Go to my Home page.

Go to my Transformation Stories page.



Masks XII




by




Rodford Edmiston






Shave and a Haircut





Part One





      For a former teacher like Brade, being called to the President's office was accompanied by some interesting emotions. Fortunately, Sievers immediately asked Brade to sit, and in a manner which suggested something far removed from a chewing out.

      "I still haven't been able to make any progress in getting you the job I promised you," said Sievers. "However, I have been sounding people out about a different position you might like better, and where you would also be more useful. Not that you haven't been doing a good job, here, but there's an important position opening up and I think you're ideal for it."

      "Super top cop," said Brade, flatly; that wasn't even a tough guess, since Sievers had been pushing the Act hard.

      "Are you interested?"

      "I'm not really sure."

      "Please think about it. Not only are you well qualified for the position - though, naturally you'd need some job-specific training to actually carry a federal badge - but I know you and am confident you'd not only do a good job but keep me in the loop."

      "I will definitely think about it," said the huge super, nodding. "Who would be my replacement here?"

      "I have some ideas, but I also want your recommendation."

      "So I have two things to think about," said Brace, with a humorless grin.

      "Three things," said the President. "If you don't take the Super Resources post, I'd like your ideas on who would be good for it."

      "Yes, Ma'am."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "No, I'm not upset over the new schools and the new super programs at existing schools," said Eve. "The fact that so many parents of supers are now sending their children to schools closer to home and less expensive isn't a problem for us. Nor is the fact that some who were sending children to us are now sending them elsewhere. We were actually a bit crowded."

      "Yeah," said Randy, nodding in agreement. "Our original purpose was primarily to train kids who were children or other relatives of Masks, and therefore likely to go into the business. Secondarily, we help young supers who have problems with their powers. Truthfully, we didn't think there were enough super children in both groups together to completely fill the school. We're therefore much smaller - and more expensive - than these new schools, though in return for the extra expense we offer services they can't. The US government added the requirement that we also handle certain juvenile criminal supers, but those have only slightly added to our student body. No, the biggest increase in the past three years has been another category, entirely. We had no idea when we started there would be so many outside the business, so to speak, who would have super kids who needed super education. Most of those parents don't even have powers, themselves."

      "The students from outside our culture are a small but rapidly growing part of our campus," Eve added, nodding. "The school wasn't really intended for them, though. Some of them never really fit in, there, since they weren't interested in becoming masks. They - or their parents - just wanted to learn how to use their powers; not how to fight crime."

      She left out that several of the students were interested in becoming villains. Also, she and Randy were shading a number of things to preserve privacy for some people, including Randy and Energia.

      The reporter - Helen Springs - frowned, checking her notes. The studio lights were warm bordering on uncomfortably hot, but at least this was a closed interview, with no audience. Randy and Eve had been told by the producer that the setting and interview would be casual for the recording, and edited down to something more pithy before broadcast. So far they saw no way the editing could make them look bad, but both knew from past experience editors could be imaginative.

      "This is impressive," said Helen, checking her notes. "The numbers hadn't really hit me before now. Thirty-eight of your graduates have become recognized Masks. Nearly a quarter of those in nations other than the US."

      "The number taking up the mask in the US would have been higher if the government hadn't spent several years openly attacking costumed heroes," said Randy, acidly.

      "That was Thurlin," said the reporter, in a tone which implied that the disgraced former chief executive was no longer relevant.

      "Exactly," said Eve, with a firm nod. "His actions soured who knows how many supers on the idea of even letting anyone know they have powers? Many are still in hiding, because of his actions."

      "Getting back to the topic," said Helen, concealing her annoyance at these people talking about ancient history, "have any of these new schools sought help - or even personnel - from you?"

      "Three of the five schools which open in the US this Fall contacted us for advice and recommendations for personnel," said Randy. He didn't mention that two of the new schools had between them hired nearly a dozen of the Pine Island Academy's staff. Even with the now-smaller student body, that had necessitated a quick - in two cases frantic - search for new teachers and support people. "Two of the schools which are introducing super programs have also asked us for help."

      "On a more moral note, what's this I hear about a nude beach which allows underage children?" said Helen.

      "A huge exaggeration," said Randy.

      "The school only owns a small portion of the island," said Eve, quickly. "There are a few communities of islanders, mostly retirees, but the majority of Pine Island is wilderness. Teens being teens, they sneak off and find places to do things not allowed at the school or in the islanders' villages."

      "Keep in mind that the island is a US possession with a large UN presence," said Randy. "All of us together can't stop every instance of teen misbehavior. I take pride in the fact that we have had fewer incidents of misbehavior than most schools. It's just that, these being supers, the incidents are... more noticeable."

      The rest of the interview went fairly well. Helen seemed super neutral, and had done a bit of homework, though she also displayed surprising ignorance on some points. Finally, they wrapped things up and shook hands all around.

      "Thank you. I am very surprised you agreed to this interview."

      "Why the surprise?" said Randy, puzzled. "We've been trying to get our school covered since even before it opened. If the news media had covered us better we might have avoided some of the troubles we've had."

      "Well, you're so insular. Most people didn't even know you existed until these other schools opened and brought attention to yours."

      Randy started a not so slow burn, ready to launch into an angry tirade about ignorant reporters.

      Don't, came the mental caution from Eve.

      Randy swallowed his bile and forced a smile. He and Eve finished their business and walked out of the studio to hail a cab.

      "That new subtrain does make getting back and forth between the island and the mainland a lot quicker and easier," said Randy, grudgingly, as the cab pulled up. "However, there is no way we're going to tell reporters about it. Or the government."

      "Agreed," said Eve, as they climbed in. "The Museum of the Mask, please."

      Eve settled into her seat, then laughed as she remembered something. She switched to telepathy for privacy.

      'She flies like she's making love to the air.' I think Template has an admirer.

      Please, said Randy, rolling his eyes.

      It's widely known - though she has never confirmed it - that Helen prefers the ladies.

      She looked at Randy, actually puzzled that he seemed embarrassed.

      Why does it bother you to be a sex symbol to women as a woman?

      I'm not really sure. I mean, it doesn't bother me that Karen is attracted to me.

      A great mystery to ponder, thought Eve, with an impish smile.

                              *                                    *                                    *

       "It was all I could do a couple of times not to stare at her and make Porky Pig noises," said Template, that evening, as she and her wife got into bed. "Sometimes the things she said made that little sense."

      "You're in a good mood, now," said Colossa, putting a hand on her lover's belly. "In fact, you've been almost too cheerful since coming back from that regeneration treatment."

      "Yeah. That was such a lucky break. Shatterwave had to skip his turn because of obligations, and I was given his slot, mostly because of Roy. Besides healing my knuckle and several scars, the treatment cleared out all the toxins, so I can nurse, again. Which is so much better than that breast pump."

      Template laughed, and stretched.

      "I even feel younger."

      "Well, you deserved it. Okay, baby's fed, diapered and in the crib, sound asleep; how about switching back to Randy and let's have some fun?"

      "What's wrong with me the way I am?" said Template, rolling over and playfully kissing Colossa on the neck.

      "C'mon," said Colossa. "Please? Seems like you're Template by default these days. I love you in all your forms, but I really want a man just now."

      Template gave a dramatic sigh, then smiled and shifted to Randy.

      "Satisfied?"

      "Not yet," mock-growled Karen, rolling him on his back.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Another Summer heroing," said Energia, cheerfully, as she used her powers to direct her bag onto the floor beside the stairs in the main room of Blue Impact's headquarters. "Good morning, all!"

      The den - in fact, the whole lair - was much changed from the first time she saw it. Realizing that the three of them were - despite her reluctance and a persistent lack of a formal name - a semi-official team, Blue Impact had accepted an offer from the school to let them fund remodeling it into an up-to-date headquarters. Much of the work was done by school staff, as with help from some of the more talented - and circumspect - students. That decision was proving to be very well justified. Though Energia missed the charm of some of the old furnishings and equipment, there was no denying the place was now a much more effective headquarters. It was also more comfortable... though they still hadn't replaced all the furniture.

      "Another disaster, taking heroes away from the US," said Blue Impact, gesturing to the huge flatscreen on the wall above where the old console TV had stood. That vintage assembly of vacuum tubes was now at the school, as part of the selection of retrotech equipment used for some of the classes. "Poor Pakistan. They can't seem to catch a break. You just know the Taliban will try to move in and take advantage of these floods."

      "Yeah, but the personal impact is that it means there's more for us to do here," said Gadgetive. "Six teams and half a dozen city and state governments have asked us, specifically, to help fill in. The base upgrades will really help."

      "When will you have the upgrades for the travel pod finished?" said Blue Impact. "I have a feeling we will be doing a lot of traveling this Summer. Between so many masks being out of the country and our new com system we'll be getting more calls and from further away."

      "Oh, I came up with something much better," said Gadgetive, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Had an epiphany, inspired in part by the Bluegar we borrowed. Built a larger flyer - it's in that shed where we rendezvous with school transports - and a small apergy unit for my backpack."

      "Finally!" said Energia, smirking. "How long have you been promising that next time we team up you'll be able to fly?"

      "Anyway, the bigger flyer is a full-function apergy lift and propulsion travel unit. Higher speed, higher ceiling, longer range..."

      "You can't fly, yet, can you?" said Energia, scowling.

      "Sure I can fly. Just... I'm still learning how."

      "That's all very nice," said Blue Impact, looking irritated, "but I need the small flyer here and fully operational. It fills an important niche in transportation. For one thing, it can get you and me to the shed faster than my bike."

      "I'll get to it."

      "Yes, you will. Right now. You told me it would take less than a day, and it's early, yet."

      "I need to..."

      "Now.




Part Two






      "That cat is going to kill you," said Energia, that evening.

      "Ah, I'm just playin' with him," said Gadgetive, as she shut off the laser pointer after using it to guide the former tomcat which had adopted the team into a box. She quickly moved in and closed the flaps, trapping the feline. "Besides, I'm the one who made the automatic feeder and waterer which keep him alive when we're on long missions."

      "Kill you in your sleep," said Blue Impact, with a knowing nod.

      "Oh!" said Gadgetive, guiltily. She promptly opened the box. "Didn't hear you come in."

      "Just letting you two know it's official," said Blue Impact. "China won't allow foreign supers in to help with their flooding. Or any other emergency. Period. They can handle it."

      "Even though they routinely kill supers as young as they can," said Energia, hotly. "Then whine about the 'western super conspiracy' because they have so few."

      "It's peasants and local officials who persecute supers," said Blue Impact, just as outraged. "The national government wants as many supers as they can get, to train them up to be good little Modern Communist Supers. They just aren't nearly as in control of their own bureaucracy as they claim."

      "That just means there's more supers to help with Pakistan," said Gadgetive, trying to head the other two away from a rant duet.

      "Are there enough, though?" said Energia, successfully diverted. "I mean, from what I hear it's a bigger mess than Haiti."

      "Thanks to Haiti, the super community is better prepared for this one," said Blue Impact, as she dropped onto the couch.

      There was a snap, and her end dropped a bit.

      "You broke another one," said Energia, neutrally. "This is why we can't have nice things."

      "There are times I hate my powers," said Blue Impact, clambering to her feet from the now awkwardly low seat. "Even after so many years I sometimes forget how heavy I am. I'll be really glad when the Island gadgeteers get the last of our custom furniture built and moved in."

      She knelt and lifted her end of the couch casually with one hand - despite a squawk of protest from Gadgetive at the other end - and peered underneath.

      "Oh, yeah. Broke the frame. Worse, this is one of the ones we've already repaired. Don't know if there's another patch in it."

      "I'll take a look later," said Gadgetive, as Blue Impact lowered the couch. "Meantime, put something under the break to make it level."

      "I know you have weight problems," said Energia, who was practicing her hovering by pretending to sit on air, "but you're still a lot better off than Hazel."

      "Poor girl," said Gadgetive, as their leader searched for a book the right thickness.

      "So what are you watching?" said Blue Impact, after leveling the couch and sitting again, more gingerly this time.

      "Biggest cult show of all time," said Energia, with faux enthusiasm. "Land of the Lost in Space 1999. That is, several things in time sharing fashion, thanks to Gadgetive."

      "Look, I offered to put all the channels I'm interested in up with yours together on the TV."

      "Yeah, too small to see and with all the sound running together," said Energia, sourly.

      "No, I said I'd mute it."

      "What good does that do?!"

      "She reads lips, remember?" said Blue Impact. "In six languages. Apparently all at once."

      "You could watch TV in your room," said Gadgetive, helpfully, as she resumed flipping between channels.

      "I wanted some social time, not TV time."

      "Sometimes I think Gadgetive is male, under that costume," said Blue Impact, teasing.

      "Philistines," muttered the gadgeteer, as she focused on her viewing.

      "Crime's still down," said Blue Impact, conversationally, knowing that speaking wouldn't disrupt the multitasking Gadgetive. "Though I have this odd feeling it's just the calm before the storm."

      "Taking into consideration short-term trends," said Gadgetive, absently, "we just came out of a series of natural and super crises, and are currently having floods, storms and droughts in various parts of the world. So, we should see another super crisis soon, but have some quiet in the very immediate future."

      "Thank you, miss Pollyanna," said Energia, in a stage mutter.

      "Huh?" said Gadgetive, confused.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      I whistled, impressed, as I reached the end of the tunnel and stepped into the first chamber. Something looming to the right caught my eye, and I turned, started and stared.

      "Is that a badgerbear?!" I said, not sure I believed it. "A stuffed badgerbear?!"

      "Yeah," said Brade, grining. "Used to be right at the entrance. We had to move it during the attack and never bothered putting it back. Just like we didn't replace the entrance hatch."

      I hadn't seen the huge super in over thirty years until that morning. I hadn't even heard from her until she called a few days earlier and asked if I wanted to see the Sanctum. She knew I did, of course. While I appreciated the offer, I didn't need my empathy to suspect there was a pitch coming.

      As I looked around the room at the trophy cases I thought about what I was doing there. The people now guarding this place were a combination of super volunteers, security staff from the Assembly, and feds. Together, they outnumbered the archeologists and other specialists investigating the contents of this base by about three to one. Given what they'd found here, I wondered if that was enough guards.

      "The security room is through that door," said Paul, one of the Assembly people. "The other rooms are down that hall."

      "Place still looks pretty beat up," I ventured. "I can tell you've also moved a lot out of this room, too."

      "Mainly the conference table and chairs," said Paul. "We gave clearing weapons and other dangerous equipment priority, but they had to come through here, so we made room."

      "We're not likely to repair any of this damage," said one of the investigators, a young woman whose name I had missed. "No functional or structural reason to, and it's not going to be used as a headquarters, again. Museum, maybe. In which case the damage would be part of the show, anyway, along with the trophies. We're currently transferring the non-hazardous contents from other rooms to the Smithsonian's Special Exhibits Holding Facility."

      They showed me around the entire base, which took a surprisingly short amount of time. Partly that was due to me not being allowed in some rooms, having to settle for looking through the doors. However, that was mostly due to how little there was to show.

      "I know Mack Risk tried to find the Sanctum," I said, unable to conceal my fascination as our little tour returned to the main room. "Tried for years. So did several others. I think one reason they failed is that it's much smaller than they expected."

      "We noticed that, of course," said Paul, nodding. "We think that they built the place themselves and never had anyone else here."

      "Typical. They were very different people together than they were with anyone else."

      "That sort of inside knowledge is exactly why I suggested inviting you here," said Brade, eagerly. "You have insights which simply aren't in any records."

      "There's more to it, though, isn't there?" I said, looking her in the eye and daring her to contradict me.

      "Your protégé, Wanda Tanaka..."

      "Friend," I corrected. "Family friend, actually. I know her parents and two of her grandparents."

      "Yes. Well, one of the things she's done during the few months she's been in the US House is sponsor the Bureau of Special Resources bill. Looks like it will pass, too."

      "President Sievers got behind it," I said, something she certainly must know. Where was she going with this?

      "I was rather surprised to hear you supported that bill," she said.

      "Why? It sets up a formal government agency which arranges for the people best qualified to handle super problems to do so. With supers specifically in charge."

      "What about the law enforcement branch provision?"

      "All part of the package, and desperately needed."

      "I thought you hated the very concept of super heroes," said Brade, confused. "Not to mention hating government bureaucracy."

      "I do. Both. I have no problem with properly trained people working law enforcement. Hell, I was an assistant to a super private detective for eighteen years and a partner off and on for another decade. I was wishing back then we could deal with super cops instead of mundane cops. They'd know where we were coming from."

      "That's the same thing as heroing!"

      "Of course it isn't," I said, in a scathing tone.

      I didn't elaborate. It was so obviously not the same thing that I didn't need to. If she couldn't see it, that was because she didn't want to.

      "So what is it you want from me?" I said, when she didn't continue.

      "Does the name Mitchell Penrose ring any bells?" said Brade.

      "Sure. He's that member of Sievers' staff who turned traitor."

      "There's a lot more to it than that. So much more that when we finally caught him, we kept that fact quiet."

      "I'm starting to get a really bad feeling. Go on."

      "Getting Penrose gave us, among other things, Major Carl Thrace," said Brade. "That's being kept even quieter. We even recovered some of the records he stole from his office and didn't destroy."

      "Which gave us...?" I said, encouraging her to continue despite the reluctance I was feeling.

      "Normal analysis couldn't find anything deeper in the documents. However, I thought to ask several super minds with proper security clearance - in two cases they had to be upgraded - to examine the evidence. At first they, too, found nothing concrete... then one of them noticed something. The others then saw it. A clear trend, a pattern, that some uniting purpose was behind a number of apparently unrelated recent events."

      "Which is?" I said, impatiently.

      "I don't know whether you heard, but one of the people who helped Thurlin get into office was Eve Hind."

      I swore quietly but furiously. Eve is great in bed - a telepath doesn't need to be told what feels good - but she is jaded and gets bored easily. Especially with people.

      "Well, it turns out that she didn't really know what she was getting into. Worse, she didn't know she was being manipulated."

      Okay, that startled me.

      "Wait. She's a literal demigoddess. Who could..."

      I felt my face go pale, as I remembered where I was.

      "God, no. The Five Great powers can't be back..."




Part Three






      "We think they are."

      "Okay... explain it to me."

      I don't think much about my empathy because it's such an intimate part of me. I was in my late teens before I understood why most people couldn't read emotional states as I could, though I had certainly noticed sooner that they didn't. Also, it's a bit of a secret weapon. The fewer people who know about it, the more honest the emotions I get. Just now, Brade appeared calm and professional, while feeling worried and even a bit frightened. Paul was less of both, though he was definitely concerned.

      "We think they arranged for Thurlin to be elected to keep supers too busy to spot the signs they were again active," said Brade, now feeling both angry and irritated, but still showing nothing. "They knew he wouldn't last long, but he was only one diversion. Several recent events were also part of their distraction efforts. Energex finding the Sanctum, though, wasn't part of their plans."

      "How did they know about that?" I asked, hoping the answer wouldn't be "their spies are everywhere."

      "Energex bragged to some other mercenary supers about finding an old lair in this area. He didn't say whose it was or exactly where, but since the Five Great Powers already knew where their old base was they must have figured out that was what he'd found. Anyway, the Five Great Powers arranged for him to be captured, still using others to do their work to avoid attracting notice. Then it blew up in their face when the pawns turned out to have their own ambitions. They were beaten, and Energex was found and taken into custody by the feds. The Five then provided the location of the Sanctum to several groups indirectly so they would empty the place before we could beat them to it. That failed, thanks in large part to me insisting we take immediate action in finding and exploring the base."

      She gave a nod to Paul.

      "The diligence of the Assembly's personnel also played a large part, as did Blue Impact, Gadgetive and Energia. However, several of the Five's other plots have succeeded. It's a measure of their success that we don't know how many."

      "I really don't want to go through another time like the most recent period they were trying to rule the world," I said, fervently. "The Great War, the Russian Revolution, the Great Depression, World War Two, the Holocaust, the Chinese Revolution... Who knows how much of that we could have avoided without their meddling?"

      "We're hoping to avoid that," said Paul, flatly. "That's why we wanted to talk to you."

      "What are we up against with them?" said Brade. "I know they somehow keep coming back, but what else?"

      "Keep in mind I never met any of them," I temporized. "I only spoke with a few people who did. I just know what Mack Risk and a few others told me about them."

      "Understood," said Brade, nodding. "Please, though, tell us what you do know. Most of those you spoke with are long dead, and they left little written material on the Five. Even if it's the same general things we get from other survivors - I'm planning to speak with Dr. Freysdottir in a few days, among others - you may have useful insights they don't."

      "They're all Masterminds," I said, flatly. "Not your regular ones, either. They have all the abilities - and many of the quirks - of the typical mastermind, but they combine this with unearthly patience and an intimate - probably personal - knowledge of history. Especially super history."

      "We knew all that, but it's good to have confirmation," said Brade, nodding. "What else?"

      "Isn't that enough? Well, anyway, I can tell you that their biggest weakness is that they seem sometimes to be too patient. They wait too long to take action, and often get pushed aside by others who take advantage of their work, while freezing them out."

      "Like Stalin taking over and sending the Winter Bear running for his life," said Paul, nodding.

      "As well as the Aryan spending decades setting up the National Socialists only to have a charismatic veteran of the Great War take over. He simply wasn't well known to many people in the party, and not nearly as able to relate to the general population."

      "The Magnificent Lung stayed in power behind the scenes of the Chinese Revolution until his death," Brade pointed out. "Though that wasn't all that long an interval."

      "That's something else," I said, nodding. "Two somethings, actually. They usually stay out of official leadership positions, being satisfied with controlling the public figureheads they have put in place. If they do seize power, they do it through a measure such as arranging for the assassination of the legitimate leader and blaming the act on some enemy."

      "Wait. When did that happen?"

      "Probably multiple times through history. However, after the group was taken out, a lot of interesting stuff emerged. For example, back in the Thirties the Briton was preparing to convince Edward VIII to support a political movement similar to the National Socialists. He was waiting for the right moment... only Edward VIII fell in love and abdicated. Part of his reason for giving up the throne may have been the pressures he was feeling from the Briton. Before the Briton could alter his plans to account for George VI being King, the War was well underway. He - the Briton - had also lost much favor, due to being a backer of Edward VIII, and never really recovered. Especially when he kept urging the Empire to make an accommodation with Hitler instead of fighting."

      I laughed, as I remembered some tales Double Dutch had told me.

      "Churchill really hated that bastard."

      "That is very interesting," said Paul, thoughtfully. "Is it that their egos lead them to think they're more in control than they really are?"

      "Probably; that's a typical mastermind failing," I said, nodding.

      "Our research teams have found at least six examples of previous attempts - and previous lives - of the Five Great Powers," said Brade, also nodding. "For some reason, they haven't been successful as often as they should have been."

      "Except that your researchers probably missed several times they were successful but stayed behind the scenes."

      I looked back and forth between them.

      "You could have come to me and asked these things. I appreciate you inviting me here, but I know there's more to this."

      I knew a maneuver to gain favor when I saw one.

      "You don't just know things," said Paul, "you know people. You know important people, super and not. Many of whom have a favorable opinion of you. Even those who don't would at least listen to what you have to say, and you're very persuasive."

      "God, please tell me you don't want me for some sort of super ambassadorial position," I groaned.

      "I'm not God, and I'm not telling you that," said Brade, with a tight smile. "Whether or not the Bureau of Special Resources bill passes, we - the Sievers administration and certain members of the super community - want you to help us make connections. Then, help us convince them the Five Great Powers have returned, and are a threat to them."

      "Think of it as proactive self defense," said Paul.

      I gritted my teeth, but couldn't beg off without appearing to be a hypocrite.

      "All right, all right," I muttered. "When and where do I start?"

      "Constantine," said Brade.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      

      The dining tent outside the tunnel entrance wasn't a fancy restaurant, but the food was actually quite good. I found myself warming to Paul and some of the others as I waited to fly out. They seemed to have a genuine interest in super history, and were fascinated by my inside info on it. They also pumped me on where some of the surviving members of the group which took out the Five Great Powers might be.

      "It's common knowledge that Bookkeeper was a vampire," I said. "What's not common knowledge is that he was the owner - and night manager - of a twenty-four hour book store in San Francisco. I used to go there as a kid, because they had some very interesting books and magazines. I knew the pale guy in back was a bit creepy but didn't know what he was until years later, when Mack warned me to be careful around him. Even though they were often allies, Mack didn't trust him."

      "Vampires," said Susan, shivering a bit.

      "I've actually known several," I said, smiling at her. She smiled in a way which told me she wasn't interested. I sighed and went back to my tale. "Anyway, the Bookkeeper is still around, just not in San Francisco. I don't know where, but can probably find out."

      Supper was done and we were lingering over coffee. I was actually feeling a bit reluctant to leave.

      "So, do you have an answer, yet?" said Brade. "That will determine whether the helicopter takes you back to the airport, or to DC."

      "I thought I'd made that clear," I said. "I'll do it. However, you have to let me do it my way."

      "It's your way that's the reason we came to you," said Brade, nodding. She gave me a smile which was supposed to show she was joking, but there was something much more serious behind it. "Just try to avoid any sex scandals."




Part Four


Lots of history in this installment.






      Paul watched the shapeshifter board his helicopter with a strange sense of loss. Paul had been very impressed with the man, and repeatedly amazed by casual reminders of just how old Lawrence was. Of course, Brade was even older, and looked even fitter.

      Well, many supers don't look their age, he reminded himself. Wonder if I'd have looked that good in my eighties and nineties if I'd stayed Champion. Of course, I'd probably have died long before that. Champions tend to have short lives.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The next afternoon I met with President Sievers, Brade and several others in the Oval Office. Oddly, my biggest worry was that the President would ask if I voted for her. Fortunately, the conversation stayed on topic, and mainly covered what my duties would be. However, during a break things did get a bit more personal.

      "How do you know Constantine?" said Brade, appearing curious, as she took a cup of hot coffee and a plate full of cinnamon buns from the tea cart an attractive young aide brought in. "I don't recall anyone saying how you two are connected."

      "Mack Risk and I helped recover some of his Mother's stolen jewelry after the War," I said, as I watched her feed that huge body of hers. "Just before he took back his country. Some of what we retrieved provided the financing for that."

      "Okay, how well do you know his history?" said Sievers, who had only coffee. "I'm missing a lot of details."

      I took rather less than Brade had for myself, and put my plate and saucer on the tray the server had provided. I took a sip of coffee and thought for a moment before answering.

      "When the Germans invaded his country in 1914, young Emil Constantine Moldarus, his mother and a small staff were sent to the United States with enough of the country's treasures to establish a government in exile. His father, the Grand Duke and Regent, stayed behind to do what he could, including hopefully protecting the crown prince; they were both imprisoned by the Kaiser's forces. They were treated reasonably well, but their continued well being was conditional on the government of Moldaria doing what the Kaiser said."

