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Masks XIV


by


Rodford Edmiston










Part One

      "Well, it's official," said Energia, sourly, as she came down for breakfast the second day of Spring Break. "I'm a C-cup. Knew things were getting tight around the chest, so I measured, first thing this morning."

      The team's mascot - a still unnamed neutered tomcat - looked up curiously from where he was playing with the automated teasing machine Gadgetive had built for him, decided the new arrival wasn't heading for him, and went back to his work.

      "Will you stop bragging?!" said Gadgetive, looking over in annoyance from the computer station, where she was checking messages. 

      "I'm not bragging, I'm complaining!" said Energia, spreading her arms in annoyance as she reached the ground level. "Do you know what this will do to my aerodynamics?!"

      "Since you already use padding, nothing," said Blue Impact, who had nothing to complain about in the bust department herself, and was a bit annoyed to have the civilian identity work she was doing in her private corner interrupted. "Just take some out. It's only held in place by Velcro."

      "Alice in Wonderbra," said Gadgetive, snickering. "At least you'll make Maldren happy."

      "Actually, no," said Energia. "With his people it's more muscle mass and definition. For both sexes."

      "That actually explains a few things," said Blue Impact. She frowned, eying the youngest member of their little group. "You know, it is unusual for a girl to develop this much this late."

      "Nah, my Mother's family tends to have slow puberties," said Energia, rolling her eyes. "Also what my granddad on that side calls 'hangfires.' Someone who starts puberty on time, then just sort of hangs in the middle for a few years before finishing."

      "Wonder if that's connected to your family's super genes..." said Gadgetive, an intense look of concentration on her face. 

      "You still trying to decide what college to attend?" said Blue Impact quickly, hoping to distract the gadgeteer. "Not a lot of time left."

      "Actually, I got a very interesting offer day before yesterday," said Energia, smiling now. "Remember that college which was accepting supers but turned out to be a front for a mastermind?"

      "Yeah," said Gadgetive, nodding. "Ramsey Technical College. I was actually considering that for a while. I have kin in Detroit."

      "It got taken over by the federal government. At the suggestion of the Bureau of Special Resources, the court-assigned managers are adding law enforcement courses. They're also recruiting more super teachers, since most of the supers who were teaching turned out to be plants in the employ of the bad guy."

      "So, you're thinking about going there?" said Blue Impact, a bit puzzled. 

      "Actually, they offered me an internship," said Energia, proudly. "They pay my way through college if I teach what I know. Full four year program, with options to continue for a graduate degree. Since they're still deciding what programs to offer - and what courses to have in them - I'd be effectivley on an independent study program. What I decide to take should help them decide what to pick for the super crime fighter program they're offering."

      There was a moment of stunned silence. Then the other two were hugging Energia and congratulating her. 

      "Wow," said Gadgetive. "That's both of us decided, then."

      "You already chose?" said Energia, startled. 

      "Was gonna announce it this morning, but teacher picked you first."

      "So where are you going?" said Blue Impact.

      "Dr. Device himself sponsored me for a special program at MIT."

      "Wow!" said Energia, honestly impressed. 

      With all members finally present, the older two put their personal chores on hold and they went into the small kitchen to prepare their morning meal.

      "Don't get me wrong," said Blue Impact, as they were cleaning up after breakfast later, "but I hope that's the most excitement we have today."

      "Huh?" said Gadgetive. "Oh, you mean the college announcements. Yeah, I could use some down time. Here's hopin'."

      "Well, I'm proud of you both. Remember, though, that this is still just Spring Break. Also, you, Energia, still have to finish high school."

       * * *

      Vic awoke with a shrill scream and lunged bolt upright, her breasts bouncing under her t-shirt. She shook her head, coming back to reality after the nightmare. Several tense seconds passed before she relaxed enough to let herself back down, her hair pooling on the pillow around her head. 

      Vic lay there, covered in sweat and panting, for several long moments. She gradually calmed, and thought to feel grateful that her sister wasn't home, yet. With Joline's room and the bathroom between Vic's bedroom and her parents', plus good, solid walls and doors, they didn't seem to have heard her.

      Where did that come from? Vic wondered. 

      She hadn't had an emasculation nightmare in months. As always, the emotional aftereffect was a bizarre combination of terror and arousal.

      Just when you think you're over something...

      The worst of it was, she was still horny. Well, there was no way she was playing with herself, with her parents just three rooms down the hall. However, neither was she getting back to sleep right away. With an annoyed snarl, Vic threw the covers back and climbed out of bed. Coco, their chocolate-colored retriever, looked up from her bed at the end of the hallway, between the rooms of Vic's parents and sister. She still didn't know who Vic was, but treated her as a friend of the family. She gave a couple of sleepy wags of her tail, yawned, then closed her eyes. 

      Vic went into the bathroom and closed the door, then leaned against it for a few seconds. She didn't bother with the light; not only did she know where everything was from long familiarity, her sense of perception was working fine. 

      After splashing cold water on her face she felt better. The bathroom clock showed 2:33. Vic sighed. She dried her face, drank some water, relieved herself, and went back to bed. 

      What a way to start Spring break.

       * * *

      When Livia Sievers decided to run for the post of President of the United States she realized that holding the office might mean ordering a war. She assumed that if that happened the target would be with another terrestrial nation; not an interstellar empire. Though there had been scares of that nature several times in recent history, the results had been only a few skirmishes. Fortunately, that hadn't stopped people from planning for a major battle with a starfaring civilization. Neither was it stopping her from working on the problem herself. 

      "Her Highness and I aren't friends," said Brade, bringing Sievers back to the here and now, "but we respect each other."

      "You're the one to talk to her, then," said Sievers. She frowned. "Or would Larry Hawthorne be better?"

      "Oh, God, no," said Brade, rolling her eyes. "Not that he can't be diplomatic, but... there's history between them and it's not the good kind. She thinks he's a sneak and a liar, and he thinks she's a stuck-up brat."

      "You, then," said Seivers, smiling, almost laughing. 

      Times like this - when she got to hear such gossip about various supers - more than made up for the criticism she got in regard to having supers working important positions in her administration. The more pragmatic benefits far outweighed both.

      "I wonder..." she said, quietly.

      "Pardon?" said Brade. 

      "Oh, I was just thinking that if critics of supers could hear things like that, and know just how human you are, they might be less resentful of you."

      "Possibly," said Brade, with a shrug. "The problem is, many supers aren't socially human in some sense. Tiger, for instance. Most weres and vampires, too. They just aren't the same, mentally, as a typical human, though they're usually sane in their own ways."

      "Do you realize all those you named are supernaturals"" said Sievers, frowning. 

      "Huh. Well, it wasn't deliberate. I certainly don't mean to imply that I have some dislike for supernaturals. I consider Tiger a valuable ally, and the Prince of Speed a friend."

  "I know that," said the President, pointedly, "because I know you. However, that sort of thing is why anyone who is a public figure always has to keep an eye on their mouth."

      "That's a good way of putting it," said Brade, grinning. "So, you ready for the morning staff meeting, now?"

      "I think you've answered my questions," said Sievers, also smiling. She rose. "Got a few minutes, yet. Think I'll grab a coffee and danish."

      "Sounds good," said Brade. 

       * * *

      Normal security measures meant that much of the time the Vice President of the United States was in a physically separate location from the President. Just now, President Sievers was in the White House Situation Room, while Vice President Harold Sargent was in a basement conference room at the Pentagon. Though several of his own staff were there, watching the same large display of the meeting in Washington, only he actually showed on the screen in the Situation Room. 

      Sievers liked her meetings small and intimate - preferring to have more rather than larger - with just the people directly involved present. However, this was going to be a big one.

      Sargent felt his jaw muscles tighten as his display showed the President enter with her pet super in tow. They were both carrying food and drink - Brade substantially more than the President - and chatting and joking. Like two women discussing a coworker's fashion faux pas.

      Will she ever take these things seriously?

      Precisely on the dot at Ten, the President called the meeting to order. 

      "Ladies and gentlemen," said Sievers, now dead serious, "we must face the fact that within months or weeks or perhaps days we will come under attack by the Shilmek."

      There was a stir, both among those physically present and those participating by video link. They all knew this, intellectually, but having it said flat out was still a bit of a shock. 

      "You can save your criticisms of my decision to support the UN's offer of sanctuary for Queen Tolnar and her staff for another time. That is done. Now we must plan for the results."

      Sargent was impressed. He felt even moreso as the meeting progressed. Sievers, reading from a document on the table in front of her, presented a comprehensive outline for responses to several different forms and levels of attack. Details were lacking, as yet, but this meeting would put people to work on that. 

      "Finally, we come to the least conventional portion of the plan," said Sievers. For just a moment she seemed to be looking directly at Sargent. Her gaze moved on, and he realized she was using the trick of locking eyes with each person - and camera - for a second, to focus attention on what she was saying. "I am asking my former super liaison, Brade, to do some extra work while her replacement finds his feet. She will consult with both Tolnar and her staff, military analysts at the Pentagon and among our allies, and appropriate super resources, for the purpose of developing additional avenues of response. Always before during alien interventions, super participation was both important and spontaneous. This time we will be integrating them into the overall response from the beginning. I have already spoken with numerous strategic and tactical authorities and they agree that this is both appropriate and necessary. The biggest challenge, as I see it, will be letting them do what they do best with coordination, but no interference."

      "You cannot use supers in military actions!" said General Harvest, one of the few high ranking military personnel actually present in the Situation Room, as he lunged angrily to his feet. "It's illegal under the Geneva Protocols!"

      "According to treaty, we can't use supers as part of regular military operations," said Sievers, firmly. "However, they may be used as adjuncts in UN approved actions, which this will be. Also, as President, I can request volunteer aid - including from supers - in civil defense emergencies. I think an alien attack qualifies.

      "I will not be taking questions now. I want you all to spend the next two days going over your copies of this document, and we will then have a brainstorming meeting. Subsequent planning sessions will select valid ideas and develop them.

      "Good day, and good luck."

      "To all of us," said the Secretary of Defense, as they gathered their papers.

       * * *

      "I came here with five ships, four of them transports, the other my personal flagship," said Tolnar. "I felt getting as many of those in danger to safety as possible had priority over firepower. Since then ten more craft have arrived to support me, most of them major fighting vessels. The number of combat craft with me here is still insignificant in comparison to the main fleet. I believe it is more significant that we have over a hundred Primus Class Shilmek here on Earth, though only a handful are supreme elites, like me. Given the purge of the Primus Class by the rebels, as well as those who fled to other havens, that is far more than still exist within the Empire. Also, the effort required to perform the purge cost them significantly in resources, which at the very least will delay any action taken against Earth. Finally, nearly half of the top minds from my administration are here. Some of the finest tactical and strategic experts our species has produced are here on Earth."

      "The delay is good news, and that last bit will definitely come in handy," said Brade, nodding. "So, have they figured out what the usurpers are likely to do about you being here?"

      Her Highness looked meaningfully at her chief advisor.

      "We had plans for operations against your world," said Sheppue, straight-faced. "Given the contempt the rebels have for their former leaders those plans are unlikely to be followed."

      "Understand, we did not have these plans because we intended war against your world," said Tolnar, showing not a hint of embarrassment. "We were actually more concerned that you might make war against us."

      "Our military performs similar intellectual exercises," said Brade, nodding. "We also fund studies and even some equipment development. Just in case."

      "As did we," said Tolnar. She next looked at her brother. 

      Galtio shifted uncomfortably. He was several years younger than Tolnar, and Brade wondered what growing up in their society with her as an older sister was like. 

      "We have methods for detecting your supers," said Galtio. "Also, we can detect power sources, as well as certain technical devices even when unpowered, through resonance. That includes advanced - for you - weapons."

      "That's worrying," said Brade. "We're in the process of mass producing several designs of advanced weapons and other equipment based on gadgeteer and mastermind devices. Hopefully, they'll be new enough not to be specifically looked for."

      "If they are different enough from what we are already familiar with they might escape detection," said Galtio. "Until used, at least."

      The meeting lasted more than four hours. Brade recorded it, and also made notes. One particular item caused her considerable concern.

      "We were working on a weapon specifically tailored to use on Zeep," said Galtio, near the end. "It was still in development when Her Majesty was deposed. The project was having significant problems - primarily with slow onset of effect - but they could have completed it. For some reason, most of our technical people went over to the rebels, while most of the scientists tried to stay neutral. That... did not work. The word we have is that those who did not swear fealty to the new regime were given obedience implants and conditioning."

      "That's actually in our favor," said Tolnar, more than a little anger in her voice. "People with such burdens not only do poor work, but because of resentment over their treatment often subconsciously act against the orders and interests of their masters. That could be of help to us, but how much is currently unknown."

      "Let me guess," said Brade. "Those who use such measures refuse to believe anyone but them has the willpower or strength of character to defy those measures."

      "Essentially, yes."



Part Two

      Gadgetive came slowly down the stairs, yawning and scratching, wearing just a t-shirt and panties. 

      "You sure you're not a guy in your secret ID?" said Energia, teasing. 

      She was floating in a seated posture just above the couch, practicing hovering while watching the widescreen TV. She was at least wearing pajamas. The cat slept unconcernedly on the cushion below her. The couch was a product of the last of the renovations of Blue Impact's lair. Like all the new furniture, it was reinforced, and could take more than even Blue Impact's weight.

      "Not holding conversation until after breakfast," said Gadgetive, in a stage mutter. "Specifically: Coffee."

      "Seriously," said Blue Impact, more than a decade older, the actual owner of the building where their informal little team was based, and their teacher. She was currently working at the computer station in a corner of the large room. "You remind me of a guy I used to date, the time I came to his dorm early."

      "Seriously, it's a Saturday during Spring Break," said the gadgeteer, as she shuffled into the kitchen. "Wanna sleep late, lay around in my underwear and let my mind be blank as much as possible. Get some of my best ideas that way."

      "She does have a point," said Energia, yawning as she settled onto the couch. The cat squirmed in protest at the first touch. Energia grimaced, raised up a bit, and moved over, to land beside the feline. Who decided he'd had enough sleep and went to see what Gadgetive was doing. "We need some downtime after the past few months. I mean, even you aren't in costume right now."

      "There's casual, and there's sloppy," said Blue Impact, pointedly. She sighed and relented. A bit. "Okay, we do seem to be in a quiet period. Just don't neglect your training. If we need to act, there won't be time to get back in shape."

      "Like we'd lose our edge in a week an a half," said Gadgetive, from the kitchen. "Wait... You folks have already cleaned up? I thought I was the obsessive-compulsive one."

      "You're just that late!" Energia responded, teasing.

      She knew from their time together at the Academy that the normally hyperactive Gadgetive had a surprising lazy streak. Working with her on this team had shown Energia that this tendency became stronger away from school. However, she was an efficient sort of lazy, willing to spend a little effort now to spare her from greater exertion, later. Especially if the effort was mental rather than physical. This morning that talent manifested with her finishing a nutritious and filling breakfast - which included cleaning her dishes - in just over ten minutes, then entering the common room much more alert. She joined Energia on the couch and plunked her second large mug of strong coffee onto the table.

      "What's on?"

      "Nothing," said Energia, yielding to the inevitable and turning the remote over to the older gal. 

      Gadgetive immediately switched to multi-channel mode, putting up a different one in each quarter of the big screen. She hit mute, then closed caption. She next accessed a function of the custom remote which provided features she had installed in the television just for her; the other two didn't dare enter that menu. She began scanning through channels at high speed in all four sub-screens at once.

      "We need more guys on this team," said Gadgetive, in a muttered grumble, leaning forward in aggressive concentration as she rapidly covered what seemed like every channel on Earth. Energia knew her partner was only covering those with subtitles in languages she could read, supplemented with lip reading. That was still a huge number. 

      "Then we'd have to change the name from Tricorne," said Energia, now reading a news magazine, her bare feet up on the coffee table. She smirked. "Besides, I've got my guy."

      "We don't actually have a name," said Blue Impact, her heightened senses allowing her to hear the others even though she was halfway across the room. She was still working on some problem from her civilian business. "Not formally. We never officially registered with anyone. Considering you two will both start college this Fall, there's not much point, now."

      "I thought we were going to get back together this Summer!" said Gadgetive, startled into abandoning her efforts with the TV.

      "Well, yes, there is that," said the older super, absently. "Once that's over..."

      "You don't want to work with us any more?" said Energia, concerned. 

      "Of course I do. Of all the kids I've taught at the Academy you two are about the best when it comes to actually getting out and working as heroes," said Blue Impact. Realizing that the conversation had taken a serious turn, she stood and walked towards them, moving with an easy grace even more impressive to those who knew her tissues were as dense as magnesium. "You two don't really want to keep hanging around with me, do you? Get out and find other heroes your own age to socialize with and work with."

      "We like it here," said Gadgetive, almost pouting. 

      "Okay, yeah, we can do that," said Energia, defiantly. "Done it before. Probably will again. However, we already know the three of us work well together. We've got a good mix of experiences, talents, viewpoints..."

      "Besides," said Gadgetive, "after all the work I put into turing your dump of a lair into an actual team headquarters, I think you owe me, at least."

      "Most of the work done here was a senior class project, remember?" said Blue Impact, dryly. "Okay, you came up with the general plan, but the other gadgeteers and masterminds did a lot of stuff even you didn't think of."

      "She started the upgrade and maintains everything," said Energia.

      "The equipment is good, but even you have said, several times, that the three of us together do a lot more good work than you ever did alone," said Gadgetive.

      "If you didn't think we'd work well together, why'd you agree to intern us when we weren't in school?" said Energia.

      "All right, all right," said Blue Impact, holding her hands up in mock surrender and laughing. "Geez, you two are just too good at working together, even against one of your own teammates."

      "See?" said Energia, triumphantly. "Even you think we're teammates."

      "I never said we weren't," said Blue Impact, seriously. "We do make a good team. I just don't want to hold you back. I mean, Energia, you've got a standing invitation from the Young Guardians..."

      "I like them," said the youngest member of the group. "I enjoyed my Summer with them and I learned a lot from them. They're just not what I want."

      "Think about what we did with that Sanctum business," said Gadgetive, proudly. "With so many of the older supers busy handling natural disasters last year, having us to help guard the Sanctum was a big help for everyone."

      "Enough, already," said Blue Impact, again laughing. "You're preaching to the choir. I am very happy that you two want to continue working with me. I just don't want to keep you from exploring other options."

      "You're not," said Energia, flatly. "We learn more about hero work from you, and from folks you know, than we do at school."

      "Alert!" said the computer. "Fire in the industrial district!"

      "That's not too far from here," said Energia, frowning as she moved to the map on the wall.

      "You know, I thought I smelled smoke, earlier. Thought it was Gadgetive's cooking."

      "With your nose it could've come from New York," said Energia, with a smirk.

      "So much for a quiet Spring break," said Gadgetive, ignoring the gibe and the joke as she turned off the TV and stood. "Guess I better suit up."

      "Remember our agreement with the city," said Blue Impact. "Unless there's obvious super involvement or a major and urgent emergency, we wait to be asked. Yeah, though, get in costume. Both of you. I'll get mine on, too. Right now it's a single alarm, but it could get worse."

      Energia nodded, lifted into the air and turned to face the stairs. She flew smoothly towards them, crossing the bannister about halfway up before swinging around to follow the rest of the steps upstairs. Blue Impact, grinning, hopped over the couch, took two long steps and jumped, vaulting the super-sturdy handrail at roughly the same place where Energia had crossed. 

      "Yeah, yeah," said Gadgetive, sourly, as she covered the distance more conventionally. "Show-offs. You won't let me use my propane-fueled jumping shoes in the house!"

       * * *

      Energia examined herself in the full-length mirror, smiling. While her main purpose was to make sure all the parts of her recently altered costume were in place, she also felt rather proud of the image she presented. A light green body stocking covered all but her face and hair, and included integral gloves and socks; it also contained some flexible armor and subtle padding to disguise her true figure. A sleeveless red leotard went over that, with fake muscles airbrushed on to further disguise her figure. Next came her green mask, one of the new disposable peel-and-stick ones. Medium green boots with turn-down tops and a bit of heel completed the outfit. With her bright red hair in a high ponytail, there wasn't much chance of anyone connecting Energia to Jenny Toulon. 

      As usual, she was the last dressed. The others were already in the large room when Energia flew downstairs. Gadgetive was wearing her standard warm weather outfit of olive-drab jumpsuit, vest, gloves, boots and mask. She had her backpack beside her, the helmet which completed the outfit resting on top of that. Blue Impact was in her current outfit of slacks, shirt, scarf, jacket, gloves, athletic shoes and mask, all - as might be expected - in shades of blue. Energia didn't have Blue Impact's speed or Gadgetive's proprietary quick-access design, and had actually taken her time. She still was finished in less than five minutes.

      "All dressed up," said Gadgetive, grinning. "Do we have anywhere to go?"

      "Alert!" said the computer. "Robbery in progress. Multiple superhumans involved."

      It proceeded to give the location.

      "That's just a few blocks from here!" said Blue Impact, rising from the couch. "Close enough we won't need the little flyer." 

      "You mean I have to ride double on your motorcycle, again," said Gadgetive, sourly.

      "I don't," said Energia, cheerfully. 

       * * *

      As it turned out, they weren't really needed. They arrived just in time to see Mano Dura use his famous Breaker Punch on a low-level brick in a cobbled-together costume. Two others in poor excuses for super outfits already lay on the ground, groaning. The late arrivals recognized the trio of miscreants from recent bulletins. All were wanted for multiple offenses, mostly petty crimes. Two were suspects in a serious assault a few days earlier.

      "Oh, come on," said Gadgetive, hopping off Blue Impact's custom-modified motorcycle. She grinned as she gave the other super a bit of good-natured ribbing. "Leave some for us."

      "How slow can the crime-fighting business be if you three actually respond to a neighborhood grocery robbery?" said Mano Dura, his tone very unfriendly. 

      "This is the first crime alert of any kind we've had all Spring break," said Blue Impact, carefully keeping her tone civil. 

      "If you elitists actually got out and among the people, you'd get a lot more of 'em," said Mano Dura, angrily. "You wouldn't need all that fancy equipment, either. Just your own ears."

      "You know, you'd be pretty handsome if it weren't for that deformity," said Gadgetive, hotly.

      "Deformity?!" said Mano Dura, startled. "What deformity?!"

      She leaned in, rising up on the balls of her feet to get closer to his face.

      "That enormous chip on your shoulder."

      She dropped back, spun around and stomped off. However, she didn't get very far.

      "Guys?" said Energia, suddenly serious. "I'm getting some bad vibes from one of the local AM stations. That fire we heard about earlier is getting a lot worse."

      "She can hear radio?" said Mano Dura. 

      "The whole electromagnetic spectrum," said Blue Impact. "She can only parse AM, though."

      "Oh, this is bad," said Gadgetive, after tuning to the main firefighters' band on her helmet radio. "Multiple fires in the industrial district."

      "Is that still going on?" said Blue Impact, startled. "It must be worse than they first thought."

      She turned to Mano Dura.

      "We're heading over there," said Blue Impact. She listened for a moment. "I hear police sirens headed this way. If you want to join us, you're welcome..."

      "You think I'm gonna help the owners of those factories?" said Mano Dura, with a sneer. "They don't pay a fair wage, they work all their low-level employees too hard, there's health violations and they make us work overtime or lose our jobs! Let 'em burn!"

      "So, you'd rather the workers lose their jobs completely than have a chance to negotiate for better ones?" said Gadgetive, in faux innocence.

      "They never negotiate," said Mano Dura, looking like he was about to shed tears... or shred steel. "Even when they do, they wiggle out of any agreement they make. They think anyone with dark skin is not only an illegal, but stupid. You can't know what it's like! The hounding, the harassment, the lies and insults..."

      "As my Grandmother used to say 'Never trust the man who tells you all his troubles but keeps from you all his joys,'" said Gadgetive, glaring at Mano Dura. "I don't like playing the race card, but I get really pissed off when I hear someone acting like they're the only ones who have ever been oppressed!"

      "I, uh..." said Mano Dura, derailed. 

      "This is not a fight you can win with your fists," said Blue Impact, quietly. "No matter how hard they are."

      She started her bike. 

      "Come on, Gadgetive. Mano, the invitation stands."

      "You go do what you want," he snapped. This time he was the one who turned and stomped away. 

       * * *

      "Am I glad you're here!" said the senior fire chief, as the trio of heroes arrived. "We have a major outbreak of multiple small fires. Also, something's interfering with our radios. I'm having to use hand signals and runners! The request for extra units had to be phoned in, on a landline, from outside this area."

      "I can feel something," said Energia, turning, a look of concentration on her face. "Some sort of RF filling the whole area. Strong enough for long conductors to make sparks. That's likely what's causing all these fires."

      "If you can find that and stop it, we can get this under control," said the Chief. "Otherwise, even with more units arriving, we'll be playing catchup finding and stopping these fires."

      "Energia, you work on that," said Blue Impact. "You can cover the area more quickly than any of us. Gadgetive and I will help here as best we can. Call if you need us."

      "Roger," said Energia, lifting into the air. 

       * * *

      Finding the source of all that RF was both quick and simple. Energia simply flew in the direction it felt strongest. It came from the top floor of a low office building, a sign in front of which proclaimed several electronics businesses were in residence. Energia flew over the roof, peering through the skylights. The source was definitely in there; not only could she feel it, she could see a large piece of equipment in the loft below. Energia used her powers to force a skylight open and dropped inside. The only other person in the loft was a pudgy guy perhaps in his early thirties, working the equipment.

      "Hey!" Energia yelled, startling him. "Turn that off!"

      "Get out of here!" the man yelled, waving her away with shooing motions. "This is private property!"

      "You're leaking RF. Enough that it's starting fires for blocks. Shut it down!"

      "You will get out of here or I will call the cops!"

      "Good idea," said Energia, landing in front of him, fists on hips. "Go right ahead. Meanwhile, I'll shut this down."

      "Listen, you don't have the education..." he began, impatiently and arrogantly.

      "It's a magnetoplasmadynamic generator," said Energia, angrily. "What's to get? I create similar effects for practice."

      She glanced at the control panel, and reached for what was obviously the main switch.

      "No!" the man screamed, grabbing at her.

      His next scream was in pain, as Energia let him have a few thousand volts at essentially zero amps. He jerked back, the only reason he was still on his feet due to this being steady current, rather than the nerve-rattling rapid cycling of a stun gun. She pulled the switch, and the buzzing in her supper senses stopped.

      "Wow, that's a relief," she said, grinning. 

      "You've ruined it! You have to follow a specific shutdown sequence or you damage it!"

      He started to shove her aside, remembered that shock, and instead dodged around her to check his instruments. 

      "If you were that diligent in shielding against RF leakage..."

      "That's irrelevant to my experiments!"

      "Well, your experiment was starting fires. Didn't you hear the sirens?"

      "Of course I did. They weren't coming here so I ignored them. This experiment is at a critical stage and requires focus! If other people aren't diligent in their shielding and grounding, that's no concern of mine."

      "Wait. Are you saying you knew you were leaking huge amounts of high-frequency radio?"

      "Of course I did," he said, tone scathing. "Do you think I'm stupid?"

      "If you're not stupid, why didn't you know that would cause fires?"

      "Do you see any fires in here?!"

      "Right," said Energia, pulling out her cell and dialing 911. "You're under arrest, for arson. What's your name, anyway?"

      "Herkimer Oscar Gallant, Esq.," he snapped. "A name you're going to be hearing a lot of, once my work is completed and I'm famous. That is, if people like you quit sabotaging me!"

      He looked startled, then - for the first time - concerned, as Energia told the operator she had found the person responsible for the fires and was holding him for the police. The change in his manner was both astounding and bizarre.

      "Look, let this pass and I'll owe you one," said Herkimer, in what he obviously thought was a smooth manner. "I can do a lot for you."

      "I don't take bribes."

      "Not talking about bribes," said Herkimer, smarmily. "Just an exchange of favors."

      "I. Don't. Take. Bribes," said Energia, glaring at him.

      "Listen, girl, you don't seem to realize what's going on here," said the inventor, irritated. "I can do things for you. Even if you're too stupid to get that, I'll never do time, because other people do realize what I can do. That's how I got this loft! So, you or someone else will let me go so I can do my work. It's just more convenient for me if it's you."

      "You're the one who doesn't get it," said Energia, ice in her tone. "You're busted."

      "Listen, you might as well just stop that right now," said Herkimer, worried at her obtuseness. He decided to spell things out for her. "I can improve your powers, give you special equipment for use against the bad guys, make you stronger!"

      "I already have all that," said Energia, a bit puzzled at his obtuseness. "Including the gadgets. You're not the only super inventor around. My best friend is a protégé of Ike Kenniman, Dr. Device, himself. I'm training under Zeep to become stronger. What can you offer to top them?"

