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Masks XVII: Fallout


Rodford Edmiston

This story is partly a catch-up with folks and events and partly the culmination of a subplot which has been brewing for several years. There will definitely be more on this in later stories. This installment is a bit brief due in part to me writing a lot for (hopefully) professional sale.

Part One

      I could have parked closer, but I wanted to get a good look at the place before going inside for my appointment. Foot traffic flowed around me as I headed towards the blocky building, busy people in a hurry barely noticing me. This area saw enough tourists that someone walking slowly and looking around was not unusual.

      The old Lafayette Theater had barely changed since I first saw it as a kid in the Thirties. Oh, the marquee had been updated several times since then, and was currently a computer-driven - and rather garish - LCD display. The windows on the upper floor were modern double-pane replacements. The ticket booth was also new, and set further back from the sidewalk. I remembered how hot that got in the San Francisco Summers and figured it was at least more comfortable, now.

      I could no longer see the ancient air conditioning equipment or the greenhouse on the roof. Even the plank fence which had long shielded the top of the building from view was gone. The brownstone was also a lot cleaner, now, the exterior practically glistening. Overall, though, it was the same since being converted into a theater about a century earlier.

      I took a deep breath, and smiled. Among the scents was food from a really good Chinese restaurant just a block and a bit away, towards Chinatown. I was glad they were still in business, and still making good food. I made a mental note to have lunch there. If I felt like eating after this.

      I noticed some damage to a tall building in the distance and turned contemplative as I continued walking. Folks were still trying to untangle what happened during the War. Despite modern communications much went undocumented. Much which was documented was so thoroughly documented that people were still sifting through the multiple videos and photos and blog reports. That some of the things posted supposedly showing events of the War were obviously faked - including scenes from movies - wasn't helping. Also not helping was the flood of people taking things others had posted and passing them off as their own work.

      So many questions still unanswered... Was the literal repulsion of the invaders from Australia really the work of long-vanished heroine Gravitas, or some secret weapon? Who were the multiple Radio Stars who fought in different parts of the Southeast? I shook my head and sighed. I was deliberately avoiding the present situation. My purpose for being here today was connected to something which I did before the War...

      The alley I turned down wasn't quite as clean as the street out front, but it was by no means filthy. I dodged around a couple of dumpsters and a pile of shipping pallets, then turned the corner and headed for the rear of the brownstone.

      The most obvious means of entry were a pair of garage doors - modern, overhead industrial loading dock types, rather than the old, wide swinging wooden ones - but my target was the human-sized entrance at the far end of the wall. It opened at my touch. No surprise; I was expected.

      Inside I walked to the door at the bottom of the enclosed stairs, opened it and started up. I had to grin at the memories this exercise brought. The place had been rigged to deter unwanted visitors. More than one person - on reaching the top of the stairs - had opened the door and stepped back out into the ground-level garage. In large part thanks to a couple of professional magicians the owner had met while working in sideshows and some engineering students.

      When I opened the door at the top I stepped into a small cloak room. The door at the far end of that opened into a large loft. The thick, old wooden beams under the modern flooring still squeaked slightly from my weight in that familiar way as I walked into the open area, admiring again the artwork on the walls, the beautiful furniture and the hand-woven rugs. Frames paintings, photos and posters hung on the walls. Over there was a presentation Thompson submachinegun on a plaque. There was a presentation Colt Monitor II, the lightweight version with the pistol grips and bipod, rare forty round magazine in place. The -history- of this place! I could actually see faint paths worn in the tough wood flooring from long use.

      "Welcome," said a high, clear and definitely feminine voice.

      "Jeez, Fen," I said, mock-teasing, as I looked for the source of that voice, "you shouldn't leave your doors unlocked. Anybody could walk in."

      She entered the large den from the kitchen, all 147 centimeters of her when she stood flat footed, as she was now. She didn't look pleased.

      As always I was struck by her appearance. For several decades in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries she worked as a sideshow freak. The best short description I have for her is "midget werewolf." The long description could fill pages. Volumes, if you included the biological differences between her and a human. Bluegrass Elves are one of the other intelligent species on our planet... well, the other naturally evolved ones. They're New World primates, only distantly related to the Great Apes. I'm always astounded when confronted by people who don't know this. It's been common knowledge - at least for some groups of people - since the late Thirties. Ever since Fen's trial for punching out Senator Kriegharne for calling her a chimpanzee.

      "Let's sit," she said, dropping onto a low couch and gesturing for me to take the higher one. The one for humans.

      We sat in uncomfortable silence for a few moments, staring at each other across the antique cherry coffee table. Which still had a noticeable dent from where Kriegharne's head hit. Well, I was uncomfortable, facing that predator's gaze. Actually, she probably was, too. Fen is a pretty upbeat character, most of the time, and doesn't like calling someone on the carpet. Make no mistake, though; that's exactly what was happening.

      "Before we start," I said, "be advised that I can't take direct action against Gaunt."

      I told her of my deal with the bad doctor, and why I'd made it. She frowned for a moment, then nodded.

      "You did what you had to do. I can't fault you for protecting your friends. We'll handle any actual activities. However, I still want to know what you know, and what plans you have to deal with the situation if Gaunt goes against the agreement."

      Who "we" might be I wasn't sure. Knowing her, some of the most powerful mages on the planet. Only a few of whom would count as human.

      I gave her as much detail about Gaunt and his recent activities as I could, as well as a word-for-word recitation of our agreement. There was another long silence. Then she shifted herself and resumed.

      "Well," said Dr. Freysdottir, somehow managing to look down on me despite being much shorter. "This is a fine mess. Dr. Gaunt is making rapid progress turning his recently acquired properties into a physical and mystical fortress. What he'll do when that's finished is as yet unknown. Law enforcement can't do anything because the records show the property was legally transferred to a holding company with no connections to anything illegal. They have no evidence Dr. Gaunt is the new owner. With the family and the company left in chaos by the death of Louis Carstairs this was actually easy for Gaunt to arrange, once he had those documents you provided."

      "I did consult with you ahead of time," I said, unable to avoid sounding a bit petulant; like a little kid. Which was understating our relative ages. One reason I don't stress too much over potentially outliving most people is folks like Fen. I'm still an infant compared to her, and she's far from the oldest member of her species. "I also talked to several human mystics, including Dr. Piano. You all said this would keep Gaunt busy for a while and to go ahead."

      "We also advised caution."

      "You still said it would be a good idea."

      She scowled a bit, then sighed and relented.

      "To be honest, I didn't think you'd be successful. Always before the fates themselves seemed to conspire to frustrate the mad Doctor when it came to that piece of land."

      I shifted into an elf form I had created decades before, after meeting more of her people. I thought she'd be surprised that my clothes changed too, but she didn't bat an eye.

      "That's better," I said, smiling. "Now we're on equal footing. And of equal height."

      "At least you didn't turn into me, this time," she muttered.

      "Hey, I only did that once, when I was a kid. Now, I am concerned about Dr. Gaunt, regardless of what you think about my precautions or lack thereof. So, let's conspire."

      We spoke for nearly two hours. I won't say that taking the form of a Bluegrass Elf makes me smarter, but with a different brain structure I definitely think differently.

      "One other thing," said Fen, as I - back in my base form - prepared to leave. "I'm relieved you haven't revived that super brothel of yours."

      "Too many bad memories," I said, with a grimace. "In retrospect, while it made a lot of money for the participants it brought too much of the wrong kind of attention to a certain subset of supers."

      "There are other ways of helping people."

      "Yeah," I replied, nodding, "but no one way gets everyone."

      She gave me a thoughtful nod.

       * * *

      The two attorneys strode confidently into the small, windowless room and sat opposite their client. He was a lean, athletic man of average height, Caucasian but with a hint of Mediterranean blood somewhere in his lineage. The younger of the two attorneys was thin and wiry, and wore glasses mounted well out on his nose. The other man was plumper and looked tireder. Brief introductions were made.

      "I am very glad to see you," said Gilbert Harkner, aka Smoke. He leaned forward across the table and looked around warily before resuming in a quieter but more earnest tone. "These people are crazy!"

      "Well, you can say things like that in private," said Seymour Lewis, the senior of the pair, "but be careful about such inflammatory statements where others can hear you. Now, the Bureau of Special Resources has agreed to have us represent you because you did graduate the basic training program with good grades and have expressed an interest in joining when the hiring freeze is lifted."

      "That's great," said Gil, relieved. "I couldn't afford an attorney on my own and the guy the city appointed wanted me to plead guilty!"

      "Okay," said Mark Louis, opening a folder, adjusting his glasses even further down his nose and making a show of reading material he already knew. "According to this, you interfered with a police hostage rescue and got several people killed, and more injured."

      "No, they did!" he hissed, angrily. "I mean, I didn't interfere with them, and I'm not the one who injured the hostages. I was there, but all I did was look around!"

      "All right," said Lewis. "Why don't you start at the beginning and take us through events as you experienced them."

      "I was downtown, doing some business at my bank," he explained, tone and posture becoming more relaxed as he proceeded. "I was walking to the bus stop when I heard sirens. I changed direction to see what was happening. Just... simple curiosity,."

      Gil explained that he had plenty of time, being unemployed.

      "I was expecting to go to work for the Bureau of Special Resources, but given the budget cuts I barely completed their boot camp."

      "Why did you enter the program?" said Louis.

      "Up until my powers triggered in high school I had vague ideas about being a detective," said Gil. "I've always enjoyed solving puzzles, figuring out what happened and how things work."

      He gave a tired laugh.

      "No surprise I went into the engineering program at college. Then the government started those training programs to get ready for the Shilmek... I figured if nothing else they could teach me how to better use my powers, and I might be able to help defend the country. Since I already had an engineering degree I got in pretty easy."

      "Then the War was over in just days, and within weeks the training programs were drastically cut back to use the funds for the reconstruction," said Lewis, nodding.

      "Yeah. Even though they lost a lot of people in the War the Bureau had to put on a hiring freeze. So I figured I'd find a job to hold me until they were hiring again. Maybe even start on a Masters degree."

      "Let's get back to the day of the situation," said Louis.