      "I didn't know Constantine was that old," said Gompers, looking surprised.

      "He certainly doesn't look it. Though he's not all that impressive when compared to someone like Eve Hind or even the Sailor. Anyway, his little country survived the war, and he and his Mother and the rest of the exiles packed to return home. However, agents of the Bolsheviks were supposed to capture them as soon as they crossed the border. Somehow a warning was passed and the train stopped just in time. Meanwhile, though, the Communists seized power in the capital and a number of other key locations in a smoothly coordinated move. Emil's father and the prince were executed, along with several other noble family members and state officers. Emil and his mother went to England - which is where she was from - and campaigned vigorously for them and the United States to free Moldaria and restore the throne. However, both nations were soured on military intervention after what they'd experienced during the Great War. The US especially, given what happened with their troops supporting the White Russians, some of it long after the War was over. The diplomatic status of Emil's Mother and her staff were revoked by the new rulers and they were forced to live as refugees. Very wealthy refugees, but refugees. They moved back to the US into the mansion they had only recently vacated. Emil's mother and her staff spent the next few years being major annoyances to the US government, lobbying for aid to free Moldaria. They even raised a private army, mostly outside the US."

      "Constantine's troubles with the law started well before that, as I recall," said Sievers.

      "In the middle Twenties," I said, nodding. "Right after they came here from England. His crimes at first were pretty minor, real juvenile delinquent stuff. A troubled kid acting out, mostly through sheer frustration. It didn't help matters when Emil's powers activated at age seventeen, when he attacked some other teens who were making fun of his accent."

      "That was the start of his serious legal troubles," said Sievers, nodding. "That much I know, already. Back then they had no idea how to handle a criminal super. Or any kind of super."

      "He was a hot-headed kid who'd been through a great deal of both trauma and drama," I said, a bit defensively. "He felt betrayed, on multiple levels by multiple parties. After his mother died, in Twenty-Nine, he was left alone in a strange country with no real direction. Eventually - and fortunately - he became involved with other expatriates in the project to free his homeland."

      "Then Germany invaded again," said Gompers, sourly.

      "Yes. The Third Occupation, as the Moldarians call it, was long and hard, and many people suffered. Including everyone in Moldaria. Emil hoped to retake it after the Germans were driven out, but the Soviet Union reclaimed it. Again, the US and Britain refused to help liberate Emil's homeland. Two more years passed before Emil was able to return, and establish a guerilla movement. Even that probably would have failed, if the Soviet Union hadn't collapsed in 1950. The costs of the War and its aftermath - with all the counterrevolutions and trying to keep up with the West using their corrupt system - were just too much for them. Stalin held it together long enough to see Hitler convicted and sentenced in 1948. He wanted the Nazi leader executed, but the other Allies were worried that would create a martyr, so he got life in prison. Hitler managed to outlive Stalin, though he spent his last two and a half years a helpless cripple after a failed suicide attempt."

      "I understand that once Constantine's country was liberated, he tried to find a new King, but..." said Sievers.

      "As the highest ranking noble left alive, he was a shoe-in for the throne," I said, when she paused. "That would have been true even if his father hadn't been the Regent. I honestly believe he - Constantine - didn't want the job. His family is from the same line as the last King, though, and they needed a strong leader, fast. The next closest candidate was Polish, and missing."

      "I'm not surprised he was related to the royal family," said Brade. "His last name is the same, and the country is named after them."

      "History is confused as to whether his family is named after the country or the country is named after his family," I said. "Either way, they've been ruling their little North Sea nation for over a thousand years. Some individuals for surprisingly long chunks of that span."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "One of the better characteristics of a plasma wall," said Energia, smirking, as they team returned to their lair, "is that rapidly moving conductive objects impacting it actually add to the charge."

      "Show-off," said Gadgetive, in a stage mutter.

      "Well, regardless of any showboating," said Blue Impact, "that was a successful mission."

      She laughed.

      "I need to put mission accomplished symbols on the flyer. Like they used to do for bombers and fighters."

      "Still do," said Gadgetive, absently.

      "What symbol would you use for a foiled bank robbery?" said Energia, frowning in thought.

      "A stylized bank image in a Not symbol," said Gadgetive. "That's the standard. Might as well use it."

      "You mean to tell me," said Blue Impact, slowly, "that there are standardized symbols for this sort of thing?"

      "Sure. Lots of teams use 'em. Put 'em on team vehicles, on a wall in their trophy room, even on their personal gear. I'll get you a list. I think it's more of an East Coast thing. You don't usually do teams, and Energia's only other team experience was on the West Coast." 

      "I've been heroing for nearly twenty years and never heard of this," said Blue Impact, amazed.

      Energia started to say something, but interrupted herself with a huge yawn.

      "Bleah. Up early to deal with that super speedster on the Interstate, we barely got back in time to turn around and help deal with a building fire. Breakfast on the road - thanks for the food bars, Gadge - lunch with the firemen - which was actually quite good, and that one young guy was pretty handsome - then back here just in time to get called out for the robbery. Think I'm going to crash. Well, after a good shower. Still smell like smoke. Call me when supper is ready. Or the next emergency."

      "Go. Sleep. You're starting to babble," said Blue Impact, grinning. "You should take a nap, too, Gadgetive."

      "Wimp," said Gadgetive, smirking. "Why sleep when there's caffeine?"

      "It is by the juice of the bean I set my mind in motion," Energia intoned, as she made a show of marching ceremoniously to the staircase.

      "Your choice," said Blue Impact, giving Gadgetive a stern look. "However! If you can't keep up on a mission, you're off the team."

      "Says who?" said Gadgetive, more startled than defiant.

      "Me. Now, you going to sleep or risk your career?"

      "Tyrant," the gadgeteer muttered, as she stomped to the stairs. "Just because you need less sleep..."

      Energia laughed as she took to the air and flew upstairs.


      

Part Five






      "Why iron?" groused Hazel, as she scrubbed at a patch of rust. "Why not stainless steel?"

      "Hygiene troubles?" said Allessandra, as she watched the grey-toned girl sitting naked on a (fortunately very sturdy) bench in the locker room, worrying her left shin with a handful of steel wool.

      Allessandra was naked, herself, having just finished drying and already tossed her towel, but had essentially no body modesty. She was a bit surprised that the normally shy Hazel was putting on such a show, with one foot on the floor and the other on the bench. The two of them were among the two dozen or so students staying at the school over the Summer, for various reasons.

      "You. Have. No. Idea. Ow."

      Hazel winced, then threw the pad on the floor in disgust. She looked up at the other girl and sighed.

      "Guess I'll just have to wait until tonight, when I'm back in my room, and use the power buffer."

      "Talk about 'Ow,'" said Allessandra, wincing. "Maybe you could try brass wool. Be easier on your skin and should still do the job."

      "I just hate walking around with rust spots on my skin," said Hazel, standing and opening her locker. Carefully. Little demonstrations of pique were not suitable to someone with a strength rating of just under a hundred. "It makes me look... it just..."

      "I think I get it," said Allessandra, putting a commiserating hand on a surprisingly warm iron shoulder. "After my powers manifested, I had to give up on a lot of the beauty things I used to do, because my skin became immune to them. Exfoliation? Forget it. I'd need something like your power buffer. No, thank you."

      "I hadn't thought of that," said Hazel, startled. "That other supers would have that sort of problem."

      Allessandra almost made a joke, almost said something flip. For some reason, though, she instead briefly squeezed Hazel's shoulder before pulling her hand back and for once saying something useful.

      "You're not as alone as you think."

      Something struck Allessandra, suddenly, and she barely stifled a laugh, which would have ruined the mood; she did smile. Hazel gave her an odd look.

      "Sorry. Just realized something. Most women with super bodies do still jiggle... including me. You're... extra firm."

      That made the iron girl snort.

      "Yeah. That just means that instead of getting the jiggle fans I get the perkverts."

      "Not bad," said Allessandra, smirking.

      "Even they get upset when they realize I really could put an eye out."

      "Oh, God..." said Allessandra, laughing. "There are so many crude jokes I could make right now."

      "Trust me, I've probably heard most of them," said Hazel, rolling her eyes. "As well as every variation imaginable on 'iron maiden.'"

      "Yeah, guys get very insecure around women who can remove their manhood with a sneeze during sex," said Allessandra, fighting giggles. "When guys get insecure, they insult the source of the insecurity."

      "Imagine a normal guy trying to carry me over the threshold on our honeymoon," said Hazel, trying not to join in the giggling and failing.

      "Just don't let him see your broken vibrators," Allessandra managed to gasp out, starting to sag from laughing so hard.

      The other girls in the locker room looked askance at the pair laughing so helplessly they slumped to the floor, naked, hugging each other, tears streaming down their faces.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I guess you had to be there," said Template, blankly.

      "Trust me, it wasn't all that funny to the rest of us," said Rubber Made. "Of course, we only heard part of it, so I guess a lot of the funny depended on the context."

      "Well, thank you for letting me know about this," said Template, smiling. "I hope this means Hazel's mood is improving."

      "I was just surprised at Allessandra being so empathetic," said the elastic girl, shrugging. "Well, she's grown a lot, too, since she came here."

      "Part of what this school was meant for, actually," said Template, softly.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The three youths carefully and quietly climbed in through the laundry window. Once inside, with their access secured behind them, they looked around.

      "So where is all this stuff you said they have?" said Blue Tail Fly.

      "They keep the underwear separate," said Sal Monella.

      "Why would they do that?" said Horned Mask.

      "Idiot. You have to wash whites and delicate stuff separately," said Fly. "I mean, both separate from permanent press, for different reasons, in different ways."

      "How do you know that?" said Mask.

      "I think his mother must make him do laundry at home," said Sal, smirking.

      "I was supposed to start college next Fall," said Fly, angrily. "My Mother taught me how to do my laundry to get ready for dorm life. Also how to cook basic meals, and..."

      "Now wonder you turned to crime," said Sal, snickering.

      "I see a bra!" said Mask.

      The others shushed him, but then let him lead him to the row of baskets filled with clean laundry.

      "It's a start," said Sal, nodding. "We need to find the unwashed stuff, though."

      "You want to play with dirty laundry?" said Mask, confused.

      "It still smells like a woman."

      "This one is labeled for Europa," said Fly, examining a basket.

      "Ooh! Ooh!," said Mask, suddenly grabbing a bra with very large cups and holding it up. "Bet this one's Allessandra's!"

      "It's bra-halla!" chortled Sal, eyes wide and a huge grin on his face.

      "You going to put it on?" said Fly, with a snicker.

      "Huh?"

      "Yeah, look, that's fine, but don't cream your jeans yet," said Sal, regaining his equanimity. "We need to..."

      The room flared to painful brightness as the lights came on.

      "Put my underwear down and surrender," said Allessandra, in a growling voice.

      Through watering eyes the boys saw at least four figures standing between them and the nearest exit. As they adjusted and details became more clear, the boys saw four very angry young women standing between them and the nearest exit.

      "You can't make us do anything!" said Mask, defiantly shoving the bra under his shirt. "You're not teachers!"

      "Get 'em, girls!" said Europa, charging.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "The laundry will be out of service for at least a week," said Eve, glaring at the seven standing before her. "All laundry - teacher and student, done yourself or by the laundry staff - will have to be taken to the mountain base until then. You're going to be very unpopular around here for a good, long while."

      There were tired nods from the females.

      "Hell," said Allessandra, "I'd do everyone's laundry myself for the week, just to stop these perverts from sniffing my undies."

      "This was the first time we did that!" said Mask.

      "We did not sniff anyone's underwear," said Sal, firmly.

      "No, because we caught you too quick!" said Moondance.

      "Hold on," said Eve, raising her hand. She turned to Allessandra. "You mean there have been previous incidents?"

      "Yeah," said La Pantera Blanca. "We reported it to security, but they couldn't even prove it was happening. A girl knows her own undies, and when they've been fooled with."

      "Stuff would turn up missing," said Europa. "More than you expect just from normal laundry losses. Some things would be stretched or - Ew! - have stains."

      "Great," said Eve, sourly. "All right. I can't blame you for wanting to find the culprits. However, for starting a fight when you could have just called security you all have to work two hours a day with the repair team until the laundry is back in business."

      "I started the fight," said Europa, raising her hand.

      "The others joined in, though," said Eve. She turned to the boys. "You three are confined to your rooms. You will only leave for class and food and your punishment. For a month. You will also work four hours a day on the laundry repairs. You'll have plenty of time, with the confinement."

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "So, what do we do about the laundry perverts?" said Template, at the staff meeting the next day. "I mean the ones who weren't caught."

      "Part of the rebuild of the laundry will involve improved security for it," said Junker. He shook his head. "I know boys their age have hormone problems, but masturbating with women's underwear is sick."

      "Unless the woman consents," said Burgundy, absently. She noticed the others staring at her. "What?"

      "Getting back to business," said Eve, firmly, "assuming we catch the party or parties responsible, what's their punishement?"

      "Depends in part on who it is, and how many times they've done it," said Template. "Staff, we fire them and blackball them. Students, various forms of detention."

      "What if it's not either?" said Ettienne, looking thoughtful.

      "What do you mean?" said Eve.

      Template looked at the white-haired healer. In the four years since the school had opened for classes, Ettienne had split time between here and an advanced program for three years at a medical college. After getting his degree he had joined the medical staff on the island. He was still working on becoming an actual medical doctor, but his work here was counting towards that. However, besides all his abilities as a healer, he was also a magical sensitive.

      "I haven't examined any of the evidence," said Ettienne, who still looked much younger than his twenty-four years. "However, there have been many traces of magical activity around this island. Nothing major, nothing threatening. However, there are certain minor imps and spirits which engage in sexual activities as part of their behavior. These might easily go unnoticed for some time."

      "That seems far-fetched," said Eve, frowning. "This land doesn't seem old enough to have much magic. However, I will ask the rest of the magical staff to check this. Thank you, Ettienne."




Part Six






      "Well, well, well..." said Constantine, smiling as I entered the large, ornate audience chamber. "I wasn't sure I believed it. However, there you are."

      He and I were the only ones present who were smiling. All the other members of his court were scowling. At me. My empathy told me things weren't as dire from them as they wanted me to think. However, it also told me that one of the most powerful beings who had ever lived wasn't as pleased to see me as he was pretending.

      "Wow," I said, looking around, genuinely impressed. "You have certainly done a good job restoring the old place."

      "In spite of what two generations of Germans and a generation of Russians did to it," said Constantine, his smile vanishing. "I know you didn't come here just to admire the architecture. What is your business?"

      I sighed. Emil could be very chatty and cordial when he wanted, but he could also be a real hardass. I was a bit irritated and rather sad he'd chosen the second course with me.

      "May we speak in private?"

      "Not yet."

      I nodded. I even understood. He had very good reasons to distrust the US, and that's who I was representing. In spite of a lifelong abhorrence of politics and politicians. I made a point of looking around the court before turning back to him.

      "Speaking of architecture, I was recently in the hidden lair of the Five Great Powers."

      He started. Then looked very serious. He stood and gestured.

      "Come."

      I got my private audience. Emil listened, asked questions, thought for a while, asked more questions, then frowned.

      "That fits. By God, it not only fits, it answers many worrying questions."

      "President Sievers is not asking for a formal alliance," I said. "That isn't off the table; she is a reconciler, and thinks that putting aside the differences between you and the US - both personal and national - is a good idea. However, if you simply keep an eye out for their machinations and confer with us on the problem, she'll be satisfied."

      "She'll be satisfied," said Emil, darkly. He sighed and shook his head. "I admit, this news has me concerned. I thank you for bringing it to me. However, I will have to think long and hard on this proposed cooperation. My nation is rich in resources, including a strong people. Before, only much larger and more powerful nations dared even attack us, and only the Kaiser was successful in defeating us. Why should we fear this return of failed tyrants?"

      "The Kaiser... who was a instrument of the Aryan."

      He scowled. Emil is very good at scowling. However, it is a learned skill, and something he does very deliberately. I waited.

      "Very well. I agree to have my ambassador in Washington meet with your President."

      "Thank you," I said, bowing.

      "What do you think about all this?" he said, surprising me by a sudden change in mood. Formal business over, he was now a bit more casual. Even a bit friendly.

      "Well, I'm not convinced they've returned," I said, shrugging. "However, someone is manipulating events in a way very similar to theirs. I doubt it's Dr. Gaunt, who is known for neither subtlety nor patience."

      He actually laughed.

      "I have heard about your recent adventures with the Bad Doctor. How is it that someone who is so determined to live a quiet life became involved with such an infamous villain?"

      "His own paranoia," I said, not bothering to keep the anger and grief from showing. "If he had targeted just me, I'd simply avoid him. However, he killed about a third of the people in this world who mean something to me."

      "I see," said Emil, sympathetically. "You know he'll come back from his apparent death in the Rockies. As surely as the Five Great Powers will return."

      "The 'Gaunt' I shot was a character actor who disappeared five years ago," I said, flatly. "He'd played Gaunt in a movie not long before that. I suspect Gaunt kidnapped and brainwashed him in revenge."

      "I see," said Emil, this time obviously startled.

      He frowned.

      "I have something you'd be interested in knowing, then," he said. "You, personally; not your government."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "You know I like showing off, but I hate sneaks," snarled Allessandra, after classes, as the four laundry bandit vigilantes headed for their punishment duty. "That boy Sal is a sneak."

      "Yeah, I've heard several of the girls complain about him spying on them," said Merma. "What are his powers, anyway?"

      "Low-level Mastermind with an extra dose of Persuasion," said Moondance. "Fortunately, Europa and Allessandra are very resistant to any sort of mind control, and I'm pretty much immune."

      "Which is why I picked them," said Allessandra, nodding. "Pantera Blanca was chosen because - like Moondance - she's good in the dark."

      Allessandra smirked.

      "Which I mean in the nicest way possible."

      "Anyway, the teachers say that if we find any more stains we're to turn them over for DNA analysis," said Moondance.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "So tired," said Energia, dragging herself into the main room of their headquarters in a melodramatic fashion.

      "This time I'm not arguing about taking a nap," said Gadgetive, feelingly. "Actually, it's too late for a nap. After we eat, I'm heading straight to bed."

      "What are you complaining about?" said Energia, sourly. "Even though I rode back with you two instead of flying on my own, I'm exhausted. Your snoring kept me awake."

      "I. Do. Not. Snore."

      "You two go get cleaned up and ready for supper," said Blue Impact. "Do you want leftovers or delivery?"

      "The leftovers are that roast beef, right?" said Gadgetive.

      "Among other things."

      "Definitely leftovers, then," said the young gadgeteer, nodding.

      "Yeah," said Energia. "That's some good roast."

      "Cold or heated?"

      "Cold!" the two chorused.

      By the time they came back downstairs Blue Impact had the food, plates and utensils on the table. However, she also had news.

      "I checked the messages while you two were getting ready. Bobby Double called. He says he needs our help."

      "Where is he, now?" said Energia, frowning as she tried to remember.

      "Louisville, Kentucky," said Blue Impact. "He's working at a nightclub there."

      "What could go wrong in Louisville?" said Energia.

      "You mean what could go wrong that needs us," said Gadgetive, with a snicker. "That's one of the smaller cities that seems to mostly have silly little problems."

      "He didn't go into details. Just said there's a local Mask who's supposedly a hero but who is causing trouble. The city is trying to rein him in, but so far hasn't had much luck. Bobby thinks if we give him a good talking to, he might straighten out."

      "When do we go?" said Energia, tiredly, as she sat down and shoveled a thick chunk of roast onto her plate.

      "I'll call him back in the morning," said Blue Impact. "It's after Midnight, there as well as here. He's probably working."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Brade caught up with Gompers on the way to the briefing room.

      "What's the emergency?" she said, unable to completely stifle a yawn.

      "The UN has decided to arrest Emil Constantine Moldarus for crimes against humanity," said Gompers. "They directly asked the Guardians to help in the effort. Called them just before nine, west coast time, last night, after the late night session in New York where they made the decision. The Guardsman refused, flatly."

      "They went around the President to ask? That's not going to go over well."

      "Oh, it gets worse. Our chief ambassador to the UN is enthusiastically supporting the action."

      "Without consulting with Sievers?! That's crazy!"

      "We're still gathering intel on the situation, but it seems he is convinced he not only discussed this with her, but that she told him she was in favor."

      Brade sensed manipulation, here. Not necessarily super manipulation; it could be something as mundane as a voice mimic placing a call.

      "Constantine... and crimes against humanity? Mister 'The Nürnberg trials went too easy on the Nazis.'?"

      "I know, it doesn't make any sense."

      Brade turned to look at him, puzzled.

      "What if... The Five Great Powers found out the administration is asking for his help against them?"

      "Let's be very careful how we present that to the President," said Gompers, looking worried.

      "Yeah; we don't want a panic. Or a witch hunt among the staff. We're already checking security, since we've suspected leaks before. We use this incident to justify stepping up that effort."

      "Agreed," said Gompers, nodding slowly. "One of us needs to bring the likelihood of influence up very early in the meeting, though. To preempt someone else doing so in a way which would cause exactly the reaction you're worried about."

      "I'll do it, first opportunity."

      "Good. Now, let's get to the meeting."




Part Seven






      "Sorry to interrupt your sleep but we have a small - or maybe not so small - crisis," said Sievers.

      She looked tired. Well, they all did. Except for Howers. Brade had a sneaking suspicion he had a power which allowed him to go without sleep. Or maybe just always look rested.

      Sievers made a brief announcement about the reason for the meeting, then turned to Brade.

      "Before we have any discussion of this event, I want you to review the current situation regarding Constantine."

      "It's very good," said Brade. "Well, it was before this. Though I suspect he's intelligent enough to understand this isn't your doing."

      "Seems your boy Hawthorne was a good choice," said Gompers. "Constantine agreed to help against the Five Great Powers as soon as he was asked. Didn't even want anything in return."

      "I bet he already suspected they were back," said Brade, nodding. "He was around, after all, the last time they were active, and was deeply affected by their actions."

      "I have to admit, I was having second thoughts about making official contact with Moldaria before this UN incident," said Sievers, slowly. "This just brings that to a head. I don't know why the UN is taking this action now, but it heightens my own doubts."

      "I think..." said Brade, thoughtfully, frowning. She abruptly nodded, as if coming to a conclusion. "I think this might be more manipulation by the Five Great Powers. The timing is certainly suspicious. Why go after Constantine now - as you mentioned, yourself - when he's been behaving himself for over fifteen years? I say it's because we've opened negotiations with him, and the Five Great Powers are worried about that."

      "What about that assault on the Capital?" said Sievers, not arguing but covering points as she thought things over. "Constantine was there, and it was a lot less than fifteen years ago. I'm not really sure I want to open official connections with him, even though all my advisors - including you - say it's a good idea."

      "Except for the assault on Tiger (who, despite what he claims, was actually hit with a house trailer being used as a mobile office by a construction company) and entering and leaving the US improperly, he didn't do anything illegal," said Brade. "He owed Demento a favor; the assault was simply to get him free. Tiger didn't bother filing charges, and neither did the feds. Constantine is a naturalized US citizen, so the entry and exit stuff would have been pretty minor, compared to what he did in the past. After all this time there aren't any outstanding US warrants remaining for his arrest, and even if there were he now has diplomatic immunity.

      "Please note that I am not trying to paint him as a saint," said Brade, leaning forward a bit. "Just pointing out that his offenses have usually - especially the past few years - been blown out of proportion."

      "Besides," said Gompers, firmly, "he did help defeat both the Nazis and the Soviets. Roosevelt was even talking about a pardon, shortly before he died, but Truman vetoed that idea. If Constantine had been pardoned, things might have been different with him in the following decades."

      There was a long, thoughtful silence.

      "You have to make a statement," said Paula Grossman, President Sievers' press secretary, firmly, after a few moments.

      "Oh, I'm going to," said Sievers, angrily, her mind made up. "To the effect that the disagreements the United States has with Constantine are already being handled through application of the rule of law and the mechanisms of international treaty."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "So, who do we send him after next?" said Brade, when she met with Gompers and her own staff the next day. "He succeeded with Constantine in far less time than we allotted."

      "Someone similar, though not as old, as well-preserved or as noble," said Gompers. "Someone who also has good reason to hate the Five Great Powers. Because they aided Franco against his father's side."

      "The Andalusian," said Brade, nodding. "He's going to think we're punishing him. Hawthorne, I mean. I don't think anyone has even seen the Andalusian in nearly twenty years."

      "We have a good clue to his whereabouts," said Gompers. "Given Hawthorne's abilities, and those of the staff you assigned him, he should be able to track down our target."

      "Let's just hope the Andalusian is willing to listen," said Brade, with a tired sigh. "He's been more than a bit paranoid since that hit squad went after him in 1992."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I want to go the the Grand Buidlycrunken, in Frankfurt!" said Gadgetive, after Blue Impact told them what she'd learned from Bobby Double that morning. "Not Louisville!"

      "A graduate of our school - your school - has asked for help," said Blue Impact, sternly. "Bobby Double says there's big trouble right there in Louisville, but the local authorities don't want to admit it."

      "Why doesn't he just handle it himself, then?" said the gadgeteer, almost pouting.

      "What's he going to do?" said Energia, pointedly. "Imitate the villain into surrendering? He's in show business!"

      "So we're going to fucking Kentucky," said Gadgetive, sourly.

      She was rather startled when Blue Impact wheeled on her.

      "All right, that's enough! When you put that mask on you made a commitment to help people. If you've changed your mind you can take it off and go home!"

      "Whoa, take it easy, teach," said Gadgetive, hands up and backing away a bit. "What brought that on? It was just a bit of good-natured grousing."

      "No, it wasn't." Blue Impact stopped, took a deep breath, and gave vent to a gusty sigh. "Listen, we're just coming out of a bad time. It wouldn't take much to tip us back into that, or something worse. Maybe even someone overhearing a 'little girl' swearing. We have to get in the habit of being very careful about what we say and how we say it. Like Caesar's Wife, we must avoid even the appearance of impropriety. So watch your language and your words."

      "Who doesn't make fun of Kentucky?" said Energia, trying to lighten the mood.

      "Us, that's who. Starting right now."

      She sighed again, and put a hand to the shoulder of each girl.

      "You're both old enough and experienced enough now to be full members of this little team we've created. Moreover, the public and the government - all governments - are starting to see you as full members. Early on, you were young enough to get away with a lot, especially once I - and some others - made that point. Not any more. You're adults. Act like adults."

      "Yes, ma'am," said Energia, startled but taking her teacher seriously.

      "All right," said Gadgetive, though with a bit of a scowl.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The large flyer Gadgetive had built for the team settled onto the parking lot behind City Hall.

      "There's the welcoming committee," said Gadgetive, pointing through the transparent cermet canopy.

      "Let's not keep them waiting," said Blue Impact.

      She reached for the canopy, but it began opening on its own. 