      Herkimer was finally beginning to realize that this stupid bitch was serious. She really was going to arrest him. He sighed, then smirked as he held out his hands.

      "I don't carry cuffs," said Energia. "We'll just wait for the cops. By the way, everything you just said is on the 911 recording. Good luck arguing that away in court."



Part Three

      "'Teen defenders'?" said Energia, after hearing a local news segment that evening on her team's work at the factory complex. "I'm the only member still in her teens."

      "Yeah, but I'm only twenty, and teach has regeneration, so we all look like we could be in our teens."

      "Could they have confused us with another team?"

      "Not likely," said Blue Impact. 

      "At least Mano Dura got credit for catching those guys," said Energia. 

      "Well, the city is trying to make up with him, after what they did during the Thurlin pogrom," said Blue Impact. "Though I think it's more out of fear he'll go public and sue them under his real name. Like Dachshund did."

      "I don't understand why they didn't mention what and who caused all the fires," said Gadgetive, puzzled. "I mean, all they said was 'rash of mysterious fires.'"

      "I can't believe that guy was so stupid," said Energia, hotly.

      "Yeah. I mean, all that RF was bound to affect his own equipment, too. Why not just go ahead and do it right, so you get accurate readings and don't waste effort?"

      "I didn't mean that. I meant how he let his ego convince him he's so important that people will just let him do whatever he wants."

      "So he's a stupid jerk," said Blue Impact, with a shrug. "Don't let it bother you. There's a lot of 'em out there; you just can't afford to get worked up over them. Deal, and move on."

       * * *

      "Stupid jerk," said Paula, slamming the door behind her.

      Susan looked up from her work desk in their (still) shared quarters of the Assembly's base. 

      "Buzz, again?"

      "Who else? He got on this weird kick during today's briefing. Started comparing team members to candy bars. Then he looked at me as said 'You're Mounds, of course.'"

      Susan stared for a moment, then burst out giggling. 

      "It's not funny!"

      "I'm sorry, dear," said Susan, innocently, "but you need to face facts. You've got a lovely pair of mounds."

      "I'd rather have almond joy," said Paula, sourly. 

      "How is Carol doing?" said Susan, deciding to be merciful and change the subject. 

      "Cleared for duty and rarin' to go," said Paula, smiling and nodding. "Bless that Champion stamina and healing! Though she does seem to still have some minor problems, both mental and physical."

      "Wasn't there some problem with her psych test?"

      "Well, that's to be expected. She was ambushed and nearly killed by someone she thought was an ally, barely survived the keep being blown to pieces and collapsing on top of her, spent days in a coma and weeks in a bed, followed by months of hard recovery. Now that she's physically approved for a return to duty, her mood has greatly improved, and the shrinks say she's mentally ready, too."

      Paula sighed, and sat on the bed, her mood fading. 

      "You all right?" said Susan, concerned about the sudden change in attitude.

      "I just remembered how coldly she's been treating me, lately. Not sure why. Maybe because my gender change brings back memories that I was rather... interested in her for a while. Knowing that a woman viewed her as a sex object always did make her uncomfortable."

      Penardwen manifested, a ghostly image of her appearing beside Paula. 

      "Again, I apologize for using you in such a way," she said, obviously penitent. "I was literally dying. You were the only unempowered person within my reach."

      "Look, I'm not blaming you," said Paula, sympathetically. "I'm glad you found a way to survive. I am still looking forward to you recovering enough to get out of me."

      "So much has changed," said Penardwen, wistfully. "Since being awakened by Atana and returned here, I have spent much of my energy trying to contact my kin. I cannot understand why they do not respond."

      "You were imprisoned for over two millennia," said Paula. "Empires have risen and fallen, entire pantheons have been destroyed or simply vanished. After a major conflict involving several pantheons twelve centuries ago there was an agreement among all the survivors that they would remove themselves from the earthly plane, only working through avatars and priests."

      "How do you know all that?" said Susan, fascinated.

      "You don't hang around people like Dr. Piano and Sharma for a few years without learning some interesting things."

      "I suppose you being the original Champion didn't hurt, either" said Susan, wryly.

      "You were Champion?" said Penardwen, turning to look at Paula. "That explains why you were little discomforted by the change in gender."

      "There are only a few exemptions to the rule," said Paula, getting back on track. "One is beings like you, who were marooned here and couldn't leave. Another is those who voluntarily become part of the mortal sphere, like Magni and a few of the Olympians."

      "I must find a way to contact my kin," said Penardwen. 

      "Believe me, I'll do anything I can to help," said Paula, with feeling. "I want to get back to being alone in my hopefully male body."

      "Count me in, too," said Susan, straight-faced. "I want to be alone with his hopefully male body."

      "I would gladly shape him to meet your desires," said Penardwen, sadly. "However, I am still too weak."

      "That's... all right," said Susan, blushing. "When it comes to sex, I am definitely of the opinion that three's a crowd."

      "My, what a shy little thing you are," said Penardwen, impishly. "I know many societies are not as open about sex as mine, but have never lived in one, myself, until now."

      "I think the best plan - for all of us - is for you to conserve your strength and recover as quickly as you can," said Paula, flatly. "I can live as a woman again for however long that takes. As long as I know I will eventually get back to being male."

       * * *

      Brade found little time these days to attend to her actual job as head of one branch of the Bureau of Special Resources. However, she was doing important work, and she had good subordinates at the Bureau who kept things running. She traveled to multiple locations and met with many individuals, small groups and not so small groups. Each time, she would speak at length with various experts and researchers. Once back in Washington, she would first meet alone with Sievers for an informal talk on what she learned. 

      "So, what can we expect?" said Sievers. 

      "The smallest of their warships have force barriers which can withstand up to a fifteen kiloton explosion right against them," said Brade. "The largest can handle over three megatons. Now, yes, we have warheads big enough to blow through their shields and destroy their largest warships, but very few of those are on missiles intended to intercept even aircraft, much less spacecraft."

      "I already have both military and civilian aerospace experts working on missiles designed to carry large warheads far enough into space to intercept attacking ships without adversely affecting life on Earth. We're also ramming a special treaty exception to nuclear detonations in space through the UN. We're even considering placing weapons platforms in various distant orbits, around Earth and the Sun."

      "I doubt we have anything - or will anytime soon - which they won't be able to intercept," said Brade, flatly. "Or, actually, detect and destroy from long range. Oh, and forget about trying to EMP them. It just won't work. Still a good idea about working with the UN for special exemptions on nuclear explosions in space. Maybe we can use them to propel some Orions. If we can build enough delivery devices of enough different types we might even be able to overwhelm their defenses. Meanwhile, the super brains will be working on other options."

      "Good. Between them and the Lunies we should have at least half a dozen useable options by the time the invasion comes... if it comes."

      The President sighed, put her elbows on her desk and leaned forward. It was just the two of them in here, her private office at the White House, late at night. There were official programs studying the potential attack and methods of defense already underway, but this was the President's contingency plan. Supers - pretty much by definition - thought outside of the box. For dealing with an alien attack that resource had proven invaluable in the past.

      "Tolnar and her people have fifteen ships, eight of them heavy combat jobs," said Brade, continuing her briefing. "However... The other Shilmek could send hundreds. Maybe thousands, if they want her bad enough to strip their home defenses."

      "What about the Lunies?"

      "There are no space-combat capable vessels on the Moon," said Brade. She smirked. "Officially. I don't know what the Lunies actually have. I do know there are a few combat capable spacecraft on Earth, most of them built by masterminds or mad geniuses over the past fifty years."

      "How many of those can be put into service?"

      "Well, maybe ten," said Brade, her grin vanishing. "I mean, those are the ones worth the effort. The others are too primitive or too far gone."

      "All right," said Sievers, straightening. She looked Brade in the eye. "I want you, personally, to contact every known space-capable super. Those who can't fight we can use for recon."

      "Right," said Brade, nodding. "We might even be able to provide them with weapons."

      "What about other cultures from outside our system?" said Sievers. "I know that unofficially we have a few contacts, but I have little information on who they are or what help they might give."

      "Not much, I'm afraid," said Brade. "I've met a few individuals, but don't have any contacts with their governments. I get the impression that they're not supposed to pay any attention to us officially until we get a little more mature. I also have the impression they're afraid of the Shilmek. Even with this political turmoil in the Empire, they're not likely to want to take any action which might cause the Shilmek to attack them. The Eclogiti have actually volunteered to help, if you can believe it. As if we didn't know better."

      "All right," said the President, "one last thing. I'm not sure how much stock I put in magic, but I want you to have the Prince of Speed coordinate all the supernatural factions in the defense of Earth."

      "He's already spoken to me about this, actually. He suggested we have Dr. Freysdottir handle that."

      "I don't know her, but I trust his highness' judgement."

      "Is there anything else?"

      "Well... I suppose this involves your area of authority," said Sievers, frowning for a moment. "It's a black project, one so secret even I wasn't informed about it until this threat came. Which I definitely expressed my displeasure about, you can be sure! Anyway, Ike Kenniman - Dr. Device, himself - has been working on a special project. He was tasked with using Myrmidon technology to make flying combat drones, which he's dubbed Termites."

      "Wow..." said Brade, taken aback. "Okay. If he can apply the power mimicking feature from the later models, and keep them from rebelling... He's about the only person I'd trust to actually manage that."

      "Word is he's succeeded. I ordered the unit overseeing his work to send him and the prototype to DARPA for testing. The black projects heads didn't like that; I got the distinct impression they were just going to pack it away and put Dr. Device to work on something else. Defending the Earth against alien invasion isn't in their flowchart."

      "That sounds like the black ops agencies I've known," said Brade, sourly.

      "Anyway, if this thing tests out, we can start production in about eight months."

      "Oh, there's one more thing. Their super detectors can - surprisingly - detect magical supers. However, they don't have the analysis functions Ike Kenniman's has. They can't even get as good an idea of power level."

      "I guess this falls under the heading of 'takes one to know one,'" said Sievers. "Any way to spoof their devices?"

      "Not for certain. Sheppue said he'd work on that."

      "The situation is serious but far from hopeless," said the President, as much to herself as Brade. "We have the home ground advantage, while they will have to bring everything - including all their soldiers - here. Also, they're genetically engineered for a specific set of powers. That makes them formidable, but they lack variety. Evolution has provided us with a diversity of abilities - super and norm - which they don't have."

      "Oh, while I'm thinking of it, how's the replacement in my old position doing?"

      "Danny Iverson is marvelous," said Sievers, smiling. "Even though he's not a super, he's known to the community and most supers respect him."

      "Well, being the son of Superion is a big help," said Brade, also smiling. "So are those super-friendly books and articles he writes."

      "He's doing a good job. Almost as good as you did."

      "Thank you. However, I need to get back to work on my current job."

      "Where to next?"

      "The Alien Analysis Laboratory," said Brade. "They should be able to provide insights into the Shilmek even Tolnar's people don't have."

       * * *

      Vic smiled as she carried her luggage into the familiar dorm. She was in a different room, this year, but still with Alex. Still on the same floor, actually. 

      The Ramsey Technical College had changed considerably during her second semester here, and was still changing as she began her third. There were yet more super students and teachers, as well as more non-super teachers familiar with supers and qualified to teach super-related topics. Of course, non-super students still outnumbered the supers by more than eight to one.

      Vic saw startled looks on a few faces as she trotted up the stairs. Well, she was carrying more than her own weight, quickly and deftly, and smiling the whole time.

      "Open sesame!" she shouted, playfully, as she approached the door. 

      "Yes, master!" Alex replied, as she opened the door from inside and welcomed Vic in with a sweeping bow. 

      "Once more unto the breach, dear friends!" said Vic, dramatically, as she deftly put her burden on the floor beside her bed. "Another year of college begins!"

      "You two are entirely too chipper," said Candy, stepping into the doorway. She was wearing rumpled jeans and t-shirt and looked sleepy.

      "I'm sorry," said Vic, immediately penitent. "Were you taking a nap?"

      "Yeah. Drove most of the night to get here, then couldn't sleep from the caffeine. Finally crashed around four."

      "I'll be quiet. Go back to bed."

      "No, it's late enough I need to be up and doing things."

      She yawned hugely, then winced as her jaw popped. 

      "Ow. Anyway, I need to eat something, finish unpacking, get to registration..."

      She wandered back down the hall, muttering to herself as she headed for the common area.

      "Uhm, should we tell her to put a bra on, first?" said Vic, uncertain as to the feminine protocol.

      "Oh, Hell, no," said Alex, practically drooling. 

      "So I better catch up and tell her," said Vic, smirking as she hurried out of the room.

      "Awwwww..." said Alex, plaintively. "They're like puppies, wrestling." 

       * * *

      "I'm glad they finally put doors at the lounge ends of the hallways," said Candy, properly dressed and more alert, now. "I got nervous about the boys staring down the hall at us girls coming out of the bathroom."

      "Well, if you'd dress in there instead of wearing a towel back to your room..." said Vic, raising an eyebrow. 

      She was also grinning, because she got an even better show, since she could legally go in the girls' bathroom. As long as she didn't openly stare - and she didn't - she was tolerated.

      "Then they'd be all damp and clammy!" said Alex, scornfully. "You still have a lot to learn about being a girl."

      "Yeah," said Melanie, putting up her shell. "We gals are delicate creatures who need protection from damp clothes."

      "Oh, stop being so thin-skinned," said Vic, grinning.

      Melanie tried to blow a raspberry at her, but that didn't work without flexible lips. 

      "Oooh, lobster for breakfast!" said Harriet, playfully, as she sat down beside Melanie. 

      "I hear you finally decided on a major," said the gal with the exoskeleton.

      "Yeah," said Harriet. "Took me a while, but Theater really fits with what I like to do. There's acting, and costuming, and makeup..."

      "That makes a lot of sense," said Vic, nodding. "Though I'm surprised they have a Theater program at what is mainly a technical college."

      "Well, they focus on the technical stuff. Lighting, sound, makeup, costuming. Oh, that reminds me; I hear we're getting a real, costume-wearing super hero here this semester."

      "Yeah. That electrical gal." Candy frowned. "Energy A?"

      "You're thinking of Energy-X," said Alex, her tone mildly scolding. "Who actually goes by Energex these days. He's a world-class villain. The hero is Energia. With a soft gee, since she didn't name herself after the Russian booster."

      "Huh?" said Candy, who might not have been quite as awake as she seemed a bit earlier.

      "Must be nice, being able to fly," said Vic, wistfully. 

      "Odd, though, how none of the other supers here can fly," said Melanie, frowning. Or, rather, forgetting she was still shelled and trying to frown without any success. She shifted back to skin, her clothes bagging a bit around her now smaller form. "I know Angel wishes she could."

      "When is she due?" said Vic.

      "You're really looking forward to meeting her, aren't you?" said Alex, with an impish grin. "Oooh, I think I'm jealous."

      "Down, girl," said Vic, mildly. "Even if we had something going on between us - and I'm far more eagerly looking forward to seeing Michelle again than I am to meeting this gal - word is she's not only straight but dating an alien prince."

      "Buh?!" said Candy, looking up from her cereal.

      "Girl, you really need to go back to bed," said Harriet, turning herself into a duplicate of Candy, only exaggerating the symptoms of sleepiness. 

      "No, no, I'll be all right," said Candy, waving away the concern. She took a long swig from her coffee mug. "'It is by caffeine alone that I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of the Bean that thoughts acquire speed.'"

      That brought laughter to some, confusion to others. 

      "I hear they finished the new gym," said Candy. "The one they wouldn't let anyone into all last semester. The one for supers only."

      "Yeah," said Vic. "They wouldn't let anyone in there because it was still under construction. They asked me for suggestions, and even I haven't been inside, yet."

      "So much to explore," said Alex, with an eager grin.

 


Part Four

      "Uh, what is that?" said the aspiring engineer, as he looked under the hood of Vic's Corolla wagon.

      "A 2T-GEU 1.6L DOHC EFI tweaked to within an inch of its life and made to love it," said Vic, smiling proudly. "My Grandpa is a real motorhead.

      "Anyway, I was told by your instructor that you knew some place close by where I could have Monstro serviced."

      "Monstro? Oh! The car! Yeah. There's a Toyota dealership not far from here which has a service department which specializes in old and modified Toyotas. Including Corollas. My Dad used to take his rally car there. They do good work."

      "Great!"

      Vic closed the hood and got the details. She then drove the short trip back to the dorm, feeling accomplished. Two more days until classes actually began, and she was about as prepared as she could get. If the service department had a slot available to work on Monstro in the next couple of days, life would be sweet. As she got out, though, she noticed people gathered in the area behind the dorm, looking up.

      "Hey, she's here!" someone called out excitedly to Vic, as he hurried past to join the throng. "Almost here!"

      "Who's here?" said Vic, fruitlessly. Then she realized who they must be talking about and looking at. "Oh, right; Energia. Who else would be arriving by air?"

      Vic walked towards the group more sedately than some of those headed for the gathering, looking up as she went. Her sense of awareness was good for such short range things as finding secure footing and warning of obstacles, but her eyes had much better range and resolution. Sure enough, she saw a glowing speck high in the distance. A glowing speck which contained a colorfully dressed figure, accompanied by a couple of objects in close formation.

      The flying figure approached rapidly, only slowing as she came directly above the dorm. She descended gracefully onto the roof with her luggage, vanishing from sight. 

      "What a gyp!" someone yelled. "She's avoiding us!"

      There was considerable grumbling along that line, as the crowd dissolved. 

      Vic, puzzled, went inside and up the stairs to the roof. There she found Energia grinning uncertainly as she spoke with a school official. 

      "...pleased to have you here," the man gushed. "I'm sure you will find everything to your liking. If not, well, any of us in administrative office will be glad to help."

      "Thank you," said Energia, shaking his hand. She suddenly noticed Vic. "Oh, who is that?"

      The man spun around and stared at Vic for a moment. Then relaxed.

      "Oh, that's Vic Peltior. She's another of our super students."

      "Hello," said Vic, advancing and extending her hand while giving a welcome smile. "I glad to have you here. Though I'm afraid you disappointed your audience."

      "Audience..." said Energia, blankly. 

      "There were a bunch of people waiting for you behind the building."

      "Oh! I didn't know."

      She casually lifted from the roof and flew off the building, looking down. 

      "No-one there, now."

      "Well, there will be a formal welcoming ceremony later," said the man, quickly. "You can have a meet and greet then."

      "That seems like a lot of bother," said Energia, looking uncertain as she landed back on the roof. "I'm just another student, here; not some celebrity."

      "I'm afraid some people do see you as a celebrity," said Vic, sympathetically. 

      Energia gave her a quick once-over; a subtle evaluation by someone experienced in habitually sizing up everyone she met. Vic only noticed because she did similar things. Being in the super business taught you that quickly.

      Energia saw a young woman with vaguely Asian features, though with Occidental eyes. Long hair, dark brown for most of the length but light at the tips. Skin a bit too brown for a typical Caucasian but not dark enough for either type of Indian. Taut muscles. High, firm breasts. Slightly broad shoulders, tapering to a slightly narrowed waist, then flaring into very feminine hips. In short, a typical female physical super. 

      Vic, in turn, was impressed by what she saw. Since Energia wasn't a physical super she expected her to be fit but not obviously so, at least under casual examination. However, even discounting the airbrushing on her costume and the padding in it - which her sense of perception allowed Vic to do - she was nearly as muscular as Vic. Of course, Vic wasn't all that muscular by bodybuilder or weightlifter standards, looking more like a top-notch gymnast. Which told her that Energia probably also did lots of aerobic exercise, calisthenics and light weight training.  

      "So, uh..." said the man, not sure what had just happened. 

      "Why don't I help you get your stuff in your room?" said Vic, reaching for the footlocker.

      "Oh! Thank you. I can manage the rest."

      From what Vic saw earlier, Energia could manage everything with no problem, but was letting Vic help. That was just good manners on both sides, an observation of the social niceties.

      "Do you have your room number?"

      "Here it is," said the man, abruptly thrusting a manilla envelope into Energia's hands. He had seemingly abandoned his assigned role of guide, due to Vic stepping in. "That's the number, there, in the address."

      "Thank you!" said Energia, cheerfully, as Vic - after a quick glance at the envelope - started off. 

      "You're on the same floor as me," she said, leading the way downwards. "Across the hall and three closer to the center."

      "Honestly, I was told to land on the roof," said Energia, a bit uneasily, still concerned at disappointing the people on the lawn. "I didn't know anyone would be waiting for me except someone from Administration. They even sent me an aerial photo, with the roof circled."

      "Don't worry about it," said Vic, easily, as they descended the stairs. "It wasn't anything organized; just some people who saw you flying in and thought you'd land out back."

      "Why would I land on the ground when I'd just have to go back up inside?" said Energia, puzzled. 

      Yeah, she's been flying for a long time, Vic realized. 

       * * *

      Vic was a bit surprised when Energia simply dumped everything in her room - a singleton - pulled her laptop from its shoulder bag and asked to be introduced around. 

      "That'll be easy," said Vic, leaning out the door to look down the hall towards the common area. "Looks like everyone on the floor and a bunch besides are waiting for you to make an entrance."

      "Oh, dear," said Energia, appearing a bit shy. "Well, I suppose I might as well get it done."

      Vic escorted the costumed young woman into the lounge and made the introductions. Thanks to her improved brain she remembered almost everyone. 

      "Finally, my roommate, Alexia Mondergan," said Vic, finishing.

      "So we just call you... Energia?" said one young woman, tentatively. 

      "I've been going by that among both strangers and friends for years," said Energia, grinning. 

      "Well, now that we all know each other, why don't we let her do her unpacking?" said Vic, helpfully.

      "You are such a boy," said Alex, teasingly. 

      Instead, Energia made her way to the couch in front of the TV and found a seat. 

      "I really didn't know about people wanting to meet me," she said, uncomfortably looking at those around her. "I mean, I'm not famous or anything."

      "You're the only person here who has fought supervillains," said Alex, practically drooling. 

      "Hey!" said Vic. 

      "Well, yeah, you stopped Rokuro, but you didn't actually fight him."

      "There have been plenty of times I wish I could have stopped someone without fighting them," said Energia, with feeling. She unconsciously rubbed her arm, where it had been broken in the fight with Allison Chains.

      "You don't have regeneration?" said Vic, picking up on the cue faster than the others.

      "No. Though I have access to advanced medical technologies." She smirked. "And magic."

      "Magic," said Alex, flatly. 

      "There's this cute, white-haired French boy on Pine Island who's a healer witch. He is a former student, and now a junior instructor."

      "You're pulling our legs," said Melanie, suspiciously.

      "Nope. Also had a classmate for a while who's a centaur."

      "Now I know..." Melanie began, strongly, fading into silence as Energia put her laptop on the table.

      "I figured there might be doubt. That's why I brought this out here."

      She started the device, made the wireless connection to the wide screen TV with a bit of help from a volunteer, and opened a video player. 

      "I recorded this at our dorm's after-graduation party," she explained. "The pale girl in the big hat on the left is Moondance. She's a vampire. The pale girl in the right with the big, pointed ears is Glomahr. She's an elf. Oh, there's Rubber Made, doing her life raft imitation in the lagoon. Some of these gals graduated a year or two before me, but came back for the ceremony and party. There's Cheiron! Just coming out of the water!"

      "I'll be damned," said Alex, faintly. "That is a centaur..."

      Energia smiled as she virtually introduced her new schoolmates to her old ones. Part of her reason for this little show was to convince them she was nothing special, just another student, at least in comparison to some of the others on the island. From their reactions her plan was working. 

      "Well, thank you all for the welcome," she said, eventually. "I'll be glad to show you more of this stuff later, but right now I do need to unpack, get cleaned up and then find the cafeteria."

      "I can show you," said Vic. "Oh, you can fix meals here in the common area, but for anything which needs refrigeration you'll have to supply your own refrigerator."

      "Sounds good," said Energia, rising. 

       * * *

      "Big ole bag o' bagels!" shouted Alex, enthusiastically, the next morning, as she dug into the aforementioned food. "I knew buying that toaster with the extra-wide slots and bagel setting was a good idea!"

      "You are entirely too chipper in the morning," said Energia, sourly, as she considered her own breakfast of cereal and milk, the latter purchased from a vending machine. 

      "Seriously? You're wearing a mask and gloves at breakfast," said Melanie. "Not to mention most of the rest of a costume. A different costume from the one you had on yesterday. 'Chipper' pales before that."

      "Part of the deal. I attend in my public ID, and am allowed to protect my secrets. Oh, and yesterday's costume is my traveling clothes. This is daily wear."

      "You don't feel awkward like that?" said Vic, honestly curious.

      "Nope. I've been wearing costumes since I was... well, for six years, now. Modern super costumes are so comfortable I've sometimes not realized I wore my mask to bed until I saw my reflection in the bathroom mirror in the morning."

      She laughed. 

      "Actually, the few times I did that I was so tired after getting back to base I just stripped off my costume and went to bed in my underwear."

      "Wait... you have underwear on under that?" said Mel. "I can see your nipples!"

      "Sure. As well as some soft armor. The apparent detail is part of what we call the costume discretion. It helps conceal a mask's real proportions, and makes an artistic statement."

      She grinned, deciding to show off. 

      "Watch this."

      She held out her hand, in the general direction of her room. There was a pause, which stretched out long enough that some were starting to wonder what was going on. Then, Energia's cape came sliding under the doors at the end of the hallway, and from there up, across the room and into her grasp.

      "Had a bit of trouble getting the door to my room open," she said, with an embarrassed smile. "Fortunately, the hallway doors don't fit all that close at the bottom."

      She held the cape out to Melanie, the closest, on her right. 

      "What is this made of?" she said, rubbing the fabric between fingers.

      "Wondercloth," said Energia. "It's a material developed just a few years ago, specifically for use in super costumes. It's attached to the shoulders with velcro patches. The main costume closures are Zip Strips. A single thread of the Wondercloth material can support over half a tonne."

      "Except for the velcro that's all very exotic - and expensive - stuff," said Vic, impressed, as the cape was passed to her. "Don't the people who make Zip Strips restrict their sales to supers only?"

      "No, but supers have first call," said Energia. "I have... family in the business, so to speak, and get a lot of this stuff either free or at a huge discount. Some of it is hand-me-downs from other supers. Also, most teams which have been around for a while have a supply of costume components. The materials used for super outfits are so tough the fabric lasts practically forever in normal wear. Though, of course, most costumes go through things most people wouldn't exactly call normal wear. This stuff is a major improvement in another way; some of the materials before Wondercloth require special care."

      "What, Superman's cape is dry clean only?" joked Harriet.

      "Not exactly. The preferred material before Wondercloth was super strong and resilient and resistant to various chemicals. However, the surface of the threads had a fine texture which trapped dust and dirt and odors and even grabbed threads. It had to be soaked for hours in special solvent combination - basically, super potent dry cleaning solution - to really get clean."

  "This feels... odd," said Vic, rubbing the material between her fingers.

      "There are fine stainless steel threads woven into the fabric. Adds a bit of extra armor, and also lets me manipulate it magnetically. Bowman suggested that, and made the first one for me. Gadgetive made this one. I've had a few others in between. This is the only cape I have which is still wearable. For some reason, they tend to get damaged first."

      "Interesting," said Vic, handing the cape to an eager Alex. "With some help from my roommate, here, I pieced together a... Well, less a costume than a fighting suit. The folks at the Bureau for Special Resources improved on that when I trained with them this past Summer. Got rid of the hard armor and added more soft, so it would stop expanding bullets but let the AP go through with no deformation. That's actually a better option for regenerators like me. Well, they did add more hard armor to the helmet."

      "High adsorption," said Alex, absently, as she examined the cape. "That other material, I mean. This stuff, though... I've been reading about it. Very high tensile strength, super-stable chemical structure, smooth surface on the fibers... Wow..."

      While classes didn't start until the next day, all of them had things to do. Once the cape made the rounds they finished their breakfast and the impromptu group broke apart. 

      "It's official, now," said Melanie, as she and Vic walked to the admin building. "You're all girl."

      "What are you talking about?" said Vic.

      "You spent a whole meal talking about what?"

      "Oh. My. God. I was talking about clothes," said Vic, stunned. 

       * * *

      The big event on campus that afternoon was the welcoming ceremony for Energia. Beforehand she was obviously uneasy about all the fuss, but once on stage gave a good show. A large part of which was the same movie she showed her dorm mates the day before, plus other material about Pine Island. 

      "So, really, I'm not so special," she finished, as the large screen above and behind her went dark. "Just another student, though one who dresses a bit colorfully. As the great philosopher once said, I'm just glad to be here."

      The applause which followed was far more than merely polite. Energia blushed as she walked back to her seat. She wasn't used to such adulation, but found a part of herself liking it. 