      Exactly what the perpetrators of the robbery had intended was still unclear. They definitely wanted money. They might have intended some political statement, perhaps even a terrorist act. What was known was that they intended a quick in-and-out operation, but their ride didn't get back around the block to pick them up. Instead, the half-dozen heavily armed, armored and masked criminals retreated into the bank when the first police cars arrived and took hostages.

      "I saw the cops just standing around doing nothing," said Gill, more than a bit angry. "Well, they were joking. Some of them about the hostages. Like it was their fault for being caught."

      "So you decided to take matters into your own hands," said Louis.

      "No! I decided to look the situation over. My powers make me good at stealth. If nothing else I could get recon for the cops. One of the other things I heard them talking about was how they didn't know the layout of the building or where most of the people involved were."

      "Which you did without consulting with the police."

      "I tried to! I activated my powers - which is all the costume I need - and went to the senior officer present and offered my services. He blew me off! I almost left, but as I walked away the mother of one of the hostages grabbed me and begged me to help. So I snuck off and found a back way in."

      "What happened once you got inside?" said Lewis.

      "I carefully moved through the building, making note of where everyone was and what they were doing," said Gill. He scowled. "Just like I was trained! I was carefully backing out of the upstairs room where most of the hostages were, just about finished with my scouting, when there was a big explosion."

      "The SWAT team rappelled down from the roof and set explosives to blow the windows," said Louis, nodding.

      "I figured that much out when they swung into the room," said Gill, sourly. "I was pretty shaken, though not as much as the hostages and robbers, due to being almost out the door."

      "Of the twenty-three hostages in the room, at that moment six died and six more were injured."

      "Yeah. Those windows were safety glass, but the SWAT team used so much explosive that the blast alone hurt a lot of people. Bits of metal went flying through the air from the destroyed frame. Even some bits of the granite façade peppered the room."

      "Our understanding is that the SWAT team thought the glass was armored," said Lewis.

       "None of the robbers was seriously injured and they quickly rallied and retreated to a secure position, from which they opened fire," said Louis, looking further down his documents. "More hostages died, and two SWAT officers."

      "They're blaming me for the injuries and deaths! They're even blaming me for the people hurt or killed when other SWAT teams came in at other locations!"

      "It's a state law, here," said Lewis. "If a super is involved in a crime where someone is hurt or killed - even if they are not found guilty of violating the law themselves with their actions - they get charged."

      "I wasn't committing a crime!"

      "Technically, you were," said Louis. "Several, in fact, including trespassing. Still, those are technicalities and we may be able to persuade the bank's owners to drop their charges against you. That still leaves the law blaming supers for anything which goes wrong at a crime where they're using their powers. This law has been successfully challenged before. Usually with a plea bargain, accompanied by a threat to take the case to the state supreme court if they won't deal. The city's District Attorney knows that charging someone with a crime when they are trying to help is crazy, whether the person has powers of not."

      "I should have just left, after that blast," said Gill, voice choking. "No-one saw me. I could have snuck back out with nobody knowing I was there. Then they would only have themselves to blame. Instead I tried to help, and almost got shot and did get arrested."

      "Oh, without you I'm sure they would have found some way to blame the robbers or the hostages," said Lewis, tiredly. "Rather than taking the blame for their own mistakes. They keep trying this, even though it rarely works and hurts many innocent people in the process."

      "I'm not going to plea bargain," said Gill, firmly, as he straightened in his seat. "Damnit! I was in the training program, did well, and then they cut the budget! If they didn't want supers helping, why did they even have the program?!"

      "That's outside the scope of this case. However, we can use your volunteering for the program to show that you aren't just some hot shot trying to show off. That you are civic minded and did know what you were doing."

Part Two

      President Livia Sievers didn't like going to a congressman's office instead of having him come to the White House. However, just now the latter site was undergoing a combination of needed repairs and urgent upgrades. Wyler's secretary escorted Sieves into the office, where he politely greeted her and gestured to the seat in front of his desk. Sievers wanted this to be just the two of them; the secretary left, going back into the outer office where the Secret Service escort waited. Once the door closed she got directly to the point.

      "Why are you sponsoring a bill which will remove the rest of the federal aid to train supers?"

      "We simply don't need them," said Senator Wyler, with a wave of the gold-decorated fountain pen in his right hand. He was actually just a couple of years Sievers' senior but had an affectation for the old fashioned. Something which was often revealed in his technical ignorance regarding modern matters.

      "With all the disasters before the attack and the few we've had since," said Sievers, emphatically, "with all the help we need rebuilding, how can you say that?"

      "I mean we don't need anything which might encourage supers to think they can help with law enforcement. Yes, the supers are useful, in certain circumstances. If we can just keep them from interfering with the proper enforcement of law I have no problem with them helping. They are untrained, after all, and we're both all to familiar with what happens when someone practices law enforcement without training or the wrong kind of training."

      "What about the Bureau of Special Resources? You specifically target that and it is a law enforcement agency dedicated to training supers for that job. You should be in full support of it, given what you just said."

      "Eh?" said Wyler, looking briefly confused. "I think you misunderstand the function of that group. They're a civil rights agency. Since civil rights are for everyone we don't need an agency just for supers."

      "I helped create that organization," said Sievers, giving him a stern look. "I can assure you they're primarily intended - from the start and still - for law enforcement work. Brade's nickname is even 'the Super Top Cop.'"

      "Which just goes to show how those cop wannabes view reality," said Wyler, waving reality aside himself. "Give them any sort of authority and they think they're judge, jury and executioner."

      Sievers realized that the man honestly couldn't conceive of supers validly working in law enforcement. Neither could he perceive that many already were, successfully. Some for decades.

      "You're the one who railed against untrained supers causing harm while intending good. You even proposed making exemptions to the Good Samaritan laws so that supers who make an honest mistake can't 'get away with it.' I don't understand why you are against federally standardized and funded training. The rewards will repay the cost many times over. Multiple studies and real-world examples show this."

      "You're missing the point!" said Wyler, angrily. "You know that I have been campaigning against the recent civil rights violations and excesses committed by law enforcement in this country. Just imagine the chaos if supers are sworn in! Their powers would make thing a hundred times worse!"

      "What makes you think supers would be worse than normal humans as cops?" said the President, so confused she didn't point out that over a hundred supers were already license carrying federal law enforcement agents.

      "I don't understand how you can't see this. If normal humans, given a bit of authority, along with guns and tasers and pepper spray, can yield to temptation and abuse and even kill citizens, what do you think the supers will do?!"

      "The percentage of officers who abuse their power..."

      "Even one is too many! That percentage will skyrocket if you give supers the protection of a badge. Their powers make such excesses too easy, and violations too easy to conceal."

      The President sat there for a long moment, staring at the man. She knew he had a history involving unpleasant experiences with abusive police and even federal agents, only part of it due to being Black. She had no idea until now that he was this obsessed with preventing such abuses. So obsessed that he would cripple normal law enforcement even if that impacted the majority who did follow the rules and act properly. He was paranoid about authority and its abuse. Now he was planning to use his authority to hurt others, completely unironically.

      "I will veto your bill," said Sievers, finally. "We need supers now, more than ever. We especially need trained supers. We need as many as we can get who are trained specifically in law enforcement."

      "Then I'll just delay it until you're out of office," said Wyler, smugly. "You haven't got long, you know. Another couple of years and a bit. I'll still be here and I'm certain the next President will be more reasonable. Good day."

       * * *

      "Momma! Momma! Momma!"

      Little Roy came running into Randy's apartment office overflowing with excitement, bare feet pounding the short-pile carpet, something clasped in his hands. His father looked up from the computer, and swiveled his chair around to face the boy.

      "Hey, squirt," said Randy, grinning as he caught the youngster. "Which Momma do you want?"

      "Momma Template!" said Roy, insistently.

      "Sorry, Randy," said Karen, looking harried as she entered. "He got away from me."

      "Well, if I didn't want to be interrupted I'd've closed the door."

      Randy lifted his son into his lap.

      "Okay, what is so important, and why do you want to show it to Template and not me?"

      The boy had mastered the art of separating his parents' public and private identities surprisingly early, though he did tend to treat the masked identities as different - if connected - people from his parents' civilian IDs. He never called Randy Template or Karen Colossa when they were in civvies. He called Randy Daddy and Template Momma. He called both Karen and Colossa Momma. However, he normally wouldn't even refer to Template or Colossa as "Momma" unless they were present in costume. This was an unusual gaffe.

      "This," said the boy, suddenly shy.

      He teasingly showed Randy what was in his hands: A Template action figure.

      "Oh!" said Randy, startled. "I forgot about those!"

      "Yeah, with the War and everything..." said Karen. "I saw that when we were out shopping this afternoon and got it for him."

      Randy took the figure in his right hand and slowly examined it, smiling. It was part of a series of figures of costumed people from the school, the rights to make them sold to generate funds. The money was secondary, though; the main reason was to publicize the school and humanize those working there.

      "Here you go, sport," said Randy, handing the toy back.

      "I want to show Momma Template!"

      "Okay, okay," said Randy, laughing. "You need to go over there, though. Unless you want to be a girl."

      "Don't want to be a girl," said Roy, firmly.

      He jumped off Randy's lap and hurried over to Karen, getting behind her and peeking around her legs.

      Randy stood and moved away a bit, smiling. He held his arms out.


      Randy changed to Template and crouched down, arms held out. Roy ran to her.

      "Momma!" said Roy, joyfully, as he held out the figure.

      "Oooh, it's me!"

      Karen grinned as she watched the pair interact. She also felt a twinge of envy. Roy called her "Momma" but he didn't act with her the way he did with his birth mother. Not even the way he did when she was his father. So far none of their new neighbors had noticed anything unusual, though.

      While the school had daycare they didn't have preschool or grade school... yet. Karen and Randy had taken this apartment stateside in order for Roy to start school the next year. They chose this specific city because of the nearby location of a newly created - and carefully hidden - elevator to the Subterran tunnels. This was one of many constructed during the post-war rebuilding, which were often incorporated into hidden corners of structures old and new. These made commuting to and from the island - and many other places - quick, convenient and secure, as well as discreet.

      There were plans for a grade school on the island, but it would not open for another couple of years, if then. When it did open Roy would attend as the child of Karen and Randy - both of whom had a long history of supporting and working for the school - rather than of Colossa and Template. Since few humans demonstrated powers before their early teens Roy and his classmates would all be expected to behave as normal children. What Randy and Karen would do later, if he did develop powers, they weren't sure about yet. For the next two years, though, the youngster would be in a good - if mundane - grade school in this city, which was not far from Intrepids Mountain. Since both parents were officially working for the team in the rebuilding of the destroyed base, that just made sense.

