness. "Whoa, stop kicking! You'll give your other momma a broken rib."

      "Sorry," said Template, quickly. "Thought I turned my strength off after I landed. Wait, I do have my strength off."

      "He's a strong boy even without main momma's help!"

      "You don't think his own powers are already active, to you?" said Template, concerned.

      "Nah. He's just getting big enough that he's a real handful for someone without super strength," said Colossa. She gave Roy a quick once-over. "No signs of distress. Barely needs his diaper changed."

      "We weren't gone all that long."

      "It just beats me," muttered Colossa, as the two adults turned and walked inside, her still holding their child. "The kid pukes at the slightest provocation, but you can turn him inside out flying and he cries when you stop."

      "Must be the genes," said Template, grinning. "I love flying. Energia loves flying. My mother and sister can't fly but have never been airsick or even seasick, and both love amusement park rides. The wilder the better."

      "Family of freaks," said Colossa, nodding sagely, as her spouse closed the door behind them. 

      "I'm just glad I can take him with me when I practice, now."

      She gave Colossa a mock-scathing look. 

      "Okay, I get airsick," said the size-changer, rolling her eyes. "I never claimed to be a great aviator."

      Template laughed, and hugged her, a protesting Roy between them. 

      "I am so glad they have that subtrain running, now," said Colossa, with a happy sigh. "Under an hour between here and work. Either work. We can live together, where you work and within commuting distance of where I work."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Elsewhere, things were not so cheerful. 

      The State Troopers waited at their roadblock. All other traffic was diverted. It was just them and the armed fugitives headed their way at high speed in a hot - in more ways than one - musclecar. The suspects could outrun the police ground vehicles, and even the helicopters, but not the radios. The Troopers stood in the afternoon sun, sweaty, tense and edgy, shotguns and assault rifles at the ready. 

      There, in the distance of this flat, midwest plain, they saw the first trace of dust, rising from the pavement of the razor straight US Route. 

      Those in the car saw the roadblock, of course. Out of their minds on drugs and adrenalin, they didn't care. Rather, they were looking forward to the violence. The driver dented the floor, shoving the pedal down, mouth open in a hoarse scream. The passengers readied their weapons, rolling down their windows. Pigs would die this day. Mayhem would be done.

      The Troopers crouched down, behind engine blocks. The wanted men leaned out their windows. Both sides took aim...

      A green blur flickered past the hurtling car, through the roadblock, and on, over the horizon, out of sight before those on either side of the impending confrontation could even blink. 

      There was a clatter of weapons hitting the ground in front of the roadblock, and an odd buzzing sound, tracked to a blur of something spinning around an antenna on one of the police cars. 

      In the musclecar the felons were realizing they had been disarmed. As well as something more.

      "Where's the keys?" the driver yelled, looking down at the empty ignition switch. 

      The road was straight... but the car's path wasn't quite aligned with it. With the steering locked, the engine off and the manual transmission in neutral, all the driver could do was stand on the brakes without power assist as the car began to drift to the right, going off the road. 

      Back at the roadblock the state troopers slowly straightened, staring into the distance at the anticlimactic - if very dusty - end to what should have been a suicidal charge, as the car rolled to a bumpy stop and the dazed fugitives exited, staggering around in confusion, all the fight gone out of them. The whirring noise wound down, and the blur around the antenna resolved into a set of keys, which slowed and dropped onto the sheet metal. 

      Over the horizon, the Prince of Speed laughed. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The Prince was almost back home when his communicator vibrated against his hip. Puzzled, he slowed a bit and answered. 

      "Your Highness, this is Brade, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Super Affairs."

      "I know who you are," said the Prince, frowning a bit. "What do you want?"

      "How would you like a position as liaison with the supernatural community?" said Brade. 

      The Prince thought about that for a long moment. Long enough for him to reach an isolated area where he could stop and think about this.

      "I do not want to be party to anything which is intended to control my people and my kin," he said, finally.

      "This wouldn't be about controlling supernaturals any more than my job is about controlling supers," said Brade, flatly. "It's about having people in the government with the interests of the super - in your case, the supernatural - community in mind, who is both familiar enough with the community to give good advice to the government, and respected enough by the community to be listened to and have their judgement trusted."

      "If that is truly your goal," he said, carefully, "then I am in. Where and when?"

      "Now, at the White House. The President would like to meet you."

      "On my way."

      

Part Two



      After graduating from the Pine Island Academy, Gerry Rosen - better known to the other students as Cosmic Ray - had decided to go to work instead of college. He currently had a nice job as an assistant manager in a sporting goods store. He still kept his hand in as a super a few nights a week, but for now he was more concerned with building a normal life than making a Mask name for himself. 

      This evening was one of the exceptions. He'd heard something worrying on his police scanner, put on his costume, and flown to see if he could help. Fortunately, the matter turned out to not be as serious as originally thought; a drunk had ignored a police car's lights and siren, but he'd been driving very slowly. Two other patrol cars had arrived and boxed the offender in against a guard rail. Ray hovered for a bit to see what was going on, then flew away without those on the ground knowing he was there. 

      I need to get a police scanner for my cowl, he thought, as he headed towards the center of the city. By the time I get to a scene, half the time the situation is over.

      He decided to fly around a bit, as long as he was dressed for it. He wasn't as fascinated with flying as some at the school, but he still enjoyed it and was fairly good at it. 

      As Ray flew around the downtown area he was a bit startled to see someone in costume waving at him from a rooftop. Cautiously, he flew lower. Once closer, he could see that the outfit was apparently homemade, but with care. He looked around, feeling wary, but saw no-one else. Ray moved lower, until the guy could be heard calling up to him.

      "Hi! You're Cosmic Ray, right? I'm Rotary, a gadgeteer. There's four of us in the area who want to become official super heroes. Can you help us organize into a team?"

      Okay, that was different. Also a bit flattering. 

      "Well, I've barely started, myself," said Ray, uncertainly.

      "You went to that school, though. None of us could afford it, and we're kind'a in an isolated area as far as supers go. You're welcome to join, but if you want to stay solo could you at least give us some pointers?"

      Ray - realizing, now, that this guy was about his own age or maybe a bit older - flew even lower, so they could talk without shouting. 

      "Look, I know the basics, but..."

      "Which is more than we know! There's only two other costumed heroes in the region, and they're both a lot older than us. We really want to do this, but we know we don't know much about it."

      "Okay," said Ray, still reluctant but willing to meet the group. "Where can we get together?"

      "You know that old mill, on the river? We use that as a landmark. We can meet you in the open area just upstream of that, whenever you want."

      That made sense. The old fabric mill was a hollow shell of stone and mortar, not safe inside, but everyone in town knew where it was. He just hoped they had no plans to use it as a headquarters. The place was on the Historic Register. 

      "I'll be there in a few minutes," said Ray.

      "Great! I'll call the others and we'll see you there!"

      The guy - obviously showing off - ran to the edge of the roof, jumped on the ladder, and did the Navy slide down to the lower roof. From there he used a powered winch of some sort to lower himself into an alley, where he had a motorcycle. He went roaring off at a speed Ray had trouble matching. 

      "No wonder he told me where, rather than telling me to follow," Ray muttered, shaking his head at the guy's driving. Like many other gadgeteers, he obviously considered pushing his equipment to the limit to be routine operation. 

      Still, the guy had obviously been training and was fitter than most people. 

      By flying straight Ray was able to get there about when the guy - Rotary, he remembered - did. Only then did Ray realize the motorcycle didn't have any headlights on. Looking closer as he landed beside the stopped vehicle, he saw that Rotary was now wearing some sort of high-tech goggles. 

      Figures a gadgeteer would have those.

      There were three others already there: Two women - one of them on a motorcycle of her own - and another man. All of them in their mid to late teens. Ray sighed, and nodded a tentative greeting.

      "See?" said Rotary, looking very happy. "I told you I could get him to come here!"

      He made introductions, with a brief description of abilities for each of his teammates. The larger woman was Doro, a flying light brick. The other woman - and the other motorcyclist - was Thunderer and she had sonic powers. The lat member was Freep, who was "indestructible" and had general - if moderate - physical enhancements. Rotary was the most enthusiastic, Doro the least, with the other two being cautiously upbeat. 

      "Not a bad group," Ray admitted, grudgingly. "You have a good balance of powers and skills."

      "Yeah, but no training, no equipment," said Doro, sourly. "Sure, I can lift an SUV over my head and fly off with it, but that only gets you so far."

      "She's right," said Ray, cutting Rotary off. "None of you have been formally tested, none of you have any training. I bet you don't really even know what your powers are."

      "That's why we need your help!" said Rotary, emphatically. "We can't afford that school, or to commute to the nearest hero team which takes novices. You don't have to join our group, if you don't want to, but please at least give us some advice!"

      "Well, what sort of advice?" said Ray, who was feeling increasingly uncomfortable. 

      "What's the next step?" said Thunderer. "We're just getting started. We know we need training and even have a vague idea of what kind. We're working on getting a headquarters, in an empty building downtown. We've even started incorporation papers. Our budget is, well, pitiful, but we do have a little money. As soon as we get incorporated we'll apply for matching funds under the Gleason Act."

      "I'm impressed," said Ray, nodding. "Most newbie supers don't even know about the Gleason Act. Have you checked whether there are similar state and local laws?"

      "Yes," said Freep. "Nothing which really applies to us, yet, but which could once we get started good."

      "Okay. Between school, what my granddad told me, what I've read in books and online, and my own limited experience, I'd say you need a team vehicle. Most of you can't fly, and a vehicle will give you a mobile headquarters."

      "Makes sense," said Thunderer, nodding. She grimaced. "Though that's getting uncomfortably close to Scooby and the gang."

      "Where do you think the writers got the idea?" said Ray, smirking. "Listen, I know some folks who like helping young supers. They wouldn't want to do it full time, but they'll be glad to give you advice and maybe even some used equipment."

      "That," said Rotary, sincerely, "would be cool!" 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Wow," said Rubber Made, as Energia came down the stairs into the dorm's lounge area. "That earthquake in Haiti really tore things up."

      "Yeah," said Allessandra. 

      "It's that bad?" said Energia, joining them on the couch in front of the TV.

      "Worse," said Rubber Made. "Death toll is already in the hundreds. Relief agencies from all over the world are heading there. Those with supers sent them ahead. They made an evaluation, then immediately started calling for help. Some folks from the school are already on the way."

      "Wow," said Energia, unconsciously echoing Rubber Made's earlier comment. She sighed. "Kinda makes school seem... unimportant."

      "Yeah, just try telling your teachers that," said Rubber Made, snickering. "Anyway, unless and until they let me go there - and I'd be good at search and rescue, the way I can squeeze through small openings, but they already turned me down 'cause I'm underage - I'm going to keep on with the usual schedule."

      "What's up today?" said Allessandra. "Non-school, I mean."

      "All the Real Weirdies are getting together for a group picture," said Rubber Made. 

      "Real Weirdies?" said Allessandra.

      "Most of the supernaturals plus a few others," said Energia. "Mostly folks with a strange appearance by default, rather than through costume or shapechanging."

      "I'm a little insulted they didn't invite me to participate," said Rubber Made, pouting. 

      "I've worked with 'Toon!," said Energia, dryly. "You're not weird enough."

      "Anyway, wanna walk over and watch?" said Rubber Made.

      "Might as well," said Allessandra. "The news is just depressing, especially since there's nothing we can do about what they're showing."

      They were almost to the location on the beach where the photo session was to be held when another student came hurrying towards them. 

      "Hey!" Gadgetive yelled, obviously excited. "Junker and I finished our super awesome sub-sub-sub woofer!"

      "That pneumatic thing?" said Allessandra, actually backing away a bit from the girl's enthusiastic approach.  

      "It's pneumatically driven, yeah, and has a pressurized air fluidic amplifier directly triggering the flow which drives the diaphragm!"

      "Uh..." said Energia. 

      "This thing should register on mainland seismographs!" the young gadgeteer shouted, as she continued on her way to spread the good news. 

      "No, no, no," said Rubber Made, emphatically shaking her head. "They just had a big earthquake. They don't need any false alarms."

      "That's for this year's talent show, right?" said Energia, as Gadgetive looked confused.

      "Yep," said Gadgetive. "It's just three more weeks."

      "I remember last year," said Allessandra, laughing. "Hugh Manatee and Merma did that duet of 'Octopus' Garden.' That was pretty much the highlight."

      "Think I'll skip it this year," said Rubber Made, with a wince. "I value my hearing."

      "I think you'd hear that if you were in Bermuda," said Energia, wryly. 



Part Three



      Bureaucrats like routine. This is doubly true in the military. When Colonel Blair learned there was a civilian conducting an investigation of certain staff members at the Pentagon without him being officially informed, he was understandably enraged. As soon as he learned of these events, he told his aid to reschedule whatever needed to be changed while he dealt with this outrage. He then stormed through the halls and corridors and stairwells until he reached the interview room. The guards at the door were already obviously unhappy, and became even moreso when they saw Blair approaching. To their credit, they did not back down, but did their job, stopping him.

      "Sir, I have orders to not let anyone in until they..."

      "I am in direct chain of command over you, soldier!" snapped Colonel Blair. 

      "Yes, sir, but she is here on direct orders from the President."

      "She?!" said the Colonel. "They sent a woman?!"

      "Not... exactly."

      "Who is it?"

      "Think Brigitte Nielsen, only with black hair, bigger muscles and smaller tits."

      "They sent a super," said the other guard, sourly.

      "Oh. Yes," said Blair, sneering. "Sievers' figurehead."

      "Sir, I don't think you understand the situation," said the first guard.

      "Oh, I understand perfectly. This is our new leader attempting to placate a vocal minority by serving up loyal soldiers as sacrificial lambs. Well, this is one shepherd who will not let those under his command go to the slaughter!"

      He barged past the protesting guards and shoved open the door, stomping into the room. Then pulled up short when he saw the situation. 

      A very large, very striking woman in an almost military costume - though equipped with a mask - was sitting across a small table from a corporal. The room was otherwise empty. There was a digital recorder on the table. The corporal seemed surprised, maybe even a bit frightened, as he looked up at the Colonel. Brade had a perfect poker face. 

      "Come in, Colonel Blair," said Brade, standing. "Have a seat."

      He realized, remotely, that she had stood primarily to use her height for intimidation purposes. He had to admit that tactic was effective. Gathering himself, he walked - almost marched - briskly over to the table and sat in the vacated chair. 

      "Now, Corporal Hamid, tell the Colonel what you just told me."

      "Yes, Ma'am," he said. He cleared his throat nervously, then began. "Three days ago, I was told to report to Major Carl Thrace's office to help him with something. I found him emptying his filing cabinets into storage boxes. Not normally, keeping them in order, but just pulling out handfuls of folders and throwing them in. He looked... nervous. I asked him if something was wrong. He tried to smile, but looked kinda sick. Said he'd just received rush orders to bring all his records before an investigatory board." 

      "Go on," said Brade, encouragingly. 

      "Well, I helped him, tried to do it right, but he kept telling me I had to hurry, not to worry about being neat, he'd straighten them out when he got where he was going. We stacked the boxes on a cart, and he wheeled it off."

      "Thank you, Corporal," said Brade. "That's all."

      "Sir?" said the young man, looking at the senior officer. 

      "Go ahead," said Blair.

      The corporal left in a hurry, obviously relieved to be getting out of there. Brade sat across from the Colonel, where the corporal had been, the government issue chair creaking in protest. The Colonel had to tip his head back a bit to look her in the eye. 

      "Major Thrace had been summoned to a meeting ordered by the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor for Super Affairs. He never showed, and is now officially missing. We don't know where he went when he left here, but we have traced his movements backwards from the parking lot to a stop he made at a document incinerator, then to his office. Which now contains none of the information those who called the meeting were interested in."

      "I am aware that the Major is missing," said Blair, carefully. "I am also aware he was called before an investigatory board on orders of the Secretary of Defense. I have no knowledge of him destroying any evidence."

      "Wasn't his burning so many documents at once suspicious?" said Brade. 

      "No. Major Thrace's duties included personally destroying certain materials. While such a large amount at once would have been unusual, it would not have been unheard-of."

      The Colonel locked eyes with her for a moment. 

      "I had assumed that the Major's absence was due to being held pending completion of the investigation."

      "Procedure calls for the head of Pentagon security to be notified of any arrest."

      "I didn't say I thought he had been arrested."

      "I don't work for the Thurlin administration," said Brade, hotly. "President Sievers is determined to restore the rule of law and proper procedure according to regulations. Keeping you in the dark until now was a notable exception, and her idea, and considered justified because of the Major's mysterious disappearance. The Secretary of Defense and the National Security Advisor for Super Affairs agreed. We had to know how far this went, which means keeping everyone in the dark until we had made at least a basic inquiry. I am only one of the investigators."

      "I see," said the Colonel, his tone and expression carefully schooled. 

  "This is not a witch hunt, Colonel," said Brade. "I know we violated protocol, but it was ordered by the President and approved at the highest levels of the civilian government. We have been charged with finding out who was involved in Thurlin's covert anti-super operations. That means having as few people involved as possible, at least at first. I have the full consent of Secretary Carver in this matter. Those who performed illegal actions will be found and punished."

      "If that is your goal, you will have my full cooperation, as well," said the Colonel. "However, I want to make clear that I will not participate in anything which weakens the national security of this country."

      "Colonel, we're trying to undo what Thurlin did to weaken this country," said Brade, emphatically. "You surely see that using military resources to capture known crime fighters compromises the integrity of US security on several levels. If nothing else, the violation of posse commitatus sets a bad precedent."

      "Yes," said Blair, reluctantly. 

      "I know you don't like supers. I don't care. I want you to perform your duties as head of security for the Pentagon. Do that and we will have no problems."

      Blair wasn't so certain, but kept his mouth shut.

      "We'll be seeing a lot of each other," said Brade. She reached out and turned off the recorder; Blair hadn't realized until then it was still on. "We need to at least maintain professional courtesy."

      "I understand." 

      "Now that our initial investigation has indicated you were not involved in these illegal actions you will be included, and kept informed of any results which involve the personnel here."

      "I appreciate that."

      "Don't be coy with me, Colonel," said Brade, her voice like a whip. "I don't need coddling, I need you to do your job. Don't dissemble, don't tell me what you think I want to hear. I want to know what you think, what you feel, what you know. If you tell me I'm an intrusive bitch with too much testosterone, well, I've heard far worse. You be honest with me, and I'll be honest with you."

      "Yes, Ma'am," said the soldier, actually impressed. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Hey, Jenkins," said Brade, a bit tiredly, as she approached her issued car. "Ready to head back?"

      "Yes, Ma'am," her driver said. He had spotted her walking towards the vehicle and already had the door open for his charge. 

      They were outside the secure area and almost to the public highway when sirens started sounding behind them. 

      "Any idea what that is?" Brade asked, coming to full alertness. 

      "No, Ma'am."

      "Pull over."

      Even before the car was completely stopped she was out. Brade hurried towards a low rise, using that slight height advantage to scan the area. She was tempted to simply jump straight up, but knew that was a bad idea so close to the Pentagon. Her senses weren't superhuman, but they were right at human limits. She scanned in a circle, first on the ground, then upwards. She almost missed it, then turned back. There was a black speck which appeared to be hovering. Only it was getting bigger. Brade realized that meant it was heading directly towards her. 

      She threw herself into a nearby ditch and scrambled on all fours into the culvert under the road. There was a huge explosion, which shook the ground and left her sneezing in the dust and grit that kicked up. Brade climbed out of the culvert, then stared, feeling sick. 

      "Jenkins..."

      It hadn't been heading directly towards her, but towards her car.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "They weren't after the Pentagon or anyone in it," said Brade, angrily. "They were after me. Investigators found a tracking device attacked to the frame of the car. How it got there is a problem; Jenkins was with the car the whole time since we left the parking lot and would certainly have noticed someone planting that tracker. It must have been placed on the car before it left for the Pentagon."

      "Poor Jenkins," said President Sievers, shaking her head. "I'm glad he was a bachelor. I can't imagine telling someone's family their loved one died because I put them in harm's way..."

      "None of us had any reason to expect this sort of attack," said Gompers. "Not only that, but the specific method means someone somehow had inside information on our operations. They knew ahead of time which car Brade would be issued."

      "I've already ordered a security sweep," said Howers. "They'll look for bugs, phone taps, and so forth. That still leaves people."

      "I can't believe any of those few who knew where Brade was going and why would betray us!" said Sievers. 

      "It might not even have been deliberate," said Brade. "Besides simple slips, whoever is responsible for sending that cruise missile my way could be or have access to a telepath."

      "God..." said the President, rubbing her face with both hands. She sighed, and straightened. "Okay. We're on a solid lockdown until we get some clue."

      "There is a clue in the way this was done," said Brade. "I was targeted specifically. None of the other investigators have had a hint of this kind of trouble. Those responsible waited until we were far enough from the defenses at the Pentagon that their missile would not be intercepted. There could have been an observer on the scene, but more likely the tracker provided our location, perhaps even through GPS coordinates. They haven't found the launcher, yet, but that is only a matter of time. Pentagon security says that while that type of missile has a range of over five hundred klicks, this one still had most of its fuel left. That's part of what made the fireball so big. The launch site has to be close."

      "So, was that intended to send a message?" said Howers. 

      "I think it tells us someone is desperate," said Brade. "There wasn't much time between deciding to send me to the Pentagon and the attack. That means someone had to either come up with the tracker and the missile on the spur of the moment or, far more likely, has access to some equipment and quickly cobbled together a makeshift plan as soon as they learned of the opportunity."

      "Well, the Secret Service has already informed me that they will be instituting measures to make certain all carpool vehicles for all government officials as well as all investigators in this matter are swept before hitting the road."

      "God willing, we won't have any more attacks like this," said Brade, hopefully. 



Part Four



      Ray landed on the roof of the old brownstone and went down the stairs. He could hear work going on below, complete with metallic clangs and bangs. As Ray passed the second floor landing he was relieved to see that the door had been secured and warning signs put up. He wasn't glad for himself; he could fly. He could also, however, very easily imagine some unsuspecting guest - or Rotary - walking through that door into empty space. 

      Ray entered the large volume left when the lower two floors had been gutted. The upper two floors would eventually be converted into operational rooms and living quarters, respectively. If the team lasted long enough. The basement would be used for the building's support equipment. The largest part of the structure, though, was a huge room which was currently part garage, part training area.

      "Hey, Rotary!" Ray called out, as the stairwell door closed behind him. He started walking towards where a pair of legs stuck out from under what had once been a rather mundane van.

      He couldn't fault the details of their plans, though he still had doubts about their actual goal. Most new hero teams fell apart before completing a full year. However, they were off to a good start. The incorporation was in progress, with no major impediments apparent. Ray figured the current crisis in Haiti and the resulting shortage of supers in the US might have something to do with that. The team had decided on the name Adirondack Irregulars. Once the business and governmental paperwork was done, they would be eligible for matching funds. Right now, they were really strapped for cash, and deeply in debt. Ray hoped this wouldn't blow up in their faces. Money problems were the number three reason for team failures. Hero equipment was expensive. 

      The gadgeteer shoved his creeper out from under the van and popped to his feet. Not only was Rotary more hyperactive than most gadgeteers, he was naturally athletic. He hardly worked out at all - at least as far as Ray had seen - yet was quite fit, with good strength, agility and endurance. He casually performed feats which normally required hard training and much practice, and was sometimes surprised when others couldn't do what he did. Ray wondered if that ability was actually part of his powers. 

      "Ray! Good afternoon! Come look at this."

      The old van the nascent team had purchased with their pooled money was slowly going back together, after a nearly complete disassembly. Ray was impressed, and not just because of the van. All four members were taking the process of creating the infrastructure for their team very seriously, even Doro. Despite her lack of enthusiasm, she was diligent, in both her financial commitment and her time. She was also a big help to Rotary in working on the van and the headquarters.

       "Those folks you put me in contact with were very helpful," said Rotary, enthusiastically. "Suggestions, plans, sources for equipment and materials... We should have this ready in another three days! The next step is to mount all the heavy gear under the floor."

      "You're adding more weight?" said Ray.

      "Got to lower the center of gravity," said Rotary, looking momentarily concerned. "That composite armor is light for armor, but it's still armor!"

      Ray only half listened as Rotary babbled on, though he did note that they had decided to paint the van a dark matt green. They were holding off on adding the team logo, since they didn't have one yet. 

      While Rotary gushed about the van, most of Ray's attention was focused on Doro. She was currently wearing tight jeans and a plain t-shirt. He wasn't sure, yet, having only seen her from the back, but there didn't seem to be a bra under the shirt. She was also lifting some heavy piece of equipment, placing it on a sturdy looking frame against one wall. This stretched her clothing tight and made her muscles clearly visible through the fabric. 

      "Hey," said Ray, quietly, nudging Rotary to interrupt the monologue. "Is she seeing anyone?"

      "Huh?" said the gadgeteer, his train of obsession completely derailed. "No. I don't think so. Why?"

      Ray knew better than to try and explain to a gadgeteer. It was a miracle they managed to reproduce. 

      He walked over to watch as Doro finished fastening whatever that thing was in place. He could see, now, that she was wearing gloves and a mask. Probably the same ones she'd had on the first night he saw her. Oh, and a bra, but a very light, thin one. Like most women with super strength, her tissues provided all the support she needed. 

      "I finally finished Thunderer's bike," said Rotary, joining them before Ray could say anything to the girl. "Even installed the rack inside the van for her to store it on."

      Ray, currently, was more interested in another rack. Which he got a good look at as Doro jumped a bit, and spun around, obviously surprised to see them standing so close. She smirked as she realized why Ray, at least, was there. 

      "Like what you see?"

      "That's some very nice equipment."

      "Well, it's pretty makeshift," said Rotary, modestly. "I just kludged it together so Doro wouldn't have to hold the van up the whole time I was working on it."

      Doro grinned and winked at Ray. Who smiled back. 

      "Why are you in this team, anyway?" 

      "That is a long story."

      Ray moved a bit closer. Doro actually closed even that small distance.

      "Would you like to tell me over dinner?"

      "Love to."

      "Oh, get a room, you two," muttered Rotary.

      Ray thought that was a surprisingly good idea, and a surprising one, coming from a gadgeteer.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "No, no, no," said Access, with a brisk shake of his head accompanying each word. "You have to ambush her and knock her out while she has her powers off. Then hope you don't hurt her too bad, or you'd have half the teachers and students here after you. Not to mention the whole Young Guardians. The Intrepids, too, if I remember correctly."

      The group of four young men were meeting in the dorm room shared by two of them, Leon and Jiggs. They were an odd mix, of cultural backgrounds and upbringing and even skin color. The only two things they had in common were low-level super powers and a pack mentality. A very vicious pack mentality. They were determined to become a power to be reckoned with at this school. So far, their success had been negative. All because of one girl. Because of Energia, no-one was taking them seriously!

      "I'm starting to think this is more trouble than it's worth," said Spacer, in a muttered aside. 

      "Of course it's worth it!" snapped Leon, the ringleader. "She snitched on us to the teachers!"

      "Let it go, Leon," said Jiggs, tiredly. "Marker already left us because you keep obsessing on that girl."

      "I'm not obsessing! I'm just putting her in her place!"

      "Her place," said Access, slowly, carefully and angrily, "is on a major super hero team. She's an energy projecting heavyweight with combat experience. Face it, the only way to get even with her is to shoot her with a sniper rifle when she's not expecting it. I'm not going to murder someone just because your ego got bruised."

      "All our egos got bruised," said Leon, flatly. "We were all there when she pulled that 'Mega-Taser' nonsense on us. And that was in addition to the snipe hunt she sent us on!"

      "That was your fault!" snapped Jiggs. "They just told a joke, which we missed because we didn't know about it. You had the bright idea to follow up on it!"

      "Whose side are you on?" snapped Leon.

      "Ours. Right now, I think you're just on yours. I don't mind showing that girl up, but not as part of some crazy revenge scheme."

      "I'm with him," said Access. "People here like that gal. Hurting her will just cause trouble. We need to figure out how to show her up another way. Hey! Maybe we could do something for that talent show!"

