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Masks XV: It's War!


by


Rodford Edmiston










Part One

      "Some things carry over," Randy muttered, as he examined his bruises in the bathroom mirror. "This would be one of them."

      In a very real sense, they were actually Template's bruises.

      One of the newer students - sent to the island as part of the deal to keep problem super juveniles out of trouble - had gone off. Not only had he blown up very suddenly over something trivial, he had proven unexpectedly powerful and intractable. Template, Eagle and two of the students had managed to - finally - hold him long enough for Eve to turn his mind off. When he awoke in the infirmary - under neutralizers - he didn't know why he was there. Dr. Nief was trying to determine what neurological switch had been flipped. Template had been told to take the rest of the day off. Which she decided to use running some errands on the mainland as Randy.

      Randy sighed and stretched as he entered the shower. These days, he was Template more than Randy. If he hadn't retired the Revolutionary he might even be spending more time as her than himself.

      Myself, he thought, as he washed. Why is that pronoun so complicated for me?

      Thinking things through on the long flight back to the island - arriving after dark and clearing himself through security as Randy - he decided Template needed to up her training.

      Not that I'm completely out of practice, he decided, as he washed. However, that kid was a lot more trouble than he should have been. With a possible alien invasion coming up, I better make sure I'm ready. Of course, that means spending even more time as Template.

      Randy turned right when he left the bathroom, to check on Roy. He was old enough now to sleep in his crib in his own room. The toddler was sleeping soundly, and the baby monitor was working. Randy left as quietly as he had arrived and went the other way down the hall, to his and Karen's room.

      "It's about time," she said, as he walked towards her.

      Randy sank into bed beside his wife with a sincere groan.

      "What am I doing, Karen?" said Randy, after laying there a few moments, staring at the ceiling. "I never wanted any of this. I didn't want to be a costumed hero. I didn't want to be a woman. Now I'm helping a school for supers prepare for an alien attack."

      "Is it really that bad?" said Karen.

      "The likelihood of an attack? Yeah. And if it comes, it'll be bad. Maybe very bad."

      "We've been so busy in the Intrepids with crime fighting the past few weeks that I wasn't really paying much attention. Though, thinking about some of the things we've done to the base, lately, I'm pretty sure Black Mask and Bowman and the civilian staff have."

      "Lots of upgrades?"

      "Not even sure what all of it is."

      "I'm glad of that," said Randy, rolling over to kiss her. "Your headquarters will almost certainly be a target."

      "Yeah..." said Karen, quietly.

       * * *

      Paula sat up in bed, yawning and stretching. Her partner lay beside her, apparently still out. She and Susan were both sleeping a lot these days, presumably due to their bodies adjusting to their new status. Paula sighed, slipped out from under the covers and headed for the shower.

      Once the bathroom door was closed she flipped on the light and undressed. Susan had finally persuaded her into using actual women's sleepwear, rather than her preferred panties and t-shirt. She caught sight of her nude reflection and paused, examining herself. Her evaluation could be summed in a single word.

      Idiot.

      She, Penardwen and Susan had been so caught up in finally getting rid of Paula's "passenger" - and she and Susan had been enthralled at the prospect of gaining personal power, she had to admit - they forgot she wanted to be turned back to male.

      As Champion she had been extremely striking, and in a good way. While Penardwen had occupied her she had still looked impressive - about as much as she had as Paul, with his "retirement benefits." However, now she looked pretty ordinary. Well, ordinary for a non-super woman who kept herself in good shape. Hardly an different from the majority of female security personnel here.

      There was actually much more to her than that, but it just didn't show.

      Paula sighed and turned the water on.

       * * *

      The late Fall morning had dawned unusually warm and sunny, though you couldn't tell that from where Brade currently stood.

      Smoking had been prohibited in here for decades, but the windowless conference room deep in the bowels of the Pentagon still vaguely stank of cigarettes, cigars and various blends of pipe tobacco. Brade found herself feeling glad the structure had been built well after tobacco chewing went out of fashion for members of the US military.

      This staff meeting with an elite group of military planners was going to be tough. On her and them. Brade guessed that was why the job had been passed to her. The official reason was that as an experienced super holding a significant position in the administration she could make a better presentation of this subject than anyone else. Looking at her audience, she wondered if anyone could make an impression on these people. Even the few women present were eyeing her with a mixture of distaste and distrust, if not outright hostility. These were the people charged with implementing the orders from on high. They developed "Here's the task." into detailed plans. Currently, they weren't doing their job. The main reason seemed to be that they simply didn't take the threat of low-level supers operating as military troops seriously.

      She walked to the head of the table, looked at her seat and decided to stand. This was more than to simply use her size against the array of officers in the room. Her chair was the wrong height and not all that sturdy. Since it was different from every other chair in the room she assumed the selection was deliberate. Well, that sort of petty reaction wasn't unusual for adults suddenly confronted with someone from outside their profession who was supposed to tell them how to do their jobs. These men and women considered themselves experts. They resented having an outsider - especially someone appointed by a President they didn't like - coming in to tell them how to do their jobs. They were not only unwilling to listen, but determined to be actively antagonistic.

      Fortunately, Brade was a retired teacher...

      "Good morning," said Brade, with more cheer than she felt. "No need for introductions; you know who I am and I know who you are, and we don't have a lot of time."

      That lack was their fault; they had given her just an hour of their precious time, and even that only at the insistence of the President and the Secretary of Defense.

      "We don't need any help killing rogue supers," said one of the older men. "Not even aliens. We have weapons which can kill tanks. No super can stand up to that."

      He sneered at her. Actually sneered.

      "Not even you."

      Brade lifted the remote for the screen at the other end of the room and pushed a button. The screen came to life.

      "It's interesting you mention tanks," she said, mildly, as grainy, black and white images began to show. "Ever hear of Gunboat McClain?"

      "Who?" said the general who had just spoken, in a tone which implied he didn't really care.

      "A low-level super - though that term was not in used then - who was in the US Army early in the previous century. During a battle late in World War I he and his team destroyed eighteen German tanks using a modified Davis Gun. Some of that was recorded on film. See?"

      Without giving them time to protest or even ask questions, Brade presented example after example of supers who had fought in wars. She had chosen those with the best combination of impressive results and good documentation. Photos were good for her purpose; movies much better. She showed them what happened when the Japanese super Wind of Death helped the 17th Imperial Army, 41st Infantry Regiment attack Tutuila, Samoa, in July, 1942. They were only driven off when a crew on one of the 6 inch guns recently installed for harbor defense got a direct hit on Wind of Death. The body was still mostly intact when the defenders found it, as shown in a US Army film, documenting the event. Brade doubted any here had heard of this event, even though it was declassified in the Nineties. She only knew about this - and some of the other examples she was using - thanks to interviewing veteran supers.

      Then there was the nameless Communist super in Korea, who had helped turn back MacArthur's troops at the Chinese border. They still didn't know even his nationality. The current regime in North Korea claimed he was a product of their superior genetic science, and that they had thousands of such men. The Chinese stated with quiet firmness that he was a famous Hero of the Revolution, who preferred to remain anonymous but to this day was ready to defend his nation. The UN claimed he had been killed at Chosin, the body blown to pieces by vindictive soldiers just before the withdrawal.

      Over and over, Brade demonstrated how a single super had turned or nearly turned the tide of battle. She had only two examples with more than one super being involved in a fight, but both of those were an order of magnitude more convincing than the individual examples. Fortunately for the world, both of those instances had involved supers on the side of the angels: One involved the Shepherds and some of their allies in Berlin at the end of the Second World War, and a few of the same supers and others against the military forces of the Five Great Powers. By the end of the hour the military planners were devastated, most of them not bothering to hide this.

      "Now, consider that the Shilmek will be attacking with tens of thousands of trained, veteran troops who are the rough equivalent of most of the supers I just showed you. Consider further that their elite troops are roughly ten times as powerful as that. Finally, keep in mind that Shilmek Super Elites of the Tolshik line - such as Tolnar - are nearly ten times as powerful as even those. While all of the Super Elites and some of the Elites who survived the purge are either here or otherwise not participating in the current regime's battle plans, there are rumors that some of the usurpers have similar abilities.

      "In a way, the treaty prohibiting the use of supers in military actions has hurt us. There are only a relative handful of examples where known supers actually fought in wars. In most of those cases, things did not go well for those they fought against."

      Brade shut down her presentation and walked out. She didn't try to tell them what they needed to do. They already had their orders, and if they had learned her point they would very quickly get to work fulfilling them. If not, someone else would have to convince them to take this seriously. She just hoped it wouldn't be Earth's conquerors.

       * * *

      They finished their practice session, then spent a few minutes resting, just watching the Earth pass under their medium-high orbit. Well, Energia rested. Zeep couldn't actually get tired.

      "You're unusually quiet."

      Energia sighed.

      "This could be a very big deal, coming up," she said.

      She wasn't actually speaking aloud. She had the radio in her space suit turned off to avoid distractions. Zeep could tell her if she got a message important enough to interrupt their training. So far that had never happened.

      The disembodied creature of pure force was quiet for several seconds. A very long time to something which literally thought over a hundred thousand times as fast as a mere human.

      "The agreement between myself and several governments only keeps me away from those nations if I obey it," he said, finally.

      Zeep rarely bothered producing a holographic avatar when working with Energia. She was one of the few humans who could sense him directly. Just now she could tell he was examining her closely.

      "You're going to be 'way out in space, intercepting the Shilmek before they get close," said Energia.

      "You know how to produce hyperspatial effects, now. If you need help, just call me. I will arrive at the speed of light."

      One of the ironies of Zeep was that while he could sense and generate FTL effects, he could not travel by them. His structure simply was not amenable to that, at least without being inside a large FTL craft. Though a true creature of the cosmos, under his own power he was limited to the Solar System unless he wanted to spend years in transit.

      "You'll be fighting them out in space, far from Earth," said Energia, firmly. "My troubles won't be important enough to take you away from that."

      "I suspect you will be very much in the thick of things," said Zeep, amusement in his communication. "If you are in enough trouble to need help, all Earth will likely need help."

       * * *

      Paula's workout sessions these days were very different from what they had ever been before. Her "retirement" form - as both Paul and Paula - had been pretty much right at the human limit for everything. Now Paula was distinctly above average, but not quite as good as before, except at Endurance. That, for whatever reason, was even better. She could keep going - full out - for as long as she wanted, never feeling more than somewhat tired. However, training for more than about an hour provided no added benefit that anyone could detect. She usually limited herself to that sixty minutes.

      This was the vitality she and Susan kept feeling. A vitality which could be focused to perform whatever task they wished. Hypothetically. So far, Paula had only managed to occasionally boost her strength. Susan had made more progress in that respect, actually causing overt power effects.

      Paula sighed at that thought, and slowed the treadmill. Time to cool down and clean up for work. One advantage of being less impressive was that she attracted less attention, from women as well as men. Her using the women's showers hardly garnered any notice, now.

Part Two

      The next day saw Brade attending yet another meeting. Though it served the same purpose as yesterday's, the setting and attendees could hardly have been more different.

      "I really wish sleep were optional," said Brade, tiredly, as she sat down with yet another team of people doing research into how to find, activate and train more supers.

      At least this room smelled a lot better than the one at the Pentagon. It also had plenty of natural lighting, through windows in one wall, pleasantly tinted by surrounding trees and shrubs. Beyond those was the campus of a prestigious university, the students walking by oblivious to the serious meeting on the other side of the double-paned glass.

      This group was composed of members of the Proactive Society. They normally didn't involve themselves with military matters, but this was for the defense of the entire planet. Their help was very welcome. Not only was the group largely composed of brains, masterminds and gadgeteers who all had a healthy dose of enlightened self interest, they had other resources to call upon. Far from the least important of these was their list of contacts.

      "In that case," said the head of the PS group, who insisted on being called Joe. "We'll get right to it. I believe Charlie has something he wants to cover."

      "This is really interesting," said Charlie, tall and lean and excitable. Currently happily excitable. "You know the Brayton Research treatment which can awaken latent powers? Turns out it and the Jennings Process do the same thing by different means."

      "Wait," said Brade, startled, "I thought the Jennings Process gave powers to people who weren't genetic supers."

      "No. That was the assumption at the time; that it empowered people. T.O.W.E.R. stopped using it before modern genetics found out what actually is responsible for natural powers. Later researchers obtained DNA samples for Power House, Sonic Shock, Wingman, Cassandra and several others, and they're all genetic supers. It's likely every other person previously thought to be empowered by the Jennings process is, as well.

      "Turns out both processes encourage demethylation of DNA. This removes suppressive methyl groups from the cytosine molecules in the chromosomes, flipping the epigenetic switches on for those genes. The Jennings treatment isn't very selective. That's why so many who took it died very gruesomely. The Brayton treatment is more conservative, and therefore much safer. It produces supers less often and they're typically less powerful, but since nearly all of them are healthy the result is actually a larger number of useful supers."

      "How does this help us?" said Brade.

      "Turns out, by combining all this data we learned there are powers gene complexes not previously associated with powers. We should be able to selectively activate those, now."

      "We knew various traumas could do that, already," said Dave, speaking for the first time since the introductions. A large, heavyset man, he seemed almost as excited as Charlie, if less cheerful.

      "Yeah, but this tells us why, at least in about a third of the cases. Maybe more, as research continues. Also, once that gene complex is activated, it may stay activated when passed on to offspring."

      "That explains why so many active supers have active super children!" said Brade, in sudden revelation. "Especially if both parents are active supers!"

      "Exactly! Epigenetic changes can be heritable, at least for one generation. Anyway, even if this switch is latent, it is there from conception."

      "Tell me this provides a safe and effective way to identify latent supers previously missed, and turn their powers on," said Brade, eagerly.

      "That's exactly what it does."

       * * *

      Vice-President Sargent was shocked when he heard the announcement of the new method for detecting and producing supers at Brade's White House briefing a few days later. He was even more distressed at the enthusiastic reaction of the President and most of her advisors.

      She's going to flood the planet with them! he thought. Even if we win against the aliens, how do we not lose against the supers?!

       * * *

      Energia smiled as she cleared security and was allowed to fly over the island. She loved this place. Not just for the memories, though those were definitely important. The place was just flat beautiful.

      She quickly realized she needed to focus. The air was full of flying people and craft, as busy as she had ever seen it. She stayed in her assigned corridor, which led directly to Pine's old mountain base. As she approached the main entrance she saw several familiar figures already there, waiting outside in the sun and fresh air. She headed towards two of them.

      Energia landed with an unconscious grace a few strides away from the small gathering and walked over to join them.

      "Hi. I'm not late, am I?"

      "No, we're just chatting," said Blue Impact. "Now that you're here, though, I can tell you the purpose of this meeting: We three will not be working together for the Shilmek attack."

      "Aw, c'mon!" said Energia, stunned. "We are a great team!"

      "That we are. However, the brains have determined that with our experience we would be better used as leaders of teams of supers with little or no experience."

      "But I wanted us to work together!" said Energia, almost pouting. "I planned on us working together!"

      "'If you want to make God laugh, tell Him your plans...'" said Gadgetive, sourly. "I can see their point, though. This will be less a few boss fights - for which you need concentrations of effective and experienced supers - than lots of skirmishes with low-level supers with some large scale actions against ships and landing sites."

      "What if we just decide to work together and forget their plans?" said Energia, sounding rather surly.

      "I'm already committed," said Blue Impact, firmly. "Now, come on. Let's go in and get our assignments."

       * * *

      Energia put on her "work" face as they walked into the base. However, her distraction over the change in plans did not keep her from noticing something.

      "Why the look of evaluation?" said Energia, glancing at her friend. "Did I say something wrong?"

      "Huh? No. I was just noticing something. When you landed."

      "What?"

      "Sometimes you just drop right down and stop where you need to be. Sometimes you land with a bit of forward velocity and keep moving, turning flying into walking. Why?"

      "I've noticed that some people who aren't used to working with flyers get unnerved if I just land right beside them," said Energia, with a shrug.

      "Ah! That explains it!"

      Gadgetive's expression became distant as they continued to walk; obviously, she was distracted by this revelation. Energia was actually a bit annoyed. She was intending to continue, talking about how sometimes she just felt like doing one or the other, how sometimes she actually wanted to intimidate someone by landing silently beside them, and so on. She was sure that later - not today, probably not tomorrow, eventually and inevitably - the gadgeteer would point out an "inconsistency" in the way she landed, and when Energia explained Gadgetive would complain about how she kept changing things.

      The young super sighed. Then impishly lifted her feet just barely clear of the ground, rotated horizontal and began flying along at about head height, after Gadgetive.

       * * *

      Paula found the therapy sessions with Dr. Piano, Sharma and occasionally others very helpful in dealing with her new situation, but they left a lot to be desired in other areas. This was surprising, since they delivered a mixture of mystic knowledge, training in basic magic - both spellcraft and willworking - and plain old psychotherapy. Paula wasn't depressed - not in the clinical meaning, anyway - and so far was having no luck with deliberately manipulating the magic they assured her she now contained.

      She attended most of these with Susan, but this session was for Paula only. She suspected that Dr. Piano had important news about her current gender manifestation, which he had been studying for months.

      "You have a choice to make," said Dr. Piano, seriously, after satisfy himself they were all settled comfortably in their seats. "If you allow all the magic in your system to be dissipated - which could kill you, though I think with Dr. Freysdottir's help we can do this safely - then you will return to your original male form. I do mean original, without the 'retirement benefits' Atana gave you. Or, you can chose to remain empowered, and have your default form be female."

      "That first choice would be like volunteering for the amputation of a healthy limb," said Paula, slowly, "just because it occasionally gets in the way."

      "I remember how... distressed you were, adjusting even to your improved, non-Champion form," said Dr. Piano. "Just keep in mind that if you keep this magic you could likely learn shapeshifting."

      "Susan has already made some progress in that area," said Paula, nervously rubbing her hands along her upper arms. She gave Piano a worried look. "Frankly, I'm not comfortable with how she is acting these days."

      "Well, someone flush with power is likely to become overenthusiastic," said the Doctor, with a shrug. "You've been empowered before, so are less likely to become so intoxicated. I'm sure her... enthusiastic response will be short lived, especially with the rest of us helping her through this period."

      "Don't say 'period,'" groused Paula, shifting in her seat.

      "My apologies," said the mystic, straight-faced.

      "How long do I have to decide?"

      "There is no sharp cutoff, but the sooner the better. The longer the magic has to become integrated with your system, the more difficult the task."