      "How goes the job?" said Karen, as she took Roy. She smirked. "Any of them."

      "Busy, but no major problems," said Template. She surprised herself by yawning. "Ugh. Like I said: Busy. Oh! I have an appointment with the engineering team on the island at three, their time."

      "I got it," said Karen. She grinned down at the squirming Roy. "Or him, rather."

       * * *

      "Is that the new Champion costume?" said Susan, as Paula entered their shared quarters carrying a bundle.

      "Yep," she said, grinning as she ripping the package open. "It was waiting for me when I came on shift. Had to exercise all my will power not to take off early. It's that new blend of WonderCloth, too. They managed to get some despite the disruptions from the War."

      Paula held the body stocking portion up for inspection, then glanced back at what remained in the wrap.

      "Guess I'll have to put it on to see the whole thing at once."

      With an armload of costume components, she started for the bedroom.

      "Where are you going?" said Susan, with a smirk. "We're all girls, here."

      "You sure you didn't turn bi when you got empowered?" said Paula, teasing.

      "Look, we're two women living together. Go change in private if you're shy. I'm just saying it doesn't matter to me one way or the other."

      Paula changed course and put the costume on the couch, then began taking off her security supervisor uniform. If her partner had any interest beyond casual curiosity, she hid it well.

      "Did you decide about whether to stay on second security shift?" said Paula, as she finished stripping.

      "Yeah. That suits me and lets us have days together."

      "Well, Thunderer and Jade are both working out surprisingly well," said Paula, as she frowned at the one-piece, unitard-like undergarment which was the foundation of the outfit. The instructions were clear that this was supposed to be the only thing worn under the rest of the costume. "So adding a new member shouldn't cause more than the usual problems."

      "Turn it around. Yeah, solid part in front. I'm glad you're getting back into the saddle. It suits you a lot better than staying here and fretting when team members are in the field. Are you still going to work third shift supervisor?"

      "Until we get Roger up to speed," said Paula, as she tugged the garment into place.

      "What was the grimace for? Too tight in the crotch?"

      "Uhm, no. Still not used to having so little in the crotch."

      "You weren't that well-endowed," said Susan, laughing.


      "Sorry, dear. Atana's 'retirement benefits' didn't include enhancing your manhood."

      "At the time I was just glad to get it back," said Paula, slipping on the body stocking. "Though my package actually was a bit larger than before, and I mean proportionally larger."

      Susan manfully refrained from making a snide remark.

      Soon the pull-over tunic, the utility belt, the athletic shoes and the cowl were in place and properly secured.

      "Now I realize I should have used the bedroom," said Paula, looking down at her costumed self and running her hands along the new costume. "I need the full-length mirror in there."

      Paula turned in that direction, Susan rising from where she had watched the process to follow close behind. Soon the new Champion - who had been the original Champion - was examining her reflection. She was definitely pleased. In fact, Paula was obviously admiring herself in the mirror.

      "Not bad," she said, smiling and posing.

      "You are such a girl," said Susan, with a smirk.

      "Oh, shush."

      "I haven't heard you say anything about your breasts this whole time. A guy would have been 'boob' this and 'tit' that and 'cleavage' the other, non-stop."

      "Har, har..."

      The new Champion costume followed the pattern of the previous ones, with some custom touches. Paula had decided on minimal padding for this one, most of it used to hide the built-in armor. That plus strategic airbrushing helped disguise her figure. The designers had actually managed to make her look slimmer than she normally did. One of the ways Paula had developed her powers was to strength train, which made her look quite distinctively muscular in her civilian ID, so that illusion would definitely be handy.

      "I'm surprised you went for a full cowl with chin piece, instead of just a mask," said Susan.

      "As one of the shift chiefs of Assembly security my face is available to the press and law enforcement. I need the extra cover."

      Susan smirked and struck an exaggerated version of one of Paula's poses, then altered herself to look like Paula.

      "If you'd just practice shapeshifting more..."

      "I practice," Paula - or Champion - replied, a bit defensively.

      "Not enough to hold another shape for any length of time," said Susan her tone chiding as she shifted back to normal. "Or in spite of distractions."

      "They said we'd develop different power sets, depending on our individual physiologies and personalities. You're not nearly as strong, fast or tough as I am."

      "Well, if you don't learn how to hold another form when severely distracted, I'm going to have to be the man in our relationship."

      "You wouldn't."

      "Don't task me. I'm willing to give you pointers, but I'd rather have a heterosexual relationship. Even if I have to go convex to get it."

      "Well, there's no accounting for taste," said Champion, trying to sound casual and failing miserably.

      Seeing how uncomfortable she had made her partner, Susan stepped closer and hugged her.

      "You know I'm kidding," she said, giving her a kiss which was a bit more than sisterly. "I'd like to try sex as a man just to see what that's like, but I'd never insist."

      "I know that," said Champion, quietly. She turned, now nose-to-nose with Susan. "I love you."

      "How come you never said that as a guy?" said Susan, teasing. This time the kiss was on the lips, and definitely not platonic. "I love you, too."

      Paula had intended to wear the costume for a while to break it in. She wound up quickly taking it off... for quite a while.

Part Three

      They waited anxiously as the timer Randy had started counted down. They were one of the few couples on the planet where the husband knew exactly what the wife was going through. That often led to a great deal of sharing and empathy as well as jokes which were sometimes quite ribald. Just now they were both all but holding their breaths, and very deliberately looking anywhere but the little stick Karen held.

      The timer sounded, and Randy quickly shut it off before turning back to Karen, who was peering at the stick.

      "Well?" said Randy, eagerly.

      "Positive!" said Karen. She held up the small tester, obviously ecstatic despite her determination to deal with either result in a calm manner.

      "Well, it is your turn," said Randy, with a smirk.

      "Oh, wow," said Karen, suddenly dropping onto the toilet lid, staring at the result. "I know we both wanted another kid, but seeing this..."

      "Just remember," said Randy, leaning down to hug her one-armed, "I'm here to give you pointers."

      "Oh, you," said Karen, suddenly overcome with giggles.

      They walked into the small living room, Karen still stunned.

      "You gonna hold that thing all day?" said Randy, nodding at the tester.

      "You put yours in Roy's scrapbook! Well, after several enormous mood swings and a couple of panic attacks."

      "I think I had all that coming," said Randy, mock-defensively. He kissed her. "Anyway, I've got to head to the island in about fifty minutes. Yet another meeting with the engineers. Should be home well before supper."

      "I think I'll make something special tonight," said Karen, playfully.

      "I'm looking forward to that," said Randy, grinning.

       * * *

      Deep under the Harz Mountains Ike (Doctor Device) Kenniman was already meeting with some engineers. Fortunately, he spoke fluent German.

      Once we got the new hydroelectric generator in here to take the load we shut off the old power plant," said the man in charge of repairs and maintenance to the old Nazi base. He had to speak up a bit to be heard over the sound of flowing water, and his voice echoed slightly in the power chamber. "We then tore the old one down and gave it a full inspection. The equipment is incredibly well designed; we figure it had another twenty or maybe thirty years of operational life. They actually used some of the water as a once-through coolant and lubricant!"

      If the Shilmek hadn't bombarded the place and caused some damage the generator would likely have been the first part to fail," said Ike, nodding. "There's some fantastic engineering, here. We're actually learning things about what works for long-term installations."

      Any update on when the permanent generators will be installed?" said the tech.

      My factory is custom-building two Kenniman Kinematics Catalytic Fusion units as we speak," said Ike. "Both with strippers to take hydrogen out of the water. Either could more than take the load for the entire base. Once they're installed and running, we'll put a third, smaller unit in the containment room, in case something interrupts main power. With the new wiring and control panels we're installing, the dimensional distorter should keep running indefinitely."

      The other man grimaced, and may even have shuddered.

      "Der Schmale... One of my great-grandfathers was murdered by that maniac. What more can we do with something like him beyond containing him for now?"

      "We've got long-term planners working on that," said Ike.

       * * *

      "It official!" said Energia, joyously, as she flew into the common room of Blue Impact's bakery headquarters. "We're incorporated as Tricorne!"

      As usual for the Winter school break, the trio of female supers were together in Blue Impact's ex-bakery headquarters. This year, though, there was an extra incentive for the gathering: Their senior member had finally conceded to properly organizing their team. Only a few days remained before the Spring semester began, and for a while they had thought the process wouldn't complete until after they dispersed to their various schools.

      "Great!" said Gadgetive, as she used body english with the custom game controller to maneuver her character on the large screen. "Where's the boss?"

      "I flew on ahead with the news. She's coming in a bit."

      "Great," Gadgetive repeated, getting back to her game.

      "What are you playing?" said Energia, who thought the images looked familiar.

      "Elder Scrolls: Equestria," said Gadgetive, absently.

      "Oh! I didn't know they'd made a game out of the show!"

      "What show?"

      "Argh. There's an animated series and comic book."

      "That was quick. The game's only been out a few months."

      "The show came first, then the comic, then the game," said Blue Impact, as she entered. She stopped and dramatically held up a large, padded envelope. "So, anybody want to see our official papers of incorporation?"

      "That's them?!" said Gadgetive, startled into forgetting her game. There was a horrible equine scream from the TV.

      Ignoring the virtual mayhem the two younger members hurried over to their teacher. Who made a show of opening the envelope and pulling out the certificate.

      "Wow," said Energia, after a few moments of silence. "There it is. All formal and everything. Even our logo."

      This was artwork featuring a stylized tricorne hat with one of the members standing on each corner. Blue Impact was at the center rear, Energia on the left and...

      "Heh. They actually made me as tall as you," said Gadgetive, elbowing Energia in the ribs.

      "We'll have patches with this logo to put on our costumes in a couple of days," said Blue Impact, sounding pleased.

      "Just remember," said Gadgetive, "what the government gives it can take away."

      "I'll have this framed and put it on the wall over... There?" said Blue Impact, pointing.

      "No, above the com center," said Gadgetive.

      "Yeah," said Energia, nodding in agreement.