      "Yeah..." said Leon, looking thoughtful. "She's supposed to be doing some sort of flying demonstration. How boring. We should easily come up with a routine which would blow her out of the water!"

      "Now you're talking!" said Jiggs.

      They began brainstorming. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      

      Sievers caught Brade in the hallway as they were both on the ways to different meetings. 

      "I want to have a private meeting with you, your staff and selected supers."

      "How private?"

      "Camp David private. At least, that's what we'll tell the Press. However, we'll actually be at a private hunting lodge in the Adirondacks I've rented through a friend. Only the Secret Service will know where we are."

      "That sounds... unsafe," said Brade, before either of the President's assistants could voice the same concern. "Someone is gunning for me, at least, and they may have super means of finding me."

      "With several top-rank supers attending, the lodge should be safer than here. Besides, that is part of what I want to discuss. If that attack was personal, it may have nothing to do with Thurlin's activities and everything to do with your history as a Mask."

      "All right," said Brade, nodding. She had already thought of that, actually. Some people held grudges a long time, and she had given many people reason to hate her during her time as an active hero. "Let me know where and when. Do you want me to select the supers?"

      "Pick half a dozen or so you worked with or who would otherwise know about your history," said the President. "I have a list of about that many I want to invite. You should contact them for me, though. They're more likely to come if you ask."

      "Okay," said Brade, nodding. "I'll start on my list this afternoon. I'll start inviting as soon as I get your list."



Part Five



      Template wiped Roy's face and carefully placed the already sleeping baby in the crib. She used the wipe to clean herself, tossed it, then climbed into bed. Karen rolled over to cuddle with her. As usual, Template wore just a pair of panties, while Karen had on panties and an oversized t-shirt. They rolled face to face and hugged. The size-changer thrilled a bit at the intimate awareness there was just a thin layer of fabric between her and the love of her life. Template, though, winced and drew back a bit.

      "Tits sore?"

      "Oh, yeah."

      "Why don't you change back to Randy?"

      "Then I'd be a guy with sore tits," said Template, sighing and molding her body back into the cuddle. "Did you know that my nipples are actually swollen when I'm Randy, these days? Wouldn't be surprised if I could get milk out of 'em. That's just too weird to deal with right now."

      "It seems like I hardly see Randy any more," said Karen, a pout in her voice.

      "It seems like there's not much Randy left, these days."

      "Well... I was hoping for a bit of sausage tonight," said Karen, suggestively, sliding her hand down to Template's ass.

      "Hon, I'm sorry, but right now I'm anti-horney."

      "I understand," said Karen, giving her a nearly platonic kiss on the forehead. "You're trying to keep the school going with a third of your people in Haiti, and raise a baby. Hell, I'm exhausted, too. The Intrepids are picking up the slack on the mainland."

      "Sorry," said Template, sleepily. 

      "That's okay," said Karan, with an affectionate squeeze. "I've got plenty of batteries."

      She winced as she felt Template stiffen. 

      "Oh, Jeeze, I'm sorry," said Karen, quickly. "Trying to make a joke and failing miserably."

      "S'okay," said Template, already dozing off. 

      Karen decided not to pursue the apology further. In minutes, both were sound asleep. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We're being plagued with bad equipment," groaned Rotary, as the team held a meeting to discuss the progress in getting up and running. "Oh, not the stuff we'll use outside; that's all in pretty good shape. I mean the stuff we use inside. Especially the tools. We had to buy cheap maintenance and repair gear, in order to afford the good stuff for missions. Even some of that's used, though in good shape."

      "It's not the equipment that's important," said Ray. "It's the team. You folks are really making progress in your training."

      "Oh, he's just fussing because he has to keep patching that heavy duty extension cord," said Thunderer, teasing.

      Ray had sometimes wondered if sonic super had a bit of a crush on the gadgeteer. She flirted with everyone - including Doro, to the latter's discomfort - but seemed to treat Rotary a bit differently. A bit more seriously. 

      "That's not an extension cord," said Rotary. "That's an extinction cord. It's shocked me and Doro several times. And I'm not invulnerable."

      "Electricity still hurts me," huffed the team's brick. "It directly stimulates the nerves."

      "At least the paperwork is done," said Freep, a touch of wonder in his voice. "We four are now officially the Adirondack Irregulars. We even Trademarked the logo we came up with, the stylized mountains with the AI letters. The mayor's going to hold a special ceremony next week to introduce us formally to the city!"

      "That means your matching funds should be coming in soon," said Ray, confidently. "Local, state and federal governments are all expediting that sort of thing, to try and help rebuild the hero support for law enforcement and emergency services."

      "Still sure you don't want to join?" said Doro, putting her hand on Ray's.

      "Yeah," said Ray, putting his other hand on top of hers and smiling at the brick. "I'll help out if you need me, but I'm really trying to establish a normal, civilian life before I take up supering as more than an occasional hobby."

      "Our charter has a provision for auxiliary members," said Rotary, helpfully.

      "Thank you. I might do that eventually. Remember, though, I spent most of the last three years on an island. I want to get back into society, interact with normal people again."

      "I can understand that," said Doro, quietly. 

      She had eventually shared her long story with Ray, though not on that first date. Doro had come into her powers only a few months after her sixteenth birthday. She didn't do anything more than occasionally have fun with them. A bit more than a year later she was in a bank when a bunch of gang members staged an actual, old-fashioned daylight robbery. They were rank amateurs, at least where grand theft was concerned. They wound up getting into a confrontation with a security guard, panicked, and started shooting. Several people died, several more were injured.

      After beating herself up over her inaction in that robbery for two weeks, Doro put together a crude costume - actually little more than workout clothes, gloves and a mask - and started "jogging" around her neighborhood at night. After finding no crime more serious than a couple of drunks passed out in their cars (she "parked" each in a way which required a tow truck to move it, to keep the drivers from waking and driving away drunk, and which also earned both of them attention from the police) she started widening her patrol. She soon ran into Rotary. He was eager for a "team up" but she was reluctant. Still, they had both responded to a fire alarm a few nights later and found they worked well together. 

      Soon Freep and then Thunderer also found Rotary, and he introduced them to Doro. They four of them spent two years gradually working their way up to being an informal team. They helped each other get proper costumes, and built a bit of street cred. Fortunately, they were so low profile they completely escaped the attentions of those cracking down on supers during the Thurlin administration. Finally, after Doro - the youngest - turned twenty-one, they decided to go pro. 

      That was less than a week before Rotary contacted Ray. They hadn't even told each other their private names until they filled out the incorporation papers. Ray still didn't know who any of them were out of costume, except for Doro, since that part of the documentation was not publicly available. Doro was the only one of the four who knew Ray's real name. 

      Up until now, Rotary and Thunderer had both used motorcycles to get around, while Freep simply ran. He could match an Olympic sprinter for speed, and hold that speed for nearly half an hour. When necessary he either rode double with Thunderer or had Doro carry him. Doro, of course, flew. The van would help them to work as a team, getting them where they needed to be quickly and together, while also carrying a great deal of important support equipment. With the incorporation completed, they could even put emergency lights and a siren on the van... when they could afford those. 

      "It's all coming together," said Rotary, a distant smile on his face. "The legal training, the emergency medical training, the liaison work... We're going to do it."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The hunting lodge wasn't quite what Brade expected. She had envisioned something like a luxury hotel. It was luxurious, all right, but more like a country mansion. There was enough room for everyone and a bit to spare, including servants quarters for the support staff. The Secret Service was, of course, providing security, including doing background checks on all the attendees and the support staff. Many of the waiters, cooks, maids and such actually were Secret Service, under cover.  

      Brade was one of the early arrivers, and was currently getting a special briefing, since she was an appointed official of fairly high rank in the administration. 

      "Now, if you hear that alert I showed you earlier, you immediately head for the basement and hide," said Agent Gorton.

      "Hide where?" said Brade, rolling her eyes. "I'm seven feet tall!"

      "Look, I know you're a veteran crime fighter and that hiding when there's trouble goes against the grain, but this is different stuff. Besides, you'll be where the President and several other important persons are. You're part of the last line of defense."

      She could see that, actually. 

      "Let us handle the things we're trained to handle, and are responsible for handling," said Gorton, firmly. "You certainly understand that someone not familiar with the way we operate could - with the best of intentions - get in the way."

      "Yes," said Brade, reluctantly. 

      "Good. Don't worry about anyone else. We have people here who are assigned to each of the attendants and their staff members. Their job, in an emergency, is to get everyone to shelter. Don't fight that."

      "Understood."

      She also understood that this was a pretty big deal. Besides a baker's dozen plus one of guest supers, there was President Sievers and her staff, big chunks of her cabinet and the Executive Office personnel, and all the associated support staff. 

      "I tell you one thing," said Brade, with a grin. "If nothing else, I'm going to spend as much time in that jacuzzi as I can. It's one of the few I've seen big enough to hold me."

      Gorton laughed at that. 



Part Six



      The only official function that evening was a soiree which started with supper and lasted through cocktails and a nightcap. Brade was surprised that all the invited guests had arrived in time for this. She was even more surprised to realize just how much real socializing was going on, late into the night. There was still much unease and even suspicion on both sides, but those in each faction were making an effort to give the other the benefit of the doubt.

      She noted with dark humor that the most overt hostility was between American Guardsman and Beat Red. The former still thought the latter and all working with him - including Template - were making a major mistake with their lobbying efforts. She wasn't sure he wasn't right. Perhaps her own doubts about mixing supers and politics were the reason he was actually quite civil to her. Or maybe the fact that she had worked repeatedly with the current Guardsman's predecessor. Presumably, he had told his replacement good things about Brade. 

      "I was surprised when I heard you had accepted the position as super liaison," he told her, quietly, when they finally had a private moment.

      "I think I surprised myself," she replied. Brade shrugged. "I definitely think there needs to be such a post. I'm not certain I'm the best choice to fill the position, but I'm the only one both Sievers and her staff and Template and her staff agreed on."

      He nodded, slowly, face inscrutable. 

      "I trust you to be fair, equitable and very competent in the execution of your post," he said.

      "That means a lot, coming from you," said Brade, actually touched. She gave a tired laugh. "If I yawn, please don't take it personally. This is a long day and I'm up later than usual."

      "I have the unfair advantage of being on California time," said the Guardsman, smiling a bit. 

      Two of the other supers present were also from timezones further west, and one had little need for sleep. However, shortly before Midnight the gathering - one hesitates to call it a party - broke up.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Breakfast ran from 6:00 to 10:00 the next morning, to take into account the different settings of various biological clocks. Then came two hours of briefings. There were several parallel tracks, tailored to specific interests. Lunch was more amiable than supper had been the night before. Those who hadn't met until this function were getting to know each other and in a few cases even beginning to like each other. Even where there was still disagreement there was at least an increased tendency to see the opposition as people rather than caricatures. 

      Brade was starting to think this might actually be a good idea. 

      The first all-up meeting was at 1:30. President Sievers took the podium at the stroke of the half hour and got right down to business. 

      "I have many things on my agenda this year," she told them. "Not only are there many things I want to do with the mandate the voters have given me, but there are many things which need undoing. Among those is a reinstatement of civil protections, for both supers and normal humans. One of the bills I'm pushing this session of Congress will make the use of super detectors illegal without a warrant."

      That was definitely a major hit with the attending supers. Brade looked around to see how everyone else was taking that news. She was mildly surprised to see most of the bureaucrats and politicians responding to the announcement favorably. Even those who weren't had only mild reactions. 

      There was a smattering of applause, which grew to a minor ovation. It might have grown even stronger, but right then all the power went off. 

      They weren't left in the dark, since two walls were mostly windows. However, there was a chorus of groans. 

      "All right," said Sievers, with a slightly strained laugh. "Please, people, settle down. I'm sorry for this glitch. There's supposed to be a backup generator which comes on automatically, so hopefully I'll have my mike back soon and can stop shouting."

      That brought a few polite laughs. However, the mood turned grim a few minutes later when one of the Secret Service men approached the podium and whispered something in Sievers' ear. She looked grim as well, and nodded. 

      "I have just been told that the generator has been sabotaged. That means this is deliberate. Please, everyone, move to your assigned shelter."

       To emphasize this order, she obeyed it herself, moving off under the guidance of the Secret Service Agent. Their SIG P299 pistols in .357 SIG seemed to just appear in their hands. Most of these men and women were part of the Counter Assault Team, and trained in defending against intrusion from both normal and super attack. Brade wondered if that training would be enough. There had luckily been very few opportunities to practice. She wished they had some Emergency Response Team members here, with their their FN P90 submachine guns in 5.7. Those had proven effective against supers with low-level resilience.

      Brade thoughts were interrupted when she spotted potential trouble. She immediately jumped from her front row seat onto the podium.

      "All supers, stay with the President!" she shouted. "We're the last line of defense!" 

      That turned what could have been mass confusion - as supers spontaneously moved to the perimeter - into a sudden but orderly rush towards the basement, behind the President. Brade gave a quiet sigh of relief. As she joined the throng her own assigned Secret Service agent caught her eye and gave her a salute. Brade grinned.

      The basement was just as bereft of electricity as the upstairs, and ventilation consisted of a Secret Service agent peddling a stationary bicycle hooked to an exhaust fan. There were plenty of flashlights and battery lanterns, though. Also, one of the Agents who had come into the basement with them quickly opened a locker and started passing out lightsticks. These were the newer, white sticks, and several of them came with holders. Those had a reflective inner surface and a self-adhesive patch on the back. Soon the basement was well lit. 

      Brade had her own mission. Something she had arranged with her staff. She opened a footlocker and pulled out several packages. She wandered from super to super, murmuring instructions. 

      Meanwhile, the President was moved into a far corner, where a vault-sized room had been installed just for this meeting. Brade knew this had an independent air supply and battery power and was both armored and insulated. The lodge could literally be blown to rubble and the ruins firebombed and she'd still be safe. Only Sievers, two of her personal staff and - after a bit of argument - the Guardsman were allowed in before the door was sealed. 

      Brade realized a Secret Service woman was trying to get her attention. 

      "Ma'am, all communications are out. Including satellite links. Everything."

      Brade nodded, thinking hard. 

      "This is a well-organized attack, probably with super help."

      "That's our conclusion. That means we go with the alternate plan."

      "I just noticed something," said Brade, holding up her hand before the woman could continue. "There's only a few of the non-security staff in here."

      "Yes, Ma'am," said the woman, a trace of worry showing through her professional exterior. "We were just starting to notice that many of them were missing when the power went."

      "Fuck," said Brade, quietly but intensely. "Okay, most of the staff I see are from food preparation."

      "Yes. We figure that with so many supers having enhanced senses, they didn't want to risk someone twigging if the food was poisoned."

      Well, that was a relief. 

      "Okay, I know we're in a cell dead zone. Where's the nearest tower?"

      "Just to the west, over the ridge."

      "Well, whoever set this up won't neglect to protect that."

      "We have people in cameo who are expert woodsmen heading in other directions. The soonest we can expect any of them to be able to get help is over two hours."

      Brade doubted any of them would make it. 

      "What about the scheduled check-in calls? Aren't those supposed to go out every fifteen minutes?" Brade stopped and mentally kicked herself. "Oh, right; there were people on the inside. They have the codes and will make the calls. Okay, I really need to speak to Agent Thompson."

      He was the senior Secret Service Agent on site. Brade knew he didn't think much of supers, but she counted on him being professional about what she had to say.

      "Yes, Ma'am," said the young woman, nodding. "I thought you would."

      Thompson did not look happy to see her. Of course, given the situation he certainly hadn't been happy before she arrived, so maybe he actually was relieved to see the huge super approaching, but was so worried he still hadn't reached happy. Right. Brade was sure that was the case. She sighed, and got right to the point. 

      "What's the situation?"

      "You are supposed to be in your shelter."

      "There are supers involved, right? You need experienced supers on your side, to offer advice if nothing else."

      He nodded.

      "So far we have spotted Briar Thorne, Doctor Gravity... and The Albino."

      Brade winced. Those three alone would be a match for most combinations of three supers from those inside the lodge. They would not be alone. 

      "How much experience do your people have fighting supers?" said Brade.

      "We've all had special training," said Thompson.

      "That's not what I asked. Swallow your pride; there are lives at stake, including that of the President. Do what I say and we just might all get out of this."

      He stared at her silently for a long, tense moment. Then, reluctantly, nodded again. 

      "What do we do?"

      "Allocate our resources," said Brade. "Mixed teams of Secret Service Agents and supers. With one team in the basement as a reserve."

      They spoke quickly and quietly. Brade knew who among the supers would work well together, who was good in a fight, and how they could best be applied. She and Thompson picked six teams of two Agents and two supers, with all other personnel staying in the basement. Brade went downstairs and spread the word.

      Given something to do, both the Secret Service Agents and the supers switched from milling around nervously to moving with purpose. The basement was soon much less crowded. 

      Thompson used the meeting room to quickly brief the defenders. 

      "Right now, we're strictly on the defensive. Don't let yourselves be drawn away from the building. We're pretty sure that the folks we've seen allowed themselves to be seen. They're trying to bait us, lead us into traps. Reduce our forces through attrition."

      "I'm surprised they haven't already attacked," said Firebreak.

      "We're up against professionals, who have planned ahead of time," said Thompson. "They know we're cut off and that help will be at least a couple of hours arriving. So, they know they have time to try several gambits."

      "What gambits?" said the Black Mask.

      "We have ideas, but these people have been working on this for longer than we have," said Brade, nodding to her old acquaintance. "So, no use trying to work anything out in detail. General tactics - such as dividing our forces to pick us off incrementally - are pretty obvious. Just keep on your toes."

      Suddenly, there was an eerie green flash, which seemed to come from inside their eyeballs, rather than the room. 



Part Seven



      "Okay," said the Beat Red. "That's new. What the fuck was it?"

      "An area-effect burst neutralizer," said Brade. "I bet there's one in every room in this building."

      "Wait... Why aren't we affected?"

      Brade angrily shushed him, then looked over at a super in a full-face prankster's mask and hideously clashing costume of primary colors.

      "Emp? Time to shut things down."

      They couldn't see his expression through the mask, of course, but he gave a thumbs up. There was an odd, snapping sound and sparks jumped between metal items throughout the room. These stung several people and started several small fires.

      "I wondered why he was one of your choices," said Beat Red, smirking. 

      "Okay, listen up, people!" said Thompson, as the fires were extinguished. "Hopefully both the neutralizers and any bugs are now blown. Also hopefully, our hardened com equipment isn't. With permission from the President, as soon as she realized we were under super attack, Deputy National Security Advisor for Super Affairs Brade issued neutralizer countermeasure units to all attending supers. Watch your perimeters! Our attackers will presumably think all supers in this lodge are now disabled, and make their move soon."

      "Weren't you listening when I handed you your package?" said Brade, to Beat Red. "One of the items is a neutralizer countermeasure."

      "Oh!" said Beat Red, in sudden revelation. "That's what you meant..."

      At least he had done as told. That is, put the super team com in his ear and the neutralizer in a secure pocket. Presumably after turning both on. 

      "I wonder why they didn't do that right away?" said Beat Red.

      "The effect on most supers is very short. They waited until right before they were ready to attack. Now we really need to hurry. Which means I need to call on an expert at hurrying." 

      The small teams spread quickly out through the lodge. All except the one Brade was assigned to. While the other three waited, she made a quick return to the basement. Standing at the bottom of the stairs, she smiled.

      "To right this wrong with blinding speed," said Brade, loudly and distinctly. 

      There was an eerie green flash, but one very much unlike the application of a neutralizer. A figure in green flitted through the crowd, flickering to a stop before the huge super. There were murmurs of surprised recognition. He looked fragile, almost frail, in comparison to Brade, but she bowed to him.

      "Your Highness," she said. "I regret using you like this, but we need to have word of our plight taken to the outside world."

      "Just give me the word, madam," he replied, smiling and nodding his head, "and it will be taken."

      Brade quickly and quietly briefed him. The Prince of Speed nodded again, and vanished.

      "Let's see them stop him," said Brade, smirking as she climbed back up the stairs. 

      Brade and Beat Red found themselves working with Gorton and the young woman who had come to Brade in the basement. They learned her name was Sandra Herrington, and that she was actually a bit of a super fan. 

      Their post was in the second floor hallway, by the window at the south end. That was a bit crowded for four, especially when one of them was Brade. Since neither of the supers had enhanced senses and only Gorton had binoculars, he and Sandra decided they'd take turns keeping watch. However, they hadn't even reached their post when the attack started.

      There were several loud crashes from around the outside of the building, and the whole structure shuddered. They also heard shouts, gunshots, and the sounds of powers being used. The two Secret Service Agents raced ahead. Brade actually had to hold Beat Red back. 

      "Let them evaluate the situation, first. You and I have both been out of the business for a while, and this isn't even the type of situation we have experience with."

      "Speak for yourself," he said, in a mock huff. "I saved Gerald Ford's life, once!"

      Brade was about to make a snarky comment, when Gorton suddenly waved to them.

      "They're trying to break in the door just under this window! Brade, jump down there and hit them from behind. Beat Red, come here and pick off anyone trying to shoot her from the woods."

      "Once more unto the breach," Beat Red shouted, as Brade leapt from where she was and through the window in a single, flat jump.

      She caught herself on the window frame to kill her momentum, then dropped straight down. Into the midst of the attackers. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Rotary and Doro were placing armor on the inside wall of the large room when the alarm sounded. They both jumped, she almost losing her hold on the large sheet of laminate. Rotary quickly propped the piece in place and ran to the communications station. Eventually, this would be on the top floor, with an intercom connection to the garage, but that and the third floor were still being remodeled. Contractors were doing that work, now that the matching funds had come through. However, team members currently still needed to perform a lot of "sweat equity." 

      "Right!" said Rotary, into the headset microphone, almost shouting in his excitement, as Doro finally hurried over. "We'll get right on it!"

      Before Doro could open her mouth he turned and waved a piece of paper with his indecipherable scribbles on it. 

      "The President is in danger! Call the rest of the team! I'll get the van ready!"

      Doro moved to the alert panel. She raised a safety cover and hit the big, red button underneath. She had to smirk a bit about the melodrama of that arrangement. The equipment would activate pagers they all carried. In fact, her own was already beeping. Doro silenced it as she headed for the van. 

      She barely made it, actually having to fly the last bit of distance into the open back door. Doro also noticed that their longest whip antenna hit the still-rising garage door on their way out. She scowled at Rotary's overeagerness, and hit the button inside the van to close the garage door. She didn't even see if it had reversed direction before they turned a corner on two wheels.

      "Rotary! If you don't slow down a bit we won't even get there!"

      "Sorry!" he called back, absently, somehow managing to drive almost competently while also using the van's com system. "Thunderer and Freep are both on the way. They'll intercept us."

      "Regular pickup for Thunderer?"

      "Just like we practiced."

      They were actually nearing the outskirts of the city before Thunderer's high-powered motorcycle swerved in behind them. There was no sign of Freep. Doro flew out, grabbed the bike by the handles Rotary had attached at the balance point and lifted it off the ground. She carefully flew it into the rear of the van and deposited motorcycle and rider inside.

      "Freep missed us," Rotary called back. "You have to go pick him up."

      "Fuck!" said Doro, snarling. She could barely match the van's top speed. She doubted Rotary would slow much while she was running this errand. 

      She helped Thunderer secure her vehicle while Rotary gave Freep's location. Then Doro flew out the still-open back door. 

      She found him right where expected, and made a swooping pickup. 

      "What happened?"

      "Just... too far... away," he panted, still out of breath from running. "Rotary drives... too fast."

      "I'll agree with that," said Doro, with a humorless laugh. 

      Soon all four team members were in the van. Doro closed the rear door as her two teammates strapped themselves in. She then discreetly called Ray, but he was out of service range. She left a message with his voice mail. 

      "We don't need him," said Thunderer, with a sneer, as she realized what her teammate was doing. "You've already got me for an energy projector."

      "We're rescuing the President. We need everybody," said Doro, firmly. 

      "Here we come!" shouted Rotary, actually putting on even more speed. 

      God help us, thought Doro.



Part Eight



      Brade was definitely feeling hard pressed. The group of supers forcing their way in the door consisted of a brick, an energy projector and a gadgeteer. She swatted the gadgeteer aside, just to get him out of the way. Only to have him bounce back to his feet and charge her as the brick came from a different direction. She would have been in real trouble if Beat Red hadn't sonic-boomed the gadgeteer. 

      That left her facing the brick, while the blaster tried to maneuver to the side and shoot Brade. She had to take the brick out quickly.

      Brade recognized him; Shockwave. He had a knack for hitting things in ways which sent shock waves rippling through them, knocking people down and peppering them with flying debris. That only worked at a distance, though. Otherwise, he was strong and tough, but a couple of steps below Brade in each. He was barely above a norm in terms of speed. 

      Brade lunged in and jabbed at him six times in two seconds; he managed to block twice. He wasn't seriously hurt, but he staggered back, knocking the blaster off balance. As Shockwave flailed, trying to grab the door frame to catch himself, Brade took the time to set up for a knockout blow. That was a kick to the gut which sent him and his partner flying down the hallway beyond the door. Putting them inside the building wasn't wasn't the best solution, but Brade was confident they were both either out or staggered enough for the Secret Service Agents inside to restrain them. 

      She spun around. Three other attackers had left the nearby woods to charge. Two of them were already down, thanks to Beat Red. Brade hadn't even heard his sonic blasts. The third attacker was a speedster, and he was carrying a nasty-looking sword.

      Brade was pretty quick, herself. She feinted left, then back right, dropping her into a crouch and catching the speedster in the gut with her left shoulder as she lunged forwards. She heard him grunt explosively, and also heard his sword fly off to hit the side of the lodge. 

      That was six down. If the other defensive teams were doing this well they had a good chance of beating this trap.

      She took a quick look over her shoulder to make sure Shockwave and his pal weren't causing trouble. Brade noticed with dark amusement that the sword was sticking into of the wall of the lodge. 

      She heard something, and looked back in time to see a projectile heading for the window. Her distraction meant she had no time to intercept it. Beat Red blasted it, but just outside the window. There was a ferocious blast, which left Brade on her feet but dazed. 

      She shook her head to clear it, glanced towards the woods, saw no more attacks coming, and jumped to the window. 

      Actually, the window was gone; only the frame was left. Inside she could see her three companions down. She squeezed through the opening and quickly checked them. They were hurt, but not badly; mostly just stunned, with a few cuts from flying glass and wood. The blast had been all concussion. Brade sighed, and leapt back outside. 

      She grabbed the sword from the wall and set herself. Brade could hear other skirmishes, and chatter over her ear bud. No-one was calling for help. She stayed where she was. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template was teaching a history class as a substitute instructor when her belt com beeped to indicate a text message. She excused herself to the class, read the message, and felt her stomach drop. The message was from the UN liaison office on the island. 

      "Satellite images show violence at conference between President and supers. No response to communication attempts. How soon can you get there?"

      She checked the coordinates given and calculated quickly. At best, she'd need nearly an hour for the trip. She texted that information to the sender. There was a pause of a few minutes, during which the students became increasingly restless. 

      "Please stand by. Unlikely we need you, but possible."

      What is going on? wondered Template, as she tried to get her mind back on the course material. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Brade saw a green blur approaching from the woods to her left. The Prince of Speed stopped a bit away from her.

      "Message delivered."

      "Thank God," Brade gasped. "Listen, they seem to have given up on this side for now. Can you check around the rest of the lodge?"

      "Consider it done."

      He zipped away. Brade was very glad he had accepted that staff position the President offered. Only the three of them knew the apparently human new assistant was actually a half-elven supernatural.

      Her thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a green blur rounding the corner of the lodge to her right. His Highness waved, and slowed... and plowed right into a net which seemed to materialize out of the air. He tripped and fell and rolled to a stop, thoroughly tangled. 

      Brade swore and hurried over to him. Already, several figures were swarming out of the trees, heading for them. She tried tearing the net but it was some sort of woven metal.

      "Meteoric iron," gasped the Prince. "Cold iron! I'm only half fey, so it doesn't really hurt me, but it negates my powers. How did they know?"

      Brade still had the sword. She jabbed it into the net and cut away from the Prince. It was barely strong and sharp enough to work. The attackers were almost on them before she had cut enough for the speedster to wriggle free.