      "All right," said Paula, with a sigh. "There's really not a choice. I'll keep the magic."

      She gave him a humorless smile.

      "I learned to live as a woman before. I can do it again."

Part Three

      Besides the President and her staff, others were also planning for the upcoming attack. Many of them were nowhere near Earth. Some of them were currently in a large storage room which was part of a research and development facility.

      "This device interferes with graviton manipulation," said the Shilmek scientist, gesturing with pride at a device about the size and shape of a large locomotive. "That will greatly reduce the ability of their flying supers. However, because our own craft rely on graviton manipulation we must wait to deploy it after our ships have landed."

      "That is unsatisfactory," said Reddan, sternly. "We have smaller flying craft which would also be affected. Not to mention ships which would be coming and going constantly."

      "There is a compensating device," said the researcher, pointing to something about the size of a breadbox on a nearby table. "We have enough of these small units for most of our small craft, with more coming. Larger devices - for the actual space craft - are much more difficult to produce. So far we have only twenty-two, with production at a rate of one every forty-six hours."

      Reddan did the math, and nodded.

      "That will work. The range of the interference device would include the entire planet if activated on the surface?"

      "Yes."

      "Then we will land and deploy the device. We are planning on a quick, lightning advance, anyway. Ships without the compensators will be on the ground by the time this is activated, or will stay out in space."

       * * *

      "Hello, sweetie," said Paula, softly, as she ran a hand along the fender of the little rally car.

      After the death of Champion - or, rather, the thing inhabiting her shell - Joseph had placed the car in storage. Paula had finally worked up the nerve to ask if he could put it back in service for her. He was glad to do so. He'd not only made certain it was in proper operating condition and performed some minor upgrades, but had it detailed by a shop he knew. All of this on the Assembly's transportation budget.

      Paula had mixed feelings about getting this car back. It reminded her of good times and bad, of triumph and tragedy.

      "Yin and yang," Paula whispered, as she stood, staring at the leather of the seat. The seat where that... thing had sat. Though not often...

      We should have known something was wrong when she stopped going on drives for fun.

      Paula sighed, smiled sadly, and opened the door. She sat in the seat and adjusted it to her body, then fastened the four-point harness. The engine started immediately at the turn of the key. She put it in gear, let out the clutch as she gave it a bit of gas, and drove out of the maintenance bay.

      She made her way carefully through the large chamber where the Assembly's vehicles were tended and stored, waving at folks as she passed. Then she turned down the road access tunnel, and began picking up speed.

      Soon she could see daylight ahead. The security system automatically checked for traffic - less for merging problems than to keep anyone from noticing the entrance. The light turned green as she approached, and the concealing door opened. Paula exited onto what appeared to be a weathered loop road, left in place when the highway was straightened decades ago. The pavement was actually in good shape, but had been distressed to conceal that.

      Seconds later, Paula was driving on the highway, the wind blowing back her hair. She wasn't going fast or taking corners hard. She was just driving.

      Better therapy than those stuffy sessions, she thought, smiling. Fresh air, sunlight, the open road. What more do I need?

       * * *

      As Fall moved into Winter, the preparations for the attack continued. President Sievers was campaigning for re-election, and was doing good in the polls despite often looking very tired. People seemed to feel this sign of fatigue meant she was working hard at her job. The fact that her opponent was an unfocused doofus with a bad case of fumble mouth and the sex drive of a demented mink didn't hurt.

      "I understand there's a hitch in our super production program," said Sievers, when she met Brade for their accustomed late-night briefing.

      "Someone has sued Brayton Research, because he feels they discriminated against him," said Brade, sourly. "This individual only has a handful of genes connected to powers, but when Brayton turned him down for the process he decided to sue for breach of contract."

      "How is this our problem?" asked the President.

      "They got an injunction which bars Brayton from giving anyone else the treatment until this guy has his 'turn.'"

      "I'll get the Justice Department on it."

       * * *

      I smiled as the gunsmith opened the case. As beautiful as the polished hardwood exterior and green velvet lining were, what it was made to hold was both aesthetically pleasing in and of itself and had significant sentimental value. A large part of the latter included saving my life more than once, along with the lives of many others. I had no idea what happened to Mack's other .38 Super pistol, but at least I had this one to treasure. Only, Mack wasn't a collector. A gun was only important to him if it was useful. Thanks to this expert, this gun now was, again.

      "I thought I would have to replace the barrel, too," said Simms, his smile almost as big as mine. "Turned out he had already installed one with the right headspace."

      "That was Mack, for you," I said, nodding. "He was a good enough shot that he wanted any gun he owned to be very accurate. He was also good at technical stuff."

      Simms deftly field stripped the gun, there on the pad on his workbench, explaining exactly what he had done.

      "Once the work was completed, I fired three hundred consecutive rounds with no failures, then thoroughly cleaned and lubricated it. Not that it needs much lubrication, with that black teflon finish you asked for."

      I nodded as I put the slide back on. With the gun again together I carefully dry fired it. No movement of the trigger until suddenly there was; like the breaking of a glass rod.

      "Nice," I said, the smile back.

      "For defense rounds it was most accurate with Silvertips."

      "Sounds like you put in a lot of work," I said, impressed.

      He smiled, and looked down fondly at the gun.

      "This is a piece of history. It was worth every second. Not to mention, firing this thing was a pleasure. Must be what it feels like when a concert violinist gets to play a Stradivarius."

      "What about the other gun?" I asked, putting the first one back in the case and closing and latching the lid. I was starting to worry he might want to keep it.

      He pulled out a factory box and opened it, to reveal a stainless M1911, this one a Colt Delta Elite.

      "Thoroughly tuned, with ambidextrous safety and magazine release and slide release," he explained. "Also thoroughly test fired. I used slightly heavier than stock recoil and main springs - same as I did in the Super - so it will safely handle maximum loads, but is still reliable with all factory rounds. I put a list in the box - that's it, there - of which it was most accurate with."

      I examined this gun as well, and was just as satisfied with it.

      "Okay, what's the damage?"

      I paid cash, of course. And, yes, I did fill out the form for the new gun, and went through the background check. Using one of my valid alternate IDs. It's interesting how many laws turn out to be nonsense when a person is a shapeshifter. Especially one as old as I am. "Residency" requirements are rather slippery in some areas of the US, mostly due to politicians wanting to run for office in a place where they don't actually live. I could legally carry concealed in most states, in several different identities. Those were an assortment of ages, colors and genders. It's always nice to have options.

      If these guns served me as well as Mack's twin .38 Super Automatics had him, I might just survive the next few months.

       * * *

      Doctor Device was in the House (the White one) going over plans and preparations with the President and those of her staff concerned with preparing active defenses.

      "Okay, we have a battery of electrothanasia ray projectors on the hills outside New York," said Kenniman, going down the list.

      "Isn't the site of the first one - out in California - still uninhabitable, due to radioactive contamination?!" said Brade, alarmed.

      "Well, that wouldn't be the case if the Sailor hadn't punched one of the plasma packets Dr. Mercy was sending down the beam back at the weapon," said Dr. Device, shrugging. "He ruptured one of the magnetic focusing rings and things went quickly downhill from there. Our versions are better protected and - if I may say so - much more polished. Now, to continue... Copies of Dreadknight's energy lance are being produced, to be placed on automatic aiming mounts which will be stationed at high points all over the country. That includes New York, to supplement the electrothanasia rays. The problem is that the enemy has weapons at least as potent and far more technologically sophisticated."

      "What about the ANTs?" said the President.

      "I still like the name 'termites' better," said Dr. Device, with a tired smile. "Once someone came up with that acronym, though, that was a lost cause. Anyway, they're currently in the final stages of testing. However, even after they're cleared for manufacture we'll still need at least six months before the first one comes off the assembly line."

      "Can't be helped," said Brade, sighing and rubbing her face with both hands. "The first batch of triggered supers is still training, too."

      "As a bonus, someone figured out how to make copies of the lance only a bit smaller than the original. We'll need time to start production on those, but they'll be useable by any super able to lift a tonne or more."

      "That is really good news," said Brade, nodding and smiling. "Thanks, Ike; you've really helped us with the technical side of getting ready."

      "I just hope we have time to carry out the majority of our preparations," he replied, sighing.

       * * *

      I took the precaution of putting the Delta Elite in a concealed holster and using it to replace my usual 9X19 as soon as I got back to my car. The drive home to Las Vegas was uneventful, and actually rather pleasant. It might cause serious problems in the near future, but for now global warming was making this Winter mild. The sun was out, the air cool and dry with a bit of breeze. I put the top down on the convertible and drove with a smile on my face, sometimes even breaking into song. Of course, that face was not my default one.

      As I approached my apartment, however, I put the top up and began paying more attention, also shifting back to normal. I'd spotted several people hanging around, watching me, the past few days. Some were obviously with the government – including one continuous, rotating stakeout by local police – some were reporters, and some really worried me.

      I parked in the attached garage, on my level, and got out. As I walked towards the door into the building someone got out of their car and started towards me.

      I didn't run, or even change pace; let them think I was unconcerned. The man hurried towards me, catching the door just after I went through. He found himself staring into the 10mm muzzle of the Delta Elite.

Part Four

      "You got something to say to me?" I growled.

      His eyes understandably went very wide. However, he quickly regained his composure.

      "You're a difficult man to talk to," he said, sounding half amused, half annoyed. He was carefully keeping his hands visible and his movements slow.

      "Did it ever occur to you that maybe that was deliberate?"

      "Of course it did," he said, dismissing that - and in the process my preferences – with a wave of his hand. "You're too important to let get away."

      "I'm not some prized fish," I snapped.

      "Mr. Hawthorne... I'm Thomas Blakely."

      I opened my mouth... and froze. Blakely was one of the few authors I felt got right both the facts and the feel of the history I knew best. I'd read he wasn't the most personable of writers – an observation supported by this encounter – and was even something of a recluse, but he was fair and accurate.

      "What do you want?" I said, actually recognizing the man now that I knew who he was. Also, my empathy was telling me he was very determined and also curious, but not hostile.

      "An interview," he said, firmly. "You choose the time and place. I'll ask questions, you answer or don't. At least give me a chance."

      I considered for a moment, then put the gun away.

      "All right. Here and now. Rather, in my apartment, as soon as we get there and get settled in."

      "Thank you," said Blakely, obviously relieved.

      I don't consider myself a celebrity in any way. However, I occasionally go through periods where I attract the attention of the press. Reporters used to ordinary people who want to have their say or public figures who don't want to talk but may have to tend to be confused by my sometimes – shall we say – aggressive refusals to be interviewed. The least fun of these encounters are with reporters from sensation rags, like Midday Moon. This guy, though... After I got drinks – Scotch for me, a dark beer for him – we sat in my den and he began talking. What he didn't know was that my "Scotch" was tinted mineral water with just enough of the actual beverage to have the appropriate odor. One of Mac's old tricks. If he'd requested Scotch I had the real stuff, with a couple of other beverages doctored in the same way for me.

      "I'm fascinated by the discovery of the Sanctum. I found out you'd been there, and that you likely had much more first-hand knowledge of what was found there and the background for it than just about anyone else alive.

      "I want to do an article – maybe a series of them or even a whole book – on the Sanctum as an archeological and social find. I am also thinking about at least an article on you, personally. Though that last would also contain a lot of information on the supers and other interesting people you knew in the middle of the Twentieth Century. Mack Risk, in particular, interests me."

      I was a bit startled at the realization he was a fan. Not so much of me, but of people I had known. Especially my first boss. I should have guessed that from his previous works.

      We talked for over an hour about the Sanctum and the Five Great Powers. He both took notes and – with my permission – recorded all this. For my part, I enjoyed talking about people and things I knew with someone who respected them. Then he carefully guided the interview in another direction.

      "Just how did you become associated with Mack Risk?"

      "I was barely in my teens when I met Mack," I said, my eyes unfocussing as I saw the past in my mind. "At first I was more of a kid sidekick than an assistant."

      "That was in 1944?"

      "Yeah. I was a real juvenile delinquent. Used my new powers for pranks and petty thefts. Mack caught me and dragged me back to my parents instead of to the police. Somehow, he wound up hiring me, justifying this to my parents as a way to keep me out of trouble.

      I laughed.

      "None of us had any idea just how much trouble I would get in on that job. Which two years later included going through Berlin in the last days of the War, trying to find Hitler and his cronies."

      "Wait..." said Blakely, startled. "I didn't know Risk was in Berlin then, much less that you were with him."

      "Others found the clues which led to Hitler's capture in northeastern Italy a few days later," I said, shrugging. "We mostly just puttered around that wreck of a city, trying to find something useful to do, stunned by the damage."

      "That tells me more than ever this project is important," said the writer, looking determined. "I know he was a successful PI, and that he worked with intelligence organizations in Europe during the war. That he was part of the Mask invasion of Berlin, ahead of the troops, is flat-out astounding."

      "Mack definitely deserves more recognition," I said, tersely. "I get irritated when people ignore him. I get more than irritated when they try to label him or diminish his accomplishments. 'Oh, he was the gay hardboiled detective.' As if either of those characteristics defined him. Or as if those were somehow contradictory."

      "I understand he worked with the Shepherds..."

      "He trained the Night Master before the Shepherds even formed!" I snapped, interrupting him. I shivered a bit. "The Night Master – the original one - is about the only 'costumed adventurer' I ever respected."

      I laughed again, this time somewhat nervously.

      "If only because he scared the shit out of me!"

      "What about the Dragon's Hand?"

      "Nice gal, but soooo conservative. It's easy to believe she married Donnie Johnson. A farmer."

      Another hour went by, and we took a break. I could tell he still had some questions, so I refreshed our drinks and told him to continue.

      "This last part is mostly just filling in some details," he said, after restarting the record function on his smartphone.

      "Fire when ready."

      "Why does Constantine hate Tiger so much?" he said.

      "Ever notice that cute, little scar on Emil's left cheek?" I replied, question to question, giving him a smirk. "Tiger gave it to him."

      "Wait. I thought Constantine had regeneration."

      "He does. The injury healed long ago... but won't regenerate. The scar remains."

      "But..."

      "Tiger... did something. With one of his claws. He said, and I quote 'I was so tired of his posturing and his posing and his angsty whining that I thought I'd give him something real to complain about.'"

      "God."

      "Yeah. Emil told me about it, the last time I met with him. He'd heard I spoke with Tiger not long before, and was almost ranting about him."

      "He looks so normal, it's easy to forget just how - different he is."

      "I assume you're talking about Tiger," I said, with a smirk.

      "Well, yeah."

      "Emil is sometimes all too human."

      There were a few more questions, most of them easy to answer. That was because most of them were personal, either for me or another party whose trust I wasn't going to violate. So, most went unanswered. I quickly realized that this last part of our interview was primarily intended to satisfy his personal curiosity. A little less than half an hour later he finally stopped.

      "I do have one more question, off the record," he said as he put his phone away and we both stood. "You know about this potential attack by the Shilmek."

      I was a bit surprised he knew about that, but only a bit. Word was beginning to leak out.

      "Sure."

      "What will you do if they come?"

      "Depends," I said, with a careless shrug. "If it's a hit and grab I'll likely just weather it here. If it's more substantial I'll literally head for the hills."

      "You're not going to fight?"

      "My talents aren't very useful in a pitched battle," I said, wryly.

      He thanked me for my time and shook my hand. I escorted him out, and stood in the doorway long enough to watch him exit to the parking garage.

      I felt oddly embarrassed. As if I had let him down. He seemed to think I should be helping organize the defense, or even fighting in the hills with the resistance. Well, I'd done my part.

      I don't owe him anything, I reminded myself. Nothing at all. If he finds that disillusioning, that's his problem.

       * * *

      Reddan, Bolreg and Taltep stared intently into the large holographic tank, using indexing pointers to both indicate things and move symbols. Just now, they were positioning ships for the attack on Earth. The blue and brown planet hovered in the center, about the size of a baseball. The much smaller Moon glowed silver nearby.

      "Most of the fleet is still the older models," said Bolreg, moving the fleet further away from the target. "They can't enter fourspace that close."

      "We keep them in space, then," said Taltep, separating the older ships from the fleet. "I suggest we have the older ships enter normal space as close to the planet as they can, and engage the space-based defenses. They can exit here, antistarward. Any ships destroyed will be less of a loss, and there are enough of them they should be able to wipe out the space defenders with little trouble. The only exception will be the ship carrying the weapon intended for Zeep. That will be in one of the new ships, stationed at the rear of this force.

      "Once we know the space-based defenses are engaged, we bring a task force consisting of all the operational new ships out of subspace close to the planet, on the opposite side with the system's primary beyond them. The second group should be able to land before the defenders realize our attack is two-pronged."

      They discussed details, then submitted their battle plan to computer evaluation. With some tweaking, they soon had things formally organized.

      "Excellent," said Reddan. "We commit eighteen percent of our space-capable forces to the attack, with another three percent waiting at Centaurus as reserves. Assuming no major surprises, Earth will be ours in just over one of its days."

       * * *

      "Congratulations!" said Brade, when she encountered the President the morning after the election.

      "Thank you," said Sievers, with little enthusiasm.

      "What's wrong?"

      "Oh, she's just now realizing this means she has to keep working here," said Howers, with a laugh. A few of the others in the room gave tired laughs or chuckles.

      "There is that," said Sievers. She stifled a yawn. "I think I'm just tired. Stayed up until the results were certain, then had to make an acceptance speech and hold a press conference."

      The election had been close, thanks in part to her opponent straightening himself out - or at least presenting that image - and having a competent running mate. However, by Midnight on the west coast the results were certain enough for her opponent to concede.

      The small group settled down around the conference table. There was mostly quiet for the next several minutes, as they ate various items from the cart an aide brought in and sipped their coffee or hot tea. When the President got down to business she seemed much more energetic.

      "All right," said Sievers, looking around the room. "With that load of politics out of the way, let's get to work."

Part Five

      "Where have you been?" said Bowman, as the Black Mask entered the Intrepids' main conference room well after the others. "The only times you're late for important meetings is if you've been busy with something you consider more important."

      "Working contingency plans," he replied, with a cryptic smile. "For example, certain potentially useful people require motivation to actually become useful."

      "That's all, folks!" said Rapscallion, cackling.

      Bowman sighed, and resigned himself to letting the matter go. To his credit, the Black Mask was a team player. However, he was constantly also working his own agendas. The fact that some of those agendas proved very useful made the behavior tolerable.

      "All right. I'll review what you missed and then, hopefully, we can get finished before the Shilmek invade."