      "Okay. Over the com center it is."

       * * *

      Yet another day of administrative work at the Pine Island Academy. Yet another meeting with the engineers. This time to finally deal with something which they had been complaining about since Sung had nuked the school.

      "We need another upgrade to the power generation infrastructure?" said Template, not actually surprised.

      "Yeah," said Junker, nodding. "Pine's zero point power plant was over-designed enough to serve us the first couple of years, but when we added those second-generation shield generators..."

      "Good thing we did, too," said Template. "The first system we had would have collapsed under Sung's nuke."

      "...we had to add two Lunie fusion plants to drive 'em," Junker continued, ignoring the interruption. "They had enough reserve capacity that when we kludged together that third shield generator from spare parts they and Pine's unit together could also power it, just barely. The two newest shield generators are the biggest yet; we need another full fusion generator for each, plus upgrades to the distribution system. Even the planned geothermal generator wouldn't be enough by itself. We've already contacted Dr. Device for some custom generators; multi-cycle fusion units which are more powerful for the size and also more efficient than the Lunie generators. They'll also be the most powerful electrical generators on the island. Gonna cost us a fortune, but we can't do without."

      "Why haven't we just duplicated Pine's zero point device?"

      "Too idiosyncratic," said Junker, with a sour expression. "The folks investigating the base after it was taken couldn't even figure out how to shut it down. He made the stuff he planned to market easy to reproduce. He wasn't planning to share his zero point gadgets."

      "Argh..." said Template, rubbing her head. "We do need to consolidate. I know a certain level of redundancy is important, but we've got too many shield generators."

      "Yeah. Well, once we get the two newest installed we plan to use them as the main protection. They're designed from scratch to synch with each other. We'll keep the three second generation units as backups, powered by the grid with priority connections. Each of the two newest units will be independently powered by the new fusion reactors, with grid connections for power sharing both ways."

      "I guess we can use the other units for spare parts," said Template, nodding.

      "Only the second generation units have any parts compatible with another unit," said Junker. "However, we can sell the first unit we installed whole to a super team. Then we keep the three second generation units on standby as a backup to the new units while keeping Pine's unit off but ready to turn back on if it's needed."

      "Selling that first one will help offset the costs a bit," said Template, nodding. "Okay. We have a plan. It's an expensive plan, but it's a good one. I'll brief Eve, but don't see her making any changes."

      "Good. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, after all that's happened, but I have a feeling..."

      "Yeah," said Template, nodding. She lowered her voice unconsciously. "Me, too."

      Junker sighed and rubbed his face, looking tired.

      Frankly, I'll be glad to stop using Pine's zero point generator. There's always been an unexplained drain somewhere, which seems to fluctuate for no reason we can determine. The thing spooks me."

       * * *

      "Speaking of Sung," said Eve, after Template finished briefing her, "they've finally released the inventory of the treasures he had hidden away. At least, what was in the repositories he actually used in this latest plot. He may still have others we don't know about."

      "Go on."

      "The majority of value was in gold - bars and coins from multiple sources, some centuries old and including much from shipwrecks - but most of the rest was in artwork. A great deal of that was known to have been looted by the Nazis, the Soviets and the Chinese during and following World War Two. There's several pieces thought to be lost, and even a couple thought to have been found!"

      "Not all that surprising; any of that. I hope they're going to return the traceable items to the next of kin of the last known legal owners."

      "Everyone but the Chinese have already said they will do that," said Eve, looking annoyed. "They are claiming that not only does everything in the two deposits found on their territory belong to them - regardless of who it was stolen from - but much of what was found in vaults in other nations does, as well."

      "Typical," said Template, dryly.

      "One of the more interesting vaults - which he barely touched - was full of items looted from Moscow in three different wars. About half these went missing during the Great Patriotic War era. A significant portion of it dated from the Napoleonic invasion of Russia!"

      "Whoah. Wonder where he found that."

      "Sung isn't talking. However, at least the Amber Room can now be properly restored." She smiled at a fond memory. "So beautiful...

      "However, the reason I mentioned that is that there are standing rewards for some of the items. All those who partook in their recovery will have a share, the portion depending on the person's exact role."

      "Huh. It's so rare for heroes to collect a reward I hadn't even thought about that. I guess some folks are going to be rich. Or at least wealthier than they were."

      "Connected with that," said Eve, her expression neutral, "the death of Energex has been confirmed. Which means you are due for a reward."

      "I don't want it. I won't accept money for killing someone."

      "Then graciously accept it and donate it to the school," said Eve, smoothly. "We were never able to collect the court-ordered compensation for the damage he cause in his attack."

      "That sounds acceptable." Template gave a sour grin. "I imagine he would be really annoyed by that.

      "So, do you have any questions or comments on the shield generators and power plants?"

      "No," said Eve. "I agree that we need all that. I just hope we can get a decent price for that original shield generator. Most of our benefactors were heavily impacted by the War and our finances will be strained with all the repairs and improvements we have planned."

      "After what the Five Great Powers did I'm just glad the new shield generators have an improved psi-resistance rating."

      She grinned at Eve.

      "Despite the inconvenience to you."

Part Four

      "I'm in position. No-one else here," said Sharma, over the team's earpieces. "I've persuaded the device to cease counting. Starting the disarming process."

      "We'll start the diversion, then," said Champion, grinning for some reason.

      Jade Eagle watched Champion out of the corner of her eye. The woman seriously puzzled her. This new Champion hadn't been on the team even as long as Jade Eagle had, but the senior members not only accepted her as team leader, they acted as if she had held that position for years. Yet she was definitely not either of the previous two Champions.

      Jade Eagle knew that this woman had previously been a male security supervisor. Exactly how he and become she and empowered was still unknown to her. She supposed that "Paula" had been with the team from its foundation and was a professional who had proven herself to the veteran team members. Which would explain the confidence the others placed in her.

      While the details of the woman's background remained unclear, Jade Eagle found that accepting this Champion as leader was easy. She was competent, assured and very much in control of herself, without being overbearing. The trust the senior members showed her definitely helped with the acceptance. Jade Eagle still found the situation... curious.

      "All right," said Champion, rising from where she and Jade Eagle waited prone on a rooftop. "Let's get this started."

      The bad guys were still loading their loot into the delivery truck as the team members approached from two horizontal directions and one vertical. They were counting on the bugs and human lookouts they had posted before entering the depository to warn them of any intrusion. Their plan was both bold and simple: Wait for a holiday when the area would be empty of anyone except the security staff, take that out with gas bombs placed ahead of time, loot the place at their leisure, then rupture a gas main by remote-triggered explosion to delay the detection of their crime. By the time emergency crews cleared an access to the vault and the owners opened it to discover the robbery, the thieves would be out of the country.

      They hadn't counted on someone who worked in the business center across the street having to work on a special project during the holiday. Or that she - taking a break - would just happen to look out the break room window at just the right moment to notice something suspicious. Or that, having her suspicions raised, she would use her DSLR with a long lens to confirm them. Or that she would be enough of a super fan to recognize that some of the thieves were known criminal supers. Or that, realizing the police would be short-handed due to the holiday, she would call the Assembly directly.

      Thanks to Sharma, their training and equipment and some long-distance help from Dr. Gorgeous they had neutralized all the bugs. Thanks to Champion and Jade Eagle they had captured all the lookouts with no warning given. Now, with their mystic in place where she could do the most good, the rest of the team attacked.

      There were eight well-trained norms, plus a pair of veteran supers. They were just starting to realize that their live lookouts had missed a scheduled reporting in when the Assembly charged. Each member headed for specific targets as assigned by Dr. Gorgeous.

      Champion's first target was the driver. She dove through the open passenger window of the delivery truck and caught him with a hard left cross while still above the seat. He was a normal in protective gear, and took a couple more punches to subdue, but that first one stunned him enough to make the rest easy. She used a pair of sturdy zip ties to secure him to the seat belt anchors, and took the keys out of the ignition.

      Outside, Jade Eagle had already rendered nearly half the norms incapable of action; the other robbers were distracted by her, Thunderer and Maciste, not even noticing what was happening inside the truck.

      Champion slipped back out the passenger window, then vaulted over the truck, catching the gunmen on the other side by surprise. In a whirl of activity she quickly disarmed each of those still active, in the process dumping them on the ground. Before they could recover she and Jade Eagle - who besides being able to fly was low level superhuman in speed and resilience - zip tied them. When finished Champion took a moment to note with satisfaction that none of them were seriously hurt. Then she moved to help Maciste with Bombast while Jade Eagle watched the prisoners. The team's strongman already had the bad guys' brick on the ropes; with Champion helping they quickly finished him.

      Leaving Maciste to apply the restraints, Champion checked on Thunderer. She had Gurner stunned and in cuffs.

      "You got anything to cover his face?" said Champion.

      "Yeah. Gonna use an elastic bandage from my medical kit."

      "That should do it. Just be sure he can breathe." She stepped back a bit to let Thunderer work and used her com. "Champion to Sharma. Status, please."

      "Done," said the team mystic. "Bomb inert. No hostiles here, of course."

      There was a bit of understandable amusement in that last bit. Naturally, none of the bad guys would stick around where they had set a bomb. Champion was just glad Sharma had a way with machines. Unlike her predecessor, Dr. Piano, who couldn't program a DVR even with the manual.

      "Okay. You stay with that until the city bomb squad can get there."


      Champion hopped back on top of the loot-filled delivery truck and surveyed the situation. She smiled in satisfaction. Even without every member present - and once a team's membership got beyond five it was not unusual that one or more wouldn't be able to make an operation - they were a good team. A very good team.

      They stayed for the cleanup and to give statements to the police.

       * * *

      The meeting was a tense one. The defense of the capital was taken seriously even in peaceful times. This soon after many buildings and much of the infrastructure had been damaged in an enemy attack the defenders were borderline fanatical. Unfortunately, some of them may have crossed that border.

      "Protocol calls for warning before shooting!" said Howers.

      "We sent multiple warnings on all the standard aircraft frequencies," said the FAA representative, blandly.

      "To a flying man."

      "Well, how are we supposed to contact someone like that?" snapped the FAA rep. "If he doesn't carry a radio, that's his responsibility!"

      Howers turned to the Air Force representative.