      Brade whipped the net at the attackers on the left, then she and the Prince dodged that way, back towards the door. Between them they managed to hold off the charge, with injuries on both sides. The attackers withdrew, but not all the way to the woods. 

      "We are in real trouble," said Brade. "From what I'm hearing on the com this is the least strongly defended entrance, in terms of numbers."

      "I don't understand why they don't just break through a wall."

      "Place was built as a disguised bomb shelter in the Sixties," said Brade. "In case of war, the normal doors and windows are replaced by steel panels. Unfortunately, that takes a couple of hours."

      "So we just have to keep them from using the regular doors and windows," said His Highness, nodding and laughing. "Easy."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Glad I filled the tank yesterday!" Rotary cheerfully yelled, as he turned off the public highway onto a marked private road. 

      The drive had been long in terms of distance but not time. Doro wondered just how fast they were going, then decided she really didn't want to know. At least they had lights and a siren. 

      "Do you even know where we're going?!" said Doro.

      "Sure!"

      He actually took one of his hands off the wheel to point at something on the dashboard. 

      "Got my elint gear running. Aiming straight for the busiest electronic signature. That'll be either the folks in charge of the good guys, or the folks in charge of the bad guys."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Under a camouflaged canopy the masterminds of the operation were very busy. Aides swarmed around, sending and receiving messages and making low-level decisions. However, the overboss was currently focusing on one particular underboss. 

      "Status report," said Mr. Glick. 

      He was scowling. That was a sure sign things were going well. If he looked neutral they weren't. If he smiled, he had found someone to blame for things not going well. 

      "I have the feds, Press and the supers chasing their own tails!" said Psysop, triumphantly. The upper part of his face was was obscured by his neural interface helmet and display visor, but his grin was in plain view. "I'm rewording messages, altering databases, diverting things to the wrong people... I even caused an alert for the Assembly to be sent to a novice team!"

      "Stop playing games," said Mr. Glick, sternly. "You should have destroyed that one. The last thing we need is more supers showing up."

      "Don't worry; they're a bunch of Scoobies!" He laughed. "They even drive around in an old van!"

      "Penetration!" cried Picket, thrashing against the restraints binding him to his cot. "Ground vehicle. Four supers. Heading straight for us!"

      "How do they know where we are?" said Psysop, confused.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The narrow road up the mountain curved, dipped and swooped. Doro, for all her experience flying, was getting nauseous. Thunderer had actually thrown up, fortunately out a window. Freep seemed to actually be enjoying himself. 

      "Energy barrier ahead!" Rotary cried out. "Not a force field; some sort of interference field. We're hardened!"

      Doro wasn't even sure what all that meant. She did notice an odd flash of Saint Elmo's Fire. Then things were normal again. Or, rather, as abnormal and in the same way as they had been just before the flash. 

      "I see the lodge!" Rotary yelled. "No, wait; the signals are coming from over there!"

      Things had been bad enough on the road, but now he veered off it. They bounced hard, crossing a ditch, and were momentarily airborne. They hit with an odd, double effect; a crunch and then a hard bang. Then another bounce. Then a crash as they hit some shrubs. 

      "Everybody out!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Mr. Glick stared in disbelief as the heavily customized van veered off the access road and straight for them. Worse, it hit the far side of the wide drainage ditch as if that were a ramp, launching into the air.

      Mr. Glick had a flashback to his misspent youth, all those years he wasted on popular entertainments, as the bottom of the vehicle seemed to be coming down directly on top of him. All that was missing was a set of tuned horns playing "Dixie"...



Part Nine



      Doro very enthusiastically piled out the rear door, with Freep close behind her. Thunderer - physically a normal human - was taking longer to recover from Mr. Rotary's Wild Ride. Rotary was exiting through the driver's door. 

      The team's brick was surprised to see that no-one had actually been hit by the van. From the tracks in the grass, she could now tell that their vehicle had hit the ground far short of the actual canopy, bouncing a couple of times as it plowed through the area. It had knocked down the canopy, trapping several people under that. There had been enough warning for everyone in their path to dive out of the way, so at least they hadn't killed anyone. The main casualty seemed to be material. Somehow, Rotary had aimed for a stack of what at one time had been communications equipment. That would explain the spray of casing bits and electronic parts. 

      As for how Rotary had decided these were the bad guys and not the good ones, Doro could now see Mr. Glick climbing to his feet, from where he had been face-down in the grass on the far side of the canopy. He was looking rather dazed, and had grass stains down the front of his trademark immaculate ice cream suit. Over there was Harass, ripping his way through the canopy. She even saw Gesteitner, who was supposed to be very thoroughly dead, after that debacle with that Hawaiian volcano a couple of years ago.

      Smiling nastily, Doro kicked off from the bottom of the door frame, flying straight for Mr. Glick. She knew that anyone else being in charge when he was here was very unlikely. She also had a lot of repressed irritation to work off.

      Mr. Glick was in excellent physical condition, and a well-trained unarmed combatant. He was also a physically normal human. Not to mention dazed from the events of the past few seconds. He dropped to Doro's first punch and stayed down. She had even pulled it, knowing he wasn't physically super. 

      Scowling and not nearly exorcised of her peeve yet, she looked around. Ray had insisted they study the files of active heroes and criminals. She actually recognized several of those here. Nearly all were support personnel, personal flunkies or minor masterminds. Significant at planning and executing and relaying orders, but not much in an actual fight. Where were all the worthy opponents? 

      Oh, well; might as well make lemonade. She charged at Harass.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Why are they piling all the heavies against us?" said Brade, almost whining. "The other defenders are being kept too busy to help us, but we're getting pounded!"

      Brade and the Prince were exhausted. Fortunately, there had been just that one RPG, or whatever they had used to take out those in the window. Also fortunately, while the three upstairs were still pretty shaken up, they were conscious and actively helping. Unfortunately, the attackers had many other gadgets, plus a swarm of supers to use them. Beat Red was saving his strength, and Gorton and Sandra their ammunition, for when Brade and the Prince were especially hard pressed.

      "What's going on here?" said His Highness, sounding aggrieved. "They keep hitting us with different things. Some aren't very effective, but some would do us both in if they used more than one or two."

      "We think someone has access to a cache of equipment pieced together from several sources," said Brade, glad there was a momentary lull in the battle. "One or two of most things is about all they have."

      The Prince nodded. Feeling a bit rested, now, he straightened, and peered into the woods. 

      "I'm surprised they didn't press their advantage."

      "Yeah. Something's going on."

      "Maybe we're just wearing them down?" said the green-haired, half-elf man, hopefully.

      "Or maybe, if we're really lucky, reinforcements have arrived."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Well that was disappointing," said Rotary, looking around at their work. 

      Most of their prisoners had been bound with cord and strips of fabric from the canopy. 

      "Hah! We cut the head off the monster!" shouted Freep. 

      A man in a Medieval magician's costume came hurrying into the clearing, looking over his shoulder. When he finally paid attention to where he was going, he found himself facing four supers he didn't know, and a pile of defeated supers he did. 

      "Eep!" he said. 

      "Okay, which one are you?" said Thunderer, who was still in a very sour mood.

      "That's Efflatus," said Doro. "Named himself after a term for some sort of mystic revelation. He's a spellcaster, so if he moves, zap him."

      Efflatus flinched, and Thunderer hit him with one of her sonic attacks. He dropped without even screaming.

      "So, uh..." said Freep, looking around. "Do we stay here and just pick them off as the come back to see what happened to their leaders?"

      Rotary dithered for a moment, then shrugged.

      "Doro, Freep, why don't you two do a recon? You can get around faster than either of us and you're a lot more resistant to damage. Thunderer and I can set up protected positions here and continue the sniper routine."

      Doro nodded and set off, flying low. After a bit of hesitation, Freep ran after her. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The defenders of the lodge soon noticed the attack easing off. This was unexpected; the attackers outnumbered them, with more supers than the defenders had supers and Secret Service combined. They also had equipment designed for forcing their way into a fortified building, while the defenders had only handguns, submachine guns, a few assault rifles, and powers. Some of the observers could even see equipment in the woods, waiting to be issued. Why the pause? Each second meant rescue was closer. 

      Actually, it was already there. The sudden loss of communication from Mr. Glick's headquarters just as they were about to begin the main assault had left the attackers hanging. They had strict orders to wait for the command, so the charge could be coordinated, overwhelming the defenders. Only, the command never came. Runners sent to see what was causing the delay didn't come back. 

      What did come was a couple of unknown supers who would briefly attack the groups of waiting villains from the rear then run away. Were these from the lodge? Or - and murmurs of this were starting to spread - the first leading edge of a rescue effort?

      Morale deteriorated rapidly. Rumors spread. Several of the assault teams had already been taken out. The President wasn't even here. This whole operation was a trap by the heroes and the government. 

      The more wary criminals began sneaking away. When others noticed this, more started leaving openly. The leaders of the teams threatened and cajoled and berated, to no avail. When roughly half the forces assembled to attack the lodge were gone, the team leaders gave up and ordered variations of "Every man for himself!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      With Picket out of action, normal communications had resumed. The power was still off and the landlines down, but their satellite phones and radios had batteries, and were working. Agent Thompson quickly sent out an official call for help, with a brief description of their current situation. In turn, he was notified that the only help already on the way was a new, very small team from a nearby city. Thompson did some fulminous swearing over that, demanding to know why every super team in a thousand klicks wasn't hurrying to the rescue, only to get a confused reply that they'd been trying but something was causing a major FUBAR with communications which was only just now getting straightened out.

      Thompson sent word over both the Secret Service coms and super coms to watch for the young heroes. No descriptions available. No codenames available. No team name available. 

      "I think they're already here," was the gist of several replies. "Someone is sure stirring up the bad guys."

      Actually, by this time the only "bad guys" left were prisoners. Only a third of the force assembled against the lodge were captured, most of those by the Adirondack Irregulars and most of the rest by Brade and her group. 

      Thanks to further communications coming in, Thompson was soon able to get details on the group of amateurs who had come to their rescue. Two of the teams of Secret Service Agents and supers were combined and sent to contact the Irregulars. Who were very glad to see them. They had so many prisoners they were worried about being able to contain them. 

      "You four did good work, today," said Thompson, once the cleanup was well under way. "You were also very, very lucky. If they'd had any hint you were coming, or were simply a bit less confident that any help would be a while arriving, you'd be toast. Depending on Picket to keep watch for help arriving should have worked; experienced supers would have moved in cautiously, giving Glick and his people time to react. You just barged in fast enough to get here before they could react to Picket's warning."

      "Don't we know it," said Doro, with great feeling. 

      "Are you kidding?" said Rotary. "Yeah, we had some good luck. We are also fantastic!"



Part Ten



      "So that's what was going on," said Template, once the Black Mask contacted her. "I wondered why they were calling on me for help when there were others much closer."

      "Classic confusion," said her former teammate, sounding almost admiring. "They had anyone they thought might be able to help either in the dark or diverted to other concerns. Though why they went to the trouble of diverting messages instead of simply deleting them baffles me."

      "Typical Mastermind over thinking," said Template, with a sneer. 

      "No. That's not typical of Mr. Glick." The Black Mask sighed tiredly. "Oh, well; something to be straightened out another day."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I refuse to believe it!" said Seivers, outraged. "Not only has he been on my staff since I was Governor, he passed all the background checks!"

      They still hadn't located any of the service staff who had snuck out of the lodge before the attack. One other person was also missing: An assistant to one of the President's aides. Brade couldn't remember the man, even when told his name and shown his photograph. By all accounts, he was a bureaucratic nonentity, a middle-management sort who had found his niche. However, Mr. Glick and several of the other captives identified him as their inside man.

      "He passed the background checks because his background was constructed by an agency of the Federal Government," said Agent Thompson, sourly. "He and his mother were participants in the Witness Protection Program after she turned states evidence against her husband. She later moved and remarried, further muddying the waters."

      "So who was her husband?" said Seivers. 

      "Peter Gunderson," said Thompson. "Also known as The Great Phenomenon."

      "Oh, fuck," said Brade, stunned. "It really was me he was after."

      She shook her head.

      "Wait. This guy couldn't have been more than eight or nine when his father was arrested. Are you telling me he held a grudge for that long?"

      "Mitchell Penrose," said Sievers, numbly. She winced. "He selected the service staff for the meeting. He had access to the Secret Service plans. My God..."

      "This explains why the Prince and I had such a hard time," said Brade, grimacing as she worked her left shoulder. "They were focused on me."

      Thompson looked at Sievers.

      "You never noticed any animosity from him towards Brade?"

      "No. Truthfully, I hardly paid attention to him. He was two tiers below me, an assistant to one of my assistants. You should speak to Howers about him."

      "I will do that."

      "Do you really think Penrose knows where Energex' stash is?" said Thompson. 

      "No," said Brade. "The equipment he supplied his allies is all military, government security and police stuff. No gadgets."

      "He promised Mr. Glick the location in payment for taking you down," said Thompson, pointedly. "Said the equipment he gave them was the proof he knew where the stash was and had access."

      "If he does know, we need to know now," said President Sievers, rallying. She looked at Brade. "Do you think you could find out?"

      "Energex is in UN custody, but here in the States," said Brade, thoughtfully. "We have dibs on him. I'll have to call in some markers, but I think I can arrange to speak with him."

      "So far he hasn't revealed anything important to several interrogators," said Thompson, doubtfully. "He's even baffled the three telepaths they got warrants to bring in. Do you honestly think he'll just tell you?"

      "No," said Brade, with a nasty smile. "I think I'll have to persuade him. After arranging the proper incentive, of course."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The facility was dedicated to holding hard-case super villains, and shared not only by several US government law enforcement agencies but also by the UN, INTERPOL and a few other groups. Such facilities were expensive. Fortunately, they were also rare. Only six of this level existed, three of them in the United States. Not because there were more high-level super criminals there, but because they could best afford the facilities. 

      Brade walked into the heart of the prison with a heavy escort. These people did not trust supers, even one on the President's staff. In fact, some of them probably distrusted her more because she worked for Sievers. 

      She was taken to the monitoring booth for the interrogation room where Energex was currently sitting, under a neutralizer.

      "As you can see," said the senior guard who was her assigned guide, "we have everything under control. Because of security regulations no prisoner is ever out of the influence of a neutralizer. We will, under no circumstances, turn off that neutralizer, so if you want to talk to him in person it will be as an ordinary human."

      He gave her a smug grin. He knew there was no way a super would willingly give up her powers. So, this busybody would fuss a bit then leave, and let them get back to their jobs. 

      "You do know that because his powers are artificial he's less affected by neutralizers, right?" said Brade, wryly.

      "Wh-what?!" said the Chief of Security, who had planned to let his assistant to do all the talking. 

      "That's one reason he keeps escaping."

      "My God..."

      "You didn't know that."

      "No! No-one told us!"

      "Did you know his powers are artificial?

      "I didn't even know that was possible!"

      Brade clamped her mouth shut on a considerable amount of profanity. 

      "Okay. I'm going to wait just outside the door of the interview room. You cycle the neutralizer off and on several times, say half a dozen in as many seconds. Then leave it off. That will make him disoriented. I'll go in, you folks lock the door behind me."

      "But..."

      "Have a portable neutralizer unit waiting outside the door."

      Brade turned and walked away.

      "We can't..." said the security tech in charge of the neutralizer. 

      "Why not?" said one of the guards, with a shrug. "Her call. If he kills her, well, it's not our fault."

      "Wait until she's outside the door, then do it," said the Chief. He smiled. "She's taking full responsibility."

      Energex was sitting with feigned patience, wondering what was taking so long. He'd been biding his time since his release from stasis and the following imprisonment by the UN, watching for the opportunity to escape. This might be it. If he could take this VIP they'd told him was coming to ask questions hostage and convince them to turn off that damnable light...

      The neutralizer went off. Then came back on. Then off again. By the time the door opened Energex was leaning on the table, trying to get the world back on an even keel. Then he heard the door close, and looked up to see a Mask he didn't know. He was so disoriented that while he could tell there was something odd about her, but didn't realize it was her size. She walked calmly to the table and sat across from him. In spite of his disorientation, Energex smiled. 

      "I'm going to break that neutralizer, beat you unconscious, rape you, then kick that door down before those fools in the control booth know there's something wrong."

      He leapt upwards, smashing into the neutralizer with both hands. As he dropped back down he was caught in the gut by a side kick. He slammed into the far wall with enough force to set off car alarms in the parking lot outside. Before he could begin to recover Brade was on him. She hit him in the solar plexus, kneed him in the groin, chopped several nerve junctions, then slammed his head into the wall hard enough to dent the armor. 

      Brade spun Energex around and pinned him to the wall in a over-under double half-Nelson. 

      "Stupid... bitch," said Energex, struggling in vain against the pin. "I'm... stronger than you. Soon as the room stops spinning..."

      Brade tightened the lock, and he groaned. 

      "Yeah, you're stronger than me," said Brade, in a nasty tone. "Not by much, though. I've got two decades more experience as a super and three before that dealing with juvenile delinquents. You're going to tell me where you hid all that stuff you stole, then get zapped and go back to your cell without causing any trouble. Or I'll kill you for attempting to escape."

      Energex whimpered. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "How did you even get this number?" said Blue Impact, tone a mixture of surprise and outrage.

      "The government has the school's telephone number," said Brade. "I called and asked the receptionist for you. I didn't know she would forward it to your personal cell phone. For what it's worth, I still don't have the number for that. Listen, I know it's a bit outside your usual patrol range, but if you and your two charges can go there and provide a preliminary report I'd be very grateful. In an official capacity."

      Blue Impact frowned as she stood there, on the path between school buildings. The Assembly was the most reasonable group to go to the isolated Adirondack cave where Energex had hidden the stolen materials. They, however, were busy in Haiti. Blue Impact didn't feel flattered she and her young partners were second on whatever list had been consulted. Most likely they were simply the only ones available. 

      "This shouldn't be dangerous," said Brade, perhaps thinking that Blue Impact's hesitation was out of concern for the two teens in her charge. "However, it's a matter for supers. The President has persuaded the UN to let the US handle the preliminary survey, and I persuaded her to let supers handle it. I don't really trust that new team, yet, but you three have a good history."

      "We'll need several hours to get there. The school's hypersonic transport is busy, as are most of the other fast planes available to supers."

      "I'll see what I can do about arranging faster transportation."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As it happened, both Gadgetive and Energia were together in the common room of the girls' dorm when Blue Impact found them. 

      "How would you two like some extra credit?" said Blue Impact. "They found out where Energex was stashing all that stuff he stole and want us to check it, since it's not too far from where we usually work. Classes are over for the day and the location is in a later time zone, so there will be plenty of light for our search."

      "How do we get there?" said Gadgetive.

      "Brade talked to the Pioneers and they've agreed to let us use an old supersonic craft in their reserve base here. They already have some of the tech staff de-mothballing it," said Blue Impact. "It should be ready by the time we get there."

      "Good," said Energia. "It's raining most of the way there, and I hate flying in the rain."

      "I'm still not sure how you can even use your powers in the rain," said the older woman. "Why don't they just short out?"

      "Pure water is actually a very poor conductor," said Gadgetive, in lecture mode. "Falling rain is nearly pure water. Well, except in polluted areas."

      "Most of my powers aren't even electrical," said Energia. "My flight isn't connected to my force/energy powers, anyway. If I keep my plasma wall up I don't get wet but it drains me, because it keeps wasting energy turning rain to steam. It even dissociates some to hydrogen and oxygen, which means I'm surrounded by a glowing nimbus of flame as they recombine."

      "That's a pretty poetic description," said Blue Impact, impressed. 

      "If I don't keep the plasma wall up I just get soaked," Energia finished.

      "Let's go!" said Gadgetive, impatiently. "I want to see what they've got lined up for us."

      "All right," said Blue Impact, who couldn't help grinning at her enthusiasm.



Part Eleven



      They took a security flitter to the Pioneers' reserve base, landing right in the hangar. A security guard met them and escorted them to where the techs were working frantically on a very strange looking vehicle. 

      "That's one of the old Bluegar combat transports," said Blue Impact, alarmed. "You need special dispensation just to start the engines!"

      "It's actually one of the commercial versions," said the head tech, proudly. "From their failed aircar line. Works beautifully, but you need a pilot's license and it's expensive to run, but it can do Mach One at sea level while carrying eight people and a half tonne of cargo. It's also submersible."

      "I'm surprised anything that ugly can even fly," said Energia, sourly, "much less go supersonic."

      "S'beautiful," said Gadgetive, defensively, with a sniff. "Look at those classic lines! And that nose! Like a Fifty-Nine Buick LeSabre*!"

      "You think that's a positive recommendation, don't you?" said Blue Impact, sourly. 

*I actually Googled for some Fifties Buicks to find the right grill: http://www.classicroad.com/1959Buick/ (worksafe)

      The thing was already fueled and ready to go. The tech checked Gadgetive and Blue Impact out with a brief flight around the island. They both then each took a circuit.

      "Say what you will, the people who designed that made it easy to fly," said Blue Impact, sounding impressed, as they waited for the techs to check the vehicle out and refuel it.

      "As easy as this?" said Energia, smugly, lifting off the hangar floor.

      "Yeah, yeah, you don't need a license," muttered Gadgetive. "Or a plane. Okay, they're finished. Let's go see this stash everyone is so worried about."

      Blue Impact took the controls, being their teacher and also having superhuman reflexes. She didn't expect trouble, but they were flying an old, unconventional aircraft, planning to climb high over a fierce storm on the way to a cache of potentially dangerous mad scientist equipment. Even for super heroes, this was not a typical trip.

      As it turned out, there were problems even as they climbed to cruising altitude. Though not all were serious.

      "There's pieces falling off!" said Energia, alarmed, as she looked out through the rear of the bubble canopy. 

      "That's just some spraylat they didn't have time to remove," said Gadgetive, dismissively. She frowned as they approached cruising altitude. "That sound reminds me of something..."

      "That this thing is nearly fifty years old?" said Blue Impact.

      "That fast ticking sound?" said Energia, also frowning. "Reminds me of some stuff my Dad listens to. Something old. That guy who shrieks sang it."

      "Got it!" said Gadgetive. "The drum solo from 'Hot for Teacher'!"

      "Thank you," said Blue Impact, sourly. "Now I have that song running through my head."

      "My ears are popping," said Energia, a bit later. 

      "We're losing pressurization!" yelled Gadgetive.

      "We never had pressurization!" yelled Blue Impact.

      "Sure we did; we'd have noticed it before now. Hang on, the automatic backup didn't kick in. Where's the manual override?"

      Gadgetive quickly scanned through the manual she had downloaded to her palmtop before they left.

      "Got it! Energia, there's a handle like a parking brake lever on the floor to the right of your seat. Depress the button on the end and pull it up about halfway."

      Energia rummaged around for a bit.

      "There's not a lever. There's a T-handle with a button in the front end."

      "No, no, that's the ejection seat actuator!"

      "No, that's the orange and red loop on the floor in front of the seat."

      "Wait. The T-handle is beside the seat?!"

      "On the right sight side."

      "Fuck!"

      Energia burst into a fit of giggling.

      "Y-you said 'Fuck!'"

      "Right," said Blue Impact, pushing the stick forward. "I'm getting us down to thicker air. You two better be very glad, later, I'm more resistant to anoxia than folks with normal metabolisms."

      Soon the girls were acting more like their usual selves, if feeling worse.

      "Ow," said Energia, hands framing her face. "Headache."

      "Okay," said Gadgetive, straining to think. "Try pushing the button in and pulling up on the T-handle about halfway."

      The pressure in the cabin quickly rose to sea-level normal.

      "Whew!" said Energia. "Head's still hurting and my ears are clogged, but I can think again."

      "Gadgetive, I'm not going any higher until you fix the primary pressurization system. And the backup."

      "No arguments."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      They had to circle for a while as Gadgetive worked. Fortunately, the problem with the automatic pressurization systems turned out to be the same thing: Someone forgot to remove a plug from an inlet. Blue Impact took them below three thousand meters and slowed the odd craft. They popped the hatch and Energia flew out. Moments later she was back, with the plug.

      "That's not in the procedures," said Gadgetive, frowning at the object. "It's not even marked Remove Before Flight."

      "Well, it's gone, now."

      "Why didn't the system give a warning it wasn't working?" said Blue Impact, as she resumed the interrupted climb and acceleration schedule. 

      "No need to," said Gadgetive, with a shrug. "There's two parallel systems which can't both fail at once. Even if they do, the manual back up feeds through a different inlet. If we were more familiar with the plane this wouldn't have happened."

      Blue Impact muttered vaguely under her breath about finding the designers of the plane and expressing her displeasure with their work over a period of several days. 

      Fortunately, that was the only serious technical problem on the trip. The plane climbed well over the storm and they cruised at high speed towards the mainland. 

      Still, Blue Impact didn't stop scowling until they landed in the valley supposedly below the hillside entrance to the cache. 

      "All right," she said. "On your toes. It's just barely possible that someone else does know where this is."

      They trudged up the hill to what appeared to be an old mine entrance, blocked with weathered boards and a faded KEEP OUT sign.

      Gadgetive set to work. First she checked for traps and alarms, then found the latch. With a creak, the whole facade swung open like a farm gate. Grinning, Gadgetive waved her partners in behind her as she brought out a lamp. They entered the tunnel, which sloped upwards, making certain to close the gate.

      They all had large hand lamps. They all used them. Even though Energia could produce light on her own, if she needed to use her powers she would have to split her concentration. The lamp she could just put down and aim where she wanted. Or simply drop it.

      "No footprints," said Energia. 

      "Energex doesn't walk unless he has to," said Blue Impact. 

      Far enough down the tunnel to be unseen from outside there was a door - or hatch - armored and massive. It was at a forty-five degree angle, hinged at the top. Someone had welded a large handle onto the door, near the bottom. 

      "Bet there's hydraulics on the inside," said Gadgetive, examining the portal. "Or there used to be. This handle is crude work, added recently. The door and frame are a lot older. I think I can also see what look like finger grooves around the edges."

      "So Energex - or someone extremely strong - forced their way in here, probably wrecking the mechanism in the process. Later the handle was added, to make the door easier to open."

      "Easier if you're Energex," said Energia, with a wry laugh. "Are you strong enough to lift that?"

      "Even if she is, we'd have to find some way to prop it open," said Gadgetive. "She'll be the only thing holding it up. Energex was strong enough he could maneuver through while holding it open with one hand. I doubt Blue Impact is. This thing is stout!"

      "Depends on how heavy it is," said their teacher, rapping her knuckles on the metal of the door. 

      This produced a muffled thump, reinforcing just how thick the door must be. 

      "Wonder how he found this..." said Gadgetive, running her gloved hand around the sill. "No controls."

      "He's always researching old super stuff," said Blue Impact, as she set her feet and gripped the handle. "That's how he uncovered the Nazi death camp data which let him build the machine which originally gave him his powers."

      She heaved on the handle, grunting with the effort. The door swung open enough for the younger women to look inside.

      "Can you hold that?" said Energia, concerned.

      "Yeah," said Blue Impact, sounding strained. "Not for long, though. Keep out of the way of this thing."

      "I can see stuff in there," said Gadgetive, shining a light. "Energia, if you can pull that ram, where my lamp is pointing, over here..."

      "Got it," said Energia. 

      She didn't have to move her hands to use her powers, but when manipulating objects that helped her visualize what she was doing. Energia stretched her hands out towards the object, made a grabbing motion, raised her hands, then pulled her arms back. The object - which turned out to be a broken-off hydraulic actuator - rose and moved silently towards the portal.

      "Okay, teach, if you can widen the gap a bit..." said Gadgetive, directing the other two in an operation she couldn't perform, and which Blue Impact couldn't even see. "Energia, if can you wedge that diagonally..."

      Within seconds the door was firmly propped open far enough for all three of them to easily slip through. Energia noticed Blue Impact rubbing her right upper arm. 

      "Are you all right?"

      "Just a minor pull," said the woman, shrugging. "With my regeneration it'll be gone in minutes."

      "Gonna spot weld this, just in case," said Gadgetive, pulling some gear out of her backpack.

      That done, they gave their surroundings a better look before proceeding. 