      "Right," she said, a bit embarrassed. "This model has actuators."

      "All the latest features," said Gadgetive, grinning as she unbuckled. She looked in the back. "Hey! Sleepyhead! We're here!"

      "Muh," said Energia, rolling over and opening her eyes. "Where?"

      "Louisville."

      "Bleah."

      They climbed out and were met by a smiling man with extended hand.

      "Michael Horton, District Attorney," he said, cheerfully, as he shook hands with the slightly confused Blue Impact. "If you'll come this way, we've prepared a full briefing for you."

      The briefing "we" had prepared was presented by the Chief of Police and some of his people. Meanwhile, Horton sat in the back, looking politely bored.

      "We don't know who he is," said the Chief, a man named Bailey. "He showed up at a high speed chase about eight months ago and dragged the suspect's car to a halt. He acted like a bit of a hot dog, but he'd done us a favor so we were willing to let him slide."

      The wall-mounted plasma screen showed several images of a man in a costume which seemed to be based on a commercial party costume, but with extensive modification. It looked like something Elvis might have worn, if he'd lost all sense of fashion.

      "Gloves and mask," said the Chief, pointing. "No clear idea of his features, no finger prints. We have what we think is his DNA, but it doesn't match anything in CODIS."

      "What's his name?" said Blue Impact.

      "I just said we don't know."

      "No, I mean his Mask name."

      "Oh! Well, he calls himself - heh - Silver Shadow."

      "Okay, so he's an idiot," said Gadgetive, smirking.

      "Anyway, he showed up at several emergencies since then. Most of the time he wasn't much help, though sometimes he actually did a lot of good. A few times he messed up and made things worse. We figured he was new in the business and would learn. Only, his attitude quickly turned really smug and self-important. Because of this he's gotten worse. He has also started shaking down small businesses, getting them to provide him with snacks, drinks and in one case two disposable cell phones. No-one has complained about this so far, but we can tell some proprietors are getting irritated. We finally told him, to his face - and I mean I confronted him after he brought in some very battered young men he claimed were drug dealers - to stop trying to help us until he got some training."

      "I take it that didn't go over well," said Blue Impact, dryly.

      "He threw a tantrum," said the Chief, flatly. "I was frankly in fear for my life. Fortunately, after yelling and swearing for several minutes he stormed out. Wrecking two doors on the way."

      "We have a warrant out for his arrest," said Horton, confidently, from the back of the room.

      "Yes, but he's gone into hiding. Before the confrontation he'd make public appearances in costume, flying over the city, sometimes landing to walk around and talk to people, really hamming it up. Now, he only comes out when he hears about an emergency. He's become even more reckless. Like he's doing badly deliberately to spite us."

      "Do you have a psych profile on him?" said Blue Impact.

      The Chief nodded to one of the women who had organized the presentation. She rose and handed the trio manilla folders.

      "That's copies of everything we know about him," she said.

      "Is it just me or does this guy have a bit of a spare tire?" said Gadgetive, pointing to a photo. "He looks like a lapsed Aryan."

      "He's definitely let himself go," said Blue Impact. She leafed through the meager amount of material quickly. "Okay, we'll take this back to our base and study it. Here's our contact info. You give us a call if he shows again. Keep in mind that right now we're only planning to talk with him, since we don't have arrest powers here."

      "We'd rather you wait here," said Horton, standing quickly.

      "We have other responsibilities to attend to," said Blue Impact. "Don't worry; with our new flyer we can get here in under an hour."

      "He never hangs around that long!" said Horton, angrily. "You have to stay here and wait for him!"

      "We're helping cover most of the eastern quarter of the US," said Energia, hotly. "We're dealing with robberies, kidnappings, hostage situations, fires, floods and worse. You've got an incompetent Mask with an attitude problem. Sorry."

      "I'm afraid your problem has a pretty low priority," said Blue Impact, more diplomatically. "Don't worry; we're not going to leave you hanging. We'll let some of the other supers in the region know about this situation and if they think they can help they'll call you. So it won't be just us."

      "Well, thank you for coming," said Horton, sarcastically.

      He spun around and stalked out of the briefing room. The others present looked uncomfortable.

      "We'll let you know the next time he shows," said the Chief, a bit subdued. "Actually, if you can get here in an hour you'll have a good chance of catching him. We can spot him from both police helicopters and local TV news helicopters, plus our patrolmen sometimes see him."

      "So you've got an early warning system," said Blue Impact, nodding. "Okay, then. If there's nothing else, we've got to get back."




Part Eight






      "Yeah, baby!" said Gadgetive, as she hovered unsteadily in the main room of the team's hideout. "See?"

      She looked over to see a rather smug Energia hovering at her height, as steady as a rock. Gadgetive scowled at her partner.

      "Yeah, I bet when you started..."

      Gadgetive let out a yelp as her moment of inattention caused her to drop and swerve towards a wall. She recovered, with some fulminous swearing in at least three languages.

      "Why don't you put some sort of autopilot on that thing?" said Blue Impact, looking up at the pair.

      "I shouldn't need to! I'm a pilot, and this rig is inherently stable!"

      "That doesn't look stable to me," said Energia, doubtfully. "I mean, they showed us movies of the Hiller flying platform in tech class, and it was a lot steadier."

      "Well, yeah!! It had the gyroscopic effect from two huge, contra-rotating fans to steady it! Fans, by the way, below the pilot!"

      Again, she swerved and dropped, this time clipping the back of the main couch with a foot. This threw her further off-balance. Blue Impact leapt up and caught her, the older super's weight bringing them safely to the floor.

      "Turn that thing off."

      "No, I got it," said Gadgetive, trying to push free.

      "Off. Now."

      Gadgetive sighed and turned off her flight unit.

      "I just don't understand," she said, irritated.

      "Until you get the bugs worked out - and I mean work with Junker or some of the school's other gadgeteers to make sure you have the bugs out - you do not fly indoors."

      "What about her?" said Gadgetive, pointing to Energia.

      Who was still hovering, but was now in lotus position, and upside-down.

      "She doesn't run into the furniture."

      Blue Impact thought for a moment.

      "In fact, don't fly at all. I suspect there's some fundamental flaw, which you aren't seeing because you're too close to the situation."

      "Yes, ma'am," said Gadgetive, with a sigh. "Oh, well; my non-flying pack can hold more, anyway."

      She headed for the stairs, slipping the rig off as she went.

      "Frankly, I think it's just lack of training," said Energia, rotating upright and floating down beside her teacher to speak in a low voice. "I mean, sure, she can fly a vehicle, but I can tell you from personal..."

      The com center alarm sounded, cutting her off. Blue Impact hurried over, with Energia gliding after her, legs now extended and feet just above the floor.

      "What's up?" said Gadgetive, when she came back downstairs a few minutes later.

      "Silver Shadow was seen flying towards a hardware center, presumably responding to a hostage situation," said Blue Impact, turning away from the com center. "They do not want him intervening. So, scramble."

       They took the small flitter to the beach-side shed, where they boarded the large flitter.

      "I'm really glad your design includes stealth features," said Blue Impact, as she and Gadgetive completed the pre-flight and entered to join the already-napping Energia.

      "RAM coating on the hull," said Gadgetive, ticking off features as they woke Energia and made her sit up and strap in. "Dipole conductive whiskers in the canopy. No intakes or nozzles on the outside. Very low thermal signature. Neutral blue-gray coloring so it blends with a typical sky."

      "I know all that," said Blue Impact, as she took the controls.

      The doors opened, let them out, then closed behind them.

      Their low altitude speed was subsonic, given the unstreamlined egg shape. However, their propulsion wasn't airbreathing, and they didn't use airfoils for lift. Since drag was directly proportional to air density and since the pod could be hermetically sealed and had its own air supply, their method for getting somewhere distant in a hurry was to climb vertically to above thirty thousand meters then accelerate. This also minimized their chances of being seen.

      "I love antigravity!" said Blue Impact, as the sky above turned black.

      "There's no such things as antigravity," said Gadgetive, absently, as she monitored her instruments.

      "Then how are we flying?" said Blue Impact, startled.

      "Graviton manipulation. Usually referred to as apergy. Same way Energia flies."

      "Which is antigravity."

      "No, no, no," said Energia, tiredly. "Go read some Arthur C. Clarke. Antigravity would require vast amounts of energy. Apergy only requires as much as any other method of direct-thrust flight, only less because it's more efficient."

      "I still say it's antigravity," said Blue Impact, a bit testily.

      "The person who built what you're flying in and a person who flies the same way both say it's not," said Gadgetive, smirking. "We have three Kenniman Kinematics Catalytic Fusion units in the engine bay, each direct-wired to an apergy unit. Trust me; those wouldn't be nearly enough to create antigravity, even if it were possible. Some folks even derisively refer to the concept as ytivarg."

      "See if you can get Chief Bailey on the com."

      "Yes, ma'am."

      She did in just moments. The news, it turned out, was good.

      "Hostage crisis resolved. Emergency personnel already clearing out. Silver Shadow still on the way."

      "Great. Can you hold off letting the employees back in until after we talk to him?"

      "Sure. It's nearly quitting time, here, anyway."

      "What's the status on Silver Shadow's arrival?"

      "About twenty minutes. He apparently got lost."

      "We should be there in about fifteen. Please call back if there's any change."

      "Will do."

      "We can cut a bit of time off that," said Gadgetive. "We've wrung this thing out enough on previous flights that I can push it harder, now."

      "What did you have in mind?"

      "Stop directly overhead, as usual," said the gadgeteer. "However, instead of simply dropping - even free fall - we invert and thrust down. Once heavier air at about three thousand meters starts slowing us, we roll back over. Cut about five minutes."

      "Sounds like a plan. You better handle the maneuvers, though."

      As Gadgetive took the controls, Blue Impact looked back over her shoulder at Energia. Who seemed to be sound asleep.

      "Is it just me or is she tireder than usual, lately?"

      "She's tireder than usual, lately," said Gadgetive, smirking. "You know she's got a birthday coming up, and that she's been spending a lot of time with her parents. She's also been seeing Maldren. Nothing which you would call a date. Just showing him around, taking long walks in the woods."

      "I thought they'd both been told not to date each other," said Blue Impact, the flyer now slowing as they neared their destination.

      "They've both been told that they can't marry. He's royalty, she's... not. That doesn't mean things can't get hot 'n' heavy between them. Okay, hold on; rolling her over, now."

      Moments later, the Earth below filled the canopy. Acceleration pushed them into their seats in an imitation of gravity.

      "How is it you can do that so smoothly you didn't even ruffle Sleeping Beauty back there, but can't fly with your backpack?"

      "Instruments."

      "Well, build a helmet with instruments in it, then."

      The gadgeteer started, and froze, obviously caught up in a combination of revelation and frantic thinking of how to fulfill it.

      "Later!" Blue Impact snapped, as they began to pull negative gees from atmospheric resistance. "Fly this thing!"

      "Oh, right," muttered Gadgetive, rolling them upright.

      "Hey!" said Blue Impact, over her shoulder. "Energia! Wake up!"

      "We almost there?" she said, yawning, and stretching as much as the racing style seat would allow. "Wow. I was really out."

      "Yeah," said Gadgetive, smirking. "We're landing just a few minutes ahead of our target."

      They landed in the parking lot beside the fenced-in area of the store where larger items were kept.

      "No sign of our guy," said Energia, as they got out. "No sign of anybody!"

      "I asked the Chief to keep folks away until we could talk to him."

      They spread out a bit and started watching for Silver Shadow. Gadgetive had binoculars of her own design, Blue Impact had her keener-than-human eyes, and Energia had her energy-force senses.

      "Do you think he might get violent?" said Energia, a bit worried.

      "He's thrown tantrums before, rather than hurting anyone. Even then, though, he caused property damage on at least one occasion. So, yes. Don't plan on it, but be aware it could happen."

      "Wish we had a tie-in to the Super Monitoring System," said Gadgetive, starting to get nervous as they scanned the sky.

      "Dr. Device is too busy with some big project to make any new units right now," said Blue Impact, absently.

      "Yeah, and nobody wants to try and open one of them to reverse-engineer it," said Gadgetive, nodding. "Even if they were good enough to do that, they don't want to get on his bad side."

      "There!" said Blue Impact, pointing. "I see him! Low to the west."

      "Yeah, I do, too, now," said Gadgetive.

      "I'm getting graviton flux," said Energia, nodding. "Standard flying power."

      At first he flew straight for the front entrance of the store. Abruptly, though, he pulled up, hesitated a bit, then curved around the trio and their vehicle, to head for the fenced-in area.

      "What's he doing?" said Gadgetive.

      They found out a moment later when he flew back up, a bag of cement in each hand.

      "Scatter!" Blue Impact yelled.

      He hurled a bag at the flyer, though not very accurately. Instead of hitting squarely it glanced off the bottom curve and burst open on the pavement. The flyer was still rocked.

      The second bag knocked it onto its side.

      Blue Impact rolled to her feet well outside the dusty cloud and looked around. Gadgetive was crouched behind a rental delivery truck, working on something. Energia seemed to have vanished.

      Seeing only her, Silver Shadow dropped to the ground in front of Blue Impact. She stepped back into a fighting stance, watching and waiting.

"What's the meaning of this?" she demanded.

      "Did you really think I wouldn't see you, standing there out in the open," he said, sneering. "You must be really stupid."

      "The Mayor and Chief..."

      He lunged forward, grabbing for her. Blue Impact spun neatly out of the way. 

      "What is that, Tie Won On?" said Silver Shadow, laughing derisively. "Do you seriously think some fancy karate mov..."

      She caught him with a solid kick to the throat. Backed with her strength and her mass it was enough to stagger him. Blue Impact tried to follow up but her opponent was already lifting into the air as he flew backwards in reflex.

      Suddenly a flat, white band spiraled up out of the nearby storage yard in an arc to descend around Silver Shadow, tightening as he tried to pull away from this new threat. Energia floated just above the ground halfway between the errant super and the source of the ribbon, her plasma wall glowing and her hands outstretched left and right, as she guided a strip of sheet aluminum used to form gutters, up and over and down and around the man. With one hand she mimed pulling the strip up into the air, peeling it off the roll lying flat on a wooden pallet. With the other she mimed guiding it at Silver Shadow.

      The rogue super yelled profanely, struggled for a moment, then suddenly burst free. Energia yelped and winced at the feedback.

      Before he could do anything else, a manhole cover caught him right across the eyes. Silver Shadow dropped almost to the ground, recovered, and flew away.

      "No!" Blue Impact shouted, as Energia started after him. "We stick together!"

      "Done!" said Gadgetive, finishing whatever arcane device she was working on. "Hey... where'd he go?"

      "I've lost sight of him," said Energia, lowering herself to join the others.

      "Slippery character," said Blue Impact, in an angry mutter.

      


Part Nine






      The debriefing, back at police headquarters, was not a happy event. The DA was especially angry over the "miserable performance" of the trio. However, the complaints by Horton were largely ignored by Blue Impact and the others present; a point raised very early caused his ire to take a back seat.

      "Do you have any idea how strong he'd have to be to burst out of that?!" said Gadgetive. "The tensile strength of even one strip of that thin aluminum sheet is..."

      "We know he's strong," said Blue Impact, waving her to silence.

      "I don't think you get how strong," said Gadgetive, refusing to be silent.

      "He was clumsy and awkward and never flew much above rooftop height," said Energia, supporting her friend even if she didn't know exactly what Gadgetive's point was, "but he was so strong, tough and fast we were left playing catchup."

      "Maybe we could find out more about him if we could figure out his line," said Gadgetive, thoughtfully.

      "Line?" said the Chief.

      "A surprising number of the people in the US, Canada and Mexico who have that power set are descended from one man," said Blue Impact. "Charles Boradino, a circus strongman in the late Nineteenth and very early Twentieth Centuries. He may be related to the Maciste line."

      "Just like most folks in North America with cold powers are descended from Arnót Beifneiter," said Energia, nodding, "and most people with aquatic powers are descended from Nineteenth Century swimming champion Jupiter Perkins."

      "So exactly how does this help us?" said the Horton, sarcastically.

      "There's a sort of super genealogy," said Blue Impact, deliberately avoiding details. "We'll check it to see if any of the known lines have offshoots here. That won't likely give us name and address, but it should provide some clues."

      "At least the flyer wasn't damaged," said Energia, with a sigh.

      "You're welcome," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.

      "Can we stop on the way home, then, and get some chicken?" said Energia. "I'm hungry."

      "Sure," said Blue Impact, grinning.

      "All dark bucket!" said Gadgetive, with sudden enthusiasm. "Extra-crispy!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We got a hit from the genealogy," said Blue Impact, the next day. "You'll never guess from whom."

      "Just tell us," said Gadgetive, tiredly.

      "Slippery Elmer. You know that he keeps a major part of the genealogy in his head, as a hobby to occupy the time. He says he can tell us not just what line this guy is from, but who he is! The catch is, we have to go there and talk to him privately. He won't let that info out on any sort of public media."

      "Cool!" said Gadgetive.

      "What's cool about going to see an old crook in prison?" said Energia.

      "Yeah, but what a prison! The Slippery Elmer Holding Facility is the high tech prison!"

      "Well, if the quiet holds, we can go see him this afternoon."

      "Now watch us get called in for the Tennessee floods," said Gadgetive, sourly.

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      [To get an idea of what Slippery Elmer Hotchkins is like, think of Hume Cronyn as Louis Avery Filer from the "Over Fifty? Steal!" episode of Hawaii Five-O.]

      "So," said Energia, as they walked down the reinforced concrete corridor, "just how formidable is this guy?"

      "He's not dangerous," said their escort, the assistant warden, a woman named Hinkley. "Except to your equanimity."

      "Never committed a violent crime," said Blue Impact. "He's stolen millions in cash, bonds and gems, rare collectibles - including the Hope Diamond and the Mona Lisa - and even framed name supervillains for his crimes."

      "Sounds like someone too clever for his own good," said Energia.

      "He's a mastermind, a gadgeteer and trickster, all in one package," said Gadgetive, distractedly, as she looked all around them. "Wow. I'm not seeing anything."

      They'd taken her backpack and utility belt, and told her very sternly she wasn't to even think about how security here worked. Which of course made her do exactly that... though, naturally, being a gadgeteer, she was going to do that, anyway.

      The trio had been asked to strip completely, except for their masks and gloves, and don special disposable jumpsuits of nonwoven fabric. This was all overseen by five matrons, and had been in addition to full body scans.

      "You won't," said Hinkley. "The security tunnels are only accessible from a different entrance. There's no physical communication between the actual prison and the security equipment."

      "Awww..." said Gadgetive, actually pouting a bit.

      "All this for one man," said Energia.

      "Actually, we currently have fifty-seven prisoners here," said Hinkley. "All but Elmer are under neutralizers. That bastard Conyers may have gotten him sent here, but even he couldn't get the courts to subject that nice old man to being continuously under a neutralizer."

      The corridor ended in a transparent vertical tube with a slot. One at a time, they stepped into the tube, which rotated to give passage into the room beyond. This was a small, lounge-like area. The furniture was all bare wooden chairs.

      "Take a seat. He'll be let in through the other door in a bit. I'll be right outside. If there's any trouble, just yell. I won't be able to hear normal conversation, but loud sounds carry through the ducts."

      "You're not going to be in here with us?" said Blue Impact, surprised.

      "One of his conditions. He knows there's no monitoring devices in this room. Elmer told us he will only give you three the information, that it's for supers only."

      "I think he just wants to talk to someone new," said Blue Impact.

      "Probably," said Hinkley, smiling. "See you in a bit."

      She exited through the same slot, which stayed closed behind her. Moments later, an identical tube in the far wall rotatedopen. Out stepped Slippery Elmer.

      At first glance he was a typical older man, slightly below average height, with a bit of a bemused air about him. A second, more thorough evaluation showed something keen and vital behind those grey eyes, and a body in fine condition.

      "Good afternoon, ladies," he said, bowing slightly.

      "Mister Hotchkins," said Blue Impact.

      "Please. Call me Elmer. Now, what can I do for you?"

      "Silver Shadow."

      "Stupid name, isn't it?" he said, as he sat. "The boy doesn't have much sense, as I'm certain you've noticed."

      "We'd like to help him, actually," said Blue Impact. "However, first we have to make sure he doesn't hurt anyone else."

      "Understood."

      "So tell us about him."

      He sighed, and for a moment looked older. Energia wondered how much of that was an act.

      "Well, you see," said Elmer, obviously embarrassed, "the guy you're after is my grandson, Robert Sawyer."

      "Your..."

      "His mother is my daughter, Demolition Damsel."

      "Shit," said Blue Impact, very deliberately. "No wonder he's so powerful."

      "His father is Sonic Scream."

      "Wait... the son of the forties villain Zippo?!"

      "Yeah. That's why he's so fast."

      "All right," said Blue Impact. "How do we stop him?"

      "Sheer brute force," said the older man. "Just try not to hurt him too badly."

      "That's not what I mean. He escaped us before, and has been laying low since. Where is he?"

      "I don't know. He used to live across the river, in Clarksville, but starting about three years ago letters sent there came back Return to Sender. I suspect he moved and just forgot to send me his new address. You'll have to make him come to you."

      "So how do we draw him out?"

      "I hate to say it, but Bobby has a huge ego," said Elmer, sadly. He thought for a moment, lips pursed. "Stage a press conference. Leak it ahead of time that you're going to be bad-mouthing him. He'll show up."

      "How do we keep him from endangering the members of the Press?" said Energia.

      "Ambush him outside." He laughed. "Besides, I don't think anyone in this room would mind putting a good scare into some reporters."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I kept telling you he's a lot stronger than people think he is!" said Gadgetive, as they approached their flyer.

      They were back in full costume and free to go, Elmer having given them as much additional information about his grandson's abilities as he had. Despite Blue Impact being determined to keep things on a professional level, they wound up talking for over half an hour. She needed an effort of will to end the meeting.

      "After all this, I believe you," said Blue Impact, seriously.

      "Why are you so worried about how strong he is?" said Energia, who knew her teacher well enough to notice her emotional state.

      "I'm starting to figure something out," said Blue Impact, frowning. "He's never been formally rated, but from things Silver Shadow's done he would probably be classed as an eighty. However, if he's done eighty-type things without working himself hard enough to develop good musculature..."

      "Yeah," said Energia, nodding. "We need to get back to Louisville. Right now."

      "I don't understand," said the Chief, after Blue Impact told him of her concerns.

      "Super strength doesn't usually come from muscles, but from powers," said Blue Impact. "I'm one of the few exceptions, since my powers altered my physiology. Generally, though, even super strength through powers can be trained up; you just have to work hard. Which, naturally, develops your muscles as well. If this guy can do Class Eighty stuff without working hard enough to stimulate muscle development, he could easily be Class Ninety. Maybe pushing Class One Hundred."

      "I don't like this plan to draw him out," said Horton. "Too much chance of someone getting hurt."

      "He's been keeping out of sight, though," the Chief pointed out.

      "That's fine with me. We issued the warrant because we wanted him to stop. If he's stopped, that's our goal accomplished, right there."

      "I doubt it will be that easy," said Blue Impact. "However, it's your city. Give us a call if you need us."




Part Ten






      "The good news is: we got reliable DNA results from the samples those girls gave us," said Lori. "The bad news is: it's from half a dozen different guys, some of whom could not have been the donors due to solid alibis."

      "Great," said Template, sourly. "Some joker is on to us and playing us."

      "Interestingly, some of the underwear showed definite signs of being worn by a woman," Lori continued. "That is, someone besides the owner. These were all freshly-laundered items which had sweat and other bodily fluids on them - including semen. However, except for the semen, there was no DNA."

      "Gadgeteer effect?" said Junker, frowning in concentration as he tried to figure out how to accomplish the same thing.

      "Perhaps a spell?" said Ettienne.

      "We're still investigating," said Lori. "What's really frustrating is that whoever did this somehow bypassed all the new security devices."

      "Again, that could be either a gadgeteer or a magic user," said Template, scowling. "I hate to resort to keeping someone on duty in the laundry all night, but..."

      "It may come to that," said Lori, nodding.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Ray returned with their drinks to the location at the concert where he had left his date to find her having a problem. However, given that his date was Doro, the guy causing her problem was having a much bigger one.

      She had him in an arm bar, his right elbow locked straight and even a bit past.

      "Let go of me, bitch!" the man yelled, loud enough to be heard over the raucous music.

      "After you apologize and promise to stop groping women without permission."

      "Fuck you!"

      "Not without permission, you won't. Right not, that's not looking likely."

      Ray checked around quickly, worried that the guy's defiance was due to having backup nearby. However, few people even appeared to be paying attention to the scene, with none looking like they were coming to the rescue. He moved closer, let Doro see him, and continued to keep watch.

      "Let me go, bitch! I'm gonna mess you up so bad no man will want you!"

      "Say 'please,'" said Doro.

      "I'll fuckin' kill you, bitch!"

      She tightened the arm bar and he gasped.

      "All you have to do is say 'please' and I'll let you go."

      "Killlll youuuuu...!!!"

      "Oh, well," said Doro, with a shrug. The guy screamed. "Oops..."

      "That was nasty," said Ray, grinning, as they left the rave. They'd only been there a few minutes, but staying seemed like a very bad idea. "Nasty, but incredibly cool."

      "Seriously, all he had to do was ask," said Doro, sighing, as she drained her drink, then tossed the cup into a trash can. "Even without the 'please.'"

      "He was drunk. Also, a chauvinist. He'll probably spend the rest of his life making excuses about why he didn't put you in your place. Including to himself."

      "So, call it a bust and go home?" said Doro. "Try to find another party? Or patrol?"

      "After seeing what you did to that guy, I'm feeling a need to assert my masculinity."

      Ray finished his own drink and tossed the cup.

      "Does that mean home or patrol?" said Doro, smirking.

      "Patrol now. Home later."

      They were in civvies but did bother taking some precautions. For example, they hadn't given their legal names, and were currently walking away from the natural bowl in the park and into a small stand of trees nearby, before taking to the air.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What is up with this weather?" said Gadgetive, tiredly, as the trio moved from the large flyer to the small one. "So much rain in some places, and droughts practically next door!"

      Just as Blue Impact closed the hatch, the com chimed.

      "You three need to get here, fast," said Chief Bailey. "That nut Silver Shadow is standing on the roof of City Hall. He's issued an ultimatum: All the 'corrupt officials' are to leave immediately, that he's going to clean up the city."

      He shook his head, looking disgusted.

      "He seems to think the Mayor works here, but that's the Louisville Metro Hall. Idiot."

      "God..." said Gadgetive, closing her eyes and sliding down in her seat.

      "We'll be there as soon as we can," said Blue Impact.

      She opened the canopy and climbed out.

      "Do we have to?" said Gadgetive.

      "When you put on a mask, you make a commitment," said Blue Impact, sternly. "To either break the law or uphold it, one or the other. You can't do both. You can't do neither."