      "Protocol calls for sending warnings. Procedure calls for using multiple methods. In the past helicopters have flown to intercept low and slow targets, such as supers. Helicopters with external speakers. Why wasn't this done here?"

      "The whole area was covered in dense fog, with heavy clouds above that and intermittent rain," said the Colonel, with an easy shrug. "It was unsafe to have anything flying. That's how we knew this had to be the act of someone desperate."

      "What if it had been a light plane with a family on board, lost in the fog and desperately trying to find a safe place to land?" said Howers, unable to keep the anger completely out of his words.

      "We can tell the difference," said the Colonel, icily.

      "Right. What if it had been a kid alone in a light plane, on his or her first cross country flight, lost in the fog?"

      "Children are used the world over for suicide bombings."

      Howers had to actually stop, close his eyes and take several deep breaths before he trusted himself to speak.

      "What I'm hearing here aren't reasons," he said, with forced calm, "or even justifications. What I'm hearing is excuses for NOT DOING YOUR FUCKING JOBS!"

      They had the nerve to look surprised. Howers swept his gaze around the room.

      "You're all on suspension while this is investigated. So help me God, if this turns out to be what it now appears to be, I'll make sure you get tried for first degree murder. Though you'll probably be able to plea bargain it down to manslaughter."

      He rose and stormed out, his speed fueled by anger and leaving the people he had interviewed stunned.

       * * *

      Ike Kenniman was known for his high energy level, but even he was looking tired as he met with the members of the Intrepids.

      The meeting was to confirm details negotiated by video link and e-mail, and settle a few more. When the business was completed, they all just sat for a bit, there in the echoing gymnasium of the old Guild Hall, on the other side of the mountain from the Assembly base.

      "One more item," said the Black Mask. "Something we mentioned in our original request but which seems to have fallen by the wayside. We need a new super monitoring system terminal."

      "I've decided not to replace the satellites," said Ike, abruptly. "Probably should never have built them. I know that system came in handy for plenty of legitimate uses, but there's ground-based units - some with over-the-horizon capability - to do the job, now. It's a lot easier to control who has those than to keep folks from decoding the satellite signal. You can get those detectors from several sources, which eases my burden a bit. I'm not going to make them."

      "I can't say I blame you," said Bowman. "We - well, I - had hoped you would include planet-wide damping fields for neutralizers in the new satellites, though."

      "I could have snuck them in," said Ike, "but there's some serious talk about making the counter devices more easily available. If the supporters of the bill in Congress have their way, any incorporated team in good standing will be able to keep those on hand legally."

      "Now that's good news," said Jet Jaguar, enthusiastically.

      "What's your opinion of the state of the country's recovery?" said the Black Mask, realizing business was over for the day.

      "Surprisingly good," said Ike, nodding. "The biggest shortfall is in new electrical substation transformers. For reasons I've never understood, transformers for large substations are only available from manufacturers outside the US, and even in normal times they take over a year to get. Fortunately, between preparations to handle the effects of a Coronal Mass Ejection hitting the Earth's magnetosphere, anti-terrorism measures and getting ready for the War we had a bunch of replacements on hand already. Folks have also been able to repair some of the damaged ones, and route around damaged areas in the distribution network by salvaging equipment from otherwise dead substations and moving it to areas where the system is ready for them."

      They spoke for nearly another half hour, Ike appearing glad for the break from business. However, he finally had to beg their leave.

      "I need to finish some estimates for the Pine Island Academy," he told the Intrepids.

      "Thank you for making time for us," said the Black Mask, as the two men stood and shook hands.

      "Trust me. You folks are high on my list of priorities."

       * * *

      Paula was still getting occasional therapy sessions with either Sharma or Dr. Gorgeous. These were much less stressful these days, and usually shorter. Today, after Paula griped a bit about Susan's sense of humor she and Dr. Gorgeous mostly just chatted.

      "So are you quitting your job in security?" said the team genius.

      "Yeah," said Paula, a bit sadly. "I need to be on call. Roger can handle the job just fine, now."

      That Paula was the new Champion was no secret to team or staff. Many in both groups even knew she had been the first Champion. They might not be clear on all the details, but held their curiosity in check out of respect for her privacy.

      "My new job title is Security Consultant Specialist," said Paula, rolling her eyes. "I'm supposedly on retainer rather than regular salary, only on duty when needed. Which excuses all the times I'll be away as Champion while keeping me on the payroll."

      "Well, unless we get requests for your services from other teams rebuilding after the War, that should leave you free for team operations," said Dr. Gorgeous, with a laugh.

      "Speaking of which," said Paula, standing, "I've got a training session with the other team members. Mostly just routine practice, but we're also going over some weaknesses spotted in today's operation."

      "See you next week, then."

Part Five

      "Yeah!" shouted Hickham, raising his arms and shaking his fists as the results from the election returns continued to come in. Responding cheers rang through the Structural Party hall. Objectively, Great Britain hadn't done badly in the Shilmek War, but the events had unnerved enough people to result in a vote of no confidence in the previous government and a call for elections. "Another win for our side!"

      The party leader was a big man, much - but not all - of his size coming from a large amount of fat.

      He was old enough to remember when these meeting halls would be filled with smoke. Not to mention all male. Hickham couldn't help but associate the growing female contingent with the tobacco ban. At least there was still plenty of alcohol, of many types. Speaking of which, he ordered another pint. He normally rationed himself - not only for health reasons but because he would not risk looking impaired in front of his followers - but tonight he was enjoying downing several of his favorite.

      He was also luxuriating in the camaraderie, the companionship and the mutual respect. Most of all, though, he was enjoying the feeling of success. His Structural Party was not the largest or wealthiest, but with the other parties dithering and looking bad due to being caught off-guard by the War his was winning a huge number of positions in the new government. They might even have the new Prime Minister!

      Bernard Hickham felt good. He'd split from his old party and taken a good portion of the members with him, adding people from all walks over the past five years. Now, his party - His creation! - was about to take over.

      Good thing, too, he thought. This country was almost too far gone to save.

      Well, with his people in charge that meant he was in charge, regardless of who was actually Prime Minister. Time to take over. Do things right. Make Great Britain great again!

      Hickham smiled, and nodded to Colbert, his chief enforcer. The boys were ready. Whether their enemies were or not.

       * * *

      The Fall semester was due to start soon, and students new and veteran were rushing to complete the necessary paperwork. The Administration building at the Pine Island Academy was very busy just now.

      One young woman was obviously in a greater hurry than most, heading inside. The young man was not, and on his way out. He made the mistake of graciously holding the door to the Administration building open for her.

      "I don't need your help!" she snapped, stopping just inside to turn and glare at him. Traffic began to stall around them, then adjusted and shifted to other doors.

      Gary thought of himself as confident and competent. Others at the Pine Island Academy thought of him as smug. Well, as the current holder of the title - and abilities - of The Dragon's Hand he had good cause to be. Great-Grandson of the original, at age eighteen he was already a force to be reckoned with. Not that he was a bully or a bad person. He just was a bit too full of himself, sometimes.

      "You're welcome,"said Gary, his usual confident smile momentarily turning into a smirk.

      He recognized her, now. Talisman, she called herself. Talk about someone with a superiority complex. She thought that being able to cast a light spell made her better than folks who could shoot lasers from their eyes.

      Talisman was angry and letting the world know it, but Gary just smiled, continuing to hold the door open. People slowed and stopped to watch the encounter, though they kept their distance. All of this only made her angrier.

      Meddle not in the affairs of witches!" she snapped, stepping closer to him, the better to glare up at the boy, letting the door close behind her. "For we are subtle and quick to anger!"

      Gary stared at her for a moment, then smiled again, shaking his head. She had either never heard the original, Tolkien version or simply discarded it from her memory as irrelevant for her. She also seemed unaware of the most common modern version of the quote. He stepped back a bit and took a fighting stance. His aura manifested, in the form of a dragon.

      "Be careful, little witch," said the great beast, in a voice which made the drop ceiling flutter. "I'm the one with the ketchup."

      He held the pose for a moment, then relaxed, his aura fading. He wasn't sure, but he thought Talisman had wet herself.

       * * *

      Each semester her dorm room at Ramsey Technical College seemed to get smaller. Even when Vic was in the same room as the previous semester. Of course, the main reason behind this phenomenon was the natural tendency to collect more belongings with time.

      Vic knew that some students abandoned much of their property when they left at the end of a semester, even when they were coming back. She didn't understand that. If it was worn out, recycle it or throw it away. If it was still good take it with you. Don't just leave a mess for someone else to deal with. If there was something you no longer needed at school, leave it at home.

      Even with abandoning items, most students tended to have more each semester. Aside from meaning that the rooms were more crowded, this meant that moving in and out was more time consuming and required much more work. Especially given the choice of waiting long periods for an elevator or using the stairs. Of course, for someone who was a borderline superhuman in terms of strength and stamina the latter choice wasn't all that great a burden. Even when Alex had her roommate carry most of her stuff as well as Vic's own.

      As Vic brought yet another stack of boxes into their dorm room she almost ran into a new gal on her way out. The young woman had something in her hand.

      "Hey," said Vic, startled. "What are you doing?"

      "Oh, I needed some ibuprofen for a headache."

      Cooley, that was her name, Vic now remembered. This was her first semester, but she was a Sophomore, a transfer from another college. Vic recovered from her surprise at the unexpected encounter, quickly put the stack of boxes down and snatched the bottle from the other gal's hand. A quick look around showed that Cooley had actually rummaged through the appropriately labelled box to find the bottle.

      "What's going on?" said Alex, coming in behind Vic, with a single, small box. "Who's that? Why's she in our room?"

      "This isn't ibuprofen!" Vic stated, flatly, for the moment ignoring her roomie as she held the bottle out, label towards the young woman. "It's Megaprofen, a super-strength prescription-only pain reliever for people with super metabolisms."

      "So much the better," said Cooley, reaching for the bottle. "I've been fighting this all morning. All this rush and bother..."

      Vic pulled her hand back.

      "Hey, aren't you gonna share?"

      "Listen, you can't take my medicines!"

      "Oh, don't be so selfish."

      "I'm a regenerator! What I take could kill someone who isn't physically superhuman!"

      "Stop being such an elitist!" Cooley snapped. "I'm in pain, here!"