       * * *

      "What a stuck-up bitch," said Grant Summers, that evening. "Just ignored us and landed on the roof. Then thought she could fix it with an apology."

      "Yeah, showed home movies of a super hero high school, showing off for her admiring fans. Well, I'm not one of them! Not any more!"

      "I think you're making a big deal out of nothing," said Boyd. "Vic says she was told to land on the roof - even given a photo with the roof circled."

      "Well, of course your ex would defend another super," said Grant, his tone scornful. 

      "Even if that wasn't true," said Scott Rampler, "she probably had to pee."

      "You and peeing," said Billy, with a shiver of disgust.

      "Hey, it's a natural bodily function. Everybody does it. Well, except for a few people with a problem with requires surgical..."

      "You are disgusting," said Boyd, pointedly edging away.

      "What's really disgusting is the way supers think they're all so much better than us," said Grant, with a scowl.

      "You're inventing an offense where there is none," said Boyd, firmly. "Why don't you get to know some of the supers on campus before you pass judgement?"

      "Why bother?" said Billy, with a smirk. "He's already made up his mind."

      "Yeah, I don't have to listen to this," said Grant, rising and heading to his room. 

      "Aren't you his roommate?" said Boyd, to Billy, after Grant was out of earshot.

      "Yeah. He's not normally like this. I think he just decided he'd been personally stood up when Energia didn't land in front of him and ask for a date."

      There was some laughter at this. Then the group began dispersing, to make ready for bed. 

       * * *

      Brade had hoped to use this time in the office to catch up on paperwork. However, some mid-level manager was getting all bureaucratic in her face.

      "It is against regulations to hire married couples!" Greg Turpet steamed. "They must either get a divorce or resign!"

      "They were successful public heroes before they were a couple," said Brade, calmly. "They were a couple before I hired them. They married after being at the Bureau for several months. Mostly for tax purposes."

      "Well, if that's the only reason, there shouldn't be any objection to them divorcing!"

      "You want the public to find out we have an unmarried pair of employees living together?" said Brade.

      "What?! They were living together before they married?! Unconscionable! They must be fired immediately!"

      "All right, that's enough," said Brade, tired of trying to make this guy see reason. "They're two of our first agents. They're two of our best agents. They work well together. They love each other. I'm not going to take any action against them as long as they're doing good work, and they are doing good work. So crawl back into your hole and leave my people alone!"

      "You haven't heard the last of this!" said Turpet, face crimson. "Just because you're the director doesn't mean you can ignore regulations!"

      "Actually, it does," said Brade, hotly. "I specifically asked for the authority to modify them in cases where they did not apply to supers, or were interfering with our work. This counts in both cases. Now, get out of here before I modify your posterior with my foot!"

       * * *

      "Your grandfather did this?" said the mechanic. The name tag on his somewhat smudged coveralls read Sid. 

      "Yeah. He's a long-time hotrodder. He knows engines, drivetrains, brakes, suspension..."

      "We'd have to remove the strut tower brace to do any major work," he said, as Vic trailed off. He shone his utility light around Monstro's engine compartment. "For regular maintenance there shouldn't be any problem."

      "Grandpa told me, once, that only an amateur forgets he'll have to work on his project eventually." Vic shrugged. "I usually do routine stuff - oil and filter and so forth - but I don't have any place to do the work at college. Unless I want to enroll in a shop class."

      "Well, we can certainly handle those jobs," said Sid, straightening and nodding. "In fact, though I've never seen this exact combination before, all the mods and add-ons are pretty standard. If it ever needed it, we could do a complete rebuild."

      "Good news. All it needs right now, though, is an oil change and Winterizing."



Part Five

      The return of Monstro from its trip for maintenance attracted a small audience. The car was actually a bit famous around campus. Most, of course, were simply checking up on their favorite way of bumming a ride. 

      "Ooh, shiny," said Alex, when Vic got back from her maintenance trip. 

      "Yeah," said Vic, smiling as she gave Monstro an affectionate pat on the fender. "There's a car wash next to the dealership, owned by the same guy. They gave me a wash and wax for free." 

      "Mask transportation is often weird," said Energia, with a smirk. "I think this is the strangest I've seen, though."

      "Don't diss the car, girl," said Alex, almost as protective of Monstro as its rightful owner was. 

      "It's supposed to be low-key in appearance," said Vic, defensively. 

      "I just remembered something," said Energia, with a laugh. "When Blue Impact started her career, in her teens, she rode a ten-speed bicycle. Until she pedaled so hard she broke it."

      "Bicycle," said Vic, thoughtfully. "Huh. That would be good to have. A lot more convenient for some trips than either running or driving."

      "Not as cool as flying, though," said Alex.

      "I'm just surprised I'm the only flyer here," said Energia. "It's not that rare a power. About one in ten on Pine Island can fly, and a few more can levitate."

      "We don't have that many supers, here," said Vic, with a shrug. "This is still mainly a normal technical college. Though, yeah, there's a lot more than ten. Or even twenty. Maybe something skewed the percentage on the island. I don't recall flight being quite that common among the general super population."

      "Okay, enough of that," said Alex. "It's lunchtime!" 

      As the small group headed for the cafeteria, Energia was again impressed with the campus. Nearly every building was clean and neat. With few exceptions, they were all new or recently refurbished, and those which were neither simply didn't need any work. 

      "The feds really poured the money into this place," she said, as they headed to the cafeteria after finishing. 

      "Well, Rokuro did a lot before that," said Vic. "He didn't even have a chance to finish most of what he planned for the infrastructure. Of course, that included things like secret tunnels and built-in monitoring equipment in every room and much of the campus grounds."

      "How do we know the feds didn't go ahead and do all that?" said someone whose name Energia hadn't caught.

      "They let a committee of students and staff inspect both the plans and the work underway. They actually kept Rokuro's plans - though they were modified - for the improvements in facilities and security equipment."

      "Given some of the things which happened when there wasn't close monitoring, I'm definitely in favor of that," said Melanie, with feeling. "I am so glad he's in jail."

      "I just hope that's him," said Vic, sourly.

      "Well, I'm meeting my boyfriend for lunch," said Energia, as they neared the cafeteria. "In fact, I think I see him now! Hey, Maldren!"

      She lifted off the ground and waved. A figure leaning against the wall at the main entrance to the cafeteria leapt into the air, zooming towards her as she swept towards him. 

      They met just above head height, their horizontal collision turned into an upward twin spiral as they climbed into the sky.

      "Maldren? You're all... tingly."

      "You make me tingly," he said, hugging and kissing her.

      "Will you look at them?" said Melanie, amazed. "It's like some sort of mating flight. Beautiful."

      "They're just showing off," someone muttered in the background. "Telling us 'We can fly and you can't.' Thumbing their noses at us."

      "I don't think noses are the body parts they're thinking about, right now," said Melanie, who watched until the pair were out of sight.

       * * *

      "Finally, the Israelis are upgrading their old Ziz aerial fortress, with help from us and several others," said Brade, as she finished her briefing of the President late that afternoon. "That includes advice and hands-on help from Shilmek technical advisors."

      "That should be a big help," said Sievers, nodding. 

      "Well, we finished before full dark, for a change."

      "There's one more thing, before you go," said President Sievers, shutting down her tablet and putting it on her desk. "A matter of personal curiosity. I was reading about the hostage rescue you were part of in Seventy-Four. It was one of the last and best documented of the operations by Dick's Boys. However, I could not find any mention, anywhere, about how your team was inserted into the area."

      "Typical," said Brade, with a gruff laugh. "It was something supers do all the time, but the brass classified it. I mean *really* classified it, forbidding any mention of it even in the classified documents. Out of fear that other people might learn about it and use it against the US and our allies. Even though, as I said, it was common for supers long before then, and still is. Of course, part of the reason for all that was also due to Nixon getting increasingly paranoid as the investigation of his illicit activities progressed. It was a HANO mission." 

      "A what, now?"

      "High Altitude No Opening. In other words, people tough enough to make a parachute jump with no parachute. Or who could fly. Both, for some of the participants."

      Sievers laughed, shaking her head.

      "So, meeting tomorrow at Oh-Eight-Hundred?" said Brade, as they rose.

      "I'm afraid so. Just my staff and a few special guests, but it will be long, because it's going to be thorough. A full review of our defense preparations, with reviews of the best of the suggestions from all sides."

      "Not looking forward to that," said Brade, with a sigh. "Now I know why you suggested I get back early from this last mission. I'll make sure to get to bed early."

      "That makes two of us."

      Sievers sighed.

      "Can you believe that some in my own party have been criticizing me for spending so much time and effort on defense preparations? They say I should already be working for my re-election."

      "Idiots," said Brade, casually. "If we're conquered, there won't be an election."

       * * *

      Even though classes started the next day, several of the residents of the female side of Vic's dorm floor were up late, chatting in the common room. Mostly about how Energia's date went. Vic was a bit disturbed to find herself nearly as interested as those born female.

      "Ever since I introduced Maldren to clubbing he's become addicted," said Energia, with a laugh. "Likes it more than I do, now."

      "I thought aliens didn't 'get' music," said Alex, puzzled. "Or dancing."

      "Maldren's people's brains are still enough like ours that they have similar tastes in music. They also like dancing, but most of their stuff is a lot more ritualistic."

      "Huh? Still enough like... What do you mean?"

      "Their ancestors were taken from Earth as lab animals by the Sh'pokt about a hundred thousand years ago," said Energia. "After several semi-successful escape attempts and acts of sabotage, their captors grudgingly admitted they'd made a mistake and unintentionally enslaved sapient creatures. They couldn't put them back, 'cause that would 'pollute' the native population. They made it up to them by freeing and educating them and giving them their own planet in an isolated system in the local part of the galaxy. The Shilmek responded by eventually building an empire and wiping out their captors."

      For some reason she now turned to Vic, giving her an evaluating look.

      "So, what sort of music do you like?"

      "Lots of different stuff," the martial artist replied, shrugging. "I've always had wide-ranging tastes, and those have just gotten wider since my powers activated. Been listening to a lot of Apocalypse Jaguar, lately."

      "Rage-driven elfmetal!" said Alex, when Energia looked at her. 

      "Why am I not surprised?" said Energia, wryly. 

      "Try rooming with that," said Vic, smirking. 

      She went around the rest of the group, receiving few surprises. 

      "Have your tastes changed since you got your powers?" she said, returning to Vic.

      "Not a whole lot, but in some surprising ways," said Vic. "It's not just my keen senses which are responsible, either. My brain seems to process music differently. Used to, I couldn't stand anything dissonant, and just didn't get the more esoteric jazz stuff. Now, I practically drool over modern jazz trumpet, the more arcane the better."

      "Some of the stuff she listens to," said Alex, shaking her head. "I mean, it sounds like a bunch of preschoolers snuck into the band room and are abusing the instruments."

      "A large part of it is they way they explore the way music is made," said Vic, passionately. "What music is."

      "Music is not random noise. Music has pattern, rhythm..."

      "I have the feeling this is an ongoing argument," said Energia, grinning. 

      "What do you like?" said Alex, less eagerly than almost accusingly. 

      "Entmusic," said Energia, picking the most unusual of her musical tastes. She smiled at their confused expressions. "What can I say? One of my friends is an elf."

      "Uh...," said Alex.

      "I've heard of that," said Vic, frowning. "Something about reading tree rings with an optical scanner."

      "Got it in one. Only the elves do it with their minds. Then interpret it with instrument and voice. They say you can hear the rhythm of the seasons in it."

      "Is there anything you find entertaining or pleasurable now, which you didn't before you got powers?" said Alex, more warily this time.

      "Hmmmm," said Energia, thinking. She'd had her powers for so long that state seemed normal to her, now, as if she'd always been able to sense electricity and magnetism. "Well, some frequencies of high-voltage electricity give me a really pleasurable tingle. And I do mean pleasurable."

      She laughed. 

      "I made the mistake of mentioning this to Maldren, and now he sometimes includes that in foreplay."

      TMI, thought Vic, who was still occasionally surprised at how readily some females of the species would reveal intimate details like that.

      "I love storms," said Energia, wistfully, as she continued. "The moving electrical charges are like white noise, like waves on a shore in kind but very different in effect. Then, there's that little spike I get from distant lightning. That tickles me a bit." 

      "Doesn't a nearby strike hurt?" said Alex.

      "No. I can feel it building. Plenty of time to get ready for the jolt."

      Alex suddenly burst out laughing. 

      "S-sorry. Just had this image of you needing a surge protector."

      "Hah! No, but sometimes electrical equipment has needed surge protection from me!"

      "Eep!"

      "Oh, that was in the early days. Now I don't do that accidentally. Though I can certainly do it deliberately, as several people - including supervillains and their henchfolk - have learned."

      She suddenly yawned. 

      "Oog. Getting late, and I have a class at nine. Better turn in."

      "I think most of us will," said Melanie.

      "Hey, youngster," said Energia, teasingly, as she looked at Alex. "Better get moving. You need sleep more than us grownups."

      "Just remember, you're a frosh," said Alex, with a nasty smile. "I outrank you."

      The group collectively headed to bed on that note. 

       * * *

      "Good morning. First, I'll give a review. Then move on to certain specifics.

      "The current plan is one of layers of defense. Zeep and a few other deep space supers and the Lunies' officially nonexistent fighting craft will be assigned to long-range defense. This will begin at lunar orbit and go to five times that, with the option for the fastest defenders to head off ships spotted further out. If some of the attackers get through that - and we know it's all but certain at least some will - then the Lunies' local defenses will coordinate with the rest of the space-capable supers and the Termites for medium-range defense. The Lunies are supplying space suits to supers who need them, though they may not be able to tailor them to every customer. 

      "For short range defense - low Earth orbit and down - we're depending on traditional AA missiles, the new super weapons and the bulk of supers who can fly or have powers with significant range.

      "Finally, we are establishing a dispersed command and communication structure which will coordinate what is essentially a guerrilla war if the Shilmek knock out our command centers and emergency bunkers and get a significant enough force on the ground to occupy important areas."

      "Aren't you omitting a huge stage, there?" said General Harvest, more than a little anger in his tone. "What about conventional ground warfare against their forces?"

      "All our analysts - including those at the Pentagon - say that would be a waste of resources," said Sievers, sourly. "Each of their soldiers is at least a low-level physical super, and many are medium-level. Their individual equipment multiplies that enormously. Their personal weapons are as potent as our heavy artillery, their protections make them as durable as main battle tanks. Worse, they can target many of our heavy weapons, even in storage. Ordinary troops in head-on combat would be slaughtered."

      "That's... not very encouraging," said Vice President Sargent, looking distressed on his monitor. 

      "Would you rather I gave you false hope? Our best chance - assuming they can't be driven away before they actually land and occupy a significant part of the planet - is to wear them down. Interstellar war is hideously costly in resources. There are fewer than a billion Shilmek total, and that population is spread over twenty-seven planets and a huge number of habitats in a volume more than sixty light years across. Every analysis I've received says they can take our planet and they can destroy our planet, but they can't hold it."

      That caused a stir.

      "They almost certainly won't destroy it," said Brade, quickly. "Habitable planets are too rare. In fact, they probably won't even try to permanently occupy any place on Earth. Their most likely tactic will be to hit hard and fast, locate and take out Tolnar and as many of her people and ships as they can, then get out. She's their real target, after all. Of course, they will assume we'll do everything we can to prevent them from succeeding. So as part of their attack they'll go after anything they think we can use against them. Supers, military bases, government centers... Not necessarily in that order, of course."

      "We can't count on them only doing that, though," said Sievers. "That's why we're going to work on a defense in depth. Depth in space, in time... and in layers of command. That, plus civil defense, methods to protect the population during a war... and a possible occupation."

      They talked. They argued. There was some shouting. In the end, though, all but the most stubborn were convinced that the basic plan was the best available. That didn't mean they agreed on the details.

      Sievers called a break for lunch before they could get too far into those. The attendees separated into small groups, usually by office. An hour later they were back at it.

      "Still a lot to do," said Sievers, nodding, as four O'Clock approached. "We got a lot done today, though. A lot of good work."

      She sat back for a moment, stretching a bit and sighing. 

      "There is one more matter I want to discuss before we adjourn," said Sievers. "Some of you already know about this, because you've been doing some of the work. We have begun exploring the creation of artificial superhumans."

      "Not a good idea," said Chad Dunnerton, the President's health and medicine advisor. "Genetic supers have biochemical pathways laid out in the womb. You can't just give those types of powers to norms; at best they'll only be a pale shadow of someone born super. At worst they'll have a slow and grisly death."

      "Yes, I'm aware of all this," said the President, tiredly. "There are several methods to evaluate, though. Some have had at least partial success in the past."

      "Most of them simply won't be safe. As just one example, those supers Dr. Hereford made for Hiran all got very sick very quickly."

      "Yes, but he was really pushing things," said Sievers. "Those folks had a raft of powers, and were all in the eighty range. What we want is a way to put our soldiers in the same general class as the Shilmek soldiers."

      "That might actually be doable," said Dunnerton, thoughtfully. "I'm a little out of the loop on that, but know people who should be up to date. I'll ask around."

      "Please do. I already have folks working on this, but an approach from a different angle would be very helpful."

      "When it comes to empowered, we are very much outnumbered," said Brade, frowning in thought. "As long as you're doing it responsibly, well, the more the better."

      "I'm surprised you are so much in favor of our plans," said Sievers. "We're probably going to kill a lot of supers if the invasion does come."

      "They'd die anyway, if there's an actual invasion," said Brade, flatly. "The people who are now in charge of the Shilmek Empire hate those born with overt powers as much as they feel contempt for those born without the sorts of abilities most Shilmek have. That includes normal humans. So we're all in the same boat. The clearer that is to everyone on Earth, the better for our defense efforts."

      "That's a rather cold-blooded attitude," said the President, more than a little taken aback. 

      "She's right, though," said General Harvest, nodding. "One-on-one, the supers are more invested in defending Earth than we are. Because the run-of-the-mill Shilmek hate them the same way they hate the Primus Shilmek."

      "Brade, do you think Template's PAC will get behind this?" said the President.

      "Her group isn't actually political... at least, not in the normal sense. They're focussed on a pretty narrow goal, and determined to achieve it, through all means fair and legal."

      "Most PACs these days want to maintain the status quo," said Sharon McGuinness, in charge of monitoring public opinion for the President. "Hers wants to improve things. Yes, they're focused on improving things for supers, but I think there's substantial historical precedent that removing bigotry against any one group improves an entire society."

      They got back to discussing artificial supers for a bit, keeping to the sub-topic of how they might be produced. 

      "I'm worried that Template personally might have objections to this," said Sievers, as they finished. "Brade, will you schedule a meeting between us?"

      "Of course."

      "Well, unless there's anything else, meeting adjourned."

       * * *

      Energia's first day of classes was a situation of minor revelations. One of the most disappointing was that kids in college could still be petty and mindlessly cruel. She hadn't thought attending in costume would be a problem, but she overheard several classmates making critical remarks of varying degrees of rudeness. Bizarrely, several were from males who thought she didn't show enough skin. Twice, in different classes, someone actually tried to get the instructors to force Energia to dress normally. Both times the teacher replied that her being allowed to wear a costume was part of the school's agreement with Energia. 

      Six different guys made passes at her, though only one was obnoxious about it. To Energia's surprise, two female students also expressed interest. 

      "Vic, would you please pass the word that I'm straight?" said Energia, that evening. She seemed more amused than anything else. 

      "I thought I already had," said Vic, surprised when she heard about this. 

      "Oog," said Energia, stretching. "I'm going to bed. This day has just worn me out."

      "You're not the only one," said Melanie, with feeling, as she rose to head to her room. 



Part Six

      Days passed. Both students and teachers settled into the new semester. Energia deliberately had an easy set of classes, knowing she would also be working with the faculty and perhaps giving talks on heroing, and not wanting to overload herself this first semester. She still found herself busy. So busy that she came to value the evenings in the common room of her dorm floor. The other supers she knew here tended to, as well, and also many normal students.

      "So, are any of you other super gals going to try for a sorority?" said Melanie, stifling a yawn one Friday evening as the usual group got together. "I've got a couple I'm checking out."

      "Let me put it this way," said Speedy Sue. "I'll check out any sorority which addresses my interests."

      "Don't most sororities prohibit super members, anyway?" said Harriet. 

      "No; there was a big lawsuit over that, a few years ago," said Melanie. "Some still reject supers who apply, and there's several court cases pending with them, but most these days openly accept supers. There just aren't many who apply."

      She looked at Energia.

      "That's why I was asking. We're trying to recruit more."

      "For which sorority?" said Vic. "Why didn't you ask me?"

      "Oh, I'm sorry; this for all of the sororities at the school. Not that there are many, at least yet. Anyway, this is part of an administration effort to recruit supers for sororities, and there's a group of guys working on the fraternities. Since they're deliberately trying to attract supers, the school wants to make it clear they're welcome to participate in all activities, including the extra-scholastic."

      "So howcome you didn't ask me?" said Vic, again, tone carefully neutral.

      "First it's a new program, and I'm just getting around to asking anyone," said Melanie, smiling sweetly at Vic. "Second, well, having known you for a year already I was pretty sure you wouldn't be interested in all the girly stuff."

      "Uh-huh," said Vic, not entirely convinced. 

      "Oh, come on," said Melanie, laughing. "I can just see you pledging, and..."

      "Okay, okay, I'm not really interested," said Vic, relenting with a laugh. "Just giving you a hard time."

      "Anyway, anyone interested?"

      As it turned out, no-one not already checking into sororities was.

      "Oh, well," said Melanie, with a sigh. She stretched, and yawned broadly. "Oog. Lobster Girl needs sleep. See you folks in the morning."

      As she rose and departed, Vic suddenly remembered something. 

      "Oh; Coach Trujillo wants to know when you can check out the target range," she said, turning to Energia. 

      "Hum. Not sure. I'm flying home for the weekend and Monday's already full."

      "He said you could do it during lunch Monday, if you want."

      "That would be fine," said Energia, dryly, "if I didn't need to eat. Sorry, but I think it'll be at least the day after. I have a two hour stretch after lunch free next Tuesday."

      "I'll tell him."

      "So, when are you seeing Michelle again?" said Harriet. 

      "Saturday," said Vic, smiling.

      "Michelle?" said Energia. 

      "Her girlfriend," said Harriet, grinning. "Works at a salon in town. Vic met her when she went to get a haircut. Which is most of the reason she hasn't had one, yet."

      "What can I say?" said Vic, smiling. "She likes long hair."

      "So, is she the one who bleaches your tips?" said Energia. 

      "Those aren't bleached," said Vic. "My hair was lighter before I changed."

      "Oh! That's unusual."

      "I don't think there's anything about my transformation which is usual," said Vic, dryly. "Say, why don't you and Maldren come with us on a double date? We're going to a dance club downtown."

      "You would ask that for a weekend when I promised my family I'd visit," said Energia, grinning. "Maybe next time."

      Vic thought for a moment Energia was putting her off, perhaps because she didn't want to be around lesbians on a date. However, her manner was very easy, with nothing to imply duplicity. Then she realized something. 

      "You're going to fly home under your own power, right?"

      "Well, sure," said Energia, airily. "What other way is there?"

      That brought snorts from a couple of their rapidly shrinking group. 

      "That must be so neat," said Vic, wistfully. "I've been carried flying a few times, but to do it under your own power..."

      "I'd like to be able to fly," said Angel, even more wistfully. "I got a lot of things when my powers came... including non-functional wings."

      There was a long, somewhat uncomfortable silence at that. Then Vic yawned and shook her head. 

      "Ugh. Physical super or not, I need to head for bed, too. Night, all."

      "Good night," said Energia. "I'm pretty much right behind you."

       * * *

      "'Bout time you got in," said Alex, mock scolding from where she lay in bed, reading something technical. She put her book away and turned her light out as Vic finished her own bed prep. 

      The room was now dark. Which was no impediment to Vic.

      "I'm not late," said Vic, defensively. She glanced reflexively at the clock beside her bed, even though her sense of perception didn't depend on her eyes. "Well, not much late. And tomorrow's Saturday."

      She was already in her usual sleep gear of panties and nightshirt, having changed as part of her evening ablutions in the women's showers. 

      "You seem a bit subdued tonight," said Alex, as Vic dropped into her bed.

      "I just realized something," said Vic, frowning, as she lay down and pulled the covers over her. "Nearly everyone - some sooner, some later, but eventually almost everyone - asks me about the gender change. It's something anyone would be curious about. I know she knows I used to be a guy - she's mentioned it, offhand - but... it doesn't matter to her. As if she already had her curiosity satisfied."

      "Weird," said Alex, in a sleepy mutter. "Night."

      "Night."

       * * *

      "Well, at least all this preparation is boosting the economy," said Harold Topler, Sievers' economic advisor, in a small meeting between her and his staff the next day. "I just wish more of the end result had commercial application."

      "That's a good idea," said Sievers, suddenly. "Put people on that. If we can't make a silk purse out of some of this we're not trying hard enough."

      "Yes," said Harold, nodding thoughtfully. "Yes. That could end the recession, right there."

      "Well, I think that's all," said the President. "I need to answer some calls and some mail, get lunch, then have a meeting with Brade and Template."

      "I feel uneasy, you being alone with those two," said Harold, shifting in his seat.

      "What, you think they're going to murder me in the Oval Office?" said Sievers, raising an eyebrow. "If I didn't trust them, I wouldn't be counting so much on them."

      "Yeah, I know. It's not anything I have against either of them - I like Brade, and have had lunch with her a few times - it's just the idea of the President of the United States being otherwise alone with two people who each can lift tanks."

      "Don't worry," said the President, straight-faced, as she rose. "If either of 'em tries anything I'll just order an airstrike."

       * * *

      "So," said Sievers, after explaining in brief her plans for applying supers to the problem of the potential Shilmek attack. "What are your views?"

  "I have spoken with Brade about this before," said Template, nodding. "Neither I nor the Super-PAC have objections to anything specific. Some of us have suggestions, but we have already spoken with Brade about them as well, and I believe she has relayed them to you."

      "I just wanted to let you know - from me, personally - that there are no plans to sacrifice supers simply to get rid of them."

      "I really think that if there were, you'd have heard from us by now," said Template, dryly. "Was there something else you wanted to speak with me about?"

      "Yes. Assuming we manage to survive this, I really need to start planning for my political future. There's less than two years until I face re-election. Of course, that's if I still feel like being president after all this."

      "What do you want from me?" said Template, getting back to her previous question.

      "Give me an example," said Sievers, leaning back in her chair, "of how you want to improve things for supers."

      "I want a world," said Template, quietly, "where a man can fly, just for the sheer joy of it, without worrying about being shot down by a missile."

      "I beg your pardon?" said the President, confused.

      "A friend of mine, someone who has helped the school, was flying in international airspace when he was shot at with four still-experimental Harpy missiles. We eventually found this came from the secret seamount base which later kidnapped over fifty children from our school. All that was part of the plans of that group of maniacs who fancied themselves the secret rulers of the world. One of whom hated this friend of mine because the man flew over an area where he - former Senator in serious disrepute Edgar Storey - was visiting."

      "Oh..."

      "I think that is more a matter of changing society than anything politicians can do," said Brade, softly.

      "I know, it's... an intangible. Getting people to not hate us just for being us and doing harmless things only we can do. It's still a valid goal."

      "Amen," said Brade. "It's a sort of anti-elitism. There are people who think that because they can't do something, no-one should be allowed to do it. Of course, that attitude holds for far more than powers."

      There was a brief silence, before the President sighed and sat up a bit. 

      "There is one other matter I wanted to discuss with you," said Sievers. "Several of my plotters and schemers have suggested we replicate Energex's process."

      "They're out of their minds," said Template, flatly. "This is not an emotional response on my part, due to my experiences with him, or the source of his process. Leaving aside for a moment evidence that his self-application turned an amoral person into a cold-blooded sociopath, the only person of eight known who has tolerated the powers his device gives for more than a few seconds is him. Even that is only because he keeps tinkering."

      "I thought Eagle got his powers from one of Energex's devices," said Sievers, puzzled. 

      "Except that Eagle is a genetic super. Energex's machine activated Eagle's powers, though at first they were unstable. That's why he originally was only able to use one power at a time. They just happened to be powers similar to Energex's."

      "I did not know that," said Sievers, startled.

      "It's news to me, too," said Brade. 

      "I didn't know until Eagle told me," said Template. "Anyway, Energex' technique was tailored to work just on him. That's why it killed - in rather grisly fashion - every other genetically normal person who used it. They literally melted down, most instantly, the least fortunate one in a bit less than a minute. I wouldn't try it on people with super genes, hoping to activate their powers, either. It has already killed both of the nimrods who tried that, after learning about Eagle. Trust me on this; because of our history I've done some pretty extensive research on Energex."