      "What about secret identities, and all that other stuff where you deceive people, and the government?" said Gadgetive, not moving. "That's lying, and lying to the government is a crime. So breaking the law is inherent to putting on a mask, even if you use it to help people."

      Normally, Blue Impact would have told her to get out and either get in the larger flyer or go home. She'd noticed lately, though, that the young super seemed to be having a crisis in motivation. Neither her plaint nor the response to it directly addressed the real problem Gadgetive was having, but Blue Impact figured that right now, an indirect approach was better than charging head on.

      "We do have a right to privacy. If we do it right, we don't lie to the government, we just don't tell them everything. The government has no right to know who we legally are - as one example - until a court of law determines that it needs to. Please note that I'm glossing over things like paying taxes, since we do those in our civilian IDs. Neither does a government have any authority to order citizens to identify themselves except in specific circumstances, such as being detained or arrested. This is why mask-friendly states have special driver's licenses for masks. Even without those, recognized masks are only required to give their mask names. This has been confirmed by multiple court decisions, most of them having nothing to do with supers, but governments keep ignoring them."

      Like many gadgeteers, Gadgetive had a very rules-oriented mind. Even when she flouted the rules, she did so in a deliberate fashion, with knowledge of them. Blue Impact wasn't certain of the exact psychological mechanism, but supporting an argument with a point of law only remotely connected seemed to carry weight with her.

      "Okay, okay," Gadgetive muttered, climbing out. "Once more into the breach, and all that."

      "Louisville, here we come," said Energia, wistfully, as she flew along behind the other two.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      They'd been notified indirectly, through the Assembly, that Brade wanted to talk to them. Doro and Ray had no idea why, but were a bit concerned. What could the nation's top super want with a pair of inactives like them?

      They landed outside the main entrance of the Assembly's base, where Paul was waiting for them.

      "This way," he told them, with a gesture. "She's reserved one of the small meeting rooms. Before you ask, I don't know what this is about."

      "Wow," said Ray, impressed in spite of his concerns. "Place looks great."

      "That's right," said Paul, nodding and smiling. "Last time you were here we hadn't even started the remodeling of the non-priority stuff. This is all cosmetic - new walls, new paint, new light fixtures - but it has been a surprising boost to mood for those who spend a lot of time here."

      Brade was seated in a chair at the table when they walked in. She made the room and everything in it look a bit off scale. She stood and greeted them in a neutral fashion, then dismissed Paul.

      Once they were all seated, she got straight to business.

      "What's this about you starting a bar fight?" said Brade, looking at Doro.

      "News to me," said Doro. "I've never started a bar fight. I'm not sure I've even been in one."

      "Last Thursday, on the east side of town."

      "That wasn't a bar fight," said Ray, quickly, "and she didn't start it. It was a rave, and she was being sexually harassed."

      "The injured guy said she did. To the police. They're looking for you."

      "Again, this is news to me," said Doro, hotly. "That jerk. Yeah, I was in a fight. I was defending myself against him groping me, then grabbing my hair and trying to force a kiss on me. I put him in a joint lock and he struggled so hard he broke his own arm. Well, with bit of me being careless helping. It's hard to tell, with my strength, how hard is hard enough. Anyway, he started with sexual assault, and I finished with self defense."

      Brade looked back and forth between them, then nodded.

      "All right. I just wanted to hear it from you. Given that guy's record the police aren't actually pursuing this."

      "That's a relief," said Doro. "I can't believe he's blaming me for this!"

      "He was so drunk, he may actually believe what he's saying," said Ray, smirking. He glanced at Brade. "How did you connect us - by mask name - with that incident?"

      "Someone was taping the rave for a direct to video DVD program," said Brade. "Don't worry; there's not enough detail to actually identify you. However, they got both the tail end of the fight and then you two flying away. Given that I know you two are in the area, making the connection was easy."

"You didn't come all this way just to check on us," said Ray. "What's up?"

      "Either of you looking for a job?" said Brade.

      "Wait... I heard the President is pushing you for super top cop," said Ray. "Is this in connection to that?"

      "As it currently stands, the bill which will create and empower the Bureau of Special Resources makes it a two-lobed entity. One side handles legal issues with supers - both against supers and supers against others - and the other lobe deals with all other super-related matters. That includes medical problems. I'd be in the law enforcement side. With the head of the other lobe, we'd report together directly to the President."

      Ray whistled. Doro also looked impressed.

      "So... what do you want us for?"

      "You're both experienced enough to have a good idea of how supers operate, both the criminal ones and the good guys. You're both very presentable, so you'd help give us a good public face. Neither of you is committed to a team. You're young enough to be both flexible and still looking for what you want to do with your lives."

      "I'm not really interested in fighting crime any more," said Doro, uncomfortably.

      "There's plenty more to do. Help with emergencies, for example. I've been hearing from several of the supers and teams who aren't helping with the disasters in Pakistan and other places outside the US that they're overworked. Several veteran supers - including the Guardsman - have agreed to help create a division within my lobe of the Bureau which would coordinate super response. These are people who already do just that; this would give them both their influence in the Mask community and federal authority to back their work."

      "Wow," said Ray, now even more impressed. "Okay, I'm in. I like helping people, whether it's stopping crimes or working on rescue operations."

      "Yeah," said Doro, a bit less enthusiastically, but still enthusiastically. "That really sounds interesting."




Part Eleven






      For an idea of the setting for the battle, see:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Louisville_City_Hall_3.jpg

      I picked City Hall instead of the Louisville Metro Hall because the former is much more scenic. :-)



      Despite screaming along through near vacuum at insane speed, the flight was very sedate. So sedate that Blue Impact realized both the younger masks were in danger of falling asleep. She knew they were heading into a dangerous situation, so for the last part of the trip she had Gadgetive searching for more info on the incident at Louisville City Hall, and also tried to keep a conversation going.

      "The Sailor is a perfect example of someone who heals well and is long lived, but doesn't have regeneration," said Blue Impact. "One eye missing, no teeth, covered in wrinkles and scars, limps..."

      "I still wouldn't want to go against him," said Energia, shuddering. "One of a few more than a dozen Class 100+ supers in all of history. The guy catches cannon shells and throws them back. Do you remember what he did to the Yamato?! The US Navy wanted the credit to go to their planes, but the pictures of the wreck lying on the sea bottom clearly show the giant hole in the bow he claimed."

      "He's still out there, storming along, more than two and a half centuries old."

      "Got a live feed from city hall in Louisville," said Gadgetive.

      The small screen in the center of the control console came on. There was Silver Shadow, posing on the roof of the building's corner clock tower. He was at the edge, one foot dramatically on the bottom of the decorative wrought iron railing around the top.

      "Okay," said Blue Impact, not certain how to parse that scene. "Can you get me an areal view of the building, and what's around it?"

      "Sure," said Gadgetive.

      In moments she had what Blue Impact desired, from the viewpoint of a TV new chopper.

      "Hmmmm," said the older super, thinking hard. "Okay, here's an idea..."

      Within minutes they had brainstormed a plan. Blue Impact then contacted Chief Bailey again and explained what they intended.

      "Sounds like it will work. We've mostly evacuated the building and are keeping people back. I'll have the security people keep trickling out with the last few stragglers, so he won't move on to phase two - whatever it is - before you get here."

      "Good," said Blue Impact, nodding even though their connection was voice only. "We'll be there in... eight minutes."

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I think we're dealing with a succubus," said the Fortean.

      "That's bad," said Template, startled.

      "Worse than you think. The succubus is one side of a dual being. The female form - the succubus - mates with males to gather their semen, then the male form - the incubus - mates with women to impregnate them with the men's seed."

      "I am not aware of any unexpected pregnancies among the island's women," said Eve, sounding relieved.

      "Which might be explained by the masturbation," said Lori, looking thoughtful. "Is that, though, the result of simple lack of opportunity... or is this a monster with at least a bit of a conscience?"

      "They are supposed to have at least a rudimentary intelligence," said Eve. "Oddly, I don't think I've ever encountered one. For some reason, most monsters tend to avoid me."

      "We do have very good security around the girls' dorm," said Template, pointedly.

      "Could it be that boys are more likely to be receptive to unexpected advances of a strange woman than girls would be to the unexpected advances of a strange man?" said Junker.

      "Uhm..." said Template, blushing a bit. "I hate to sound sexist, but that is the stereotype."

      "Also, around here, the women are more likely to repel unwanted advances successfully than in most parts of the world," said Lori, wryly. "I've been reading up on succubi and incubi, and while there's little hard data the feeling I get is that the female form works through seduction and trickery - they've been used as an explanation for some wet dreams - and the male form through force and intimidation."

      "I have to ask this," said the Deacon. "Has anyone tried correlating any of these depredations with Binary?"

      "Yes, actually," said Lori. "As soon as I learned about the dual nature of the incubus/succubus. She's in the clear."

      "So this is likely something new on our island," said Template, scowling. "Something which we need to find before the Fall semester."

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      

      Blue Impact stood on the sill of the open canopy as the flyer dove towards their target.

      "Are you sure about this?" said Energia, shouting above the noise of the rush of air, obviously doubtful, as she flew alongside.

      "Just get in position!" Blue Impact shouted back.

      The younger super flew off. The older waited, trusting Gadgetive's piloting skills to keep them on course and get the timing right.

      "Now!"

      Blue Impact jumped, immediately flipping feet first and bracing herself. There was a horrible impact, as her feet caught Silver Shadow in the back. She was a bit higher than planned, but the hit was still solid. Silver Shadow flew through the wrought iron railing, tumbling head over heels.

      Blue Impact frantically oriented herself, managing to hit the ground feet first. She skidded and tumbled to a halt. Despite transferring much of her momentum to the rogue super, she was still stunned. That first impact left her with a significant amount of pain in both legs. The final landing hadn't helped matters. She didn't think anything was broken, but she desperately hoped her partners could finish the fight without her. If they couldn't, Blue Impact doubted she'd have enough time to heal.

      Silver Shadow slammed into a fountain - sending water and chunks of carved limestone spraying outward - bounced over a decorative planter, clipped a lamp post and slammed into a small tree.

      Energia waited until she saw him start to sit up, and then dumped her entire store into him as a bolt of lightning. This took nearly five seconds; when she finished, sinking to the ground on the dregs of her power, she made sure to land near a utility pole. Silver Shadow lay still, body literally smoking, his costume mostly burned off. Meanwhile, Gadgetive landed their flyer with a solid thump and quickly hopped out.

      Blue Impact cheered, and started painfully climbing to her feet. Then froze.

      They had hoped this would take him out, or at least badly stun him. To their dismay, he was already pushing himself upright. He was obviously shaken, but just as obviously still very much in the fight. He stood, shook himself, and smiled nastily.

      "Well, if it isn't the Three Little Bitches, back for a rematch," said Silver Shadow, sneering in a way which made him look as if he'd had a stroke.

      "Little?!" said Gadgetive, outraged.

      "Oh, God, no," said Blue Impact, suddenly filled with dread. "Please don't let that name stick."

      "I'll have you know I'm statistically well above average height for someone my age, gender and socio-economic status!" said Energia, huffily.

      "You three really need to take this seriously," said Silver Shadow, angrily. "You barely got away last time. This time I'm ready for you."

      "Excuse me," said Blue Impact, pointedly. "You were the one who barely got away, remember?"

      "I'll teach you to lie about me!" he screamed, diving at her fists first.

      Blue Impact spun aside, managing a glancing down elbow strike as he passed. She stumbled and nearly fell, as her injured legs protested the sudden movement.

      Energia was still charging. She had enough, now, to lift into the air, flying closer to the power line to draw energy more quickly, but would need time to attack again. Fortunately, Gadgetive was ready, this time.

      A large projectile exploded in the air above and ahead of Silver Shadow. A ballistically deployed net expanded instantly and flew down over the rogue super. As the weights at the edges touched the ground and pavement, more explosions deployed anchors. Silver Shadow was yanked to a halt. Then was pinned to the ground as the fibers of the net contracted.

      "You can't hold me!" he screamed, sounding desperate.

      Sure enough, those anchors in dirt began pulling lose as he struggled. Those in pavement wouldn't hold much longer.

      Energia was pumping nearly all of the energy she was absorbing into her wave motion effect. The glow between her hands grew brighter and brighter, Energia grimacing and biting her bottom lip as the buildup became painfully intense. Just as Silver Shadow sat up, she fired.

      The beam caught him square, enveloping his entire upper body and most of the lower.

      This finally did it. Long seconds of silence passed as they waited to see if the fight was actually over. Slowly, they relaxed, just a bit. Blue Impact limped over to the fallen form, Gadgetive quickly joining her. The older super painfully knelt and felt at Silver Shadow's wrist.

      "Still alive," she said, nodding.

      "Whoops!" said Gadgetive, smirking. "That sausage ain't kosher!"

      "Gadgetive!" said Energia, landing beside them.

      "Well," said Gadgetive, looking up from their fallen foe to Energia and grinning. "Happy birthday!"

      "You remembered!"

      "Hey, you remembered mine. Got something for you, back at the base."

      "You know you didn't need to."

      "I got you something, too," said Blue Impact, using the process of checking Silver Shadow for signs of returning consciousness as an excuse to kick him in the ribs. "Right now, though, we need to secure him."

      "Right," said Gadgetive, taking off her pack and setting to work.




Part Twelve






      "Remember Timmy Thurlough?" said Blue Impact.

      "Yeah," said Gadgetive.

      "He's done the Mask community a major service."

      "What did he do? Get himself sterilized?"

      "Uh, no," said Blue Impact, with a brief smirk. "He filed a lawsuit over being arrested for being a super during the Thurlin administration's pogrom. Unlike most of such suits, his was based on being mistaken for a super, rather than the pogrom itself being unconstitutional."

      "Even though he is a super," said Energia, baffled. "He registers on the detectors, is affected by neutralizers and has the DNA. He invents super gadgets."

      "His lawyers made the point that he doesn't have any 'actual' powers. That he can't do anything someone without genes specifically associated with supers can do. He's just really, really bright. The jury bought it. The government appealed. They lost. They appealed again. They lost. Yesterday, the US Supreme Court upheld the decisions. So now, legally, to be a super you have to be able to do something someone who isn't a super can't do."

      "I'm smelling circular logic, here," said Gadgetive, scowling.

      "Well, I'm paraphrasing the legal terminology. The experts are saying this means that to be considered a super, you have to have an overt power, rather than just an ability. That way, you include people who have non-genetic powers."

      "Like that fake Energia guy from a couple of years ago," said Gadgetive.

      "Exactly."

      Blue Impact winced.

      "Oh; I forgot. He - Fergusson - recently got out of his prison sentence on appeal. He claimed that since he didn't have any super genes - he had a few, actually, but not enough to have powers - he couldn't have done what he was accused of."

      "The rich still get out of a lot that everyone else would have to go through," said Energia, angrily.

      "I wonder if this Supreme Court ruling will make the state's appeal of him winning his appeal more likely to succeed..."

      "My brain hurts," said Energia.

      On that note, the com sounded.

      "Silver Shadow is gone," said Chief Bailey, once the minimum greetings were over. "We were transferring him to a secure super facility, and he... never arrived."

      "What?!" said Blue Impact, not sure she believed what she was hearing.

      "Details, please," said Gadgetive, quickly.

      "The truck never arrived at the jail," said the Chief, sourly. "We still haven't found it. However, we found the guards who were supposed to be in it. Stripped to the underwear, bound and gagged, in a laundry basket at headquarters."

      "Why would you have laundry baskets at the police station?" said Energia, baffled.

      "We don't."

      "Slippery Elmer," said Blue Impact, nodding. "Has to be. That sort of incongruity is like a signature with him."

      "We found a DVD taped to the outside of the cart," said the Chief. "Forensics just finished with it. I thought you'd like to hear it."

      "Go ahead," said Blue Impact.

      There was a slight delay, then the sound from a computer playing the video came over their com.

      "I'm sorry to negate the results of all your hard work," said the familiar voice of Slippery Elmer, "but family is family."

      "There's him and a blank background," said the Chief, quickly. "Probably a photographer's backdrop."

      "I'd love to stay and chat," said Elmer, "but my evil clone is out there killing people. See you later!"

      "That's it," said the Chief. "His famous sign off."

      "How did he get out?" said Blue Impact, weakly. "When did he get out? Why didn't the prison tell us he got out?"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Well, frankly, we were too embarrassed," said Assistant Warden Hinkley. "Though if we'd had any idea he'd involve himself in your case..."

      "You should have told us on general principles," said Blue Impact, flatly. "We might have been able to warn the Louisville police in time. Well, it's too late now."

      She broke the connection without bothering to sign off.

      "Don't tell me we have to do that all over again," said Energia, tiredly.

      "Probably not," said Blue Impact. "Elmer will want to get him as far from where people know him as he can. Maybe even into Canada."

      "He'll turn up again," said Gadgetive, nodding with certainty.

      "We only have a few more days until the first of the supers return from Pakistan," said Blue Impact. "They can handle him."

      "Yeah," said Energia, looking rather depressed. "Only a few days after that and we start back to school. I've got one more year, then I have to pick a college."

      "Hopefully," said Gadgetive, "by then they'll have that college credit program going full bore."

      "I'd like to stay on the Island," said Energia. "I'm actually not sure what I want to study in college."

      "Too bad there's not a degree in super heroing," said Gadgetive, smirking.

      "There could be," said Blue Impact, cautiously.

      The other two looked at her.

      "You know something," said Gadgetive.

      "Well, Eve and Randy have been talking with three - no, four - major universities. About programs of study for supers. It would be a lot like what we already do on the Island, but at a college level. Some classes would be on the Island, others at the universities."

      "That... would be great," said Energia, nodding. "Yeah. I do plan to keep on heroing. This would make it official."

      Blue Impact smiled and put a hand on her shoulder.

      "Trust me; you're already official."

      Something occurred to her. Blue Impact pulled her hand back and examined the girl.

      "Oddly, you don't sound as excited about that as I expected."

      "It's just... Several times, lately, I've been in situations where I just didn't have enough oomph," she said. "Maybe not enough skill, either."

      "You're an excellent flier," Gadgetive pointed out, a bit enviously.

      "How often do I get a chance to defeat someone by outflying them? Silver Shadow flew so poorly it never even came up."

      "You're one of the most powerful supers at the Academy," said Blue Impact, pointedly.

      "Yeah, but... the power level in the world as a whole seems to be increasing. I mean, we know it has increased a lot, since the earliest reliable tests, early the last century. There are times when I just fall a bit short. I feel like I could do more, but I don't know how."

      "You haven't reached your full potential, yet," said Blue Impact.

      "Yeah, and I may not," said Energia, sourly. "There just aren't that many general energy-force manipulators. None of them are actually teaching at the school."

      "The only super of your type I know of offhand who is more powerful than you is Zeep," said Blue Impact. "He's not really even human. In fact, he's no longer a physical being."

      "He started as human!" said Gadgetive, suddenly. "After his powers activated, he was still a physical, human being for a bit over a year before he converted."

      "You're right!" said Blue Impact. She turned to Energia. "You might have a tutor."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What's the emergency this time?" said Brade, as the final member summoned to the early morning meeting sat at the table.

      "There's been a revolution in the Shilmek Empire," said Sievers, without preamble. "Seems the run-of-the-mill vast majority - or at least some ambitious members who claim to represent their will - got tired of the Primus nobility lording it over them."

      "I don't suppose we can blame this on the Five Great Powers," said Gompers, tiredly.

      "Queen Tolnar, her staff, several relatives - including her son and heir - and a number of others - not all Primus class, though most are - arrived at the UN building in New York just before Midnight. They have formally requested asylum."

      "What a mess," said Howers, for once looking tired. "Are the revolutionaries likely to follow her here?"

      "Probably. However, our best guess is not for some time. Just now the revolutionaries are busy killing every Primus they can find. Their leaders are consolidating their positions and jockeying for power. There's a good chance the whole thing will fall apart within a few weeks, as they fight among themselves."

      Sievers sighed, and rubbed her eyes briefly before continuing.

      "This is all still up in the air. However, we - the US - will likely be taking a major role in dealing with both the refugees and any threat from their deposers. I want all departments working under that assumption."

      There was a chorus of acknowledgments.

      "Just... what would we be facing?" said Howers. "I know her Highness is unusually powerful for a Shilmek... How powerful are the run of the mill ones?"

      "Between ten and twenty times as strong, tough and fast as an average human," said Brade, sourly. "There's millions of them."




Part Thirteen






      "I remember, now, Maldren telling me that the reason his mother sent him here was partly because they were worried about something like this happening," said Energia, as news of the events in the Shilmek Empire began to spread through the super community.

      "You knew this might be coming?" said Blue Impact, irritated. "Why didn't you tell anyone!"

      "Well, it was told to me in confidence," said Energia, uncomfortably. "Besides, it was all 'ifs' and 'maybes.'"

      "If the world's in danger you're supposed to tell a teacher," said Gadgetive. "I wish I'd known about this. Ahead of time, I mean. I could'a been working on something."

      "Anyway, this just makes it more important for me to get better training."

      "We can do without you for most things," said Blue Impact. "You'll have your com on, right?"

      "Unless he specifically wants it off," said Energia.

      "Good luck," said Gadgetive.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Queen Tolnar stood looking moodily out the window of her suite. That things had come to this. Years of warning, years of working to head off the trouble, to root out the trouble makers. Not only had she not succeeded, she had failed disastrously. She had expected an honorable confrontation. Instead, corruption and bribery had eaten away at her resources until all which was left was her, five warships and a few hundred loyal men and women.

      Now her empire was in the hands of those genetic inferiors, and she was a refugee on a world which she admired but doubted could stand against the might of the suborned Empire. However, all was not lost. Her son was here, as were nearly a hundred of the finest warriors who had ever existed.

      Maldren... she wished he were here, now. Still, it was better that her limited forces be as dispersed as practical. She was the main target, deliberately living in the top floor of the most expensive hotel in New York. If any agents of her enemies struck at her here, her son and warriors would be outside the danger zone.

      Right now her best use was as a decoy. A sacrificial lamb, and the local phrase went.

      "I still live," she said, suddenly furious at what had happened to her and her people.

      Yes, she still lived. Even if she died, there was the next generation. Only a handful of people knew what those master gengineers had done, with Maldren and six others, all of them now on Earth. He was the oldest, of course. As Queen it was her responsibility to go first, to take the risk. So far he was developing normally for a Shilmek Primus. That would change. Exactly when the gengineers weren't sure, but likely soon.

      "Please," she whispered. "Soon."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Wearing her space suit - the fourth the Lunies had provided for her, and still sending info on its use to them - Energia flew up above the outer fringes of the atmosphere, to just below the the bottom layer of satellites and space stations. She braced herself, gathering energy. Her signal, when it came, was spread through much of the electromagnetic spectrum, not really noticeable except to a handful the planet's inhabitants. Only one of those should be able to get here quickly.

      "ZEEP!"

      She waited... for about half a second. There! She felt the familiar pattern of force, almost within reach.

      "What's all the noise for?"

      "I need instruction," said Energia, using the direct approach.

      "You want me to teach you?" He seemed both surprised and amused.

      "Yes. I'm having trouble operating at my full potential."

      "Surely you could train on your own."

      "There's trouble coming," she said. "Big trouble, and soon. I want to be able to do my part.

      "The Shilmek upset," said Zeep. "Yes, I've been hearing about that. They could be trouble, even for me. Not individually, mind you, but through their technology."

      "So, the more powerful I am, the better I'll be able to help."

      Zeep was silent for a moment. Energia remembered that his thoughts moved literally at the speed of light. He must be thinking things through very thoroughly.

      "What do you see as your greatest need?"

      "It... hurts when I go all out. Especially when I hold a charge for something."

      "Let me see."

      Energia demonstrated, at Zeep's direction, several different uses of her powers. That included her wave motion attack.

      "Impressive."

      "Yes, but... it hurts," she said, almost timidly.

      "What makes it hurt is that you tense," said Zeep. "You know what it feels like as your store fills. Don't worry about when you need to stop; you already know that. Relax and you'll have the same capacity with less pain and more control."

      "Okay," said Energia, nodding slowly, "that makes sense. What I'm really after, though, is getting stronger."

      "Do you want to be stronger or more effective?"

      She frowned, hovering there, thinking through the question.

      "More effective. But how do I become more effective without getting stronger?"

      "Because you, personally, do not need to be stronger to be, personally, more effective."

      The frowning went on longer this time. So long that Zeep interrupted it.

      "Do you know what a Tesla tap is?"

      "Sure. It's a device - or power - which taps into the potential difference between the top of the atmosphere and the ground."

      "So, if you could induce such a condition, with your target in the path..."

      Energia's eyes went wide. Then she began to grin inside her helmet.

      "Giant arc of electricity."

      "That's only one application of the principle. If you are willing to learn and to practice, I would be glad to teach you more."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The odd business retreat mystified the employees of the bosses gathered here. The five had never even met, as far as anyone knew. They had communicated, occasionally, done a little business, but there were no solid connections. Now, here they were, just the five of them on a small island which they had rented for the week. Not even any local servants.

      The employees would have been even more mystified had they seen the five greet other as old friends, in a language so long dead as to be completely unknown to all but them and a handful of others.

      "What a time to be reborn as female," said Catherine, with a satisfied smile. "After several straight male incarnations, I'm enjoying being a woman again. Especially with all the respect and protections for women in this era."

      "Enjoying it too much, if you ask me," said Suzanne.

      "Poor widdle girl," said Catherine, mockingly. "You never have learned to enjoy the pleasures offered by the female form."

      "It was your obsession with sex which led to your capture by the Nazis last time," said Suzanne, acidly. "You barely escaped."

      "Well, who was it who let that maniac take over the National Socialists in the first place?" said Catherine, glaring at Jamine, whose dark, hispanic beauty seemed a deliberate punishment for past use of racism.

      "I'm not the only one who had carefully nurtured plans ruined by an opportunistic madman," she replied, with a pointed look at Suzanne.

      "Enough," said Arnold. "We have all had our failures down through history, and before that. By the Forgotten Gods, do you three never learn?!"

      "Four of us had the same problem, last time," said Louis, calmly. "Our proxies were removed from power and their usurpers went in directions we didn't want. Which, in fact, put our carefully laid fragments of the grand plan in opposition to each other, instead of blending to make a unified whole."

      "I think we all know that," said Catherine, acidly. "Which is why, this time, we decided to take a different path. As in the Fifties, technology now exists which makes this possible."

      "Which brings me to the purpose of this meeting," said Arnold, looking all too satisfied. "The amplifier is nearly ready."

      There was a stir at that.

      "Finally!" said Louis.

      "I thought you needed to construct another Sonic Annihilator as the driver," said Catherine.

      "I had an epiphany, and was able to substitute a new component which directly produces the psionic impulses required."

      "Then," said Arnold, his gaze becoming distant, "we will rule the world again. As is our right."