      Incredibly, she tried again to take the bottle back from Vic. Who had no problem keeping it from her.

      "I'm telling the manager!"

      "Manager," said Vic, blankly. "We have a manager?"

      "I think she means the house mother," said Alex, smiling in amusement at the situation. "Hey, sweet cheeks. You be sure to tell the 'manager' you steal medicines from other people's rooms. Including some meant for supers only."

      "I have never stolen anything in my entire life!" the young woman shrieked.

      She made one more futile grab for the bottle. Then she glared at Vic for a moment, before flipping her off with both hands and storming out.

      "I think I better hunt down the house mother and make a formal complaint," said Vic, with a grimace. "If for no other reason, to keep her from poisoning herself."

       * * *

      Energia was having her own problems with the Fall semester housing.

      "Why can't I have a roommate?" she said. "I'd really like to have one."

      "Sorry," said her advisor, with a shrug. "Since the government took over they made it a policy, to protect supers with secret IDs."

      Energia gave vent to an aggravated sound, somewhere between a sigh and a growl. Sometimes this private life stuff could be a pain.

      "Okay," she said, trying to yield gracefully to the inevitable. "Singleton again, then."

      "If you enter the graduate program, which you've said you are interested in, you can get an apartment off campus," said her advisor. "Then you can room with whomever you want."

      "That's still two years away," said Energia. She shook her head. "Oh, well. Guess I can wait until then."

      "I'm glad you're being cooperative about this," said the woman. "I've had screaming fights - them screaming, me trying to be reasonable - with students over roommates, both having them and not having them."

      "Well, if there's no option, I better go move my stuff in."

      "Hopefully, this will be the worst disappointment you have this semester."

      "Don't count on it," said Energia, sourly.

       * * *

      Brade's office at the headquarters of the Bureau of Special Resources was a bit crowded at the moment. Half the Bureau's legal staff was in there, as well as her primary deputy, Doro. Brade was worried about the younger woman. Despite a year and nearly a half passing since her husband was killed in the War, there was still a deep sadness in her. She did a lot of work, probably to use it to distract her from her grief, so the situation was not all bad from the Bureau's standpoint. Brade still wished there were more she could do than make sure the young woman attended her counseling sessions. She sighed and began the meeting. The first order of business was a potential hire who was in legal trouble only partly through his own fault.

      "What's the situation with Gilbert Harkner, codename Smoke?" said Brade.

      "He's still refusing to plea bargain, and I can't blame him," said Louis. "The city won't go lower than felony on any of the charges, which would really hamper his goal of working for the Bureau. Since the bank agreed not to press trespassing charges - in part because they're very irritated at the way the police handled the situation - and we got the more absurd charges the city originally brought against Gil dismissed, that leaves just those based on the Bad Samaritan law."

      "That's the one requiring charges against any super involved in a criminal act whether they actually did anything wrong?" said Brade.

      "Yes," said Lewis, nodding. "Right now, Gil is out on bond and has a part time job. Normally, we'd work towards having his trial as soon as possible, but the state supreme court is about to make a decision regarding the Bad Samaritan law. If they throw it out, we'll move for dismissal of all remaining charges."

      "Excellent! Any idea when they'll make their decision or which way it will go?"

      "Only an approximate one for the when," said Lewis. "Odds are they'll throw it out, but that's not certain. If they don't the plaintiff in that case has made clear their intention to go to the US Supreme Court. That, though, could take years."

      Brade nodded, thinking for a moment.

      "Okay. Wait for the state court to decide. If they leave the law standing, go ahead to trial. Okay, next up is the recent farce with Escapade in Louisiana..."

       * * *

      Talisman sobbed into her pillow. After storming back to her dorm room and screaming at her roommate to get out she had spent several minutes smashing things and yelling profanity. Soon exhausted, she had collapsed onto her bed.

      Slowly, her anger turned to determination. She would show them all. She knew things they didn't dream she knew, things they thought they had hidden from all sight. She, the clever one, had found those things, and learned from them. Soon she would be unstoppable, and they would all suffer.

Part Six

      "Colbert, my man!" said Hickham, cheerfully greeting his henchman. "How does our garden grow?"

      "Very well, indeed, Bernie," said the slim, smiling man. "We had three successful super baiting expeditions over the weekend. Taught some low-level freaks to fear the British man."

      "Outstanding!" said Hickham, giving him a hearty slap on the back.

      "Some of the lads are saying they want to move up to some serious 'heroes.' That they've learned enough from these trial runs to take on folks more powerful. Frankly, I agree with them. I also think we need to slip their leash soon or they're likely to cause trouble."

      "Hmmmm..." said Hickham, rubbing his bulbous, smooth-shaven chin. "I guess we could let them have a little reward for patience, hard work and good service. You have any ideas?"

      "Yeah. There's a new team which claims central London. They moved in right after the Shilmek were kicked out... by regular human military, I'd like to add. They've got some moderately powerful members, but they're all new at the job. We should be able to take 'em. My question is, do it on the quiet or make it a public humiliation?"

      "Public. Daytime job it is. Oh, and this time, don't be afraid to do more than hurt them."

      "Understood," said Colbert, with a nasty smile.

      "Go and take the piss out of those costumed showoffs!"

       * * *

      "Oog..." said Vic, flopping down onto her bed.

      "Rough mission?" said Alex, as much from curiosity as sympathy.

      "Supposed to be part of my for-credit training," Vic groaned. "Wound up having to rescue the folks who were training me from a group of genetically engineered attack dogs."


      "Why doesn't Energia have these problems?"

      "You haven't heard her stories about people like that inventor who thought shielding his machine so it wouldn't start fires in nearby buildings was an unnecessary expense. Hey, are you listening?"

      Vic was instead frowning, and sitting up on her bed in spite of her previous display of fatigue.

      "Say, do you hear sirens?"

      "I do now."

      "They're getting closer, too," said Vic, worried. "Wonder if they're coming here..."

      Vic stood and went out into the hall, Alex close behind. They saw several people standing outside one of the other rooms.

      "Hey! What's wrong?" said Vic.

      "Someone ODed," came a reply.

      "Well, get out of the way!" said Vic, hurrying down and physically moving people. "Make room for the paramedics!"

      She had a bit of difficulty actually getting people to understand the necessity of clearing a path from the elevators to the appropriate dorm room. Vic had just realized that the victim was Cooley when the doors of one of the elevators opened and the paramedics hurried out. Volunteers in the central area pointed them in the proper direction.

      Vic quickly stepped back, and made sure all the onlookers gave the uniformed man and woman plenty of room to get their equipment in. Then she and a couple of others stood guard to keep the gawkers back, out of the way. During this period someone had to actually prevent a student from taking that one elevator, which the paramedics had pulled the STOP button for to have it ready when they left.

      After what seemed a worryingly long time the paramedics wheeled the stretcher - bearing Cooley plumbed to multiple IV bags - into the hall and towards the elevators. There were several hesitant, even half-hearted inquiries as to Cooley's health, which earned distracted and vague replies from the paramedics. Then they were gone.

      Soon the siren sounded again, and the ambulance roared away.

      "What did she take, anyway?" said Vic, to the hallway in general.

      "I gave the bottle to the paramedics," said Janice, Cooley's roommate. She looked very worried. "It was some sort of prescription medication for menstrual cramps. I think Melanie gave it to her."

      "I did not!" said Melanie, startled. "This is the first I've heard of it! If it's mine, that stuff is for supers only, and could kill a norm!"

      "I didn't know you needed extra-strong medicine," said Vic, moving over to the shocked sometimes lobster gal.

      "Yeah. I may look like a rock lobster when I power up but I have the metabolism of a rock crusher all the time," she said, a bit smugly. Her smile suddenly faded. "I didn't know she had stolen my pills."

      "Yeah, and this after being put on notice by the house mother," said Alex, unable to keep from sounding vindictive.

      "You mean she's done this before?!"

      Vic - with considerable completely unnecessary help from Alex - related how she had caught Cooley in their room, bottle of Megaprofen in her hand.

      "Oh," said Melanie, looking relieved. "I wish I had known about that, I would have been more careful about keeping my medications secure. That's not the only super prescription I have. I always make sure to lock my door when I leave, though, and so does Candy!"

      "She came into your room while no-one was there," said Vic, pointedly, "got into your stuff and stole something. Something she had been warned could kill her. Even if one of you forgot to lock the door, this is all on her."

      "Evolution in action," said Alex, airily.

      Later that afternoon there were questions from both the house mother and the head of security. The most common reaction after hearing what had happened was to walk away with a shaking of the head.

       * * *

      "These new kids are such... Amateurs!" said Template, waving her arms in agitation. "It's not just that they try to skirt the rules, they aren't even aware of how to do it! Or why! They're told they're supposed to be circumspect about their powers and the school, but they take selfies of themselves and the facilities! Then try to post them online, often going to great lengths to get around our security measures! They also try to post restricted information about the school, staff, other students..."

      This was an in-service day, where the staff worked taking care of administrative duties while the students were off. In the minds of most of those in the meeting, very off. Many here were wondering just how much trouble the kids were getting into without the teachers watching their every move. UN-run island security was on notice and had extra staff on hand, in case school security called for help.

      "They have the nerve to be surprised when they learn that all Internet access in and out is strictly monitored," said Junker, scowling. "They yell and scream about their rights and censorship, even though they are minors and were informed repeatedly before ever coming here about the restrictions. I've actually had death threats! From kids who can't even conceal who sent them!"

      "Isn't there enough to do on a volcanic island near the Bermudas with an old supervillain base and hundreds of supers?!" said Binary, who was currently female. "Especially when they're supposed to be focusing on their studies!"

      "Adults have been complaining about the follies of the young since well before the gods were born," said Eve, calmly. "As well, the young have ranted about the 'unnecessary' and 'arbitrary' rules of adults, before eventually applying them completely unironically to their own young."

      "Philosophy is all well and good," said Burgundy, obviously irritated, "but how do we cut back on this behavior without turning the island into a prison camp?"

      Fortunately, these were experienced and well-trained teachers. The discussion soon turned specific, both as to which were the troublemaking students and what measures could be used to keep them safe. The majority of offenders were one-time only. The few who kept violating the rules would be given extra attention, under notice that they were on probation and that further attempts would result in expulsion. Unfortunately, the problem extended well beyond Internet violations.