      "More bad news," said Sievers, looking a bit worried. "Okay, yes, I'll tell my people. It's vaguely possible Energex's method could be adapted to someone else, but we already have more likely methods we're exploring for awakening powers."

       * * *

      Energia walked slowly down the indoor range towards the back, examining the facility with more than just human senses. The buffer at the end of the range received particular attention.

      "Looks good," she said, nodding as she walked back to the firing line. "Ceramic armor, Faraday shielding, water spray, the works. This has everything I've seen in other ranges except force fields."

      "Well, those are not something we want to get into just yet," said Trujillo. He grinned and rubbed his hands together. "So, you ready to give it a try?"

      "Okay. Just a paper target at fifteen, for the first try, please."

      He pushed a button, and an overhead track brought one of the two target holders to the firing line. Trujillo clipped a large paper bullseye to the holder. Another push of the button sent it out to fifteen meters. 

      Energia pointed a finger. A beam of white light bridged the gap; she corrected a bit to bring it to the center. The target smoked for a second or two, then burst into flames.

      "Why'd you start so easy?" said Trujillo, as he pushed the button to bring the nearly empty frame back to the firing line.

      "I've learned to start small and build up slow with things like this," said Energia, wincing as she recalled a couple of times she'd caused damage showing off. "Okay, I want to try a hotter beam, just shooting downrange to test the buffer."

      "Sounds like a plan."

      Over the next hour and a bit, Energia tested her powers on the range itself. Each time she switched to a new effect she started easy and built up slowly. 

      "That's convenient, having someone so flexible in their powers to test this for us. We get it all done in a short time."

      "Well, I went full out with my CW effects," said Energia. "Given the minor damage that caused, I don't think I'll try my wave motion effect in here."

      "You're what?"

      "I build up as much energy as I can hold, then let it out in one big pulse or beam."

      "Ouch," said Trujillo, wincing. "Yeah, I didn't know anything about that. I don't think anyone involved in designing or building this facility did, either."

      "I did try warping things with both direct force and magnetism," said Energia. "It seems sturdy enough for practice with those, too."

      "I'm not sure what you're talking about, there."

      "Okay, direct force is pretty complicated. It involves interacting with subatomic and other forces in the same way matter does. I mean, I'm simulating matter doing it, but I'm using my powers instead. Magnetic force is just that."

      "Okay. I've read enough about you and others - and seen enough for myself - to know most force manipulators move things with magnetism. I don't know why. I'd think that, since magnetism only affects magnetic materials, you'd use direct force more often."

      "Force manipulation takes both more energy and more concentration. Well, for me, and for most others from what I know about the subject. It's a lot easier to just grab something conductive with the Meissner effect, using magnetism - it doesn't have to actually be magnetic, just conductive - rather use direct force. I also have much better control with magnetism. I hardly use direct force any more."

      "Learn something new every day," said Trujillo, smiling ruefully. 

       * * *

      John and I were trudging through some very rough terrain, after parking our government-issue SUV at the end of the vague track which led us here. I was actually glad to be out of the thing. It was on loan from the Park Service, and I honestly believe they deliberately gave us their most worn and decrepit vehicle. 

      Fortunately, we soon came to the dry creek bed the map promised. We began walking along that, uphill. The path was far easier, now, at least physically. 

      "My Great-Uncle, Arthur Twambley, used to tell me about some of his adventures," I said, with a sigh. "I thought he was full of shit, making it all up. He died before my own powers manifested and I started having adventures of my own. Else, I'd have apologized."

      John grunted noncommittally. I eyed him sourly, wanting conversation and not getting it.

      "Sometimes I think the President is trying to kill me," I muttered, trying a change of subject. 

      John laughed, after nearly an hour finally reacting to something with more than the bare minimum... or not even that. However, he quickly sobered again. I thought I might know why he was so dour, but wasn't sure I believed it.

      "Surely you're not afraid of ghosts!"

      "I am when they're real ghosts!"

      That was both amusing and frightening. John Love was a supernatural character - a literal demigod from the Olympian line. For him to be frightened of something because it was supernatural... I focused my attention on walking, with an occasional glance at our only reference. 

      As the old map - which we had a hand-drawn copy of - promised, at the top of the dry creek bed there was a narrow cut through the ridge. So far nothing looked improper, or even out of the ordinary for the area. However, I well knew this appearance was deceptive. 

      Our map was hand-drawn because the original wouldn't photocopy... or photograph, or digitally scan. Neither would this copy, or any other. The ridge could be photographed, including from the air, and showed on maps. However, the cut didn't. You could only see it if you climbed up the creek bed and looked for yourself. Effectively, the route only existed for those who sought it and already had a good idea of where it was. 

      "Interesting," said John, pausing as we reached the cut. He cautiously extended a hand. "This reminds me of the portals to the realm of Olympus. A few other things, too."

      I was glad on the one hand he now seemed to be taking our mission more seriously. On the other, I was worried he now seemed to be taking our mission more seriously. 

      I sighed and, since he showed no willingness to, stepped into the slot. 

      I felt nothing unusual. Neither did I see or hear anything unusual. However, as we moved forward I started feeling increasingly uneasy.

      "I believe this is a deliberate effect, rather than due to anything inimical here," said John, hardly bothered by the sensation. "Something to keep the riffraff out."

      "That's reassuring," I said, through gritted teeth. 

      I needed a lot of concentration to keep going. Fortunately, the slot was not long. Soon, we were standing in a misty valley. The sky overhead was completely overcast, which was a major difference from the mostly clear weather outside. 

      We could see a fire in the distance, though only vaguely due to the mist. 

      "That looks like our destination," I said, encouraged that so far things were as described in every account I had read about this place. Well, every coherent account... Some of those who had returned from this trip had not been coherent. There was no reliable count of those who had not made it back.

      Shapes became visible around the fire as we approached. Some were tents, others horses, some were men. Or what appeared to be men.

      "Oh, this is very bad," said John, actually frightened, though he kept up with me. "They are not ghosts, but... something else. Something awesome."

      "They've helped the US before in times of need," I said, quietly. "No-one knows their origins or motivations. Just that in their first verified appearance in 1883 they stopped a Mexican plot to spread plague through several western towns. Each time they've acted since then it was to help either the nation as a whole or the southwest against outsiders."

      "Who goes there?!" came a sudden challenge.

      John and I both jumped in surprise. I was distressed to hear my voice squeak as I gave our names.

      "Lawrence Hawthorne and John Love! We need to speak with your commander."

      "Advance and be recognized!"

      The sentry slowly gained resolution as we moved closer. He appeared human, if archaic. The uniform was of the US Cavalry, from roughly the mid Eighteen-Seventies. Not that I'm an expert on historical military uniforms; this all came from my briefing.

      "Colonel! Two civilians, unarmed! Both have powers!"

      Okay, just how did he know that?!

      Another uniformed man approached. Where the sentry seemed a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, with only a mustache, this was a mature man of early middle age, with a full and rather bushy beard. He radiated both authority and irritation.

      "State your business," he said, rather gruffly.

      "The United States has given shelter to the deposed leader of an alien culture," I said, wondering if he could even understand what I meant by "alien." "The new leaders are certain to try to capture or assassinate her. This is likely to involve at least a hit-and-run attack, and possibly a full-blown invasion. The President of the United States sent me to request your aid in repelling these invaders."

      What would he make, I wondered, of that President being a woman?

      More and more of them approached as I spoke. Fortunately, the weren't trying to surround us, or I likely would have bolted. They looked determined... and angry. Very, very angry. 

      "We failed our country at Bitter Creek," said the leader, waves of sadness and anger flowing from him and his troops. "We vowed never to do so again."

      He cast his gaze over the assembled cavalry.

      "What say, men?"

      A fierce cheer rang out, the echoes persisting long after the initial sound. There was more than mere sound involved as well. I needed a moment to gather my voice.

      "Do... we need to... call upon you when..."

      "Now that we are asked, we will respond when the need arises," said the Colonel, formally. "You have my word."

      Neither John nor I remembered much about subsequent events. We came to our senses just outside the cut, back at the dry creek. Talking later, we both had the definite impression that, having delivered our message, our presence was no longer to be tolerated. 



Part Seven

      "That is one slick looking bike," said Mel, more than a bit envious.

      "Yeah. The guys in the shop really did a good job on this. The suspension and gearing and such are fairly conservative - and very reliable - but the materials..."

      "Carbon fiber, most of it," said Alex, rapping the structural tubing. 

      "Yes, and twice the standard thickness," said Vic. "The mechanicals are a super-tough magnesium-lithium alloy, ten times stronger than normal steel parts of the same dimensions while being much lighter."

      "It feels sturdy," said Energia, nodding, and not meaning "feels" in a tactile way. "Very solid. Definitely in the gadgeteer range."

      "I don't know who mentioned the idea to the Dean of Engineering, but he made this a shop project for several classes. After seeing the result, I hope everybody involved got an A!"

      "How does it ride?" said Harriet. 

      "A bit stiff, but it has a good seat."

      "How fast is it?" said Angel.

      "I only rode it from the shop to here," said Vic, laughing. "I'll take it out on the road later."

      "We'll pace you in Monstro!" said Alex.

      "Only if Melanie drives," said Vic, firmly. 

      "Aw..."

      "I'll fly your top cover," said Energia, grinning. "Warn you of traffic or speed traps."

      "That's a very good idea," said Vic, nodding. "The team estimated that on level ground in still air, I could break ninety kay pee aitch. Maybe a hundred with a good tail wind."

      "Whoah..." said Mel, eyes wide. 

      "You think that's impressive? They're working on an aerodynamic fairing - sort of thing some racers and speed record attempts use - as tough as the bike. They think with that I could top one-fifty."

       * * *

      Vic waited at the Stop sign, balancing casually on the pedals. She got the signal from Energia, reflexively looked both ways then started forward. She was wearing typical biking apparel, including gloves and teardrop helmet. The bike was proportioned so that she could lean well forward, pushing as much back as down on the pedals. Given her high strength and low weight, that let her better apply her strength without going to a recumbent design. Vic worked smoothly through the gears, watching speedometer, accelerating quickly. With twenty gears to work through and a good feel for her optimum RPM, she was feeling very confident.

      She was already up to thirty as Monstro pulled onto the two-lane road behind her. Vic could feel Energia's presence, just overhead. The road ahead was straight, level, reasonably smooth, and empty except for Vic and Monstro.

      By the time they passed the main entrance to the college she was doing the speed limit. By the time they reached the county high school further down the road she was approaching seventy MPH, courtesy of a mild breeze from behind. 

      One hundred twenty kilometers per hour, here I come!

      Vic didn't quite reach that speed, in spite of peddling as hard as she could. However, as she slowed before reaching the main highway she was quite content. She pulled onto the shoulder, Monstro following. Energia landed lightly beside Vic.

      "Wow," said Energia, looking at the front wheels. "Those disc brakes are hot!" 

      "That was fantastic!" Vic shouted. She shook her head. "Whoosh! Next time, though, I need to wear ear plugs."

      "I could probably install noise canceling gear in the helmet," said Alex. She frowned in thought. "Can probably do it with software alone, using the existing com hardware they put in it at the Bureau."

      "You do that, and you get top bunk."

      "Wait, what?" said Alex, left standing in confusion as Vic wheeled back onto the road. She began peddling back towards the college. "We have separate, queen-size beds!"

      She realized Energia was already flying, and the others were piling into Monstro, and hurried to the car. 

       * * *

      What the other patrons - and even staff - thought of having a recognized superhero in costume as a customer could be guessed at from their expressions. Vic actually felt a bit shy, and she wasn't even the target of their varying reactions. Energia seemed to be completely unaffected. Just now, haircut over, she was looking at her reflection.

      "I'm glad you recommended this place," said Energia, examining her new haircut in the mirror behind the sink. She grinned at Vic. "Would you believe this is the first time I've had my hair done in costume? Won't be the last, though." 

      "Told you she does good work," said Vic, with a wink at Michelle.

      The young black woman smiled affectionately back at Vic. Energia reached into a belt pouch and pulled out some money. 

      "That's a big tip," said Michelle, a bit surprised. 

      "Well, it's my first time. Besides, I want you to remember me, and how you did this."

      "Oh, this will definitely help," said Michelle, laughing as she tucked the tip in her apron pocket. 

      Outside, Vic was relieved to find her bike unmolested. It was securely locked to a post, and the wheels were attached using special fasteners, but she was already feeling very possessive of it. She well knew there were people in this world - even in this town - who would destroy something if they couldn't steal it. There were also people who would take their hatred against supers out on the possessions of supers. Monstro had actually been keyed three times since Vic started college. Once in this very parking lot. Fortunately, nothing untoward had happened. The ride here - using the bike instead of Monstro so Vic could show it to Michelle - had been quick and almost effortless. Not to mention the bike was faster through the traffic in town. Vic unlocked it and got aboard, as Energia lifted into the air. Neither paid much attention to the looks they were getting. 

      "You thought of a name for that thing, yet?" said Energia, as they merged into traffic, gawking drivers barely not causing an accident.

      "I wanted to call it Black Beauty," said Vic, grinning as she peddled. "Michelle said that was too cliche, and suggested I paint it hot pink, so drivers can see me coming."

      "Hah!"

      "That'll teach me to make a special trip to show her my new toy," said Vic, mock-ironically. "Hey, you coming to the pool party tonight?"

      "Why do you think I had my hair cut but without getting a perm?"

      "I will never get the hang of all the little considerations which go into female grooming," said Vic, in a stage mutter. 

      "Michelle seems like a nice gal," said Energia, perhaps just making conversation as they traveled. 

      "You didn't seem surprised she's Black," said Vic, relieved.

      "I'm dating an alien with a skin tone not found naturally anywhere on Earth," said Energia, with a laugh. "You should see some of the looks we get. Me in a clubbing version of my costume, him in his expensive but terrestrial clothes with that beautiful bronze coloration of his." 

      They got back to the college in plenty of time to have supper, grab their suits and get to the pool. Only to find that the others hadn't waited. 

      "Hurry up and get changed!" Melanie shouted from the water.

      In the locker room Vic found herself changing clothes in front of a gal she hardly knew who was also currently quickly stripping, yet there was barely a reaction from her. Because Vic was also female. She shook her head as she finished getting out of her underwear. Then froze as she glanced over and saw what Energia was donning.

      "You actually have a swimsuit version of your costume," said Vic, boggling. "Complete with gloves and booties."

      "Doesn't everyone?" said Energia, airily. "I can't believe you sunbathe nude."

      "I don't," said Vic, sourly, as she reached for her one-piece. "Technically, I don't tan at all. That's common with regeneration, even low level. This is the base color of my skin, now. If I did tan, I'd be a lot darker."

      "Innnnnteresting," said Alex, leering, as she came in to see what was keeping them. Or, more likely, to see them both naked. "I've known you all this time and just learned that."

      "Now you know why I don't usually let her see me naked," said Vic, to Energia. She turned to her roommate. "She, on the other hand, occasionally gets in these moods where she parades around naked. Sometimes even dashing between room and shower without so much as a towel, except around her head."

      "I forgot my clothes that one time, okay? Geniuses like me get preoccupied."right foot

      "Anyway, that's how I know she's not only paler under her clothes than even the lily white skin she usually shows, but shaves all over."

      "I do not shave my crotch," said Alex, outraged. "I'm younger than you and a late bloomer, remember? I have little pubic hair and it's very fine and light."

      "Hey, where'd Energia go?" said Vic.

      "I'm heading for the pool!" came her voice, from outside the locker room. 

      Vic laughed and quickly finished pulling her suit on. She made a quick check in one of the mirrors to make sure it was properly positioned, then hurried out. She found Energia waiting at the ladder.

      "Watch this," she said, grinning. 

      Energia dipped her right bootie into the water. A modest fin extended from the front of the sole. 

      "Isn't that neat?"

      "That is cool!" said Alex, almost squealing. 

      Energia pulled her foot out and showed them the fin more closely. 

      "Takes a while to retract. The actuator is some sort of colloid which quickly expands when wet, the contracts a bit more slowly as it dries."

      "I hate to agree with Alex about anything," said Harriet, "but that is cool."

      Energia - still grinning - jumped up, flew out a bit, and dove in. Vic took a short run and hit the water right behind her. 

      "Careful you don't short out," said Harriet, teasing Energia as she surfaced.

      "My powers are electrical, but I'm not," said Energia, absently. "Say, where's Vic?"

      "Showing off," said Alex, paddling up to them. 

      Indeed, Vic was starting her second full-length swim of the pool without coming up for air. She got halfway through the third before surfacing with a gasp. 

      "Whoof! I just can't seem to get that third lap."

      "She's not showing off," said Melanie, rolling her eyes. "She's just a sucker for a bikini under water."

      "Who isn't?" said Alex, leering comically at Melanie. Who rolled her eyes and splashed the smaller girl.

      "I remember the trouble I had getting Maldren to learn to swim," said Energia, laughing. "He can fly and go without air for hours. Why should he learn to swim? He's still not very good at it."

      "I just wish I could swim," said Angel, from where she sat on the steps at the shallow end. "Used to love the water. These days, there's no stroke I can really do without my wings getting in the way, and that's on top of the drag they cause. I just have to fold my arms and wings as close as I can and kick."

      "On the other hand," said Candy, splashing water at the winged gal, "when she gets out and shakes those things, she soaks everyone and every thing within sight!"

      Angel stuck her tongue at Candy, then grinned and used her left wingtip to whip a large splash at her.

      "I'm topless and nobody cares!" shouted Harriet, swinging her bikini top around.

      "Because you got no boobs," said Alex, rolling her eyes at the currently completely flat-chested shapeshifter. 

      "Harriet!" said Betty Gonzales, who had arranged the party. "Put your top back on! I know you're not really showing anything and we've got the pool reserved just for the gals on our floor, but you could make it a lot harder for us to do this again!"

      "Yes, Mother," said Harriet, snidely. She made a show of putting her top on, then holding it in place as she filled it. In fact, she over filled it.

      "My cups runneth over."

      "Will you stop showing off?" said Angel. "Good Lord, you could use those things as life preservers."

      "There's so much eye candy here, she's feeling neglected," said Alex, with a snicker.

      Harriet laughed, and reduced her chest to the usual ample level. 

      "I just wish I could do a mermaid."

      Energia had to admit some of these girls were quite shapely. She also figured they wouldn't put up with overt staring, so likely any peeking from Vic or Alex was covert, despite Melanie's accusation.

      Energia actually laughed a bit as she realized that in the locker room she had spent as much time looking at Vic as Vic had looking at her. Though her own staring had been academic. She felt a little odd, knowing Vic saw her as a sex object. Some of the girls she knew at Pine Island flirted, but that was just teasing. She didn't know if any of them were actually bi or lesbian. Energia just wasn't interested in finding out, and if they were something other than strictly heterosexual, they were discreet about it. 

      She sighed, and decided to swim a few laps. She hadn't had a chance for any exercise the past couple of days, and this would do her good. 

      Time passed in pleasant diversion, with occasional exercise. The pool party was winding down - some of the gals had already left, pleading assignments - when Vic suddenly came to attention, listening intently. 

      "That's my cell phone," she said. 

      Energia realized Vic had just been playing around during her previous swimming, as the athletic super very quickly swam most of the way to the side nearest the locker rooms, dove to the bottom, then jumped out of the pool. She reached the entrance to the women's locker room before any of the others could do more than stare. 

      "Wow. Was that some sort of emergency ring, or..."

      "Well, she does have a special ring to tell her a call is from the Bureau," said Alex, shrugging. 

      "I've seen Blue Impact do stuff like that," said Energia. "That was still impressive."

      Perhaps more impressive, she was back in her clothes when she exited the locker room moments later.

      "Got an emergency call from Michelle! There's some sort of weird shootout going on near her apartment!"

      "Whoah!" said Alex. "Is she all right?"

      "Yeah, but she's scared. I'm heading over there now."

      "Think I'll get my costume on and go with you," said Energia, lifting out of the pool.

      "Why?" said Harriet, puzzled. "Just let the cops handle it."

      "What if I can end whatever it is quickly without anyone getting hurt?" said Energia, already halfway to the locker room.

      "Yeah, think I better get my 'action outfit' on, too," said Vic, more to herself than any of the others. 

      "I'll pick you - and your bike - up outside the dorm, then!" Energia called back, over her shoulder. "Me flying both of us should be pretty quick."

      "Thanks!" Vic replied, already hurrying off.

      "They can't help themselves, can they?" said Melanie, her tone wistful, after the two supers left. "They have to jump in and help. Both of them."

      "I'd be glad of that, if I were you," said Candy. "People like them jump in so we don't have to."



Part Eight

      A storm was moving in later that evening, but just now the weather was caught in transition. They moved through a situation which couldn't make up its mind whether it was a low altitude mist or fine rain. They needed to go low and slow, though given the care Energia had to take with the bike that would have been the case, anyway. 

      The carbon fiber in Vic's new bike was conductive enough that combined with the metal parts Energia could carry the vehicle with the other super on it, plus a bit more. However, because it was so "slippery" she had to be careful. Their flight was actually below highway speed, but they could head straight to where they wanted to go.

      "Where we're going, we don't need any roads," said Vic, grinning as they flew through the wet and the gathering dusk, maneuvering over tall vehicles, under overpasses and power lines and around utility poles and trees. "For some reason, I keep wanting to peddle. Oh! I think that's Michelle's building ahead to the right."

      "Wow, what a mess," said Energia, looking to her left. "Fires, fire fighters, paramedics, police cars and helicopters, news helicopters... There's huge amounts of radio traffic, but nothing I can parse. What is going on over there?!"

      "The police scanner in my helmet is saying something about the Hat Squad."

      "You're kidding! The Hat Squad? Sid and Louie and Artie and Gus?!"

      "I never heard of them."

      "They formed in the early Sixties. Four low-level young supers who admired the Rat Pack and emulated them while committing crimes. Of course, they're not so young, now."

      "What are their powers?"

      "Uhm, Sid is the brain, Louie the strong and tough guy, Artie is lucky and clever, and Gus has a gun."

      "Uh..."

      "He's really good with it. Maybe even Bowman good."

      "Wow."

      Michelle was very glad to see them. 

      "Oh, I've been so scared!" she said, as she and Vic hugged, just inside her door. "I didn't know what was going on at first, and then when I did it was worse!"

      "What happened?" said Energia, hating to interrupt their greeting but needing the info.

      "These four guys robbed an armored car, not two blocks from here!" said Michelle. "Only their getaway went wrong and they had to leave on foot. There was something on the radio about them breaking into an apartment and taking hostages, only that turned out to be wrong. They now think they're in the mall."

      "Right," said Energia, nodding. "I better get over there and offer my services to the police."

      "You're not going, are you?" said Michelle, desperately grabbing Vic's hand. 

      "I better," she said. "Those guys sound like a real handful."

      "You can stay here, with her," said Energia, sympathetically. 

      "Look, I know by your standards I'm still a rookie, but I can handle myself in a fight." Vic turned to Michelle. "Don't worry. Just lock your door and don't open except for the police or somebody you know and trust."

      "All right," said Michelle, though she seemed doubtful.

      They found the Chief of Police talking heatedly with several officers. The latter looked very much the worse for wear. All that stopped when Vic - again on her bike - and Energia landed nearby. 

      "What the Hell do you two freaks want?" someone yelled. 

      The Chief glared briefly at the speaker, then finished talking to the battered officers for a few seconds. When finished, he walked over to the two supers.

      "Are you here to help?"

      "If we can," said Energia. 

      "You're kinda far from Boston. Also, where's the little one?"

      "Uh, this is Vic; not Blue Impact. She's a super at the Ramsey Technical College, where I'm also a student. Blue Impact and Gadgetive aren't here."

      "Oh." He looked more closely at Vic. "That's right; I remember you being involved in that FBI case a few months back."

      "Bureau of Special Resources, actually," said Vic. "I'm a trainee with them."

      "Well, I'm glad to have you. Those four are holed up in the mall. We've evacuated everyone - we think - and have it surrounded. We don't know where they are, though. We think they're after a jewelry store and branch bank in there. Every time we send someone in - even to the security station - they get ambushed. It's like they're playing with us."

      "That fits their MO," said Energia, nodding. She relayed to the Chief what she knew about the quartet.

      "We're about to cut the power to the mall. Though for all we know that will just help them."

      "Don't do that yet. Let us go inside and see if we can at least locate them. Vic and I both have super senses."

      "All right." He glanced at his watch. "I'll give you fifteen minutes. Then the power goes off and the SWAT team goes in with night vision goggles."

      "Fair enough," said Energia, nodding. 

       * * *

      "You really are a pro," said Vic, as they moved carefully towards a service entrance. 

      "I wondered why you were keeping so quiet."

      Energia was walking, and had her plasma wall down, to lower her signature. 

      "Well, I learned that from the folks working the Rokuro case even before I signed on with the Bureau. Keep quiet and let the senior person talk. Avoids confusion."

      "According to the Chief, the Hat Squad knocked out the security station, so we don't have to worry about cameras and alarms," said Energia, quietly, as they reached the door. "We still need to be stealthy, since we don't know where they are in the Mall. Also, Sid may have enhanced senses."

      "Right," said Vic, nodding. 

      Between them they got the locked door opened silently, and entered cautiously. 

      "I'm already smelling things which tell me a lot went down in here," said Vic, voice barely above a whisper, and she crept and Energia flew down the dimly lot hallway. "Vomit and urine and smoke and lots of other stuff."

      "That sounds like a typical day at a mall," joked Energia.

      The came out of the service corridor in a short hallway to restrooms. Very carefully, they moved to the corner and peered out, with more than human acuity.  

      "Nothing," said Vic, frowning. 

      "Me, neither. Guess they're keeping quiet, too. So, we do this the hard way."

      Energia walked quietly a short distance behind Vic. Occasionally they froze, usually in response to some distant noise, sometimes not from even inside the mall. A distant boom of thunder reminded them of the front moving in. There was surprisingly little sign of anything wrong in the mall. The lights were on, the background music playing, the escalators and fountain running. They could still smell rather pleasant odors from the food court, though several things had apparently been left cooking and were now burned. 

      "Hold up," hissed Energia, pulling back to look in the window of a sports store. "Yeah, the cash register drawer is open. They're scavenging."

      "Thought you said they were high-class crooks?"

      "They still wouldn't pass up abandoned cash," said Energia. "Especially if they needed the money for something."

      There was a distant rumble, which they felt through the floor as much as heard.

      "That wasn't thunder," said Vic. "I think they blew the bank vault!"

      "That would mean..." Energia scowled as she thought this through. "Yeah. They didn't miss their getaway. This is a multi-part heist. Armored car, jewelry store, bank, whatever else they can grab on the way. Then a well-planned escape. I bet all three of the main targets are carrying more money or merchandise than usual, too."

      Vic nodded, chewing on her bottom lip. 

      "So, what's their plan for the getaway?"

      "They don't do sewers," said Energia, nodding to herself. "Very uncool. Likely something spectacular... Oh, right. Cutting the power is something they probably are counting on. So we need to move before that."

      "We still have almost ten minutes."

      "Let's hurry, then."

      Moving a bit faster, now, though still keeping to cover, they moved across the open space of the mall towards the bank. As they crouched behind a water fountain, Vic leaned close to Energia. 

      "Lights are already out in the bank and the jewelry store."

      "Makes sense. That activates some security procedures automatically, but also makes some means of access easier if you know what you're doing. They know what they're doing."

      "We certainly do," said a male voice, loudly, from alarmingly near by. 

      Vic threw herself to the side, dragging Energia with her, as a bronze sculpture crashed against the center of the fountain. Broken stone, water and chunks of metal showered the area. Fortunately, both supers had enough armor in their costumes, and were enough under cover, to escape injury. 

      Energia flew straight up, charging her plasma wall. Several bullets hit, the first couple actually penetrating before she got her protection to full strength. Fortunately, they were slowed enough by even the weak plasma wall that they did her no harm.

      Vic, meanwhile, scampered around towards where the statue had come from, taking a roundabout path. She didn't need to be told the huge man in the impeccable three-piece suit was Louie, the team's strong man. He was in the process of picking up another bronze statue from beside the previous location of the first one. 

      Vic did a flying double kick to the backs of his knees. Louie dropped, the statue falling on top of him. Which mostly just made him angry. Vic rolled away as he shoved the statue off and jumped back to his feet. 

      Energia, meanwhile, found that she couldn't evade Gus' shooting. Worse, he had a knack for putting three or four bullets in quick succession onto the same part of her plasma wall. They were ordinary bullets, but from a very powerful handgun. Several times, the last bullet in a string actually punched through, though with too little energy to cause much damage. She finally gave up on the fancy flying and dodged around a corner. Then immediately flew straight up, and hovered for a moment to get her bearings. 