      "This looks like an old super base," said Blue Impact. "Must have been sealed for decades."

      Energex had obviously done no cleaning. There was a layer of dust on every horizontal surface, and rust stains running down the walls in places. Whereas the back part of the outer tunnel's walls had been coated with shotcrete, the inner tunnel was lined with metal, obviously some sort of armor. 

      "This is no storehouse," said Blue Impact, as they shone their lights around. "It's a fortress. Probably with armory."

      They cautiously made their way down the wide corridor, Gadgetive looking for traps. 

      "No power," said Energia, using her palm to supplement the light provided by their large lamps. "Place is dead. Long dead. No residual heat sources, noth... Ahhh!"

      Her light flared as it came across an enormous, looming shape. As large as a brown bear, it was reared up on hind legs like pillars, jaws open and massive claws poised to strike. All three tensed... then slowly relaxed. 

      "Is that... a badgerbear?" said Energia, in a tone of disbelief. "It's not moving..."

      "It's stuffed," said Blue Impact, with sudden relief. She moved closer. "Who would have a stuffed badgerbear?!"

      "Hey, it almost scared us away!" said Energia, with a nervous laugh. "Not feeling any metal in it. No energy source, no heat. It's at background."

      The taxidermic guardian was stationed just beyond the end of the tunnel, where it opened out into a modestly large chamber. They warily squeezed past the mounted monster and entered the room.

      The room contained a single, large, oval table which echoed the shape of the room. Around the walls were display cases with often bizarre trophies, though given the dust and grime on the glass there were few details visible. Several had areas recently wiped partially clear, most likely by Energex. The trio took turns peering into the cases, which included items from the middle of the Twentieth Century going back deeply into history. Nearly all the exhibits had a martial theme. 

      "Yeah, this isn't a hero base," said Blue Impact, looking around. "More like a mastermind's lair."

      "No kiddin'," muttered Gadgetive. "Never would'a guessed."



Part Twelve



      "I was surprised to learn that Energex' secret cache was less that sixty miles from the lodge," said President Sievers. She sighed tiredly. "Maybe Mitchell does know where it is. The Secret Service has determined that he actually suggested that particular hunting lodge to Howers. We thought it was simply because he was familiar with all my supporters and knew about this bombproof lodge."

      "Any word of him?" said Brade.

      "None. He seems to have vanished."

      "With your permission, I'd like to obtain some of his personal effects," said Brade. "There are mentalists and mystics who may be able to get an idea of his whereabouts and plans from the impressions he left on them."

      "The Secret Service has everything from his office and his apartment," said Sievers. "I'll talk to Thompson and see if he can loan you something."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Looks like Energex explored the whole base," said Gadgetive, as they peered around at the forced doors they could see from this large, central room. 

      "Probably won't be any original traps left, then," said Blue Impact. She smirked. "Energex' tactic for clearing traps is apparently to just walk through them. I doubt he set any of his own, either."

      "Yeah," said Energia, nodding. "Not his style. He'd just count on the concealment and the heavy door to keep folks out. He must have spent a lot of time here, though. I wonder if he set up living quarters. I still don't see any of the stuff he stole."

      Even a cursory examination revealed that there was far more to this than Energex simply using the place to stash some stolen tech and artifacts. They did find those items, after a few minutes of searching, but they were minor compared to what else was there.

      "Okay, we need to report this right now!" said Blue Impact, after a peek through one door revealed an obvious armory. 

      One still fully stocked.

  "No argument," said Gadgetive. "Some of this stuff scares me!"

      "So it's an old supervillain base," said Energia, puzzled. "Why's that so scary? This stuff is ancient."

      "It's history!" said Blue Impact, firmly. "Energex has already done enough damage to give a score of archeologists apoplexy. We leave, we call in experts."

      In full teacher mode, she ushered her charges back out of the tunnel. 

      As they emerged, blinking, into the sunlight they paused for a moment to let their eyes adjust. It was a moment they didn't get. 

      Things fell on them, or were hurled down. Blue Impact was hit first, by some sort of heavy net. Gadgetive was hit by a beam. 

      Another net fell on Energia, but she reflexively pumped most of her store into her plasma wall as the object hit her. It began smoking, and pushing away, though where it had managed to touch her it tore parts of her costume off. As well as some hair.

      Energia flew up and away from the hillside, angry, confused and in pain. She could see, now, two costumed figures hanging from climbing gear on the steep slope above. She was startled to recognize Valdon and Scorcher. Low-powered but experienced super criminals with reputations for both cunning and professional attitudes. She raised her hands to attack, only to spot movement from behind some rocks to her left as Wise Guy popped up. 

      Wise Guy hurled several large water balloons rapid fire at Energia, shorting out her plasma wall. More followed, the impacts stunning her, leaving Energia falling the short distance to the ground. 

      Energia hit hard, but managed to partially roll with it. She still needed time to get back to her feet. By then, Valdon had dropped to her friends and Scorcher had almost finished rappelling to join him. The former quickly reinforced the bindings on the fuming Blue Impact, while Scorcher focused on Gadgetive. The young gadgeteer was already recovering, thanks to the protections in her gear shielding her from the worst of the beam's effects, but she was still too dazed to put up a fight. 

      Energia pushed her wet hair back out of her eyes, reflecting that she needed to go back to a pony tail. She took a combat stance and prepared for a fight, gathering energy and her wits. The villains moved in, but slowly, forming an arc around her at about three times her physical reach.

      "Careful," said Valdon, calmly. "She may be out of power but she's a trained fighter."

      "She's a little girl," said Wise Guy, smirking. He laughed, looking over at Valdon. "You're scared of a little girl!"

      "A little girl with combat training," said Scorcher, who was definitely wary. "Except for Valdon, we're all physically normal and you're worth shit in a real fight."

      "I don't believe you idiots," said Energia, flushing with anger over what they were saying about her, besides saying it as if she wasn't even there. Or weren't a person. "What makes you think a dousing does anything except make me wet?"

      Sparks flickered across her skin and through her wet hair. The three supers started, and hesitated, confused. Energia raised her hands and put them together, and a miniature lightning bolt sprang outward, snapping rapidly between her opponents, as well as the random rock or bush. Most of them dropped. Even Valdon was staggered. 

      Energia used the opportunity to begin building a charge for her wave motion effect. Valdon recovered before it was anywhere near full power, and started towards her. Energia zapped him with what she had. Fortunately, that was enough; he went down for the count. 

      "Way to go, girl!" Gadgetive shouted, as Energia freed her and Blue Impact. She scowled as she stood and rubbed her left arm. "I can't believe a group of bush league supers like that got the jump on us."

      "Hey, it was an ambush," said Energia, also irritated 

      "That's new," said Blue Impact, obviously impressed. "That sparks on your skin bit, I mean."

      "Been practicing," said Energia, grinning. "Took Advanced Intimidation last semester. They normally make you wait until you're eighteen, but since I'm already a name super... So, they thought it worked. How about you two?"

      "Scared the whiz outta me," said Gadgetive, in a stage mutter. "Where'd you get the juice for all that, anyway? I know water only shorts your plasma wall, but you've been using your powers since we landed and there's no supply here."

      "Sure there is," said Energia, smirking. "There's a major FM radio antenna and three cell towers on nearby hills. Whenever we're outside I just spread out a thin plasma wall and heterodyne it to those frequencies, and the power comes flowing in. Not as fast as tapping a transmission line, but enough to partially recharge what I used to burn off that net."

      Blue Impact called 911, while Energia called the the Assembly and Gadgetive called the Irregulars. 



Part Thirteen



      "Local sheriff's office has a deputy on the way," said Blue Impact, putting her cell away. "State Police are also responding but will be a while."

      "The Assembly is sending some of their security people in a hopper," said Energia, likewise stowing her phone.

      They turned to Gadgetive, who was still holding her cell phone to her left ear, looking perplexed. 

      "I'm not sure I've got the right number. I keep getting one of those automated call handling systems."

      "Maybe they're out on a call," said Energia. "They're probably busy, now that they've made the big time."

      "No, there's..." She waved her right hand around vaguely. "There's not even an option for asking for help. It sounds like some business, rather than a hero team or emergency service."

      "Great," said Blue Impact, sourly. "You don't suppose they've gone Hollywood already do you? Some people... One success and they let it go to their heads."

      "They're still setting up," said Energia, generously. "Probably still have bugs in the system."

      They checked the restraints on their prisoners and settled in to wait for someone with local arrest powers to arrive. This took longer than the "few minutes" the sheriff's office promised. 

      Indeed, by the time the Sheriff's department car stopped near the Bluegar, the trio could see a state cruiser approaching along the same rutted old road. The team members stood, and waited for the deputy. The police car stopped a short walk away, the deputy fumbled around with something on the front seat for a bit, then - finally - he exited the car.

      "Looks like he as one of the new, portable neutralizers," said Blue Impact, whose vision was far better than what either of the girls had. "Nasty things. I'm surprised to see one being used by someone this low on the law enforcement totem pole. It's not like this part of the world gets many super villain attacks."

      Indeed, he did have one of the smaller neutralizers. As soon as he was within range, he stopped and aimed it at the three females. Blue Impact held up her hands in alarm. 

      "Whoa! Wait! We're the ones...!"

      The deputy zapped them. All three dropped. Poor Gadgetive was barely conscious, Energia was in a bit better shape but incapable of any action for a while. Blue Impact was brought to her knees. She shook her head, trying to clear it. Her powers weren't working, but the enhancements they had made to her body were. As the deputy put down the neutralizer and pulled out three sets of handcuffs, she acted. 

      Despite feeling sick, Blue Impact leapt for the deputy. She landed on him, shoving him to the ground. She didn't land entirely on him, but on the way down she made sure her left hand stuck out and smashed the neutralizer. Still, with her weight and strength, she had definitely knocked the wind out of the deputy. Blue Impact forced herself up onto all fours, then onto her knees. She rolled the deputy over and handcuffed him with his own cuffs. Then she spent a few seconds retching to one side. 

      The state cruiser slid to a stop and the trooper got out, weapon ready, taking cover behind the door.

      "Get away from the police officer! Now!"

      Blue Impact tiredly pushed herself upright, moved a few steps away, then sat down with a thud. Gadgetive would actually make a joke, later, about the dent Blue Impact's rear made in the ground. Once. 

      "I'm Blue Impact. My companions and I are here checking something on the orders of the President. We were jumped by those guys - all wanted felons. We beat them, called it in, and when Barney, here, showed up the first thing he did was zap us!"

      "She's lying!" the deputy shouted, his voice shrill and panicked. "She's a dangerous criminal! Shoot her!"

      "Buddy, I recognize her," said the Trooper, relaxing a bit, but with his sidearm still ready in his hands. "Her friends, too. You better have a good reason for using that neutralizer on them."

      "She attacked me!"

      "He's got a dash cam," said Blue Impact, tiredly. "Check the video."

      "You can't touch that!" the deputy screamed, as the State Trooper headed for his car.

      The Trooper only needed a few minutes to check. He returned to the mismatched duo, gun holstered but still stone faced.

      "Yeah," he said, nodding to Blue Impact. "Saw the whole thing."

      He turned to the deputy.

      "You're under arrest for assault. Also for lying to a law enforcement officer."

      "I was just following procedures!"

      "That didn't work at Nürnberg and it won't work here!" said Blue Impact, angrily. 

      The Trooper nodded. The deputy just looked bewildered. Then defiant.

      "It's a non-lethal weapon. I just wanted make sure the situation was safe!"

      "Yeah. Try telling Brewster Cool it's non-lethal," said Blue Impact, snarling. "He and the little girl he was rescuing from a fire both died when Chicago police zapped him!"

      Naturally, now everyone started arriving. Including the deputy's boss. 

      "What's going on here?!" the Sheriff demanded, jumping out the passenger door of his cruiser before it even finished sliding to a stop. "Why's Harris in cuffs?!"

      "He assaulted three known heroes with a neutralizer without reason," said the State Trooper, as he watched the Assembly security team pile out of their hopper and head for them double-time.

      "Energia and Gadgetive need medical care," Blue Impact called out to them, pointing. 

      They obviously were both worried and curious, but followed her directions. Meanwhile, the Trooper was finishing with the Sheriff. However, he was not through with any of them. 

      "It's standard procedure!" shouted the angry Sheriff. 

      "It's assault!" yelled Blue Impact, rejoining the conversation.

      Enough time had passed that her powers were coming back, and thanks to her regeneration she was quickly feeling much better. Physically. Emotionally, she was just getting good and started. She stood, emphasizing her shakiness a bit for dramatic effect, and started walking slowly towards the three law enforcement officers.

      "It doesn't hurt you."

      The Sheriff was emphatic about this, even as he began backing away. 

      "Of course it hurts us*! That's why it's illegal to do without justification!"

      "Ensuring the safety of my men is justification!"

      "There was no danger! The bad guys were down and recognized heroes were in charge of the situation!"

      "It's still a good idea!"

      "The State Police don't think so!" said the Trooper, angrily. "We have specific instructions to target anyone who uses a neutralizer without justification. That's why your boy is going in my car, and will be facing state and federal charges! The memory chip from his dashcam and that neutralizer are both evidence." 

      "It was a misunderstanding!"

      "Yeah! A misunderstanding of the law and human rights!" yelled Blue Impact.

      Straightening out the law enforcement situation took far longer than exploring the stronghold and defeating the bad guys had together. The Sheriff and the deputy who had driven him to the scene tag-teamed the Trooper until more State Troopers arrived. Then they executed a strategic withdrawal, the Sheriff threatening the first responding Trooper personally. 

      "I'll have your job! My cousin works for the governor!"

      They drove off.

      The new set of Troopers began taking photos and statements and gathering physical evidence. They transferred the super prisoners to restraints they had brought, returning those used by Blue Impact. 

      Finally, the Troopers left as well. Paul - Blue Impact recognized him as someone from the Assembly but was unsure exactly what his job was - approached her as she headed uphill to check on her charges. 

      "Sounds like you three have already had a busy day."

      "Oh, yes," said Blue Impact, with a wry laugh. "A call out of the blue from Brade, on behalf of the President. A failed pressurization system. The discovery of an old hidden lair full of a mastermind's equipment and stuff Energex stole. Assault by three supervillains. Assault by a local deputy. Assault by the Sheriff's breath..."

      Paul gave a short, commiserating laugh at that last.

      "Well, our team medic says no harm was done to either of the girls."

      "Yeah, and my regeneration kicked in, so I'm fine."

      She stopped, catching Paul's arm, well short of the nearby group.

      "Listen, if those three knew where we were, so did whoever sent them. We can't leave what we found unguarded."

      "I'll get right on that," said Paul, nodding. 



* This incident was inspired by police use of Tasers and stun guns where it wasn't justified. Several people have died from this. Often, the justification was that it ensured the LEO's safety without danger to the suspect. Mostly this is due to LEOs and the public being repeatedly reassured that these pieces of equipment are safe and even harmless. Those assurances coming from people who don't actually know much about them. 



Part Fourteen



      The helicopter landed near the two other aircraft. The clearing was getting a bit crowded; fortunately the pilot was very good. As the rotors whirred down Brade stepped out. 

      Paul and Blue Impact greeted her. The rest of those already at the scene were actually standing guard at the entrance to the lair.

      "I am very glad to see you," said Blue Impact, as she shook the older super's hand. "You'll understand why when you see what we found here. We're going to need major help keeping it safe."

      "Lead on," said Brade, after she finished shaking Paul's hand. 

      At the entrance to the tunnel Brade made a point of checking Energia and Gadgetive.

      "Yeah, we're fine," said the gadgeteer, nodding. "Bit of headache from getting zapped, but the medic there says not to worry unless it persists."

      "My only problem is I'm going to need another new costume," said Energia, pointing to where pulling free of the adhesive net had torn her outfit. "There's pieces actually missing. Can't just sew it up. I'm just glad this is isn't my brand new one."

      "You were about to grow out of that one, anyway," said Gadgetive, with perhaps a trace of envy in her voice.

      "I'm glad none of you were hurt," said Brade. She turned to Paul and Blue Impact. "Okay. Let's see this treasure trove."

      The others could tell she was taking the situation seriously. However, once they were past the stuffed badgerbear and she actually saw the place, she was not only serious, she was awed. As they completed the brief tour, she looked determined. 

      "This is the Sanctum," said Brade, in a subdued tone, after getting the tour. "Has to be."

      "I thought that was in West Virginia," said Blue Impact.

      "That was where the clues they left led to," said Brade. "It was never actually found. Shouldn't surprise anyone that the headquarters for a group including three of the greatest masterminds of all time would be somewhere besides where the clues led to."

      "I thought the Sanctum was... bigger," said Paul, looking around.

      "There were only five of them," said Brade. She was also looking around, but her gaze was distant. Perhaps seeing a former era. An era when she'd been a normal housewife and teacher. "The Five Great Powers, they called themselves. They almost took over the world."

      "It took Dr. Freysdottir, the Night Master, the Dragon's Hand, Nightmist, Double Dutch, Schmetterling, Bookkeeper and Mack Risk to bring them down," said Blue Impact, nodding. "The only time that particular group ever joined together. Even they barely succeeded."

      "I agree with what Blue Impact said earlier," said Brade. "This all needs to be thoroughly examined. Then disposed of appropriately. Until then, it needs to be guarded."

      "This needs to be given an archeological examination!" said Blue Impact, emphatically waving her arms. "This... is history!"

      "They can do that after a team of gadgeteers disarms the place," said Brade, flatly. "Some of this stuff is... world-class dangerous."

      She gave a humorless laugh and shook her head.

      "The Magnificent Lung, the secret planner of the Communist revolution in China," she said, in counterpoint to the previous listing of names. "The Winter Bear, likewise the hidden power behind Stalin. The Briton, racist maniac who wielded a sword he claimed was Excalibur and tried to get Britain on the side of Hitler. The King of the Rom, who turned out to be nothing he claimed he was. Finally, there was the Aryan, who was."

      "I suggest a combination of T.O.W.E.R. forces, security personnel from the Assembly, and volunteer supers," said Blue Impact, shaking off her awe at that recitation and getting back to business. "Even if this isn't the Sanctum, there's enough stuff here to tempt a lot of people."

      "Very good suggestions," said Brade. She frowned, thinking hard. "Unfortunately, T.O.W.E.R. and most available supers are still helping in Haiti. Resources are stretched thin right now."

      "This needs people familiar with Mask tech and history," said Blue Impact, firmly. "The girls and I can stay for a few days, but no longer. Paul says the people they already have here is all they can spare until some of the team members get back from Haiti. We may be able to get some of the island supers and security staff in to help, as well, but those will need to get back to defending the island pretty quickly. You are in charge of super stuff for the US government. You need to start organizing."

      "What about the Adirondack Irregulars?" said Paul, puzzled. 

      "We gave up on them after leaving six voice mail messages," said Blue Impact, sourly. "We need experienced people on this, not a group of newcomers who don't remember to check their messages."

      "I agree, and I will start calling in favors as soon as I get back to DC. We just may need time to arrange a full guard team. Meanwhile, I'll contact some teams outside this area and see who they can spare."

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Meanwhile, a pair of guest lecturers at the Pine Island Academy were enjoying the perquisites of the locale. Tiger and TAL were taking a leisurely walk along one of the more scenic beaches, with Eve Hind as their escort. 

      "I'm surprised there's not more internecine violence between the students," said Tiger. "I remember how bad things could get in high school with unpowered kids. My expectation was that with powers there would be far more injuries and perhaps even some deaths, even with this few students."

      "We have an advantage normal schools don't," said Eve, dryly. "We're allowed to omit the psychopaths and hardened criminals."

      "Even so, with the powerful social instincts operating at that age..."

      "Oh, we have our cliques and factions," said Eve, with a laugh. "More and more, lately. There's this one recent group of boys who tried to make themselves into an alpha group through intimidation. They made the mistake of choosing Energia as one of their first victims. She not only intimidated them, she reported them, which their previous victims hadn't. We keep a close eye on them, now, partly because they - the four who are left - are determined to continue their campaign, with Energia as their next conquest."

      "Ow," said TAL, mildly. "Hope they don't try that garbage with Chet. He's like Tiger was at that age, only with powers. He'll just walk away... until they try to physically stop him. Then, look out."

      "I've seen him in action," said Eve, nodding. "He's like Tiger, all right. Underestimated. I saw him take out a gadgeteer in some pretty good power armor almost casually."

      "Born engineer," said Tiger, grinning. 

      "That reminds me, do you remember mentioning several spellcasters who might be interested in working at the school?"

      "Sure."

      "We've decided the best way to keep gadgeteers from spying on the girls' showers - and even the female teachers' showers, if you can believe it - is by magic. There's just too much motivation for the boys to spy, and they keep coming up with new ways to do it."

      "I'll contact them when I get back home," said Tiger, nodding. 

      "So far, besides the three magic-capable teachers, we've been able to get Glomahr and Ettienne to help with the anti-spying, but neither of them is an expert spellcaster. Well, Ettienne is for healing and diagnosis, but not in general. None of our few magic users knows much about blocking spying."

      "We do what we can with the tools available," said Tiger. "I'll check with some of the magic folks I know."

      "Thank you. That would be one less thing to worry about."



Part Fifteen



      As TAL and Tiger were preparing to leave via the subtrain that afternoon, they were stopped by one of the security guards. 

      "Excuse me," he said, hand to his ear as a message continued. "The Principal has asked if you could delay your trip and meet her for dinner, to discus something important."

      The two supernaturals looked at each other for a moment. Then both grinned. 

      "Stay longer on this island paradise?" said TAL. "Why not?"

      "So," said Tiger, at dinner, later, "you want TAL and me to pitch in here at the school while you send some of the teachers to help guard this treasure trove?"

      "Yes," said Eve. She gave a wry laugh. "In some cases, you'd actually be substituting for substitute teachers."

      "Neither of us are certified as teachers," said TAL, uncertainly. 

      "We aren't bound by the same rules as the mainland," said Eve. "As long as our students can pass the standardized exams in the conventional subjects - and get some good out of the classes for the unconventional subjects - we don't care who teaches them. I know from your guest lectures that both of you are good teachers and well educated yourselves."

      "Well, hon?" said TAL, smiling at Tiger. "You keep complaining about how bad the teachers back home were, and how you could do better."

      "Don't remind me," Tiger muttered. 

      "I take it you had reasons for brining Chet here beyond our special curriculum?" said Eve, wryly.

      "Oh, yes," said TAL, actually a bit angry. "We were in a situation where the good teachers were actually punished for making the children learn! The bad teachers..."

      "Extraordinary," said Eve, shaking her head, as TAL faltered, at a loss for words. 

      "We were so glad to learn this school was going to open. Chet's last year at his old school was a pure farce."

      "The kicker was when his science teacher gave the class an assignment," said Tiger, his pronunciation of the last word quite scornfully. "To document coriolis force by observing which way the water swirled when a toilet flushed."

      "But..." said Eve, confused. 

      "Coriolis force, of course, works best on a large scale. In something the size of a toilet bowl it's insignificant, and the direction of the swirl is determined by other factors. I thought that maybe her goal was for the students to discover this and report it, which is exactly what Chet did all on his own. It wasn't. The teacher gave Chet an F. I scheduled a meeting with her and the principal. When I pointed out the error in her assignment, the teacher became... hostile. Accused me of being superstitious and ignorant of science. Because everybody knows toilets flush the other way south of the Equator, as anyone who had been to Mexico could verify. When I pointed out that Mexico is north of the Equator, she started screaming at me. Her final spasm was to accuse me of being as backwards as Mexicans."

      "Gods..." said Eve, wide-eyed. 

      "The result of the meeting was Chet getting expelled, and me accused of racism."

      Eve gave him a suspicious look.

      "Is this some sort of elaborate fable?"

      "It's true," said TAL, nodding. "I was there. For some reason, Tiger seems to make fools act even more foolish. It may have something to do with his projective empathy. A positive feedback effect."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I can't believe my Mom and Dad are going to be teaching us," said Chet, mournfully, the next day. 

      "I am not looking forward to this," said Beverly, with a shudder. "Your father is notorious for killing vampires."

      The small group was walking to lunch after their most recent class. The announcement that the two Gifted parents had agreed to help out with classes had been made then.  

      "He hasn't actually killed that many," said Chet, trying to reassure her. "All those were wanted criminals. He actually has a few vampires he considers friends."

      "What about Torvald? Your father frightened him so badly he ran out of the basement where he was hiding and was badly burned by the sun."

      "Wait," said Allessandra, startled. "The vampire fled into the sunlight to get away from Chet's father?!"

      "You know how scared most people are of vampires?" said Chet, proudly. "Most vampires are that scared of my Dad."

      "I can verify that," said Beverly, quietly. "Even my father was terrified of him."

      "Not helping, Chet," said Allessandra, rolling her eyes. 

      Beverly and Allessandra had both had missed much mundane school because of their backgrounds. Neither would graduate for at least another year. A problem with formal education was not uncommon for supers, but in their case their common problems had led to a bond. They weren't exactly friends, but they were both twenty years old and had both seen the seamy underside of life. 

      "You know what the worst part about my life is?" said Beverly, after they had walked along in silence for a while. "People being instinctively afraid of me."

      "I don't think it's instinctive," said Glomahr. 

      "You're pretty scary too," said Energia, teasingly. "Especially once people get to know you."

      "Grrrr..." said the little elf girl, baring fangs which rivaled the vampire girl's.

      There was a bit of friendly laughter at this byplay among the small group. 

      "Seriously, some people just seem to spook around me," said Beverly. "Without knowing what I am, I mean."

      "That new student - Gabriel? - doesn't seem afraid of you," said Allessandra, with a laugh. 

      "Please," said Beverly, now rolling her own eyes behind her large, dark sunglasses. "That guy is a sexist jerk."

      "He does seem rather clueless when it comes to women," said Energia. 

      "He said, and I quote, 'Talk about World Cup,'" said Beverly, still steaming. "While staring at my chest and all but drooling."

      "Oh, trust me, you hear far worse at those super fetish shows," said Allessandra.

      "Thank you for warning me about those, by the way. The undead worshipers are... unnerving. I tried one of their chat rooms, and it didn't go well. They won't even believe I'm alive!"

      "Hey, we mutant bombshells have to stick together," said Allessandra, giving Beverly a brief hug. "Oops. Sorry. Forgot about your sunscreen."

      "S'okay," said the vampire. "It stays on pretty well. Some of the gadgeteers made a special blend for me. I think the principal made them do it, after they tried to feed me that cultured human blood."

      Energia, reminded of how much Beverly had filled out in the past year, glanced over at the young vampire a bit enviously. Beverly might speak disdainfully of the sexy vampires of popular fiction, but she was rapidly becoming quite the temptress. She'd had a delayed development, both socially and physically. Now twenty, she looked maybe sixteen. However, that was a very robust sixteen. 

      "I'm so glad I graduate next year," said Energia. "This school is a blast, but I want to go to college!"

      "I'm stuck here 'til I'm twenty-one, because of the judge's decision," said Allessandra, sadly. "Of course, I'm so far behind, it'll take me that long to graduate."

      "Do I know that feeling," said Beverly, sighing. 

      Because they had missed so much formal schooling, even though they were older than Energia both girls would be here after she had gone. Of course, in Allessandra's case, that was her own fault. Something she would actually admit these days. She had come a long way, socially and morally. Though she still was very much a bad girl in some respects.

      "So, how long are you and Gadgetive here?" said Chet, to Energia. 

      "One day of classes. Mainly to get class assignments, teleconferencing gear, clothes and stuff. We fly back tomorrow morning, with Template."

      "So they're not even letting you skip classes to do work for the President," said Allessandra, smirking.

      "That's just a matter of national security," said Energia, with mock seriousness. "This is school!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template had been a natural choice for guard duty at the Sanctum. She was powerful, she could get to and from the school very quickly on her own, and she was a veteran super. 

      However, she was also still a nursing mother. She wasn't going to bring Roy here. Which meant she had to find somewhere private to express her milk, put it on ice and keep it until she could fly back home. Getting far enough ahead of the hungry baby's appetite to avoid resorting to formula for more than a couple of feedings had been a problem. Doing so in what was essentially a base camp, with only tents for shelter, was beyond awkward. Template was feeling rather frazzled just now. Even being able to socialize with Energia and her friends was only partial consolation.  