      "I'm having a growing problem with vandalism," said Marcus Altione, Head of Facilities. "Not just carelessly damaging something, but often deliberately! Some of the same students who cause the damage then have the nerve to complain about not being able to use what they've damaged! Not as any sort of pretense or joke, either. They honestly think no matter what they do, nothing else they want to do should be affected!"

      "I have several candidates for expulsion," said Burgundy. "I've even warned some of them. They all either just smirk or nod absently and wander off. They don't take me seriously!"

      "That's the biggest problem, isn't it?" said Ettienne, quietly. "They don't realize the danger. Or, rather, they discount it while overvaluing any reward which might result from their actions. Even if it's just an adrenaline rush. Far moreso than you would usually expect from such a population. Even moreso than during my own time here as a student."

      "You seem very thoughtful today," said Eve, eyeing the young healing and magic instructor.

      "There have been more incursions of extraplanar creatures," said Ettienne, scowling. "So far our traps have caught all of them fairly quickly. However, the last two were powerful enough that we barely arrived at the trap in time to reinforce the containment before they broke free."

      This caused an uneasy - even alarmed - stir among the rest of the staff members present.

      "Is this a natural - or supernatural, I guess - phenomenon or some sort of attack?" said Junker.

      "We... aren't certain. It could be an attacker taking advantage of some weakness in the mutable plenum."

      "Wait..." said Junker, startled. "Are you talking about space strain deformation?"

      "Uh..." said Ettienne.

      "Yes," said Eve. She eyed their chief engineer and gadgeteer. "Is this significant?"

      "That damned zero-point generator!" Junker snapped, suddenly angry... and worried. "It works by... well, the simplest way to state it is that it stretches space."

      There was a stunned silence as this sank in.

      "You told me before you weren't even sure how to turn that off," said Template, looking at Junker.

      "We have a procedure," he said, a bit defensively. "We just don't have a way to test it except by trying it."

      "I think we should try it soon," said Eve.

      "We have over a week before the geothermal plant is ready," said Junker. "A couple of months before the first of Dr. Device's fusion plants is due to be delivered."

      "I'll help you get the geothermal unit on line soonest," said Template. "That'll have to wait until I get back from a meeting I have right after this, though."

       * * *

      "All right," said Eve, after the others left. "What's the problem."

      She gave Template an evaluating look.

      "I'd almost think you're pregnant, again."

      "I'm not," said Template, unable to keep a bit of both pride and concern out of her voice. "Karen is."

      "Congratulations," said Eve, a warm smile lighting her normally stoic face. "Do you need some time off?"

      "Not yet, though Karen is already taking it easy."

      "Well, then," said Eve, nodding, the mask back in place. "I'll keep this in mind."

      "Don't go easy on me just because I'm going to be a father," said Template, well aware of the irony of saying that while female. She gave a short laugh. "Well, biologically, I already am, since I'm Roy's father, being the sperm donor."

      "Technicalities aside, I would do this for any employee in a family way. Again, congratulations."

Part Seven

      Template was on her way out of the administration building when the school's primary sex-ed teacher matched course with her.

      "Hey," said Binary, who was in transition from female to male. Hir voice cracked. "*AHEM* Excuse me. Will you be back before tomorrow? I'm supposed to give a presentation at the Venus Plus X symposium in San Francisco ten PM, their time."

      "I should be back well before nightfall today," said Template, confidently. "They just want to tell me something which - for whatever reason - they didn't feel comfortable telling me over coms."

      "Thanks," said Binary, with a relieved smile.

      Template was mildly amused to note that hir manner was still more feminine than masculine despite currently being what most women would consider a hunk. Sometimes it took a while for hir mind to catch up to hir body, or vice-versa.

      "I'm giving a talk on serial hermaphroditism and it's pretty important to me."

      "I definitely understand," said Template, straight-faced. Binary was not one of the few other school employees who knew Template was similarly bi-gendered.

      Template called traffic control and got clearance as she walked to the takeoff pad. She sighed a bit at the thought that there were now not only "lanes" for flyers - marked by a combination of high-visibility paint on pavement and buildings and narrow-angle visibility holograms - but multiple designated landing and launching pads in some areas. Those in busier locations were actually one-way, restricted to just arrivals or departures.

      Soon she was flying high and fast, on her way to the Appalachian base of the Bureau of Extraordinary Measures. She had been glad to hear that their new operational center had escaped attention during the Shilmek attack. However, she hadn't been there before and wasn't certain exactly where it was. She was supposed to meet the contact in an isolated area; presumably he or she would take Template to the actual facility. She absently admired the late Summer foliage as she flew over the forest canopy. Soon, the leaves would begin changing...

      As she descended though the leaves and branches there she saw a familiar man waiting for her.

      Director Reese, himself," said Template, as she settled silently into the leaf mold on the forest floor. "Well, if the Bureau of Extraordinary Measures has something to tell me which is so important and so urgent for you to handle it personally, we better to get moving."

      "Actually I can just tell you, right here," said Director Reese. "We don't have access to your secure communications network and we didn't trust government or public channels. Your flight speed means you can scoot over here, get our briefing, and get back quickly. What I have to say doesn't require a huge data dump or anything; just a spoken transfer of information."

      What is this about, then?"

      Several groups are taking advantage of the Shilmek War," said Reese. "Most of them to further their existing plots and schemes, some motivated specifically by the situation. Much of what they're doing isn't even illegal. One of those situations with the greatest potential for disaster is the current government in Great Britain."

      "I knew the Structural Party was pretty fascist," said Template, nodding thoughtfully. "I didn't know they were causing that much trouble."

      "More National Socialist in style than fascist. They have trained enforcers, thugs who keep out of the public eye so far and are used to intimidate and punish. They're getting bolder, too. They're also targeting supers."

      "Well, there's not much we in the States can do about that. I'm sure the Walrus and the other influential supers in Britain are aware of what's going on."

      "Yes, but they're strictly constrained by laws old and new, and becoming moreso every day," said Reese, emphatically. "The Structural Party does not like supers. They're too independent, you see. Or at least that's part of the party line. Most of their justification is that real Britons don't need supers. While trumpeting a history full of them, all the way back to the Roman occupation."

      "Claiming they don't now need and never have needed supers is something most politicians and members of the very wealthy and influential elite do in pretty much every nation," said Template, dryly.

      "Many of these measures to regulate supers are being attempted or actually undertaken largely because they were so useful against the Shilmek. That worried people. One effort at the UN is trying to repeal the international treaty prohibiting the use of supers in combat. That is causing much of the backlash.

      "I just hope the British... Well, the leader of the Structural Party is the sort who thinks long term. Once in power he won't be in a rush to make the nation over in his own image. He'll consolidate, pace himself, take his time. Partly with the awareness that by going slowly he'll make what he does more acceptable to the voters. However, people are already complaining about him, and some there are already calling for another election. He doesn't have enough control yet to prevent this, and won't for a long while, so they have a good chance of succeeding. However, someone less patient in control of the Structural Party could respond to such pressures with a crackdown and spark a civil war... or worse."

      "Great," said Template, expression sour. "So we have a bad guy who needs to stay in power for a while to keep things from going straight to Hell."

      "Pretty much."

      They spoke for another half hour, Reese briefing Template on multiple situations around the world, most of them not even involving supers. Some of his warnings were simply vague notices of strange happenings. A few of those sounded oddly familiar.

      "There's something going on with us, too," said Template, frowning at one bit of news. "We're having a problem with incursions of extra-planar creatures on the island, probably due to something Pine's old zero-point generator is doing."

      "Strange," said Reese, now frowning in turn. "I don't see how this fits with anything we're seeing, but..."

      "The creatures fit the classical descriptions of - and probably are - minor demons."

      Reese's mouth hung open, his eyes widening as he digested this.

      "Shit," he said, finally, the first time Template had ever heard the very proper man swear. "That fits. Oh, God, that fits."

       * * *

      Melanie entered the police station with the calm reassurance of the innocent. Not to mention the confidence of someone who could lift a bucket truck. This quickly changed, when the two detectives who were ostensibly supposed to take her statement on the theft of her medication instead began accusing her of giving them to Cooley.

      "I didn't give her my medications," said Melanie, angrily, after trying for several minutes to be polite. "She stole them! Just ask the others in my dorm! She's been stealing or trying to steal stuff from everybody!"

      "Then why are you the only one saying this?"

      "Did you even ask?" said Melanie, tone icy. "Ask the House Mother. I know several people complained to her about Coolie's 'borrowing.'"

      "We're asking you!" snapped the mousey one.

      "And I'm telling you!"

      They went back and forth about this for several minutes, until Melanie simply stopped talking.

      "Young lady, are you refusing to cooperate?"

      "I'm cooperating. You aren't. I've said all I have to say on the matter. I'm going."

      She stood and started for the door.

      "Hey!" yelled the mousey one, getting in her way. "We're not finished!"

      "Am I under arrest?"

      "We're not finished!"

      Melanie looked at the older detective. Who sighed.


      "Then I'm leaving."

      She stared at the mousey detective until he reluctantly moved out of her way.

       * * *

      "Yeah, that's strange," said Vic, later, after Melanie related what happened. Something occurred to her. "Did they make any trouble about you being a super?"

      "Uh, no," said Melanie, surprised as she realized this. "I don't think it ever came up. I mean, I was in normal mode, so it wasn't obvious."

      "I bet they don't know," said Alex, snickering. "The prescription doesn't say anything about the stuff being for supers only, and I don't think it ever came up when the cops were asking around here."

      "It's possible this wasn't about you being a super," said Vic, with a shrug. She had plenty of experience with police harassing her over being a super, and what Melanie had related didn't follow that pattern. "Frankly, some cops are actually trained to pressure people they don't even suspect of doing anything wrong, in the hopes of making them nervous enough to confess to something. Even if it's something they didn't do."

      "That's crazy!" said Melanie.

      "Yeah, and illegal. Lots of convictions have been overturned and city, state and even federal governments made to look bad - and pay huge sums in lawsuits - because of this. Yet some LEOs keep doing it, no matter how many lawsuits, changes of administration or reorganizations happen. Some simply don't know any other way to interrogate someone, even to get a statement from a victim. Some see it as a quick way to rack up a high score before they transfer to a better job. It's not the rule, but it's unfortunately also not rare."