      She could sense where he was. Since he wasn't aiming in her specific direction, but just in general towards where she was, Energia figured he couldn't sense her. He was obviously waiting for her to come back out.

      Energia thought for a moment, then decided on a brute force approach. She raised her hands, and fired a plasma beam through the corner of the clothing store, towards Gus. He almost dodged. She didn't think he was out of the fight, but for now was down. 

      Vic ducked a hook punch which would have dented a tank, then swung at Louie's solar plexus with a strike which used all her tricks. Energia had described this guy as "low-level" but to her senses he seemed at least a class seventy. Vic expected him to be dropped cleanly by the strike, but he twisted away from the punch. Vic still made contact, though; he gave a huge grunt, staggered back several steps, shook his head, and straightened. 

      Oh, yeah, thought Vic, moving in quickly. This guy can take it.

      Energia had planned to fly over to Gus and carefully stun him. She forgot that while he was their primary ranged attack, all members of the Hat Squad were capable shots. Sid peppered her plasma wall with well-aimed fire from cover. Energia started to aim at him, when another shot rang out. She glanced over towards Artie, raised her hands... and was caught squarely by the falling light fixture Artie's bullets had cut free. 

      Her plasma wall protected her, but the weight of all that metal shoved her down towards the floor. Energia managed to move out from under that mass in time to slow her impact. She landed well, but her plasma wall was still snuffed. After landing she immediately rolled to all fours. Her first instinct was to get back in the air, but she forced herself to stay down. She couldn't see anyone else, including Vic. However, she heard sounds of physical combat from the direction Vic had gone. Okay, time for a bit of proactive fire.

      Energia closed her eyes and reached out for the power lines under the floor. She channeled that electricity, raising the voltage, then sprayed it all around her. She kept the range short, to avoid hitting Vic, but anyone within that range would have received something about a hundred times as painful as a typical static electric shock. 

      Sure enough, she heard a yell from a nearby clump of decorative plants. Energia did a quick up-and-down, but didn't see anything. She was shot at, however, from another direction.

      Not good. They've got me located, and pinned down. I don't think that shock took out whoever the first guy was, and Gus will be getting back on his feet soon. 

      Vic discovered that besides being stronger and tougher than her, and nearly as fast, Louie was also a skilled brawler. She was forced backwards by a flurry of punches, towards a low curb around some live plants. Fortunately, her sense of awareness warned her of the obstacle, and she hopped backwards, onto the dirt. Louie looked a bit surprised and even a bit impressed. Then he smiled. He swung his arms wide, as if preparing for a mammoth hug. Then slammed his hands together.

      The resulting shockwave sent Vic and much of the greenery around her flying across the mall, to impact the window of a sporting goods store. The glass was the safety variety, disintegrating instantly into tiny chunks, so she wasn't cut to pieces by it. However, as she shook off the stunning effects of that attack the lights went out. 

      Energia was contemplating another electrical burst, when her supply vanished. She was left crouched in the dark, with only her internal store to draw on. That wasn't a disaster; she could sense things around her directly through their subtle electrical, thermal and magnetic emissions, and she was fully charged. However, she now had no targets. 

      "Vic!" she called out. "You okay?"

      "Mostly," came the reply. "You?"

      "Yeah. I think they got what they came for and are leaving."

      "Yeah. I hear noises in the distance, but don't sense anyone."

      They warily moved towards each other. The storm was now closer and more active, the sounds of wind, rain and thunder drowning out the sounds of their targets. 

      "I hate to say it, but I think they got away."

      "Shit," was all Vic could say.

       * * *

      "They ambushed us halfway across the mall," said Energia, with a sigh, as they reported to the Police Chief a few minutes later. "I knew those guys were pros with decades of experience, but, wow..."

      "Considering how they played my men for fools, I'm not going to criticize you for losing them," said the Chief. He sighed, too, rubbed under his hat for moment, then looked out at the rain. They were taking shelter under an awning at a sidewalk restaurant. "Your hunch was right. Today was payday for the city government, and several other things were also going on. The armored car, the bank and the jewelry store all had more cash on hand than usual, and the jewelry store just got in a shipment of expensive items. Preliminary estimate is they got away with over two million."

      "Shit," said Vic, again. 

      "In all of that," said the Chief, still staring out at the rain. "Nobody was seriously hurt. Property damage is minimal - your fight inside did more than all the rest together, including blowing the vault - and most of the upsetting of the citizens was due to us evacuating the mall, and the news spreading rumors. And we still don't know how they got away."

       * * *

      "Damn," said Vic, back at the dorm, as she inspected her outfit. "Got a lot of expensive repairs to make. I still don't know how that guy stood back up after my first punch, either."

      "I can recommend a good source for repair materials, if you don't want to bother sending that to the Bureau," said Energia. "I get some of my costumes and maintenance kits from Thurgood and Allen Costumers, Inc. Angelina Thurgood, by the way, is no relation to the disgraced former President. Trust me on this. They also do costumes for movies, TV shows, plays and other things."

      "What about Henson Costume Works?" said Vic.

      "Bridget Henson was making super costumes before World War Two. She actually made some for people like the Dragon's Hand and Night Mist. The company is currently run by the daughter of Bridget's primary assistant. They're good, but they're also very expensive. Oh, and they have a very long waiting list."

      "What's wrong with needle and thread?" said Alex, among those crowded into Energia's room to hear about the whole adventure.

      Her room was the same size as the others, but had only one bed. It therefore was sometimes used for small, girl-only gatherings like this.

      "I've seen your sewing, thanks," said Vic. "I'd ask some of the gals here whom I know are good with that sort of thing, but this stuff is so tough it'll take a lot of strength to get a needle through it."

      She sighed, as if watching another one of her holdover male characteristics evaporate. 

      "Looks like I'm gonna have to learn to sew."



Part Nine

      "Ugh," said Energia, as she considered the problem one more time. Then, more loudly, "Anybody here able to help me with an electronics question?"

      "I thought you were electrical," said Alex, smirking, as she looked away from the wide screen TV in the common area towards the young super. 

      "I manipulate electricity. Also, I have no problem with basic problems involving the physics of electricity. I can literally feel what they're describing, and usually make the connection pretty quickly. This is a circuit diagram."

      There were several other students in the lounge area, but most were busy with their own homework. The two on the couch in front of the plasma TV with Alex were ignoring Energia's plea. The only other person in the common area was Mel. He could have helped and probably would have, but was currently sound asleep at one of the dining tables, his face mashing the unfinished portion of his sandwich flat. 

      Alex sighed, rose and came over. 

      "Jeez, that's not a complicated circuit," she said, surprised, after a glance at the problem. "Wait, why are you even in this course?"

      "It's a requirement for stuff I need to take later," said Energia, with an exasperated and exaggerated sigh. 

      "Okay, look..."

      Alex needed to use two different allegories before Energia finally got what the circuit was supposed to do. That let her draw the completed diagram on her paper.

      "Wow," she said, tiredly, closing her notebook and leaning back. "The further we get into the semester, the harder the work gets and the less free time I have."

      "Unlike what some people think, college isn't just - or even primarily - for socializing," said Alex, with a smirk. "You need help with anything else?"

      "No, I saved that one for last because I was having so much trouble with it. That and a couple of other problems are the reasons I came out here to finish. Thank you, by the way."

      "You're quite welcome."

      Energia stretched, yawned, and stretched again. 

      "I need a good workout. Say, that reminds me, I haven't seen Vic in what seems like days."

      "So many people signed up for martial arts classes - both normal and super - that Trujillo had to draft her as one of his assistants."

      "Huh. Well, I didn't feel like taking that class, even if I could have spared the time and effort. Mr. Trujillo agreed that it would be too basic for me."

      "I remember Vic saying you sometimes joined her, Trujillo and some of the other advanced students in that club they created."

      "It's pretty informal," said Energia, nodding. "I'm the only one in it who isn't physically super, so I skip a lot of what they do. It's still a good workout for me."

      "Mens sana in corpore sano," said Alex, nodding. "I prefer swimming, though. Not really a fighter."

      Energia shook her head vigorously and made a growling noise. 

      "I'm worn out, but it's too early for bed, by a long shot. Don't really want to watch TV, either. Bored, now."

      Alex sat down beside her. 

      "So, tell me about this extra stuff you've been doing with the faculty," she said, in a conspiratorial tone.

      "Don't you want to watch..." Energia turned and looked at the TV. "Well, whatever that is."

      "Nah, that was just killing time. Tell me!"

      "Okay, okay," said Energia, with a laugh. "They primarily wanted to know what a super might want and need from a college and how to give it to them. Not just courses and physical training, but environment and entertainment... the latter including things like practical costuming and safe ways to have fun with powers. They've interviewed folks from Pine Island before, but having someone who lived there and went to school there at their fingertips is letting them get a much better feel for things.

      "I'm also working directly with some of the super students, usually in small groups or one-on-one. Mostly just giving them practical advice on several things."

      "What sorts of 'several things'?" said Alex.

      "Uhm, well, practical aspects of secret identities and costumes, legal ways to have a super ID separate from your civilian one, super networking, Masks history... Lots of stuff which isn't in text books - yet, anyway - and which the super teachers are out of touch on, due to being retired or never being a Mask in the first place."

      "Wish I was a super," said Alex, wistfully. "I only have a few of the genes, though. Not nearly enough to be even an unlikely candidate for activation."

      "Believe me," said Energia, with feeling. "There are times when I wish I wasn't a super. At least you don't show up on detectors. Makes me feel like a freak when that happens."

       * * *

      As he walked out of the Men's room Cosmic Ray marveled a bit on the odd turns his life had taken these past few years. He was offered a slot at the world's first high school for supers just months after he discovered his powers. He then graduated from Pine Island expecting to find a regular job and do some part-time Mask work, maybe join a team later. He'd actually started out on that road. Then his connections to the Adirondack Irregulars had led to meeting Brade and being offered a job with the federal government. In super law enforcement and assistance. 

      "Strange days, indeed," he muttered. 

      As Ray reentered his and Doro's office he saw her talking on the phone. She didn't seem to be happy. When she noticed him she gestured Ray over and put the call on speaker.

      "We need you to come here and arrest this woman!" said the caller.

      "Don't you have a local super team?" said Doro, confused. 

      "You're the super cops!"

      "Well, we have law enforcement training and powers, but that's mostly for dealing with problems supers are having with others," said Doro. 

      There was a long pause. 

      "You mean you're super cops who arrest normal people?!"

      "Oh, we'll arrest supers. Our primary purpose - both branches - is to help supers. Not deal with the problems supers handle. They're already doing that."

      "What kind of crazy, communist organization are you?!"

      He slammed the phone down before Doro could even start to answer. 

      "Okay. Who was that?"

      "A high ranking police officer in a major metropolitan area," said Doro, sourly.

      "So... he's having problems with a local super?"

      "It sounded more like a local super - she calls herself Fantasma - is having problems with him. She was helping people caught in the Mississippi and Missouri floods, and local law enforcement and emergency services didn't want her doing that. They say she was interfering. Nobody else seems to have a problem with her."

      "So..."

      "I'm not sure his call counts as a formal request," said Doro, dryly, as Ray looked expectantly at her, "but given the situation he brought to our attention, we're going ahead, anyway."

      She turned to her computer, opened her word processor and started typing. 

      "I'm writing orders for a team of two Agents to investigate the situation. Also, regardless of who is at fault, they are to find her and see if she needs help or reigning in."

      "Who you going to send?"

      "That's not up to us, remember? They'll pick someone from the pool."

      "The very shallow pool," said Ray, pointing out just how few field Agents the Bureau had so far. "Be sure to note that whoever they pick, they should contact any local super teams before anything else. They may already know this Fantasma and whether she is actually a problem."

      "Done!" said Doro. "I'm glad they were able to find this mil-spec keyboard for me. I can type full speed without worrying about pounding it to pieces."

      "Unlike your previous three keyboards," said Ray, wryly. 

       * * *

      "As boyish as you dress, I was surprised to see you have a girl's backpack," said Energia, as she and Vic walked to one of the few classes they shared. 

      "Yeah, I learned the hard way, my first semester here, that women need a different design in backpacks," said Vic, wryly.

      "I know several people who would be glad to design and make from scratch a custom-tailored backpack for me," said Energia. "Problem is, they'd all want to include secret compartments, use special materials and add 'useful' equipment."

      "Hah! That sounds like Alex, and her continuing plans for a super costume for me. Though, I have to admit, her efforts came in handy."

      Vic looked at the woman beside her for a moment.

      "What?"

      "Just wondering why you're even taking this class. I'm in the engineering program, with a minor in law enforcement. Aren't you in...?"

      "Prerequisite," said Energia, rolling her eyes. "I swear, which classes are required before you can take others sometimes seems completely random."

      "I asked my advisor to explain their methodology," said Vic, straightfaced. "She said understanding it was only possible for someone with an advanced state of bureaucratic enlightenment."

      "Yow! That's a frightening thought. Bureaucracy as a religion."

      "You mean it isn't?" said Boyd, as he joined them.

      "Hey," said Vic, with a smile and a wave. "Say, are you seeing Angel, now?"

      "Trying to. We've had a couple of tentative dates."

      "Well, you treat her right, you hear?"

      "You don't have any complaints, do you?" said Boyd, with a raised eyebrow and grin.

      "Not the same situation. Just be nice to her."

      "I try to be nice to everyone. Especially the women."

      "Wait," said Energia, as Boyd's path diverged from theirs. "You and him dated?!"

      "It was... an experiment," said Vic, blushing.

      Energia remembered a couple of her uncle's "experiments" and nodded. 

      "Biology and sociology are so complicated..."

       * * *

      "We finally persuaded the Sailor to take a regeneration treatment," said Brade, triumphantly, as she sat down across from the President in the Oval Office.

      "I don't know whether to be glad or frightened," said Sievers, stunned. "Him, back in full, fighting trim. With all that power, and all that experience."

      "Well, he's pretty much apolitical," said Brade. "However, he has the annoying habit of seeing something wrong and fixing it. On his own. Regardless of any complications that might cause. His age and accumulated injuries were holding him back some the last half century or so, but with this... Well, hopefully, he's learned at least some restraint."

      Brade related some other bits and pieces of news, then sat back and relaxed while an aide provided refreshments.

      "I have some super news I wanted to tell you about before the afternoon briefing," said Sievers, as she added cream to her coffee. "T.O.W.E.R. has reopened the recruitment program for volunteers to undergo the Jennings process."

      "Wasn't that originally developed for World War Two?" said Brade, frowning.

      "No; it was begun then, by the US, put on the back burner when the War ended, then brought out again when the Cold War started. They didn't actually get it to work until the late Fifties. We turned it over to the UN after protests from multiple foreign governments and then that treaty, and they used it to make supers for the early days of T.O.W.E.R."

      "It's not particularly safe, as I recall," said Brade. 

      "No, it's not. Traditionally, it's mostly been used by people who are terminally ill or badly disabled. They're planning to use an updated version which supposedly has fewer side effects."

       * * *

      "I can't believe final exams start in two weeks," said Alex, with a dramatic groan.

      "Face it, kiddo," said Vic, with a sigh nearly as dramatic as that groan. "We're nearing the end of the semester."

      The roommates were both in their quarters, studying. 

      "The time just seems to have flown by!" said Alex. "Not only for us, here, at the college, either. The whole world seems to be moving faster and faster."

      "The whole world - well, the responsible part - is desperately trying to prepare for the Shilmek," said Vic. "Once the semester is over I get two - Count 'em, two! - days with my family, then I go to Maryland for two weeks of special training for the Bureau. Then the rest of the time back with my family."

      "Do you really think they'll attack us?" said Alex, her voice small and frightened.

      "It's almost certain."

       * * *

      "Alloy and Buzz-Cut finally managed to get a good photo of Fantasma," said Doro, as she read the e-mail report. "Opening the attachment, now."

      "I want to see this," said Ray, rising from his desk and moving behind her. "Whoa."

      "Yeah. I think she's going for the Crayola mentalist look."

      "Any additional word on her likely mental state?"

      "Alloy says that more and more he's getting the impression this gal is a flake, if not a total wacko," said Doro, sourly. "She is doing good deeds, but the results aren't always an improvement. Local super teams don't know any more about her than we do; for some reason she seems to avoid them. They do think she's a loose cannon."

      "We will need more than that for a federal warrant," said Ray. 

      "State police in Missouri already have one out for her, remember."

      "Yeah, which is all the more reason we need to find her first."

       * * *

      "Yes!" said Jenny, pumping her right fist in the air as she came - walking - down the stairs, holding a sheet of paper in her other hand. "Got my grades! Only one is below a B and that's a C in Basic Electronics, which I was expecting a D in!"

      She found her male parental unit in the kitchen and handed the printout to her father, then did a dance around him as he examined it.

      "Great news!" said her Dad, after he read it. "It's just the two of us here, right now, so spill. How did they get your grades sent here to you, in your civilian name?"

      "Oh, they e-mailed it to Pine Island, who sent it to me as Jenny through a roundabout path."

      "Your Mother will be very glad to see this."

      "I'm very glad to see this! I was pretty sure I passed everything but didn't know by how much."

      "Well, now that this load is off your mind you can focus on your Christmas shopping," said her Dad, grinning. 

      "Plenty of time," said Jenny, airily. "Remember, Tricorne is only getting together for the week after Christmas. We all had things to do earlier in the month."

       * * *

      "Where is Gadgetive?" said Blue Impact, irritated. "She knows we've got a briefing with the Intrepids in forty minutes."

      She and Energia were sitting on the couch in the main room of the former bakery which served as their headquarters. Blue Impact was idly stroking the cat, who liked the fact he could play rough with her tough skin without her complaining.

      "She said something about needing to pick something up from the Post Office," said Energia. "Something about having stuff forwarded here to General Delivery during the holidays."

      Right on cue, Gadgetive - in civvies - entered by the secret entrance from the storm sewers. 

      "I finally got the last book in the Young Atomic Engineers series!" said Gadgetive, triumphantly holding the plastic-encased volume aloft as she performed a celebratory dance. "The Steam Caverns of Enceladus! There were fewer than six thousand copies of the hardback, and none in paperback, because of the publisher going broke. Bidding was fierce, but I won!!"

      "Priorities, please," said Blue Impact, tiredly. "We're supposed to be leaving here in just a few minutes. The Intrepids are hosting a major meeting about the preparations for the Shilmek attack, remember?"

      "Invasions come and go, but this is timeless!"

      "Put it in your room, get your costume on, and let's go!" said Energia. 

       * * *

      "I have a late Christmas present for you," said Brade, smiling as she met with Sievers for the first time in almost three weeks. "The FDA has cleared Brayton Research for limited second-stage testing of their method of triggering latent supers."

      "I remember reading about that, somewhere, recently," said Sievers, frowning as she tried to recall more. "Their plan for making it commercially available to all comers worries me."

      "They're actually a reputable company with a safe process," said Brade. "They do thorough genetic screening, and those with powers potential can then choose to try various methods to activate them. Oh, and they also do psychological screening."

      "If their methods work..." said Sievers, trailing off as she thought things through. 

      "We could produce a lot of active supers in a short time," said Brade, nodding. "However, even those with law enforcement or combat experience would still need super training."

      "I want you to have your people study ways of incorporating that sort of training into your Bureau. Not just testing for super genes and helping people activate, but training them."

      "We're already doing the training, for recruits," said Brade.

      "Yes, but I want you to add locating and training latent supers and training active supers with too little experience. Maybe something like night classes. This would be valuable training for supers who don't want to join the Bureau but are willing to help in emergencies. If nothing else, it would help them coordinate better with us."

      "All right," said Brade, nodding slowly as she thought this through. 

      "One more thing," said the President. "I'm pushing for a revision to the old Carter era Mask grant program. This would provide additional funds for a wider range of people, which would encourage more of those with powers to get training and equipment and form teams."

      "Yeah," said Brade, nodding more surely on hearing that. "The Carter administration did a lot of things, some well, some poorly. One of the most successful was encouraging people with powers to learn procedures and emergency skills and how to work together. If we just focus that on paying for the training of relief supers, that alone would be a big help in a disaster. Or an invasion."

      "That's what I'm thinking." 

       * * *

      The meeting at the Intrepids' base lasted a day and a half. Fortunately, the old installation had extensive facilities for guests, with only a few of the visitors having to share. 

      "I'm really worried," said Solange, as she, Energia, Template and Colossa lounged in the large, luxurious hot tub after the meeting ended and most of the guests left the base or went to their rooms. Roy was playing in his crib nearby. "This attack could be a pretty big deal."

      As usual, Solange treated a hot tubbing as "suit optional." This in spite of the fact she knew Template was normally male, and Colossa bisexual. Energia was in a two-piece which was unusually daring for her, wondering if she'd ever be as daring as Solange. However, she was also glad Blue Impact and Gadgetive had flown back to the old bakery. They might be teammates, but Template was literally family, and Colossa and Solange close to that

      "The analysts say the first twenty-four hours will be the most crucial," said Template, drowsily. "If we can hold them off that long, we should be able to rally enough to keep them from taking any extensive areas. That's why we're tailoring our response for a sudden surge at the first sign of attack."

      "I just hope they don't go for a full-out attack," said Colossa. "A hit-and-run attempt on Tolnar or a purely covert operation would cause a lot less damage, and we'd be more likely to stop those."

      "This is the Shilmek we're talking about, remember," said Template, ominously.

       * * *

      "Got her!" said Doro, triumphantly, pushing back from her computer after reading a message.

      "What?!" said Ray, startled. "Got who?"

      "Fantasma."

      "Thank God," said Ray, with feeling. "After what she did Christmas Eve..."

      "Well, yeah, that was a real mess," said Doro, with a grimace. "Fortunately, no-one was seriously hurt, and it convinced that federal judge to issue the warrant for her.

      "Anyway, they're holding her in the closest federal facility with super capability." 



Part Ten

      Midnight passed, the cheering stopped, and the party got well and truly under way at the Assembly's base. Paula felt someone put a hand on her shoulder and had a flash of dread and anger before realizing it wasn't Buzz.

      "Happy New Year," said Susan, cuddling up to Paula and giving her a very non-coworker class kiss.

      "Have you been drinking?" said Paula, though she grinned. 

      "A little."

      Someone put on music rather more energetic than "Auld Lang Syne." Folks switched from melancholy slow dancing to something more fun. Paula took Susan's hands and began dancing, and was surprised when the other woman complied. Her hopes faded a bit when she realized Susan was deliberately keeping the act platonic.

      "I'm a little concerned with how Champion is avoiding me," said Paula, glancing at the other side of the hall. 

      "It does seem odd," said Susan. "I could understand it for a few days, but this has been going on for months."

      "I'm also wondering if my guest is avoiding me."

      "Your... Oh, right."

      They had an agreement that Penardwen would not show herself when they were in company, unless requested to. That didn't keep her from speaking inside Paula's head, usually to make joking comments about this strange, new world she found herself in. For most of the past day, though, there had not been a peep from her. 

      "You think she's mad at you or something? Or maybe she's just depressed, what with the turning of the year and such. Even though it's not the same time of year when they celebrated."

      "I don't think so. She said something about wanting to check something and that it would keep her occupied for a while. Also that she'd be tired after. Also, we're only a few days from the actual Winter solstice."

      "From what I understand, that culture was pretty precise in observing exactly when the solstice and similar events took place."

      "Yeah, look, can we talk about paleoastronomy later? We have tomorrow off, barring an emergency. I want to dance the night away."

      "I thought you'd never ask."

       * * *

      "Well, the various natural and human-caused disasters around the world the past few months haven't helped our defense preparations," said Gompers, with a tired sigh. He paused a moment to rub his eyes, which were bloodshot and bleary. "Though they have provided opportunities for gaining experience handling emergencies. They've also allowed us to test a number of things, such as our new and improved super coordination. One result is noticeably less impact from floods, hurricanes, earthquakes and such."

      "Japan promises they're only ninety days behind on their preparation goals," said Howers. "In spite of the earthquake and tsunami last year. I'm willing to bet that by the end of next month they'll actually be mostly caught up."

      "Are you all right, Oliver?" said Sievers, leaning forward to get a closer look at Gompers, a bit concerned that one of her oldest friends appeared to be very under the weather.

      "Sorry. Think I caught something at that New Year's party my wife dragged me to," said Gompers, with a sour expression. "I'm definitely calling the doctor after lunch. It's been two days now and I'm no better."

      "Be sure you do," said Sievers, firmly. "I can't have you out of the office from neglecting something. Now, what is NATO's readiness status?"

      "Their conventional forces are ready, but they're well behind us on exploring unconventional forces," said Howers. He sighed. "They know the Shilmek will focus on the US, since we're the ones giving Tolnar shelter."

      "They can't count on that," said Sievers, sternly. "Let them know that even if they aren't directly attacked on general principles, they may be called on to help us."

      "Will do."

      "Finally and least important," said Sievers, ironically, "how am I doing in the polls?"

      "Surprisingly good," said Gompers. "I know, politicians and pundits of all stripes are criticizing you for spending so much money and time and money and effort and money on all this alien invasion nonsense instead of tending to the important business of campaigning for yourself or supporting someone in your own party. However, your approval rate among ordinary citizens - liberal, moderate or conservative - is actually rising, slowly but steadily. Best analysis is that they know you're working hard on something, even though we haven't gone public with any of the details about the Shilmek. They see that, and the gradual improvement in the economy, and think it's your doing."

      "Well, part of it is," said Sievers, nodding. "All this preparation is putting people to work in multiple industries."

      "I don't think it will last," said Howers, flatly. "Not the economic improvement; the rise in public opinion. People are already asking questions about what all this activity is for. If they find out you're preparing for an alien invasion the giggle factor will hurt you pretty badly."

      "I'm certainly not going to stop just because of that," said Sievers, hotly. "Better I be laughed at than be caught unprepared."

      "If the attack does come, even if we win, there will be a lot of criticism of you for letting it happen," said Gompers. "I know, there's not much you can do about it, but some people will harbor suspicions you could have stopped it."

      "If we win, I won't care," said Sievers. "If we lose, I'll probably be beyond caring."

       * * *

      Paula was in the shower the next morning when Penardwen finally made her presence known.

      "There is a legacy I must tend to," said the goddess, very seriously, without preamble.

      "Can it wait for me to finish here?" said Paula, crossly. 

      "Oh! My apologies. I was so tired... I will explain to you and Susan when you are ready."

      Shortly, a dressed though slightly damp Paula sat with Susan in their bedroom while Penardwen manifested in front of them.

      "I still do not know what happened to my kin," said the ghostly figure. "However, I found a message from some of them."

      "Message?" said Susan.

      "It was from well after my time. It was also faded and indistinct, but with what Paula has told me of the leaving of the gods I was able to decipher it."

      "Go on," said Paula, nodding. 

      "They were preparing to leave this plane, but knew there were some - like me - who were lost but might still live. They - this was several I knew, plus two whom I didn't but who were of my kind - explained they were leaving certain things behind for us. One of them is a cache of power which could help me recover far more quickly."

      "Where was this message?" said Susan.

      "What do you mean?" said Penardwen, looking as if the question was completely meaningless.

      "Remember when you asked Sharma when the pantheons were created? How she had trouble parsing the question?"

      "Yes," said Susan, frowning. "I was really irritated when she tried to explain with all that philosophical nonsense."

      "It wasn't nonsense, honey," said Paula, gently. "It wasn't even philosophy, exactly. Putting it in as close to plain English as I can, with a few exceptions the pantheons and supernatural entities weren't created. They just were. The fact that some of them aren't any more is far more confusing to mystically aware beings such as Sharma and Penardwen than it is to us mere mortals. They view time differently than we do. Or not at all, in some cases. They just were."

      "They are!" said Penardwen, annoyed. "I don't understand why you say they aren't!"

      "Never mind," said Paula. "How do you acquire this power?"

      "That you should be able to understand," she said, a bit crossly. "It is in - I need to translate this carefully - the Caern of Aerfen. Which is a very old joke, since that is a name for fate. The term refers to a place where a human built a fake shrine and pretended to be a seer, revealing the fates of those who paid him."

      She threw her ghostly arms up.

      "Oh, it is a very long story, and irrelevant to the task. It is in my homeland. I must go there now!"

      "You mean I must go there now," said Paula, with a sigh. "Oh, well, I've always wanted to visit Ireland. Guess I can take some leave, buy an airline ticket..."

      "Please, is there no faster way?"

      "Why don't we borrow an Arrow and go there direct?" said Susan. "We can get clearance in the team's name - they've agreed to let you use their authority to help Penardwen if you need to, thanks to Sharma - and fly over this afternoon."

      The Arrows were the team's newest transport vehicles. They were much faster and longer-ranged than the Hawks, easily capable of making the trip to Wales. They could fly over, do their business, and refuel at an airport before flying back.