       * * *

      The man walked around the huge device, radiation monitor in hand. He was sweating, hating being this close for several reasons but mostly due to the heat. Even with multiple fans running, bringing in cool mountain air from the outside, this place was as hot as a bakery. A nuclear powered bakery. There was a subdued hum from the auxiliary generator, punctuated by the muffled chuffing of the extremely efficient, closed-cycle, triple-expansion steam engine spinning it. The steam was produced by the idle heat of the reactor, baking peacefully at only a few hundred kelvins. He visually checked the number two plasma concentrator as he passed, finished his rounds and came back to the control console.

      "This thing makes me nervous," said the tech, looking at the huge radiation shield - shaped like an over-tall igloo or old-fashioned beehive, only made from blocks of high-temperature ceramic and two stories high - as he put his monitor on the counter beside the viewscreen. "I mean, that's a nuclear reactor in there. No pressure vessel, no cooling pumps... All through my holiday time off I thought about requesting reassignment."

      "Yeah, but it's self-regulating," said his shift partner, absently, as he did his own work. "It's output is small for a core that size, and it physically can't produce any more energy than it can handle. It expands and the reaction dies."

      "Super high temperature exotic alloys," said their supervisor, putting a reverent hand on the control console. "Ceramic actuators designed to operate while white hot. Ceramic insulating bricks, with enough lead and barium and..."

      The phone rang. It was an old-fashioned land line. Everything about this installation was old-fashioned. Even the electronics used tubes instead of circuitry chips or discrete semiconductor components. Supposedly, that made it less detectable by the enemy. Or perhaps less respected.

      "Hello?" said the shift supervisor. He suddenly came alert. "Y-yessir! I'll check immediately!"

      He put the receiver down beside the phone and hurried to the controls.

      "What is it?" said the first man, sarcastically. "Some nimby claiming we're polluting the water supply again?"

      "Spotters saw what they say is a small space ship hovering over the city."

      He dropped into the main chair and swung the optical viewscope around, until it pointed the right direction.

      "There is something there!" said the supervisor, alarmed at what he saw on the frosted glass viewscreen. "Get the recognition guide!"

      The first man grabbed the ring binder from the shelf and opened it on the counter beside the viewscope. His boss quickly thumbed through the pages.

      "That's it," said the supervisor, pointing.

      He reached for the phone.

      "Class Three Scout. Yes, just hovering there. Okay."

      He hung up.

      "So we...?" said the second man, reaching for the main switch.

      "Do nothing for now. It's not a warship, just a scout. We don't do anything to let it know we're here. Or that we know it's here."

       * * *

      "Sightings from all over the world," said Sievers, adjusting her new reading glasses as she opened the folder. She looked at her staff. "All the same. Small scouts, invisible to radar and IR, but visible to normal sight and some super senses and devices."

      "Supers have senses to detect flying saucers?" said Vice-President Sargent, over his video link.

      "More like a pear than two saucers stuck together," said Brade, absently. "Yes, most super flyers use graviton manipulation to fly. This usually comes with an ability to sense gravitons. What they call a bump of gravity. The Shilmek sublight drive uses graviton manipulation, as well. So, many supers can sense their ships. Of course, that means their ships can detect supers who fly using graviton manipulation."

      "Well, regardless of that, I now have to make an announcement," said Sievers, in a resigned tone. "I need to inform the nation that an alien attack is likely imminent."

      "I forgot that we've managed to keep the reason for all this activity secret, so far," said Brade, a bit startled. "Wow. I... wonder how people will react."

       * * *

      I watched them arrive; some in cars, some under their own power, by flying or running or teleporting or whatever the Hell it was that PanDemona did. I couldn't help but smile, in spite of my uncertainty about this whole affair. I'd literally had to blackmail some of them, but even then they wouldn't have come if they didn't - on some level - trust me. For some reason, that writer's questions had left me uneasy, and some small part of my mind kept working at what I could do to help defend Earth. Even though there was little about this planet I wanted to protect. Then something occurred to me. Something which I wasn't sure had also occurred to my guests. Something which might just persuade them, as it had me.

      They gathered in the largest room of the chalet I'd rented, looking around with various emotions. The majority were actually very suspicious, and on their guard. Good. Some of those here needed to be watched.

      "I suppose you're wondering why I've called you here..." I began, unable to get rid of that smile.

      "I suppose it has something to do with the invasion which hit the news recently," said John, dryly.

      "Indeed. Though some of you were invited before the news broke."

      I paced around the center of the room, in the space I'd created by removing the large coffee table. No refreshments, yet. I'd made clear that they had to hear me out before the free food and booze would be available.

      "We all have one thing in common. We live here. On the Earth. Maybe not full time for some, but all of us have homes here, and have reasons for being here. For valuing what this world has to offer."

      "My God," said Tulio, a huge grin beginning to spread over his face. "You're actually going to do it."

      I glanced at Simon. Who was sitting there looking like the Cheshire Cat; that is, one big grin. He and Tulio had arrived together with a few others in Tulio's new van. As a mastermind, he had likely ascertained my goal very early.

      "What do you think?"

      "I think you're crazy," he replied, though he kept smiling. "However, it's a kind of crazy we need in situations like this."

      "For those of you who aren't good guessers," I said, again addressing the room, "I want to create a group - for this one emergency only - to help defend something we all have a reason to protect."

       They got it, now. All of them. And they all approved. I had been very careful in my selection. Getting some of them to come meant cashing in valuable favors. In some cases, favors owed for decades.

      "The masterminds can fine tune things," I continued, "but basically I want us to stand ready to help where it is needed and our kind of help might be useful. Each of you will provide for the project what you are best at.

      "PanDemona," I said, nodding to her. "You're our rapid strike transportation."

      "OH, HELL, NO!" someone at the back said loudly.

      "Don't worry," she purred, her smile revealing pointed canines. "I'm much better these days. Very few I take with me through the Hellways actually go insane."

      I'd deliberately gotten that out of the way first. I now moved on to assigning roles to the rest of them.

      "Just exactly what are we going to do?" said John, before I could proceed. "I mean, I love a good fight as much as any bruiser, but..."

      "We're going to be a secret resource," I said, feeling an odd passion. "A catalyst. A small group no-one but us knows about; especially the enemy. With Gazer's help, we'll locate places where a battle hangs in the balance, where the defenders of Earth need a little push, where a last minute rescue will save an important life. Then we'll give it. Leaving both friend and foe wondering just what the fuck happened."

      One other thing every person here had in common: They all had a sense of humor. In some cases a very dark one, but it was still an appreciation of a good joke or prank. Most also enjoyed baffling their opponents. I had them hooked. Now, if only I could actually make this work...

       * * *

      For the most part, reaction to news of the alien threat was muted. Largely because people who hadn't known before were stunned. This included reporters, politicians and political pundits. People who had previously dismissed as an absurd conspiracy theory the explanation that the preparations were to get ready for an alien attack now found themselves floundering to catch up.

      There were a few, stuttering protests at the absurdity of such a thing. That the President was falling into hysteria over the sightings of "a few flying saucers." Some even blamed her gender for this excitability. They were rapidly silenced.

      Surprisingly, the vast majority of people - common citizens, officials, military leaders - took the threat seriously but without panic. They argued over the nature, the extent, the imminence, what should be done... and wondered how long they had.

Part Six

      As it turned out, the wait was not long. Within a day and a half of the first of the sightings the preliminary fleet exited hyperspace as planned. The formation of interstellar craft immediately began accelerating for Earth. Almost as immediately, they were engaged, while still a bit over ten light minutes from their goal. The fastest supers and ships the Lunies officially didn't have plus the combat-capable components of Tolnar's small fleet met the Shilmek in a carefully coordinated counterattack. The Moon was a quarter of the way around in its orbit from the battle, but a few of the longer-ranged Lunie ground-based weapons still made themselves known to the enemy. There was no sign of some of the most powerful spacefaring super defenders, including Zeep. However, the larger, more numerous and more sophisticated Shilmek ships quickly demonstrated the folly of holding back. Fifteen mostly new Lunie ships - the entire reserves - dropped out of hyperspace about half a light second beyond the rear of the Shilmek and started firing as they closed. They also released Zeep and several other very powerful spacefaring supers. The battle was now on for real.

      When this information was signaled to Shilmek Command the second fleet - much smaller but more technically advanced - appeared at roughly a quarter of a light second from Earth. They headed towards the planet. While still well outside the atmosphere the ships of the second force were met by missiles and lasers, but no supers. Nearly all the missiles were destroyed, as were the laser and missile satellites. A few missiles hit and detonated – they had conventional warheads, to avoid EMP affecting the areas beneath them - but had no real effect.

      "They use machines against us," said the commander of the flagship, obviously irritated even over the com. "Where are their supers?"

      "Perhaps all space-capable supers are already engaging the First Fleet," said his sensor operator.

      "Or are hiding," said Reddan, with a smirk.

      "Activate the detector," said the commander, smugly. "We will find and target every single empowered freak on this planet."

      The image of Earth on the tech's viewplate was suddenly concealed by notifications. Then there was a warning tone, and the image was replaced with an error message.

      "What happened?" said the fleet commander.

      "There were more supers detected than the device can handle," said the distracted tech, who was busy checking the problem. "Not the computer; the detector has only seventy million channels. Once the number of supers detected exceeded that, the..."

      "Seventy million?! That's more than the entire population!"

      "No, that's just under sev..."

      The commander backhanded him halfway across the bridge. The huge Shilmek then swept a warning gaze around the bridge. Meanwhile, Reddan officially did not notice the violation of discipline, nor the punishment meted out in response.

      "Get a replacement up here," the commander announced. "Someone competent, this time. As well as someone who knows not to talk back to his betters."

      The commander turned his attention back to monitoring the deployment of his forces. He was oblivious to the worried glances between bridge personnel. As was Reddan.

       * * *

      "Talk to me," said Sievers, over her brilliant phone, as she hurried through a long corridor beneath Washington. Some small part of her mind noted the quality of reception with approval. One of the more minor efforts involved in the preparations had been putting cellular relays in facilities such as this. Which was good, considering she was about as far from safety – in terms of travel time – as she could get anywhere in DC.

      Despite all the precautions, despite all the scenario evaluations, despite all the planning, she had been caught away from any quick route back to the White House or one of the other designated pickup areas. Fortunately, there wasn't much she needed from the White House and that was being carried to a rendezvous location by several aides. Just now, she was heading for the presidential helicopter, which had landed at the nearest covert place she could quickly reach.

      "Worst case scenario," said General Harvest, sounding harried. "Full-blown invasion, likely followed by occupation."

      "Then we respond in kind," said Sievers. Her voice was steady, but her hands shook so hard she had to hold the phone with both. The fact that she was all but running didn't help. "The football is with me. I'll release the nuclear codes the moment I get outside. You know how to apply them."

      "Please tell me you've already evacuated."

      "I'm almost to Marine One," she promised.

      "Then Godspeed and good luck."
 "The same to you."

      Sievers turned to one of the few people with her.

      "Judith, you wait inside the tunnel until we're gone. Then head for your evacuation point."

      "Yes Ma'am," said the President's aide, though she didn't look happy.

      "Don't worry. About me or anything but your job. It's important you are able to speak in my name in case of communications difficulties."

      The younger woman nodded, and slowed as they approached the stairs at the end of the tunnel. She watched without a word as the others went up and outside.

       * * *

      Naturally, I was taking a nap when the invasion started.

      Red alert, said MindWarp, waking me with his telepathic message.

      His "voice" sounded fuzzy, full of static. However, his message got through, and I could tell he knew that.

      I didn't need to do anything but shift to the form I had chosen for bugging out, put on appropriate clothes and get my stuff together. We all knew the plan - all but the general framework of which was devised by our masterminds - and right now my part was to wait for PanDemona to come and get me. I was third on her list.

      Man up, I thought, as I finished dressing and grabbed my bugout bag. I didn't need to bring much with me, since I had already thoroughly outfitted the chalet. It's not that bad going through her portals.

      Yeah, right. I sighed, and took some anti-nausea medication. I just hoped it had time to start working before she arrived.

      It didn't...

       * * *

      "This second group of ships pretty much ignored our missiles and lasers," said General Harvest, over the secure, spread spectrum audio link. "Just as we figured."

      "All right," said Sievers, nodding tersely, the heavy headset slipping a bit on her head. "We hold our heavy hitters back until we know the Shilmek objectives."

      Marine One was headed - at low level, high speed and with much tight maneuvering - towards a landing spot well outside Washington. The assumption was that the invaders not only knew about the more public bunkers but could destroy or enter them pretty much at will; she was being taken – by a roundabout route - to a mobile communications center designed to look like an innocuous trailer left in a parking lot behind a small shopping center.

      "Frankly, I'm surprised they haven't hit our communications, the Capital, our bases..."

      "They will," said the General, tightly. "They already took out most of the military aircraft - on the ground and in the air – and the anti-aircraft missile batteries. A few planes – most of them Brown Racers – are still fighting. Their Harpy missiles have been the most successful, but we don't have many of them. Once they are dealt with, the Shilmek will go for the bases and fixed weapon installations."

      She grimaced at his certainty, but didn't doubt it. The General knew this stuff better than she did. Sievers decided to keep quiet until she was somewhere safe and signed out.

      That didn't take long. In the trailer – which was well away from where Marine One left her – the President was told the Shilmek were bombarding military and super bases and command centers all over the planet, though they were focusing on North America. In a single spasm, they blasted beams at hundreds of preselected sites for several long minutes. When they stopped only a few were still intact. That was thanks to recent installations of force field generators. Those bases next received the concentrated attention of the attackers, and with a handful of exceptions soon were reduced to glowing wreckage. Even though most of the resources of those bases had been dispersed weeks earlier, thousands of lives and billions of dollars of equipment and supplies were now gone.

       * * *

      Super facilities were taking multiple different tactics to defend against the attack. Some were simply abandoned. Some had skeleton crews of volunteers, to maintain communications and other important functions for as long as they could. Some – like Pine Island and the Guardians' facilities – were going to tough it out. A few were trying a different tact.

      "They're still pounding that mountain northwest of us," Dr. Gorgeous gleefully reported.

      Using various means – including complicated magic – the Assembly had managed to convince the aliens that they were actually located somewhere else. Buzz liked to refer to this as "The Stunt Double Effect."

      "What's the status of the staff?" said Dr. Piano.

      "Full contingent of support staff," said Paula. "Buzz is on his way. We haven't heard from Sharma."

      "She will find her own way here," said Piano, nodding in an assured fashion. "I'm worried about Buzz, though."

      "I'll advise him over his com to take a circuitous route," said Dr. Gorgeous. "Aside from his own safety, we don't want him leading them here."

       * * *

      "How are we doing?" said Bowman, raising his voice over the sound of the attack on the Intrepids base.

      "Holding, but with only a small margin," said the tech. "They'll probably assign more ships to us as they eliminate softer targets."

      "I'd hoped we could hold this base," said the Black Mask, sounding tired. "Well, it can't be helped. Start the evacuation, as planned."

      "Yes, sir."

      The old base was well armored, and had within the last year been equipped with a powerful force field unit. Unfortunately, it simply wasn't powerful enough.

      Team members and crew began leaving through deep tunnels, which exited well away from the base. Some were even large enough for team vehicles. Those would be left underground at the far end for now, though.

      "Too bad," said Bowman, sadly, as he watched people file into the elevators or take the stairs. "I loved this place."

      "We'll build a better one," said Rapscallion, for once serious. "We moved the trophies, records and other important items to deep storage just in case this happened. Now, come on. One last sweep to make sure everyone's out, then we go."

       * * *

      The Guardians bases were among the most technically advanced

locations on the planet. They were also among the most well financed super facilities. Their shields not only successfully protected them, but large portions of the cities where they were located.

      "They'll have to land to get to us," said the Guardsman, confidently. "When we know where they're landing, we'll go out to intercept them."

      "Yeah," said Tiger, emphatically, "we can't let them get into the city. All those unarmed civilians..."

Part Seven

      Pine Island was one of the few other places on Earth with a force field which was holding.

      "We are getting pounded!" said Lori Savage, looking at the large video display of the attack. She turned to Junker.

      "We're okay, so far," he replied, from his station. "Remind me to give whoever suggested putting the hot ends of the heat exchangers out in the deep ocean a raise. They can't punch through, but if we couldn't dump the waste heat somewhere we'd cook in our own juices in under half an hour at this rate. Wish I knew how they're dealing with it."

      "Our attacks aren't doing much," said Myna, sounding disappointed. "Barely heating their shields."

      "Well, we did focus on defense," said Junker, with a shrug.

      "Okay," said Lori, thinking hard. "They aren't stupid, so by now they'll know our shields are really good. Once they confirm that, they won't bother diverting enough ships here; that would leave them shorthanded elsewhere. They'll go with their backup plan. Which means most likely will be a sea-level assault coming in through the barrier at a speed too low for it to react. So everyone keep a sharp watch!"

      "Here they come!" cried one of her lieutenants, seconds later. "Five assault ships at wavetop height, from five directions!"

      "Get intercept teams on those, now!"

       * * *

      Once the initial bombardment ended the second wave of the fleet broke into smaller groups of ships and began descending. Each task force had at least one major combat vessel, a graded assortment of smaller combat components, plus support ships. The combat vessels took the brunt of the defenders' attacks, generally without losses. As they approached the surface, however, some task forces reported losing smaller ships at the rear to mysterious causes. Most likely these were harassment attacks by stealthy supers. The effects were annoying, but negligible.

      The Shilmek by now had control of all standard military and commercial digital radio communications, and were jamming the analog channels still in use. They also deliberately targeted the Internet, due to its origins as a military communications network. However, the preparers expected all that. Plans called for telepaths, teleporters, speedsters, laser relay towers and several other unconventional methods of communication to carry at least the most essential information. Unfortunately, telepaths found themselves jammed in much the same way as those on Pine Island had been during the kidnapping of Maldren years before, preventing all but the most powerful and skilled from being effective. Many speedsters on cross-country trips carrying messages found themselves being targeted from space. Few who didn't immediately go to ground survived. Somehow, communication laser beams traveling through the air were not only detected, but suborned, the Shilmek using them to convey false orders.

      One technological method of communication which escaped the attention of the Shilmek was Gadgetive's B.I.G. A.L. Sub-Terran tunnel communications relay system. There weren't many government installations connected to this, but the most essential command bunkers were among them.

      Teleporters still got through, but they were in short supply. However, there was one teleporter who could move something independently of himself. He was being worked hard sending a different kind of message.