All are twenty-eight years old.

The Magnificent Lung

Arnold Lampton, Cheshire, England.

The Winter Bear

Suzanne Turpton, Grand Forks, Wyoming.

The Briton

Louis Carstairs, New Orleans, Louisiana.

The King of the Rom

Catherine Czinski, New York, New York.

The Aryan

Jamine Wilson, Carson Springs, Texas.




Part Fourteen






      Most supers had trouble flying at night; the change in lighting made things appear very different. Even over urban areas, the alteration in appearance was disorientating. Artificial lighting could even make things worse than they were under a clear night sky. Some folks, though, had their perceptions heightened in some way which could greatly ease the difficulty of finding their way. As just one example, night was little hindrance to someone who could sense millimetric wavelengths.

At least it's warm, Jenny thought, as she used her GPS unit to help her navigate. Once she was close enough she could DF using local RF sources and terrain recognition. All through her own powers.

      Jenny had persuaded her parents to put off her birthday party until enough supers had returned to the eastern US from their work in Pakistan to ease the load on her, Gadgetive and Blue Impact. With several teams and individuals back in their usual areas, now, the time had come to meet her social obligations. At least there wouldn't be a traditional party, with lots of non-family guests.

      Jenny had never been particularly good at making friends; before going to Pine Island she could count on her hands the boys and girls her own age she considered to be actual friends, with fingers left over. Since starting at the Pine Island Academy, she had actually made more than all the sum total before in her life. Sometimes she wondered if that was due to her somehow knowing she was different from the other kids in her neighborhood and early schools. More likely it was simply due to shared hardships at the Academy. It was easier to get along with someone when you both had been fighting against the same enemy.

      Once above her own home Energia pulled dark slacks and a hooded sweatshirt on over her costume. She landed silently in the back yard, the dog apparently already in for the night. Energia avoided the motion sensor light above the porch door, and instead went under the porch to approach the basement door. The deadbolt and spring latch both still took her key.

      She locked the door behind her, gave a sigh of relief, and turned to head towards the steps.

      Suddenly, there was a blinding glare.

      "SURPRISE!!"

      "EEP!

      The lights went back out. All over the neighborhood.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "It's my fault," said Randy, later, as they sat around a candle-lit dining room table. "It was my idea to surprise you."

      "I should have known you would do something like this," said Jenny, still embarrassed. She giggled. "I haven't had an accidental EMP burst like that in years."

      "I think I see flashing yellow lights," said Jenny's father, Max. He rose and went to a window. "Yep. There's a bucket truck at the pole."

      In less than ten minutes the lights were back on.

      "Just in time for bed," said Jenny's mother, Julie.

      "Mom! I'm already seventeen!"

      "Yes, but tomorrow's a work day," said her mother, with a smile. "Your father and I - and your uncle - all have to work for a living."

      "Remember, I'm living in an earlier time zone," said Randy, grinning. "So, good night, squirt."

      "You'll be at the birthday dinner tomorrow?"

      "You better believe it. That restaurant has great food."

      "Oh, so it's the food you love," said Jenny, pretending to be offended.

      Randy laughed, and hugged her.

      "That, too."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Walking around in civvies was a rare occurrence for Jenny these days. Just now, due to the late Summer heat (not that she felt it, given her powers, but she had to maintain appearances) she was in shorts, t-shirt and sandals; actually showing far more skin than she was used to. That, combined with the familiarity of seeing the things from her childhood, was giving her odd feelings.

      The children in the playground were a different generation, but close enough to those from her childhood to add to the feeling of disorientation.

      It's only been four years since my powers activated, thought Jenny. How can things... How can I have changed so much?

      Feeling oddly depressed, she turned and started for home.

      As Jenny walked along, she saw a few other girls her age around the neighborhood. Most she didn't recognize. None seemed to pay any attention to her. Jenny remembered her mother writing and talking about all the people moving in and out.

      "Jenny!"

      She turned, startled, to see Mrs. Miracle waving from her front porch.

      Jenny waved back, smiling. She'd known the Miracles for years, had even babysat their twins a few times. Resisting a brief impulse to fly across the gap, she walked over, Mrs. Miracle stepping down from her front porch to meet Jenny halfway.

      "My goodness! I almost didn't recognize you! You've grown!"

      "Well, yeah," said Jenny, laughing. "Teenagers tend to do that."

      "Your mother must be very proud."

      They spoke for a few moments about family matters, until Jenny noticed something next door.

      "Who is that at the Martins' house?"

      "Well, after Howard was arrested they took out a second mortgage to pay the legal bills," said Mrs. Miracle, a bit uncomfortably. "Then he was convicted, anyway. They lost the home, Lucille and Alicia moving in with Lucille's mother."

      Jenny nodded, remembering some details as related by her parents. Fortunes had changed dramatically in the past few years, and then changed in the opposite direction. Jenny had no sympathies for those who had thought to cash in on Thurlin's pogrom. In her opinion, anyone who had hitched their star to someone who espoused bigotry and intolerance deserved what they got. She had been very surprised, though, to learn that one of her few friends - Alicia Martin - had been among those affected by the repercussions of supporting the pogrom.

      That had been her father's fault. He'd embraced the new world order to such an extent he had actually broken some law or other. She remembered it had something to do with ordering the arrest of some local supers. That's right; he'd worked as a aide to the Mayor, and claimed the orders came from the Mayor. Once things got sane again, he'd been held responsible for his actions. Whether the Mayor had actually ordered the arrests or not hadn't been determined.

      Jenny changed the subject, telling Mrs. Miracle about the night's birthday dinner for her.

      "Wonderful! I'd forgotten your birthday was just a few days ago. That restaurant has great food."

      They chatted for a while longer, about far less serious subjects than politics and jail time. Jenny finally had to break off to get ready. As she walked away, waving, she was glad there hadn't been any awkward questions. Despite being a costumed hero for several years, she was still inexperienced at the sort of double life most who wore the mask experienced.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Randy met them at the restaurant. Jenny suddenly remembered he'd sold his car over a year ago, not needing it on the island. After the usual greetings were over she moved in close, grinning mischievously.

      "My, you look unrumpled," she said, in a low voice.

      "I beg your pardon?"

      "How did you ever stuff yourself into your flying gear without wrinkling your suit? And where have you hidden your flying gear?"

      Randy leaned his mouth down to her ear.

      "You know very well," he murmured, "that I dressed on the island, changed to Template, flew here, found a secluded spot and changed back."

      "My, how handy!" said Jenny, smirking.

      "What is, dear?" said Jenny's Mother.

      "Nothing," said Jenny, airily.

      Dinner went well. Jenny's parents had spent part of the previous evening and earlier that day chatting about what was going on in their now different lives, so they could now focus on actually eating. The food was excellent, and the portions were dramatically large. Especially the desert. Instead of a birthday cake, there was just one towering slice. That was enough to top off the already sated family members.

      "Too bad you couldn't invite your boyfriend," said Max.

      "He's having family troubles," said Jenny, absently.

      She noticed her uncle's startled response to that, and mentally kicked herself.

      "Wow," said Jenny, leaning back after the last bite of cake. "I don't know if I've ever been so full."

      "Good food and lots of it," said Max, smiling and nodding, as he patted his belly.

      "Could you at least pretend to have manners?" said Julie, rolling her eyes.

      "I'm glad this is a Friday," said Randy. "I don't know if I'll be up before Noon, tomorrow, after all this."

      "We still have presents to open, when we get home," said Jenny, with a scheming smile.

      "Guess we might as well get under way, then," said Max, waving for the waiter's attention.

      "I'll meet you there," said Randy.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      I looked around the icy landscape and shivered. I wasn't actually cold; I know how to dress for the weather. Or the climate. However, this place affected more than the body.

      That was why I'd deliberately left my assistants behind at the plane and skied alone towards my goal, approaching openly. I could have changed into an Arctic tern or something, and saved myself a lot of time and effort. However, I wanted to make sure there was no chance of mistaking my purpose.

      Unlike most of those I had approached so far on my mission to recruit allies against the Five Great Powers, Lord Bitterfrost had never even pretended to be one of the good guys. A brooding, paranoid supernatural who preferred the solitude of the ice to warm human company, he usually only acted if disturbed. In his case, "acting" tended to mean deaths in at least the hundreds.

      I wasn't sure exactly where his home was. However, from previous episodes I knew that he would certainly find me, and soon.

      Very soon. There was a blast of unnatural wind and cold, cutting right through my fancy, modern gear. I nearly fell flat on my ass, my skis hampering me. As I raised my frosted goggles to wipe the frozen tears from my eyes I saw a towering figure before me.

      He appeared to be a man long frozen. A giant of a man, all in blues and whites. Only his eyes showed any heat, and that was the flame of anger.

      "Who dares disturb me?!"

      "The Five Great Powers have returned," I said, quickly and almost calmly. I knew I wasn't answering his question, but my identity wouldn't matter to him. This might. "We don't know who they are, yet. When we do, will you help us against them?"

      There was a long, silent moment, so still I could hear the ice around us creaking. Then, abruptly, he laughed. Which definitely did nothing to help my equanimity.

      "Oh, foolish mortal! I need no help from the likes of you to find and destroy the Winter Bear!"

      With another blast of unnaturally cold wind, he was gone.

      "I'll take that as a yes," I said, starting to sag with relief.

      Only, I knew I couldn't rest yet. I turned around and began hurrying back to the ski-equipped C-130, nearly twenty klicks away, my cross-country skis gliding over the hard snow. I still wasn't going to change. Having escaped his attention once, I wasn't going to do anything to attract it again, if I could help it. 




Part Fifteen






      Jenny had just today and Sunday to relax before starting back to school. Actually, she wasn't sure she could relax. This wasn't just because of all the active and impending trouble in - and out of - the world. She'd been "on duty" for so long and so intensely, Jenny was having trouble doing nothing. Fortunately, one skill she had mastered during her tours of duty on various hero teams was sleeping when there wasn't an emergency.

      She did allow herself the indulgence of sleeping in, Saturday morning. Then - fortunately for her inability to relax - after breakfast her Mother took her shopping.

      They hit a nearby mall, did lunch, then went to another mall further away. In spite of her recent birthday gifts, Jenny still needed a number of items, mostly clothing.

      "You have grown so much this past year," said Julie, proudly. "Not just up, but out!"

      "Mother!" said Jenny, blushing, despite the fact that it was just the two of them in the dressing room.

      "Well, it's pretty obvious when you're standing there in your underwear," said Julie, smirking. "I think you're going to take after your daddy's side of the family. You know how big Gramma Toulon is."

      "Yeah, but she was buxom early," said Jenny, hopefully.

      "Well, you could have gotten her size and my late blooming."

      Joy, thought Jenny, sourly. She knew enough really endowed girls well enough that she wasn't eager to match their builds. How would that affect my flying? I'm only human, physically; hauling around big boobs would reduce my maneuverability.

      After new clothes came school supplies. Since most of what she'd had for actual class work the previous year was still useful, that mainly meant things to keep her entertained at school: Novels, CDs, DVDs and even a few non-fiction books.

      "I think that's about it," said Jenny, as she stared at the load of bags in the trunk.

      "I certainly hope so. So, what's up for tomorrow?"

      "I promised Uncle Randy to help him and Karen do some shopping, too."

      "Oh, right; they're bringing the baby over to our place, and I remember, now, they said they're going shopping. I just didn't know you're going with them."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "That's it?" said Lori Savage, staring dubiously at the trap.

      "Between what our magical experts say and what my own experience tells me, yes," said Eve. "Just put this in the laundry. You shouldn't even need to conceal it. If our culprit is, indeed, an incubus/succubus, this will attract and capture it."

      "You sure?" said the security head. "We never caught anything on sensors except noticing the laundry had been disturbed afterwards."

      "They're inherently stealthy, so that's not a surprise," said Eve. "However, they're not very smart, and this trap was made specifically to catch one."

      "I'm not sure I hold with magic," said Lori, doubtfully, as she picked up the large wire cage. "However, I guess you should use magic to fight magic. I'll let you know if it works."

      "Hopefully, tomorrow morning we'll have the problem solved," said Eve. She sighed and gave a tired smile as Lori left her office. "Just in time for the students to return Monday."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Surprisingly tired from the day's activities, that night Jenny actually went to bed early. Again, she slept well, and again she slept in, though not quite as late as the previous morning. She was just finishing a stack of pancakes when the doorbell rang.

      "Randy! Karen!" she heard her Mother say. "My, you're out and about early for a Sunday!"

      "We wanted to make sure we had enough time for all we have planned for today," said Randy, as the three adults entered the kitchen, Karen handling the baby carrier and Randy the travel bag.

      "You sure you don't mind taking care of him for a few hours?" said Karen.

      "Very sure. I know how awkward it can be, hauling a baby around while shopping. Go! Have fun!"

      "Not likely," Karen heard her uncle mutter, as she hurried out of the kitchen to gather her stuff.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The small group assembled in the laundry looked at the cage and its contents with varying expressions. The captive's expression was one of combined fright and rage.

      "Looks like Gollum," said Lori, with a grimace of disgust.

      "Any idea how or why it's here?" said Junker, peering at the thing curiously but keeping his distance.

      "Could be simply supernature taking its course," said Eve. "These things are attracted to the emotional emanations of the sexually frustrated, and we keep a pretty close watch on all the horny young men and women, here. Not to mention that many of them are capable of self-regulation. Despite the 'sex beach' and other violations our students are largely chaste."

      "Release me, or the hordes of Hell will fall upon you!"

      "Sounds like Gollum, too," said Lori, shuddering. "What do we do with it?"

      "The magic folks say they can send it back to its native plane," said Eve. "Not immediately, though. Probably tomorrow."

      "So, leave it here?" said Lori. "Or do you want to keep a close eye on it?"

      "You're not putting that thing in my office!" said Eve. "Even without deliberately trying to read its mind, I can feel it's influence. Put it in one of the psi-proof cells in Pine base."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I hate thisssss..." said Susan, sotto voce.

      They had flown here, after taking the car Randy and Karen had rented to an isolated location. Karen had shrunk to minimum size and tucked herself securely into Susan's cleavage. Jenny wasn't sure, but from some of her "aunt's" expressions and occasional sounds thought that Karen had been doing naughty things to her spouse during the flight.

      "You need thisssss..." said Karen, equally softly, leaning close to her lover and grinning impishly.

      Jenny fought a fit of giggles.

      "I'm just glad we're far enough from home that no-one will connect us with me. I mean..."

      "Yeah," said Susan, with a melodramatic sigh. "Two cities over should be far enough. I hope."

      "I'm glad your mother agreed to take care of Roy for a while," said Karen, looking at Jenny.

      "I think she regrets, sometimes, not having more children," said Jenny.

      "Look," said Susan, reasonably, still trying to get out of this, "none of us are in civvies enough to need a large wardrobe. Anyway, most of the time I'm in civvies, I'm a guy. I don't need a lot of girl clothes."

      "Yes, you do," said Karen, firmly. "We all do. Besides, this is fun!"

      "Are you two deliberately doing this as some sort of joke?" said Susan, sourly. "Or is this part of some feminine conspiracy to induct me into your ranks?"

      "You've been shopping with me enough, you should be used to this," said Karen, firmly. "Now, if you can't make yourself enjoy it, at least stop whining."

      "First stop," said Jenny, straight faced, "bras!"

      "Dear God," said Susan, rolling her eyes, "I'm caught in the world's worst sitcom."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Hope he wasn't too much trouble," said Karen, late that afternoon, as the economic suicide squad finally returned to Jenny's home.

      "He was a little darling. Slept most of the time, actually."

      "That's unusual for him," said Randy, peering at his son. "He does tend to get used to unfamiliar adults pretty quickly, but he also usually fusses for attention once he does."

      "Well, I'm actually sorry to see him leave," said Julie, smiling down at the baby. "You sure you can't stay for supper?"

      "Sorry," said her brother, giving her a hug. "I have to get back early to make sure the school's ready, and Karen needs to go with me."

      "I'll see you at school tomorrow morning, Uncle Randy," said Jenny. She hugged him, then kissed Karen. "See you too, tomorrow evening."

      "Bye, Squirt," said Randy. "I'm glad you decided to stay one more night. You need to see more of your parents."

      "On that we agree," said Julie. 




Part Sixteen






      "I am so glad to be back in the US," I said, to no-one in particular, as I took my seat.

      However, I was preparing to address the President and her staff, and definitely had specific things to say to them. First, though, I needed to tell them what they wanted to hear about.

      "Overall, the mission was a great success," I said, focusing on Sievers, but occasionally glancing around so no-one felt neglected. "I was able to contact all the targets except Scovell, who is likely dead, and of those I contacted all but Harvester at least agreed to think about it. Five said overtly that they would help or take action on their own. Three of those were eager."

      I added a few details, then sat back for the question and answer segment. Sievers and her people quizzed me thoroughly on multiple matters, asking numerous questions. Several of which I wouldn't have thought of on my own. Once that was done Sievers thanked me, and asked if I had anything else to say. Oh, did I.

      "I thought the occasional institutional bigotry against supers back here was bad, but if I hadn't had diplomatic status in some of the areas I visited on my mission, I could have literally been shot on sight!" I said, unable to keep the anger and outrage out of my voice. "Several of the people I was scheduled to meet with canceled without explanation. Some provided explanations which were politely worded, but didn't hold up. Others explained, flat out, that they wouldn't have anything to do with 'genetic filth' or 'the accursed' or some variation. I may be critical of the US on occasion, but that's more addressing current problems than dismissing the system as a whole. Most of the rest of the world, however..."

      I stopped, shuddering, before I could actually get to the point. Which led some to think that maybe my complaint was my point.

      "We know there are many areas of the world where supers are an oppressed minority," said Howers, nodding sagely.

      I wanted to strangle him, to take his bland words and feed them back down his throat until he choked on them. However, that would still have ignored the point I was trying to make.

      "What especially worried me about all this discrimination was," I said, loudly, "there was nothing in my portfolio stating I was a super. Neither did any of the officials I met - with a handful of exceptions, such as Constantine and a few others I knew personally - have any reason to know I wasn't an ordinary human. Which means someone leaked that information."

      The reaction was both less dramatic than I was expecting, and rather different. There were tired sighs and exchanges of knowing looks.

      "We already know there is a leak, somewhere," said the President, nodding. "Thank you for this additional information. That might help us narrow down the candidates."

      "We're pretty sure it's one or more fairly minor individuals," said Gompers. "If the pattern holds true, someone who has a grudge and a sense of depowerment."

      "Which describes about ninety percent of federal civil servants," said Howers, dryly.

      As the meeting broke up, President Sievers invited me to stay in the conference room for a while. I knew she had things she wanted to talk about informally. That was fine with me; there were things I wanted to bring up with her, privately.

      "There's more, isn't there?" she said, as I moved to a seat closer to her.

      "Oh, yeah," I said, smiling. "This is good news, though. I mentioned that Emil gave me something. I glossed over what it was."

      "I remember wondering about what it could be," said the President.

      "It was an old photostat of a document, almost unreadable," I told her. "I sent it to some people I know and they were able to bring out the details. It was a record of a certain property transaction in California, late in the Nineteenth Century. You see, he - Emil - had his own run-ins with Dr. Gaunt. Emil somehow - he didn't provide any info on how - acquired this in case he needed something to use against the Bad Doctor. He hadn't followed up on it, though. I have."

      I had her attention. Smiling, I leaned forward a bit.

      "I found out who acquired the property in California which Dr. Gaunt keeps obsessing about."

      "Go on."

      "Turns out he may actually be right. Someone manipulated the system to acquire his lands. No idea why. However, I definitely know who."

      "That's impressive."

      "I worked with one of the finest detectives who ever lived for almost thirty years," I said, modestly. "You can't watch brilliance that closely that long without some of it rubbing off. Though in my case it's more a matter of knowing who can do what I want, than doing it myself."

      "Does this help us in any way to capture Dr. Gaunt?"

      "I'm not sure, but this information has other value," I said. "The person who wound up owning the land was Ernest Wold."

      "Wait... was he one of the Wolds?!"

      "He was an heir to the Wold Newton fortune," I said. "Through the Arnaud family on one side and the Twambley family on the other."

      "That's a lot of money," said the President, impressed. "Not to mention a lot of history. Why would someone like that be interested in Gaunt's land?"

      "For the same reason Gaunt was, and still is," I said, triumphantly. "It's the site of a magical nexus."

      She nodded, slowly.

      "Ernest, up and coming businessman that he was, built his corporate headquarters on one corner of the land, finally constructing a skyscraper there in 1927, not long before he died. He turned the rest into a private reserve."

      "That much I know about," said the President. "I actually lived in that area through much of my teens. That was a spooky place. I remember, after the first Ghostbusters movie came out, we would call that building the local Gozer worship center."

      "You may not have been far off," I said. "I remember Dr. Freysdottir, back in Thirty-Nine, muttering something unpleasant about that building for a reason I don't recall."

      "So, no wonder Dr. Gaunt was never able to get his land back."

      "He almost did, in 1938," I said, shuddering. "The Shepherds stopped him - for something else, but it interrupted a scheme he had working to get his land back. He went after them repeatedly for more than a decade because of that, until his supposed death - his eighth, I think - in Fifty-one. It's probably a good thing he didn't get it back. Whatever Ernest Wold and his descendants are doing with it, is couldn't possibly be as bad as what Gaunt intended."

      I paused, tipping my head to the side a bit.

      "At least, that's what I thought."

      "What?" said Sievers, irritated at my drama but wanting to know what I knew.

      "The current head of that branch of the family is Louis Carstairs," I said. "He was third in line, until a couple of cousins unexpectedly died, shortly before his predecessor as head of the company also died. All three deaths were ruled accidental, but people are saying they may not have been."

      "I hate to say it, but that sort of behavior isn't unusual for that family."

      She frowned, looking at me expectantly. I decided I'd toyed with the situation long enough and cut to the chase.

      "This young man recently confounded his employees by traveling - alone - to a privately owned island to meet with four other wealthy, important people of exactly the same age. It was just the five of them, in total isolation, for six days."

      "My God..." said Sievers, stunned. "You found them!"

      She shook her head.

      "I thought they usually worked their way up from anonymity?"

      "It appears four of the five did, this time," I said. "If Louie is one of the Five Great Powers, he got lucky with his rebirth. Then made his own luck to increase his influence."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Energia was glad to be back at school and back in costume. She guessed that made her weird in some eyes, but who didn't have a favorite type of clothing? Hers just happened to be custom designed and tailored.

      Thanks to the recently instituted flying regulations, to fly between her current origin and destination, Energia had to stay low and slow. This was intended to reduce the chance of a mid-air, and Energia definitely approved. She'd hate to have a collision with a super-strong flyer, like Solange, who was only one of the less careful supers in the air on the island. Some people flew like everyone was as tough as them. Still, even in this approved lane she kept her plasma wall up. Not all supers felt the rules applied to them, and there were some decent folks who still didn't quite get the new regs.

      She was shocked out of her reverie by a loud "Poomp!" sound from some shrubs ahead of her. She had a glimpse of a small metal cylinder hurtling towards her. Energia frantically tried to dodge, but was too late; she braced herself.

      The grenade hit her plasma wall and exploded... into a sticky, sweet spray.

      "A can of pop?!" said Energia, both startled and relieved.

      She heard giggling, and did an Immelmann, ending in a hover over the shrubs. A pair of younger students were there, laughing their heads off. One of them was holding a launcher of some sort.

      "Hey, babe!" said the shooter, waving and grinning derisively as he saw her. "How do you like my pop gun?"

      "How do you like the Meisner effect?" snarled Energia, using her magnetic powers to grab every conductor on their bodies and starting to lift.

      "Sorry, babe!" said the shooter, nodding to his accomplice. "We're ready for you!"

      The other kid did something, and there was a surge of magnetic force, which threatened to disrupt Energia's own field. However, her training with Zeep paid off. She stabilized her field and resumed hauling them into the air.

      "Little creeps!"

      "Hey! Hey! Hey!" said the other kid, speaking for the first time. "You can't do that!"

      "I'm taking you to security," said Energia, as she flew herself and her prisoners to the school administration building.

      "No! No! No! You can't do that! That magnetic pulser is meant to disrupt all magnetic force users!"

      "Gadgeteer, right?" said Energia, sourly, with a glance back at the boy. "Well, maybe your design has a flaw in it."




Part Seventeen






      "They seem pretty young to be here," said Energia, after turning over her captives to security.

      Most of the security people knew her as more than just another student; one of them had been a fellow victim of Allison Chains. She saw him in the hall as she walked out of the small room where she explained what happened to the senior security person currently on duty. The guard she had saved gave her a smile and a wave, which she returned. Despite the annoying attack, Energia was feeling pretty upbeat. She was pleased that the guards were very much taking her calmly delivered account over the hysterical - and inconsistent - claims of the two boys.

      "Special scholarships," said the senior guard, with a slight sigh. "They both kept skipping grades and in some subjects are actually ready for college. However, they're also behind in some subjects. They're cousins, by the way, and have family who are Masks. So, it was decided to send them here. Some sort of special tutoring program combined with first year high school classes."

      "They actually make me glad this is my last year," said Energia, with a grimace. "No, I'm exaggerating. We got rid of more annoying characters than them, thanks to those new schools and programs."

      "That was a relief," the man said, nodding. "These, though, really do need to be here. I hate to think what a startup would do with a pair of hyperactive, underage gadgeteers."

      Energia said goodbye as the reached the small lobby. She headed for the main doors, while he headed for his office.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I'm glad somebody put them in their place," said Allessandra, hotly, later that day. "In their own way, those little creeps are worse than the pervs we caught in the laundry."

      "Speaking of which, did they ever get rid of that... thing?" said Europa.

      "Oh, yeah," said Energia. "I remember Template mentioning that it was sent kicking and screaming back to whatever Hell it came from."

      "So how did it get here, anyway?" said Hazel.

      Energia just shrugged, though she knew more than she was saying. They didn't know how it got here, which was worrying. Template had asked her to A) keep an eye out for more of those or anything similar and B) keep quiet about it.

      No sense worrying people needlessly, Energia thought. Could simply have been a fluke, like some of the magic folk think.

      Of course, others in the magical community on the island thought it was very much something else. They only differed in their opinions on what that something else was.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We've got them under surveillance," said Brade. "All by people I've had checked with telepaths, and the telepaths have checked each other. Not just watching them, but circumspectly interviewing people who work for them or socialize with them. By which I mean folks are asking understandable questions in non-suspicious situations. Including dates. My contacts in Britain are following the same methodology with Arnold Lampton."

      "You're not using telepaths to find out what they're doing?" said Sievers, puzzled.

      "There's too much evidence they have strong mental defenses," said the huge super. "No sense doing something which wouldn't work and might tip them off. That is, if they actually are the Five Great Powers. Besides, getting a warrant for that would mean trusting a panel of judges, and I won't order something like that without one. Simply watching what they do - no wire taps, no Internet monitoring, no intrusion onto their properties - and asking people about them means no warrants are needed."