      "'We'?" said Paula.

      "At least the three of us. Sharma might want to come, too."

      "No, that won't work. The team left for Pine Island early, remember? They won't be back until late this afternoon."

      "Oh, right. Okay, we finish dressing and go to work. We get the preparations done, then leave after lunch."

      She looked at the apparition. 

      "Will that work for you?"

      "Bless you!" said Penardwen, with great relief. 

      "That just leaves the problem of finding the exact location," said Paula. 

      "I just don't understand maps," said Penardwen, exasperated. "I can give you a good description, though. It is on a small island off the western tip of Cymru."

      "We'll still need to use a map," said Paula, frowning in thought. "If only to plot our course. We'll work on it later."

       * * *

      "I'm sorry, but what was the good of all that?" said Buzz, sourly, as the team exited their hopper. "They insist it has to be face-to-face, so we - the whole team - have to be there for it in person. Then they bumble along for three hours about trivial stuff."

      Maciste was about to answer, but saw the hangar chief hurrying towards the group.

      "Welcome back! Just wanted to let you know why one of the new Arrows is missing."

      He explained about Susan and Paula heading to Britain to help Penardwen with something.

      "Huh. Okay. Thanks."

      He turned to the others to say something, but again stopped. This time because he saw the bizarre expression on Champion's face.

      "You all right?"

      Instead of replying she spun around, to face east, across the Atlantic. Abruptly she said something which sounded less like words and more like a growl of mixed anger and distress. She then bolted across the room. 

      "What was that all about?" said Sharma, puzzled.

      "No idea," said Maciste. "Maybe she got one of those hunches she sometimes gets."

      "I don't know," said Sharma, frowning and looking worried. "That seemed different. She seemed different. Almost... sinister."

      "Is she getting in that Hopper?!" said Buzz, startled. 

      She was, indeed. Before they could stop her, Champion launched. Heading up and east, at maximum burn.  

       * * *

      "There," said Penardwen, using Paula's hand to point. 

      The Arrow lurched, and Paula quickly put her hand back on the wheel. 

      "Please don't do that."

      "We're over a very isolated part of the Pembrokeshire National Park," said Susan, confirming that where they were was where they planned to be. "Actually, a small island off the western shore of Wales."

      "Cymru," said Penardwen, absently.

      "I think there's room to set down on the beach," said Paula, peering attentively as she circled the tiny isle. "Man, there's nothing here. Just sand, rocks and scrub."

      "It hasn't changed much, then," said Penardwen. 

      "Don't they call that heath?" said Susan.

      "That's an English term, I think," said Paula. "Okay, I need to concentrate for this landing."

      Despite the gender change, Paula still had the "retirement benefits" Atana had given Paula after transferring the mantle of Champion to Carol. This included excellent vision and reflexes. The vertical landing on that small patch of beach was beyond most pilots, but Paula managed to set the large aircraft down precisely in the center.

      "Whew," she said, after shutting down. "That was not fun."

      "Well, you did it. Now, where do we go?"

      "To the highest crest."

      "That figures," muttered Paula. "The only place to land is barely above the high tide mark, so we have to go as high above that as there is to go."

      "We better bundle up," said Susan. "That's a cold, damp wind blowing out there."

      They left the plane and began looking for a path up the steep, rocky slope. Penardwen manifested, and pretended to walk with them, though she was obviously insubstantial.

      "Ironically, we're not hugely far from that island where you were imprisoned, Penardwen," said Paula, as they began climbing by what looked like the least difficult route.

      "Which was not where Aburidwil caught me," said the faded goddess, floating effortlessly beside the pair as they struggled upwards. "Neither was it any of his known lairs. I know not how I came to be there."

      "I looked it up, later," said Susan. "That was originally a small Catholic abbey, built over a thousand years ago. It was supposedly assigned the task of keeping safe dangerous magical items. Or what they thought were dangerous magical items."

      "So someone, somehow identified the box you were in..."

      "Jar," said Penardwen, rolling her eyes. "Previously used for storing raisins."

      She said something in a very old language, obviously describing the other god's parentage and personal habits in fulsome detail. 

      "So, it was identified, somehow, as being magical, and moved there," Paula finished. 

      "That is all speculation," said Penardwen, uneasily. "I was asleep."

      They needed nearly an hour and a half to reach the top of the ridge. That, though was still not the highest part. They began walking further uphill, the slope and terrain easier, now. Abruptly, Paula stopped. 

      "I hear something. Like a rocket."

      "I don't hear..." began Susan. "Wait, now I do. It's getting louder fast."

      They scanned the sky for several long moments, but saw nothing. 

      "There!" said Paula, suddenly. "What is that? A hopper?"

      Susan pulled out the small but powerful set of binoculars she carried as part of her equipment.

      "I don't recognize the configuration," she said. "Wait, yes, I do now! It's one of the Assembly's hoppers!"

      "Why?" said Paula, confused. "If they had something urgent to tell us, why not just use the radio?"

      "There is something wrong," said Penardwen, suddenly, appearing frightened. 

       She abruptly vanished. 

      "What happened?" said Susan, confused.

      "She said something about how she needed to hide and then went silent," said Paula, worried. "Who could be in that hopper?"

      They watched as it descended to about twice the height of the tallest part of the island, then hovered for a bit before moving over the beach. 

      "No, no, no, there's not enough room!" Paula yelled. "Your exhaust will bounce all over the place!"

      Sure enough, the sand kicked up by the hopper's rockets sprayed at high velocity over the Arrow, which rocked violently on its landing gear. The reflected exhaust from the hillside forced the hopper towards the ocean, despite the pilot tipping it back towards the land. That only slowed the sideways slip, while increasing the rate of descent.

      "Throttle!" yelled Paula, making lifting motions with her hands. "Abort!"

      The pilot seemed determined, and likely would have continued even if able to hear the shouted advice. The hopper dropped half onto wet sand, half into water, raising great gouts of steam and spray. Though it was tilted towards land it was still moving away. It teetered on the landward jacks for a moment, then swung the other way as the gear caught in the sand. The landing jacks in the water slammed down, the ship's nose moving to and past the vertical. Almost in slow motion, the ship toppled onto its side into the sea. 

      "Ow," said Paula, wincing in empathy. "That was a very bad landing. Wonder who that is? Or maybe was..."

      Their coms sounded just then. 

      "This is Sharma. Something very strange has happened with Champion. She left our meeting in a great hurry, commandeered a hopper and took off. We tracked her trajectory to an island off the west coast of Wales, which the hangar chief told us is where you are."

      "That's Champion?!" said Paula, staring at the ship, as it lay in the surf, hissing and crackling. "Well, she just crashed."

      "Wait," said Susan. "Penardwen is hiding from something. Which is probably on that hopper. What is going on?"

      "I suspect..." Sharma paused so long they wondered if the connection had dropped. "You mentioned to me more than once, Paula, that she was avoiding you. I wonder if she was actually avoiding Penardwen."

      "Why?" said Paula, more to herself than Sharma. "What could cause Champion..."

      Her eyes widened. 

      "Oh, God. That has to be it."

      "What?" said Sharma and Susan, almost together.

      "We wondered if there might have been other things like Penardwen in that keep. I bet there were, and one of them got Champion."

      The hatch flew away, with flash and smoke, the sound reaching them after several seconds. Moments later Champion - or whatever it was which looked like her now - climbed out onto the side of the hopper. She turned and looked around for a bit, then stared straight at Paula and Susan.

      Champion hopped out, into the water, and charged across the beach, moving faster than she should have been able to.

      "Yeah, this is bad," said Paula, turning to begin running up the slope, towards the peak, silently urging Susan to follow. "I'm not sure of the exact situation, but a good guess is that whatever that is realizes Penardwen has found something and wants it for herself."

      "Don't waste breath on talk," said Sharma. "We're heading over in the other hopper, though we have to wait for it to be refueled. Once it is we will be there in perhaps half an hour. Avoid her until then. Sharma out."

      "'Avoid her,'" said Susan, panting hard. "Easy for her to say."

      "We have a huge head start," said Paula, with sudden determination. "We'll get there first, find all that power and use it against Champion."

      "Sounds like... a plan..." said Susan. 



Part Eleven

      The Guardsman could have had this conversation by video, but he hadn't visited the Lions' headquarters in years. The purpose was mainly to get an update on the preparations Britain was making for the Shilmek attack. However, the Guardsman definitely intended to do some visiting with long-time friends once that duty was completed. 

      "Britain has authorized production of Stratton fabric, under the War Emergency Powers Act," said the Walrus, as he reached the next item on his list. "They're already acquiring the deuterium needed for the process."

      The two men were alone in a small briefing room. The meeting was about to enter its second hour. The snacks and drinks there at the start were long gone. Fortunately, the end of the list was within sight. 

      "That will probably save some lives," said the Guardsman, nodding. He laughed. Then quickly sobered. "If we hadn't received so much experience the past three years with things like Sung, Tritonicus, the Five Great Powers... Most of the egotism is gone or at least is put aside in emergencies, groundwork for cooperation between disparate groups is already in place, contingency plans have been made. Even having a year or two of warning, without those we would not be anything like as well prepared as we already are."

      "I'm not sure we actually are well prepared," said the Walrus, looking uncharacteristically glum. "We're up against a civilization thousands of years ahead of us technologically."

      "They're culturally inflexible, and they just went through a major political upset," said the Guardsman. "Combine those two factors and you'll have a society stumbling and blinking and trying to deal with significant changes while telling itself nothing's really changed."

      Coms suddenly sounded, both personal and from the communications center of the Lions' headquarters. 

      "We have an alert for the British Isles," said the computerized voice. "Two auxiliary personnel of the Assembly are being threatened by Champion, who is apparently under the influence of an inimical supernatural entity."

      It then gave the location by both latitude and longitude and region, as well as the local name. 

      "You programed that yourself, didn't you?" said the Guardsman. "It talks the way you want servants to address you."

      "That's only a few minutes from here, by the best means we have available," said the Walrus, ignoring the Guardsman's question as he thought things through. "Neither of us is particularly suited for freeing someone from possession, or whatever the case is, but we should be able to hold Champion until someone who is arrives."

      "Let's go, then," said the Guardsman, rising. "The rest of this little briefing session can wait for later."

       * * *

      They lost sight of Champion - or whatever was steering her body just now - as they clambered through the increasingly rocky terrain. 

      "All right, listen," said Paula. "I want you to slow down and go down the ridge on our right, out of sight from the ocean. She'll either target me or go straight to the caern. Either way, I keep her busy while you sneak around and try to see what's there and figure out what to do about it."

      "What does... Pen... say... about it?" said Susan, struggling to keep up. 

      "It should be in some sort of container; she doesn't know what but it should be obvious. Only a supernatural should be able to open it. If you find it, just grab it and go!"

      "Right," said Susan, slowing with relief and moving off the ridge. 

      Paula was on the last, steepest section of slope when she heard sounds from below and left. A quick glance showed Champion running up the extremely steep slope towards the ridge, a bit ahead of Paula. Seeing this, Paula veered left and charged down the slope. 

      Champion heard her coming, of course, and braced. Paula knew better than to jump; Champion would simply dodge while she was in the air. Instead she waited until she was very close and lunged into a tackle. Champion went with the motion, grabbed Paula and spun them both around. Paula landed hard, with Champion right on top of her. The rogue super threw a twin dragon strike which would have blinded Paula if she hadn't jerked her head out of the way. 

      Champion snarled and kneed Paula in the groin, the smacked her back and forth across the face until she was too groggy to move. Champion then stood, pulling Paula up with her, holding the stunned woman off the ground with one hand.

      "Where is she?!" 

      "W-what?" said Paula. She wasn't stalling; she was so addled she barely understood the question.

      "Where is Susan?

      "She couldn't keep up... Sent her back... to the Arrow to call for help."

      Champion threw her head back and gave an inhuman shriek. Then she turned and began running down the slope, Paula slung roughly over one shoulder. 

      The beach was much narrower, here, an was actually covered to the foot of the ridge at high tide. That was some hours, yet; Champion ran along the narrow strip of sand back to the wider part, then into the Arrow. She dropped Paula onto the deck and gave the plane a quick search. She shrieked again when she realized it was empty. The she paused, took a deep breath, and took on an inhuman air of calm. 

      "You don't look so good," said Paula, struggling to sit up. "Your skin is drying and cracking and starting to slough off." 

      "You lied to me."

      "Voice going, too. You sound like a bad special effect."

      "I have taken all this body has. I need a new host, but you are occupied. However, you two will provide enough nourishment to let me reach the prize."

      She clamped her mouth over Paula's and inhaled. Paula went cold and numb as the very life was drained from her. However, Champion suddenly broke off and ran to the hatch. 

      She shrieked again, and charged out of the Arrow.

      "I... hear a plane," said Paula, barely able to move.

      She took nearly all I have, and much of your strength as well, said Penardwen. She would have taken all from both of us if not for the interruption.

      "We must... warn whoever..."

      We are too weak to do anything.

      "Not for long."

      With a surge of determination, Paula rolled clumsily over to the bulkhead below where a large medical kit was bolted. Using the wall to help, she got to her knees. Fortunately, kits like this were mounted low on purpose. She needed three tries to open the first snap, only two for the second. She grabbed a small package from inside, ripped it open, and put the inhaler to her mouth as she pushed the button and drew a deep breath. Fire hit her lungs and spread rapidly through her body as the stimulant hit. This would only last a few minutes, but that was only the first item she wanted from the kit. 

      Feeling stronger - but still more like a wrung-out dishrag than a healthy human being - Paula rummaged in the kit for a few seconds, and came out with a bottle of booster.

      "This is good stuff," she said, as she peeled off the tamperproof seal. "Takes a few minutes to start working, but it's got a long-term stimulant and multiple nutrients. Including a load of simple carbohydrates for quick energy."

      The cap came off and Paula gulped the mixture, shuddering at the taste.

      That is truly revolting, said Penardwen. However, I can tell it will do us much good.

      "Now," said Paula straightening and tossing the bottle aside. "Let's see what's happening out there."

      What was happening was that - much to the surprise of both Paula and the two rescuers - Champion was holding her own against both the Walrus and the Guardsman. They had landed a small VTOL jet right on the edge of the wide part of the beach, the left outrigger gear actually in the waves. Paula took a few seconds to evaluate the situation, then jumped onto the ground and ran towards Champion.

      As she charged towards the fray, Paula noticed that the deterioration of Champion's form was accelerating. She actually seemed differently proportioned, now, with bizarrely long arms. Also, were those claws?!

      Paula circled around and ran at Champion from behind. Three steps away she launched into a flying side kick. Champion somehow dodged, and Paula dropped hard on the wet sand. However, the Guardsman used the opportunity to land a solid kick to Champion's ribs. She barely seemed to notice. 

      Paula rolled nimbly to her feet as the Walrus closed on Champion from the opposite side. Champion blocked his punch, then another kick from the Guardsman, and still somehow managed to swat Paula's kick aside. 

      "Dammit, Champion! Fight it!"

      "I'm afraid Carol isn't in right now," said Champion, with an unnerving cackle. "Oh, you two are so tasty looking!"

      "She can drain your strength," said Paula. "With a kiss, and maybe other means."

      She threw another kick, but this time Champion jammed it, moving in, grabbing Paula's leg and lifting. She swung Paula around, almost hitting both the Walrus and the Guardsman. She spun past her starting point, then let go, hurling Paula onto the rocks at the base of the rise. 

      We are broken, said Penardwen. Do not move. The injuries may only be slowly lethal now, but would likely be instantly fatal with exertion.

      "We... have to... help..." 

      We cannot. You fought well, but whatever is now Champion is far more powerful than she ever was.

      In spite of the warning, Paula tried to move. The resulting pain was so intense she couldn't even scream, her vision fading to black. 

      Paula wasn't sure how long she was out, but when she again became aware of her surroundings the fight was still in progress. All the participants were the worse for wear. Also, the VTOL jet was somehow now tipped at an angle.

      "I should have... grabbed a weapon from the... Arrow," said Paula, numbly. "Could have ended... this quick..."

      Most likely not. That is a supernatural creature, which is likely immune to most forms of mundane harm.

      The Walrus went down, hard. He was out, not moving. That left the worn and injured Guardsman to deal with Champion. 

      Paula was almost ready to try moving again when Susan slid to a stop beside her.

      "Oh, God, you're still alive," she gasped. 

      She shoved a small stone box bound with iron straps into Paula's lap. The three straps crossed over the top of the box, where they were held closed by a lead seal. 

      "Open it," husked Penardwen.

      "NO!!!" shrieked Champion, spinning around. 

      The Guardsman slammed his battle staff into the back of Champion's head, actually splitting the stout polymer. She whipped around and clawed at his face. She missed, but he backpedalled so quickly he tripped over the Walrus and fell. She spun back around just in time to get hit in the chest by an aerial flare Susan shot at her. 

      Champion screamed as the flare struck and caught in her costume. She began frantically digging for it. 

      Meanwhile, Susan yanked out her belt knife and tried to pry the seal off. It wouldn't budge.

      "Takes a supe'natur'l creature," husked Paula.

      Susan put her knife in Paula's grasp and aided her in prying off the seal. The straps sprang open, and Susan yanked the stone lid off the box. It appeared empty. However, Paula screamed as white hot fire seared her inside and out, her whole body glowing. 

      Champion gave a wordless shriek and sprang for them. She suddenly halted in mid air. 

      "One moment, please," said Penardwen, in a voice full of pain and repressed anger. "I must repair this body."

      Paula gasped as all the pain vanished. She sprang to her feet, feeling strong, powerful, far more so than she had even as Champion. 

      "Wow," was all she could manage.

      "Oh, thank God," said Susan, sagging to the ground. 

      Directed by Penardwen, Paula's right hand reached down to her, and some of the glow around Paula's form flowed into her. 

      "No serious injuries," said Penardwen, "she's mostly just exhausted. That will take care of it."

      "Are you sure you have the demon secured?" said Paula, a bit annoyed at the goddess' smugness.

      "Quite certain."

      "Then could you please heal the Walrus and the Guardsman?"

      "Of course."

      Paula's body - under Penardwen's control - walked sedately past the thrashing Champion - who was looking less and less human - to the others. The Walrus and Guardsman had both managed to sit up, but it was obvious that was about their limit currently.

      "How are you doing all this?!" said the Walrus. "I can feel the magic in you, and it's... incredible."

      "Explanations later," said Paula. "Penardwen - my passenger - can heal you two, if you'll let her, then she has to get rid of... that." 

      "Of course," said the Guardsman, after a brief look at the Walrus, who nodded.

      "What is that thing?" said the Walrus, and Paula placed hands on both of the older heroes.

      "Some sort of extraplanar creature," said Penardwen. "What you would call a demon."

      "Can you get rid of it and save Champion?" said the Guardsman.

      "Champion has been dead since shortly before the keep was destroyed."

      There was some subdued profanity at this news. What the demon was saying was not in the least subdued. 

      "I suspect the creature avoided Paula because it feared I might detect it. Not knowing I was too weak to be fully aware."

      "How did Sharma miss this?!" said Susan, as she joined them. 

      "As perceptive as she is, she does not have the senses of a goddess."

      "Please, get rid of it," said Paula, feeling sick. "I can't stand to look at it."

      "This will take a moment, and some concentration," said Penardwen. "Please, the rest of you, stand back."

      She stepped closer, stopping just out of reach. The creature in Champion's body screamed wordlessly at her. Penardwen - with Paula definitely in the back seat - said words which none of the others understood, while weaving a pattern in the air with her hands. 

      All previous sounds by the creature rolled into one could not match the final noise it made as it vanished.

      "No body to bury," said the Walrus, sadly. 

      "It was a shell, hollowed out as the creature regained its strength by consuming what was left of Champion. Little more than a skin.

      "Now, I must rest. Doing so much so soon after gaining this power was risky and difficult, but necessary."

      Paula's posture changed subtly as Penardwen relinquished control.

      "I hate when she does that," she muttered. She walked over to a rock and sat. "God, what a mess. I just want to get back to the Assembly base and sleep for a week."

      "I hate to spoil your plans," said the Guardsman, "but all three vehicles are damaged. I doubt any of them is safe to fly without serious work."



Part Twelve

      While none of the three vehicles were considered safe to fly, all still had at least some operational systems. The Walrus and the Guardsman went to their plane and righted it. The Walrus then climbed aboard and used its radio to contact the Lions' base, to see what could be done about their situation. After a few minutes he leaned over to say something to the waiting Guardsman, who then  came out to speak with the two members of the Assembly support staff. 

      "They'll have a boat here with a repair crew in four to five hours, depending on the weather," he told them. "I'm afraid the VTOL is a simple two-seater, a modified Harrier."

      "The Assembly team will be here soon," said Paula. "They can probably give you a lift, or repair the Arrow so we can."

      "Thank you, but your emergency interrupted a meeting the Walrus and I were having," said the Guardsman, with a tired, sad smile. "We were cooped up in the Lions' headquarters all day until the call came to help you. We'll have to go right back to that as soon as we return. We'd rather just sit out here in the fresh air for a while."

      "Definitely," said the Walrus, nodding. 

      Paula chuckled and Susan grinned at that. 

      "Okay. Well, we need to go report to our people, anyway."

      The report took longer than they expected, mostly due to people on the other end repeatedly interrupting to ask startled questions. Paula and Susan were surprised to learn that the Assembly was still a few minutes from launch; things on the little island had moved that quickly. The news about Champion hit everyone hard, Paula and Susan only now feeling it. There just hadn't been time before. 

      Finally, they finished. The members of the Assembly advised Paula and Susan to wait for the Lions' repair team, who likely would be able to get the Arrow back in operational shape. Then they could fly home. The hopper "Champion" stole would require more work, and likely a team from the Assembly.

      "So, we have over three hours until the boat arrives," said Paula, leaning back in the pilot's seat and looking at Susan. 

      "How long will Penardwen need to do whatever it is that the thing from the magic box will let her do?"

      "That's part of what I want to talk to you about. She says we need to go somewhere to do something, here on the island, not far from the caern, but is being all mysterious about the details."

      "Oh! Well, I should probably show you the caern, then. It's pretty interesting."

      They exited the Arrow, told the two veteran supers they were going exploring, and set off. The two women took a much more sedate route this time, needing over half an hour to finally reach the crest.

      "Wow," said Paula, when she finally saw the structure. "How much of that did you do?"

      What at one time had presumably been a more or less organized pile of stones was now a loose heap, barely discernible from the other piles of decaying, weathered rock littering the ridge and slopes. 

      "Not much. I just shoved a few of the larger stones aside and there was the box."

      Penardwen manifested, looking at the scene from beside them. Her projected form seemed much more solid, now. 

      "A forgotten memorial for a forgotten man," she said. "He isn't even buried here. Once he decided to abandon his deception he washed, trimmed his hair and beard, put on clean clothes, gathered his treasures, and went to the mainland. Where he went completely unrecognized. He told them he was a pilgrim who went to see the oracle and found him dead. He told the locals he had piled some stones over the body but didn't think that was a sufficient burial for the man. Some of the locals swore they would build up a proper caern, and did so later. Not realizing the pile of stones they worked to enhance was just some rocks the fake seer threw together on top of some pig and cow bones."

      "Sounds like quite a character," said Paula, with a laugh. 

      "Oh, we do respect our tricksters. In their proper place, of course."

      "So, did that package have what you wanted?"

      "Oh, far more than that. There was more power - and be thankful the creature did not get that - than I was told, as well as instructions."

      "Instructions for what?" said Susan, puzzled. 

      "How to get home!" said Penardwen, excitedly. "My people - the folk of my pantheon, to use the Greek word you modern humans are so fond of - deliberately understated the prize in the previous message I found. I assume because they wanted to reduce the risk of someone else finding that message and being tempted to seize what was here."

      "So what do you need to do?"

      "I tap the power from the box and open a portal."

      "That's it?" said Paula, startled. 

      "Well, that is far beyond what I was capable of just this morning, but now... First, though, I need to confer with my kin. This will take a bit of time, but only minimal effort."

      "Can you do that here?" said Susan. 

      "Oh, yes. Well, from a place close by. That was part of the instructions. There is a concealed location, just down the hill, in the level spot near where the fake seer's hut stood."

      "Then let's descend," said Paula, now eager herself. 

      Only minutes later they were in a small, nearly flat area, formerly a clearing but now overgrown. Despite the stunted trees and brush, they could tell that at one time this had been an attractive little hideaway.

      "Out of the wind, catches the morning sun, enough room for a hut and garden..." said Susan, looking around. "You can still hear the sea, too, when the wind is right. I wouldn't mind having a vacation home in a place like this."

      "We should tell someone about this place," said Paula, feeling the weight of time. "Get the park people to sponsor an archeological dig. I can still see signs of old things here."

      Penardwen - seeming more solid, more real, practically by the second - led them across the glade to a very weedy patch at the north edge. Through the brush they could see a circle of small standing stones, barely poking above the growth.  

      "A miniature Stonehenge?!" said Susan.

      "Not quite, though in some ways similar. The stones themselves only mark the spot. Now, please, stand back and keep your voices low. This will take some concentration, as well as some time."

      She moved into the center of the circle, Paula and Susan taking a couple of steps away. They actually did not speak at all, content to watch and listen. Penardwen simply stood, back to them, the late afternoon sun shining on her all but organic form. Time passed, but neither of the humans felt uneasy. Something about this place, these circumstances, were relaxing, even meditative. They simply sat, on a boulder apparently modified into a bench in ancient times. Finally, just before the sun dipped below the ridge to their west, Penardwen turned and left the circle. 

      "There are always complications," she said, looking more irritated than anything else. 

      "Now what?" said Paula, understandably starting to get fed up with delays.

      "The package they left here is part of this world, not to be brought across into our lands. However, it is more potent than is now allowed to be left behind intact."

      "So, you use it, then let it dissipate?"

      "That would be wasteful. Also, there is concern that a few others of our folk might still exist here. They wish to leave beacons for them. Not merely in addition to the one I found, but leading to additional help."

      "So, what...?"

      Penardwen looked at them, suddenly very serious.

      "Will you two accept a reward? One of empowerment? In return for aiding me, and any others who might follow?"

      Paula and Susan looked briefly at each other in the gathering darkness. 

      "I... think I have an idea of what you intend," said Paula, as Susan listened, puzzled. "You and your kin intend to split and alter the magic, and give each of us half."

      "Yes! Well, a little less than half."

      "I don't consider this necessary as a reward," said Paula, modestly. "If Susan agrees, though, I would certainly accept, to - as you said - potentially help others."

      "What would this do to us?" said Susan, a bit concerned. 

      "You're familiar with the Gift?" said Paula, turning to her. "What Tiger and a few others have?"

      "Yes," said Susan, tentatively. "Only vaguely, though."

      "Well, the Gift comes with a basic package which all Gifted have, but most of them also have overt powers shaped by their personalities on top of that. I think we'll get something like the basic Gift package."

      She looked expectantly at Penardwen. 

      "You are, indeed, knowledgeable in such matters," said the goddess. "However, while this would provide the same general benefits - healing, long life, increased vitality, and more - it would be much more potent than the typical Gift. It would allow you to do much more, once you learn how. You would essentially be demigods, though low-level ones."

      She looked back and forth between the two women. 

      "Will you accept our gift, our blessing?"

      "Yes," said Paula, nodding.

      "Yes," said Susan, a bit less confidently, but meaning it. 

      "Thank you," said Penardwen. "This will greatly speed my return home."

      "I think we better contact the Walrus and let them know we'll be a while."

      "Not long," said Penardwen. "Less than an hour, almost certainly."

      The process was not simple. Even the two humans had to participate, performing certain actions and saying certain words. The timing was tricky, because they had to prepare the magical package - at this point, like Penardwen, still inside Paula - for division while keeping it intact until - in quick succession - the gateway was opened, Penardwen went through and then the transfer of magic was made. Fortunately, they were dealing with gods, who managed the difficult matter not only competently but with style. Paula and Susan never saw the others of Penardwen's kin; only somehow felt vague presences beyond the portal which opened late in the process. Finally, they were ready. The portal widened, and grew more definite.

      "Farewell, my friends!" shouted Penardwen, as she stepped through the portal, activating the complex magical workings. 

      Paula and Susan were a bit distracted at that moment, as a surge of energy flooded through both of them, making them gasp and stagger. By the time they recovered, the portal was closed, and all signs of anything supernatural were gone. Except for them.

      "Wow," said Paula, shaking her head when she was again capable of speech. "That was a rush!"

      "I'll say. If you... Oh, no! We forgot..."

      "Huh?" said Paula. She suddenly realized what Susan meant. She threw her arms wide, looking down at herself. "Shit! I'm still female!"

       * * *

      “I never dreamed you'd finish it so soon,” said Template, as Bowman met her at the fliers' entrance to the Intrepids' base. She was glad to be back in the old, familiar corridors, even if only for a short time.