       * * *

      The Projector concentrated on the compact nuclear device for several seconds, then shook his head.

      "I can't push it through their shields."

      "Okay, Plan B, then," said General Harvest, with a sigh. "You put the biggest nukes you can move right against their shields."

      The Projector smiled. Once a petty crook, a man of great power and little ambition, he finally realized after repeated captures that crime - at least illegal crime - was a sucker's game. While still on parole, he earned multiple fortunes through legal applications of his powers. He soon gained a full pardon. As well as several sub rosa clients. However, this was one contract he'd never thought he'd have to fill.

      He looked at the high-definition image of armed devices, sitting in an underground storeroom, ready to go. The biggest he could move would barely rattle the largest ships, so he would start medium and work down. He smiled as he picked a warhead out, entered the number so the brass could clear the final safety, then looked at the image of the ships overhead on another screen. There.

      A transport vaporized in a nuclear fireball.

      He briefly pitied those supers who had to actually go out and put themselves in danger. As well as all the non-supers who would die this day, fighting, running or simply going about their usual business. He felt grateful he didn't have to. Another bomb vanished. Another ship vanished. He would continue as long as he had bombs, or until the invaders were too low to use nukes. One every few seconds. Only, there were so many ships, and they were descending fast...

       * * *

      Reddan approached the center of the bridge to give his ultimatum. Losses to get to this point were heavier than expected, but still acceptable. Time to let the population know what was coming.

      He was dressed in a gaudy, fancy costume of his own design. It was something he considered fitting for the supreme ruler of an interstellar empire. He nodded to the tech, who activated the broadcast.

      His image appeared on screens in multiple formats, all over the Earth, his voice being heard alone in many places where he could not be seen. Every non-secure, non-coded channel filled with his presence.

      "People of Earth," he began, his words automatically translated into English. "Greet your new masters. Your world is ours, now, and will become a contributing member of the Shilmek Empire..."

      He was interrupted by a jolt which nearly knocked him off his feet.

      "What the intercourse was that?!" he said, looking away from the camera.

      "Multiple hits, the entire Second Fleet is under attack!" said a voice from off-screen.

      "From what? Where?"

      "Multiple sources. Weapons, supers, everything!"

      "We've already lost several of the smaller ships, and two large transports!" said another off-screen voice.

      "Move immediately to Phase II!" Reddan shouted. "All ships descend, attack and occupy assigned targets. I'll teach them to attack me!"

      "Sir, we are still broadcasting."

      "You fool! Turn it off!"

      His image and voice vanished.

       * * *

      Lord Bitterfrost smiled a cold, grim smile as he destroyed the invaders. He had caught a unit of six ships descending towards Moskva. Those simply were not designed to take what he could do with heat manipulation. People think of space as cold, but space is a vacuum and has no temperature of its own. As Lord Bitterfrost removed heat from the vessels the crew froze solid, polymers and composites cracked, and metal distorted as it shrank past all design tolerances.

      Unfortunately, the pair of ships assigned to Helsinki noticed his actions. They quickly directed weapons towards his location. They didn't know who he was or what he was, they only knew the cold had come from the ground there.

      Lord Bitterfrost had time for one scream of pure rage, before his frozen body flashed to steam.

       * * *

      The lack of communication was a problem, but not an unexpected one. Much of the preparation the past few months had involved making certain military personnel knew what to do if they couldn't contact their superiors. It still rankled.

      "The worst part of all this is the lack of information," said the President, angrily, as she paced in the small space inside the trailer. "I'm stuck here..."

      "With respect, Madam President, the military has their orders and knows how to carry them out," said the young communications expert who was working with her to try and learn what was happening. "News might be reassuring or horrifying, but you knowing what's happening wouldn't help matters."

      "It's just... we thought we had enough backups that we could keep in touch."

      Sievers sat, forcing herself not to cry.

       * * *

      The dome was empty except for the supervisor. That wasn't in the game plan, but he knew they'd just die for nothing if they stayed. The device only needed one person to actually use. This was something all the Electrothanasia Ray Projector supervisors had decided in one of their meetings. When the fighting started, send everyone else out.

      He pulled the main actuator lever. As did eleven other people in eleven other stations, on mountain peaks scattered around New York state. Pneumatic actuators mounted in the tops of the reactors drew the bottom section of the pile into place from below. The chain reaction went from idle to full bore. Steam hissed, turbines spun and generators whined to life, powering magnets, pumps and radio frequency generators. Additionally, some of the neutron flux inside each shield assembly was sent into a special alloy target to generate protons. Those, in turn, were used to ionize hydrogen.

      The dome rotated as the elevation mechanism raised the beam emitter. There was no radar, just an optical aiming system, aided by improved Vilcain Visualizers. Electric motors and pneumatic actuators moved things into place. The crosshairs came on the assigned target.

      "Fire," said the supervisor, formally, as he pulled the final lever with a clear understanding he was likely announcing his own death.

      The stream of energetic particles caught the target completely by surprise. However, their systems were set to automatically respond to attack. The electrothanasia installations barely had time to send two pulses of super-energized hydrogen plasma down the beam - one managed three - before the responses arrived. Only two of the targeted ships were destroyed, with three more damaged. All the beam stations were destroyed. The exchange lasted less than five seconds.

      However, those were not alone; there were many other advanced terrestrial weapons making themselves known this day. The energy cannon based on Dreadknight's lance were far more successful than the electrothanasia rays. As instructed, they all focused on the largest ship first. This was a Shilmek transport, shaped roughly like an enormous basking shark. Not nearly as well protected as the actual combat ships, it burst into rapidly expanding plasma after just a few seconds. The warships were already responding, but these installations had force fields. They weren't nearly as effective of those around the Shilmek ships, but they were able to withstand the retaliation long enough to focus on the flagship of the formation and cause some damage before the cannon were destroyed.

      Wounded but still very dangerous, the task force landed in Central Park.

Part Eight

      Energia marked the position of the largest ship over the District of Columbia - easy enough, given that it was also the largest graviton emitter - and shivered at the thought of what she was about to do. She was going to kill at least dozens, and likely hundreds.

      They started it, she reminded herself. They've already killed hundreds or thousands. They deserve it.

      She raised her hands...

      "We are detecting an increase in ionization around the ship," said the ship's systems officer.

      "An attack?" said the captain.

      "If so, a very ineffectual one. Even our passive defenses are sufficient to resist this."

      "Find the source. Continue our descent."

      Gelthura nodded in approval. The attack was insignificant, but destroying the attacker would serve as an example.

      "Source located," said the sensor operator. "Small humanoid, flying well below us."

      "Kill it."

      Before the gunners could comply, the ship was rocked by what seemed like an explosion. Only, it went on and on...

      "We're caught in an electrical discharge!" shouted the sensor operator.

      "Shields down! Main drive is off! Secondary drive is off! Emergency drive is failing! Hull failing!" shouted the systems officer.

      "Get us out of this!"

      "Captain, impossible. We don't have..."

      The ship exploded.

      Kilometers below, Energia examined the results of her handiwork with grim satisfaction. Tesla would have been proud... and horrified. She steeled herself, and moved the gigantic, continuous lightning bolt to the next target. It was wide enough to catch several ships in one sweep, and could be moved faster than the ships could travel.

      The hardest part of this form of attack was dissipating the energy after it passed the Shilmek formation, spreading it out to prevent harm on the ground. So far, the few fires she was causing below were trivial compared to the damage from falling debris, and that was trivial compared to what the Shilmek had already done.

      Another group of warships exploded. Then another.

       * * *

      The large assault craft came in towards the island from over the horizon, hugging the wave tops. The plan was to approach too low for the majority of the local defenses to strike at them.

      They slowed from high subsonic to landing speed as they neared the barrier, slipping through with little resistance. There was no response, yet. Had they gone undetected?

      That question was answered in a strong negative, as Colossa grew out of the water offshore. She went far past her usual size, while Template, clinging to her hair, boosted her growth power, resilience and speed.

      She did a grow-through, targeting the ship with an uppercut which started on the seabed. Colossa caught it right in the middle, knocking it to nearly twice its previous height. Shore batteries now had the ship in their sights, and opened fire.

      Remarkably, the ship was not only not destroyed, it remained in the air. However, it was obviously severely damaged, possessing a distinct kink in addition to the huge dent in the hull.

      The ship targeted her, of course, firing even as she struck. Colossa shrank back to normal size and held her breath. Merma - like many former students, back at Pine Island to defend it - grabbed the pair and carried them rapidly towards the island, as the water where the three of them had been began to boil.

      The T.O.W.E.R. crews on shore quickly destroyed the ship.

       * * *

      The only Shilmek craft to reach the island landed on the popular beach near the cove. Even as it touched down, it fired on the surrounding area, clearing obstacles. Unfortunately, some of those obstacles were inhabitants, there to defend the island.

      As soon as the hatches opened, troops came pouring out.

      Allessandra had been hanging back, uncertain about joining the fight and not really obligated to. Though over 18 now, she was still technically a student. However, when she saw what the invaders did, who they killed... Hazel was there! A red haze filled her vision. This was the best home she had ever had, the best people she had ever known. Without thinking, she charged.

      While the official defenders were organizing for a counterattack, Allessandra lay down on her staff and hurtled towards the enemy. She was fast and she was barely above the sand, but still she was noticed and targeted. She was hit several times, and already badly injured when she rammed through the troops, scattering those along her path. She shot through the large, open hatch, from which invaders were still exiting.

      No-one witnessing this from outside saw what she did. No-one could tell if what happened was something she planned, or simply a byproduct of her rash action.

      The Shilmek assault craft exploded with enormous violence, killing not only all aboard and those on the ground around it, but creating a sizable crater on the beach.

      The defenders watched, stunned, as the sea began filling the crater.

       * * *

      "Task force eighteen reports heavy losses!" came the shouted alert. "Multiple powerful attacks destroying ships in rapid succession!"

      That was the group assigned the task of occupying the island school.

      "Divert all reserves to that location!" shouted Reddan. "Divert my personal task force there as well. That must be where Tolnar is! Her son attends that school; of course she would be there, to protect him!"

      Even as the reinforcements hurried towards the scene, more and more ships of the leading task force were reported destroyed. They were now disappearing in bunches. Even those actually assigned to take the nearby island group were vanishing with astonishing speed.

      "This is not Tolnar's work," said Reddan, confused. "Neither she nor those human supers at that school have that sort of power! We know Zeep is in space; what is..."

      "That was the lead formation of our force! We'll be next!"

      "Use the flight counter device!" ordered Reddan.

      "The plan..."

      "We're being slaughtered! Use it!"

      The tech hesitated... then reached for the control console. Just then the ship exploded.

      Far below, Template began recharging her cannon. She scowled at her performance so far.

      Took me too long to get here. Just hope the others were faster, or Earth is in big trouble.

      She would not learn until much later just how close her timing was, or how well-placed her shot. Without it, every flying super in the world would have fallen from the sky, and most would not have survived the landing.

       * * *

      Energia paused, dispersed her attack and extended her senses. There were no more large ships within her range, and the smaller ones were either already engaged, fleeing or both. However, there was something coming out of the heart of the cooling ball of plasma where the biggest ship had been. Something heading right for her, at high speed.

      She barely had time to reinforce her plasma wall and dodge before the impact. Thanks to the latter preparation the blow was glancing. Thanks to the former her plasma wall held.

      She saw a figure, in the burned remnants of a uniform. She was giving off a huge amount of energy, much of it heat. She was also swinging clumsily around in a huge curve, obviously intending to continue her attack against Energia.

      There were a few, scattered clouds, none close enough to reach quickly. She would have to fight.

       * * *

      "We've lost Buzz," said Paula, a catch in her voice.

      "What?!" said Dr. Piano. "Are you sure?"

      She nodded a mute response.

      "They... appear to be targeting speedsters, from space," said Dr. Gorgeous, looking ill.

      "Damn..." was all Paula could manage.

      "They've landed at multiple locations, all over the US," said Dr. Gorgeous, getting angry. "Now we know where they are, and where they will be staying. For the rest of their lives."

       * * *

      In the Philippines, Gurion slashed his way through the formation of invading craft. Too slow to be affected by their shields, too organic to be easily targeted, his razor-like feathers made slash after slash.

      There are only three of them, he thought, as he frantically maneuvered between the craft, all of them small. I just have to keep moving!

      He felt a burst if elation as one of the ships finally fell away from the formation. Then a beam found him, and left only an expanding cloud of ashes.

       * * *

      The Shilmek knew what horses were, of course. Their original captors had brought a full ecosystem - several, actually, from different parts of the Earth - with the humans. However, those animals did not run through the air.

      The Ghost Riders were light cavalry, with no heavy weapons. They didn't need them for this. Force fields and armored hulls were no more impediment to the Riders than the air around them. The Ghost Riders passed through the formation, shouting their defiance, leaving death and madness in their wake. The Southwest would not be occupied.

       * * *

      Gelthura charged the small, female figure, furious at the human's dishonorable attack. Her first strike barely grazed the odd, glowing shell around her, and blistered Gelthura's fists. Still, the costumed woman was obviously shaken by the impact. Gelthura felt a thrill of triumph. She might have unreasonably strong energy manipulation powers, but she was a physical weakling! One solid blow and she would fall.

      Energia was worried, but knew she had a good chance. Her store was full, and she could literally feel the Shilmek's presence. She produced the same sort of sparky, tingly sensation Maldren did lately. The thought of him momentarily distracted her, but she shook that off. There; the Shilmek was coming back.

      Energia was turned away from the onrushing super. At the last moment, she went up, over, back and down in the tightest loop she could manage, blasting the attacker with her Mega-Taser.

      The results were much more dramatic than she expected. Gelthura had a spectacular seizure, in the process hurling energy bolts from several part of her body. Barely conscious, she began falling.

      Energia dove after her. As she came into range the woman was already recovering. Her first response was to throw an energy bolt at Energia. Not only did that miss, but if it had hit it would have recharged her.

      Suddenly, she stopped her fall, shook her head and glared at Energia. Who smiled.

      "You won't leave this world alive," she said, in the Shilmek tongue.

      Infuriated, Gelthura charged again.

      Energia feinted a dodge to one side, then instead dropped straight down. She had an idea. They were already getting close to the ground. Dodging and taunting, she drew her opponent towards a power substation. Energia could feel that it was still active, and hopefully would remain so for the next few minutes.

      She had a couple of close calls - the Shilmek was an inexperienced flyer, but she was fast - but was aided by the fact that her attacker never seemed to learn.

      Finally, Energia had her in position. Which was a good thing; her store was getting low.

      Unfortunately, the Shilmek finally seemed to be getting wary. Well, all right, then; a hard victory was still a victory. Energia hovered in position, arms crossed, taunting her. Gelthura knew something was wrong; she fought her natural impulse to attack and examined the situation. Paying close attention to Energia and everything around her. Completely oblivious to the powerful magnetic fields Energia was using to lift a flatbed trailer and accelerate it towards Gelthura from behind.

      The massive club slammed into the Shilmek warrior and shoved her directly towards Energia. The latter was expecting this and planned to dodge at the last moment, but her timing was off. Her move came late, and one foot was clipped by the trailer. Then, just as the Shilmek was staring to fight against the powerful shove of the trailer, it hit the main transformer.

      Energia's plasma wall gave up immediately. The electrical arcs flying far and wide weren't a problem, of course, but the actual explosion was. She slammed sideways through the top of a tree, had several more lesser collisions, and dropped to the ground, unconscious.

Part Nine

      At nearly a hundred locations scattered around the globe, the Shilmek managed to get ships on the ground. Just under half of those sites were in North America, with most of them in the contiguous United States. On the way to landing they caused horrific, widespread damage, targeting everything which they already knew to be a threat, and everything which appeared to be a threat.

      It was a target-rich environment. They blasted bridges, military bases, large buildings... but there were so many! Those in charge of the targeting worked frantically, selecting targets in order of priority, but still were unable to strike at more than a fraction of the installations their scanners showed before they had to refocus their attention for landing preparations. There was no time to inform their superiors of this... even if they had been inclined to. They did their jobs to the letter of their orders. If later called upon to explain why they hadn't reported a certain target was not destroyed they could honestly say they had not been told to attack it.

      The landing sites were sterilized, the ships setting down on steaming, bare earth. Those few locals who stayed in those areas instead of fleeing - the sightseers, the deniers, the overly brave preparing to defend their homes - died. The Shilmek warriors exited their craft in proper order, and spread out, prepared to establish the authority of their masters.

      From the view of the Shilmek - and many others, both in the US and elsewhere - the war was over. Yes, there were isolated pockets of resistance, and local military forces - cut off from their commands by the Shilmek blackout - would probably put up a futile resistance. A formal surrender would likely end most of those activities, if they could find the President, but that was not really necessary. A few demonstrations of force and the survivors would readily yield.

       * * *

      There were too few flying supers powerful enough - or well-armed enough - to destroy a significant portion of the ships as they descended. Traditional fighters and missiles were plentiful, but almost completely ineffective. The bulk of the defense planned by the Pentagon was meant to strike the Shilmek on the ground. If necessary, a guerrilla war could be fought for years, even decades.

      There were already teams of supers and military in place, in anticipation of this. Many were supposed to be supported by local law enforcement.

      That plan wasn't working everywhere.

      "You are ugly as sin," said the county deputy, giving Vic a scathing glance. "I thought all you super gals were supposed to be built."

      Vic stared at the man, for several long seconds unable to reply. Given the situation, she decided to be diplomatic.

      "Most costumed heroes - male or female - pad their costumes to alter their figures, to help conceal their secret identities. Since I don't have a secret identity, I don't bother."

      "No, wait; I've seen photos of you in costume," said the man, in protest. Then, grudgingly, "You were a lot better built."

      "That was body armor," said Vic, rolling her eyes, "Which I will put on in a few minutes. Listen, even ignoring the potential for a sexual harassment complaint, we're here on serious business. Shouldn't you have your mind on that, instead of my figure?"

      "What sexual harassment?!" said the officer, irately. "You feminists will use any excuse to put a man down, won't you?"

      "Right," said Vic, turning and walking away.

      "What's the problem?" said Cosmic Ray, as Vic approached.

      She explained, flushed from embarrassment and anger.

      "Okay, don't worry. I'll handle it."

      "Thanks."

      Unfortunately, the situation escalated quickly, Ray winding up in a shouting match with the older man. Quickly, the officer's superior stepped in, only he took the other man's word that he had done nothing wrong. Finally, Ray also stormed away.