      "That's good thinking," said Sievers, nodding. "I want to make clear that you are not to break the law in this investigation. However, you are otherwise free to act, and have whatever budget you need. We need to confirm whether they are who we suspect."

      "That's my goal and my method."

      "We have several other efforts connected with this underway," said Sievers. "For each, only the people directly involved, the Vice President and myself know any more than that."

      "Good system. Hopefully, whoever is leaking this info - and they probably don't even know who they are ultimately working for - won't twig."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Energia got called out of history class the next day to go back to security. No word why; just a call over the PA for her to go there immediately. Was this some sort of follow-up to the incident with the brats? If so, why not wait until after class? Confused and even a bit worried, Energia excused herself and hurried over.

      She landed at the front entrance and walked quickly through the doors to the front desk.

      "I was paged to come here," she said.

      "Oh, right; conference room B."

      The lights were out and no-one was there. However, the large monitor on the wall was showing what looked like a super team's com room. Only, she couldn't see anyone there, either. Increasingly puzzled, Energia moved into range of the video pickup.

      "Hello?"

      "Ah! Just a moment!"

      She heard someone hurrying towards the camera on the other end, and a moment later saw a man in a vaguely familiar costume.

      "Hey! I'm Brainwash, of the Toronto Team."

      "Good afternoon," said Energia, hoping it was there as well. "What can I do for you?"

      "Well, we found Silver Shadow, and tried to capture him," said the man, looking very uncomfortable.

      "Tried?"

      "How the Hell did just you three catch this guy?" said Brainwash, with an odd mixture of emotions, the primary one seemingly irritation. "Half our team is in the hospital, and he got away!"

      "Blue Impact kept kicking him, I kept zapping him, and Gadgetive held him down with a net for most of it," said Energia, with a shrug. "Remember, he got away from us, too, our first time. We had the advantage of knowledge and surprise the second."

      "We ambushed him, too!" said Brainwash, flatly. "We had twice as many piling on him. He nearly killed us."

      That was startling news. The Team wasn't world class, but they were an experienced group with a good track record. Against a powerful novice like Silver Shadow they should have done better. Much better.

      "I don't know what to say," said Energia, honestly. "He was a pretty tough opponent for us, too. Maybe you just had some bad luck."

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Lori Savage intercepted Energia as she left the conference room after finishing the - she thought - rather pointless call. Energia didn't have any more tips to give them, and Brainwash's questions were more of an excuse to gripe about his team getting beaten than an opportunity to learn how to do better. Energia remembered he was something like third in charge, which gave her a pretty good idea of just how badly the team must have been hurt if he was the one running things just now.

      "Good; caught you before you left," said Lori, walking with Energia. "What exactly did that guy want? He was very mysterious."

      "I think he just wanted to complain about how his team couldn't catch Silver Shadow, when we did," said Energia.

      "Well, people get in strange moods after being badly defeated," said Lori, with a smirk. "Anyway, Eve liked the way you handled those boys yesterday, and thought you might be one of those picked to help tutor them."

      "You've got to be kidding," said Energia, stunned, and not in a good way. "No. No way, no how."

      "It would provide college credit towards a teaching degree."

      "I'm not planning to be a teacher," said Energia, flatly.

      Actually, she still, at this late date, had no solid idea what she wanted to be, besides a Mask.

      "Well, Eve might still want you to help with them. If only because they seem rather intimidated by you."

      "I wish Brainwash had been more intimidated by me," said Energia, in a stage mutter, as they reached the exit.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "That's not so surprising," said Gadgetive, that evening, after Energia told her what Brainwash said. "We succeeded where they failed because we're a good team, with a good balance of powers, brains, experience and we work well together. The three of us are pretty effective, and our strengths compliment one another pretty well."

      "But..."

      "Do you ever follow the Mask Ratings Index?"

      "No," said Energia, scowling. "I don't have much interest in popularity contests."

      "Well, one of the guys pointed out to me that our little unnamed team is ranked thirteenth."

      "Out of what?"

      "The world," said Gadgetive, smugly.

      "That... can't be right."

      "Well, part of the score depends on 'babe factor' but even taking that into account, we're in the top twenty. Face it, partner, we're good."

      "I had no idea people thought we were that good."

      "Drop the modesty," said Gadgetive, seriously. "People don't just think we're good, we are good. Think about the foes we've beaten, the problems we've solved. Why do you think so many of the teams who left the country to help in Haiti and Pakistan asked us to sub for them? Even the Assembly called on us for help a few times."

      "Wow," said Energia, as the truth of what her friend said sank in. She suddenly laughed. "Okay, now we have to get a team name!"

      "Maybe a contest..."

      

      


Part Eighteen






      "Meddling fools," said Arnold Lampton, his voice an irritated mutter. Even that indulgence he only allowed himself because he knew he was in a place where he could not be overheard. The English weren't so bothered by rights and niceties as the Americans; his office and home were bugged, his phones tapped. However, they'd not been nearly thorough enough, perhaps due to fear of being caught.

      He'd spotted the surveillance anyway, of course. He'd sent discreet warnings to the others, at about the same time three of them warned him. Only Carstairs hadn't noticed on his own. He was now dismissing the entire effort.

      "They have nothing, or they would move more overtly."

      He was right, but that didn't mean they should take these attentions lightly. The fact that all of the Five were receiving them meant that someone had identified them, at a phase of their operations when they were supposed to be incognito. The time to claim what was rightfully theirs had not arrived, and this could endanger everything.

      Well, all of them were on their best behavior, just now. There was nothing requiring their immediate attention. The Broadcaster was being completed by competent underlings who seemed to have escaped notice. They could wait.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Three days after asking folks to submit suggestions for a team name the flow of entries dried up. Gadgetive figured it was time to actually open the box she and Energia had put out and see what it contained. After classes, they picked up the box and took it to their shared room. The gadgeteer checked it over carefully, then used her version of a box cutter to access the contents. This time she even managed not to score the far wall.

      One particular team name seemed inordinately popular. Unfortunately, it was one they very much did not want.

      "Three Little Bitches," said Gadgetive, thumbing through the last of the entries. "Three Little Bitches. American Trio. X-Bureau. Alpha Works. City Sentinels. Three Little Bitches. Liberty Girls..."

      "I like that one," said Energia. "Oh, wait; there's already a Liberty Girl."

      "Boston Belles. Three Little Bitches. The Busters. The Anomalies..."

      "Sounds like a pop group."

      "Three Little Bitches. Lightning Force. The Impactors."

      "Nice. Except for the medical connotations."

      "All Blond Commandos."

      "None of us is blond," said Energia, baffled.

      "It's from a book. Anyway: Threesome."

      "Oh, please," said Energia, rolling her eyes. Her scowl turned thoughtful as Gadgetive reached the end of the stack with no new suggestions. "You know, our name should have something stating there's three of us. Triumvirate?"

      "Too classical."

      "Trilogy?" said Energia, smirking.

      "Too literary." Gadgetive frowned. "We need something which reminds folks we're American. Not just from North America, but the US."

      "Tricorne," said Energia, suddenly. "You remember the Revolutionary?"

      "Oh, Hell, yeah!" said Gadgetive, with sudden enthusiasm. "I don't think it's been used, either. C'mon, let's tell Blue Impact."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I don't recall that name being used," said Blue Impact, thoughtfully. "I like the idea of using the singular, too, rather than calling ourselves something like The Tricornes. However..."

      "However?" said Energia.

      "If we choose a name, that's the first step to incorporation."

      "That's why you've been putting this off," said Gadgetive, startled.

      "If we do go through with this - If! - we need to wait until Energia is of age and do it right," said Blue Impact, firmly.

      "Well, we can still take a name," said Gadgetive, eagerly. "Put our claim on it to keep anyone else from getting it."

      "What if we find the absolutely perfect name after taking Tricorne?"

      "Uh, well..."

      "Let's hold off. I like it, it would work, but I don't see that there's any hurry."

      "People will expect us to announce the results of the contest," said Energia.

      "Tell them you like Tricorne, but that I want to wait another year."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Eric Koehler was on top of the world. After years of fighting for a better position, with a better salary, he'd scored. Just a year earlier he'd been promoted to assistant to one of the office staff members of the President of the United States! He'd immediately put out feelers, and was now an "anonymous source in the White House." The extra cash that brought in was carefully funneled into an account in his Mother's name.

      His contact changed each time, with the information on where, when, who and how arriving in letters supposedly sent by a nonexistent college buddy. Today, he was to slip a thumb drive to a hot dog vendor with his money for the food.

      "Hey," said Eric, smiling at the vendor. "Make me one with everything."

      "Sorry, we're out of horseradish," said the apologetic vendor.

      "Okay, everything but the white stuff, then," said Eric, completing the coded exchange.

      He handed the folded bill to the vendor, accepted his change and his meal, then casually wandered away.

      He was almost to his usual spot to eat lunch - walking through a small, isolated plaza on the way - when several men in suits and sunglasses approached him. As they neared, each pulled a badge out with one hand and a gun with the other.

      "FBI! Eric Koehler, you are under arrest for espionage!"

      They read him his rights, which was to be expected.

      Eric protested, becoming increasingly frantic as he was escorted to an unmarked car. Somewhere along the way, the agents disposed of his drink and dog so smoothly he later couldn't remember when or how.

      Forty minutes later he was in an interrogation room. Oddly, his biggest concern was that he still hadn't had lunch. Until he found out just what he was being charged with.

      "This is your last chance to come clean," said the more aggressive of the interrogators. "They still execute people for treason in this country!"

      "Treason?!" said Eric, his voice cracking. "What are you talking about? I just provided info to a news agency!"

      "Get this moron out of here," said the apparent head of the operation. "He doesn't have enough sense to realize how much trouble he's in. A few days in solitary should help with that.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Honey!" Doro called out from the bathroom.

      "Yeah?" said Ray.

      "Come here and look at something, would you?"

      He knew she had just finished a shower, but was more than a little surprised to find her standing in the bathroom, completely naked and still damp.

      "Rowr," said Ray, moving in for a cuddle.

      "Cut it out," said Doro, giggling and pushing him away. "No, look at me."

      "With great arousal."

      "No, silly. Do I look more buff?"

      He stepped back and looked, as she flexed inexpertly.

      "I imagine we both do," said Ray, shrugging. "We're training pretty hard these days."

      Doro turned back to the mirror over the sink, frowning.

      "Hey, don't worry; you're still very feminine," said Ray, moving in close behind her and putting his arms around her waist as he nuzzled her neck.

      "That's not worrying me," said Doro. "I like being fit. No, the frown was... The law hasn't even passed. What if we're doing all this for nothing?"

      Ray wasn't worried. They were in a rather nice apartment which was part of a small government complex in southwestern Maryland, not far from Annapolis. He didn't know what it had been built for, but apparently it was idle until shortly before they moved in. The place smelled like it had been closed for a long time, and contractors were still working on some buildings.

      "Right now we're being paid to learn and train," said Ray, hugging her and rocking her slightly. "We're getting food and board and being taught things which can help us be heroes even if the bill fails. If it does become law, we've got a head start."

      "You're right," said Doro, smiling and turning her head to kiss him. "You're just more used to weird stuff in your life, I guess."

      "Hey, we're the same age," said Ray, playfully. "Not my fault you led a sheltered existence until just a couple of years ago."

      "It's been longer than that," said Doro, giggling as his attentions turned overtly sexual. "If you don't quit I'll have to take another shower before bed."

      "I haven't had mine, yet. Let's save water."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The Shilmek ship waited, patiently, monitoring events of the inner Solar System. That is, collectively it was patient. Some individuals varied from the average.

      "Why do we wait?!" said Peltam. "They're right there! On that primitive planet! We should reduce that globe to a glowing ember and finish this!"

      "You need to learn to choose your battles," said his Captain, Helvec. "Tolnar alone would require a major portion of our forces to defeat. Even without Zeep, the inhabitants have proven remarkably capable of defending themselves."

      "We have a weapon for Zeep," said Peltam, dismissively.

      "A weapon untested and untried. No, Tolnar and nearly all her surviving supporters are all on one, small planet, isolated and incommunicado. Let them rot there, until we are ready to deal with them."

      Peltam nodded, but remained surly. His Captain sighed.

      "We need to consolidate. If we divert resources from that, the Emperor could lose his throne. Now, no more of this. Find some way to occupy your spare time, if you're bored."

      "Yes, sir."




Part Nineteen






      "Will you stop obsessing over it?" said Susan, a bit aggravated but also concerned.

      "I'm not obsessing," said Paul, defiantly. His demeanor softened. "It's just... I can't help wondering if Hotfoot might still be alive if I..."

      "It wasn't your idea to toss him off the team," said Susan, firmly.

      "I should have..."

      "You didn't even press charges," said Susan, sternly, trying to get through to him. She softened, putting a hand on Paul's shoulder. "Stop doing this to yourself."

      "The problem is, I did it to him," said Randy, irritated, though with himself.

      "That attitude does you credit," said a new voice, from the doorway to the breakroom. The both started and looked up as Dr. Gorgeous walked in. "It is also a large part of why you were made Champion. However, it can be taken too far. You are not at fault, here. If anything, your mercy was what provided the incentive for Hotfoot to begin his reformation."

      "So if I had pressed charges, he'd be alive in jail right now," said Paul, sourly.

      Susan shot Gorgeous a "Thanks for nothing." glare.

      "Then someone else the Irregulars took on would be dead, instead," she said, pointedly. "This wasn't your fault! That maniac had it in for the team. Someone was going to die. It just happened that Hotfoot was one of them."

      Paul sighed, looked up at Susan and patted the hand still on his shoulder. Then, without a word, he rose and left the room.

      "I'm surprised," said Dr. Gorgeous, looking after him. "Both that he's taking this so hard, and that he's still taking it so hard."

      "It's all tied up in that weird, psychological knot which goes back to almost getting killed, getting turned into Champion, living as a woman for a couple of years..."

      "I know that," said Dr. Gorgeous, waving her hand. "It's still surprising. He should be over that, by now."

      "You can't know that," said Susan, firmly. "None of us can. Who else has been through what he's been through?"

      "Point," said Lucille, nodding.

      Susan looked out the door, gaze distant.

      "Changing sex like that... That's got the be weird. He talks about it, but there's no way I could understand what it did to him. No-one can who hasn't done it."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Colossa finished changing Roy and put him back in his crib. She smiled down fondly at the boy, and gently rubbed his hair. While he sometimes fussed and didn't want to sleep, for the most part he was a delightful baby. Tonight, as was typical, he went right to sleep.

      The size-changing super was still smiling as she walked quietly down the hall to check on her other charge. Randy/Template was very mature in most ways, but could become obsessive under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, running the super political action committee was something which tended to generate those circumstances.

      Colossa winced at a sudden burst of profanity which came through the closed door she was approaching; profanity which quickly segued into a wordless roar. She hurried towards the source.

      "What on Earth is going on in here?" said Colossa, as she cracked the door open and warily peered around the door frame into the room of the bungalow which Template used for her political work.

      "Our Super PAC is under attack!" said Template, outraged.

      There was a pause. Then both broke out laughing.

      "Okay, that sounded really silly."

      "Well, it broke the tension," said Colossa, walking over to her spouse and putting her hands on Template's shoulders. She began massaging, worried about the knots of tension she found. "However, it doesn't provide much information."

      "There are several major efforts underway to have our organization declared illegal," said Template, elaborating. "Doesn't matter it's already been declared legal, there are still courts and government agencies which will act on those claims, and we have to fight 'em all if we're going to stay in business."

      "Could this be something the Five Great Powers are doing?"

      "It could. I wouldn't doubt they're behind at least some of these lawsuits and filed complaints. However, there's enough bigots and special interests out there who don't want supers to have a legislative voice that I doubt all of them are."

      "Well, try to keep it down. I just got Roy to sleep."

      "Sorry. Well, if that didn't wake him he's already out. Which means it'd take an earthquake to disturb him."

      "Nevertheless..." said Colossa, raising a finger.

      "Okay, okay," said Template, with a rueful laugh. She stretched, groaning, then gave a gusty sigh. "I think I'm done for the night anyway."

      "Good. Come to bed, then."

      "It's early," said Template, playfully.

      "Exactly. Oh, and switch to Randy."

      "That sounded like an order."

      "It's either you be Randy, or I break out the strap-on."

      "Ugh. You know I hate wearing that thing."

      "Who said you'd be the one wearing it?" said Colossa, coyly, as she turned towards the door.

      "Huh?" Template quickly stood and hurried after her spouse. "Now, wait a minute..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Whatever hand the Five Great Powers might have in the PACs troubles, just now that organization was not on their minds.

      "This had better be good," said Suzanne, petulantly, as she sat at the ancient table. "I have burned multiple bridges to make this meeting. There is no way I can cover my absence completely. Those watching us will know we Five are acting. If they follow us here..."

      They were gathered on an island off the west coast of Scotland. An island they had used before, in three previous, widely spaced incarnations. Through all the millennia, its use by the Five had remained their secret. This made it invaluable for both hiding themselves, and storing valuable items, as well as work which needed both privacy and a total lack of interruptions. However, it's very value as an unknown resource meant they were very cautious about using it. Yet Arnold had called them here, through means quick rather than subtle.

"Would I gamble so without good reason?" said Arnold.

      "Yes," growled Louis.

      "Is the Amplifier ready?" said Catherine, eagerly.

      "Stop stealing my thunder," said Arnold, though he smiled triumphantly.

      "Yes!" said Suzanne.

      "Is it truly ready?" said Jamine. "That is, at full capacity?"

      "Yes," said Arnold, his smile growing broader. "I was able to not only substitute for the missing parts, but modify the design to accept components I already had or could quickly acquire."

      He laughed.

      "Oh, the debts I accrued in this pursuit! Debts which will be null and void once we rule! The fools, accepting my promises and giving me what I needed on credit!"

      They all enjoyed a good laugh at that.

      "So... When do we do it?" said Louis.

      "Now."

      Arnold rose and headed towards the back of the room. The others quickly followed. He pulled aside a massive book case, revealing the ancient stone stairway beyond. Faux torches lit the way, flickering without heat or smoke. They descended into the bowels of the island, into a chamber hacked into the solid bedrock before Moses was born.

      "Are those your workers?" said Jamine, noting a pile of bodies in the corner.

      "Eh? Oh, yes; they are no longer needed." Arnold laughed. "We are the only living beings on this island, just now. No need for distractions. It also means our security precautions have an easier time determining between friend and foe."

      "You sure you won't need them?" said Suzanne.

      "Of course. I tested all the components thoroughly, and after it was assembled gave the device a low-powered test."

      He gave her a wan smile.

      "You may have heard of the mysterious mass suicide of an entire village in Wales."

      "Not the site of...!" began Catherine

      "You fool! To draw attention like that...!" said Louis, cutting her off.

      "If they know that was the scene of one of our defeats, they could know we were responsible and come after us!" said Jamine.

      "It's too late for anyone to stop us!" said Arnold, a manic light in his eyes. "If every super on Earth were on the way here right now, our defenses would hold more than long enough for us to complete our task. Behold!"

      The centerpiece of the room was a raised platform with five thrones. Mounted above each was a complex-looking helmet, intricately wired.

      "Who will make the announcement?" said Jamine.

      "We draw lots, of course," said Arnold.

      He pulled an antique deck of cards from his jacket.

      "High card speaks for all of us?"

      That was acceptable. They drew. Louis won, with the Jack of Clubs.

      With no further discussion they sat and pulled the helmets down. The machinery around them came to life, glowing and humming.

      All over the Earth, in the orbiting space stations and transports, even as far as the Moon, sensitive people paused, looking puzzled. Then even the non-sensitives started at a seemingly audible and very distinct click.

      "We are the Five Great Powers. We are back to retake possession of our world."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      At the Lagrange Three position, unused by humans, an alien ship was caught in the pandimensional telepathic wave. Normal protections were useless against the effect, but enough of the enemies of the Shilmek were telepathic that they had developed defenses against such things. However, enough of the amplified command leaked through to be noticed, even as their instruments alerted the ship's occupants to the attack.

      "They... DARE!!!" said the Captain, as the implications of what he had just experienced sank in.

      He leapt from his private shower to the intercom, heedless that he was naked and dripping. Though he did make the connection voice only.

      "Where did that come from?!"

      "Earth, ship leader," came the hasty reply. "We are currently narrowing the focus. The effect continues, with instructions to continue our normal activities except where those would interfere with obeying the orders of those who sent the message. We are not perceiving those, due to the psionic protections automatically strengthening as they examined the signal and learned to neutralize it."

      "Find the source!" said the Captain. "I'll be on the bridge in six minutes."

      Unsaid was that the source better be known by then.

      Part of the time was used sending a quick message to his fleet leader. He had no idea if those who so insulted the honor of the Shilmek were allied with the exiled former leader and her fellow refugees; he didn't care. They would die, regardless. All of them. The whole planet.   




Part Twenty




      

      "Status," said Helvec, as he strode into the ship's command center.

      "I doubt the compulsion was meant for us, Captain," said his second, looking up from where he was working with the sensor officer. "More likely, it is a product of some local power play."

      "Regardless, it affected us, and therefore counts as an attack," said the ship leader, angrily. "Command has authorized us to locate the source, and take action if I judge that necessary."

      "First Peltam," said the sensor operator, calling his superior's attention back to the display. "We have the location."

      "Put it on the main display," said Captain Helvec.

      "Not a location I would have expected," said Peltam, frowning, as the image became visible to the entire bridge crew. "Nowhere near any of the government centers or known super headquarters."

      "That makes sense, though," said the Captain, nodding. "You'd want it where an enemy wouldn't look. Helm! Take us as close as you can without risk of detection!"

      "Captain, we risk detection just by moving," said the helmswoman. "Even proceeding slowly there is a chance someone will notice our drive signature."

      The Captain frowned, thinking. He approached the helm and looked at the vector tank.

      "What if we apply a minimum thrust in this direction, and coast?" he said, after a few moments.

      "Yes, sir," said the helmswoman, nodding. "That would work. We'll need several days to approach the specific area of the planet, though."

      "They don't know we're here," said the Captain, firmly. "We have time."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Did you feel that?" said Template, gasping.

      "Of course I felt that!" said Colossa, holding her head with both hands. She looked up towards Template from where she was reading a magazine. "I still feel it. What's going on?"

      "I'll find out," said Template. She stood, gave Roy a brief smile where he was playing on the rug, then nodded to Colossa. For some reason he didn't seem to feel what his parents did. "You get ready for a quick move to shelter."

      Template had been working on increasing her resistance to compulsion after being affected by Sung. She hadn't made much progress. She hoped the effect didn't grow any stronger.

      "Right," said Colossa, nodding as Template hurried out.

      As she flew towards the security building Template could see that the whole island was stirring. Classes had been over for nearly two hours; everyone should be finished with supper and settling in for the evening. However, she could see people milling around in confusion. Apparently, the whole island had felt - was still feeling - that weird, mental intrusion.

      Template saw Eve hurrying along the path towards the same destination and swooped down to fly beside her.

      "What's happening?"

      "Telepathic attack," said the demigoddess. "A very strong one. In fact, I believe it may blanket the Earth."

      "What?!" said Template, so stunned she almost fell out of formation. Her expression suddenly hardened. "The Five Great Powers."

      "Perhaps. Whatever it is, it is strong and pervasive."

      "What's it for?"

      "It is a command for obedience."

      Template was silent for the rest of the journey, partly from disbelief, partly from fury.

      Inside the largest meeting room some of those charged with protecting the island were already waiting. The rest arrived in short order. All were obviously disturbed, but all were acting in a professional manner.

      Eve called the meeting to order, and told the assembly what she had just told Template.

      "I've been in touch with telepaths all over the world. All of them are reporting the same thing: A massive psychic attack, a command to obey the Five Great Powers. Many I called did not respond, either too preoccupied with resisting... or already overcome. The effect reaches at least to the Moon. "

      The group stirred.

      "Why haven't..." said Lori. "Oh, right. The new interference barrier."

      "I didn't realize that would affect telepathy," said Template, impressed.

      "Normal telepathy, no," said Eve. "This, though, is somehow propagated in a manner which reacts with the barrier. Not completely, but enough to weaken the effect."

      "How are they doing this?" said Junker. "None of them have mental powers!"

      "We don't know that," said Eve. "While none are known to have had overt powers of any kind in the past, that doesn't mean they haven't, or that they never will. However, given the strength and the metallic feel to this influence, it is almost certainly generated by a device of some sort."

      "Wait," said Lori, raising a hand. "This is a command to obey the Five Great Powers. What happens when someone realizes we aren't affected."

      "Oh, God," said Template, paling.

      "Yes. We need to be very careful."

      "Who else isn't affected?" said Lori.

      "Many mentalists and mystics, those of especially strong will, some of those not human, those with protections similar to ours," said Eve. "Perhaps... Three thousand, outside the island."

      "We have to act now," said Template, firmly. "Do we know where this is coming from?"

      "An island off the west coast of Scotland," said Eve, nodding.

      "We need to get everyone who can resist this there as quickly as we can," said Template. "We... we need an assembly area where we can meet and plan an attack. Those who can't make it should do what they can to support us. Can any of them do anything to counter this influence?"

      "Yes," said Eve, with determination. "As can I. Yes. Methods mental, magical and technical. I see where you're going. Yes. We must act quickly."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What is going on?" said Paul, his head throbbing.

      "We are obeying," said the security guard sitting beside him. As if answering a perfectly innocuous question. "We are carrying out our normal routine, as long as that does not interfere with the rightful rule of the Five Great Powers."

      Paul had been in the security room when it hit. He'd barely made the chair, almost fainting. The compulsion was so strong...

      Wait. If he could resist, how many of the others could?

      Paul rose and headed for the last known location of Sharma. To his great relief, he found her hurrying down the hallway towards security.

      "Are you..." said Paul.

      "Resisting. So are Dr. Gorgeous and Champion. The others..."

      "We better contact... contact Dr. Piano," said Paul, who was having great difficulty being coherent.

      "Yes, but let us be circumspect."

      "Definitely."

      

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The resistance organized with blinding speed, though time still seemed to drag. Many were caught not complying with the orders of the world's rightful rulers and dealt with; some fatally. Still, the effort was moving ahead. Given a clear and obvious immediate need, people used to taking quick, decisive action did so. Blood enemies put aside their feuds to cooperate with the work.

      Paul, Sharma, Dr. Gorgeous and Champion barely escaped in a hopper before the rest of the team and nearly all the support staff broke through the inner door and overcame them. They boosted for the stratosphere, heading east and north. Once underway, Sharma cast protections on all of them, greatly easing their struggle against the mental influence.

      In the heart of the Bluegrass, two dozen elves plus one were working magic of their own. Some cast spells, others used their innate mental abilities. First, they protected their own. Then they focused on spreading that protection.