      "As my mentor, Captain Arrow! once told me," said Bowman, grinning, leading the way to his lab, "'Never do tomorrow what you can put off until today.'"

      "Sounds like something Rapscallion would say," said Template, grinning.

      "You do know he is Rapscallion's and Colossa's grandfather, right?" He returned her grin. "So he's one of your notorious inlaws."

      "I did not know that! Wow; sometimes the hero business seems downright incestuous."

      "There aren't that many of us, and we tend to be noticeable," said Bowman, with a careless shrug. "We also tend to get around. Of course there are multiple levels of interconnection."

      Soon they were in his messy though organized workshop. Template forced herself to ignore the rather interesting looking shape under the tarp in one corner, and the half dozen apparent space suits hanging limply from stands. One of which seemed to have huge wings folded along its sides.

      Instead, she followed Bowman as he moved purposefully and directly to one item. It looked very much like the mutant result of an illicit affair between a recoilless rifle and Dreadknight's lance.

      "Wow..." said Template.

      "Basically, it's a mega version of the Revolutionary's pistols," said the inventor super. He appeared tired but satisfied, as he gave the device a fond pat. "Had a devil of a time scaling the basic principle up to this size, but I did it. Getting to examine some of the items from the armory at the Sanctum helped."

      "I love it," said Template, grinning fiercely as she lifted the large gadget from its stand.

      "As with the pistols, there's no actual controls except the trigger. Just pump energy into it until you're ready to shoot. You'll be able to feel when it's getting full."

      "Gotcha'."

      "Do me a favor, though," said Bowman, shifting nervously. "Don't... charge it in here. Or anywhere indoors. In fact, go up into space the first time you try it. No, that might cause an EMP; just go well up into the stratosphere; use the air to dissipate the beam. Should only take a few dozen kilometers. I think it'll work fine, but you should reinforce your resilience before actually testing it. Start out small, too. At full charge the power store will rival a sub-tactical nuke. Maybe a full kilotonne."

      "Right," said Template, nodding. "Still not enough to punch through the screens on their warships, but maybe enough to take out a transport. Definitely enough to mess up a base from the inside."

      "No," said Bowman, shaking his head. "This is a beam, not a blast. This should punch through all but the most powerful of their shields, and still do some damage inside."

       * * *

      A few days before classes resumed at the Ramsey Technical College after the holiday break, a small, quiet meeting was held. There were only a few attendees, but they represented a fascinating - and, for some people, had they know of it, worrying - concentration of power and experience.

      Officially, the meeting between six of the super instructors, representatives of the Bureau of Special Resources, plus Vic, Energia and Maldren was to help plan improvements in the super training program at the school. However, those paying attention noticed the interesting selection of who was meeting with Doro and Cosmic Ray. They were actually getting their assignments for the upcoming war.

      "So, you've all been given your duties," said Doro. "Any questions?"

      "I want to be out in space!" said Energia, firmly. "With Maldren! In my suit I can fly in space as well as he can!"

      "No, you can't," said Ray, flatly. "You're not as fast sublight, and can't go FTL at all. Besides, your most potent attack requires an atmosphere."

      "It is also against policy to put people who are emotionally attached to each other together in combat," said Doro. "Sorry, but that's final. Since there's a good chance you'll be at this school when the attack comes, your post is flying low cover over this area."

      "I would rather have you here," said Maldren, who was sitting beside her. He smiled and patted her hand. "Besides, those dainty little feet of yours look awkward in those space suit boots."

      "I do not have dainty little feet!" said Energia, too loudly. 

      "If you want to be part of this effort - any of you - you need to do what we say," said Doro, more loudly. "I know, that goes against the grain for most costumed supers. We're all used to going our own way, and ignoring authority. This is what we need to you to do. This is what the Earth needs you to do. If you won't do it, then get up and leave, now."

      No-one moved.

      "Okay, now, any questions? Good. God willing, all of this will be unnecessary."

      "Oh, and Vic?" said Ray, catching her by the shoulder as she headed for the door. "Get a haircut. You're violating agency regs."

      "Yes, sir," said Vic, with a compliant sigh.



Part Thirteen

      Deep under a low mountain, in one of the most secure sections of the Assembly's base, a bizarre ritual was performed. A ritual days in the making, due to the esoteric and unusual preparations involved. The participants were both serious and uncertain.

      "Frankly, this is beyond me," said Sharma, finally. She looked over at Dr. Piano. 

      "It's a god complex," he said, nodding. "Rather, a demigod complex. Indeed very much like a Gift, as Paula guessed."

      "You can figure out the details later," said Paula, tiredly. "For now, just tell me how to return to my male self. We've been at this for most of a day and I still haven't heard anything encouraging."

      "You should be able to do that yourself, once you learn how," said Piano, closing the notebook he used to guide himself and Sharma through the examination.

      "Wait... What? Oh!"

      "'Oh!' what?" said Susan, almost as eager as Paula for answers.

      "Powers," said Paula, grinning. She sobered quickly. "Only, even if they do include shapeshifting, doesn't that mean that my default form is now female?"

      "I have no idea," said Piano, with a shrug. "At a guess, you will be what you want to be. Though the sooner you decide on who that is and start working on making yourself into that, the less time it is likely to take, and the less difficult it is likely to be."

      "I am still confused," said Susan, frowning. "As far as I can tell, the only thing about me which has changed is that I'm, well, better than I was. Like that basic Gifted package Paula was talking about, back on the island."

      "If you don't consciously shape your abilities, that is what you'll stay. Just a gradually improving version of what you are. That, however, is only a small part of what you might become. The Gift is essentially magically-enacted wish fulfillment, and this is very similar."

      "I wonder if Penardwen and her folk knew about Gifts," said Paula, musing. 

      "There is something I would like both of you to remember," said Piano, emphatically. "We need a Champion."

      "Whoah!" said Susan, grinning. "Do you mean I could actually be the next Champion?"

      "Or Paula could go back to being the original," said Sharma.

      "I do have the experience," Paula admitted. "I'm not sure I want to."

      She frowned, thinking hard.

      "Okay, check me on this. Many Gifted gained the ability to shift freely between their original form and an idealized alternate form."

      "Correct," said Dr. Piano, nodding. "Though the new form was not always something others might consider ideal. Brace - I've never met her, but have heard Tiger and some others speak of those they left behind - wanted to be respected as a professional law enforcement officer. Her base form was a short, cute, buxom blond, and she felt that a major downturn in her life was due to males in authority over her not respecting her or her abilities because they judged her by her appearance. After she was Gifted, she gained the ability to transform into a larger and more impressive - though less conventionally attractive - form."

      "Okay, to return to being Champion but be male in my off hours I'd have to either make her my default form and male me the alternate, or vice-versa."

      "Or simply learn general shapeshifting," said Sharma, with a shrug. 

      "Yeah, but that seems like it would take longer, and it really doesn't fit into the Champion power set."

      "Shapeshifting sounds fun, though," said Susan, grinning. 

      "You could simply allow this to remain your base form and add two alternate forms," said Dr. Piano, pointedly. "I believe I could develop some meditations which would help both of you shape your powers as you wish."

      "This is going to take a lot of thought," said Paula, nodding slowly. "A lot of thought."

       * * *

      Vic looked in the mirror at her new haircut and sighed.

      "You'd think I'd enjoy getting back to a more boyish haircut," she said, looking wistfully over at Michelle. "Guess I just got used to it being long."

      "This will go to a good home," said the hairdresser, reassuringly, as she gathered Vic's shorn locks.

       * * *

      "I thought you were getting a haircut," said Energia, after meeting Vic on the dorm roof.

      "I did. Michelle cut it last night, then gave me a really nice fall. She told me before the holidays she'd have my present after I got back to school. I just didn't realize that's what she meant. Apparently, Doro gave her a call and persuaded her to get firm with me."

      She grabbed Energia's heaviest piece of luggage and started for the stairs. 

      "Do you think Ray will let you get by on a technicality?"

      "I take it off when I'm doing Bureau stuff, and put it back on when I'm on my own time. I already checked, and that's okay."

      "Oh! Well, good, then."

      Energia sighed and stretched. 

      "God, school's just starting and I'm already tired. So much happened over the break."

      "You're preaching to the choir."

       * * *

      "I can't believe this!" said Susan, still gushing. "I know it's been over a week since we got this... dose of magic, but it just seems to keep getting better! I keep feeling better. Then, after hearing that from Dr. Piano and Sharma... I can hardly believe it! We can be anything we want, do anything we want. I feel like I could take on the world. All this power, all this potential!"

      Paula watched her, pacing rapidly, aimlessly around their quarters, and was worried. 

      "You need to stop, take a deep breath, and calm down," said Paula, firmly. "Right now you're drunk on that power. You won't make any reasonable decisions while you're in this state."

      For a moment she thought Susan wasn't going to listen. That maybe - just maybe - she had lost her. Fortunately, Susan was a mature and responsible adult. Moreover, she had spent a large chunk of her adult life around people with powers. She didn't do exactly what Paula suggested, but she did quickly gather herself. Susan stopped pacing and sat beside Paula on their small couch. The subsequent silence didn't last long, being broken as Susan suddenly giggled. 

      "What?" said Paula, familiar with that mischievous sound. 

      "Wanna make out?" said Susan, turning and leaning in, putting her hand high on Paula's thigh. 

      "Are you sure you're all right?"

      "C'mon, we've done it before."

      "Since I became female, we've had sex fewer than a dozen times. You're willing enough to pleasure me, but it just doesn't do anything for you."

      "I just feel... Stoked." She leaned closer, breathing in Paula's face. "Horney."

      Paula laughed, and kissed her.

      "Victory sex. Amplified by magical stimulation."

      "I don't care what you call it," said Susan, nibbling on Paula's right ear, something she knew drove her - of him, before the change - crazy. "I just want you right now!"

      "Enough to let me use that strap-on?" said Paula, skeptically.

      "If that's what it takes to get you naked and sweaty with me, yes."

      "Okay, but I am the one wearing it!"

      "We'll see," said Susan, with a nasty smile. 

       * * *

      "Can you believe this shit?" said Energia, angrily, as she came downstairs after a long and heated phone call in her room. "'Toe the line, follow orders, be good little soldiers!' Forget it!"

      "Are you still going on about that?" said Blue Impact, surprised. "I thought it was all settled months ago."

      "No, it's not. Because they're still saying I have to defend an area near the school. Well, there's no way they can enforce that. I'll take my space suit with me and go where I want!"

      "How many would die because you weren't there to fight the ships landing in their area?" said Gadgetive, jabbing a finger at her friend. 

      This Spring break was far more serious than the previous one. Energia, Gadgetive and Blue Impact were once again gathered in her headquarters, once again left with little to do. This time, though, they were spending a large part of their time arguing. Their disagreements were over more than where they would be stationed when the Shilmek attacked, too. Blue Impact wondered if their little, informal team would survive the tension accompanying the preparations for war. 

      "Oh, someone else would be assigned there," said Energia, carelessly.

      "No, they won't," said Blue Impact, hotly. "Better brains than all three of us together have planned this out. If you're there, that's because it's the place you are needed, where you can do the most good! There aren't so many active, trained supers in this world that they're easily interchangeable!

      "Listen to me. I know you want to be with Maldren, but it's better for him and you that you stay right here. You'd both get yourselves killed, worrying about each other. Yes, you'll still be worried, but it won't be nearly as strong if you're somewhere else, fighting.

      "Besides," she continued, more gently. "Don't you think he'll be more motivated if he knows he might be able to keep the attackers from even reaching Earth? Where you are?"

      Energia literally shook with frustration. Then, suddenly, she dropped onto the couch - almost missing the seat in her distress - and began sobbing. 

      "Hey, c'mon, it'll be all right," said Gadgetive, softly, moving over to sit beside her friend and hug her. "He'll be all right. He's tougher than even his Mom."

      "I know, I know," wailed Energia. "I just want to be with him!"

      "You will," said Blue Impact, "after the battle. You'll see. Both of you, together again."

      She knew that was likely a lie, that those who fought in space were at the greatest risk. She just couldn't think of anything else to say right then.

      They all jumped as the com chimed. With a nervous laugh, Blue Impact moved to the console and answered the call. She was rather surprised to see Brade on the other end. 

      "I have a mission for you. One your talents and experience are ideally suited for."

       * * *

      What the staff and guests at the small motel off I-25 near Fort Carson thought when a silent flying vehicle landed in the parking lot is best left to speculation. However, that reaction could reasonably be considered doubled when three women in colorful costumes exited the and walked across the parking lot to a particular room.

      A distinguished-looking, very fit black man, just going grey at the temples, opened the door at the first knock. He was wearing a black jumpsuit and athletic shoes, a utility belt and some sort of harness.

      "Good to see you," said Ike Kenniman, ushering the three women into his room. He took the chair at the small desk; Blue Impact sat at the window and Energia on the end of the unmade bed, while Gadgetive stood. He gave an tired sigh and shook his head, before continuing in a wry tone. "I'm also very glad to be here."

      "I have to say I'm surprised to be here," said Blue Impact. "Also, rather relieved. We were going stir crazy. Though I am a bit confused by some of the secrecy and cryptic warnings which came with the request."

      "Are you all right?" said Gadgetive, obviously concerned. 

      "Both of your concerns have the same cause," said Dr. Device, sourly. "A difference of opinion between certain members of the NSA and reality."

      "Huh?"

      "They were very upset when I told the President about several projects I worked on for them. Accused me of treason. I pointed out that the President was their boss and leader of the country, so I wasn't committing treason, I was going over their heads when they refused to help their country. Which, itself, could count as treason. They told me they didn't work for any politicians, and they knew what was best for the country. I had to call the President and have her call their supervisors before they - very reluctantly - agreed that why, yes, the President of the United States had authority over them."

      "Insane," said Blue Impact, shaking her head.

      "Anyway, I regret all the secrecy, but some things do need to be kept quiet," said Dr. Device. "I have been charged by the President, herself, with a special project, and could use some help."

      "Sure!" said Gadgetive, eagerly. 

      "What sort of help?" said Blue Impact, with much less enthusiasm.

      "We need to get into the old EMMARAC underground complex."

      There was a moment of silence. Stunned on the part of Gadgetive and Blue Impact; puzzled on the part of Energia.

      "The what, now?"

      "The EMMARAC family of computers was originally developed for military use in the early Fifties," said Gadgetive, showing off in front of her mentor. "Later versions were some of the first civilian research computers. They were ahead of their time in their capacity for cross-indexing and analysis, thanks to a brilliant combination of hardware and software."

      "Yes, but the EMMARAC complex was built under a mountain in the Rockies in the late Fifties," said Dr. Device. "It was later connected to NORAD's Cheyenne Mountain complex as it was being built, through what were then the longest underground conduits in the world. Its purpose was to analyze intelligence and provide the results to the Air Force brass, to help them make informed decisions."

      "Wait," said Gadgetive, startled. "I thought that was north of Cheyenne Mountain. We're south."

      "Which deception is deliberate."

      "Well, so what?" said Energia, still puzzled. "That's all old stuff. We have pocket calculators better than that now."

      "You might be surprised," said Dr. Device, dryly. "The complex was continually updated and expanded, right up to before it was closed in the early Seventies."

      "So there's something there which could help us with the Shilmek?" said Blue Impact, doing some cross-referencing of her own.

      "It contains data on the Shilmek which was never properly analyzed or archived. Because of a combination of the complex being mothballed and replaced by DARPANet's distributed computing network, and - ironically - a treaty with the Shilmek signed around the same time."

      "What sort of format is the data in?" said Gadgetive, frowning in intense thought.

      "That's where we got lucky. Just before the news came that the installation was being shut down they finished a project to convert their archives from aperture cards to computer tapes. You know about that ongoing project to recover data from old NASA magnetic tapes which were never properly analyzed? These tapes are the same format, which was state of the art at the time. The people doing the NASA work have already agreed to help us set up a copy of their outfit, using some of their spare equipment."

      "Oooooohhh..." said Gadgetive, eyes going wide and shiny. "Ampex FR-900 tape drives."

      She frowned. 

      "Wait. It might actually be easier to just use an automatic scanner and some custom software to get the data from the aperture cards."

      "Except the NASA guys already have the equipment and procedures to read and interpret the tapes. Oh, and the cards were supposedly destroyed. Even if they weren't, no-one seems to know where they are."

      "How's the resolution from the microfilm scans to tape?"

      "Excellent. This was one of the first uses of the then-new Kodak Hi-Resolution Digital Scanner. They didn't quite get down to the grain, but they came close."

      "Cool! Though that's going to be a lot of tape."

      "So the sooner we get started, the better."

       * * *

      The vehicle which brought the team here was the larger of the two transport apergy pods Gadgetive had built for Blue Impact. Though, actually, this one had been designed by her - as a graded project - then modified and built by her and a team of instructors and advanced students from the Pine Island Academy. It seated four comfortably, and had room for cargo in the back. Dr. Device's luggage was soon added to what the women had brought and they were off. 

      "I am really glad you have this," said Ike, from the right front seat, as they cruised through a large valley in the foothills of the Rockies. "They deliberately made the road impassible - in fact, it's not really recognizable as a road any more. I'm also glad you have stealth mode, and that it's on."

      "You seem happy," said Energia, looking at Gadgetive, seated to her left. 

      "Don't you just love technoarcheology?" said Gadgetive, who was working a terminal mounted on a swing-out arm. "Okay, all sensors online."

      "Okay," said Ike, looking at his PADD. "We need to look for a rock... Hang on, this has Bluetooth, right? I'll just feed the image to your console display."

      "Why not just give us the latitude and longitude?" said Energia. 

      "Those were very deliberately never recorded," said Ike. "Even these photos were taken from an angle which makes terrain matching from overhead difficult."

      "I think I see that saddle-shaped rock," said Blue Impact, pointing. "There!"

      "That could be it."

      They flew closer, Blue Impact approaching from an angle which corresponded to that in the photo.

      "Yes!" said Ike. "Okay, now there should be a branch to this valley to the left, just ahead."

      They soon came to an overhang, the back of which was in deep shadow.

      "That's it," said Ike, nodding, as Blue Impact guided them under the rock lip. 

      "That's not shadow," said Blue Impact, leaning forward a bit to peer, as they hovered. "Well, not all of it. Some kind of paint."

      "You better believe it's some kind of paint," said Ike, grinning, as he spoke with a slight exaggeration of his usual Ohio accent. "It's very similar to the iron ball paint they used on early stealth aircraft."

      Blue Impact made sure they were far enough inside, then turned the pod around and set down. 

      "What do we need to take?" she said, as she flipped switches.

      "I have a pack in the trunk with just about everything we should need," said Ike, climbing out as the canopy opened. "The rest of you just bring what you would usually bring on an underground expedition."

      "Plenty of experience with that," said Energia, sighing. "I'm a flyer. I work best with plenty of room to maneuver. Why do I keep winding up in tight quarters?"

      They retrieved their gear from the trunk - Ike putting on a black rucksack - and started walking deeper into the pocket.   

      At the rear of the hollow they found a large, round door in a massive frame, all coated in black, as was the surrounding rock. A control panel was mounted on the rock to the left of the frame, an armored conduit running from there under the door.

      "That's weird stuff," said Energia, raising a hand, palm towards the back of the hollow. "The paint, I mean. Just soaks up RF."

      "Okay, that shouldn't be a problem out here, but please don't do it again unless asked. That could trigger some very bad things."

      "Oh..." said Energia, startled, quickly lowering her hand. "Wait; why are we being so careful if this place was mothballed?"  

      "The installation was not completely shut down, but left on low idle," said Dr. Device. "In case it was needed again in a hurry. I've read through as much of the documentation as is available and spoken with most of the surviving staff. I think I have all the procedures. Those, however, assume the equipment still responds to the correct inputs. Aside from potential faults after all this time, the software and hardware were both adaptive and self-modifying."

      Instead of going to the obvious control panel, Ike went to the other side of the door. After a bit of prodding, a small section of rock swung open. 

      "This reminds me of mastermind work," said Blue Impact, peering over Ike's shoulder as he examined the keypad inside.

      "Much of it was. Some were ex-Nazi, even."

      "Yuck," said Energia.

      "Yeah, well, they had talent and experience. Not that US masterminds and gadgeteers didn't. Same problem we had with rocketry. A prophet is not without honor except in his own land. Even when the home-grown geniuses saved the day after the imported ones failed, guess who got the credit?

      "Okay, Gadgetive, I'm going to enter the code I was given," said Dr. Device. "Keep a close watch on what that door does."



Part Fourteen

      Beyond the open, armored door was a dark hallway. 

      "Keep lights off for now," said Ike, cautiously entering. "Gadgetive, I want you to move forward just three meters from the entrance; no further. Get out every passive sensor you have, put them on the longest probe you have and let me know what comes on with the lights."

      He moved to a slightly rusty circuit box - something which didn't appear to be original equipment, but added later - opened it and began flipping switches in a careful sequence.

      "Where's the power coming from?" said Blue Impact, looking up at the few, flickering fluorescent lights which now illuminated the short hallway.

      "Special fission pile," said Gadgetive, absently, distracted by her work. "They installed an ML-5 unit, one of just three put into service. Those are multiply sealed, guaranteed to run for at least a hundred years at full output with no maintenance. This unit was used at an average of about seventy percent for a little over a decade and has been idling since."

      "Okay, the floor, walls and ceiling are completely unmarked," said Blue Impact, peering around intently. "You had to just know where the danger zone was. Pretty impressive security."

      "Well, protégé?" said Dr. Device, expectantly. 

      "Okay, gamma curtain came on briefly but is now back off," said Gadgetive, waving a sensor probe. "No toxic gas. Field strength is barely above background, so there may be sensors on but nothing else is active."

      "Good. Let's proceed. Carefully."

      "You know I could tell you about the gamma," said Energia, bored.

      "Yeah, but the only way you could tell us about vesicants and similar contact toxics is by sticking your bare hand in," said Gadgetive, smirking. "Don't think you wanna do that."

      "Oh..." said Energia, weakly. 

      Ike used a simple switch on the inside wall beside the outer door to close it. They then proceeded to the next door. Like the first one, this had a keypad to the left of the frame. Unlike the first one, this keypad worked. Dr. Device entered the codes. There was a slight pause, a loud pop which made them start, and the door rolled to the right, rather than swinging open on hinges. Beyond was a basic security station, complete with desk and monitors.

      "At least there's no badgerbear," said Energia, looking warily around. 

      "I liked the badgerbear!" said Gadgetive. 

      "Someone went overboard on all this," said Energia, sourly. 

      "Oh, I agree," said Dr. Device, as he and Gadgetive examined the room beyond the door. "There was an infatuation with gimmickry in just about all the secure installations built during this era - here, in Great Britain, in Russia, just about everywhere. Took some folks getting locked out or in - or killed, in a few cases gruesomely - when the overly complicated automatic security systems malfed to persuade those in charge that a couple of well-trained guards were just as effective and more dependable."

      At the gadgeteers' okay, they moved across the linoleum floor of the security station stepped through a fairly mundane set of double doors into what appeared to be the lobby of an office building.

      "Should be safe from here until we get into the actual entrance to the computer room," said Ike, checking his notes. 

      "Okay, this looks like any secure government office," said Blue Impact, turning to peer carefully around the reception area. "Offices down the hallways left and right to the ends, and there's restrooms and the director's office past the receptionist's desk on the left. I assume the actual data processing equipment and all directly associated facilities are concealed, somehow."

      "Exactly right," said Dr. Device, smiling. 

      Ike walked over to the receptionist's desk, pushed the gold-plated pen to the horizontal, then swung it toward the blank wall to the right of the desk. The wall swung silently open.

      "Typical mastermind stuff," said Blue Impact. She gestured at the desk. "This is clever and cute and well made and the setup is obvious. Why a desk here? Because the designer wanted to use a desk set as a key. No other reason to have it. Anyone who gets past the security station either works here, will be escorted, or is attacking the place with a major force of arms. A receptionist isn't going to help - or hinder - any of them."

      "I believe you already know my opinion of such theatrics," said Ike. He shrugged. "However, I can still admire the workmanship."

      They moved through the door, past another empty guard station and on down the hall. This was open at the end, and soon they were standing in a large room full of silent machinery.

      "Looks like something from a Seventies spy movie," said Energia.

      "Where are the tapes?" said Blue Impact.

      "Okay, here's where my info breaks down," said Ike. "Only a handful of people were ever actually allowed in the section where the most secret materials and equipment were. I know there's a tape vault, somewhere beyond that door at the far end, and that's likely also where the hidden equipment is. Presumably, any security measures were in the operation of the equipment, rather than the access, but let's be on the alert, just in case."

      "The air is pretty fresh for a mothballed facility," said Blue Impact. "Hardly musty at all, and that's getting better."

      "Well, the power for the ventilation came on with the lights," said Ike. 

      A quick check of the doors at the far end of the room showed no security measures, not even a lock. 

      "I guess everyone in here was trusted with access," said Energia. 

      "Or knew not to go in here," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.

      "Just in case, let me go first," said Blue Impact. 

      She carefully pushed one of the doors open and stepped through, holding it for the others to see.

      "Okay, there are racks of old-fashioned reels of computer tapes on the left, and something connected to lots of cables and cooling pipes on the right."

      "Hey, Energia," said Gadgetive, catching her teammate's sleeve to emphasize the point. "Just a a reminder: No magnetic powers past here."

      "I know, I know..."

      Soon the entire quartet was standing in the final room of the complex. 

      "So. I see carts for moving tapes, but how do we know which ones to take?" said Energia. "There must be hundreds. Thousands, maybe."

      "There's an old fashioned card catalog cabinet over there," said Blue Impact, pointing. 

      While she and Energia moved to that, the two gadgeteers moved to the right. 

      "Do we look under Shilmek?" said Energia, puzzled, as she examined the labeled drawers.

      "Good place to start," said Blue Impact, opening a drawer. "I'll take this. You try some of the others. Anything reasonable you can think of."

      "What is this?" said Gadgetive, voice hushed, looking at the odd device in the tape room. 

      "The Cephalon Integrator!" said Dr. Device, after a few moments of convincing himself. "So that's what happened to it. Also, no wonder they wanted this sealed off."

      "Never heard of it," said Blue Impact, frowning at the implications in his tone as she searched through the cards.

      "It was built as project at Bletchley," said Dr. Device. "The last one, actually. Built by the biggest group of gadgeteers, masterminds and the best non-super brains they could corral together long enough to actually complete the job. Designed to counter those mad, desperate efforts at cyphers and AI the Germans came up with as the War and its aftermath were winding down. It officially never existed, and the official records show, unequivocally, that it was destroyed."

      "Wait," said Energia, looking up from her work. "It officially didn't exist, but it was officially destroyed."

      "Bureaucrats," said Blue Impact, rolling her eyes. "Ah, here; I think this is it. Shilmek: See Cultural Analysis, Shilmek."

      "That would be here," said Energia, pulling another drawer open. "Okay, found it. It gives three different ranges of letter and number codes."

      Blue Impact looked from the card Energia had found to see the others still entranced. 

      "If you two can stop geekgasming long enough, we need to find these tapes, load them into the flyer and get them where they need to be."

      "Sorry," said Ike, embarrassed.

      He and Gadgetive quickly joined the others, and together they loaded dozens of tapes onto the three carts.

      "All this could fit on a memory stick these days," muttered Gadgetive. 

      "There were more compact storage media, but they tended to be either irreproducible gadgeteer stuff or simply not practical." Dr. Device laughed. "Did you know that the Argus project's music box technology back in the Forties had a higher data storage capacity than anything commercially available until the late Seventies? However, the cams had to be hand filed. They got security clearance for a bunch of little old craftsmen - most of them immigrants, many of them Jews on the run from the Nazis - and had them working away for two years."

      With four of them working they finished quickly.

      "Is that all of them?" said Ike. 

      "I kept tally," said Blue Impact, nodding. "That's the lot."

      "What about the rest of these?" said Energia, gesturing at the huge amount of tapes remaining. 

      "Not our job," said Gadgetive. 

      "All of this stuff is still highly classified," said Ike. "We'd get in trouble just touching anything except what we were sent here for."

      They wheeled the carts - carefully - back through the rooms and corridors towards the entrance. However, as they entered the security room at the inner armored door, Energia became antsy.

      "Why are you so uneasy?" said Blue Impact.

      "Well, last time we did something like this we got ambushed on the way out."

      "What are the odds of it happening two times in a row?" said Gadgetive, over her shoulder. "Besides, this is a very different situation."

      "Oh, yes, very different," said Energia, rolling her eyes. "Last time we were on a secret mission to a long-abandoned, underground base on direct orders from the President. This time... Oh, wait! That's all the same!"