      "Interesting times, indeed," said Template, as she put her feet up on a crate.

      "At least the gadgeteers have a basic sensor array and alarm system operating, now," said Blue Impact. 

      "The problem is, all this activity makes it pretty obvious where we are," said Paul. 

      "We just have to hope that our display of supers and agents is enough of a deterrent to hold the opportunists off until something more substantial can be put in place," said Susan, Paul's second in command. 

      "Like the National Guard," said Gadgetive, in a stage mutter. 



Part Sixteen



      The red alert came when it was least expected; in the middle of the afternoon.

      "Why couldn't they come at Midnight!" raged Template, trying desperately to clean the residual milk from her breasts and put what she had managed to extract in the cooler while simultaneously pulling her costume in place. "Or Dawn! At some reasonable hour! Have they no respect for motherhood?! Damn! I bet I leak through..."

      The girls couldn't help but hear her, in her partitioned off corner. They smothered giggles at the maternal fussing. 

      Energia and Gadgetive were in the open area of the tent assigned to the supers, though in their cases they were participating in classes remotely. At least they were fully dressed.

      Blue Impact was the only super on duty when the alert came. As the others arrived they noticed she was looking very serious.

      "Major trouble. Long-range sensors show we've got Lemuel Crue, Blackjack, Helen Frye, The Sun King, Die-Ox, Tashma Hall, Dragnorock and Sprague heading our way. They're in some sort of subsonic aircraft, following terrain. If it weren't for satellite surveillance - including the Super Monitoring System - they would have taken us completely by surprise. As it is, we have about twenty minutes, depending on their final approach."

      "Wow..." Template shook her head. "Those are all medium-powered but very professional crooks. Some of them known to be pretty ruthless. You can be sure that Sprague and Lemuel Crue at the least will be well-equipped to deal with who and what they think is here."

      "Paul has already put out the alert. We managed to get a response from three teams already, plus the state police." Blue Impact grimaced. "One of the teams is the Adirondack Irregulars. They're actually closest."

      "I think we better move everyone into the base," said Paul. "Take what we need and seal ourselves in until reinforcements arrive."

      "Probably a good idea," said Blue Impact. 

      "Has the door been repaired?" said Template.

      "Yeah," said Paul. "Thanks to Gadgetive and our techs it's actually more secure than as originally built. Still, it won't hold that lot for long."

      "Okay. If possible, we wait until help arrives, then coordinate a two-front attack," said Template, frowning as she thought hard and fast. "If it looks like they're about to get through the door, we'll pop the latches and I'll kick it open. That might even take out one or two of them."

      "That should work," said Paul, swallowing a bit of irritation at Template apparently taking over. "What worries me is Die-Ox. The guy not only puts out toxic mist, he's poison to the touch. The dioxin is the long-term worry, but he also exudes other poisons. Meanwhile, we don't have any hazmat gear."

      "Our space suits," said Energia.

      "Yeah," said Template, nodding. "If they'll protect us from vacuum, they'll protect us from Die-Ox."

      "Meanwhile, we should have Gadgetive and our techs work on decon measures," said Paul.

      "Good idea," said Template. She smiled at Paul. "I can see why the Assembly put you in such an important position."

      That made Paul feel a bit better. He'd worked with Template before and knew she tended to get very focused in tense situations. She wasn't being deliberately rude. 

      "Let's get busy, then."

      Everyone else began gathering gear. Template and Energia went off to dress in their space suits. These had been greatly improved since that first trial model. These new ones were much quicker to don and doff, had more capabilities, were far more rugged, and Energia's was specially modified to work with her powers. 

      Now, if those damned Irregulars would actually show... 

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You're going too far, too fast," said Doro, pointedly.

      "We have to strike while the iron is hot!" said Rotary. 

      The team's brick definitely did not like what had happened to them in the past two weeks. They had become media darlings, actually being invited to a couple of Hollywood galas. They had been deluged by offers from supers wanting to join, by sponsors offering money, news people wanting interviews and government agencies wanting help, mostly with trivial matters.

      The biggest problem - from Doro's viewpoint - was that the noise was swamping what they should have been paying attention to. At Cosmic Ray's suggestion they had hired a manager with experience handling supers. He was definitely helping, but Rotary was setting policy, with support from Thunderer and - to a lesser degree of enthusiasm - Freep. Their new manager was actual encouraging the team's actions. Doro didn't like the direction things were taking. 

      With the promise of sponsorship their carefully planned budget had been tossed. They had ordered a huge amount exotic equipment, including a proper team vehicle. Which wouldn't be there for another two or three months. Meanwhile, the old van had received only minimal repairs, since it would soon be replaced with something far better. 

      They had three new team members, two newbies and a pro who had been kicked out of another team after only a few weeks. Doro didn't know any of them, but their manager - Oliver Gunderson - and Rotary both said they had a lot of promise. So far Hotfoot was the only one to make a positive impression on Doro. He had messed up, admitted it - including to himself - and was now making a serious effort to get back in the game. The other two struck her as gold diggers, in it for the money, the glory or both. They had useful powers, and they trained with the rest of the team, but something about their attitude left Doro uneasy.

      The team also now had five permanent staff members. One of the few changes Doro approved was that someone was monitoring their communications at all times. Realizing they hadn't even received several important messages before this had been a wakeup call. 

      Doro was about to make another critical remark to Rotary when the conversation was interrupted as the guy currently on com shift came hurrying in, looking worried.

      "Boss, we just got an emergency call. Some supers and team security people are under siege in the mountains not far from here."

      "Shit!" said Rotary, startled. He began to look worried. "We've got a meeting with the mayor in an hour, and that designer is supposed to..."

      "People are in trouble!" said Doro, angrily. "Forget all that and let's go!"

      "But we've worked for days to get this designer in! He did the look for that Iron Max movie!"

      Doro opened her mouth to try and explain he needed to calm down, to take a deep breath, step back and look at things objectively. What came out was: "I quit."

      She turned and walked away. 

      Rotary looked after for a moment, feeling sad. Then, he sighed, and shrugged. If she couldn't see the potential here, couldn't value the big picture, that was her problem. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Ray was cleaning up after closing the store when his cell rang.

      "Hey, babe!" he said, cheerfully, when he saw the caller ID. "What's up?"

      "That jerk Rotary is ignoring an emergency call. Can you go with me?"

      "Wait, what?!"

      She gave a quick, concise description, omitting as much extraneous detail as her anger would allow. 

      "Okay. I'll meet you at the usual place in fifteen minutes," said Ray. 

      He was actually in the mood to play hero. So, having the chance to do that for a legitimate emergency - especially to help out other heroes - was perfect timing. 

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Bad setup for us," said Blue Impact, as they moved gear into the tunnel. "Entrance faces west, and the sun will be going down soon."

      "All right, listen up!" said Paul, loudly, once everyone was inside and the door closed. "For those who aren't familiar with our attackers, Die-Ox exudes poison and is fast, tough and strong. Lemuel Crue, Blackjack, Helen Frye, Tashma Hall and Dragnorock all have super physical enhancements, as well, with Blackjack being very good at throwing things. Crue and Hall both carry ranged weapons. The Sun King is an energy projector. Finally, Sprague is a mastermind and inventor who hires and trains and organizes supers to good effect, so you can expect a coordinated team effort."

      "Wasn't Sprague the one who created an artificial language for time travelers?" said Template, as she watched Gadgetive and the techs on the Assembly team patch their portable communications and security gear into the wiring of the old base. "Said normal languages don't have enough tenses to handle the activity."

      "Wouldn't surprise me," said Blue Impact. "He's a mastermind, and they tend to have odd hobbies."

      "Okay, we've got an update," said Paul, hurrying over to the two women. "One of your school's graduates just checked in with us; Cosmic Ray. He's brining Doro from the irregulars. Both can fly, and should be here in under an hour."

      "How's the door holding up?" said Blue Impact. 

      "Surprisingly well. Those old masterminds built this place pretty sturdy. They've actually given up on the door for now and are attacking the rock."

      "Good luck with that," said Gadgetive, with a smirk. "Those guys chose this mountain because of the tough rock, and there's a lot of it."



Part Seventeen



      Inside the odd aircraft the hastily assembled team was sitting tensely. They dealt with their tension in different ways. 

      "What is this thing, anyway?" said Blackjack, looking around uneasily.

      "A Coandă Effect airship," said Helen Frye. "As maneuverable as a helicopter, but much quieter and as fast as a business jet."

      "Why aren't we there, yet?!" said Die-Ox, sounding much less like a petulant child than a neurotic monster. 

      Helen leaned closer to Blackjack. 

      "You I know. I've worked for Sprague a few times, too. The rest I've only heard of. What I've heard about that guy isn't good."

      "Yeah," said Blackjack, just as quietly. "I'm going to keep one eye on him."

      "You and me both."

      "In five minutes we will be landing on the other side of the ridge from the Sanctum," said Sprague. "I know most of you haven't worked together before, but you're all professionals. We will be taking them by surprise, and we are all supers. The last intelligence is that they have only four supers there, and two are children. However, both are in their late teens and experienced heroes, so don't take them lightly and don't go easy on them.

      "Remember!" he continued, sweeping them with a glare. "This is a smash and grab! Avoid unnecessary casualties. Once the defenders are contained turn your attention to the mission objectives."

      They all nodded, even Die-Ox. Who then went back to muttering irritably to himself, rubbing his arms and staring out the tiny window. 

      The strange aircraft landed on schedule. The occupants filed out and quickly and quietly advanced to the top of the ridge. 

      "Looks quiet," said Lemuel Crue. "Too quiet."

      "They know we're coming," said the Sun King. 

      "Looks like they just ran off and left everything unguarded," said Die-Ox. 

      "Don't count on it," said Sprague. "More likely, they're holed up inside. Not to worry; I brought some nutcrackers. Blackjack! Dragnorock! Scout along the left flank. Helen, Tashma, the right. Die-Ox, I want you to go into that camp and poison everything so they can't use it, then wait there in case some of them try. The rest of you come with me to get the gear out of the cargo hold."

      The two scouting teams moved quickly but cautiously into position, then reported back they had found nothing. Die-Ox went into the camp and presumably fulfilled his orders, but made no report. The others soon approached the tunnel entrance, loaded down with shaped charges and other gear. 

      There was no-one in the tunnel. At the far end was a very sturdy-looking inclined hatch. 

      "Damn," said Blackjack. "Look at where someone dug their fingers into that armor. You don't suppose whoever did that is still here, do you?"

      "More likely, that was done by Energex," said Sprague. "He was never one for being subtle. Or patient. I seriously doubt they have anyone here in his class."

      "Who do they have here?" said Helen.

      "I received an update just before we debarked. Besides some nonpowered security guards from the Assembly, just Blue Impact..."

      "Who's no lightweight," said Tashma. 

      "...her charges Energia and Gadgetive..."

      "Also no lightweights," said Helen. 

      "...and a teacher from that island school, Template."

      "Template!" yelled Blackjack, Tashma and Helen, together. 

      "None of them will be a problem for us," said Sprague, sternly, sweeping his gaze across them. "She is formidable, yes, but we outnumber her and some of you have attacks she is known to be vulnerable to."

      "You mean attacks she's not specially invulnerable to," said Tashma, petulantly. "This chick has beaten Energex half a dozen times."

      "Her score is not that impressive."

      "Which doesn't change the fact that she's beaten Energex more times than he's beaten her! Not to mention that she's survived losing to that maniac!"

      "Silence!" He got it. "I hired you because you are professionals. If you want to, you may leave. In which case you will forfeit your pay, your cut and the downpayment, besides being blackballed."

      That quieted them. 

      "Now, lets get that door open. Remember, they do have a gadgeteer and some competent techs, so be careful."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The two flyers were on the alert as Cosmic Ray's GPS told them they were getting close to the scene. They spotted the Coandă Effect airship and immediately dropped below the treelike. They approached cautiously from the rear and watched carefully for several minutes.

      "I don't think anyone's home," said Ray. "No-one in the cockpit, no activity..."

      "You don't think they're already in that cave, do you?"

      "Probably. Which means we shouldn't waste time."

      They quickly came up with a plan. Doro grabbed the biggest rock she could fly with and went high over the vehicle. She dropped the rock; just before it hit Ray fired at the flyer.

      Between the rock and the energy blast the craft was instantly totaled.

      "Okay," said Ray, flying up to join Doro. "Let's find that tunnel."

      They spotted several people in costumes huddled outside a hole in the hillside as soon as they cleared the ridge. Before they could decide what to do, though, a huge blast came out of the tunnel mouth.

      "Get 'em!" shouted Doro, shooting ahead. 

      Ray started to object, but realized that after that blast the bad guys wouldn't hear them coming. He grinned as he flew after the brick. 

      Doro recognized most of those rising as the dust settled. She picked out the one she figured was strongest - Dragnorock - and flying rammed him right in the back of the head. He slammed face first into large rock half-buried in the hillside. Doro's fists hurt, and she barely pulled up before hitting the slope herself, but she could tell he was down at least for the next few seconds. 

      She heard energy bolts from behind her and turned to see Ray sniping at them from above. Doro landed on the slope, grabbed a boulder the size of a medicine ball and lobbed it at Tashma. She was grinning like a kid.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Both sides knew that more than one blast would be needed to get through that hatch. As soon as the charge went off, Template - in her space suit - had the techs pull the new latches back and shoved the hatch open. She let it slam shut behind her and started down the tunnel. 

      She had planned to fly out the entrance at high speed, but immediately realized that even with the suit's sensors and navigational aid there was just too much dust to do this without hitting the wall. Instead she ran. 

      Template was almost at the entrance when she realized there was fighting going on outside. Had help actually come in time?

      When she saw sunlight ahead through the dust she decided to risk flying. She leapt and accelerated. She exited the tunnel into a full-fledged battle. Even better, she knew one of the rescuers, and thought she recognized the other. 

      Helen had managed to close with Doro and grab the brick's foot when she lifted off to dodge into the air. Helen wasn't nearly as strong or tough as Doro, but she was fast and skilled. 

      Cosmic Ray was dodging shots from Sprague and various objects thrown by Blackjack while trying to shoot back with his energy bolts. He saw the silvery figure shoot out of the cave and thought it looked familiar but couldn't place it.

      "Ray!" Template yelled. "Help her! I'll keep them busy until the three of us can fight them together!"

      Okay, that was Template! Ray suddenly felt a lot more confident about this fight. Still dodging attacks, he headed uphill towards Doro and Helen. 

      Template made several feints towards those still by the tunnel entrance, diving and pulling up. She had her powers allocated in a balance of flight, speed and resilience. She took some hits, but between her suit and resilience hardly felt them. 

      "We're back!" said Ray, as he and Doro flew towards her, the brick holding an unconscious Helen Frye by one foot.

      Sprague realized they were in trouble. Five non-flyers against three flyers was bad odds, and those were much worse when one of the flyers was a powerhouse like Template. She barely seemed to notice getting shot by his favorite weapon or Blackjack's throwing sticks and hatchet. Sun King's light blasts were simply bouncing off that silvery suit, and Tashma and Lemuel were resorting to throwing rocks. 

      This is pathetic, he thought, with a sick grimace. The whole plan depended on keeping the heroes bottled up inside where they couldn't maneuver as well as his people, beating them, then getting in and out before reinforcements arrived. That was all undone, now.

      "Die-Ox!" Sprague called over his com. "We're going back to the Coandă! Cover us!"

      Shooting and throwing as they went, the five headed downhill in a mostly ordered retreat. Sprague made sure they went around the tents upwind. As they did so, Die-Ox stepped out.

      "I've got him!" shouted Template. "You keep them from getting away until I can help you!"

      "Already done!" said Doro.

      Template wondered why the younger super was smirking like that, as she dove towards the toxic mercenary. 



Part Eighteen



      Sun King and Ray were both energy blasters, rather than energy manipulators. That meant they could channel energy for attacks, but had no natural resistance to even their own form of attack. They were zapping at each other as Ray flew and Sun King ran. They were also busy dodging each others' blasts. Ray quickly realized that while he could fly, his only active defense was dodging. Sun King could actively shield. It wasn't a force field or plasma wall; more like a power-assisted parry. Ray had some armor in his suit, but that wasn't seeming like nearly enough just now. 

      Sun King was at the rear of the fleeing group, fending off Ray and Doro. She was standing on a nearby ridge, throwing anything she could find. She wasn't creating much of a threat, but she was keeping the fleeing supers busy as they ran. Unfortunately, Sun King was good enough he was also keeping her from closing. Sometimes he was firing blasts from both hands at once, at each target independently.

      A silvery figure shot towards Ray. At first he thought it was Template, but as she flew closer he realized it must be Energia. 

      "I've got him," she said, snarling. "You two keep the others from escaping."

      She dove at Sun King before Ray could reply.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Die-Ox was a major menace. Template recalled that he could exude toxic mist, as well being poison to the touch. From the looks of things, he had deliberately tainted everything in the camp. Snarling, she dove at him. 

      He dodged and slammed both fists down on her back, driving her into the ground.

      Template slid to a stop and pushed herself up, surprised but not hurt. Unfortunately, her suit was warning her that the life support system - along with several others - was out of commission. That meant she had to divert some of her power to her indepen...

      Die-Ox landed on her with both feet, driving her back onto the rocky ground.

      Template swatted at him as she rolled over, but only managed a glancing blow. 

      When did he get so fast?

      She pumped up her speed and managed to get to her feet as quickly as her opponent, so at least they were now on even terms. Template hastily put enough of her power into independence that she wouldn't need to breathe for a while. She expected Die-Ox to take a moment to size her up, but even as she finished he charged, swinging as he shouted wordlessly.

      He's lost it!

      Well, he might have lost the power of speech, but his combat skills were definitely intact. He was less strong, less quick, less durable than her and he couldn't fly. He also had her very much on the defensive. Template gritted her teeth and settled in for a long fight. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Gadgetive and Blue Impact were running, with the teacher very much outdistancing the student. Which caused her to yell back over her shoulder.

      "No! You stay as near Die-Ox and Template as you safely can! Even if she doesn't need help beating him you'll have to decontaminate her!"

      "Gotcha'!" the Gadgeteer yelled, slowing and turning to her left. She had cobbled together an atomic oxygen gun while waiting in that hole. The perfect instrument for decontamination.

      Blue Impact really poured on her speed, now. She missed her motorcycle. Or even that beefed-up mountain bike she had used before she got her license. Still, she was closing on the fleeing felons. She trusted Paul and his team to handle Dragnorock and Helen. Template should be able to at least keep Die-Ox occupied. If the kids could keep Sprague and the rest of his people from escaping, they could wrap this whole mess in a neat package labelled "Handled!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Sun King didn't know who the smaller figure was, but if - She? - thought she could handle him he'd show her different. He set himself, letting his power build, until she was close enough he couldn't miss. Then fired his heat beam.

      Energia saw him - felt him - getting ready to strike. She knew his attack, and was prepared for it. Anticipating it, actually. The blast shot out and struck her plasma wall, which turned black and soaked it up. All of it. 

      Energia's store had only been about half full. Now, suddenly, it was brimming. Before she could lose any of it she quickly pulled out of her dive, and began charging her wave motion effect. Sun King was left momentarily stunned at the sight of his attack simply disappearing, as if blotted up by a giant sponge. Now he saw his opponent form a glowing sphere between her hands. He braced himself. 

      When the plasma blast came he parried it, but only just. He felt like his shoulder was broken, but the beam - now a rapidly spreading cloud of energetic plasma - shot away to take a chunk out of a nearby mountain peak. 

      What the Hell am I fighting?!

      Energia slammed into him with both fists, the suit taking most of the impact. She still felt like she had nearly broken her wrists. She pulled up, hovering, to look back at Sun King. He was lying on his left side, curled around his hurt, gasping. She didn't know how long he'd be out of action, but figured she had enough time to help the outnumbered Cosmic Ray and Doro. 

      She flew after the fleeing felons.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "The rest of you keep them busy!" Sprague yelled, as they approached the top of the ridge. "I'll get the Coandă and use its weapons against them!"

      Lemuel Crue, Blackjack and Tashma Hall formed a defensive line. They launched a flurry of their trademark ranged attacks, which held the trio of teens at bay. Meanwhile, Sprague topped the crest and triumphantly started down the slope towards his flyer.

      His triumph dried up and blew away, and he stumbled to a stop, as he saw what was left of his flyer.

      "My Coandă..." he said, numbly. "My beautiful Coandă... What did they do to you?"

      A particularly violent energy attack from over the ridge brought him out of his fugue state. He considered for a moment, mentally flipped a coin, then turned and hurried downhill, toward the nearest screen of trees. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template and Die-Ox were in a slugfest. Her helmet was shattered, and she thought at least one rib was broken. On the other hand, his left arm was useless, and he was limping badly from where she had landed a hard kick on his left shin. 

      If she could just get a knockout strike... but he was fast and agile and skilled. He was also fanatically trying to kill her, then probably dismember her corpse. She'd never had an opponent so maniacally determined to hurt her. 

      Template saw him hesitate, and waver a bit. Hoping it wasn't a feint, she struck hard with a roundhouse heel palm strike to his left jaw. He dropped. Template sighed. Then went tense as he somehow managed to push himself partially off the ground. With a groan, he suddenly dropped back down, out cold.

      Template staggered away, to sit on the nearest boulder. She wanted to pant for breath, but knew she better not breathe right now. Neither should she leave this contaminated area. After a few seconds she heard movement, and looked around to see Gadgetive - wearing protective gear and painting the ground in her path with a faint beam which made whatever it touched fluoresce oddly - approaching. 

      She reached Template and looked at her worriedly. When she spoke her voice was muffled by her filter mask, but the concern still came through. 

      "You need to stand up, raise your arms, close your eyes, and hold your breath."

      Well, she already wasn't breathing. Gadgetive didn't know Template could reapportion her powers. She put most into resilience, keeping her independence as it was. Standing, eyes closed and arms out, she felt an odd tingling as the beam swept over her.

      "You've got multiple suit breaches," said Gadgetive. "Soon as I finish you need to strip it off and toss it. I'm afraid it's ruined. Was before I zapped it. Then I better zap you again, though I'll use a lower setting. No sense making you naked until we get you into a proper decon area, anyway."

      That didn't sound good. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Blue Impact smiled as she rubbed the knuckles of her right hand, waiting for them to heal. Lemuel Crue had turned out to be unexpectedly tough, but he had fallen, the last of them. Except for Sprague. 

      "No joy," said Ray, as he flew back over the ridge. "He bugged out."

      "Well, he is unusually intelligent," said Doro, with a smirk. She winced and gingerly rubbed her jaw. "Ow. That bitch really did a number on me. Think I've got a loose tooth."

      "Oh, don't worry about Sprague right now," said Blue Impact. "I'm scoring this a ninety-eight percent."

      "Thank you, teach!" said Ray, grinning.

      "Okay, we wait for the Assembly security people to get here and put the restraints on this group. Then we begin the hard part. Cleanup and report writing."

      They sat down to wait. However, after only a few minutes Blue Impact saw something.

      "Is that a van?!"

      It was. A familiar one, driving up the old access road.

      "God," said Doro, sourly. "Those losers finally made up their minds to come help. After it's all over, naturally."



Part Nineteen



      Rotary came charging out of the van in an obviously unnecessary hurry, to find Ray and Doro standing there, arms across their chests, glaring at him.

      "Gee," he snapped, after a moment to recover. "Thanks for waiting for us!"

      "Don't you give me that!" snapped Doro, advancing on the gadgeteer in a menacing fashion. "I hurt all over! From the fight you missed!"

      "Well, you should have..."

      "Not one more word," said Doro, jabbing a finger in his face.

      Wisely, he held his tongue. After a brief pause to test him, Doro turned and stalked off.

      "Honestly, we couldn't get here any faster," said Rotary, pleading his case before Ray. "We don't have the new van, yet, and the old one..."

      "If this were the first time, I'd let it go," said Ray, more tired than angry. "You've used up all your excuses with me."

      Then he turned and stalked off. 

      Rotary looked around for succor from the others standing there, and got none. He stared dumbly for a bit. Then he scowled, straightened, and turned and marched back to the van.

      "It's over," he told the others waiting there. "Let's go."

      There were some minor protests, but Rotary wasn't interested. Thunderer barely made it back in the van before he started driving. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      They used the Assembly's Hawk to get Template back to the island right away. Energia wanted to go with her, but Template - supported by the Assembly team's medic - insisted she was probably not in any danger, that this was just a precaution. 

      "Besides, it would be just like some opportunist to attack right now." Template took her niece's hand. "You stay here and help with this; it's important. I'll be fine."

      The state police arrived shortly after the hopper left, and the prisoners were handed over to them. Sprague's team would be held in a shared state and federal facility until the courts decided whose claim had priority. 

      "Great Ghu (Purple Be His Name) what a mess," said Paul, looking around the campsite. "We'll need to replace everything. Anything which wasn't ruined by the toxin was eaten away by the atomic oxygen."

      He gave Gadgetive a lopsided grin. 

      "Not that I'm blaming you. It wasn't useable anyway without decontamination, and by acting so quickly and thoroughly you probably saved us a lot of grief."

      "Yeah, well, we should be inside the base, anyway," said Blue Impact, firmly. "I know, I'm one of the people wanting to preserve it as an archeological site, but if we can't protect it there won't be anything to study. We need to set up in the main room, at least, and make it a long-term headquarters."

      Susan came towards the small group examining the ruins of their camp, a sour expression on her face.

      "We may have no choice. There's still no response to our calls for help from the feds, but we just got a call from the EPA. They're declaring this an emergency cleanup site and sending a full hazmat team. Mainly because of Die-Ox, but also because of possible hazardous materials in Sprague's flyer."

      "I can understand that, actually," said Paul, tiredly rubbing his hair. "They don't know about Gadgetive's decontamination, and there's no telling what was on that plane."

      "That is not a plane," said Gadgetive, flatly. "It's a Coandă effect airship. The distinction is very important."

      "You don't understand," said Susan. "They're kicking us out."

      "They can't kick us out," said Paul, firmly. "We're here under orders from President Sievers."

      "I told them that. They smugly said they'd have a talk with her and explain how serious the situation was."

      "Oh, I can just imagine how well that will go," said Blue Impact, laughing. 

      "Y'know, I bet they don't even know about the Sanctum," said Gadgetive, thoughtfully. "Else they would have mentioned it. The EPA has this... bug about dealing with supervillain lairs."

      "You're right," said Susan, startled. "They got in trouble a few years ago for filling that one with concrete. The LEOs hadn't even finished their investigation, yet. They came back to gather more evidence and the mouth of the tunnel was overflowing with barely cured concrete. From what I've heard, they didn't learn anything from the dressing-down and threats of criminal prosecution for interfering with an ongoing investigation they got from that, either." 

      "Okay, we move everything salvageable into the tunnel for now," said Paul. "Including most of our people. When - not if - the EPA arrives we'll let them assume we've already moved off-site. Don't ask, don't tell."

      "I'll call Brade and have her brief the President," said Blue Impact. She smirked. "Sievers will probably bust a gut not laughing when she talks to the EPA guys, if what Brade tells me about her is right."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As it turned out, the EPA had a small team there by the next morning. 

      "We're just making a preliminary investigation," said Alice Baggers, the woman in in charge of the three other people explained, when Paul and Susan met her. "Taking samples and photos. Now, where was this dioxin contaminated site?"

      "You're standing in it," said Paul, blithely. "We did a pretty thorough cleanup, using an atomic oxygen jet. None of our gear shows any dioxin left, though your specialized tests may."

      The woman looked startled, but quickly recovered and had two of her people start work.

      "Now, where is this other site?"

      "Over that ridge," said Paul, pointing. "I hope you're a good hiker. It's either the short, very steep route over the ridge, or the long, merely steep route around the bottom end."

      They cut directly over. As it turned out, all members of the team were good hikers. Paul had no problems, but by the time they crested the ridge Susan was panting.

      "We're the folks they send to isolated areas like this," said Baggers - Dr. Baggers, as it turned out - explained, with a smile, as they took a brief rest to enjoy the view (or so she graciously claimed). "For the whole New England area and part of the outside."