      All Guardian facilities were equipped with protections similar to - though less sophisticated than - those around the island, as were several other super bases. Still, they had problems, as the most susceptible yielded and fought against the resisters.

      All over the world, in orbit, on the Moon, a fraction of the population fought to free the rest.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The machine was currently on automatic, the exhausted new rulers of the world resting and checking with their sources.

      "Already, they mobilize against us," said Jamine, worried.

      "The last desperate act of defiance," said Arnold, scornfully. "In mere hours the engrams will be so deeply impressed into their psyches that only a handful will still be resisting."

      "Then, once again, we will be the undisputed masters," said Louis, eyes distant, a slight smile on his face.




Part Twenty-One






      "Captain..." said the First, leaning close to speak confidentially, as the ship drifted closer to Earth on its ballistic course. "Why would we take action now, against this, which is no real threat to us, and not before, against Tolnar?"

      "Think for a moment. If these Five Great Powers unite all the squabbling factions into one, effective government..."

      "By the Ideal..." said Peltam, eyes going wide in alarm.

      "Exactly. Leaving Tolnar and the other exiles there without us even contacting them gives the natives no threat to unify against. This, though, could do just that. Considering how potent these humans are when they put away their internecine disagreements, that could be very bad."

      The First nodded, looking worried.

      "So, we risk a surgical strike, before any of them know we're here," he said. "If we can take out these Five, we may perhaps earn the gratitude of the humans."

      "Exactly. They might even be grateful enough to turn Tolnar and the others over to us."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The problem with running the world yourselves is that it is a  very, very complicated place. So far, the Five Great Powers were fully occupied dealing with problems they already knew about. They had made some progress in organizing things - that is, having those among their thralls who were in positions of power report in an orderly fashion for specific instructions - but so far the rough command chain was causing more false alarms than relevant information.

      "The control just isn't fine enough!" said Jamine, during an all too brief break. "I can't focus on the particular individual I want. Even using a specific name isn't enough; there's six and a half billion of these vermin crawling around the globe!"

      "Deal with it!" snapped Louis. "We have our own problems!"

      "We have to consolidate our control before those few who are still rebellious can organize against us," said Arnold, testily.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Meanwhile, a resistance effort they had missed because none of those in power over nations or international corporations knew about it was getting properly underway.

       "We need to capture them. If they're killed, twenty or thirty years from now we could go through this all over again."

      The Guardsman gestured towards the large map he had pinned to the makeshift bulletin board.

      "This has been so quickly arranged that some of you may not even know where we are or where we're going."

      He used an extendable pointer to tap a tiny dot in the Atlantic, well off the Scottish coast.

      "Our enemy is here. A tiny, privately-owned island with no actual place in history and no name we know of. How and why it came to be the headquarters of the Five Great Powers is something which can wait for another day. It's little more than a rocky crag with a very old stone structure - a keep, rather than a castle - on the highest spot. There's almost no vegetation, almost no place to hide. Obviously, there must be hidden depths, here. Most likely at least one large, underground chamber. Possibly even an entire complex. Our intelligence is limited, but we can make some educated guesses. For instance, given what we know of the geology of the island and its small size, the facilities must be small."

      "Unless they extend under the ocean," said Dr. Gorgeous.

      "A possibility, but unlikely," said the Guardsman.

      He next tapped what appeared to be open ocean.

      "We are here. A tiny island even rockier and more bare than our target, too small to appear at this scale. The Walrus recommended this location, apparently from personal knowledge. It has the very valuable advantage of being just over the horizon with respect to the target."

      He turned to survey the assembled supers, absently collapsing the pointer as he looked at them. His patriotic but practical costumed showed signs of damage. Like many others here, he'd had to fight to get away from those under the control of the Five Great Powers. At least six who had attempted to join the effort hadn't made it. From what little they knew, perhaps three were dead. At least the recent improvements in communications between teams had kept their plans from being learned. That is, they had seen no sign the enemy knew of them. So far.

      "We will have three teams. The first will move separately across the surface of the ocean to the island in two boats. The second - all flyers - will wait until just before they make landfall and conduct an air strike then. Under that cover the surface team will land at two points."

      The Guardsman deftly pinned an aerial photo over the map and, deciding against extending the pointer again, used his gloved finger as an indicator.

      "Here, and here."

      "You all have copies of the best photos and maps we could scrounge," said Dr. Gorgeous.

      "Meanwhile, the third team will be here, performing multiple functions," said the Guardsman, once more turning back to the assembled heroes. "Coordinating, monitoring, running interference as necessary. As well as whatever else they can think of. This job may be the most important of all. You may have to prevent our effort from being discovered until we can deal with the Five Great Powers, or, if it is, give us warning of approaching retaliation."

      He gave details of who, where, when and how.

      "The flyers will leave here in staggered order and fly their own routes to the rendezvous point," he said, finally. "The only restriction is that they do not fly closer than twenty-five kilometers to the target."

      Paul wondered how that distance had been chosen. It sounded pretty arbitrary. Most likely, the brains had given the Guardsman a number and he'd rounded up. He sighed, leaned back and rubbed his eyes. The spells Sharma had cast had reduced the psionic compulsion to a distant murmur, but it still drained him to fight it. Just more slowly, now. He wasn't the only one fighting; Paul desperately hoped they could take out the transmitter before anyone on their team yielded. That was one of the things no-one was talking about.

      Focus on the mission, he told himself.

      The Guardsman finished, summing up with a bit of a pep talk.

      "Our resources are minimal, but we should have all we need. The only people on the island most likely have weapons, but no powers. We have three resistant gadgeteers among the first team, to help deal with defenses. Now, let's get busy."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I just wish I could help," said Template, fretting.

      Only about half those charged with running the security of the island were here. She wished their UN liaison were among them, but Adelaide Holmes - only on the job a month and a half - had sent her apologies. She had her hands full keeping the T.O.W.E.R. troops and other UN personnel under control. Some of them apparently still weren't sure the bizarre orders they were getting from headquarters weren't valid.

      "You are not alone," said Eve. "Either in wishing you were there, or wishing to be there. However, all of you are needed here. Besides guarding those already on the island, we have refugees arriving."

      The gadgeteers had spent a busy two and a half hours boosting the effect of the island's protection against the telepathic influence. Before that, security and others had found themselves controlling several individuals who had fallen under the effect of the telepathic broadcast, even weakened as it was by the island's protections. They were now very sheepishly free of that, and the gadgeteers had turned their attentions elsewhere. One of the first products of their subsequent efforts was a gradually increasing number of portable protection devices. So far, they weren't needed, but they most likely would be, and soon.

      "How are we going to know the people coming in are actually free of the influence?" said Junker.

      "They were all told to enter at either the old lagoon or the Pioneers' auxiliary base," said Lori. "They'll be met by security teams augmented by at least two telepaths each. Anyone who tries to approach from any other way will be taken out first, and evaluated second."

      Template winced, but nodded. It was ruthless, but the people they were up against were even moreso.

      "I still don't understand why all that's necessary," said Junker. "Won't they be free - well, mostly - of the influence once they're inside our protections?"

      "The problem is that the longer someone is under the influence, the more ingrained it becomes," said Eve, tiredly. "Someone entering now who is already controlled might need half an hour or more to recover. Worse, the effect will eventually become permanent. There could already be thousands - tens of thousands - scattered around the world who are irreversibly enslaved."

      "My God..." breathed Junker, eyes wide with shock.

      "If we can't take out the transmitter or generate a counter effect, this island could be the only free place on Earth in a matter of hours.

      "Which brings me to your assignment," said Eve, looking Template in the eye. "We're putting all the gadgeteers to work in the Pine base. I want you to be one of them."

      "I get it," said Template, nodding again. "The more we have working on solutions, the better the chance of success."

      "Also, the more approaches we apply, the less likely that the Five Great Powers or one of their subjects will have a counter to everything we throw at them."

      "I'll head there now," said Template, turning and hurrying towards the exit.




Part Twenty-Two






      Peltam pressed the annunciator button outside the door to the Captain's cabin.

      "Enter."

      "Ship leader," said the First, as the door closed behind him. "We are seeing indications of local activity in the vicinity of the island."

      "What sort of activity?"

      "It appears that there are some still free of the influence. Some of them are mounting an attack against the source."

      "We take it out, anyway," said the Captain, after a moment of thought. "If we don't, someone else could use it and we'd again face a world united against us."

      "That is sensible. We will be within range in an hour and forty minutes."

      "Return to the bridge. I will join you in a few minutes."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The ground assault team consisted of a scant dozen members. Five were bricks, four were energy/force manipulators and three were something else. Oddly, most of those involved in this seemed to expect those three to carry the attack home. At least, that was the impression Champion had.

      I guess it makes sense, she thought. We're all three fast, strong, tough and agile, and Tiger and I have heightened senses. We're not as brute-force oriented as the others so we won't be as useful taking out any defenses, but should be good at getting around them and reaching the Five Great Powers. They aren't supposed to be much in the way of physical potency, so even if only one of us makes it in we should be able to take them.

      She just wished she felt confident that would actually happen. Champion had been involved in big operations before, but this one literally involved the fate of all humanity. She shuddered to think what life under the control of the Five Great Powers would be like. She didn't know much about them, but remembered that they had been responsible - though mostly indirectly - for the deaths of tens of millions.

      In spite of knowing it was coming, the assault of the flyers made her jump. Champion wasn't the only one. The night sky was suddenly filled with beams and blasts, as well as what looked like tracers and rocket trails. Moments after the flyers finished, the sounds washed over them. The plan was for them to only make one strike, then come in low to the same landing sites as the ground assault team. She just hoped they all made it. On both teams.

      The motors on the two rubber boats were cut on cue, and super power took over.

      "What if they can access the super monitors?" said someone Champion couldn't see, their voice too disguised by whispering for her to recognize.

      "Too late to worry about that," someone - she thought Tiger - murmured.

      "Quiet," said the Guardsman. "Boat two, head south."

      Under the thrust provided by a pair of flyers the boat actually moved faster than with the provided engine. Champion had no idea where they'd gotten all this equipment. The boats, the com gear, the tents back on the tiny island where they'd started, even the black, hooded suits they were all wearing.

      Champion found herself glad for the extra layer of clothing. Night on the North Atlantic in early Fall was cold. Given the spray and the wind, she was actually feeling a bit chilled by the time they slowed to make their way through the rocks. Fortunately, several of those on board could see in low low-light conditions, so making their passage wasn't difficult. Within minutes they were stepping on shore.

      The two bricks - Ujabeck and Apolonia - stepped out first... and were promptly attacked.

      They saw and heard something approaching. Actually, several things. Moments later, two large, vaguely mastiff-like beasts ran at them, far faster than any normal animal. More were coming.

      "Go!" yelled Ujabeck, as he smashed the skull of one. "We will follow when we can!"

      "Up here!" Tiger called out, from Champion's right, and the top of a boulder.

      She watched him bound from that to another boulder, then another. Champion realized what he was doing, and immediately followed, Border Guard right behind her. Champion could hear similar combat sounds towards from the direction of the other team. Obviously, the stealth portion of the operation was over. She just hoped that dividing their forces meant the Five couldn't effectively stop everyone.

      Champion had met Tiger a few times before but never really seen him in action; she wondered why he'd even been included, though the Guardsman had been in favor. Border Guard she knew nothing about, though Champion suspected he might somehow be connected to the Guardsman.

      Up here, where normal humans would have to clamber slowly up, across and then back down, the three of them were actually making faster progress than they would have on the ground. Champion followed Tiger's exact course, realizing that if he made it through without triggering something most likely she would, as well. Border Guard veered to the left and tried to pull ahead, but immediately came under heavy machine gun fire. He dropped to the ground with a yell. Champion paused on top of a boulder, looking back, hesitating, unable to see him.

      "Don't stop!" Tiger yelled, without even looking around.

      Champion gritted her teeth and charged after him.

      Moments later they were at the base of the rocky crag on which the keep perched. Champion was relieved to see Border Guard approaching. He looked a bit worse for the wear, but didn't seem badly hurt.

      "Fuck!" was all he could manage, at first, around his panting.

      "Catch your breath," said Tiger, looking up the cliff. "We have a hard climb ahead of us."

      "How did you know the safe path?" said Border Guard.

      "Sensors in my suit. You can thank Ike Kenniman."

      "So how do we get in?" said Champion.

      "I'm getting... Yes, it's faint, but over there, there's warm air coming out of somewhere."

      "If they're underground..." said Border Guard.

      "They need vents!" said Champion.

      "We don't know if it's big enough," said Tiger.

      "We need to check it out, anyway," said Champion, nodding.

      They worked their cautious way around the base of the crag, Tiger able to warn them of traps. Surprisingly, most of them were ancient; pitfalls and counterbalances.

      "They've been working on this place a long time," said Tiger, in a low, almost appreciative mutter.

      Even directly below the source of the warm air, the other two couldn't see anything. Still, they trusted Tiger's instruments. They began climbing. Champion was annoyed to see that Tiger was able to scale the rough, nearly-vertical surface more quickly than either her or Border Guard. However, he suddenly stopped.

      "What?" said Champion, once she had reached him.

      He pointed. She needed a moment to see, then winced.

      "That's a small crack."

      "I can't fit through that," said Border Guard.

      They both looked at Champion. Who sighed, and moved closer.

      "Looks like it's pretty smooth... and maybe gets wider as it goes."

      "You try here," said Tiger. "We'll go further up. If you can't get through, follow us."

      Champion didn't like that, but it was a reasonable decision. As the others resumed climbing, she sighed and began removing her black jumpsuit.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Inside the chamber, the Five knew there were problems with their rule, that it wasn't complete, yet, but were looking in the wrong places. Sitting in their thrones, they scoured the world, using their increasing familiarity with the feedback provided by the device to look for trouble. The problem was, they were getting a gist, rather than details. They could feel that rogues were plotting against them, even acting against them, but had no details of who or where. The alarms sounding in the chamber went unheard as they focused on the world at large.

      Where is it? thought Arnold, with a growing sense of anxiety. Where is the threat?

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Champion nearly didn't make it, right there at the beginning; she had to twist and haul to get her hips throughout that narrow crack. Even taking her utility belt off and pushing it ahead of her, the fit was very, very tight. She may have actually broken something; there was that much pain. She didn't stop, she only paused when she needed to take a moment to evaluate what to do next. However, she was driven by the fact that with the others gone, she could hear what were obviously alarms coming from inside. Painfully, she hauled herself through the narrow fissure. It seemed to be an entirely natural crack, a vein of softer rock inside the harder, worn away by wind or water or a combination. She wondered if the Five even knew it was here.

      The stretching guy would be on the other team, she thought, sourly.

She worked her way by feel at first, but after several agonizing minutes she began to see light ahead. Encouraged, she worked faster. However, she soon saw that the crack narrowed at the far end, as well, though it was also longer.

      Champion got as close as she could and peered inside. The crack was nearly horizontal, at the top of a wall, just under the ceiling. She could see the Five, sitting in ornate chairs which appeared to be ancient, but festooned with technology from several different eras. They appeared to be immobile, oblivious. Around them equipment hummed and flickered; some sort of console not connected to the machine the Five were attached to sounded alarms and flashed lights.

      Champion pulled back a bit and carefully found a particular pocket in the utility belt. She pulled out the small charge of plastic explosive and rolled it into a thick strand. That was pressed against the bottom of the crack, where it was widest. Champion pushed the tiny detonator against the mass until it was slightly embedded, set the timer for thirty seconds, then scrambled backwards for a count of twenty-five. She then flattened herself against the floor and put her arms over her head.

      



Part Twenty-Three






      The explosion wasn't all that large, but in the confined space of the crevice the effect on Champion was literally stunning. Dazed, she forced herself onto all fours and, coughing and blinking against the dust, moved to the opening. She almost collapsed with relief when she saw it was now easily large enough for her to get through.

      Champion had to proceed head first. She managed to get a hold on the edge, swing her legs through, then drop clumsily to the floor. She was just in time; that blast had been more than enough to rouse the Five from their preoccupation, but not nearly enough to knock them out. Or disable their machine.

      As they Five struggled to return their attentions to this room from the outside world, Champion grabbed a fist-sized chunk of stone, wound up like a baseball pitcher, and let fly. Champion didn't know what part of the machine was most vulnerable but figured all parts were necessary for it to function; she simply aimed at the largest piece.

      There was little drama after the impact, but obviously there was something wrong with it; lights went out and more alarms began sounding. She even saw a little curl of smoke come out the top of the casing she had hit. Her satisfaction was short-lived.

      "No!" screamed a handsome, blond man, as he launched himself at Champion.

      She had thought this would be the easy part, but she was up against five masters of both armed and unarmed combat in peak human condition and possessing near superhuman will and definitely superhuman experience. The resulting battle lasted several minutes, and involved multiple weapons. Finally - Finally! - she finished the last of them, the blond man, whom someone had called Louis.

      Champion stood, weaving on her feet, left arm hanging limp. She looked dumbly around the room for a moment, shook her head to focus herself, then began limping for the very sturdy-looking door. She opened it and sat down just outside, where she could keep an eye on the stairway. Help would hopefully be coming soon.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "That's the last of them," said Tiger, panting, as he shoved the body of the monster hound aside.

      Border Guard, also breathing hard, nodded silently.

      They both suddenly looked up, as the oppressive influence of the Five Great Powers suddenly just... stopped.

      "Well, looks like someone got there ahead of us," said Border Guard, with a tired smile. "Let's hope she didn't damage it too much."

      "Frankly, I'd be happy if she completely destroyed the thing," said Tiger. "Hate mind control."

      "Oh, no," said Border Guard, shaking his head. "Whatever they used to create that effect is far too valuable to loose. Just imagine the good we could do with that."

      "Trust me, no good would come of that," said Tiger, sourly. "Free will may have its drawbacks, but it is infinitely preferable to any one man's - or one group's - will. Diversity is strength in a society. Just like in any composite."

      "I'm sorry you feel that way."

      A measure of his tiredness was that he didn't twig to the danger until just before Border Guard grabbed him. Tiger still almost evaded his grasp. His assailant only succeeded because he didn't try to harm Tiger directly. Border Guard had seen how well the combination of the armor in the suit and Tiger's natural toughness protected him. Instead, he simply grabbed Tiger and hurled him over the wall. He'd probably survive the fall, but by the time he could get back up here Border Guard would have secured the prize.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Paul wondered what he was doing here. Oh, sure, he was resistant to the influence of whatever device the Five Great Powers were using, and he was good at organizing super activities and defenses. However, others here - including Dr. Gorgeous - were far better at such things. Mostly he worked to help them, but there just wasn't that much to do. He looked around at the camouflaged tents and the rocks, and tried to think of something to do, some way he could help. The compulsion and his tiredness just wouldn't let him.

      Suddenly, the pressure on his mind ceased. Paul gasped, feeling dizzy for a moment. Then he smiled.

      "They did it," said Paul, straightening from a slightly bent posture he hadn't even realized he was holding. "They did it!"

      All over the small island cheers broke out.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Captain, the effect has ended," said the sensor operator.

      "Noted," said the Captain. "Time to optimum firing position?"

      "Twelve and a half minutes."

      "Proceed as planned."

      With a little luck, they would be done and gone before the defenses could recover.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Champion heard someone coming down the stairs and felt a surge of hope. Moments later, Border Guard came hurrying in.

      "They're in there," said Champion, not bothering to stand, but gesturing tiredly. "You better tie them up. I didn't have the energy."

      "Sure," said Border Guard, smiling.

      He moved closer, still smiling. Then caught Champion with a side kick right in the face. Her head hit the wall hard enough to crack the stone.

      The blow would have burst the skull of a normal human, but she was still conscious! Scowling, Border Guard spun the dazed Champion around and choked her out. She struggled for a surprisingly long time. Even after she went limp, he held for a slow count to thirty, to make sure. When finished he didn't assume, he checked. There was no breath, no pulse.

      With a sigh of regret, he let the body fall and stepped into the room, closing and securing the door behind him. If only he could have converted her. However, she was too brainwashed by the socialist conspiracy, too convinced that all deserved rights, rather than the fit. He put her loss out of his mind.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Border Guard finished restraining the Five, then made a quick survey of the room. Good; the machine didn't look too damaged. Even better, there was a security console with a radio in the corner, an antenna cable running through a hole drilled into the ceiling. He sat down, turned the radio to a memorized frequency and began calling.

      "This is Freedom's Secret calling the Secret Keeper," he said. He waited a moment; they'd likely need a while to recover from the machine's effects. "This is Freedom's Secret calling the Secret Keeper. Do you read?"

      "Secret Keeper, here," came a shaky voice. "What's happening?"

      "The Five Great Powers used a machine to mind-control the whole fucking planet," said Border Guard, with a touch of awe in his voice. "I managed to get on a team rushing to stop them, using my Border Guard identity. I am now in charge of the machine, with the Five my prisoners. Here are the co..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Optimum firing position," said the master gunner. "Firing solution obtained."

      "Attack."

      The beam was not visible in space, but it was definitely seen where it hit the atmosphere. In fact, it's track from the stratosphere down to the ground looked like a bizarrely straight and even lightning bolt.

      "Target destroyed," said the gunner, a bit smugly.

      "Now, full power to the drives. Get us out of here."

      "Thrusting now, Captain," said the helm officer.

      "Still no response from system defenses," said the sensor operator.

      "FTL as soon as you can," said the Caption. "Don't worry about straining the drive. Once we're translight, set a course for Centauri System."

      "Aye, sir."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Paul screamed as his body filled with fire. The scream rose in pitch as his body reshaped, growing slightly larger and distinctly more feminine. The others there watched, stunned, as the transformation completed. Paul suddenly fell silent, and fell to the ground.

      Dr. Gorgeous was the first to reach her.

      "Paul! What happened?"

      She needed several attempts to rouse the woman. When she did, Paul's eyes snapped open, full of a powerful mix of emotions.

      "Oh, God..." said Paul, in sudden realization. "Carol is dead."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The strike was surgical, and lasted less than a second. The aftereffects spread well out into the ocean and lasted for minutes. When the last of the debris stopped falling and the thunder died away, the dazed survivors began assembling, trying to figure out what had just happened.

      "My God," said the Guardsman, as he finished counting heads. He shook his own, still trying to wrap his mind around the events of the bizarre, frantic last several hours. "What happened?"

      His com beeped.

      "What is your status?" said Dr. Gorgeous, quickly.

      "Everyone accounted for except Champion, Tiger and Border Guard," said the Guardsman. "Several wounded but none dead among those I know about."

      "We're... pretty sure Champion is dead," said Dr. Gorgeous. The Guardsman heard an odd tremor in her voice. "We have no idea about the others. We're already mobilizing people to head your way. Secure the area as best you can in the meantime."

      "Roger," said the Guardsman.

      He lowered the com and looked around at the blasted waste which had been a rocky island.

      "My God," he repeated. He took a deep breath, straightened, and looked at those in his charge. "All right. Mesa, you've got EMT training right? You stay here with the worst of the wounded. The rest of you, with me."

      

Part Twenty-Four






      "The signal is coming from over here," said Dr. Gorgeous, waving her sensor unit around.

      The bricks moved in and began shifting rubble, though gingerly. Several times Lucille had to stop them, check something, then direct them to continue or try something else. Eventually, though, they uncovered a patch of black fabric.

      "It's about time," came a muffled, strained voice, from underneath more rubble. "Thought my batteries would run out before anyone responded to my rescue beacon."

      Soon, Tiger was completely uncovered. He started to sit up but Mesa insisted on making him lay back so he could be checked.

      "Okay, you're pretty banged up, but if you move cautiously you shouldn't slow your recovery much."

      "Pretty banged up," muttered Ujabeck. "He and that suit are both really bad shape!"

      "He'll be fine," said Dr. Gorgeous, resuming her scanning. "He can heal from any non-fatal injury in under an hour. Fatal injuries take longer."

      "Bet he wishes he could say the same for the suit," said Mesa, laughing, as Tiger peeled off his hood.

      "I figure Ike will just use this as an opportunity to make a better one," said Tiger, shrugging and wincing. "He made this for me back in our Specialists days, though he's updated it a couple of times since. Where's the food?"

      "It's back at the beach," said the Guardsman. "The brains and their guards brought the whole base camp here, once we signaled the all clear. Go, eat. When you feel like it, come back and help. This won't be a quick task."

      "Be careful," said Tiger, as he carefully stood. "I'm sensing magic. Strong magic."

      "Send Sharma here once you get to the base camp, then," said the Guardsman, nodding.

      "I'm reading multiple organic forms over here," said Lucille, as she beginning to walk towards another pile of rubble.

However, this time their digging uncovered a number of non-human bodies.

      "Looks like this was the kennel," said the Guardsman, with a grimace of distaste. "I am very glad these didn't make it out. That one looks like it could use a tank as a chew toy."

      "Probably being held in reserve for defense of the keep itself," said Apolonia.

      Dr. Gorgeous climbed carefully onto a large section of rubble and looked around.

      "I think the upper part of the building exploded outward, the lower part was fractured but couldn't move due to the surrounding rock, then the lower part collapsed into the hole once the pressure was gone. Just like a volcanic caldera."

      They carefully clambered over the raised rim, lowered themselves onto the debris below, and set grimly to work.

      "I've already located more forms," said Dr. Gorgeous, quietly. "These are really deep."

      They had little enthusiasm for this task but it had to be done. By the time they were nearing the new location Tiger was back.

      "I smell people," he said, sadly, after one particularly large chunk of island bedrock had been moved out of the hole where the basement of the keep had been.

      Sure enough, they soon found a human body.

      "I think that's Louis Carstairs," said Dr. Gorgeous.

      In a few more minutes, they had uncovered all the Five, as well as Border Guard.

      "Yeah, him," growled Tiger, his tiger actually showing in the dim, pre-dawn light.

      "Is something wrong?" said the Guardsman.

      "Oh, right; didn't tell you folks. Just the ones back at base camp. He turned traitor. Threw me off the keep, went after the mind control machine for himself. That's how I wound up outside the immediate blast area. Probably saved my life, though that definitely wasn't his intention."

      "So where's Champion?" said Mesa.

      They found her, a few meters away.

      "Looks like this was a reinforced doorway and armored door," said Dr. Gorgeous, examining the small hole in the debris where they had found Champion. "Must by why her body is in such good shape."

      "Not a body!" said Mesa, with rising excitement. "She's alive! The door and frame must have partially shielded her!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Paula wanted to help with the cleanup and recovery at the keep, but Dr. Gorgeous had insisted she stay with the new base camp. She had also ordered Paula to return to the Assembly base on the first hopper going there. Given what had happened, Paula was not arguing.

      "I don't look the same," said Paula, quietly, as she examined her new face in a shaving mirror. "Not the same as my Champion."