      "Right. We're out of here. Guy told me, flat out, he doesn't want federal help, they can do better on their own."

      "That..." said Doro, confused. "What do we do, now?"

      "Okay, everyone, listen up!" said Ray. "We're not going to get any cooperation here, so break up and go to your previously assigned secondary locations!"

      "No way!" said Death Nell, glaring at Vic. "I am not going to take orders from that... cross dresser!"

      "What is this, pick on Vic day?" said Vic, angrily.

      They quickly scattered, with those who couldn't fly, run, teleport or bum a ride using their own vehicles. All of them knew that many of them wouldn't be coming back.

       * * *

      With Pine Island currently secured, some supers from there were directed towards their neighbors. Template wasn't sure why the Shilmek wanted Bermuda. Maybe as a base of operations if they didn't capture Pine Island right away? Whatever; these ships were all transports and small, fighter-like craft.

      Ship after ship over Bermuda exploded in an impressive display. Between Template and a couple of other supers from the school, the attackers here weren't doing well at all. Indeed, they were already nearly completely eliminated, all either destroyed, captured or running.

      Template's moment of celebration was cut short by a horrible impact. She spun through the air, losing her cannon, impacting the ground before she could regain her senses.

      She sat up, shaking her head, barely recovering in time to realize something was hurtling at her. Someone, feet first.

      Template rolled out of the way and quickly stood, thinking at first she was fighting an empowered Shilmek. Instead, she saw Energex lift out of the crater his attack had left.

      "You maniac!" shrieked Template. "I'm trying to save the Earth!"

      "I'm trying to kill you," said Energex, with a nasty smile. "I'll save the Earth later. Get a pardon and everything."

      He surged forward, throwing a hard punch. Template blocked, but his strike was so hard it crashed through. She slammed into the wall of the building behind her.

      "I don't have time for you," said Template, snarling as she wiped blood from her lips and pumped everything into resilience. "My child is in danger! One warning: Stand down or die."

      Energex blurred in and grabbed her around the throat with one hand, lifting her and holding her while he loaded his right hand for a punch.

      "Just how are you going to kill me?!" he said, with a derisive laugh.

      "Already done," said Template, her voice strained.

      Energex stared at her for a moment, puzzled. Then he screamed, dropped her and staggered back, hands clutching his head.

      "What have you done?!"

      "Killed you," said Template, backing away. "Your powers are artificial. That's always been your limitation, your weakness. You don't have the natural safeguards genetic supers have. I just boosted your powers to more than you can take."

      "Stop it! For the love of God stop it!"

      "Already too late. For what it's worth, I'm sorry. It was you or the world. You lost."

      Maddened by the pain, he glared at her, then staggered towards her, hands extended. A red glow began to show through his skin. He stopped, screamed silently, then dropped onto the ground and began melting into the dirt.

      

       * * *

      Fortunately, Template wasn't the only one fighting the landing at Bermuda. While she was busy with Energex multiple defenders went after Shilmek targets. Though Template's score wound up higher than that of any other single super in the area.

      Few of the supers who came to Bermuda were capable of damaging even a transport on their own, but they could still carry weapons or aid others. Some were quite capable of dealing with even the larger fighting craft. One medium-sized combat ship arriving as part of the reinforcements destroyed itself by ramming Myna, carried to the scene by Eagle. When the latter saw the ship heading for them, Eagle told Myna to turn his flight on, then released him and dove out of the way. Since Myna's glacial flight mode made him incapable of dodging even if he wanted to, he had little choice but to brace himself and take it. As was usually the case, he prevailed. The ship struck and pushed itself around Myna for a couple of seconds before exploding and falling to the sea in flaming chunks.

      Soon, the skies over Bermuda were free of alien ships, and the only Shilmek on the ground were prisoners or corpses. Night fell on a scene of gruesome victory.

       * * *

      Octobriana ate a meager though hot meal, as a series of messengers spoke to her. She was a bit surprised to learn of Lord Bitterfrost's death, but there was no love lost between them. He was a relic of the old, pre-Revolution way of things - out of place both during the Soviet era and the present one - and would not be missed. Still, he was a staunch defender of Mother Russian. For that, his loss was regrettable.

      She finished her food, let the last man speak, then stood. Those with her fell silent, the closest ones actually stepping back a bit.

      "To war," she said, simply.

      She strode from the hidden bunker, out onto the blighted landscape which had been the center of Vladivostok. Octobriana grimly started walking, barely sparing a glance at the destroyed Shilmek craft she and others had dealt with earlier. There was still far too much work to do to celebrate that minor victory. She would see first this peninsula freed, then all of Russia. That she vowed.

       * * *

      President Sievers made the decision shortly after the small crew in the trailer finished a simple evening meal.

      "I need to know what's going on," she said. "I believe there's a military unit camped in the woods not far from here. I'll walk over there and see if they have any information."

      "Madam President!" said Mark Callas, the senior member of the Secret Service present. "We have no way of guaranteeing your safety!"

      "Mark, that holds true even if we stay here. I will not be found hiding in a hole. The only way you can stop me is to physically restrain me."

      "I... won't do that," he said, reluctantly. "But Steve and I have to go with you."

      The other Agent nodded.

      "I know that. One reason I waited so long is because I didn't want to endanger you two. That's also why I won't send anyone else. Someone needs to go, and I'm the only one just sitting here, doing nothing."

      They made what preparations they could, and set out.

      The trio actually made good time. However, as they approached the location where the Army unit was supposed to be hidden, they saw signs of a fierce battle. A little closer, and they saw Shilmek ground troops milling around the remains of the camp. There were many Shilmek bodies, but several times that many Army bodies. Feeling sick, Sievers motioned her two protectors to pull back.

      As they made their way back to the road, however, they were ambushed by several Shilmek in power armor. Mark and Steve reached for their weapons.

      "No!" said the President. "Stand down, you two! I'll need you later!"

      "Throw down your weapons!"

      At Sievers' motion, the two Secret Service Agents obeyed. The leader of the Shilmek who had captured them strode forward, smiling.

      "I recognize you, President Sievers. If you surrender you will be treated as befits a captured head of state."

      "We three surrender," said Sievers, drawing herself up and glaring. "The United States fights on!"

      That actually seemed to please him. He nodded, and his troops escorted the woeful trio to a small ground transport vehicle.

Part Ten

      Gadgetive fumed. Her B.I.G. A.L. communications system was considered so essential that she was confined to the Sub-Terran tunnels to tend it. She was even assigned one of the few surviving Sub-Terrans to help her. She not only kept the system going, but was busy expanding it. Already, she had added several terminals for the temporary dispersal camps the ground forces had been assigned to.

      Ironically, she was so busy with this she had no time to keep track of the communications she was facilitating. Gadgetive was actually less informed than many of those she and her escorts encountered.

      They were finding more and more people in the ancient tunnels. Mostly these were civilian refugees, but Gadgetive and her driver, two security guards and three technical assistants also encountered federal officials frantically working to establish command centers. There were also two governors and five mayors from widely separated locations who, with their staffs, were performing similar operations. They saw no military in the tunnels, except for members of the National Guard who were helping the civilians and the state and local officials.

      "I hate being cut off like this," she said, tiredly, as they boarded the tunnel glider after installing a modem and router connected to hastily installed Ethernet cables run down from the surface.

      "Is it day or night?" said one of the techs, not even trying to stifle a yawn. "I've lost track, and you can't tell down here."

      "Just after seven PM, Eastern Time," said Thurlgar, from the pilot's station. Stolid and patient as was typical of the Sub-Terrans, he gave the impression he had seen it all. Since he was several centuries old, he actually had seen much of it. "Everyone in? Good. We have much still to do."

       * * *

      Blue Impact waited at the dark and silent gas station with quiet impatience as the old man hand pumped gasoline from the underground reservoir, out through the hatch in the pavement normally used to fill the underground reservoir and into the tank on her motorcycle. Ironically, thanks to the efforts of Energia, the ground-based defenders assigned to the areas below her aerial battle had little to do. With no updated orders coming in, they were left to their own devices. Most worked at preparing for what they felt was an inevitable ground war. Blue Impact decided to be more proactive.

      She knew there was fighting to the west, where Doro, Cosmic Ray and several others had been assigned. She didn't know why that area had received such attention from the Shilmek. Maybe that was where they were gathering to advance eastwards.

      "There you go," said the old man, smiling as he closed the motorcycle's gas tank cap with a flourish. "Full to the brim. You sure you don't want any spare cans?"

      "This will get me where I'm going. Thank you."

      "No problem. My unit was cut off in the Bulge and rescued by The Masked Commando and his crew. Consider this partial repayment."

      Blue Impact impulsively gave him a peck on the cheek, then hopped on her bike and started it. They waved to each other as she drove away, lights off. Her bike wasn't fast enough to trigger whatever was killing the speedsters, or large enough to attract the attention of whatever was zapping most vehicles. She would be there in a few hours.

       * * *

      Energia woke to gathering darkness. She groaned, but quickly cut it off. Carefully, she examined herself. Her left foot was the worst, and might even be broken. She carefully pulled her boot and sock off and wrapped her foot in tape from her medical kit. She then treated her various cuts and bruises, redressed and put her kit away.

      Her store was low, but she would sense electrical power to her northwest. With a tired sigh, she worked her way upright and began limping that direction.

      Energia soon found what appeared to be a warehouse district. She wasn't sure even of what the nearest city was, much less what this business was. Somehow, it still had electricity. She tapped into the nearest, 220V, three-phase line and headed upstream. As she came around a corner she heard shouting to her left.

      Six or eight men, carrying various weapons, charged towards her, screaming in incoherent rage. Energia was startled for a moment; then, as she realized they were shooting at her, she put up her plasma wall. The realization - as they drew closer - that several had wooden clubs made her lash out, dumping most of her store into a directed burst of electricity. The men all dropped.

      Energia didn't know if they were dead or not; she really didn't care and didn't have time to check. Neither did she care just now why they had attacked her. Maybe they were collaborators, or bigots who simply thought this a good time to kill a super with no repercussions. Energia resumed recharging from the utilities in the area as she walked.

      Soon she had enough in her store to fly. She rose above the factory roof and looked around. She froze. There, ahead and to the left, was a Shilmek landing site, on the edge of the complex. She found herself wondering why the Shilmek hadn't knocked out the power.

      Ah, well; their mistake meant she could quickly recharge.

      "More fighting," she whispered, tiredly. "It has to be over soon. It has to."

       * * *

      There was little pause in the war after night fell. Indeed, in many places the locals took the arrival of night to begin their counterattacks. This was now less a war than hundreds of small battles. However, the invaders had the advantage. Shilmek sensors had little trouble detecting living things moving in the darkness. Of course, in some places there were other large, living things besides humans out there. After wasting a few herds of deer, they began fine-tuning their equipment.

      The main benefit the actions by the locals brought was denying rest to the invaders. The defenders could operate in shifts; the Shilmek - at least until they could deploy fully and set up well defended bases - had to stay on full alert. All of them.

      The space battle was going in the favor of the Shilmek, but much more slowly than expected. Zeep was reported destroyed. Just now, the Lunies and space-capable supers were fighting a moving battle, maneuvering frantically to avoid the main part of the fleet. They would soon be destroyed, of course. Then the Lunie bases. With space theirs, those on the ground could be reinforced and the true occupation would begin.

      If only there weren't so many of those humans! They just kept coming! The damned animals must breed like flies...

       * * *

      Tiger was tearing into the Shilmek troops, working his way towards the command ship of this landing site. He was hurt, tired and his progress was slowing, despite the bodies strewn on the ground behind him. Finally, at a barked command, the armored soldiers fell back, encircling Tiger. An officer stepped forward, stopping just inside the edge of the circle. He sneered, and held a long dramatic silence. Apparently to allow more troops to come running to the fight. Maybe he didn't realized Tiger could see them hurrying into place, given the darkness surrounding them. After all, they had advanced visual aides, and Tiger didn't.

      The reinforcements not only added numbers but heavier weapons. Tiger looked around at the troops, and fought back a smile. If they opened fire just now, they'd do far more harm to their own people than to him. What worried him was the increased number in heavy powered armor. It was too thick for his claws to reach through to get to the internal components. Well, he had other tools...

      "You have fought valiantly in defense of your home," said the Shilmek officer, finally. "However, we have your measure. You will fall, now."

      "Boys, boys, boys," said Tiger, with a disappointed smile. The idiot didn't even realize his posturing had given the fast-regenerating super time to heal. "I've just been fighting for fun so far. If you want to make it serious, well, that's your choice."

      The smile turned sinister, and his relaxed posture changed to something more aggressive. More confident. There was an odd stirring in the air around him, and colors began to appear. Quickly, he was surrounded by the glowing image of a tiger, reared to strike. The paws flexed, and gleaming white talons appeared.

      "Time to die," said Tiger, in an inhuman voice.

      A hundred thousand years of separate evolution weren't enough to remove the instinctive response to attack by a major predator. By the time the Shilmek rallied six were dead - including their commander - and Tiger was inside their ship.

       * * *

      Vic was by far the most effective member of the group she found herself with. This was in part due to the invaders consistently underestimating her, and focusing on what they perceived as more serious threats. The Shilmek were armored beyond anything terrestrial science could accomplish, and their sensors showed her to be carrying only primitive melee weapons. Despite losing over a dozen of their number to her in less than a minute, they were still slow to accept that she was a major threat. Or any kind of threat.

      Bless you, Coach Trujillo, she thought as, blow after blow, the Purple Art dropped a supposedly impervious opponent. They were tough, even inside that armor, but Vic knew where to hit and how.

      Still, she was in serious danger of being cut off. Vic had to keep falling back, to keep with the line of battle. If she were ever surrounded she doubted the three low-level supers and civilian volunteers she was supposed to be leading could mount an effective rescue.

       * * *

      The inhabitants of Pine Island treated their wounds - personal and collective - and tried to figure out what had happened, and what was still happening.

      "That's the last I saw of her," said Hazel, too tired to cry, as she reported the events at the landing on the beach while sitting on the ground inside a UN Security Forces medical aid tent. None of the chairs or beds would hold her, of course, and she was wearing a blanket, due to losing her clothing in the attack. "Most of those I was with were dead or too badly hurt to act after the Shilmek blasted us. I was stunned, trying to get to my feet."

      The iron woman shook her head, partly to clear it, partly in denial.

      "Please hold still," said the UN medic checking her, rather timidly.

      "Allessandra just... flew right inside their ship and it blew up!"

      "We've got a cleanup crew going over the site," said the lieutenant in charge of debriefing those at the incursion. "They... haven't found her."

      "God..." said Hazel. She heaved a huge sigh. "She was always so impulsive. That's how she got in trouble. This time... Well, she may have saved a lot of lives, but she... she should have..."

      Now she did cry, rusty tears running down her grey face.

      "She told me, once, that I was the only friend she'd had since her powers started."

       * * *

      All around the island - as those not directly involved in the cleanup in Bermuda now worked in the harsh glare of artificial light to assay and repair the damage - others were making similar reports. Some to island security personnel, some to officers from the UN forces.

      "Are you certain he is dead?" said Adelaide Holmes, the UN liaison to the island and overseer for all their personnel, including the T.O.W.E.R. troops. She sounded anxiously hopeful.

      "I didn't have time to make sure," said Template. Ironically, this was the least injured she had ever been after a fight with Energex. She hadn't even bothered getting her split lip seen to. "I knew he was at the very least out of action for a long time, and there was a battle going on."

      "Very well," said Adelaide. She sighed. "We'll put that crater on the list of places to check. Unfortunately, there are so many things already on the list we may not get to that site for a while."

      "What's the news from the rest of the world?" said Template, barely able to restrain from sounding hysterical. What had happened to Energia?

      "Mixed," said the UN liaison. "Very mixed. Some areas the Shilmek targeted with heavy forces are barely touched. Some they only sent a few craft against have gone completely silent. On the larger front, the space battle is dragging on. We think all the maneuvering the Lunie forces are doing is prelude to some trap or massive counterattack, but communications are pretty much snafu."

      She picked up a remote and pointed it at the large display at the rear of her office, there in Pine's old base.

      "The red dots are places where the Shilmek attacked. Blinking red dots indicate successful landings. Red dots with a black center are known destroyed Shilmek ships."

      "There are a lot of black centers on the Atlantic coast," said Template, hopefully.

      "We have Energia to thank for that. We're still getting sporadic reports of her, on the ground, now. She's definitely taking the fight to the enemy."

      That was good news.

      "When can some of us go help the mainland?"

      "After a good meal and a couple of hours rest. The situation is pretty static just now, and isn't likely to change any time soon. The Shilmek fleet is being kept busy by the Lunies, so those on the ground won't be reinforced any time soon. If we can send fresh - or relatively fresh - forces against them by dawn, that should have a major impact in our favor."

Part Eleven

      Brade was frantically going from place to place throughout the DC and Maryland area, desperately trying to find President Sievers. She located the trailer where Sievers was taken early in the attack, but those there said the President had left to gather information. Only, the Army unit Sievers was supposed to head for had been wiped out. After hours of fruitless searching, Brade finally satisfied herself that none of the bodies were Sievers or her Secret Service protectors.

      I would be out of the country when the attack hit, she fumed, as she set off yet again. Took me hours of running to get here. So far, I haven't even managed to fight any Shilmek!

      She would try the Special Resources installation, next. It was relatively new and pretty low key as super installations went. It might have escaped direct attack.

       * * *

      Paula steered the rally car under a stand of trees not far from the Assembly base and shut it down. She pried her fingers off the steering wheel and leaned back in the seat for a moment, just breathing, forcing herself to relax.

      Running messages between the Assembly and other supers had turned into a full time job and now included civic and military leaders. It also meant dodging around Shilmek patrols outside the landing-free area. By sticking to back roads and being smaller than a truck - not to mention using fifty year old technology - she avoided attention from the Shilmek aerial and orbital drones.

      Unfortunately, while her night vision was better than human average, driving at night with no lights still meant going slow and being alert the whole time. All Paula wanted right now was a shower, a meal and a nap.

      Still, she had a very good idea of how things were going in this region of the country, and the news was actually good. The Shilmek had avoided targeting residential areas, and most of them still had electricity and other utilities. Landline phones were spotty - the Assembly base was cut off, for instance - but people could stay in their homes and be reasonably safe.

      "Is it mercy or pragmatism?" Paula muttered, as she climbed slowly out of the car.

       * * *

      "We're slowly restoring communications," said the woman in charge of the cramped, dank, underground base where the Vice-President was hiding. "The situation looks pretty grim, but we're holding."