      While the two EPA agents and the two Assembly security personnel were out on their hike, nearly everyone else was hiding in the access tunnel for the lair. Mostly they were sorting through what had been scavenged from the camp, actually tossing a lot of it. A few had time on their hands and were getting bored. 

      "I have a question," said Energia, turning to the flying brick. "Why Doro?"

      "After starting this gig I often feel like I'm in Oz," said Doro, wryly

      Energia laughed out loud at this, with Doro joining it. Ray, who had already heard the joke, just grinned. 

      "What?!" demanded Gadgetive, coming over to find out what was so funny. 

      Doro stopped laughing long enough to repeat it, loud enough for everyone in the tunnel to hear. There was considerably more laughter. 

      "Should't we be quiet?" said Blue Impact. "They're supposed to think we've already left. We also don't want them learning about this place."

      "Didn't you know?" said Gadgetive. "This whole entrance tunnel is designed to muffle sound. That's why it's so dead in here."

      She clapped her hands. There was only a trace of an echo.

      "Okay, I had wondered about that," said Blue Impact, who had better than human hearing. "Just hadn't thought to ask."

      "Something about the shape, and proportions, and the shotcrete they used on the walls," said one of the Assembly techs, gesturing. 

      "Masterminds don't want absolute power," said Blue Impact, paraphrasing a Cosby joke. "They want quiet!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You've got trace dioxin contamination," said Dr. Nief. "Not enough to even make you sick... now. It will greatly increase your susceptibility to several diseases, including cancer."

      Template paled. She remembered Amazonia...

      "The good news is that onset time is pretty long, even for large exposures. We'll get you started on chelation treatment right away, and send for a specialist. This will also handle the traces of other toxins, which are actually a greater concern, short term."

      Template felt awkward, lying there in the hospital bed wearing just a gown and her spare mask. Among other humiliations, they had thoroughly scrubbed every square millimeter of her, including her scalp. Her hair was a disaster. The medical news wasn't making things any better. 

      "Right," she said, with a sigh. "Well, let's get started."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Meanwhile, Brade was still working on multiple super-related matters. Including the disappearance of Major Carl Thrace. Unfortunately, her Pentagon contact was not in a cooperative mood at the moment. As soon as he and Brade were alone in his office he started in on her.

      "You have caused me no end of trouble!" snapped Blair. "Your little escapade with Energex has landed my whole staff in hot water, while you are lauded by the President!"

      "I'll speak with her about..."

      "You will do me no favors!" said Blair, his voice loud and his tone emphatic. "She'll be gone in seven years at most, and I'll still have to be dealing with the people her administration has pissed off!"

      "Is there something specific you have against me?" said Brade, hotly, deciding to get to what she thought was the core of the problem. "Or are you just a general supers bigot?"

      "This isn't bigotry! For all your bragging about how much good you do, none of you have helped in war since Korea!"

      "Gee, you don't suppose that has anything to do with an international treaty from the Fifties against supers acting in military operations, do you?" said Brade, sneering.

      "What are you talking about?"

      "It's illegal for supers to fight in wars."

      "Since when?"

      "I just told you when."

      "Wait. You were serious?!"

      "Do you mean to tell me that you didn't know about this?" said Brade, outraged. "It's been in the news lately, because of me."

      "Why would a treaty from the Fifties have anything to do with you?"

      Brade gritted her teeth. Then, in a very tight voice, explained about how and when she got her powers and then was drafted. 

      "I didn't know you were that old," said Colonel Blair, startled. 

      "Why, thank you," said Brade, smiling sweetly. Which looked really incongruous on a female titan.

      "But... There really is a treaty..."

      "Yes!"

      "Then why does the upper brass keep criticizing supers for not volunteering to help the armed forces?!"

      "You'd have to ask them," said Brade, hotly. She sighed, and made herself calm down. "Look, I'm sorry about causing you trouble. However, time was short and the neither Energex nor the staff there were at all cooperative. For the record, I did nothing illegal, though it may have been improper. I set up a situation, but it was Energex who decided to take advantage of it."

      "Just, please, try to keep things low key from now on," said Blair. "That will make things go easier for both of us."

      "There's still a former Presidential staffer gone rogue out there, gunning for me," said Brade, sourly. "Literally. Low key may just not be possible. I offered my resignation, but Sievers feels guilty about not catching on to the guy sooner and refused it. So, you're stuck with me."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You're going to be all right," said Dr. Thurber. "We got the chelation started in time. However, some of the dioxin has soaked into various tissues where it cannot be easily dislodged. It's a relatively tiny amount, but even that could - Only potentially! - cause trouble."

      At least this time she was sitting in an office, and had a robe on over the hospital gown. Unfortunately, neither of those factors were making the news any more palatable. 

      "So... what does that mean?"

      "We'll prescribe oral chelating agents, as well as high-dose antioxidants. As long as you keep taking these regularly for the next two or three years you should be fine. However, you won't be able to nurse any more, just as a precaution. Dioxin tends to concentrate in fat, and there's a lot of fat in milk. The chelating agents also contraindicate nursing. Infants are far more susceptible to the effects of both dioxin and the chelating agents than adults."

      "Great," said Template, sourly. "I finally get the whole nursing thing down, and I have to stop."  



Part Twenty



      Paul and Blue Impact sat on the sloping frame around the propped-open hatch, quietly discussing their options. The Assembly Hawk would be back soon, after a stop at the team's base to pick up replacement supplies and equipment. They decided that once those were here, there was no choice but to put them inside the base. They would only use the main room - which was apparently a gathering area for the Five Great Powers - and the combination security and communications room just off of that. 

      There were quarters only for the Five. Quarters which were quite adequate by normal human standards, but several steps down from what one would expect any of the Five to consider the bare necessities. Obviously, they had dispensed with the amenities while here, for whatever reason. Also, they had not used minions in this, their most secret of facilities. Which provided the odd mental image of people like The Magnificent Lung and the Briton taking turns manning the radios and monitors. Or doing the dishes. Of course, this also explained why such an important room only had one actual work station, with a small table and two chairs in addition. 

      "I wonder if they found it galling," mused Paul. "To be one of the fated masters of the world, and spend a fifth of your time at such mundane tasks as housekeeping."

      "From what I've read their relationship was... weird," said Blue Impact. "The few observations we have of them in casual moments, they acted like they were old friends, even though as far as we know only the Magnificent Lung and the Winter Bear had met each other before 1950."

      "I've read that the Briton's wife claimed they had all known each other in previous lives," said Paul, voice hushed. "Which means their group suicide actually makes sense. They expected to come back. Once they were defeated, dying to come back later was far preferable to being incarcerated."

      "Oh, God," said Blue Impact, shocked. "Wait... That was sixty years ago. Where are they?"

      "No idea. According to Lady Penfold's memoirs, her husband claimed that they were reborn when the world was 'ripe.' If it's any consolation, they have apparently never succeeded completely in any of their incarnations. Though there is speculation that they may have been responsible for occasions when several nations gained strong leaders with similar ideas at the same time, throughout history."

      Blue Impact shivered, then straightened and shook her head.

      "We're getting off subject."

      "Right. Okay, we can tie our com gear into the antennas for our gear through the old cables, just mounting them beside the old, concealed ones. The impedance won't be an exact match, but..."

      Susan came over as Blue Impact walked away, several minutes later.

      "Isn't she a little short for a super hero?" She grinned, but there was an odd edge in her tone.

      Paul was startled. He not only hadn't considered Susan the jealous type, he hadn't thought she had anything to be jealous about concerning him.

      "She also has a weight problem," said Paul, trying to derail that line of conversation.

      "What?"

      "Her tissues are as dense as magnesium," said Paul, dryly.

      "Ohhhh... Men!" snapped Susan, storming off. 

      Even though he had been one for a couple of years, Paul decided that wasn't nearly long enough to understand women. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Why don't you just change back to Randy?" said Colossa.

      "Some things carry over," said Template, sighing. She'd explained this before, but conceded to herself it was a complicated topic. "Like meals and drugs... and poisons. Besides, even if I didn't have dioxin in me as Randy or the Revolutionary, I couldn't nurse as Randy. Though, now that I think of it, the Revolutionary would probably be lactating if I changed into her. However, even if that worked, I'd also still have to deal with being poisoned as Template."

      "You need to template someone who has regeneration," said Colossa, as they settled in for an evening at their island bungalow. "You've got all those injuries which never completely healed, even with the magical healing you've had. You still complain about the knuckle you broke in your first fight with Energex."

      "I don't think I can template anyone again," said Template. She unconsciously rubbed her hand and winced. "At least not for a good while. Oh, and that knuckle is the one I broke in the fight with Energex at the volcano."

      "You are entirely too blasé about your injuries," said Colossa, sourly. 

      "Look, I'll try to book some time in the Guardians' regeneration facility," said Template, in a placating tone. "That might also get the rest of the dioxin out of my system."

      "That's better," said Colossa, smiling and nodding. 

      Template put her hands on her spouse's upper arms and kissed her gently on the forehead. 

      "Don't worry. I intend to stay fully functional for a good, long time."

      Right on cue, Roy started crying.

      "He is a lot more fussy on formula," said Colossa, with a sigh, rising from the barely started foreplay.

      "I'll come with you," said Template, also sighing. "It's partly my fault, for being careless."

      "It certainly is," said Colossa, with mock severity.

      "You know what the worst part is? I'm still lactating, and it's going to waste. I have to use that damn breast pump, then just pour it down the drain."

      "I thought your milk was a biohazard."

      "Nah, the concentration is low enough to barely measure. It's just a precaution. No sense taking risks with the baby."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We've already had two attempts to steal what's here," said Blue Impact, into the recently installed radio. She hoped the encryption was as good as the techs promised. "We need help to guard it, and right now!"

      "I'm already packing," said Brade, confidently. "I, personally, will stay there with you and the girls until we can get more people."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Are you sure it's necessary for you to go back there?" said Sievers, sounding irritated. "We still don't have a clue to Mitchell Penrose's whereabouts. I'd like to keep you close, so our people can keep an eye on you."

      "Madam President," said Brade, emphatically, "this cave represents not only a storehouse of knowledge but a treasure house of dangerous equipment."

      "From what you tell me," said the President, cautiously, "except for what Energex brought there, it's all more than half a century old."

      "That doesn't matter. It doesn't even matter if none of the equipment is currently operational - and much of it is. Someone could make monkey copies of a major weapon. Even the political revelations in the records there could be disruptive. Those people shaped policy in the Soviet Union and Communist China!"

      "Why you?!"

      "The Assembly is supplying non-super security, and has already contacted everyone involved in archiving the material in their base last year. Most have agreed to work on the Sanctum project. Replacements for those who can't come have been arranged. Some of the archivists are supers, and some of those are gadgeteers. So we have a good start. However, they are still getting organized and can't start for nearly two weeks, and even then only a few of them have combat experience. Meanwhile, the place has only one veteran super on site, with four novices. One of whom is under age. As you well know, non-super defenders are at a serious disadvantage against super attackers."

      "I definitely learned that lesson at the hunting lodge," said the President, dryly. "There's really no-one else?"

      "Not that I trust. We're just stretched too thin, with both natural and man-made disasters, political unrest keeping T.O.W.E.R. and our other allies with super resources busy..."

      She threw her arms wide. Which was an impressive sight, considering her arm span.

      "All right," said Sievers, yielding. "I want daily reports, though."

      "You'll get them."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Brade was as good as her word. Less than two hours later an innocuous looking helicopter touched down beside Gadgetive's flyer and the Hawk. Only Blue Impact was there to greet her. As they walked quickly up the hill to the hill the helicopter took off and sped away.

      "You aren't trying to camouflage the Hawk and... whatever that is?"

      "No. We figure anyone interested in this place already knows they're here, and no-one else is likely to find them in this isolated area. This is federal land, but it's pretty uninteresting for hiking or camping or hunting."

      "Okay," said Brade, as they walked down the tunnel a few minutes later. "What do you need?" 

      "We need to get the power on in here," said Blue Impact, firmly. "These portable lamps and self-powered torchieres are okay for a quick look around, but we can't even run portable generators inside here without the ventilation on."

      "Any idea what the original power source was?" said Brade. 

      "Gadgetive thinks it was geothermal. Whatever it was, too much has corroded for it to be useable. She's actually worried that there might be steam pressure in the deep pipes, but just hasn't had time to check."

      Brade frowned. One promise she had extracted from Sievers before her hasty departure from DC was for equipment. Which included much which was not off the shelf. At least, not off civilian shelves. 

      "Get me some hard numbers on continuous draw and peak need," said Brade. "I'll see what I can do."



Part Twenty-One



      Paul was giving the new arrival a tour of the place. He was also making a point of telling Brade what they didn't know. 

      "Hell. We still don't know how this place got here. How it was built or by whom. We don't know where most of the stuff in the cases came from. We don't even know how Energex located it."

      "He said he found a brief mention of a stash of old mad tech stuff in some papers in another abandoned lair," said Brade. "He was dumbfounded when he saw what was actually here. I don't know if he figured out who had occupied the place. Given the circumstances I wasn't able to get much in the way of detail." 

      "It could be the Five Great Powers took over the lair of a defunct mastermind and made it their own."

      Brade had been in here before, of course, but that had been just for a brief look around. She had more time, now, and more of the redoubt had been explored. 

      The guardians of this trove had done a good job of setting up in the two rooms they had allotted themselves. The main room had a single, large table with display cases around the walls. The room had been photographed in detail before the second attack. More photos had been taken, as well as notes, before the table and its modest but comfortable chairs had been moved against the cases along one side of the room. 

      "There's a whole vault of weapons, some one-off, others mass produced. Many of the latter are typical of what one or more of the members of the Five Great Powers used for their own henchmen. Some are previously unknown. Looks like they were planning some major push when they were stopped."

      They walked down a corridor, Paul shining lights into open doorways, revealing dusty rooms.

      "You know," said Brade, a bit later, as she peered into the commissary, "it's actually not that uncommon to find a gourmet kitchen in a mastermind's base. This is a bit extensive, though. Especially since it seems it was just them, with no servants."

      "Well, they were from five different cultures," said Paul, shrugging. "Anyway, that's all the rooms we've explored so far."

      "Excellent. I can see there's still a lot to do, though."

      "Yeah, but that can wait for the pros. Meanwhile, we need to get a field kitchen set up, install a permanent power supply, set up watches..."

      "For the power supply, I already have two SNAP IV units on the way."

      "Whoah," said Paul, eyes going wide. "I didn't know they'd actually gone ahead and built those."

      "Don't let that bit of information spread. They were made as portable power units for use during extreme emergencies. Then Dan Kenniman patented his PowerSell technology and made nearly all other small and medium sized power units obsolete. Except that his tech doesn't scale up further practically. Anyway, several SNAP IV units of various sizes had already been produced, in secret, for field testing. Since they have half-lives measured in multiple centuries, they're still held in storage for emergencies. Gadgetive tells me the original power supply for this place produced over a Megawatt. The two SNAPs we have coming in are a quarter Megawatt each. Since we're only occupying part of the base, and barely using any of the original equipment, that should be plenty."

      "More than we need, actually," said Paul, nodding. "Though when the archeologists start working the power demand will go up."

      "I've also talked Doro into staying here until we get more professional super help. Since she had already gone to being a full-time super that's no problem for her, and I'll talk to the President about a salary. Ray will be spending nights."

      "You're sending the kids back to school," said Paul, guessing where that was going.

      "Yes. They won't like it, but they're going.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Weeks went by. Few things were settled, but some things were improving. Haiti was getting back on its feet, some other, lesser disasters were under control, and as a result demand for supers was easing. Paul and his team were now augmented by a rotating roster of known heros supplemented by some less-known volunteers. Even the Irregulars participated, though their attitudes and recent history left the others at the lair displeased. Especially Doro. 

      Spring Break rolled around. Blue Impact, Energia and Gadgetive got together for a few days to handle a mastermind who was hiring thugs to steal components for a new type of teleporter. Nothing unusual or significant about that, except that Energia got caught in the device's effect and spent several days in an alternate universe. She was returned to the exact time and place she had left, generating some confusion, but that was now all ironed out.

      Life rolled on. Some were happier with their state of affairs than others. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Leon Harper was a probability manipulator. He'd been sent to the Pine Island Academy after getting caught cheating in Las Vegas by one of the discreet supers who worked security at the casinos. He'd been underage at the time, so was sentenced to juvenile hall. Before he could even get settled in, though, his parents had worked a deal for him to come to this school. 

      At first he'd thought this was a good thing. Laze around on a tropical island for a couple of years, making contacts and pretending he'd reformed. Meanwhile learning how to better use his powers... especially against other supers. 

      Only, his powers turned out to be very low-key and not really flexible. Oh, they were useful, but compared to some others here, even the couple of other PMs, he was very low level. In a way, that suited him. He didn't want to rule the world, or even a small country. He just wanted things to go his way...

      But that damned Energia... 

      Leon and his buddies had planned to humiliate her at the school talent show. She'd been off the island so much lately, she hadn't been practicing. He was sure their demonstration of a super equivalent of close order drill would impress people, and humiliate the energy girl. They were that good. They'd actually been practicing! With Leon's powers helping things to go their way, they were sure to win.

      Only, now word had come down that due to so many people having so little time to practice, the talent show had been canceled. Worse, Energia had been the center of attention for weeks. Something about her making first contact with an alternate universe. 

      Leon couldn't stand it any more. 

      He'd thought this through. Outfit of insulating, light-colored nomex. No metal at all on his person, only non-magnetic metals such as lead in his traps, and not much of that. Even the nunchaku had rope instead of a chain. Weapons of dry, seasoned wood. Her plasma wall would be much less effective on those; they wouldn't even catch fire easily. 

      He'd humiliate her, show her who was boss, make her beg for mercy. All by himself. That didn't take overt powers, that didn't take backup; just planning and determination. Oh, and his special brand of luck would definitely be in operation.

      Leon had studied her routine. Every evening, she went to one of the teachers' bungalows to babysit. Walking alone on an isolated path. He set his traps and waited. 

      Energia was distracted, but not so much she didn't notice the guy dressed in Modern Ninja Chic jump onto the path ahead of her. She immediately put up her plasma wall, and started to lift off. 

      His thrown baton punched through her still-firming plasma wall and struck her high on the left cheek, right on the bone. Energia was momentarily stunned; her plasma wall flickered, she started dropping, but slowly. Her attacker moved in, and whipped a bolas around her legs. A strong, nylon cord went from those to a large rock. 

      He had her! She'd need time to burn through any of that; he'd need only seconds to beat her!

      Energia realized she was in trouble. She deliberately dropped the rest of the way to the ground, but couldn't keep her balance. She yielded to the fall and rolled into a sitting position. She pulled at the bolas, but before she could get them off her attacker grabbed a heavy net and whipped it over her. Energia tried to stop it, but the net was non-metallic except for the weights around the edge, and they weren't enough for the Meissner effect to get a grip on.

      She saw her attacker lunging at her, swinging a baton. Energia had the bolas loose, now, and the net wasn't tight around her. She threw herself to one side, swinging her legs around to try a sweep. Her attacker jumped over her legs, but at least he needed a moment to recover. 

      Energia looked at the net, found where it was open, and swung it off her like a heavy quilt. The "ninja" threw another club, which she barely dodged. He closed before she could stand, so Energia zapped him. Only, the electricity didn't want to go to him, the fat, blue spark instead striking a nearby rock. He swung his nunchaku at her, Energia again just managing to dodge. 

      Leon was irritated that she was loose, but at least the combination of an insulated costume and his luck powers meant she couldn't hurt him. Now he just needed one good hit to knock her out.

      Several frantic seconds later, Energia had a few more bruises, but still wasn't seriously hurt and was on her feet. Leon was furious. Why couldn't he hit her?! She was just a kid, and a girl at that! A least she was too stupid to realize she could fly away, now. That was probably his luck helping, again. With renewed determination, he started for her again. 

      Energia wasn't about to take to the air again. This guy was dangerous, and she had no idea what other weapons he had. Better to stay on the ground. She was sparking enough RF to attract the attention of Security, but knew that even if they noticed immediately they'd need time to get here. Time enough for her to be thoroughly dead. Even if she managed to safely fly away he'd simply vanish to attack someone else. She had to stop him. Energia dodged as he swung again, feinting a punch at his face which made him flinch, giving her the opportunity to gain some distance. She moved a bit back and stopped, in a combat stance. She reached out with her power, trying to find something with enough metal to manipulate. She had to keep away from him and try to distract him!

      "You're pretty stupid to attack this school!"

      "I'm not attacking this school!" Though it was muffled, she recognized that voice, and was astounded even he'd try something like this. "I'm attacking you!"

      "Oh, Leon," said Energia scornfully. "You just don't get it."

      He was momentarily stunned. How had she figured who he was?! Well, he had intended to reveal his true identity as soon as she was cowed enough that he could gloat without fear she'd report him. This changed nothing! Snarling, he began spinning his nunchaku, as he advanced menacingly towards her.

      He was caught completely by surprise when a wrought iron bench slammed into him.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "She then spot-welded the bench - with him still wrapped in it - to the flagpole," said Lori Savage, barely keeping a straight face. 

      "She declined to press charges," said Eve. "However, she said if she ever sees him on this island again, and I quote, 'I'll nail his dick to a tree.'"

      "Ow," said Template, cringing. "Okay. I guess we start expulsion procedures."

      "No argument. He's been in trouble several times - more than just his attacks on Energia - and his grades are terrible."

      "That means he goes back into juvie detention," said Jerome Champolion. Originally part of the UN Liaison staff, he'd recently signed on as the school's international law expert. 

      "You realize, he's only the second one we've had to kick out," said Andrea, marveling. "Only two expelled, total, since we started."

      "Hey, we're still growing," said Template, sourly. 

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Despite her dedication to protecting the Sanctum, Brade couldn't spend all her time there. She had duties to perform, official duties. Just now, she was reporting to her boss about a lead. This had actually come from the Intrepids, via Paul. The archivists who were going through the old records there had been consolidating those with materials from other sources. Because of recent events, they had been paying special attention to anything involving Mack Risk. Some of his notes had briefly mentioned that following the defeat of the Five Great Powers he had made an effort to learn more about them. 

      "None of those involved in taking down the Five Great Powers left any written records about those events," said Brade. "However, I've spoken to Dr. Freysdottir, and she says that while they never located the Sanctum, she knew that Mack Risk tried to find it off and on for years afterwards. The others had their own concerns and they trusted him to be both competent and discreet. As well as thorough."

      "From what I understand, he was a bit OCD," said President Sievers, nodding. "I'm not surprised he would want to know such things."

      They were sitting in the small study off the presidential bedroom, having a private discussion. The regular workday was over, but national leaders could often count on overtime.

      "The problem is, neither Dr. Freysdottir nor anyone else connected with the case ever received any information from him about the matter."

      "According to our records, the person to speak to about what Mack Risk did during that period is Lawrence Hawthorne. He is known to be still alive, and living in Reno."

      "Oh," said Brade, in a tone which spoke volumes. "Him."

      "I take it you think he's not a trustworthy source."

      "Oh, he's quite willing to do anything to make his old boss look good. Just keep in mind that he's an amoral shapeshifter with a powerful libido and wide-ranging tastes."

      The President had the good grace to blush.

      "Nevertheless, we should send someone to interview him," said the President.

      "That might be a problem. He doesn't like supers and he doesn't trust governments. We'll have to try and get one of his few known friends to talk to him. Or maybe contact his attorney."

      "Actually, he's a major backer of a pro-super candidate for the US Senate from Nevada," said the President. "He's keeping a low profile, but the candidate had to list his donors."

      "Whoah," said Brade, startled. "That's surprising. Though if he's decided to get involved in politics like that, contacting him might not be a good idea."

      "I'm not worried about that," said Sievers, with a dismissive gesture. "If he can help in this matter, it's worth talking to him. However, you can have your staff do that. I can tell you're antsy to get back to the Sanctum."

      "I'm worried. Just enough time has passed since the last attempt for someone - Mr. Glick back for another try or someone he sold the location to - to mount a major attack."

      "You're the expert." She made shooing motions. "Go."

      Brade grinned and went. 



Part Twenty-Two



      Beat Red finished his briefing of Template on things political, then started in on more productive matters. Much of this was to catch her up on things which had been delayed because of the hectic few weeks following the attack on the President's conference at the mountain lodge. When he got to how Brade had uncovered the location of the lair Energex had been using to store his stolen items, Template gaped. 

      "I had no idea she was such a hard-ass," said Template, still not quite accepting it. "I mean, she's a grandmother! I'm not talking about her age, either; she acts like a grandmother!"

      "She's compartmentalized," said Beat Red, shrugging. "Not unusual for someone with an unpleasant job."

      "She strong-armed Energex! How can she be that strong?! Even Chestnut isn't that strong!"

      "She's not even as strong as you. She just uses it better."

      "Remind me not to cross her," said Template, in a stage mutter. "Anyway, I hear that they finally start on the inventory next week."

      "The official archivists actually gave Paul permission to do a preliminary survey," said Beat Red. "He worked with them on the study of the old Guild and Border Patrol bases. They trust him to do a good job on the basics and not go beyond that."

      "Good," said Template, with a quick nod. "That will give them a head start when they finally get there."

      "That's the idea."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The team of adults and older students who had gone to help in Haiti finally returned to the island. A few had trickled back for various reasons before this, but two days earlier the work had been declared officially complete. The group waiting at the dock to welcome their ship contained students, teachers, non-teaching staff and even some of Pine Island's permanent residents. 

      Everyone welcoming them home had made an effort to look their best. Even Hazel had buffed her normally dull grey iron skin to a high polish. Energia wondered if she'd actually used car wax. She was a bit hard to look at, the way she was glinting in the sun.

      The ship - a cruise liner whose services had been volunteered for the rescue and recovery effort - pulled into the small harbor. The moment the gang plank touched the dock, a cheer broke out. It continued for many minutes, falling and rising as each member of the debarking group set foot on the dock. There were hugs and kisses and more restrained welcomes. Finally, as the last of the luggage was rolled onto the dock, the group began breaking up. 

      There would be an official welcoming ceremony in a bit over an hour, and many parties tonight. 

      "I really need a new 'big event' costume," said Energia, trying in vain to tug her "formal" outfit into a more comfortable position. "I hadn't realized how badly my professional clothes were fitting until my uncle gave me a new working costume for my birthday."

      "At least try to get something a little more fashionable this time," said Allessandra, rolling her eyes.

      "Sorry. Still almost a year 'till my eighteenth birthday."

      "If you think turning eighteen means you'll be free of your mother's rule, you're living in a fantasy world," said Squirrel Girl, wryly. She was very glad to be back on the island. She'd take a super villain raid any day over the death and destruction of the past few weeks. "I'm nineteen, and still can't wear as daring a costume as I want."

      "I could do a lot with you," said Allessandra, still smiling but mood becoming more serious. She contemplated Energia, tapping a finger to her lips thoughtfully as they walked. "What do you want to go for?"

      "What do you mean?"

      "With your sweet young bod and the right costume and makeup, I could do anything from innocent charm to 'Fuck me now!'"

      "About a third of the way up from innocent charm," said Energia, after a moment of thought. 

      "Probably the best choice for you for now," said Allessandra, nodding. "Though in a few years I definitely suggest moving it up a few notches. Rowr!"

      "I didn't think you swung that way," said Energia, blushing. 

      "Honey, I am strictly into guys. That doesn't keep me from keeping an eye on the competition."

      "That's what you could do," said Energia, in sudden revelation. "For a career. Not so much a fashion designer as a fashion consultant. I've seen you help some of the other girls and even some of the guys."

      There was a chorus of assent from the others in their small group. Allessandra looked startled. Then thoughtful. 

      "Yeah. That... actually sounds interesting. I do have a talent." 

      She laughed. 

      "Especially for the slutty stuff."

      "Second that," said Hazel, with a smirk. 

      "Third it," said Beverly, raising a hand. 

      "Maybe like Honey Vice," said Energia, still thinking of her own next costume. 

      "Don't tell me you like the Vice Girls," said Allessandra, making a face. 

      "Not their music. Not even them, really... but some of those costumes..."

      "Yeah. They do have a good design sense. Or maybe just a good costumer."