      Indeed, she looked like Paul, only female and a bit taller. So far no explanations for Paul's transformation had been given, and there really hadn't been time for anyone to get around to asking. The news that Champion was still alive baffled the few who knew Paula had been her predecessor. What had caused the change?!

      Paula was left sitting there, under the camouflaged awning, wondering about the repeated strange turns her life had taken these past few years.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "It looks like they were so preoccupied with establishing their rule that they never got around to contingency programming," said Eve, as she and the island security team monitored the world's recovery from the Five's domination.

      "What do you mean?" said Lori.

      "They could easily have planted compulsions in especially susceptible minds to take certain actions if their signal cut off."

      "Wow," said Lori, stunned. "I hadn't even considered that."

      "Well, I imagine that was partly ego," said Junkers. "They controlled the world, except for a few stubborn rebels. What were the odds they would be defeated by such rabble at their moment of triumph?"

      "Any word on who zapped them?" said Lori.

      "Reviews of sensor records show a Shilmek spy ship appearing over that island and firing its one weapon," said Junker. "No telling how long they were watching Earth and the Moon."

      "I'm surprised it wasn't Zeep," said Template, who was being quiet for most of this meeting.

      "Given his propensity for deep space exploration," said Eve, "he may not have noticed the problem yet. The effect traveled at the speed of light."

      "Why would the Shilmek help us?!" said Lori.

      "Did they?" said Eve, sourly. "They may have feared the device could be used to unify our response to an attack. Or that we'd be grateful enough to them for 'saving' us that we'd turn over Queen Tolnar."

      "They fired after we stopped the broadcast," said Junker, pointedly.

      "Well, from what I know of the Shilmek, once they decide on a plan of action they carry it out. No matter how the situation changes in the meantime."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I feel so useless," said Energia, idly levitating a handful of coins using the Meissner effect. "Gadgetive was helping build defenses, and I was stuck here, doing nothing."

      "How do you think I feel?" said Blue Impact, sourly. "I'm an adult, and an experienced super. However, I don't have the sort of mental resistance or superhuman willpower needed to resist that sort of compulsion for long."

      "Well, neither do I!" said Energia, throwing up her hands and letting the coins drop onto the table in the living room of the bungalow of Template, Colossa and Roy.

      Colossa was currently helping security keep tabs on those who had come to the island while the compulsion was in effect. Worry that some of them might have latent obedience due to their exposure meant every single one of them had to be scanned by trained telepaths. There just weren't enough telepaths to finish processing these before Noon. There had been that many coming here for help... or to harm. Already several who had recovered admitted being ordered to the island to sabotage their protections, since it seemed to be the single largest area unaffected.

      With Colossa busy there and Template first helping the gadgeteers then doing admin, Energia was asked to pick Roy up from Daycare, bring him to the bungalow and sit with him until one or the other of his parents could get there. Blue Impact had come here from the teachers' quarters to keep her company.

      "Well, we can't all be effective in every emergency," said the teacher, with a sigh. She yawned, and shook her head. She had stayed up most of the might to keep tabs on world events. "Wonder if Eve will make us hold afternoon classes, or just declare the whole day a holiday."

      "For your sake, I hope the latter," said Energia, grinning as her team leader fought another yawn and lost.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What's our status?" said President Sievers.

      "Thanks to the order to continue as normal, surprisingly good," said Gompers. "A few aircraft down, a few facilities under lockdown, phone lines and Internet overloaded."

      "We got lucky," said Brade, sourly. "God, that was embarrassing. I consider myself strong-willed, but just gave in after about twenty minutes. Long before I could reach a protected base."

      They all looked terrible, mostly from shame and guilt.

      "I know it's early, but I want ideas on how to keep this from happening again," said the President, straightening in her chair.

      "From what I've learned, the super minds already have a good idea of how this was done, and how to block it," said Brade, quickly. Supers had caused this problem; she wanted to regain face by making sure supers kept it from happening again. "Once they have plans, we build counter-generators, several of them. Independently powered, maybe buried deep underground and sealed."

      "You want to build devices we'd have huge trouble turning off?" said Howers, startled.

      "They could only be used to interfere with the propagation of this particular effect," said Brade. "Wouldn't even affect normal telepathy."

      The idea was far from eagerly accepted, but they couldn't come up with any other technical solution.

      "At least we'll now be able to get warrants for the Five, now," said Gompers. "Track down what they were up to, who was working for them."




Part Twenty-Five






      "This is bizarre," said Dr. Piano, as he examined Paula through a quizzinglass. "The differences go far deeper than mere appearance."

      "I actually feel pretty much as I did when I was Champion," said Paula, shifting uneasily. She was trying to be hopeful, but seeing the mystic growing increasingly puzzled and frustrated wasn't helping with that.

      Though no longer an active member of the team, Dr. Piano still had quarters at the Assembly base. This was less for staying in than for - as he put it - holding consultations. This wasn't the first time his help had been needed for something magical.

      Paula looked around the room a bit uncertainly as Dr. Piano rummaged in a cabinet. The place looked very much like a smaller version of the basement "lab" at his home. Something Paul/Paula had been privileged to see a few times. At first glance, both rooms looked like any home workshop. However, the wall decorations were definitely not your standard shop posters, the tools not drills and hammers, and the scents were all wrong.

      Speaking of scents...

      "I'd forgotten just how keen a champion's nose is," said Paula, wrinkling hers. "Or could it be even more sensitive, now?"

      "Here it is," said Dr. Piano, pulling out something which look like a yarmulke made by someone very much not Orthodox.

      He carefully placed this on top of Paula's head, while quietly murmuring to himself.

      "That tingles," said Paula. "Is it supposed to tingle?"

      "No," said Piano, looking irritated. "It's also not supposed to tell me nothing."

      Paula decided to overlook the double negative.

      "If this isn't the champion avatar package, why can't I say the goddess' name?" said Paula, as the doctor put the cap away.

      "Either psychological - you expect not to be able to - or something is incidentally or deliberately mimicking the package. Either way, it's beyond me. I need to call in a specialist."

      "The goddess?" said Paula, feeling oddly eager.

      "Exactly. Which will take some time to arrange."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "It's hard to believe that's really you in there," said Susan, looking Paula over warily. This was the first time she had been alone with her lover since the transformation. They were both world-class uneasy.

      "Trust me, I'm in here," said Paula, sighing. "I'm glad you decided to stay."

      "Well, I'd have to requisition a room, move my stuff..."

      "I really appreciate this," said Paula, wanting to hug her but afraid of Susan's reaction.

      To her relief, she took the initiative, giving Paula a very affectionate - if completely platonic - hug.

      "Hopefully, this is temporary. I mean, you gave Champion to someone else."

      "Yeah, but that took over two years."

      Susan noticed something, and pushed back, holding Paula at arms length.

      "It didn't hit me before, but you are definitely taller."

      "Yeah. Still about a head shorter than Brade, though."

      "How is Carol doing?" said Susan, as she lowered her hands. "I've been so busy helping the supers organize their part of the cleanup I haven't heard."

      "Critical condition," said Paula, sadly. "No sign of consciousness returning, yet."

      She sat on the bed, heaving a great, tired sigh.

      "The beam came straight down at the transmitter, which was a little off center from the middle of the keep. The armored door - and the wall it was in - was designed to keep supers out. It contained most of the blast. The keep collapse sent debris down into the hallway outside, but Carol was mostly in a pocket formed because the reinforced wall held."

      "What were her injuries, though?"

      "Oh. Uhm, serious concussion, bruised larynx, multiple broken bones and contusions, second degree burns over a large part of her body, smoke inhalation, a few other things. They think she was unconscious before the blast. Most likely, Border Guard ambushed her like he did Tiger, knocked her out, went into the room and closed and locked the door behind him... thereby saving her life."

      "So what's the prognosis?"

      "They're worried because she hasn't regained consciousness, yet," said Paula, shaking her head sadly. "However, she is healing rapidly. The way you'd expect Champion to."

      "So... she's still Champion... but you are too?!"

      "No." Paula sighed again. "From what the mystical experts have worked out, the keep had a bunch of magical stuff in it. Makes you wonder why the Five didn't use it. Anyway, the best guess they have now is that something was released in the explosion. Something which may have needed a host. It likely sought out Champion because she was the closest thing alive, but found her 'occupied' by the avatar package. It then had to desperately look for another host. It found me because of my connection with Champion. Mystically, that made me closer than anyone else."

      "Wait... You mean you're possessed?!"

      "Uhm, probably not," said Paula, uncomfortably. "Sharma, Tiger, Dr. Piano and a couple of others checked me out. They found no trace of malevolence. This might not even be intelligent, but something like the avatar package which someone captured."

      "Great," said Susan, sourly.

      "So, uhm," said Paula, blushing.

      "Sleeping arrangements," said Susan, smirking.

      "You want me to take the couch?"

      "It's your quarters. Oh, and don't start with that 'You're the guest, you take the bed.' nonsense. We've both been living here for over a year."

      "So you want the couch?"

      "Oh, Hell, no," said Susan, emphatically. "Really, I don't see why we can't both use the bed, like usual. We're both adults."

      "That's what I'm worried about," said Paula, in a stage mutter.

      "Oh, c'mon, stuffy britches," said Susan, with a snicker. "I trust you not to take liberties. C'mon, it'll be fun. We can cuddle and talk girl stuff."

      "Deliver me now."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Slowly, the world recovered from the near conquest by the Five Great Powers. The actual damage was primarily psychological. People recalled their total devotion to the Five, and felt ashamed. Efforts to point out that they weren't alone did not reassure them. Only the fact that there were handfuls of people - mostly but not entirely supers - who had been able to resist gave them any comfort.

      The effects of this morale collapse were multifold. One immediately obvious result was a precipitous drop in the stock market. Suicide rates were also at record levels.

      "I've been talking to various mental health professionals," said Sievers, at the staff meeting the next morning. "Both inside and outside the government. They agree in general on what needs to be done to help with the recovery, though they, of course, differ on the details."

      "I assume one element is repeated reassurances that we're taking measures to keep this from happening again," said Howers.

      "Oh, definitely. With full media coverage of the work to do that."

      "What particularly worries me," said Brade, "is: What if the Shilmek come back while we're still recovering, and this time for more than a look?"

      "I am already speaking with multiple space powers, including the Lunies, about that."

      "At least no-one is blaming the refugees for this," said Gompers, sourly. "Though that's because so far we've kept the fact that the destruction of the keep was caused by an alien spaceship firing on it!"

      "All right, that's enough," said the President. She glared around the conference table. "We have a problem. We're not going to whine about it, we're going to figure out how to fix it. Right?"

      There were embarrassed mutters of assent. Then they set to work.




Part Twenty-Six






      "Champions tend to be lucky," said Dr. Whiskers, nodding thoughtfully as she checked her main patient again. "Even on my world, they were famous for avoiding or surviving what should have been fatal."

      The Intrepids had the best medical facilities and personnel for supers east of the Mississippi. Champion had been flown straight here, along with the other two badly injured supers from the island. There were also three other patients, all supers who had been able to resist the mental compulsion of the Five... but not the efforts of others to stop them from going to help the effort against the would-be conquerors.

      "Has she shown any signs of regaining consciousness?" said Maciste, looking down at his motionless teammate.

      "Oh, she was awake, earlier," said Dr. Whiskers. "I thought you'd been told."

      "No, I hadn't," said the strongman, looking relieved. "How is she, then?"

      "Heavily sedated," said the feline. She gave him a very catty grin. "She is healing rapidly and quite thoroughly. I see no sign of permanent damage, mental or physical."

      "Better and better," said Maciste, with a smile. "I'm actually here to see if we can borrow some people, but figured I'd check in person while in your base."

      "Borrow some people?" said Dr. Whiskers, puzzled.

      "With Champion recovering, Paul - well, Paula - off duty until we can figure out what happened to her, and Dr. Piano helping with that so he can't pitch in, we're short handed at a very busy time."

      "Well, I doubt we'd be able to spare anyone. The Intrepids are also very busy."

      "This is only one stop," said Maciste. "We should be able to find at least one person who can help us. There's a lot more teams and independents around, now."

      "Why are you visiting in person, instead of using coms?"

      "Coms are as busy as everything else," said Maciste, rolling his eyes. "I'm carrying a bunch of personal messages around, too. As well as running other errands. So it's triple purpose. Quadruple, counting checking on Champion."

      "Well, you can be assured she is in good hands," said Dr. Whiskers, firmly. "We will notify you - personally, and as part of the Assembly - if there is any change in her condition."

      "I guess that's my cue to leave," said Maciste, laughing as he turned towards the door of the clinic.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Tiger?!" said Template, as she saw the familiar magical super walking along one of the paths between school buildings. "Hello! What brings you here?"

      "Broke my translator."

      "Your what?"

      He reached into a pocket and pulled out a tiger's head pendant on a chain. A crack ran diagonally across the face.

      "Broke when the debris fell on me, at the keep," he explained. "It was made for me by a squirrel mage in another universe. I know enough about magic to know it needs expert attention."

      "A squirrel mage in another universe," said Template, feeling a bit disoriented. She shook her head. "Well, we do have a few very talented mages, here. They should be able to help you."

      "Hope so," said Tiger, looking wistfully down at the charm. "Time differential. Been about twelve years for me, nearly a hundred for them. Don't really want to go back there and find that everyone I knew is dead."

      "Oh," said Template, feeling increasingly out of her depth. She shook her head again. "Well, if you're still here when six O'Clock rolls around, you're welcome to join Colossa and me for supper. Energia and maybe even Gadgetive will be there, too."

      "Thanks, but I'll probably be back home by then."

      He smiled, nodded, and continued on his way.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Did you hear?" said Gadgetive, as she barged into the bungalow. "They caught Silver Shadow!"

      "You need to knock," said Energia, from where she was watching TV while her nephew played on the floor in front of her.

      "I was invited for supper, remember?" said Gadgetive, waving the matter aside. "Anyway, three different Canadian teams - including the Toronto Team - ambushed the lunk, did a real number on him."

      She snickered.

      "They hurt him almost as bad as the three of us did."

      "Did any of them get hurt?"

      "Yeah. Four bad enough to need treatment, though none really seriously this time."

      "Good news all around, then," said Energia.

      "What are you watching?" said Gadgetive, as she slid onto the couch.

      "Required viewing, for my sociology class," said Energia. "I'm supposed to report on how it reflects mid-Twentieth Century North American attitudes towards professional women."

      "That's an old sci-fi flick!" said Gadgetive, happily. "I love those old things. They're so funny."

      "It's actually from an early space exploration movie serial," said Energia. She grimaced. "They just joked that the female member of the team should go to the Moon with them so they could have hot meals."

      "That sounds more like a joke on how inept men were thought to be in the kitchen, back then," said Gadgetive, laughing.

      "Ooh, good point," said Energia, grabbing her pencil.

      "So, what are we having?"

      "Eh? Oh, roast chicken. It's already thawing in the sink. I'm supposed to get it started in a bit."

      "Great. I'm hungry already!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "This is a very unusual type of magic," said Oliver Chastain, head of Magical Studies at the Academy, as he examined the pendant. "I wouldn't want to try tinkering with it, and I doubt anyone else here knows enough about this type of magic to be safe working on it, either."

      "Well, it doesn't have to be someone here," said Tiger. "It does need to be someone soon. Thing's leaking magic. I'm worried it'll lose the embedded spell matrix. If you can just point me in the right direction..."

      "You seem to know more about it than I do," said Oliver, impressed. He looked at Tiger in wonder. "That must be so fantastic, to be a part of magic, to feel it directly, instead of working something outside yourself the way we magic users do."

      "It does have it's advantages. Now, can you recommend someone who might be able to help me?"

      "Let me check the database," said Oliver, turning away from the workbench to the nearby computer. After a few minutes he nodded. "Yeah. Got a solid hit. Someone named Dr. Fenrisa Freysdottir."

      "I should have thought of her first," said Tiger, grimacing. "Yeah, that makes sense. It's exactly the type of magic her people work. Well, one of them."

      "Her people?" said Oliver, puzzled.

      "Bluegrass Elves."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "This is... different," said Paula, looking around the ancient swath of old growth forest.

      "It's the closest place to the Assembly base where I feel comfortable performing this sort of summoning," said Dr. Piano. "Partly because of the place; partly because of the people."

      "I've met some elves before," said Paula, "even some Bluegrass Elves. Not to mention the Prince of Speed, though he's only half elf."

      "I'm just glad Maciste was able to drop us off," said Dr. Piano, reaching a fallen tree and sitting. "Things are so busy, hoppers are in big demand."

      "So when will they be here?" said Paula.

      "I saw Dr. Freysdottir's car in the shed, back there," said Dr. Piano.

      "That little one? Looks like it was made in the Fifties or early Sixties?"

      "Exactly," said the doctor, smiling. "It's elf-sized."

      "Well, I actually meant, when would they come here to meet us."

      "Oh, they're already here."

      Paula looked around more alertly, frowning. She could see no sign of anyone else here. Of course, this was their home, so they would know it well enough to be able to watch without being seen.

      "So..."

      "When they're ready," said Dr. Piano.

      Paula sighed, started to say something, but jumped and spun around as several small figures stepped into view. The tallest of them looked like a midget werewolf.

      "Ah, good evening!" Dr. Piano called out, rising and waving with a smile.

      "Doctor," said the furry elf, in a high, clear voice. "This is Paula?"

      "Yes."

      They formed a rough semicircle around the two humans, one of them stepping a bit closer and shaking hands, human fashion.

      "I am Pear. We welcome you to our holt."

      "Thank you," said Dr. Piano, bowing.

      "Thank you," said Paula, copying him.

      There were introductions all around. Paula noticed that while most of the elves had hair only on their heads, a few were more hirsute. Dr. Freysdottir was by far the hairiest, though.

      "If you will come this way, we have prepared quarters for you."

      "Quarters?" said Paula.

      "Yes. Due to several matters, we will not be able to perform the ritual until tomorrow evening."

      "Well, one more day shouldn't hurt," said Paula shrugging. They began walking towards what looked like a solid wall of green. This parted to reveal a path. "I really appreciate this, Dr. Freysdottir."

      "Please, call me Runner," she said. "Or Fen. We are intrigued. We were working powerful magics to defend this area against that influence, when we felt something happen. The influence stopped, but several magical effects near the source began. Some for just seconds, some for minutes. This should help us determine what at least one of them was."

      "I'm still grateful," said Paula, firmly.

      They soon reached a human sized hut. It was far more civilized inside than Paula expected from the exterior, and came complete with a water pump at a sink, a bottled gas stove and a composting toilet.

      "I hope this will be comfortable," said Pear.

      "It looks quite suitable," said Dr. Piano, beaming. "Thank you."

      "There are provisions here. Though you are welcome to join our communal meals, we recommend you use them. Most humans find our foods difficult to stomach."

      "Thank you."

      "Call out if you need anything," said Pear, as the welcoming delegation left. "Someone will hear you."

      I'll just bet they will, thought Paula, with a smirk.

      Most likely, they would be under constant watch the whole time they were here. Which was definitely understandable.




Part Twenty-Seven






      The figure stopped at the limits of the forest, cupped hands around mouth and let forth with a perfect wolf howl. Long moments passed. There was a subtle shift in the mood of the woods, something the caller definitely noticed. Then, several small figures stepped into view.

      "Why so formal?" said Pear, smiling at Tiger.

      "I heard you had guests here on important business. Figured it was better to be careful."

      "Well, we're still hours from doing anything," said the tribe leader. "Come on and join us. You should find it interesting. You may even be able to help."

      Whereas for their previous two guests they had walked sedately on the ground, with Tiger the semi-arboreal Bluegrass elves took to the trees. Climbing and leaping more like a gibbon than a cat, Tiger easily kept up. Only moments later, they all dropped to the ground - a bit breathless - on the edge of the small clearing where Dr. Piano and the elf mystics were preparing for their rather unusual conference call.

      "Whoah," said Paula, eyes wide. "I didn't know they could do that. Any of them. I mean, I've seen Tiger move before, but not in trees."

      "He likes to come here to play," said Quickstone, absently. He laughed. "Not to mention keep us from getting overconfident."

      "Nice to see you again," said Tiger, shaking Paula's hand.

      Tiger was not a small man, but he found himself looking up at Paula. He kept looking, for several seconds, with Paula becoming increasingly uncomfortable.

      "Yeah," the magical super said, finally. "That's what I was feeling. Well, one of the things. It's almost like a Gift..."

      "We already know something magical is inside me," said Paula, rolling her eyes. "Unless you can tell me what it is..."

      "Sorry. It feels familiar, but it's nothing I can actually identify."

      They turned and walked towards the focus of all the activity.

      "Huh," said Tiger, after staring and frowning for a few minutes. "I thought you'd try for a substantiation, but this looks like an insubstantiation."

      "I've never heard it called such," said Dr. Piano, as he took a short break, "but that is essentially correct. Paula has been to the Empty Plane before, and what Atana tells her may be personal and private."

      "Besides," said Runner, with an impish grin, "this is a lot easier. On everyone."

      "Yeah," said Tiger, nodding knowingly. "Creating a full manifestation these days is a huge feat."

      "I'm wondering what I'll look like when I leave my body," said Paula, uneasily.

      "Astral forms are shaped by many things," said Dr. Piano. He looked thoughtful as he continued. "However, much of identity does come from the physical form."

      "I don't find that bit of information reassuring," said Paula, nervously.

      "You're starting this at dusk, right?" said Tiger.

      "Precisely at sunset," said Dr. Piano, with a smile and a pinching gesture. "We'll rehearse several times to get the timing perfect."

      "I know the Bluegrass Elves are semi-nocturnal..." said Paula.

      "Crepuscular," said Tiger, absently.

      "...but why right at sunset?"

      "The mystical significance of the passage from day to night," said Piano. "That should ease your passage into the other plane."

      "If it doesn't work then, we can try again at dawn," said Runner. "Now, why don't you two run along and let us unworldly types get finished without interruption?"

      "Unworldly?" said Tiger, raising an eyebrow. "Wasn't that you at the blubber festival..."

      "Go!" said the tiny, furry figure, shooing them away. 

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Wow," said Doro, as she examined her new badge. "I can't believe how fast they're working."

      "Well, the Five put a scare into Congress," said Ray. "That, combined with the continuing Shilmek threat, is motivating people - and politicians - to do things in a hurry."

      "Yeah, well, I just hope all that hurry doesn't cause them to make too many mistakes," said Doro.

      "Congratulations, you two," said Brade, as she put her own badge holder away. She smirked. "You're now feds."

      "Badges one, two and three," said Ray, both impressed and proud, as he nodded at Brade and Doro, then gestured vaguely at himself.

      "Envious that I got number two?" said Doro, as she cuddled up to Ray.

      "No fraternization," said Brade, tongue in cheek. "At least, not where it can be officially seen."

      "Yes, master," said Ray, rolling his eyes.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Paula looked around the flat, dim, grey plane, and sighed. As before, sounds were muffled, and there seemed to no boundaries. She was, indeed, standing naked; she could see the people and things in the clearing in the forest, but indistinctly. Like before, time seemed frozen, but she knew it wasn't. At first she was alone, but she soon sensed a presence.

      She turned and, sure enough, there stood Atana.

      "It is good to see you again," the goddess said, brushing her hand over the human's hair. "Though I certainly understand your distress at the circumstances."

      "So... What caused this?"

      "That is something I will determine very shortly," said Atana, sternly.

      She placed her hand on top of Paula's head. As with Dr. Piano's cap, Paula felt a tingle, though it was much stronger this time. She had trouble not squirming from the discomfort.

      "This is not my work," said Atana, frowning. "Nor could it be. I released you. There was no remaining connection between us beyond history."

      "It did happen!"

      "Let me work."

      Paula was quiet and the goddess did mysterious things. Things she could sometimes sense, but which mostly left her bored and anxious.

      "Yes. I see, now."

      "That's good, I hope."

      "Not so much good as not bad."

      With that bit of confusing information, Atana stepped back and made a beckoning gesture.

      "Come forth!"

      Somehow, Paula knew the goddess was not talking to her. She stayed still. Only, she felt as if a part of her was being pulled away from the rest. A mist extruded from Paula's body, remaining attached through a tail-like streamer as the main part formed a vaguely female shape.

      "Show yourself!"

      The form gained detail, and color, to become a very striking blond with distinct freckles and long hair. She was as naked as Paula, so the fact she was naturally colored was obvious. As was the fact that her legs and armpits were unshaven.

      She said something in a respectful tone to Atana in a tongue Paula didn't understand.

      "Learn your host's speech," said Atana, sternly.

      "As the lady commands," said the strange woman, her words coming more confidently even as she spoke.

      "Do you know me?"

      "Yes."

      "Then who are you?"

      "I am Penardwen, of Cymru," she said.

      "That would be what you know as Wales," said Atana, to Paula. She turned back to the strange woman. "How did you come to be in that keep?"

      "I was pursued by Aburidwil, a minor god of the herds," said Penardwen. "When I scorned him he destroyed my physical form and imprisoned my essence. I know not how long I was there."

      "Yes, I believe he was in turn killed by Aeries, during the Roman conquest," said Atana, nodding.

      "Respectfully, Lady, the Romans will never take Cymru!" she stated, defiantly.

      "I'm afraid they did. You have been asleep for a very long time, child."

      The two of them spoke for what felt like several years, Paula rapidly zoning out. Suddenly she snapped back to attention, as she heard Atana calling to her.

      "I'm afraid you will have to put up with her for a while."

      "I beg your pardon?" said Paula, startled.

      "Penardwen bound herself to you to preserve her essence. She will need time to build her strength so she can survive without you."

      "But..." said Paula, desperately.

      "I truly am sorry," said Penardwen, her expression matching her words. "I would have died without you. I still would."

      "Child, I reach the end of my own strength," said Atana. "Remember, I am barely here, reaching into this plane from my distant home. I cannot do more for you now, though perhaps later..."

      "So... how long?"

      "Penardwen will speak with you in more detail, now that she has awakened. Go."

      Paula sat up with a gasp. She began swearing.

      "What's wrong?" said Dr. Piano, alarmed.

      Paula took a deep breath, and began explaining. She noted that it was now full dark. A glance at her watch showed that more than two hours had passed, by far the longest she had ever spent on that plane.

      "Well," said Dr. Piano, when Paula finished. "I... am at a loss. I don't recall any such thing ever happening before."

      "I do," said Runner, voice and expression carefully neutral. "Come along, Paula. You need rest. Then we need to have a long talk."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Our long-range monitoring of their communications reveal that they are currently united and highly motivated," said the tactical analyst.

      The new Emperor nodded, looking thoughtful.

      "Strategy, how long is this likely to last?"

      "They do have short attention spans," she replied. "Both individually and collectively. I think... we continue monitoring, for now. Perhaps in a year, as confirmed by our spying, they will have turned their attentions to other things."

      "We will convene again in five months," said the Emperor. "I expect all of you to have full updates for the next meeting."



      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