      "At a fantastic cost," said Sargent, as he read through the freshly-printed reports. "This is insane! And it's all because Sievers gave asylum to Queen Tolnar."

      Reports continued to arrive, most of them verbal. Very little of what they related was good news. Some of it was quite bad.

      It's time for a bold move, the Vice-President decided. Someone has to open negotiations. If we give them Tolnar, maybe they'll be satisfied. They're having enough of a hard time, that might be enough.

      Evading his Secret Service protectors wasn't easy, but he had help from loyal members of his staff. He crept through the dark to the helicopter which had brought him here. After landing it had been dragged under some nearby trees and simply left. Sargent knew enough about radios to turn one on and select a frequency the Shilmek were likely monitoring.

      "This is Vice-President Harold Sargent," he said into the mic, pleased that is voice was steady and strong. "I would like to open negotiations with the Shilmek."

       * * *

      "It's got to be a fake," said Dr. Gorgeous, when informed of the radio message. "I mean, why claim to be Sargent instead of Sievers?"

      "Maybe it's real," said Dr. Piano, thoughtfully. "The President does seem to be missing."

      "I could head there and check it out," said Paula, with little enthusiasm. She had managed the shower and meal, but no nap.

      "No. We have a bearing, but no idea of distance. If we could triangulate..."

      "When this is all over," said Paula, rubbing her eyes, "can we please tie into the old Sub-Terran tunnels? This is ridiculous."

      "If we are in a position to, certainly," said Dr. Piano.

       * * *

      Sargent was soon speaking with someone named Shulept. He claimed to be on the "Ruling Council of the Liberation" and seemed to have a real hate-on for Tolnar. Better and better. They quickly reached an agreement to talk, under truce, with safe conduct promised by both sides. Sargent didn't mention that he had no way to make the passage unsafe for the Shilmek.

      Trying not to be nervous - though not succeeding too well - Sargent waited in the agreed-upon location. Soon, a Shilmek atmospheric transport dropped silently into the clearing. Steeling himself, Sargent walked forward as the hatch opened.

      There were brief introductions; then Shulept began the negotiations.

      "You have the authority to speak for your nation?"

      "Yes. With the President missing I am in command."

      "Yet you are proposing an action which goes against her express wishes."

      "Her wishes were hers," said Sargent, hotly. "She isn't here. I am."

      "So, you are deliberately violating her promise to Tolnar."

      "It was her promise which got us into this mess!"

      "Very well, then: Where is Queen Tolnar?"

      "Tolnar's entourage was dispersed," said Sargent. "Tolnar herself is in San Francisco. That's on the west coast of this continent."

      "We know where that is. We want the specific location."

      "There's a safe house in the hills outside town," said Sargent. He gave them directions.

      "Yes, thank you. We will go there immediately."

      "So, you get her and you leave us alone?"

      "No," said Shulept, smirking at the human's expression on hearing that. "We're annexing your world, as part of a renewed expansion program."

      "We had a deal!" said Sargent, his voice going shrill.

      "Did you really think we would honor an agreement with a traitor to his own people?"

      He turned to the security guards.

      "Put him in with those he betrayed. They should be far more inventive dealing with him than we would."

      The Vice-President screamed, over and over, as they dragged him away.

       * * *

      Energia traveled in a generally northwest direction for hours. She mostly walked, but when there were enough trees overhead she flew, low and slow. The friendly forces she encountered informed her that a major counterstrike was being prepared against what appeared to be the largest concentration of Shilmek forces on Earth.

      None of the soldiers or supers she spoke with had any authority over her, and none seemed eager to try and establish any. Word of her performance during the initial stages of the landing had spread, and even those praising her seemed uneasy, almost awe-struck. Lacking specific orders, Energia decided to do a reconnaissance in force. She continued forward at her slow pace, keeping an eye out and simply eliminating any Shilmek she encountered.

      Suddenly, the sky lit, with both illumination and weapon fire. Somehow, the Shilmek had noticed Energia approaching, despite her attempts at stealth. For several minutes she fought back, knocking their flying craft out of the air and shorting out the combat armor of the ground troops. Several EMP bursts helped, though not nearly as much as she expected, nor for nearly as long; their electronics were far more robust than human designs. Still, she was keeping out of reach of those power armor suits and their ranged weapons were having little effect.

      Unexpectedly, there was a pause in the fighting. Lights illuminated a clear area ahead, and a man stepped out.

      "Energia!" an amplified voice announced. "This is Admiral Bolreg. We know where you are. You are surrounded, and will not escape."

      She kept silent. After a pause, the voice continued.

      "We have your President and assistant President. Your world is lost. You will now surrender."

      Energia thought quickly, remembering what she knew of the Shilmek code of honor. She strode forward, into the lighted area.

      "I will surrender if you allow me to be the guard for President Sievers and Vice-President Sargent while they are your prisoners."

      "Will you promise to make no attempt to escape or otherwise act against us as long as they are not threatened?"

      "Yes."

      "Then we so agree."

      "Then I so agree."

       * * *

      The President looked up as the door into the large room the prisoners shared opened. She was startled to see twenty armed and armored Shilmek warriors escorting a rather battered-looking young woman wearing a damaged costume into the chamber. Oddly, the young woman was walking boldly, proudly, while her captors appeared wary and perhaps even intimidated. While the guards stopped just inside the door, the young woman marched directly to Sievers, who rose to meet her, along with Mark and Steve. Sargent looked up, but made no attempt to get off his bunk. The young super stopped and examined the older woman for a moment.

      "Madam President, are you well?"

      "As well as can be expected. Energia, isn't it?"

      She nodded. Then, she turned and walked towards an older Shilmek - an officer in uniform rather than armor - and began removing items from her costume, which she handed over to him.

      "That's everything except the medical supplies."

      "That is all we require."

      He turned and walked out with the items, the guards filing out behind him. The door closed with a muffled thump, and an air of finality.

      Energia turned back to the President, shoulders slumping, looking exhausted, now.

      "God, I'm tired."

      "Here," said President Sievers, helping her to a chair. "Child, what are you doing here?"

      "Took out most of the wave over the middle of the East Coast," said Energia, folding her arms on the table and looking into the distance. "Had a personal fight with one of their leaders, who was at least as powerful as Tolnar but didn't have much experience. I managed to win, but got knocked out, which kept me from getting back in the fight right away. By the time I did, the Shilmek were on the ground, and I couldn't use my big attack. So I went after the troops. They managed to stalemate me, then told me they'd kill you and Mr. Sargent if I didn't surrender."

      "Can you get us out of here?" said Sievers.

      "Sorry. Not only is this chamber surrounded by a very strong force field, but I gave my word that as long as they let me protect you I wouldn't try to escape."

      "What?!" said Sargent, sitting up. "That's crazy!"

      "That's their culture," said Sievers, giving the man a scathing look.

      Energia didn't know what was going on between those two, and just now didn't care. She made only token protest when the President insisted she get some water, some food and some rest. Mark and Steve took charge of the remaining medical supplies she carried, and began giving her injuries more professional treatment. Both had received EMT training as port of their preparation for guarding the President.

      "You likely have a concussion," said Mark. "I'd tell you not to sleep, except you've already been unconscious for a few hours and seem mostly all right. Right now, you need rest."

      "Gladly," said Energia, rising and allowing herself to be led to a bunk.

      

Part Twelve

      Brade ran along the dark country road, trying to reach the location where the counterattack was being assembled before that could get under way. She looked over her shoulder as she heard a vehicle approaching, lights off. A small touring car pulled beside her and both she and it stopped.

      "Need a ride, lady?" said Paula, grinning. "They told me when I delivered a message back down the road that you were heading this way. I can get you there faster than you can run."

      "You've got to be kidding me," said Brade, looking dubiously at the tiny car.

      "That's what I said." Paula shrugged. She opened the passenger door. "Well, let's give it a try."

       * * *

      They were falling, failing, being driven back, into the darkness of the trees. Supers, soldiers and civilians alike were dying by the score. Vic found herself in an isolated pocket of defenders, the last super among them. Shouting shrilly, hoarsely, she drove them into a defensive perimeter around their position. She knew they only had a short respite before the Shilmek finished with those in the open and entered to complete the job. Or simply vaporized the area from a distance.

      "We have to hold! There's a major counterstrike being assembled. If we fall there will be a hole in the line and everything could go to pieces!"

      They knew this. They wanted to hold, to fight, to drive the enemy back. They just didn't have the strength.

      A single note sounded. Bell-like, loud and clear, coming from everywhere and nowhere, it gave pause to all who heard it. As it slowly faded those in the area came back to life, shaking their heads, dazed.

      Then, a susurration spread rapidly through the humans.

      "Rocker! It's Rocker!"

      Vic turned and stared. There, standing on a boulder, in a pose which would have been melodramatic for just about anyone else but which definitely worked for him, stood a figure, dressed in fancy garb from a past age: Rocker, the Town Hero. Unseen for over fifty years, unchanged and unyielding.

      He spared the Shilmek a scathingly dismissive glance, recognizing them as the squares they were; then smiled at those defending Earth. He raised his hand above his head, fingers ready to strike the strings of his custom Gibson.

      "Let's rock."

      Those quiet words somehow spread over the entire scene of the battle. At the thunderous chord which followed, the humans attacked, shouting like ten times their number.

       * * *

      "What the Hell is going on Charlie Zone?" said Cosmic Ray, looking at the display on his tablet. "The Shilmek keep pouring more and more troops in."

      "Isn't that where Vic's group is?" said his assistant, a young solder the super had met only the day before.

      "Yeah. They were supposed to be harassing the Shilmek; not fighting them to a standstill."

      "Their last communication," said Corporal Phibes, flipping through a stack of messages, "said they had been engaged by the enemy and pulled back to a more secure location."

      "I don't know why the Shilmek are focusing on that one group," said Colonel Burton, the senior military officer anyone in the area anyone could find, and therefore in charge of the counterattack. "However, it's letting us prepare for the counterattack with less trouble."

      "We don't have anything to spare to help them," said Ray, angrily. He wanted to kick something. "God, I hate this!"

      "They're in a heavily forested area just now," said Burton. "If they can just hold out for a little longer, we'll be ready to start our operation. That should take the pressure off them."

      "Sir!" said one of the communications officers in the command tent. They were using old-fashioned field telephones, which so far the Shilmek hadn't been able to jam. They might not even know the devices existed. "Report from Bravo Zone. They say the enemy is being driven back from the area just north of them! It's a rout!"

      "Wait... Isn't that Charlie Zone?" said Ray.

      More reports came in, confirming the activity.

      "Damn," said the Colonel. "I don't know what's going on in there, but we need to take advantage of it! Especially since it's creating a bulge in our line!"

      "You spread the word to your people," said Ray, nodding. "I'll spread it to mine. It's a bit early, and we're not quite ready, but we have to move! Pour everything into Baker and Dog Zones, fast! Tell those already there to support Charlie as best they can until the reinforcements get there!"

       * * *

      As they forced the Shilmek back into the open, the battered members of Vic's group found themselves reinforced by fire from both their north and south. Vic halted her troops just inside the woods, where those few who still had ammunition continued shooting at the Shilmek. There were bodies all over, in the woods and in the clearing. Most of them were Shilmek.

      After only a few minutes of this, the Shilmek stopped trying for an organized withdrawal and began running. With a roar, the forces north and south of their position charged, chasing the fleeing invaders. Vic and her exhausted people collapsed, completely spent. They had done enough. Just barely, but they had done it!

      Vic tiredly turned towards some movement to her left, and saw the man who had turned the tide for them, standing alone, not far from her.

      "Now, I must go," said Rocker, with a sad smile. He looked away, into a distance they couldn't see. "Across eternity, the backbeat calls me."

      He turned and walked off, into a distance not part of the normal four dimensions, shrinking into a dot, then vanishing.

       * * *

      The reinforcements arrived at the battle expecting to find a slaughter. There was one, but it was the enemy who were nearly all dead. With the surviving Shilmek being pursued by the forces of Baker and Dog, the reinforcements charged into action. They had a spearpoint, now. A spearpoint aimed directly at the Shilmek landing site nearby.

       * * *

      Even as the troops, civilian volunteers and supers advanced on the Shilmek, more continued to arrive at the assembly area. They were directed to the command tent, where each squad or platoon leader, civilian group leader or individual super was told where to go. Brade, Blue Impact, Paula and many others closed in on the concentration of Shilmek forces and equipment. They were given orders and equipment, and sent into battle. Had the invaders completed the force wall being erected the effort would likely have failed. However, between that still being down and the confusion caused by the Shilmek fleeing Baker Zone, there was a weak spot in their defenses.

      Missiles and beams shot out, but the supers and a handful of antimissile units took care of most of those. The attackers were too close to the camp by the time this happened for the missiles to be directed at them, anyway. They were aimed at locations in the rear of the human forces, where the Shilmek had spotted activity previously.

      In the command ship, Sievers and the other members of her group were startled when the door to their room opened, and several guards in power suits came in.

      "There is a battle underway outside," said the leader of the small group. "Our orders are to escort you to a safer ship, since this one is being targeted by the attackers."

      The President glanced at Energia.

      "That makes sense; since we are honorably surrendered prisoners the Shilmek are required to protect us, even against accidental injury or death from our own side."

      There was some grumbling - most of it from Sargent - but they quickly gathered their meager possessions and allowed themselves to be escorted through the ship to an airlock. This was connected to another ship by a transit tube.

      "This is very different," said Energia, looking around as they were guided into a large, empty chamber. "Completely different design."

      There were three male Shilmek in civilian clothing in the room, preparing several pieces of apparatus. The leader of the troopers in power armor went to one of the men, who turned to meet him. They spoke briefly and quietly; then the civilian told some of the others there to do something. A moment later, there was a loud pop, and the prisoners were surrounded by a transparent, dome-shaped force field. The lead trooper saluted, Shilmek fashion, and left with his troops.

      "Can you understand any of what they said?" Sievers asked Energia.

      "Some. This is a... science ship? Research vessel? Something like that. It's the only other craft they have with facilities for holding supers. The soldiers had to go back to guard the command ship."

      "Out of one frying pan, into another," said the Vice-President, sourly. "Oh, well; at least it's not the fire."

      "I wonder who is attacking them?" said Sievers. "We couldn't hear anything in the command ship."

      "I felt a lot of activity outside in the past fifteen minutes or so," said Energia, frowning in thought. "I was about to wake you with... Hold on. We're lifting off!"

       "We're what?!" said Secret Service Agent Mark Callas. "That is not good."

      "Can you hear me?" said a voice with no obvious source.

      "Oh, clever," said Energia. "They're modulating the force field to act as a speaker."

      "I am Kevel, leader of the Shilmek Elite Council of Science," said the voice, apparently originating from the same civilian who had spoken with the trooper. "We are the true power behind the new rulers of the Shilmek Empire."

      "Notice, there aren't any of the rulers or their soldiers here," said Energia, in a low voice, loaded with sarcasm.

      "We told those elitist idiots the Empire wasn't ready to capture Earth, yet," said the scientist, sounding irritated. "However, they insisted, so we decided to use this opportunity to evaluate our work. We made huge advances in both the equipment and genetic engineering over the past few decades. Advances Queen Tolnar understood, but did not want to put to the test. Now, we have our test results, and will return home to make improvements."

      "You'll be blasted out of the sky," said Steve.

      "Oh, my, no. This ship has advancements above and beyond those of the other craft in this operation. Among them sophisticated stealth technologies. Those on the ground never saw us leave, and we will be undetectable by any of the sensors of your supers or primitive space craft."

      "So why tell us all this?" said Sievers, scowling. "Just to hear yourself talk?"

      "No. To prepare you."

      A large device which looked suspiciously like a weapon rolled smoothly to the edge of the dome.

      "We are going to test your super. What we learn from her will help us make even greater improvements. We wish to know how she manifested that energy discharge which did our forces so much damage. As well as why she has done nothing of similar magnitude since. She will resist the effects of this beam, or you will all die."

      That was all the warning he gave. Fortunately, it was enough. Energia quickly placed herself between the weapon and those with her, and braced against the attack. The beam was barely visible, but it was some sort of disruption effect, and would have torn their molecules apart without Energia there to stop it.

      "You're violating our surrender agreement!" Energia shouted.

      "That was your agreement with them. We are not required to hold to it."

      

Part Thirteen

      "How's Moldaria doing?" I asked, tiredly, of both Gazer and the masterminds, once Rocker was back with us. He was wasted from fatigue, but exultant. Six times in six hours had stressed him to his superhuman limit, but each had been a major success.

      "Surprisingly well," said Simon, seeming impressed. "The entire country is protected by a force field which has resisted everything the Shilmek have thrown at it."

      "I'm not surprised," I said, nodding. "Okay, what's next?"

      "We've identified the sources of the various types of jamming," said Gazer. "Many of them have already been destroyed, with the result that communications are somewhat better, at least in some areas."

      "Let's see what we can do about improving them even more," I said, with a nasty smile.

       * * *

      Once the mismatched duo reached the assembly point and the huge super identified herself, Paula and Brade were quickly sent for orders. Paula kept pushing herself to stay awake. She wasn't tired, thanks to her internal magic, but the increased need for sleep she felt lately was definitely making itself known. Finding herself dozing during an important mission briefing, she quickly stepped outside, into the darkness. She literally slapped herself back and forth across the face.

      "Stay awake!" she hissed, focusing on that goal the way she had previously focused on boosting her strength.

      Paula felt an odd tingling, and a surge of energy, and suddenly felt as awake as she ever had in her life.

      That's more like it, she thought, with grim satisfaction. Now, back to work.

      There wasn't much time. The fight was already underway, and things were still being organized. Though there was far more fighting ahead than planning.

       * * *

      Template arrived late for the attack, screaming in on the deck at well over the speed of sound. Whatever had been threatening the speedsters and supersonic flyers - including aircraft - had been knocked out by someone, somewhere. They could sort out the details later; right now, those who could move faster than the tunnel gliders were racing to the fight.

      She spotted Doro - engaged with hurling small explosive devices at Shilmek ground vehicles - about to be slammed by a flying Shilmek. Template ambushed the ambusher, carrying him up and away from the battle to the west. She quickly realized he was at least as powerful as Energex... though less skilled.

      They exchange a flurry of blows, then briefly broke apart.

      "You will fall! I, Kemtek, am an Ultra Elite of the Shilmek!"

      "Yeah, so far your words have been more impressive than your fighting," said Template, rolling her eyes.