      They walked all the way back to the girls' dorm and inside, still discussing super costumes.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "That's Aerocommando's flying suit!" said Paul. He shuddered. "An atomic powered, ultrasound-pumped backpack jet. No wonder he died of cancer."

      With a reliable source of power, they now had the old ventilation and lighting systems working. In addition, they had worklights on stands casting supplemental illumination where needed. 

      "I hope that portable sensor unit is working," said Susan, worriedly. She glanced at the device in Paul's hands. 

      "Oh, yeah. Radiation is within safe limits for short exposures."

      "Well, now we know what was in that lead-lined locker," said George Adams, one of the Assembly techs, as he shut the door and put a radiation trefoil on it. He was trying to sound casual, but failing.  "Just eight more to go."

      He carefully eased open the latches on the next locker and opened it a crack, standing where the door would shield him. Paul careful waved the sensor device in front of the opening.

      "Now that's an unusual mix," he muttered. "Okay, it's all low-level. Pull it open."

      Inside was a bizarre looking device, something obviously intended to be both portable and aimed. The thing gave the impression that it wasn't meant to be operated by human hands. 

      "A meson destabilizer!"

      "How do you know what that is?!" said Susan. She grimaced. "The shape is... wrong. It's actually hard to see; it's... off. Like looking at a sloth. It just doesn't want to come into focus."

      "It's identical to one in the Smithsonian. From the Marligt invasion in the Thirties."

      They were soon finished with that part of the job. Most of the heavily shielded lockers were empty. Most of the rest had only stores of isotopes. Each cache of those was worth millions. A couple of the lockers each had a device which could not be identified by the team. Paul documented their finds with photographs and notes. 

      "Okay, let's start on the safes," said Paul, with a sigh of relief. "Glad to be away from radioactive stuff. Even if everything in here is probably deadly in its own way."

      Each of the safes was unique, apparently moved here from different lairs. These small vaults varied in age from about sixty years to well over a hundred. The only common factor was that they were all very secure. Fortunately, the team had tools not available even sixty years ago, and scarcely dreamed of a century prior.

      Still, opening the first one took more than merely working the combination.

      "Damn thing's sealed with lead," said Paul, as he gouged the soft metal out of the seam with his sheath knife.

      "Maybe we should wait until we can get a magic worker in here," said Susan, worriedly.

      "No, that would be silver," said Paul, absently.

      Finally, he had enough removed that the three of them were able to yank the door open.

      "A bow?" said Susan, puzzled.

      She started to reach for it, then remembered her own words from a few minutes earlier and snatched her hand back. 

      "There's a label..." said Adams, pointing, but also not getting too close. 

      Paul crouched down and used his lamp on the label, twisting his head into an uncomfortable position to get the right angle for a good look. He then scooted back so quickly he almost knocked the other two down, before standing. He looked shocked.

      "Artemis' bow. No man can touch that and live."

      "You're kidding," said Adams, though he showed no inclination to challenge that identification. 

      "No wonder they left that one sealed," said Susan. "Wonder how they knew what was in there..."

      They took their photos, and quickly shut the safe. Then wrapped hazard tape around it.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Some time later, Brade came by to get an update.

      "Is it safe to come in?" she asked, around the edge of the door to the vault. She definitely had a healthy respect for what little she had recognized from previous glances inside.

      "Just follow the footprints," said Paul, from deeper in the room. "Don't touch anything, please. Some of the items are dangerous, others merely fragile."

      She followed the trail of red self-stick shoe prints to where the team was standing before a row of weapons waiting ready for use. 

      "Tesla Lightning Guns," said Brade, stunned as she realized what the odd looking devices were. "A whole rack of Tesla Lightning Guns."

      "Wonder how they got these," said Paul, looking puzzled. "I mean, he supposedly only made twenty, and most of those are accounted for. No-one else was ever able to make a working copy, even with one of the originals to follow."

      "I'm almost afraid to ask what else you've found so far," said the senior super.

      Paul laughed, then pulled out his note pad. He read off the things they were positive about, the things they had good guesses for, the things they weren't sure of and the things which were completely baffling, in that order. 

      "This place is a treasure trove," said Brade, awed. "There's dozens of masterminds, gadgeteers, organizations and even entire countries who would love to have what's in here."

      They chatted for a few minutes. Then Brade turned to leave them to their work. She had taken only a few steps when the whole mountain seemed to pulse at a frequency so low the sound was more felt than heard. Each pulse was accompanied by a burst of eerie green light, familiar to anyone who had seen a neutralizer work.

      Brade dropped with an audible thud. The three normal humans stared for a moment. Then, as the two effects continued, hurried over to the fallen super. 

      "This is Paul!" he shouted into his com. "We must have triggered something; Brade's down from what looks like a neutralizer pulse."

      "Not possible," said Adams, shaking his head as Paul felt for Brade's pulse. "Neutralizer wasn't around for decades after this place was sealed!"

      "Maybe Energex set a trap," said Susan, helping Paul roll her over. Given her size, that was not an easy task, and Adams had to help, as well.

      "We got major trouble, boss," said a voice over their coms. "It's all through the base. Every super here is out."

      "Damn! Red alert! This is an attack!"

      "If we don't stop this it will kill them!" said Susan, with sudden concern. "Every super in this base could be dead in minutes!"



Part Twenty-Three



      "She's dying!" cried Susan. "Isn't there anything we can do?"

      "Turn off the base lights!" Paul said over the coms.

      That took a few seconds. As if by a miracle, when the lights went off the throbbing and flashing stopped. 

      "They must have been heterodyning somehow with the old, high-voltage fluorescents!" said Adams, looking up at the lights. 

      "She's still out. Paul, she's very weak."

      "Okay," said Paul, thinking fast. "We carry her back to the main room."

      He got on the coms again, ordering all the injured supers taken to the large chamber, and ordering the team medic there, as well.

      The three of them half-carried, half-dragged the giantess out of the weapon vault, down the corridor and into the main room. Their medic was already working on Doro. Blue Impact was lying on the floor beside her. Both were as unconscious as Brade. 

      "God, she's heavy," gasped Adams, as they lay Brade beside Blue Impact. "Who else is here?"

      "Freep," said Paul, as he hurried to the security room. "Spaz. I think that's it."

      Coulson was manning the security room. 

      "What have we got?"

      "Just appeared on the south camera," said Coulson, pointing to a modern flat monitor sitting on the old table.

      A half dozen people in various costumes were moving in. Even as they watched, the image vanished. 

      "They got all the others before I saw anything," said Coulson, sourly. "All our supers are out of it. All theirs are ready to stomp us. Now we're blind, too."

      "No, we're not," said Paul, suddenly remembering something. "First, though, do we have outside coms?"

      "They took out our antenna array at the same time I lost the first camera."

      "We can use the Vilcain Visualizer to see what's happening," said Paul. He got on his com. "Susan! Adams! Chuck! Bailey! Bring the Visualizer to the com room!"

      That took some doing, but eventually they had it sitting on the small table across from the security station. Once plugged in the tubes had to heat; then, finally, the screen flickered to life. 

      "Does that thing still even work?" said Coulson.

      "Yeah," said Adams. "We were actually using it a couple of days ago. Just blew the dust out and did some other clean up and it... Here we go!"

      "Focus on the entrance to the tunnel," said Paul. 

      The tech's control of the fuzzy, low-contrast image in the monochrome viewscreen was clumsy, but after a few overshoots he managed to get an overhead view. That showed several flat black spheres moving slowly towards the entrance. 

      "What the Hell are those?" said Adams, both mystified and alarmed.

      "Constantine's Omni-Spheres," said Paul, faintly.

      "You look pale," said Susan.

      "I feel pale. They move slowly, due to the nature of their gravitic drive, but they are almost impossible to stop. They can literally push through armor steel."

      "Like Myna," said Susan, in sudden revelation.

      "Yeah. Constantine captured and examined him several years ago, and figured out how both his force field and flight work."

      "Great," said Adams, looking as if he had swallowed something sour. "What do we do?"

      "If Constantine is personally involved, having all of the Assembly here wouldn't make much difference. If he's not personally involved..."

      Paul stood for a moment, thinking hard.

      "Same four, come with me."

      He led them quickly down the hall towards the armory.

  "If those things are as tough as you say, there may not be anything here powerful enough to stop them," panted Susan, as she glanced at the weapons lining the walls and on the floor racks.

      "Remember that closed-off corner in the armory?" said Paul. "I got a look in there yesterday. That's where the Five Great Powers kept the really potent stuff."

      "More potent than the things we've already found?!" said Bailey, alarmed. 

      Paul didn't answer. Instead, he lead them into the armory and straight to the door to the barricaded corner. The lock had already been gimmicked; he yanked the door open and strode in.

      "Yeah," he said, from inside. "Thought so."

      He exited, holding what looked like a tapered pole. 

      "Dreadknight's energy lance," said Paul, feeling triumphant.

      "The one he used to blow up all those Nazi ships and block the Danube?! We can't use that in here!"

      "It has variable output."

      "Bad news!" said Coulson, over their coms. "Constantine himself is here, with six of his Inner Circle."

      "Do we have anything stronger than the lance?" said Susan, anxiously.

      "The Sonic Annihilator!" said Paul. 

      He handed the lance to Susan. It was surprisingly heavy; she nearly dropped it. She kept forgetting how strong he was. Just now, she was thinking of something else.

      "Are you out of your mind?! That could dissolve the whole mountain!"

      "Better than letting them have what's in here. Adams, give me a hand. This thing's heavy."

      The Annihilator was built into a small cabinet. It was, indeed, heavy. In part due to the power supply being inside a thick lead shield. Paul and Adams dragged it out into the larger room, and then they and Bailey carried it out, with Susan and Chuck taking the lance.

      They set things up in the main room, facing down the tunnel towards the hatch. 

      "Get that badgerbear out of the way!" said Paul, gesturing. "Okay we just need to align the Linear Concentrator down the tunnel."

      "Will this still work?!" said Bailey.

      "Thorium has a long half life."

      Paul, Bailey and Adams quickly set to work. They used canned air to blow all the dust and a couple of mouse nests out of the machine and quickly checked the components and couplings. 

      "Looks like it's all here," said Paul, suddenly hopeful. He turned to the rest of the security team. Though well trained and very competent, they weren't technically adept enough to help with this. "Move the table there behind us, tip it over for cover!"

      As they scrambled to obey, Paul started cautiously flipping switches. With the third, several lights came on. Another switch, and the odd, basket-shaped array which was the business end began spinning. The room filled with an eerie ululation. 

      "That's the characteristic sound of Dr. Millard's sonic technology," said Paul, triumphantly. "Well, it passed the smoke test. Now, if the rest of it just works..."

      "You guys better hurry!" Coulson yelled from the security room. "Those things are almost at the hatch!"

      "Focusing down as tightly as I can," said Paul, quickly figuring out the controls. He swung the joystick around, aiming the basket. "Okay, here goes nothing!"

      The sound rose in volume and pitch, and there was a distant rumbling from down the tunnel. 

      "Holy shit!" yelled Coulson.

      "I'm working blind, here!" Paul called out to him. "Spot me!"

      "Down just a touch! Good God! You're melting the whole tunnel!"

      "Good thing it slopes that way," said Susan, feeling a bit sick from what little she could see with her eyes of the weapon's effects. 

      "Those spheres are still there, but they're not doing too well. Whoah! One just exploded! Now the others are going!"

      "Backing off to idle," said Paul. "Maybe that will be enough."

      "So, we stopped the spheres, but also completely destroyed the door," said Susan.

      "Along with a good chunk of the mountain!" said Coulson. "That tunnel is now cone-shaped, and forty meters wide where it comes out. There's supers running from the flood of molten rock!"

      "It's not all that hot," said Paul. "Just sonically liquified."

      "I smell smoke!" said Adams, suddenly.

      Paul quickly shut down. 

      "Try to figure what burned out," he said, quickly, to Adams. "I'll use the lance if they still want to come in."

      "Yeah. Constantine and his buddies are milling around like they're lost."

      "That doesn't sound like Constantine..." said Paul, frowning. 

      "At least help should arrive soon," said Susan. "That thing must have set off seismographs in twenty states!"

      "So they'll either withdraw or attack immediately," said Chuck, as unflappable as ever. 

      "Constantine is flying into the tunnel!" said Coulson.

      Paul picked up the lance and fumbled with the controls. They were not intuitive as those on the Annihilator. Constantine was almost to where the hatch had been when Paul finally got it to activate. 

      When he could see again he sat up and shook his head. Susan quickly came over and helped Paul to his feet.

      "Okay," he said, very loudly. "Maybe that one was more dangerous."

      "I think you got Constantine," said Susan, sounding stunned.

      "They're pulling back. Not retreating; regrouping at the tree line."

      Paul looked at the lance. It seemed to be in one piece. He remembered, now, that Dreadnight had superhuman strength as well as armor. 

      "I'm going to check..." said Paul, grabbing a lamp and starting cautiously towards the now much larger tunnel. "Give me a shout if they start in again."

      Susan followed behind, something he needed a while to notice since his hearing was still muffled from the blast. When he did, he just sighed and continued.  

      They approached a costumed body. Or, rather, pieces of a body in rags which had once been a costume. The body wasn't human; they could see a metal skeleton and wires and components.

      "That's not Constantine!" shouted Paul, in a tone which suggested the confirmation of a hunch. 

      "I thought it was weird he'd be here instead of managing things in his own country during the Icelandic volcano crisis," said Susan. "Wow. Is that a relief."

      They hurried back into the main room.

      "Any luck with that Annihilator?" said Paul.

      "Yeah," said Adams. "Turns out it was just some dust burning off an HT connection to a tube."

      "So we have two potent weapons," said Paul, nodding. "Keep alert. All of you. They haven't given up yet. This was well planned, they certainly have other options."

      He hurried into the security room, where Coulson was taking a look around the surrounding area on the Visualizer.

      "This thing is pretty neat," he said, grinning. 

      "Yeah, but every TV and radio and cell phone in a three state area is going nuts," said Paul. "Be glad our coms are hard... Hold it, go back..."

      Coulson had spotted the same thing, and was already adjusting the controls. He zoomed in on a small group of people obviously having a heated discussion.

      "Well, that explains the android Constantine," said Paul, snarling. "Probably the Omni-Spheres, too. That's the current Mordecai, grandson of the original. Master technologist, mad scientist and mastermind. Androids are a specialty of his."

      "I've heard of him," said Coulson, nodding. "He's just the type to want what's in here."

      Paul was about to say something when he heard a scream from the main hall. 

      "Keep an eye on them!"

      He ran back into the large room, to see three supers, all of them well known from reports he had read: Invicta, Procrustes and Gordian. They were a smash and grab team, who specialized in quick raids but were also reasonably potent combatants. Gordian was a teleporter, one of the rare ones who could take more than a few kilos along. He could move up to half a tonne, but he needed time to recharge, which was probably why they were attacking, rather than simply grabbing what the wanted and leaving.

      For some reason, Invicta was holding a bow. A very familiar and very dangerous bow. She also had a quiver slung over her shoulder, and an arrow knocked. There had been no quiver and no arrows in the armory. 

      She knew the bow was here! thought Paul, shocked.

      The trio had ambushed those in the room, which was everyone but Coulson and Paul. Most of the security team had been kneeling behind the overturned table. They had been taken out - viscously - before Susan, Adams, Bailey and Chuck even knew the intruders were there, thanks to their ears still ringing from the lance's blast. Now they were fighting hand-to-hand against three physically superhuman opponents. 

      Suddenly, Blue Impact grabbed Invicta's legs. Paul saw Invicta swing around, arrow knocked, to aim at the super. He threw himself at Invicta. She reflexively swung the bow around to block, and he slammed face first into it. 



Part Twenty-Four



      Paul found himself on the vague, hazy plane - or perhaps state - he had encountered a few times before. He was standing naked, on a flat, grey, featureless landscape which stretched to infinity in all directions. Just as he had when Atana spoke with him. The meeting room in the Sanctum was hazily visible, filled with frozen figures. However, the figure which he saw here, now, was definitely not Atana.

      "Artemis?" he said, startled.

      Whoever she was, she did not look pleased. Of course, if this tall, athletic woman really was Artemis, being confronted with a naked man was pretty much guaranteed to displease her. The object in her right hand did nothing to reassure him.

      "You're lucky I noticed someone fiddling with my bow," said the goddess of the hunt, deliberately looking him in the eye. "Otherwise it would have just killed you. Fortunately, I saw what happened."

      "Ah," said Paul, hopefully.

      "You're causing me a problem you know," she said, scowling. "You're a former woman, and you touched the bow by accident while defending a woman. I don't want to kill you. Though neither do I want anyone to think I'm getting soft."

      "I won't tell anyone who wasn't there what happened," Paul offered, quickly. "I have to tell those who are - were - or they'll wonder why the bow didn't kill me."

      "Ah, Tartarus," said Artemis, suddenly smiling. That didn't reassure Paul, either. The expression was too predatory. "What's the good of being a god if you can't be arbitrary? I'll let you off this time. Just don't think you can push your luck."

      "Thank you."

      Paul sagged with relief. However, she wasn't quite done.

      "Oh, and if you ever go back to being that gorgeous Champion, give me a whistle."

      She winked at him... and suddenly he was back in the underground room. He was lying on his back, looking up at the worried faces of Susan and the team medic.

      Paul felt horrible. He groaned and sat up, and noticed Susan looking at him with a very concerned expression on her face. Far more worry than would be expected from just a teammate. 

      "Not that I'm complaining, but... Why aren't you dead?" said Susan.

      "I was defending a woman," said Paul, deciding to give her the digest version, since she didn't know he was the previous Champion. "Artemis decided to let it go this once."

      "Ah," said Susan, not sure she believed him but glad he was alive. "That probably explains why we can't find that bow, now."

      "Yeah, she was holding it."

      Paul looked around. The fight was over. Blue Impact was nowhere near back to normal, but her surprise intervention had turned the tide. The trio of attackers was securely restrained and all still unconscious. 

      "Looks like I missed the fight," said Paul.

      "We could have used you," said Susan, giving him a surprisingly affectionate hug. 

      "Has anyone checked to see who else Gordian brought in with them?"

      "Shit!" yelled Adams, turning to look at the security guards the trio of intruders had mowed down. He chose three of the most able walking wounded. Not that he was in all that great a shape, himself; apparently the invading trio had put up quite a fight, in spite of help from Blue Impact. "Skeeve, Thompson, Harris. Pull yourselves together, grab your weapons and follow me."

      "What's the status?"

      "Coulson says the people outside are still waiting for something. We've got three dead and five too injured to be any good in a fight just now. Our supers are still recovering, except for Brade."

      "I would've thought she'd be the first up," said Paul, surprised. "Doesn't she have regeneration, too?"

      "Her size makes her particularly vulnerable," said Blue Impact, who was sitting nearby, propped against the top of the overturned table. She looked horrible, but she was awake and moving and sipping an energy drink. "Bleaugh. They did not take supertasters into account when they formulated this stuff."

      "How long until you're back to full?" said Paul, remembering her regeneration.

      "Maybe another twenty minutes."

      "Okay. We need to do something about Gordian. He'll just teleport away once he wakes up. Probably taking a bunch of people and equipment with him."

      "Wasn't there a neural paralyzer in the armory?" said Susan.

      "You may be right."

      Paul struggled to his feet, groaning and needing help from Susan.

      "I think most of the damage I took is from that damned lance," he said. "I'm just finally feeling it. Ow."

      Their first stop was the security room.

      "Coulson! Any sign of a rescue?"

      "No. We missed the last check-in but that was just ten minutes ago."

      "Well, we're putting out a lot of interference with that gadget. We also have almost a direct line of sight to a cell tower, now. I'll have Adams work on that when he gets back."

      "Speaking of which, we need to check on his team," said Susan.

      Paul could actually walk on his own, now. Slowly. He and Susan checked with Doc, then headed for the armory. They found Adams and the others on the way back, with four prisoners.

      "Well, well, well," said Paul, with a smirk. "Looks like you caught some henchmen."

      "Yeah. Looting the armory. We didn't go past there, yet, so be careful. We'll restrain these in the main room, then finish the sweep."

      "We're getting a neural paralyzer to keep Gordian from teleporting away," said Susan.

      "Good idea."

      They found the device and were walking back toward the armory entrance when Adams and his small group trotted by, waving as they passed.

      Back in the main room they examined the device.

      "Figures. Uses an old, high-voltage battery. Which, even if it were in the gadget, would be long dead, and probably leaking badly."

      "I think I can kludge a transformer together. We have equipment for producing just about every voltage actually used for something."

      That operation only took a few minutes. Meanwhile, Paul had cleaned the device and checked it over. 

      "Think it'll work?" said Paul. "Might fry his brain."

      "He's wanted on at least three murder charges," said Susan, hotly. "He likes to grab someone and teleport part of them away."

      "I know," said Paul, flatly, as they fitted the gadget and turned it on.

      There was no reaction. Naturally, the mad science gadget had no indicators or readouts.

      "Doc? He still alive?"

      Their medic checked him over, by traditional means and with a medical scanner. 

      "Looks like he's deep in REM sleep. Good work, you two."

      "You didn't tell Adams to try a cell call," said Susan, reminding Paul.

      "Right. Might as well do it myself, then. We could get lucky."

      He moved to just past the remains of the hatch - needing a bit of help from Susan to get over the sill, the lower portion being all that was left - and dialed. To his surprise, he got through immediately, even though he only had two bars.

      "This is Paul Theremin with the Assembly team at the Sanctum. We are under attack and need immediate help."

      He gave confirmation codes, then details. Then stayed on even after the alert went out.

      "We're recording," said the soldier on the other end. "You need to keep someone on this line until relieved."

      "Roger that," said Paul. 

      Eighteen minutes after he got through, three Ospreys full of Army Rangers swooped in.

      "Wow, look at the bad guys run," said Paul, too tired and hurt to cheer. 

      "Yeah, I bet our boys don't even get to do any fighting," said the man on the other end. "Hold the phone a little longer. The team leader will use it to confirm the situation."

      "I understand."

      The soldier found Paul sitting on the floor of the odd-looking tunnel. He actually saluted, then grinned and took the offered phone.

      "Yes, sir. We are in place and the enemy has fled. Our medic just went past me into the base. Yes, sir. I'll be sure to tell them."

      He handed Paul's phone back, still grinning.

      "You may be interested in knowing that you held off at least thirty known bad-guy supers, and twice that many henchfolk. You may also be interested in knowing that the mountain on the other side of the valley will never be the same."

      "Oh, God," said Paul, with sudden dread. "Tell me I didn't hit an airplane."

      "Not as far as we know. However, a little more of whatever the Hell you were doing and you would have taken enough of a gouge out of the side that the peak would have toppled over. No cell tower."

      "That's why we didn't want those people to have the gadgets here," said Paul, firmly.

      He rose, the soldier quickly reaching out to help him. 

      "Oh, I'm Captain Jeremy Prader. Also known as Ol' Ultrasonic to the troops. 'Cause I'm such a tightass."

      They both laughed as he helped Paul back into the base. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I want to know where the Adirondack Irregulars were," said Template, voice heavy with anger. "Where they still are, for that matter."

      "Freep was there," said Ray, sourly. "Doro was there, but isn't really a member of the team any more. The rest were at a social function with the governor. Not sure where they are now. The team has... Well, they've gone Hollywood. There's actually talk of a movie."

      "A movie about what?!" yelled Template. "They've had a half-dozen minor cases and took part in one major one!"

      "Yeah, but the press - and a lot of others, including the new team members - think they saved the President."

      Cosmic Ray was now at the base, using the repaired antennas to update folks through the radio equivalent of a conference call. Currently, only he and Template were talking. The presence of the listeners was actually making Ray a bit nervous. One of them was the President, herself!

      "Doro and Brade were taken to the Rangers' base hospital in one of the Ospreys, along the rest of the badly injured." He grimaced. "And the dead. They're both in pretty bad shape. Freep and Blue Impact both have regeneration and are up and around and helping."

      "How are you going to secure the entrance?"

      "With guards, two normal and two super, at all times," said Ray, flatly. "No way to hide it, now, even if word hadn't already gotten out. It's showing up on civilian satellite photos."

      "Well, now that the military is involved the President has said she'll openly assign some National Guard troops there as soon as she can arrange it. They'll replace the Rangers with twice as many, and they'll have a full field camp along." Template sighed. "With Brade out of service, I'm the super community liaison. Not a job I want."

      "You'll do fine," said Ray, grinning. "I remember you teaching negotiation and cooperation classes."

      "I hope you're right."



Part Twenty-Five



      "Having those Rangers on standby alert was a good idea," said Gompers, during that evening's review session in the Oval Office. 

      The President had been reluctant to involve the US military in the matter, since whether it was a purely civilian situation or one involving national security was still fuzzy. Given the danger should the weapons in that lair get in the hands of terrorists, though, she had decided to keep the military option in reserve. After learning what happened in the most recent - and most well-planned - attack, she figured that even if she were criticized for deploying troops against civilians, the decision was the right one. Besides, these days even the civil libertarians were barely paying attention to such relatively minor gaffes. 

      Helping matters was the fact that news of the attack hadn't hit the press, yet. In fact, the existence of that base was still under the radar, though after the major damage done to the landscape in this latest attack they couldn't count on that continuing. There had been some news mention of a local sheriff's deputy attacking some supers performing an investigation, but the reason the supers were there had been missed. 

      "All right," said Sievers, with a tired sigh. "What's next on the agenda?"

      "Brade is recovering," said Gompers. "The doctors are keeping her overnight for observation, but say they don't see any reason she shouldn't be back on duty by morning."

      "One bit of good news," said Sievers, in a stage mutter. "Next?"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Good evening, Emil," said Eve, into the cell phone which had arrived on the morning's mail boat, following the instructions which had come with it. "What did you want to talk to me about?"

      "Someone used a simulacrum of me in an illegal act," said Constantine, voice calm but tone dangerous.

      "I can assure you, it was none of us," said Eve, flatly. "We value both your support and good will."

      "I know all that. I called so you would know that I am not blaming you or yours. Also, that I have put a stop to this nonsense. I have already found and dealt with Mordecai. His equipment is melted - including those imitation Omni-Spheres and those androids - and his troops are dispersed. Mordecai was delivered to the nearest FBI office, with a note stating this was courtesy of Webster."

      "You didn't!" said Eve, laughing. "He'll be going nuts when he hears about that, trying to figure out who did it!"

      "A small repayment for the frustration he has caused me," said the mastermind and King of his own country. "Before letting the henchmen go, I told them the Sanctum is off-limits."

      "I really hope you're not planning to take it for yourself," said Eve, her good mood suddenly gone.

      "No. If I took even just the two weapons they used, my nation would be at risk from the UN and several other worried powers. While they might currently suspect I have potent weapons, not knowing for certain keeps them uneasy but unwilling to attack. I do not wish them to have reason to change their minds."

      "I am very glad of that. I have friends there."

      "I know, Eleanthe."

      "When are you inviting me to dinner again?" she said, when he didn't continue.

      "Perhaps at the end of Summer. The volcano should be through spouting by then and cleanup underway. That would give you a pleasant interlude to ease your transition into the Fall semester."

      "Thank you, Emil. That would be wonderful."

      They chatted for a few moments then ended the call. The phone immediately died. There was no smoke, no heat, but Eve knew that if the contents were examined they would provide no clues. In fact, there would be no sign of how the device had ever worked.

      Eve sat in the gathering dark for some time, smiling slightly. Though they had never been friends they had much in common, including a claim to divine descent... Though Constantine's was not as close as hers. Few knew the source of Emil's power, or were aware of his true age. Like most of the long-lived, the two of them made a point of avoiding conflict between them. Both also valued the old-fashioned manners and sense of propriety of the other. 

      They were both also very careful that Constantine's support of the school was known only to Eve. This was by no means a unique arrangement. The school had many anonymous supporters, with Constantine not even the largest donor among them. Still, he was an old - very old, in normal human scale - acquaintance, a major supporter and someone Eve very much did not want to alienate. She was so glad he was one of the very rare rational masterminds.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "This place just isn't the same, anymore," said Energia, with a sad sigh, as she and her friends walked barefoot along the beach, watching the sunset over the ocean. "Most of the buildings are the same, but I don't know half of these students. Even folks who have been here a year or two are moving into cliques. The whole student body is getting stratified!"