      "Hush," said Blue Impact, though she was grinning.

      "That's one I wish I could have been in on," said Ike. "I got to see the base later, but after it was cleaned out. I got to examine most of what they removed, but not in situ."

      Gadgetive began gushing about the Sanctum and their adventures there, until Ike recommended she hold that for later and currently focus on the here and now.

      "Do me a favor?" said Energia, turning to Gadgetive. "Create some sort of decoy we can send out ahead of us."

      "I really think that's unnecessary," said Dr. Device. "I can check the monitors here before we go out. Shouldn't be hard to get them working..."

      "Just... humor me."

      "Go ahead," said Blue Impact, to Gadgetive. "We are known for being sent on missions to guard valuable assets. Someone could have noticed us coming here and want to know what we're doing."

      Gadgetive and Dr. Device quickly assembled a holographic recorder and scanned the group pushing the carts. They then converted the recorder into a projector and mounted it on a small, self-propelled, tracked drone. 

      "Okay," said Ike, "here's the plan. We open the inner door, enter the tunnel, close the inner door behind us, move to the outer door. I'll switch everything off at the panel - which will include the lights - open the outer door and send the decoy out while we wait in the darkness. Once we're sure there's no welcoming committee, we push the carts out, seal the tunnel, load the flyer and leave."

      His tone and the exaggerated detail he used told them he didn't think much of Energia's concerns. However, they did just as he said. The outer door opened, they held still against the walls of the tunnel in the dark while the trolly moved out, presenting the illusion of them pushing the tape carts. The quartet was just about to relax when there was a yell of "Now!" and several figures lunged at the holographic decoy, from either side of the doorway. 

      "I knew it!" yelled Energia, shooting a beam of pure heat at Titanimal, as she flew out of the opening. "As soon as we exit the tunnel, an ambush!"

      Besides the metal-hided mercenary, the were five others: Roter Teufel (Red Devil), Kaiju (Strange Beast), Killjoy Chad, Drift and ComBatTive. Any four of them would normally have been a match for the four heroes. However, the latter very much had the element of surprise.

      "Fool!" shouted Titanimal, as he began to glow red. "Titanium can withstand great heat!"

      "Exactly," said Energia, using a force beam to hurl the very hot, very hard super into Kaiju. 

      Blue Impact hit Killjoy Chad with a flying double kick, knocking him into the rock wall of the pocket. Gadgetive and Dr. Device kept back, just outside the tunnel mouth, using various gadgets to attack other members of the ambushers. 

      Kaiju dodged easily, and quickly moved around behind Energia, making ready to throw something at her. He was nearly caught in a web Gadgetive launched at him. He managed to dodge that, and a blob of rapidly expanding adhesive foam courtesy of Dr. Device, but was grabbed by Blue Impact and thrown at Roter Teufel, the slowest of the attackers. 

      Drift was their stealth member; he was currently using his camouflage effect to try and sneak around Gadgetive and into the tunnel. Energia was busy hammering Titanimal against the sandstone. Another adhesive blob pasted Killjoy Chad to the wall well off the ground. Gadgetive's helmet sensors spotted Drift and she swung around and hit him with the now empty metal tube of her net launcher. 

      Within twelve seconds every bad guy in the pocket was very thoroughly subdued, most of them also being unconscious. 

      "Well, that went well," said Energia, smiling and dusting her hands together as she landed beside the flyer. 

      "Thanks to your caution," said Dr. Device, impressed. "How did you know?"

      "Oh, come on," said Energia, throwing her arms wide in exasperation. "It... That's what happens!"

      "There may be more of them," said Blue Impact. "If not immediately outside, then at their vehicle."

      She frowned, thinking hard. Then nodded. 

      "Okay. We load the tapes, and Dr. Device lifts off in the flyer while we watch for any more attacks. You hover well above and watch over us while we track down how they got here. We take care of anyone else. If it goes sour, you get out of here with the tapes and call for help."

      "I guess that works," said Dr. Device, also nodding. 

       * * *

      As things turned out, the attackers' vehicle was an ordinary SUV, which the tape retrievers found empty not far from the hollow. Once certain they had all the bad guys, they loaded them in their own vehicle and Blue Impact drove it back out to the nearby county road. They then called the Rocky Mountaineers - the nearest super team - to come fetch the captives. 

      "Look, I can fly back on my own if I have to," said Energia. "You three take the tapes, I'll wait for the Mountaineers, then ride with them to the nearest super holding facility and take care of the paperwork. I'll meet you at the lair when that's all done."

      "You sure you'll be all right out here on your own?" said Dr. Device.

      "Yes. Don't worry about me spilling the beans about the installation, either. I'll tell the Mountaineers and the feds we were on a covert mission and that these creeps ambushed us, nothing else. That'll be enough for the feds to hold these nimrods until Brade and her people can take care of them."

      "Use your com if you need us!" said Blue Impact.

      "Yes, mother," said Energia, laughing. 

       * * *

      The bitterly cold wind hurled ice particles at my face, howling like this was a deliberate attack. Given who and what I was here to see, that was actually a very good possibility. Finally, I reached the spot where I had previously spoken with Lord Bitterfrost.

      This time I was better prepared. I set the bottle of pepper vodka on top of a reasonably flat rock and packed snow around it, then broke out the glasses. When I looked up, he was already standing there. 

      "You dare return here?"

      "I know, you were cheated of your vengeance," I said, quickly. "That wasn't my fault. Here, I hope this small gift will help make things better between us."

      I poured the well below freezing pepper vodka into the glasses, hoping the fact that my glass had a bulge in the bottom to reduce its volume wasn't obvious. I'd inherited this set of trick glasses from Mack Risk, and they had always served him well.

      He scowled, but reached out, grabbed his glass and downed the contents with a gulp. I was closer this time than last, and I noticed two things: he was much larger than I had previously thought; he didn't spill a drop. 

      He started to say something, then looked startled. He stared at his glass, then at me, then at the bottle. He held out the glass. I promptly refilled it.

      "Those who destroyed the Five were scouts for the Shilmek," I said, as he again lifted his glass. This time he contemplated it before drinking, giving me a chance to not only speak but to take a sip from my own glass. "We believe - Whoah, that is good; I'll have to thank Sergei for his advice - they will return, in force, to attack the Earth. Probably within the next year."

      "Yessss," said Lord Bitterfrost. He drained his tumbler again, and this time set it back down. I, of course, quickly refilled it. "They cheated me out of my vengeance. They will serve as substitutes, with the Five Great Powers gone for now."

      He grabbed his tumbler and raised it high.

      "They shall know my wrath!" he shouted, to the trembling heavens.

       * * *

      John was waiting in the tracked vehicle on loan to us by the Russian Army. I staggered inside, quickly pulling the door shut behind me. The heater in this thing barely took the edge off, but I was definitely glad to be out of the wind. Despite the fact that I was wearing fur (my own) under my Arctic gear, I was shivering, numb and exhausted. 

      "How many bottles?" said John, grinning at me.

      "Less than half of one to get him to agree to fight the Shilmek," I said, through chattering teeth. "I gave him most of the rest. Though I did keep one for myself. That's pretty good stuff."

      He laughed, and started the engine. 

      "I know a quick way to get warm," he said, leering at me.

      "Libido frozen. Drive."



Part Fifteen

      "We have gadgeteer and mastermind inventions," said Dr. Device, chatting with Energia as he worked on the old computer tape drive. "We have things reverse-engineered from alien technology and gadgeteer and mastermind inventions. We have things developed through standard research... these are generally less effective but more reliable, and we have a lot more of them, since they're more easily reproducible. 

      "Ironically, many of Pine's inventions are being pumped out with little need for alteration. Though some are being updated."

      "The taught us at the Academy that his real genius was making advanced inventions which could be mass produced," said Energia, nodding. "That's how he made his fortune and equipped his henchmen."

      Ike was elbow deep in the ancient - on a modern technology timescale - tape drive given to them by the LOIRP folks. Despite the assurances of the people who supplied it, over the past three days it had run a total of twelve and a bit minutes. Ike thought he finally had the problem located and was in the process of correcting it.

      "I hope that does it," said Ike, shutting and latching the access panel. He stood, shoved his tools into his back pocket, and began pushing buttons. "They don't even make that type of synthetic rubber any more. If this doesn't work, I'll have to cook up a batch from scratch."

      As he powered on the device, Gadgetive and Blue Impact entered. 

      "Hey, finished already?" said Blue Impact.

      "Just loading the tape," said Ike, as he suited deed to word.

      "Just in time for my shift to end," said Energia. "Why do they still have us standing guard? They've got Marines outside!" 

      Only Blue Impact was supposed to be on duty now, but Energia didn't have to guess why Gadgetive was here. She smiled a bit at her friend's rapt expression, as Gadgetive watched her idol working. 

      "It's remotely possible someone figured out what we're doing," said Blue Impact, watching closely as Ike loaded a test reel. "The guys we captured still aren't talking, so we don't know how or why they ambushed us. If there was someone besides them involved, directing things, they could try again.

      "Also, the Shilmek probably have surveillance on terrestrial activities. How extensive that is, again, we don't know. They just might get wind of what we're doing here and, even if they don't think our little project will uncover any weakness of theirs, attack just as a precaution."

      "That seems to be working," said Ike, apparently oblivious to the conversation. "I'll run the entire test tape, compare what this thing scans to what I know is on there, and if there are no errors I'll check my brilliant improvisations for wear. If those substitute rubber wheels are holding up, we should be good to go."

      There was something entrancing about watching and listening to the old machine. Energia found herself staring at the seemingly erratic movements of the tape, and the blinking of the lights. She came back to normal awareness with a jerk.

      "I think that's my cue to hit the hay," said Energia. She surprised herself by yawing. "Uhm. Just five more days until I have to be back at school."

      "They should have someone here from the Bureau by then," said Blue Impact. 

      "Yeah," said Gadgetive, with a smirk. "The bureaucracy should have caught up with us volunteers by then."

      "Y'know, I want to defend the Earth, and the US, and even Tolnar," said Energia. "I just don't like being at the beck and call of politicians. Even someone I like. It just isn't the tradition."

      "It was definitely a tradition in World War II and a few smaller conflicts, up until that treaty," said Blue Impact. "Afterwards the government tried to continue controlling supers, and a few did officially go to work for the feds, some actually staying in the military. However, even during those wars I mentioned most supers - at least in the US and Great Britain - took orders from governments as suggestions."

      "They would go after the goals but in their own ways," said Ike, nodding. "Drove the brass crazy, but they got the job done more often than not. Jobs which would have been very problematic through any other means."

      Energia started to say something, but had to stop for another yawn.

      "Blah. Okay, bed, now. See you folks later."

       * * *

      I had never been in the Bay Area Guardians base before. My understandable aversion to costumed heroes made that unlikely. However, if I wanted to continue racking up brownie points with the Sievers administration I needed to do this. Whether those points would carry over to the next President, I had no idea. I sighed, and walked through the automatic doors into the foyer. 

      "Wilver Sare to see Tiger," I said, giving the name which fit the body I was currently wearing. 

      "Of course," said the guard. He gave me an apologetic smile. "I'll need to see a photo ID, please."

      There was nothing fake about the California driver's license I handed over. I have property - including a residence - in the state under that name, with a history going back over twenty years. However, it always amazed me that no-one in any bureaucracy had ever commented on the pun in the name. In fact, only a handful of people of any stripe seemed to catch on.

      I was about to meet with one of them. 

      The way their security worked, if you were on a valid visit to one of the team members, you received an escort from a security guard, there and back. If you were visiting one of the staff, that person came to meet you in the lobby. I wasn't sure of their exact reasoning - it seemed pretty elitist to me - but that was the procedure. Fortunately, Tiger arrived in short order. 

      "Hey, there, 'Will,'" he said, with a smirk. "Come on back to my office."

      There was something about Tiger - not just his inhuman, casual grace and easy strength, but his manner - which always made me a little uneasy. Perhaps it was my empathy heterodyning with his. All I knew was that being near him made me more alert, more cautious. This time was no exception. 

      Still, I felt far more at ease now than during most of my recent missions. As I sat in the offered chair in his office, I was physically comfortable and only a bit nervous.

      "All right," said Tiger, dropping into the chair behind his desk and leaning back. "What's going on?"

      My nervousness ramped up about threefold under that penetrating, predator's gaze, and I cleared my throat to gain a bit of time to compose myself.

      "President Sievers wants to know what your plans are if the Shilmek manage to get a strong presence on Earth long term," I told him, straight out. "Both you, personally, and what you think the other Gifted will do."

      "I'm staying," said Tiger, with a determination which was actually a bit intimidating. "If Chet were younger, he and Tal would go back home. However, he's old enough to handle himself. As for the others, I can't speak for them as individuals, but I know most of them consider this their home, and won't leave unless things get really, really bad."

      "That's encouraging," I said, nodding. "The President is counting on the supernaturals - especially the Gifted - to be able to apply talents the Shilmek know little or nothing about."

      I couldn't help but laugh. 

      "Hell, she doesn't know much about them."

      "So, how is old frost-face?" said Tiger, with a grin.

      I started; he shouldn't have known about my visit with Lord Bitterfrost. 

      "Uhm, sorry, not supposed to talk about that."

      "Sievers has been putting you through the ringer," said Tiger, more seriously. "You still gonna keep doing stuff for her?"

      "For as long as I agree with her plan," I said, stiffly. "She's doing a thorough and competent job of mobilizing the US against the Shilmek, and of persuading other nations to do likewise."

      Tiger nodded, seeming satisfied. Then, unexpectedly, he laughed. 

      "Sometimes the Five Great Powers seem more like sacrificial anodes than world conquerors," said Tiger, with a smirk. 

      I wasn't sure what the term meant, but got the gist. 

      "They do seem to draw fire, or bring things to a head," I admitted. "Overall, though, I'd say the harm they do in the process is far worse than any benefit."

      "You realize that you and I are among those most likely to still be around when they reincarnate and try again, right? They also have reason to take revenge against both of us, too. The moreso since most of those who thwarted them this time will be dead or not worth the bother by then."

      "I... hadn't thought of that."

      "I'm surprised. You're pretty good at long-term planning. This should be part of that."

      I was confused, almost dizzy. His manner kept changing with his vocabulary, going from amused, to disdainful, to concerned, to angry, and on and on. I didn't know if he was doing it deliberately. He knew about my receptive empathy, but wasn't using his projective empathy to influence me, as he would have been if he were trying to achieve some goal. Maybe I was simply feeling the true gamut of emotions he was feeling as we covered these topics. 

      "Well, if there's nothing else, I need to be on my way," I said, rising. 

      "Sure," said Tiger, smiling in an amiable way. "I'll show you out."

       * * *

      "I hear you had some excitement over Spring break," said Vic, as she helped Energia carry her luggage into her room. 

      "Does everyone on Earth know about my secret mission?!" said Energia, exasperated. "Oh, I'm not upset over folks finding out about it. If I had my way most of the stuff I've done for the government would be front page news. I'm just surprised, because our government seems to think it's all still under wraps. Despite a crew of bad guys tracking us and attacking us."

      "Well, the details of what, where and why are still not known, beyond a lot of guessing," said Vic, trying to reassure her. "Just that your team was involved in some hush-hush operation under the direct orders of the President! Also, that you got attacked while you were busy with it."

      "Great," muttered Energia. "I have complained repeatedly about how this emergency means we have to work for the feds instead of independently, as Masks should. Now I'm becoming known as a tool of the feds."

      She suddenly remembered who she was talking to and looked over guiltily at Vic.

      "Sorry. I didn't mean any of you in the Bureau of Special Resources. I like Doro and went to school a few years behind Ray. Since we're both energy manipulators we worked together a lot. He's a nice guy. I like Brade, too. I meant working for... well, the government. If that makes any sense."

      "It does, actually," said Vic, nodding slowly. "The Bureau is a federal agency, but it's for supers and run by supers. That makes it a lot more reassuring than the majority of federal agencies."

       * * *

      I had one more errand to perform while in the area. This one was personal, and probably more dangerous than anything I'd done for the President. Not to mention more distasteful.

      I needed three days and multiple appointments to get in to see my target. Who didn't recognize me. 

      "Now, then, Mr. Ware," said Mr. N. Tagu. He seemed more intrigued than irritated, so my tactic of presenting a mystery he would wish to personally unwrap had worked. "What is it you had to see me, personally, about."

      "I propose a trade," I said, pulling a sheaf of papers from my case. "Here is what I'm offering."

      I expected him to twig, then, but though he was obviously impressed with the deed and supporting papers, he still had no clue as to my identity. However, his facade was broken, and he was actually shivering with unholy glee. 

      "How... How did you get this?!"

      "Doesn't matter. You can have it, in return for one thing."

      "What is that?" he said, suddenly suspicious. 

      I shifted into my base form. 

      "You leave me and mine alone, in perpetuity."

      I have never seen a man more stunned. Which baffled me. He wasn't any of the Dr. Gaunts I had encountered before, but I knew he had examined each of my encounters with them in detail. That is the way of the mastermind. I also knew someone had very carefully checked into my background and the backgrounds of several of my alternate identities, and the backgrounds of several friends, associates and even some acquaintances. 

      Quickly, a mask came back into place.

      "I need more than this paper. Where did this come from?"

      "After your property was seized for back taxes it was auctioned off. The biggest chunk - the one you most coveted - wound up being bought by an agent of Ernest Wold. As it turned out, that string of events was deliberately and carefully engineered by Wold."

      "Yes, yes, I know that. I also know the previous head of the family wound up being one of the Five Great Powers. That doesn't tell me how you got it!"

      "When I learned that Louis Carstairs was one of the Five I set certain plans in motion. When the Five were killed, I focused on three of those plans. I took advantage of the fact that none of his underlings knew he was one of the Five, or that he was dead. They were off balance, wondering where their boss was, and I was prepared. I had to cash in a lot of my assets - including favors - but I wound up owning a huge chunk of the Wold family business. I knew from past events that they couldn't stand that. So when they approached me with an offer, I made a counter-offer they couldn't refuse. All my stock in return for title to that property, plus some cash."

      "Very clever," said Gaunt, nodding. 

      This Gaunt - which I had a pretty good feeling was the real one, if such a concept applies to things like him - looked like a sharp businessman in late middle age. He bore a resemblance to all the previous Gaunts I had encountered, most strongly to the one I shot in the Rockies. I just hoped he wasn't taking that action too personally.

      "That is a scheme worthy of my own genius," said Gaunt, beaming nastily. I managed to cover the nausea generated by that compliment. "However, what is to keep me from suborning or simply killing you, and taking what is mine without making a bargain?"

      "Do you honestly think," I said, looking him in the eye, "that I didn't take precautions?"

      He nodded slowly, looking very thoughtful. 

      "As for the deal," I continued, before he could second-guess his initial evaluation, "unless one of us is very unlucky, this feud between us could last centuries. Do your really want that?"

      He scowled, his gaze going distant for a moment. 

      "No. One eternal feud is quite enough, thank you."

      He shook himself. Then smiled, stood and extended his hand. It took all my will power to meet his grip. 

      "No bargaining, no haggling?" I said, as we shook. 

      "You are getting what is important to you. I am getting what is important to me. Now, let's get the paperwork done. I want to go see my land, and I know you want to get out of here."



Part Sixteen

      Vic heard the elevator doors open and immediately sensed a change in the mood in the lounge. She looked up to see one of the school's upper managers escorting tiny, unmistakable figure. 

      "Runner!" Energia shouted, happily. She immediately flew over, landing just in front of the new arrivals. "It's so good to see you again!"

      "Thank you for the welcome," said the Bluegrass Elf, smiling, as they briefly hugged. "However, I'm actually here to talk with Vic. I'm a consultant in her case, and have some information for her."

      Vic was already standing behind Energia, having guessed what was behind the visit.

      "Okay, sure. Where do you want to talk?"

      "Someplace private, which you are comfortable with. 

      Within minutes they were at one of the picnic tables near the defunct athletic area.

      "Interesting choice," said Runner, smiling as she looked around. "I like it, though. Lots of fresh air."

      "It's a habit from when the school was bugged by Rokuro's cronies," said Vic. "I just pick a different table each time, then do a quick bug check. If we keep our voices down no-one can get close enough to hear us, even with a shotgun mic. If we keep our heads together no-one can lip read us."

      Dr. Freysdottir laughed. Then, while Vic did the bug check, cast a couple of spells. 

      "Just applying my own security methods," she replied, with an impish grin, when Vic looked at her, puzzled. 

      They dusted off the benches opposite each other, and sat. 

      "I was talking with my grandfather about you," said Runner. "There was something about you - your current appearance, your abilities - which seemed mythic, so I figured someone who lived through the entire mythic age might be able to help me."

      "Buh?!" said Vic, mind reeling at the thought of how old that elf must be. 

      "We did a mind touch and I gave him my impression of you. He promptly responded with one of his own. According to him, you're the spitting image - in multiple ways - of several Amazons he knew."

      "Wait, hold it," said Vic, head still spinning. "I thought the Amazons had big noses, and..."

      "The ancient Greeks drew everyone that way," said Dr. Freysdottir, with a dismissive wave of her hand. "Anyway, in some myths the Amazons were the daughters of Zeus and a sea nymph. What few know is that the 'nymph' was actually one of the few survivors of Atlantis. She was lucky - and skilled - enough to escape when their formidable dikes collapsed in that earthquake and the sea flooded their island."

      "I'm an Amazon?!"

      "Not... exactly. That was as much cultural as genetic. The Mother of the Amazons was a mortal woman who was a member of an elite warrior caste. Her offspring by Zeus were demigods, as were the next two or three generations. She taught them how to fight. She also brought into the culture they founded much of the militant attitude of the Atlanteans, only she emphasized the role of women. After the Amazons were dispersed, some of her descendants later founded the Scythians, who were famous for their warrior women."

      "Huh..." was all Vic could say. She gave her head a vigorous shake. "So... What does this mean?"

      "Probably nothing except that you're the recreation of an ancient lost genetic stock. The fact that it's Atlantean on one side and Olympian on the other explains why it appears 'perfect.'"

      "So... I'm not a demigoddess?"

      "Oh, heavens, no." She frowned. "At least, I don't think so. Well... in a sense. Your regeneration will keep you youthful and healthy until something kills you. That sorta fits the definition."

      "You're not being very clear," said Vic, irritated. She recalled Trujillo's opinions about the elf and her goals.

      "I guess it depends on your definition," said Dr. Freysdottir, shrugging. "You don't meet the classical definition: the offspring of a god and a mortal. You just have some of the same characteristics."

      "Okay," said Vic, mostly satisfied.

       * * *

      "What are you looking so thoughtful about?" said Energia, when Vic entered the lounge area. "Runner must have told you something verrrrry interesting."

      "You first," said Vic.

      "I asked first," said Energia, with an impish grin. 

      Vic laughed, then sighed, then related what she had just learned. 

      "Interesting, indeed. I remember her - Dr. Freysdottir's - lecture on various types of monsters from prehistory."

      Energia frowned. 

      "I think she even included the Amazons in that."

      "You mean Vic's a monster?" said Alex, in mock alarm.

      "Very funny, squirt."

      "Well, in a sense. The ancient Greek sense."

      "Okay, I've shown you mine," said Vic, with a smirk. "Show me yours."

      "Wait, what?!" said Alex, looking around. "Who's showing what? Did I miss it?"

      "We were talking about the wannabes," said Energia. "You know; the kids who think this is a super hero school, and dress and act like stereotypical comic book heroes."

      "What about them?"

      "Well, I knew a lot of kids at Pine Island - me included - who wanted to be heroes. None of them acted like that. I think it's because nearly every student there who wanted to get into the business, already knew something about it. Most of the students were legacies, with family who are Masks. So even though they're almost all younger than the wannabes they have a better idea of what being a costumed adventurer entails."

      "That is interesting," said Vic, nodding thoughtfully. "Very interesting."

       * * *

      "Well, the data from those old tapes actually proved useful," said General Harvest, looking pleased, perhaps even cheerful. "Based on it, our psyche warfare boys say that - given what we know about the current situation in the Empire from the most recent refugee arrivals - the usurpers are just barely holding on. Better, they think they're solidly in control. If we can stall their attack, delay them in even half their objectives - Her Highness being the most important - for a day or two, they will find themselves with multiple counter-revolutions back home."

      "Are you sure about that timeline?" said the President, startled. 

      She wasn't the only one. Nearly everyone participating in the briefing - whether actually in the Situation Room or by teleconference - was surprised. 

      "The Shilmek default attack is to swarm in with what they think is overwhelming force. If it is, they declare victory and move on to the next phase of their operation. On those few occasions when it wasn't, they had to retrench and reorganize. This in spite of having backup plans in place. Psychologically, they're so used to hard but quick fights resulting in victory that their force makeup and their training - even their equipment designs - just aren't good for long campaigns. In this case, such a show of weakness will cause both supporters of the previous regime and those in the new order who think they can do better than the current bunch of rulers to start operations against them."

      There was a subdued murmuring among the participants. 

      "That's... very encouraging," said Sievers, leaning forward. She thought for a moment. "How should that affect our defense plans?"

      "Very little. All along we've planned to resist a sudden, lightning attack, then slug it out long-term against any forces which gain a foothold."

      "Well," said Sievers, actually allowing herself to feel relieved. "This is the best news we've had in a long time. Thank you, General."

      "It's good news, all right," he said, sobering. "However, we still have to hold them off long enough for the results of our predictions to come true."

      "Is there any update on what the psych experts - including Tolnar's - say the usurper's goals here will be?" said Vice President Sargent.

      "They still expect a combination of a snatch and grab of Tolnar and anyone else in the imperial family they can get," said the General, "plus a punitive attack on us for harboring her. Likely targets would be military and civic centers, civil government facilities, infrastructure and specific icons of our civilization."

      "Not good," said the President, with a tired sigh. "However, with all the experience we've had performing infrastructure repair and reconstruction, lately, even if they succeed in those goals we could probably be back in operation in weeks, and fully recovered in a few years. Especially with the provisions we've made for dispersed government."

      She gave them a fierce smile.

      "Still, let's plan to win, shall we?"

       * * *

      The Council of Liberation, current rulers of the Twenty-Seven Worlds, consisted of four men and two women. Head of the Council was Reddan, First Among Equals. Currently speaking, though, was Chief of Materials Bolreg. 

      "The building of the new technology ships continues on schedule," he announced. "By the end of the quarter we will have enough for two standard task forces, in both total number and makeup."

      "Excellent," said Reddan, smiling. He turned to Chief of Security Gelthura. "How goes our intelligence gathering?"

      "Currently at a very low level, as ordered," she replied. "Only passive measures are being used. However, these are delivering a surprising amount of data. They are remarkably careless. The only problem is that their fiction floods the bands, and sometimes sorting the truth from it is difficult. That capability, however, improves steadily."

      "Again, excellent. Are the active measures ready to initiate?"

      "Yes. At your command we can have sixty-seven Class I covert surveillance ships in place within hours."

      Reddan nodded, and stood, moving to the large holographic display on the rear wall. He contemplated the map of the Empire which this currently showed for a long moment, reveling inside at his power. Then, abruptly, he spun around to again face them. 

      "The time has come to determine what we do with Tolnar," said Reddan. 

      "Kill her, of course," said Shulept, hotly.

      "That risks making her a martyr," said Bolreg, calmly but firmly.

      "As long as she lives she could form a rallying point for those who do not accept our rule," said Shulept, glaring at him. "Since she is far more competent than the rabble who would hold her to be a martyr, the choice is obvious."

      "If we can take her prisoner..." said Reddan, thoughtfully. 

      "She would still pose a danger!" said Shulept.

      "You let your envy of her cloud your judgement," said Bolreg.

      "Taltep, you have been very quiet," said Reddan, looking at their oldest member. His tone was slightly provoking, as if he meant to prod the man into speech. "Surely you have something to contribute. Especially on the topic of Tolnar. We all know it was on her parents' orders that your parents were arrested and reconditioned, their project destroyed. It was only their efforts to destroy their records which kept her from learning you existed, fostered to a friend. What do you say, Taltep?" 

      "Why stop at twenty-seven?"

      That created a stir.

      "Think about it," Taltep continued, leaning back a bit and looking into the distance. "For three generations our Empire has been stagnant, thanks to Tolnar and her parents. Long enough that some even call us the Empire of the Twenty-Seven Worlds, as if that is all we will ever have. The excuse was that we were consolidating, developing. They held back on building the advanced ships, they held back on expanding... I think it's time to resume growth, just as we resumed work on those ships. Where better to start than with our ancestral home?"

      "Yes," said Reddan, a smile spreading slowly over his face. "We annex Earth, then revoke Tolnar's sanctuary as its proper rulers..."

      "All legal and proper," said Taltep, smiling.



      End



      This document is Copyright 2012 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net