      "My mitochondria fuse hydrogen for energy!" shouted Kemtek, outraged at the lack of respect. "I burn with the power of a star!"

      "A very tiny star," said Template, with a deliberate smirk.

      She didn't need to activate her gadgeteer ability to realize that even if he produced as much energy as a proportionate amount of the visible surface of a star, he wasn't that much more potent than her. She also seriously doubted he produced as much as the same mass of a core of a star. He'd be glowing white hot from waste energy. Well, he might be more powerful than her, but he'd already shown he had little skill using that power. She could beat him.

      Even more enraged by her second response, the Shilmek Ultra lunged towards her. Template dodged and managed a mild - for her - punch as he went by.

      He swung around and started fighting seriously, with fists, energy blasts and feet. Template matched him, blocking, dodging and counterattacking. She noticed that they were falling, and ignored it. When they hit the ground in a small clearing he was caught by surprise and she took advantage of this. Going on the offensive, she pounded him severely. Still, he managed to break free. They stood, glaring at each other, breathing hard.

      After a few seconds of a mutual gathering of reserves, they resumed.

      Suddenly, he lunged, deliberately past her, this time. Kemtek grabbed her cape and yanked... and nearly fell when it simply pulled loose, as it was designed to do. Template recovered before he did. She again went on the offensive - pouring on the speed at the cost of pure strength. Template drove him down, against and into the ground, pounding like a jack hammer. She didn't let up until he was a broken pile of pain.

      Template stood over the fallen foe, panting hard.

      Then, she reflexively wiped her mouth, grabbed her cape back, straightened, and looked around.

      "Now for the next one..."

       * * *

      "I don't believe this!" shouted Brade, as she swung one trooper in power armor like a flail at several others. "We're actually beating them!"

      "We can't let up now," said Paula, from behind her. "If they manage to get their heavy weapons aimed at us..."

      "Intel says they have interlocks to prevent that," said Brade, wincing as one of the intermediate weapons found her through the melee. "I doubt they'll fire those with their own troops in melee with us, either. They're even reluctant - Dammit! That hurts! - to use their anti-material weapons."

      "One advantage of this bloop gun," said Paula, as she lobbed a short burst over the head of the taller super in a high arc, towards the source of that painful beam, "the shells are too slow for their shields to react to. Got that one!"

      Being physically only human, she had armed herself with a 40mm semi-auto grenade launcher; a low-pressure, low muzzle velocity one. She had to occasionally use her internal magic to boost her strength, but otherwise was simply acting as anyone in good shape could have. She also had to keep going back for more belts - the HEDP seemed to work best - and in the process delivered reports on the progress of the battle and brought back orders.

      "One advantage of this push and all the others going on all over the world," she yelled, almost panting as she hurried after the giantess to continue supporting her, "every ship we destroy improves our communications."

      They were jumped by a half dozen Shilmek troopers in power armor and were busy fighting for a few seconds.

      "We're doing this well all over the world?" said Brade, as she did a quick scan to make sure they had dealt with the last of them.

      "Most places we know about!"

      Their coms crackled.

      "Speaking of better communications," said Brade, as a message began coming through.

      "All supers who are class thirty or over in strength and resilience, report to Advance Zone Naught for weapons."

      "Where the Hell is that?" said Brade.

      "I'll show you. I need more belts, anyway."

      Advance Zone Naught turned out to be a forward supply center to arm and resupply those fighting. Once there, Brade was recognized and directed to a specific truck, where low-level supers were unloading and handing out very familiar-looking weapons.

      "Are those the updated versions of Dreadknight's lance?" she said, feeling awed as a man and woman - one on each end - handed her one of the large weapons.

      "I don't know, lady," the man panted, as he rested his hands on his knees for a moment. The woman helping him didn't look much better. "All I know is, they just brought these in and want them distributed in a hurry."

      "Who needs instructions?" an Army lieutenant shouted from nearby.

      Brade hurried over, being careful not to get the long device tangled with all the others being carried around.

      Soon, she was on the periphery of the battle, protected by several soldiers from three different branches of the military, as well as a rearmed Paula and another low-level super, this one carrying a hastily modified M2HB.

      "Your job!" a Marine Corps Sergeant shouted, "is if any of their ships take off, you shoot 'em down!"

      "I can handle that," said Brade, smiling for the first time in what seemed like days.

       * * *

      "Where are these forces coming from?!" demanded Bolreg, as he tried to watch multiple displays at once. "We've wrecked bases, destroyed their command centers..."

      "Most of the weapons they are using are too primitive to detect until used," said the Tactical Analyst. "They are not very effective, but there are many of them. They have this fascinating portable canon which uses a rocket-based reaction to..."

      "I. Don't. Care. Tell me how to stop them."

      "Uhm, well, you have to destroy each one."

      "Where is Reddan?" Shulept shouted, as he hurried into the command center. He looked rather battered. "Where is Gelthura? Where is Kemtek?"

      "None are answering their coms," said Bolreg, half panicked. "The last anyone saw of Kemtek, he was fighting one of the more powerful Earth supers."

      "Surely he is finished with that by now! This is irresponsible!"

      "Gelthura and Reddan both had their ships destroyed around them," said the Tactical Analyst. "Both survived and were reported fighting, but there has been no word since."

      "Do these humans have some weapon we don't know about?" said Bolreg, an edge in his voice. "Something they are using to pick up off, one-by-one, in secret? The keep surprising us!"

      "That may be it," said Shulept, tiredly. "I suspect the true answer is that they were drawn into what they believed was single combat and once away from observation were attacked by multiple supers."

      "Those dishonorable, illegitimate..."

      "My lords!" said the Tactical Officer, daring to interrupt. "They have routed the ground troops! Also, sensors are showing new weapons arriving of multiple types. Some of which have proven effective against our ships elsewhere!"

      "Already?!" said Bolreg. "Impossible!"

      "They are using multiple unorthodox methods of attack," said the TO. "Including psionics."

      They watched as one of the troop transports took off without authorization.

      "Those fools!" said Shulept. "Alone, they will be..."

      Several beams quickly converged on the fleeing transport, and the ship exploded. Worse, the wreck crashed on top of one of the heavy warships.

      "What are they doing?! They're causing more damage than the humans!"

      Bolreg's words were far from true, but the accident definitely put a huge dent in morale.

       * * *

      "Look at them, scurrying in a panic," said Kevel, the leader of the scientists. He glanced at a readout, then at the force dome and Energia. "Increase by twelve percent."

      Energia pretended to grimace in effort, but this really wasn't much of a load. She hoped they didn't realize that; she didn't want to find out just how high this device actually went. She didn't know how long they would hover here, in the stratosphere, watching the battle below. Hopefully, long enough for someone to notice this ship. Meanwhile, they were distracted enough they were slow about increasing the power in the weapon.

       * * *

      In deep space, a formation of Lunie ships was heading rapidly towards Earth. It wasn't as large as it had been when it first set out, but it would have to do.

      "Time to long-range fire?" said Captain Hazard, head of the Planetary Defenders.

      "Still almost half an hour, sir," said his navigator.

      Hazard nodded, and resumed his quiet, determined waiting. Maneuvering the Shilmek fleet into the trap had taken longer and cost far more than they could spare, but at last they were now free to deal with those who had landed on Earth. If only they could get there before it was too late...

       * * *

      The attack had reached the hulls of the ships, now. Those troops who had not managed to get inside were sealed out, and were being destroyed. Bolreg felt a surge of pride that none of them were surrendering, or even pretending to as a ploy to destroy a few more of the enemy before their own end.

      The deck rocked. Those beam weapons... Where had they come from? Why had they not been used earlier? They seemed to be smaller versions of those which had taken out several ships attempting to land on the eastern coast, over the huge city with the odd statue in the harbor. These weren't as powerful as those, but there were more of them. Many more. When enough of them fired together on a ship, the screens would collapse.

      "All craft, prepare for launch," he said, with a calm resignation.

      They would leave quickly as a group, fly up, out of range, then head to the largest stronghold they had left. This was near the area where Tolnar was being held, on the western coast. There, they would regroup, and evaluate the situation. In a worst case scenario, they could at least capture or kill Tolnar before leaving.

      "All ships report ready," said the communications officer. He omitted the unpleasant fact that only a few ships from their task force were capable reporting at all.

      "Launch."

      Before the helmsman could comply there was another jolt, and multiple alarms.

      "Hull breach! Intruders!"

      "LAUNCH!

      "Helm does not respond. Main power is out. Auxiliary power is being..."

      While the commanders of the ships were busy preparing for liftoff and watching the supers wielding the lances, several others had been covertly moved inside the screens. Hidden by various stratagems - including simply covering themselves with bits and pieces of broken Shilmek armor - they had moved up close too slowly for the screens to react. Then, on a flare signal, they had attacked. Their first goal was to disable the ships. Then they were to make and hold new entrances while more supers charged in. Only a handful of the ships left the ground, and the command ship not among them. None went far.

Part Fourteen

      Tolnar looked out at the idyllic night scene visible from the front porch of the modest hillside house which was now her home.

      Such a contrast with the situation in many parts of this beautiful world, she thought.

      Never a vain person, she found the modest accommodations quite pleasant. The location reminded her of the hunting lodge her father had maintained in the Sheppek mountains. Here, though, she could see the lights of San Francisco to her north and west. As well as those of the Shilmek encampment in the mountains to the east of that city. She could even make out a dim glow from over the horizon to the south, where the main Shilmek force for this region was located, outside Los Angeles. That was actually part of the psychological warfare component of an occupation.

      "Light up the sky," said Tolnar in a whisper. "Demonstrate your power to those you will rule."

      The former and possibly future Queen could hear the staff at work inside the home. They were State Department personnel, not there to protect her but to make her stay comfortable. Though she had collectively spent several years on Earth - most of it in North America - in the decades prior to her exile, she still had much to learn about life here. She just hoped she'd have the opportunity to continue doing so.

      She stayed on the covered porch, of course. Behind the insect screening, which also served as a surveillance screen. It irked Tolnar that she could not participate in the fighting, but she definitely understood the restriction against her participation. On one level, her hosts were honor bound to protect her. More pragmatically, if she were captured, the invaders would achieve at least part of their goal.

      In contrast to the usual progress of events during a Shilmek invasion, native communications were actually improving. If what she was hearing was accurate, the war was taking a surprising turn. Tolnar was proud of her people's ability with war. She was old enough to have seen a few of those endeavors, and had participated in one. They had lost only one war in her lifetime - to a very formidable enemy - and even then had done well enough for a negotiated peace, rather than a full defeat. Here, though...

      Well, they did have two years to prepare.

      Earth was in an odd, intermediate state of technology. Most of the worlds the Shilmek had conquered in the past few millennia were either roughly equal in technology, or decidedly inferior. This world was just exiting its steam age, but even discounting the contributions of mad geniuses, it was advancing rapidly... if irregularly.

      Tolnar was no fool. She was not blindly lost in thought. She knew there was a war on, and that she was a major target for the other side. She was on alert, constantly looking and listening. She was still caught completely by surprise when someone flew through the home where she had spent the past several weeks, tackling her and carrying her well away from the structure.

      They were headed towards the rocky hillside at high speed. In spite of her surprise, Tolnar twisted the two of them around and not only rammed her attacker into a boulder, she caught him in the gut with her left shoulder.

      Tolnar let herself roll down the hillside as she recovered from the impact. Surprisingly, her attacker - she could see, now, that he was younger than she expected, perhaps in his mid-teens - seemed only stunned. However, she had more urgent tasks than evaluating his health. Two more - of about the same age - were flying at her, one male and one female.

      Tolnar could tell they were Shilmek, but of a class she had never seen before. They were fast and strong and well trained, but inexperienced. They were also overconfident, even smug. At first.

      She quickly taught them that skill could easily overcome relatively minor differences in power. Even when the more powerful had numbers in their favor. Tolnar actually turned their numbers against them, maneuvering so they interfered with each other. They barely touched her, but she definitely touched them.

      After a frantic few minutes of battle, the trio was on the hillside near Tolnar's terrestrial home, bleeding. The female and one male together over there; the other male over there. They were injured and exhausted, but still willing to fight.

      "Enough!" shouted a voice familiar to Tolnar. Taltep - the oldest member of those currently ruling the Shilmek Empire - landed between the trio and Tolnar. He did not look happy. "Pitiful. You Supreme Elites are the culmination of the greatest program of genetic engineering in the history of this galaxy, and this is the best you can do?"

      He pointed an accusing finger at the young Shilmek who had plowed through Tolnar's home.

      "You, Shelpeh, charged in ahead of the others, against orders. You're lucky to still be alive!"

      "Hello, Taltep. If you've come to ask for your old job of Royal Advisor back, I'm afraid you're out of luck," said Tolnar, wryly.

      He spun around and glared at her.

      "This planet has always had a bad influence on you. That pathetic attempt at humor is only the most recent example!"

      "Why? Why did you turn traitor? My Father..."

      "I am not a traitor!" he shouted, angrily. "Your Father would be ashamed at how you let the Empire go into decline! I am a patriot, part of an effort to restore our former glory!"

      "We weren't ready," she said, hotly. "There were too many major projects still underway to improve both our people and our equipment!"

      "Yes, yes... You used your own son to test the Third Phase of Elite development. I hear he's in space, now, fighting for this world. Instead of ours!"

      "I have to wonder how long you've been planning this. You never gave any indication you were an Elite, yourself, before the revolution."

      "You aren't the only one to be experimenting," said Taltep, proudly. "My parents were doing this fifty years ago! There are six of us, with me the elder, all here on this mudball. Those youngsters are more potent, yet, though lacking in skill."

      "Good," said Tolnar, with a nasty smile. "All the borer worms in one place, with none to dig out afterwards."

      "I will tear you apart!" screamed Taltep, outraged at her refusal to accept the situation.

      "Two of you 'ultimate warriors' are already known to be dead; half the fleet you brought is destroyed and the rest fleeing. What happens to me, here, is irrelevant. You have already lost."

      "Liar! As if anything on this planet posed a serious threat to the might of our fleet or we Elites."

      "Nearly half the damage to the landing forces was done by one of the locals. A young woman I am honored to know, who is my son's consort. She will make a worthy bride for him."

      "Their marriage will very short lived," said Taltep, building energy, "and you will not see the wedding!"

      Tolnar zoomed in, to take advantage of his preoccupation. However, he was watching for this. He dodged, and kicked Tolnar in the ribs as she flew past.

      She rolled with blow and it barely hurt her; she quickly spun away, and prepared to attack again. However, Taltep was already charging.

      The battle went against her from the start; the Ultra was her physical equal, a trained fighter, and far more experienced than the younger Supremes. The fight did not end as quickly as he expected, nor did he escape without injury, but he did win. Finally, he stood over her unconscious form, holding his right arm tight against his side and using his left hand to wipe at the blood flowing from his mouth and nose. He roused himself as his three trainees approached the ruined area where the fight had ended.

      "Take... take her to the ship. I will go to prepare for her arrival. Make sure she does not escape!"

      He rose unsteadily into the air, finally allowing a gasp of pain to escape. He dropped some as he greyed out for a moment, but managed to rouse himself and continue on.

       * * *

      "We have Tolnar!" said Taltep, as he entered his command ship. "What is the status of our forces?"

      "There was a call for all reserves to a major battle well east of here," said the ship commander. He smirked. "As for Tolnar, Central Command still thinks she is at that school."

      "Idiots," said Taltep. He smiled. "Well, that's more glory for us, then. Prepare the holding cell."

       * * *

      "Unbelievable," said one of the trio of Shilmek scientists watching the battle below, shaking his head. Energia remembered one of the others calling him Felshan. "Our initial projections were that this world would fall in roughly one of its days. Now it appears we must call in the reserves waiting in the Centauri system to take it."

      "The call for reserves went out shortly after the battle below started," said the third one, Tethyl, frowning. "I heard it while you were busy preparing for the test subjects."

      "Then where are they?"

      "They announced just moments ago they were in this system and closing on the enemy. Since then, nothing."

      "Inconceivable," said Kevel, with an abrupt chopping motion of his right hand. "Even if that meager defensive fleet somehow defeated our space forces, the reserves would be enough to destroy whatever was left of the locals."

      He didn't sound certain, though. Kevel looked around with a mixture of nervousness and anger. His gaze landed on Energia. She winced. The beam was already a bit of a strain. She hoped he wouldn't ramp it up again.

      "Increase the beam by ten percent."

      Energia grimaced and braced herself. She was in trouble. She hated to do it, but while she could hold against this she had the feeling the beam could go much higher.

      Energia sent out a subspace pulse. Something she had only recently learned from Zeep how to do. She could barely generate the effect, and could not really do anything useful with it... except call for help. From the only super in the solar system whom she knew could not only detect her call, but would respond to it. She knew it was unaffected by force fields and armor, and would probably go undetected by anyone but the target, being on a channel unused by the Lunies or Shilmek.

      *Zeep!*

      A beeping came from the control console. Felshan moved to silence this, and examine the display.

      "There was an odd pulse in field strength in the hyperspace band," he said, looking puzzled. "Analysis is inconclusive as to its purpose or even nature."

      "If she has enough strength to do something like that, we're not stressing her enough," said Kevel. "Increase by fifty percent!"

      Energia gasped at the jump in beam power. She held, but barely.

      Her store was not the problem; she had learned from Zeep how to absorb part of an attack and use it to resist the rest. The problem was that Energia had to channel all that energy, tap it, let it pour through her, reform it, redirect it. She now close to her limit, and in agony. She couldn't even spare the concentration to try something - anything - else.

      "I... called Zeep...," she said, through gritted teeth. "He will... be here... soon."

      "Zeep is dead," said Felshan. "Killed by a weapon we devised."

      "Liar!"

      "Energia..." said President Sievers, hesitantly reaching out a hand towards the girl's shoulder, uncertain whether touching her would be wise or even safe.

      "He will be here!"

      Tethyl increased the beam again and Energia screamed... and held. He looked at Felshan, who nodded. Tethyl reached for the controls.

Part Fifteen

      Suddenly, Energia collapsed. Not because she had failed; because she had succeeded. There stood Zeep, casually taking the load which had almost killed her. The President quickly moved to help the girl.

      "Sorry to take so long," said Zeep, looking at Energia. "I am limited to the speed of light in traveling."

      He turned towards the trio of scientists.

      "Your reserve fleet is gone. I used a sunbeam on them. I was participating in the mop-up when I heard Energia's call. Surrender."