      "The feel is different, all right," said Rubber Made. "When I first got here everything was new and exciting. We were making a school! Now... the new kids... not to mention the new teachers, the new classes..."

      "The new attitudes," said Energia, flatly.

      An incident the day before had all the older students and many of the teachers talking. Since much of the new crowd insisted on wearing normal clothes and using their civilian names - ignoring their assigned or even chosen Mask names - some students who had gotten into trouble in Bermuda had been jailed for lying to police. Their initial infraction was minor - and from the evidence not completely their fault - but since they were in normal clothes and gave normal names, but claimed to be students at the Academy, the police held them in juvenile detention until their parents claimed them. Then been astounded when some very angry teachers from the school arrived. 

      "You'd think that after what we just went through with the super pogrom they'd be eager to keep themselves hidden behinds masks and costumes," said Glomahr.

      "There are actual clubs here, now," said Energia, sadly. "High school clubs! It's disgusting!"

      "We have ROTC," said Allessandra, shaking her head in disbelief. "ROT-fucking-C!"

      "Well, just one guy from the actual ROTC," said Energia, rolling her eyes. "Don't even know what he's doing here, since it's illegal to recruit known supers."

      "They can't be used in combat, but they can be used in R&D, Intelligence..." Rubber Made began.

      "He's officially teaching Military Liaison With Supers," said Hazel. Something was making her angry enough to not notice talking over her friend. Instead, she scowled. "He's also trying to recruit anyone who technically isn't a super. He's even offering employment opportunities to any gadgeteer who has ever made a weapon or armor."

      She shook her head in disgust. 

      "Guy thinks a tank top has armor and a gun."

      "Who here except Richard Flemming would not be counted as a super?" said Energia, puzzled. "I know he graduates this year, but he's not even a US citizen. From what I hear, MI6 already has a claim on him, anyway."

      "Me," said Hazel, almost growling. "That smarmy jerk is coming after me, hard. Claims they can let me in, because I count as an 'alternate life form' rather than a super and so would be exempt from the treaty. He said I'd also get 'protection from discrimination' under the Equal Rights laws, since the military has to follow them. I nearly punched him."

      "I think a large part of the change in the school is due to the change in who the students are," said Energia, thoughtfully. "The first couple of years nearly everybody had someone in the business. That's how they or their parents found out about the school in the first place. Half the current group are from normal families and just want to learn to control their powers."

      "You're being awful quiet, Beverly," said Allessandra. 

      "Just thinking about how things change. You and I haven't been here as long as Energia and Rubber Made, but this school is different even from when we started."

      She shivered.

      "Barring accidents or deliberate attack, I could live for centuries. If I'm having trouble dealing with the change of just the past two years..."

      "It's different when you're young," said Allessandra, hugging the vampire. "My grandmother used to talk about how when you're young everything seems to be more concentrated, because it's all new to you. As you get older you realize you've seen this or something like it before, and learn to take change in stride."

      "I hope so," said Moondance, quietly. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Ray was asleep when the phone rang. The special cell phone he used only for super matters. Sleepily, he groped for it, trying unsuccessfully to find and answer the call before Doro woke. With a groan of frustration he slipped out of bed and tried to spot the glow of the phone's display.

      "Who'zit?" she mumbled, as Ray finally found the phone among his keys and other pocket items. 

      "Rotary," said Ray, sourly, as he saw the caller ID.

      "Flush that thing," she muttered, rolling over. 

      Ray was tempted, but this was an expensive piece of equipment and he figured that if he didn't answer Rotary would just keep calling. He sighed, sat on the edge of the bed and pushed the button.

      "Yeah?"

      "Thank God!" said Rotary. "Are you all right? I can't get hold of Hotfoot, Buster or Doro!"

      "Doro's here," said Rotary, realizing after he said it that maybe he shouldn't have.

      Sure enough, Doro swatted the sheets in a vague attempt to hit him. Well, it wasn't like the others didn't already know.

      "Great! Listen, this could just be bad com discipline, but there could be something up. You two be careful."

      "Okay," said Ray. 

      He ended the call before Rotary could say anything else. Doro roused herself again as he got back into bed.

      "Wha'sup?"

      "Rotary can't find Hotfoot or Buster. Wants us to be careful."

      "I'm on the pill and you use condoms. Does that count?"

      They needed some time to get back to sleep after the giggling that caused. 



Part Twenty-Six



      Ray was at his job the next day when his cell rang again. He wasn't particularly busy at the moment so he checked, saw it was Rotary, sighed, and answered.

      "Hotfoot and Buster are dead," said the leader of the Irregulars, without preamble. His voice was flat, exhausted.

      "What happened?!"

      "They got Buster in his bed. Shot him with a silenced pistol. Hotfoot was ambushed, but he managed to fight back. They found two burned corpses - guys in military-style gear, complete with weapons - near him, so they're pretty sure they weren't bystanders. Signs others were there who got away. Now we've lost touch with Jade Eagle!"

      "Call the police," said Ray, flatly. 

      "They called us!" There was a pause, and what might have been a sob. "The cops think this is some group of supers out for revenge, and want us to handle it! They're killing us!"

      "Call the Assembly," said Ray, flatly. 

      Rotary started to mumble some excuse, but Ray ended the call. Then called Doro, who was back at the Sanctum.

      "Oh, God," she said, shocked. "Wait. If it's someone wanting revenge for what we did when we saved the President, why go after the new members?"

      "To get them out of the way before taking out the core team," said Ray. "Anyway, I just wanted to give you the heads up. I'm calling the Assembly next, to see if they can help."

      "Yeah, lots of luck with that. They only just got back from Haiti, immediately had to come here to the Sanctum to relieve the National Guard troops, and are also having to deal with losing several of their security people. They're blaming a bunch of that on the Irregulars."

      "Listen, I'm supposed to come up there and relieve you tonight. Would it be all right if I stayed here and checked into what's going on with the Irregulars?"

      "Actually, with the whole Assembly here I could probably get away to help."

      "You sure you want to?"

      "No," said Doro, reluctantly. "Freep is a friend, though, and I like Thunderer. I wouldn't even want anything to happen to Rotary."

      "Okay. I'll be at their building around seven."

      "I'll try to make it by then."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Ray arrived a bit after seven, actually. He could hear the argument before he even opened the rooftop door.

      "We need your help!" yelled Rotary, emphasizing each word.

      "You should have thought of that before you turned what should have been a good little team into a group of preening celebrities!" said Doro. "I'm glad it all came crashing down around your ears!"

      "Please! They're trying to kill us! They've already killed Hotfoot and Buster and put Jade Eagle in the hospital. There's just Thunderer, Freep and me left after that! The Assembly won't even answer my calls!"

      "Are you sure you tried the right number?" said Ray, as he came flying out of the stairwell. "They had to change their private hotline number during the Haiti crisis after some idiot reporter found it and included it in an article."

      "Huh?!" said Rotary, spinning to stare at Ray. 

      "You'd have known that if you'd paid attention to something besides your ego this past month!" said Doro.

      Ray sighed, flew over to the closest phone, and dialed. 

      "Hi, this is Cosmic Ray. I'm calling from the Adirondack Irregulars base. They're in trouble and could use some help."

      "Don't just tell them that!" said Rotary, aghast. 

      Ray listened for a bit, nodded, and hung up.

      "Do you remember the frequency and call sign the Assembly is using at the Sanctum?"

      "Sure," said Doro.

      Ignoring Rotary's sputtering protests, Ray and Doro went upstairs to the team's communications room. 

      "Where's your com guy?" said Ray, looking around, puzzled.

      "Gone," said Rotary, absently.

      Ray wanted to ask for details, but Doro had just gotten through. 

      "That's right, Champion," said Doro, nodding at the mike. "Two dead, a third in the hospital."

      "I need as many details as you can give me," said the voice over the speaker.

      Rotary sighed, sat beside Doro and took the mike. He related what he knew about the deaths and the injury. 

      "Jade Eagle probably should have died," he said, finally. "She just got really lucky. She'll still be a long time recovering. The cops have heavy security around her room."

      "Right," said Champion. There was a pause. "Okay. We're discussing this right now. Problem is, we're needed here. You have Doro and Ray, both of whom are good in a fight. Just stay together, and stay alert. This sounds like some team of normals or low-level supers is picking you off individually. We'll ask around and see if we can get any independents in the region to come and help."

      "Thank you," said Doro. "Irregulars out."

      "So we're supposed to just cower here in our hole?!" said Rotary, outraged. "That's unprofessional!"

      "Since when did you worry about being professional?!"

      "Doro..." said Ray, trying to head off another shouting match. He sighed and turned to Rotary. "Everyone is in the building, right?"

      "All the team members, yes," said Rotary. "Freep is napping in the lounge and Thunderer is doing something in the bathroom. The regular staff lit out. The cowards."

      Something twigged, in the back of Ray's mind. 

      "That doesn't seem right. They were supposed to be professionals, themselves. Security people, with special training. Why would they leave, when it's the team members being targeted? Especially since they're being targeted away from everyone else?"

      "You don't think..." said Doro, the hairs on the back of her neck standing up.

      "What's going on?" said Rotary, puzzled, looking back and forth between them.

      "They're herding the founding members together in one place," said Doro, flatly.

      "Yeah. Get the others together, quietly," said Ray, his voice low. 

      He frowned. Then found a pad of paper and a pencil.

      This place may be bugged.

      Rotary's eyes bulged out, and he opened his mouth, but managed not to say anything.

      You're paranoid! he scribbled. 

      No. Cautious. Remember what happened at the President's lodge.

      Okay, that made Rotary even more nervous.

      Through gestures and more notes, they gathered Freep and Thunderer and herded everyone downstairs. The latter was upset; she'd been drying her hair and it was still wet. 

      "There's the old van," said Ray, casually, walking over and opening the rear doors. "Still don't have the new one, do you?"

      "Uhm, no," said Rotary, moving towards the driver's door. "Next week. This one's still fully equipped. Even has a full tank of gas."

      "I love the sound of that engine," said Thunderer.

      Actually, the others had noticed she had an affinity for all deep, rumbling sounds. Which was probably why her motorcycle had long, open pipes. That actually fit with her powers. In spite of her love of noise, her hearing was excellent. 

      "Start it up, would you?" Thunderer continued, in sultry tones. "Just for old times sake."

      He did. Immediately, everyone piled in, and Doro hit the remote to open the overhead door. Rotary hit the gas, and the van lurched forward. As usual for one of Rotary's emergency launches, they barely cleared the bottom of the door. This time they actually left the two longest antennas behind. 

      They were a block away when they saw the pursuit. The team's sudden flight had caught them by surprise, but they recovered quickly. Armed and armored men in what looked like high-tech dune buggies came roaring after them. 

      "They must have been waiting to attack us!" said Rotary. "That's just crazy!"

      "Nope. As soon as they realized Doro was there they probably started organizing the assault. We barely got out before they jumped us."

      "God," said Thunderer, obviously frightened. 

      "What do we do?" said Freep, even more frightened. 

      "Drive to the warehouse district," said Ray. "It's after hours, and there won't be many bystanders there. We can lose them, maybe set up an ambush."

      Doro, meanwhile, had managed to open the roof hatch. She stuck her head out, then quickly dropped back down.

      "They've got heavy machine guns mounted on those things!"

      "Not surprised," said Rotary, pointing at the dash display, currently showing the view from the camera over the rear door. "I also see two guys armed with what looked like twenty millimeter semi-automatic rifles."

      "Those are anti-tank guns!" screamed Doro. "They can kill me!"

      "That's what they're trying to do!" said Ray.

      "Why aren't they shooting, yet?" said Thunderer.

      "They know the van's armored," said Rotary, nodding and looking determined. "Also, trying to hit even something this large under these conditions is difficult."

      "They may even be trying to avoid collateral damage," said Ray. 

      "Omigod!" yelled Freep. "Look at our building!"

      Straight down the street behind them, opposite the leg of the T intersection it was located at, there was a burst of flame and smoke and dust. Moments later, even over the roar of the van's big engine, they heard a series of explosions and the sounds of masonry collapsing. 

      "They were going to blow us up, then shoot anyone who survived," said Rotary, feeling a sudden, deep chill. 

      "We're still outnumbered and outgunned," said Ray. "Things are better, now, though. Let's see what we can do to keep improving the odds."



Part Twenty-Seven



      The team's vehicle had been remodeled by a gadgeteer with suggestions from other, more experienced gadgeteers. Rotary and the others used the oil slick dispenser, the caltrop dispenser, the strobes, the smoke screen, the nitrous injection and several other measures. None of which did more than inconvenience their pursuers.

      "Do they know what we have or are they just well prepared?" said Doro, wondering. 

      "I'm betting on the former," said Ray, sourly.

      Still, they managed to make it to the industrial area, though just barely ahead of the odd-looking vehicles. Once they began weaving among the large structures, though, Rotary pointed out a serious problem. 

      "Those are full-blown rally cars!" said the gadgeteer. "No way we can outrun them in this for much longer. As soon as they think they have an advantage, they'll close and hem us in"

      "Thunderer, get your bike ready," said Ray. "Doro, you'll carry her to the right and drop her off. Then you come in from their right, I'll come in from their left, and Thunderer comes in from behind. We go as soon as we can get out of their sight for a few seconds."

      "I don't know about this," said Doro, uneasily. 

      "We can't get away from them. We have to attack."

      "He's right," said Rotary, swerving the van around a corner and hitting the nitrous while they couldn't be seen by the pursuers. "They're bound to make their move soon. We have to go now."

      They made their preparations. Just as the nitrous ran out the van made another hard turn, rounding another corner before the rally cars caught sight of them again. Doro grabbed Thunderer and her bike and flew out the back doors, Ray following closely. Freep quickly closed the doors and hurried up to sit beside Rotary.

      "Do you think they noticed?"

      "Went pretty quick. Doubt it."

      The ambush worked better than they had any right to expect, though not as well as they hoped. Doro simply rammed one of the four vehicles, putting a huge dent in the sheet metal and injuring at least one of the men in it. Ray zapped another, also causing casualties. Thunderer actually stood up on her speeding motorcycle and raised both hands to deliver a sonic blast to the rearmost car. That left the lead vehicle as the only one untouched. 

      Remarkably, though they were damaged all three of the attacked vehicles continued running! The three which were attacked broke in a practiced manner, circling in tight turns, while the lead car continued the pursuit of the van. The heroes, who had wound up heading roughly towards each other after their attacks, now found themselves surrounded. 

      Doro and Ray reflexively pulled up, clawing for altitude; Thunderer aimed directly towards one of the rally cars, popped a wheelie and rolled off the bike. As she slid to a stop - protected fairly well by her leathers - the bike crashed into the front of the vehicle. It swerved wildly, barely missing another of the rally cars, before slamming into a loading dock. There was a spectacular explosion. 

      Ray and Doro were now being shot at, her by a .308 machine gun, him by a 20mm rifle. 

      Doro dodged frantically. She didn't evade all the bullets, but was tough enough and lucky enough that none caused serious injury. 

      Ray shoved out both hands as he saw the weapon aiming at him. He planned to blast the man before he fired, but their shots were simultaneous. The shell was caught in his beam and exploded almost in his face; however, his blast caused something in the car to explode, as well. 

      Ray was stunned by the blast and cut in several places by flying fragments. He began a rapid, barely controlled descent. Doro dove for him and managed to catch him in time to cushion his impact. The third rally car swerved, starting a large circle around the pair, to present a broadside attack. However, Thunderer was already back on her feet. She pumped everything she had into a sound blast. Glass shattered, metal bent and men cowered, screaming. One of them accidentally triggered his weapon, while it was pointed at something dangerous. Or maybe her sound set off a fuse. Either way, the third vehicle went up. 

      "You two all right?" said Thunderer, as she ran towards them. 

      "He's stunned and bleeding. I'm just bleeding."

      Before they could say anything else - do anything else - the fourth rally car came around a far corner. It drove towards them for a few seconds, the hit the brakes and swerved to present its left side towards the three heroes. They could see everyone inside taking aim.

      "Shit," said Thunderer, quietly. "I'm tapped out."

      "Ray's too stunned to do anything!" said Doro, sounding panicked. "Where's Rotary?!"

      "Probably dead," said Thunderer, fatalistically. 

      There was an echoing roar from a big-block V8, and the team van crashed through the doors of the warehouse and drove out onto the loading dock nearest the remaining attackers. Still accelerating, it corrected course a bit and flew off the concrete to impact the last rally car. 

      Given what was in both vehicles, the resulting explosion and subsequent fire were both understandably spectacular. 

      "Rotary!" Doro screamed. 

      They yelled for him and Freep. They hoped. Surely the team gadgeteer had been controlling the vehicle remotely. Surely... 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Freep came running up while the explosion was still echoing between the buildings. He was sobbing, tears running down his face. Doro noted absently that he was also bleeding from several small wounds, most likely due to flying fragments from that last, biggest explosion. Given how tough he was, he must have been in a serious conflict, himself.

      "He told me to get out and ambush them!" he said, as he slid to a stop beside them and dropped to his knees. "There was this big explosion, and they doubled back, and he turned parallel to them, and then cut through that building..."

      They hugged, all of them crying. 

      After several seconds, they realized there were sirens approaching. The only other sounds were the crackling of the multiple fires and occasionally a round cooking off. 

      "Are any of those bastards alive?" said Ray, in a voice choked with grief and rage.

      "I saw a few thrown free, but none of them are moving," said Freep.

      "We should make sure they're not going to cause any more trouble," said Thunderer, tone deadly.

      "No," said Ray, tiredly. "No, unless they actually look like they're getting up or reaching for a weapon, leave them alone. Besides, here come the cops."

      "Oh, now they show up," said Doro, snarling. 

      Three police cruisers slid to a stop at the left edge of the area of carnage. Slowly, a uniformed officer exited each vehicle, staring in disbelief. With those cars now silent, more sirens could be heard approaching. Soon there were several more police cars - both black and whites and unmarked - and several ambulances parked on the perimeter. 

      The police simply held back, until well after the ambulances drove past them. They waited at a respectful distance until the paramedics had checked the four heroes and given them treatment. Then, hesitantly, some of the cops approached. 

      "Are you... all that's left?" said one detective, finally. 

      He seemed cowed. 

      "Yes," said Doro, angrily. "I want it on the record that Rotary sacrificed himself to save the rest of us."

      The detective nodded, pulled out notebook, and began almost timidly asking questions. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      There were, indeed, survivors among the attackers. More importantly, the locals quickly handed the case over to the FBI, due to the weapons involved and several other factors. That agency soon determined that many of the weapons and some of the other equipment was from the same sources as other gear used by Mitchell Penrose. That determination brought Brade onto the scene. 

      Once briefed by local and federal LEOs she met with Ray and the surviving members of the Irregulars. They were all in the city hospital, though most of them only for observation; they were together in a common room to make guarding them easier. The police guard had been supplemented by FBI Agents. Personally, Brade figured any further attacks unlikely. For one thing, nearly all the attackers were dead or in custody. For another, the team was essentially finished. 

      "We've managed to interrogate three of the surviving attackers," Brade told the morose group, looking towards each in turn, as they lay in their hospital beds. She had ordered the curtains between the beds pulled back so as to address them together. "They say they were hired with the promise of getting some of the gear you folks took from the Sanctum."

      "We didn't take any gear from the Sanctum!" said Ray, outraged. "Do they think we're thieves?"

      "Probably," said Brade, with a sigh. "These are professional criminals, remember. They'd do what they could to sneak stuff out. Why wouldn't you? The Irregulars were already getting a reputation as being less than stand-up heroes among certain elements."

      "Unbelievable," said Thunderer, quietly, shaking her head. 

      "This doesn't make sense," said Ray. "They didn't have any treasure. Surely this Penrose guy knew that, since he was likely the one who put the plants in their headquarters. Why target them?"

      "Because as far as he is concerned, you ruined his chance for revenge against me when you came to the rescue at the hunting lodge," said Brade. 

      "He lied to those mercenaries... What would he have done if they'd won?!" said Freep, finally speaking up. "We didn't have anything on us, and our base was rubble!"

      "The mercenaries didn't know that Penrose had his people plant explosives in your base. They were rather peeved with him over that. Apparently, his plan was to skip out while they were taking care of you. They didn't even know his real name."

      "But... Why?!" said Doro, outraged. 

      "He's a vindictive son of a bitch who is capable of holding a grudge for decades," said Brade.



Part Twenty-Eight


      

      There was a bit of disturbance in the hallway outside the room. Brade went to the door to see Paul standing there, trying to get in. 

      "It's okay," she told the guards. "He's with the Assembly."

      "Hello," said Paul, gently, looking around at the injured supers. "I'm glad to see so many of you still alive."

      "Unless you have some objection, the Assembly is going to handle the purely super matters connected to your team and the attack," said Brade, nodding. "I've already checked with the local authorities and the FBI and they have no problems with this. If you folks brief Paul, he'll take care of things himself, or know whom to call."

      Her expression turned even more serious.

      "Meanwhile, I'm working with the FBI and state police to find Penrose before he can hurt anyone else."

      Ray and the Irregulars had no problem with that. Brade said her goodbyes and left.

      "Okay," said Paul, a bit awkwardly. "What needs to be done first?"

      "Some... Someone needs to close out the headquarters," said Ray, numbly. None of his injuries were serious, but he had multiple small cuts and some burns and was bruised over much of his body. Hence, he was on a fairly significant dose of pain killers. Only Jade Eagle was more heavily sedated. "There's equipment there... Doro left before it came in..."

      "We'll take care of it."

      "No. Well, yes, thank you. I mean, Thunderer needs to show them... show them what's... When she's recovered enough..."

      "I'm fine," said Thunderer, firmly. "They just kept me overnight for observation and said I can leave after lunch. If it means skipping a hospital lunch I'll gladly leave now."

      "Later," said Paul, quietly. "I already have some folks keeping an eye on it, to make sure there's no looting. Wait for the doctors to release you, then you can show us around."

      She nodded and settled back with a sigh. Paul decided she wasn't as fit as she pretended. 

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The manhunt covered a three-state area. What finally tripped Penrose was a bit of bad luck. He had partially shaved his head to turn his full coif into a typical case of middle-age male pattern baldness, and grown a goatee. He'd also put on thick - though non-prescription - glasses and darkened his complexion. He had actually not left the city. While attention was focused on watching for a man trying to escape the area, he was calmly walking down a street after lunch at a fast food joint.

      The bad luck was that he absently scratched his nose and bumped his unaccustomed glasses off. When he bent over to pick them up, a police officer writing a parking ticket across the street noticed the resemblance with the photo of Penrose which was being circulated. If he hadn't dropped his glasses, if the officer hadn't been looking, if the angle hadn't been just right...

      The officer quietly called in the sighting, and kept Penrose in sight from a distance. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Do we grab him now, or wait to see if anyone contacts him?" said Brade. 

      "Grab him now," said Special Agent Henderson. "He's laying low. There won't be any contact."

      "Just how dangerous is this guy likely to be?" said one of the other Agents on the case.

      Brade looked around the room where they were meeting, provided by the city police department. She sighed and briefly rubbed her eyes. 

      "Personally? All indications are that he's not dangerous on a super level. He could be armed. If so, it's probably with something conventional. His psych profile indicates that he dislikes violence, and his history shows that he would rather hire or trick someone into doing his dirty work. Surveillance shows him to be in the room alone."

      "Right," said Henderson, nodding. 

      He and his team planned their assault. They had a floor plan of the cheap hotel where Penrose was staying under an assumed name. They had a local plain clothes police man or woman watching each exit, including the fire escape and the sidewalk access to the basement. 

      "Let's go," said Henderson, when satisfied they'd done all the planning they reasonably could.

      The actual operation was an anticlimax. They caught Penrose napping, literally. By the time he realized he was in trouble, he was in handcuffs. 

      He was read his rights, sourly acknowledged he understood them, and was led towards the door. Where Brade stood, arms angrily crossed across her chest. The escorting Agents halted, not sure how to proceed.

      "What do you have against me?" said Brade.

      "You ruined my father with your lies," said Mitchell Penrose, tone resigned. 

      "Lies?" said Brade, confused. 

      "You even convinced my Mother, made her divorce him and testify against him," said Penrose, with growing heat. "Ruined his life and ours! My mother died still thinking he was an evil man!"

      Brade sighed, backed up a bit into the hall, and moved out of the way. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Y'know, if things had gone just a little differently, this could have been a real team," said Paul, looking around the ruined building later that afternoon. "Not even excepting them going Hollywood. They had talented people with a good mix of powers and basic training. With someone to get them back on track, instead of Penrose's plants, encouraging them to keep going the wrong way..."

      "Are you feeling guilty?" said Susan, concerned.

      "A little."

      "This whole mess leaves a bad taste in one's mouth," said Brade.

      "Me more than most," said Paul, sighing and stretching tiredly. "I had a history with Hotfoot. I'm the one who got him thrown out of the Assembly, though it was definitely his fault. From what I've heard he'd gotten his head on straight and was on the way to becoming a successful hero when he joined the Irregulars. Now he's dead."

  "Not your fault," said Brade, flatly. 

      "Please tell me you're not going to try and get the survivors to regroup," said Susan. 

      "No." Paul sighed again. "It's a sad thing when a team dies. This one, especially. Sometimes, though, you just have to accept the inevitable. No, this team is over. I just hope we can persuade those four to try again. Maybe as auxiliaries with the Assembly. Though if Thunderer is willing, we still need an energy projector as a regular member."

      "It's probably too soon to bring that up," said Susan, quietly, glancing over at where Thunderer stood alone, holding a framed certificate from the President which had somehow survived mostly intact. 

      He didn't answer. Now it was her turn to sigh. 

      "Well, they never got around to kicking Doro out, so with Jade Eagle and Freep, she and Thunderer were the ones legally responsible for shutting things down and disposing of the equipment and what's left of the matching funds. They've officially signed the papers giving the Assembly the job. Let's get busy."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Just over a month later, Paul was performing his normal duties at the former Guild base which housed the Assembly. The Sanctum archiving project was well underway, and there was plenty of both super and non-super security. A permanent camp with laboratories, a kitchen and living quarters had been constructed outside. The conservators were still fussing about people actually living - not to mention fighting - inside the Sanctum, but did not let this interfere with their obvious enthusiasm for their task. 

      "Paul?" said one of the security officers, paging him by his radio. "Got a visitor here to see you in the reception room."

      "On my way."

      He was surprised to see Thunderer sitting there, in civilian clothes except for her mask. Paul remembered that most of the costumes worn by the surviving irregulars had been badly damaged. Partly in the battle, mostly by the paramedics cutting parts away to get at injuries. Any spares had been destroyed with their headquarters.

      "You seem to be fully recovered," said Paul, shaking hands then sitting down across from her. "What brings you here?"

      "I want a job," she said, with a slight smile. 

      "Oh, do you, now?" said Paul, grinning. "Well, we might have an opening for an experienced super with energy projection powers."

      They spoke casually for several minutes, Paul explaining what the duties as a member of the Assembly called for and answering her questions.

      "I'll have our attorney draw up the papers and make an appointment with you to discuss them in detail," said Paul, nodding. Business over, he settled back a bit in his chair. "So, how are the rest of the group doing?"

      "Ray and Doro are actually talking marriage, if you can believe it," said Thunderer, rolling her eyes. "Freep is back at his civilian job as a stand up comic."

      "I didn't know he did that," said Paul. He frowned. "You shouldn't just casually reveal personal life details like that, you know."

      "It's okay. He's not very committed to the whole secret identity thing. No close relatives, few friends and most of those..."

      She was quiet for a moment, before giving a brief sigh. 

      "Most of his friends are supers."

      "I hear Jade Eagle actually went solo."

      "Yeah. She's pretty talented, and worked as a lone Mask for a couple of years before the Irregulars. She's probably going to be a name, some day."

      "Well, there is one thing we can go ahead and do, as long as you're already here," said Paul, standing.

      "What's that?" said Thunderer, puzzled, as she also rose.

      "Let's get you a decent costume," said Paul, grinning and patting Thunderer on the shoulder. 



      End



      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