      "No!" shouted Felshan, desperately. "Our weapon!"

      "Most uncomfortable, but otherwise insignificant. Really, I noticed its effects within the first microsecond and moved out of the way."

      Energia started laughing, tiredly and with a ragged edge to the sound.

      "You idiots. You expected him to just stay there for what to him was several hours and let your device destroy him?"

      "I am in communication with those who conducting the battle below. However, I am not permitted below the threshold of space - one hundred kilometers by international law - over the United States. Therefore, you must either surrender and land this ship yourselves, or I will wait here for someone else to fly up and take control."

      "That was never a law; just a formal agreement between you and the federal government of the United States," said Sievers. "You can consider it revoked by executive order."

      "Thank you, Madame President," said Zeep, smiling at her. "I will land us near the battle area immediately, then disable the ship. Oh, and this device, as well."

      The beam died, peacefully.

      "I bet those on the ground will be glad to have your help," said Energia, already looking better.

      "Perhaps. However, they have disabled all the Shilmek spacecraft, captured all the surviving leaders and high ranking officers and are in the process of mopping up."

      He smiled.

      "In some cases, literally."

      "What are the casualties on our side?" said Sievers, suddenly.

      "I'm afraid they are quite heavy. Among others, the Shilmek struck the command tent for this operation with several missiles. All inside are dead."

       * * *

      "That was so weird," said Vic, shaking her head slowly as she looked around the scene of the battle. Her little contingent had been too tired to do anything more than walk here. They missed all but the very end of the battle, but were currently helping with the cleanup. "At the time it made perfect sense, but now... It just seems weird. Melodramatic."

      "That's part of his power," said Brade, with a shrug. She winced; her left shoulder was currently decorated with a bulky and rather uncomfortable-looking bandage. Her regeneration was working on the injury; it actually itched more than it hurt, now. "He works emotions."

      "I've never been so angry," said Vic, looking stunned and frightened.

      The two of them had encountered each other while wandering around, looking for something to do in the captured Shilmek camp. They exchanged information on their recent activities. Then they simply stood for a while, taking in the fact that they appeared to have won.

      "Well, he does claim to be the Norse god of rock," said Brade, wryly. "Who better to invoke a berserker rage?"

      Vic noticed something, and scowled at several men and women in civilian clothes - though some of the outfits looked vaguely military - taking photos and interviewing people.

      "The press is already here," she said, tiredly. "I never saw a one during any of the fighting. Where did they come from?"

      "Their job is to report on the war," said Brade, starting to shrug again but thinking better of it, "not fight it."

      "Come on, you two!" shouted a rather young looking and annoyingly bossy National Guard lieutenant. "Get busy! This war is far from over, and there's still a lot to do, here!"

      Brade and Vic gave each other sour looks, then sighed and turned towards him.

      "Hey!" someone shouted. "They rescued the President! The ship she's in is landing over there!"

      "I better get over there," said Brade, starting off.

      "Hey! You stay right here and do what you're told!" shouted the lieutenant.

      "Stuff it, shavetail," said Brade, not even looking at him. "I'm one of her advisors."

      "Wish I could pull rank like that," muttered Vic, as she stepped past the stunned young man and went to help carry a wounded soldier to an aid station.

       * * *

      Brade managed to be one of those on the ground to greet the President when the hatch of the science ship opened. She was surprised to see Energia and Vice-President Sargent also exit, though she was half expecting the two Secret Service Agents. All looked tired. Energia looked exhausted and hurt, and one of the Agents was helping her walk. The other had a firm grip on Sargent's arm. Neither of them looked happy or relieved, as the others did. The Agent looked stern and angry; Sargent looked... defeated.

      Several people started cheering. Sievers smiled tiredly and waved. Then she spotted Brade.

      "Is the battle here won?" she asked.

      "Yes, Madam President!" Brade told her.

      There was more cheering at that. Those doing the cheering already knew of the victory, but to hear it confirmed was a major boost to their morale.

      "All right. I need to meet with those in command and their staffs at their earliest convenience. Uhm, where would be a good location for that?"

      "How about their command ship?" someone shouted gleefully. "I hear it has a big conference room with a big table!"

      "Yes," said Sievers, smiling. "I think that will do."

      She leaned in close to Brade and spoke quietly.

      "I want Sargent secured somewhere, some place he can't get out of and nobody will be able to talk to him. I'll explain later."

      "Yes, Ma'am."

       * * *

      Sievers looked around admiringly at the large room. The ship was on reserve power, but the techs checking it out assured her that would last more than long enough for basic repairs to be made.

      The news that some of the captured ships could be put quickly back into operation was very reassuring. They likely would be needed to dig out the Shilmek in areas where the invaders had managed to fortify themselves.

      "The size of the operation here was part of what led to their defeat," said Brade, as Sievers tested the late Reddan's chair, at the head of the fancy conference table. "They needed more time to set up their defenses than smaller concentrations of their forces did. Especially the force field security fence."

      Brade began the briefing, other supers and military personnel taking over as they entered. Sievers was startled - and distressed - to learn that the highest ranking surviving officer in this huge operation was a Major Grimes, an assistant to Colonel Burton. The unfortunately late Colonel Burton.

      "That's right," said Sievers, nodding, looking shocked. "Zeep said the command tent took several hits."

      "Madam President," said Brade, quietly into Sievers' ear, "Cosmic Ray was also in that tent."

      "Oh, God... How is Doro taking it?"

      "She's... well, still in shock."

      "Right. I'll see her as soon as we're through here."

      The briefing continued. The battle to defend the Earth was still ongoing at most of the landing sites around the world. Only a few were either taken - as this one had been - or secure enough that the assaults against them had already been repulsed.

"What about the Shilmek in California?" said Sievers. "They have Tolnar and a strong foothold, last I heard."

      "I... wouldn't worry about them," said Brade. "Remember whose territory that is. He's already upset that we had him in - as he sees it - the wrong place. We had a fast subtrain drop him off in the hills outside Los Angeles, only a few klicks from the enemy landing area there. He should be arriving at their gate about now."

      She smiled. It wasn't a friendly expression. Neither was the President's.

       * * *

      The three young super Shilmek carried the unconscious Tolnar back to their task force's command ship through the darkness. They landed at the well-lighted perimeter, cleared security, then walked slowly the rest of the way, to show off their casually-carried trophy. A cheer rose wherever they passed. They were almost to the entrance ramp when a flurry of activity on the perimeter caught their attention. There was small arms fire, then medium arms fire, then frantic calls for heavier weapons. Then one of the heavy cannon placed inside the defensive ring suddenly went flying in a high arc, distinctly bent. The three stared, wondering wondering what - or who - could do such a thing. Also, hoping they would not be needed to deal with the cause, since they were both engaged in important business and very tired and battered from their fight with Tolnar.

      "Yer makin' me MAD!" said a loud, gravelly voice.

      They looked towards the source, and saw a tall, wide human walking towards them as he pushed his sleeves up. There was a path of utter defeat on the ground behind him, through which a large number of other supers swarmed in a spreading fan of attack. The Sailor smiled.

      "An' when I gets mad, folks what is smart gets worried."

       * * *

      A young junior officer came running onto the bridge of the command ship for the western coast occupiers.

      "A powerful super is ripping his way through our defenses, heading towards here! He has already defeated those three young warriors of yours and rescued Tolnar! There are more supers flooding in behind him, through the hole he made in our defenses!"

      "Call Main Command!" said Taltep, watching the mayhem on the a display. "Tell them we have Tolnar but need help to keep her!"

      "We have lost contact with Main Command! None of the other command ships are responding!"

      "That's... that's impossible! Try the First Fleet!"

      "We did! No response!"

      "No..." said Taltep, faintly, not sure what was happening. "This has to be a trick. Something simply blocking our communication. We can't have more than eight percent losses!"

      "News from the Reserve Fleet!" said one of the com operators. "Sub-Commander Quelthen speaks! It's a general broadcast."

      "He's a junior officer," said Taltep, frowning, trying to gather his thoughts. "Commands a repair unit. Put him on!"

      "...that's left! Repeating, my squadron was badly damaged by an overwhelming energy attack. Even being at the rear of the formation, we barely managed to get a little more than half our ships out of the beam in time. There are a few other small groups and individual ships of the Reserve Fleet remaining. We are regrouping in the cometary nebula, in Field Dejealt."

      He gave a list of his resources.

      "Occupying Force, respond! We can offer no support. Be warned, their weapon could destroy any of you if you try to leave the planet. For sanity's sake, respond! We're all that's left!"

      "It's a recording, on repeat," said the com attendant, quietly.

      Taltep was slumped against a control panel, defeated, slowly shaking his head. As he heard the Sailor pounding on the ship's main hatch, he straightened.

      "Open all communications channels," he said, quietly. "Then put me on."

      Moments later, terrestrial communications were again interrupted, as they had been the day before, by Reddan. This time the face and voice were different. Not only was this a different person, but his attitude was different. Vastly different.

      "I am Taltep. As ranking surviving official of the Shilmek Empire, I wish to negotiate the surrender of our forces on Earth."

      

Part Sixteen

      "How you doin', big guy?" said Tiger, as he stepped under the canopied pavilion in the devastated Shilmek compound the victors had taken over as an administrative area.

      "T'at was some good fightin'!" said the Sailor, dabbing a bandanna at his bleeding lip with surprising delicacy. "Best fun I had in a long, long time!"

      Tiger looked around at the (in some cases literally) smoking ruins. There was a generation's worth of tech exploration, here. These ships were advanced even for the Shilmek, with equipment which had still been in development when Queen Tolnar was deposed. The engineer in him felt a little thrill. However, he was still human enough - at least when, as now, prompted by his empathy - to feel guilty at that thrill. These people had brought ruin to tens of thousands of lives and put millions more directly in peril, plus billions more indirectly. Then they, themselves, had been overwhelmed, most of them subsequently killed or wounded. Perhaps the most damaging wounds - on both sides - were the psychological ones.

      "The world has changed," he said, quietly.

      "T'world's allus changin'," said the Sailor, philosophically. "Some'times for the better. Some'times for the worse. Most times it jus' changes."

      

       * * *

      The negotiations were not just short, they were brusque. President Sievers at first demanded an unconditional surrender. However, she "allowed" Taltep to talk her into some conditions. At the top of the list was the repatriation of all captured Shilmek, except for the surviving leaders, the scientists, and a few other individuals. Tolnar and those of her people on Earth would supervise the transportation back to the Empire. Representatives of the UN were kept informed, but with no time to round up a quorum - much less reach an agreement - they were largely silent partners. There would be political repercussions later, Sievers knew, but she also knew this had to be settled now.

      The repatriation served several purposes, all of them beneficial to Earth as far as the President and her advisors could determine. It removed an "illegal alien" population of low-level superhumans who might cause trouble if kept on Earth in detention. It would also put thousands of defeated Shilmek - a condition rare in their history - back into their native population. They would not only carry the message that Earth had beaten them, but the provide an inescapable awareness that far more would not be returning. That would have great impact on the militaristic society.

      Technically, the Shilmek Empire was not surrendering; only the usurpers. Tolnar and the Earth - by UN agreement - were allies in this fight. This would greatly help those Shilmek at home accept the situation.

      It wasn't practical for Taltep to go to the President, and the President wasn't going to him. They settled on him designating someone there to act in his name, while he - much of the world, in fact - watched over video link. Tolnar stood behind him, arms crossed and appearing very angry. She looked oddly like a mother forcing her naughty child to confess and apologize to the neighbor whose apples he had stolen. This despite the fact that Taltep was older than her. On the other side stood the Sailor. There would be no trouble.

      Energia and Zeep flanked the President as she formally accepted the surrender. The Shilmek involved looked stunned, too overwhelmed to even be angry. The same could be said of the few defenders acting as witnesses and honor guard. Neither side could currently say exactly how the tide had been reversed so quickly and decisively. One thing was certain; both would spend whatever effort was necessary to determine that.

       * * *

      "We've had a few problems, with people in some areas continuing to attack the Shilmek after the surrender," said Gompers. "Some because they haven't received word yet, others because they don't care. We're dealing with it. Nearly every nation we've spoken to has agreed to abide by the terms of the treaty... Though some had to have it explained to them in language they understood."

      Which meant varying mixes of persuasion, intimidation and bribery. In other words, diplomatic business as usual.

      "I did warn Taltep that we spoke only for the United States and a few members of the UN, and that even for those nations the communications problems might lead to this," said the President, nodding tiredly. "He didn't really have any choice but to accept it would happen."

      "There is a huge amount of spin going on in various countries, especially those which are hostile to the US," said Howers. "Each nation is generally presenting the victory as due to their efforts, even though most of them were pretty much helpless stopping the Shilmek who landed in their territories from doing whatever they wanted."

      Both men looked harried. They had been evacuated from the White House in separate directions when the fact that Sievers couldn't make it back became obvious. In the past many hours they had struggled to coordinate what facets of federal civilian government continued to operate, without either knowing the exact location of the other. They actually didn't have the authority to do this, but with the President, Vice-President and Speaker of the House all missing - and several in the line of succession further down the chain making conflicting claims -their efforts were welcomed. Unfortunately, they had no word of Sievers' personal aide, Judith Harper. Frankly, Sievers thought it a miracle that so many of her personal staff had not only survived but were actually here. She just hoped Judith was safe, somewhere out there...

      "God..." groaned Howers, stretching, then gasping as his back popped. "I hope I never have to ride in one of those Sub-Terran tunnel gliders again."

      "It got you here in a timely manner," said Sievers, with a wry grin. "Okay, you said that last you heard, the White House and Capitol Building hadn't been damaged."

      "Yeah," said Gompers, nodding. "They left some things untouched, apparently realizing that they were already evacuated. Maybe they even planned to use them, themselves."

      "That fits the profile," said Howers. "Use as much of the trappings of the conquered government as you can to provide a sense of continuity to the populace."

      "My understanding," said Sievers, slowly, trying to stay alert but rapidly tiring as events of the past two days caught up with her, "is that the majority of governments on worlds they conquered continued operating out of their normal facilities during the war, making their capture largely intact easy and simple."

      "A philosophical person might say that all the wars we humans have fought taught us the folly of that," said Gompers. "Except that most of the governments on Earth did exactly that!"

      "I heard the Shilmek captured the entire Iranian Parliament," said Howers, amusement in his voice. "Along with the Supreme Leader, the President... in short, every high legislative or judicial official except for a few who couldn't make it to the capital in time to deal with the 'Western Aggression' of the Shilmek invasion."

      "I am dreading getting back to Washington," said Sievers. "The sketchy information I'm getting here is bad enough. What will it be like when we have proper damage evaluations?"

       * * *

      As it turned out, it was very bad.

      "My God," said Sievers, softly, as she read status reports. Two days after the victory the bureaucracy was slowly grinding back into operation, and already she was seeing devastation of an extent unmatched in modern times by anything short of a World War. "So much death. So much destruction. The US got off lightly compared to some other places; not as well as most of the planet, of course, since we were the main target. We'll be weeks restoring function to large swathes of the infrastructure. Years will be needed to repair or replace everything.

      "All of this, in just over a day."

      "The more technically advanced the warfare, the quicker the war progresses," said General Harvest, shrugging. His left arm was in a cast and there was a bandage on his head. To his embarrassment, the injuries were not directly from Shilmek action, but from his driver wrecking his staff car on the way to the bunker where he was supposed to run the war. Ironically, being laid up in a small civilian hospital saved his life when the bunker was blasted into a crater early in the battle. "Have you read our analysis of their battle plan?"

      "Not yet," said the President, tiredly. "No time."

      "I'll give you the digest version. They planned a hammer blow victory, a blitzkrieg. Swamp the defenses. Get enough troops and materiel on the ground quickly enough in multiple locations to establish secure beachheads. They figured it would take twenty-five to thirty hours. Once they got that far, their victory was assured. Which pretty much matches our assessment.

      "What they didn't consider was that if they didn't get that far, their defeat was assured, about as quickly."

      "They didn't get that far," said Sievers, nodding. "It was close, but they didn't get enough secure bases established before the counterattack."

      "That's it."

       * * *

      Taltep looked up as the door opened, and was astonished to see Tolnar enter.

      She was wearing her formal raiment, looking every inch the Queen of an interstellar empire. She bore her bruises proudly, as a warrior should.

      For several long seconds she simply stood there, glaring at him.

      "Come to gloat?" he finally managed.

      "Not at all. I've come to give you your orders."

      "I refuse..."

      "Shut up. You lost. Worse than your personal defeat, you have brought the Empire to the verge of collapse. One reason you received no support beyond the Alpha Centauri reserves is that as soon as word of the difficulties the attack experienced reached those you presumed to rule, multiple revolts began on each of our twenty-seven worlds. Some were rebelling against your rule. Some were trying to gain power for themselves. On most of our worlds Imperial rule is maintaining power, but in some cases just barely."

      She waited, head tipped slightly to one side, for his reply. Taltep said nothing.

      "One thing these rebellions have in common is hatred for you an the other usurpers."

      "Why?" said Taltep, genuinely surprised. "We freed them from your weak rule. Why would they hate us?"

      "Because you promised them freedom from our rule, then simply took our place, only more harshly," said Tolnar, hotly, her hands clenching into fists. "Worse, you did so while rejecting any wisdom or experience learned from my family's rule. You therefore did a far worse job of ruling. Now, the Empire is in shambles, our worlds are in flames and you... well, you're going to help clean up the mess you made. Whether you want to or not."

      "What do you mean?" said Taltep, suspiciously.

      "First, you're going to organize the repatriation of my troops back home. There they will immediately be put to work helping to restore order. You are an excellent organizer and advisor on purely bureaucratic matters. Your failing was a complete lack of empathy, of any understanding of other people. I have that, thanks in part to my visits to Earth. I will give the orders; you will carry them out to the best of your ability."

      She finally smiled, very coldly.

      "Just like old times."

       * * *

      Sargent looked up from his bunk as the door opened, and was surprised to see his boss enter. Alone.

      "Here's the deal," said Sievers, not bothering to sit. "As soon as Congress can meet - probably in three more days - you will very publicly resign. No explanation. As long as you never say anything about your treason - Shut up! - and stay out of politics, you can do what you want. That means no running for office, not endorsing other candidates, not even a single donation of a political nature. I'll give you an hour to decide."

      "And if I refuse?" he said, sitting up and giving her a defiant glare.

      "You disappear."

      She turned and walked out the open door. Which clanged shut behind her with a definite impression of finality.



      End



      This document is Copyright 2013 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net