      "I was thinking I might need to talk to an attorney," said Melanie, decision made. "Now I'm definitely going to."

      "I can give you a list, from the Bureau," said Vic.

       * * *

      When a report of some sort of small animal causing trouble in the boys' dorm came in, on a hunch Lori Savage sent both a vermin hunting team and one of the school's few supernatural instructors. This proved to be a smart move. Neither the hunt nor the kill took long, but the participants had a distinct feeling that there was more and worse to come.

      "What the Hell was that?!" said Stubens - the student in whose room the hunt ended - in a shrill voice, when the short skirmish was over.

      "Some sort of minor demon, imp or hobb," said Ettienne, nudging the small, smoking corpse with a toe as he warily eyed it.

      "Demon?!" said Stubens, voice going even higher.

      "A minor one," said Ettienne, distractedly. They hadn't been able to get a good look at it while it was alive, and now it resembled a roasted rabbit more than anything demonic. "Subject to ordinary physical forces, fortunately."

      "What would have happened if it weren't?" said Alice Truesdale, the house mother for the boys' dorm. She was obviously - and understandably - worried.

      "That's why we brought Ettienne," said the head of the vermin squad, turning a thumb towards the white-haired healer. "Good thing, too. This thing evaded or escaped all the traps, and would probably have gotten away clean without him."

      Later, after a quick meeting with Eve, Lori and Template to relate what they had found, the three women sat in Eve's office in silence for several long minutes.

      "Okay, that's it," said Template, finally. "We're shutting down the zero-point generator. We can do without a few things until the geothermal plant comes on line in - uh... - about three days."

      "What is taking so long with that thing?" said Lori, petulantly.

      "Mainly waiting on the stainless steel pipes," said Template, with an aggravated sigh. "The water involved is highly mineralized and very acidic."

      "You should have used regular pipe and replaced that when you got the stainless," said Lori, sourly.

      "We evaluated that, and the cost of installing the pipe twice was just too high!"

      "Stop," said Eve, not using her mental powers on the two but applying sheer force of personality developed over a millennium and a half to cut the argument off at the knees. "I agreed with the techs, so the ultimate responsibility is mine."

      She looked back and forth between them.

      "There is more than fatigue and frustration at work, here. I believe there is some sort of influence being produced by these creatures, or perhaps radiating from whatever crack in reality through which they are entering our world. This might even be contributing to our problems with some of the students."

      "Have the magicians found where that entrance is, yet?" said Lori.

      "Mages, please," said Eve, firmly. "'Magicians' are entertainers. And, yes; it's somewhere in the old Pine base. Probably in some nook or ventilation duct near the generator."

      "That may be why these things have been small," said Template, suddenly thoughtful. She winced. "I'll have to warn the techs working in that area to not open or expand anything before we get that generator shut down."

      "Go do that as soon as you leave here," said Eve, nodding. "Lori, you instruct your people about the power cut. I'll tell everyone else."

Part Eight

      "We successfully shut down the zero-point reactor!" said Template, exasperated, at an emergency meeting two days later. "Why are the incursions increasing?!"

      "Not just the incursions," said Dr. Othar Halvargardsen, who taught Earth Sciences and geology. "Seismic activity is increasing. The most worrying part of this is the harmonic tremors, which normally presage an eruption."

      "That thing was running for nearly half a century," said Junker, tiredly. "Maybe... space needs time to heal."

      "Now I'm wondering if the machinery keeping Der Schmale imprisoned may be contributing to the problem," said Template.

      "Eh?" said Junker, surprised out of whatever fugue he had been in. "No. The whole point of that was to keep him contained. They dug a hole, threw him in and held it closed behind him. The effect on the structure of space is very different."

      "There is also the factor of other areas of the world experiencing incursions," said Eve, seriously. "This is not our problem alone."

      "Whatever is causing this, demons - even small ones - are outside my job description," said Lori Savage, head of security. She shuddered. "We're doing what we can, but my people just aren't trained or equipped to even find these things and we don't have enough magi... mages to deal with them."

      "We're calling in all the mystics we can," said Andrea Valentina, Head of Administration. "The problem is that we're not the only place having this problem."

      "His Highness, the Prince of Speed is speaking with some of his relatives," said Eve. "As I am with some of mine. Between us we should be able to acquire some appropriately talented help."

       * * *

      Bernard Hickham was in many ways a simple and modest man, of simple and modest tastes. His London apartment had the minimum size for intimate meetings and the minimum amount of communications equipment for him to run his political empire. To run the British Empire he used equipment at the party headquarters. Just now, he had the news on the telly while he read racing forms. Until something caught his attention...

      "This afternoon terrorists set off a bomb at Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park killing two and injuring dozens," said the presenter.

      "What?! Terrorists?!" said Hickham, taking notice and sitting up to see better. He needed a moment to connect the words to one of his schemes, but when he did... "They were True Britons! Patriots to the core!"

      "What was that, dear?" called his wife, from the kitchen. He ignored her.

      "Their target was actually the super heroes who responded to the emergency."

      "At least that stupid bitch got that part right!"

      "What?!" came the outraged cry.

      "Not you, dearest."

      "As the heroes set to work helping the victims of the bombing, fifty disguised men attacked the heroes, who had to fight for their lives."

      "You mean they resisted arrest!"

      "Two supers and three more innocent bystanders died in the resulting battle, in spite of desperate efforts by the heroes to guide the fight to a safer location. Over twenty of the terrorists..."

      "Structural Party volunteers! Heroes of the nation!"

      Margaret came into the den, wiping her hands on a dish towel, scowling, to see what was going on.

      "...and eighteen more were captured, with the rest fleeing. Here is an excerpt from the after-action press conference, where the team's speaker, Golden Lion, related what happened. The full press conference will be aired later."

      "Where's our side, then? Why are you only talking to them?!"

      The video and audio switched to Lion.

      "The leader of the terrorists made it clear that we had to fight it out right there. When we tried draw them to an unoccupied area of the Park the leader ordered his men to fire on the civilians who hadn't managed to escape."

      "Liar! Liar! Liar!"

      Hickham jumped to his feet, shouting. Then, suddenly, he gasped and swayed. He quickly sat back down, shaking his head until the dizziness passed and his breath was caught.

      "Damn," he muttered, weakly.

      "Dear?" said Margaret, hurrying to him, suddenly concerned.

      "I'm all right," he said, forcing a smile and patting her hand. "Just got to remember I'm not a young man any more. Need to mind my temper."

      "I'll get you something," she said, hurrying away.

       * * *

      I was not in a good mood. I don't like fighting. I especially don't like fighting demons.

      "Is that the last of them?" I asked, quietly.

      "For now," said Dr. Freysdottir, also quietly.

      She sighed and straightened, looking around. Bizarrely, the battle had been almost silent, with most of the noise my hard breathing. Given that it was literally the middle of the night there wasn't much noise from the mundane facilities around us, either. With me using the knife Fen had given me and her one of her own, we had made quick work of each of the minor imps. The problem was there had been a lot of them.

      I straightened, too, and looked at the strange, blocky building in the distance. Even during the day it seemed ominous. At night I had no trouble believing there was something both supernatural and sinister happening in there.

      "So, what is he trying to do?"

      "Summon a powerful demon to serve him and grant him power," said Fen, with a shrug. "Same old same old."

      "We're done," said the pale fellow who was one of several supernatural types and mystics we had protected while they worked. He gave us a very toothy smile. "If he completes his work, this will disrupt the dimensional rift, likely destroying that which he summons."

      I nodded tiredly, and Fen congratulated the misfit team. Technically, I hadn't violated my agreement with Gaunt. I was just standing around, watching them work, when the creatures attacked me and I defended myself. My honor was satisfied. Though I doubted Gaunt would agree with my evaluation of the situation.

      "Were they trying to stop us, or simply attracted by our working?" asked an apparently young woman who had stopped aging some time around when Roosevelt first took office. Theodore, that is.

      "The latter, I believe," said a short, pudgy man. He smiled and dusted his hands. "Yes, we were successful and learned some important things about what Gaunt plans. However, I believe we should absent ourselves before he notices the activity and loss of his watchdogs and decides to act against us himself."

      "An excellent idea," said Fen.

      We hurried off the ridge and down the other side, towards our assortment of vehicles.

       * * *

      "Template, you were confused as to why the incursions were not only continuing but growing worse," said Dr. Piano, as he and a couple of other mystics met with her, Eve, Lori Savage and a few others in the old Pine base's security center. "We believe there is some sort of collaborator on the island. Someone - probably only one person but possibly more - who is aiding whatever Great Beast it is which is trying to force its way onto this plane."

      "Damn..." said Template, stunned.

      Others reacted similarly, Eve in what sounded like Greek.

      "All right," said Lori, recovering quickly. "Finding someone doing something wrong is in my field of expertise. Just give me an idea of what they might be doing."

      Dr. Piano - with an occasional interjection from one of the other mystics - described the sorts of preparations and actions which might be involved.

      "I'll spread the word," said Lori, nodding. "My God... I thought most of this stuff was only in old horror movies. A pentagram!"

      "Pentacle, sorcerer's circle, etc." said Dr. Piano. "I will note that as the series of castings progress both those and the results will become more noticeable."

      "Just how noticeable can these incursions get?" said Junker, worried.

      "The island would be scoured clean of all life by a combination of a volcanic eruption and a flood of demons."

       * * *

      Most of the Usual Suspects had just settled down to eating lunch the next day when Candy came hurrying up.

      "Found out what was going on with the cops trying to blame everybody but Cooley for her crimes,"said Candy without preamble, as she set her tray down. "She's the daughter of a politically active local businessman. Oh, and this is the third college she's been kicked out of for this kind of behavior. The school administration isn't too happy about this."

      "I'm not happy about this!" said Melanie. She suddenly looked shocked. "Oh, God... I just realized. She's the daughter of Marvin Cooley."

      "So?" said Vic.

      "My dad's on the city zoning board, and he's had several run-ins with Marv. Great. I better call and let him know about this, before Marv accuses him of having me try to poison her."

      "I think I followed that," said Alex, as Melanie rose from the lunch table and hurried away to make a private call.

       * * *

      Vic popped her head in Melanie's door that evening.

      "Any progress with the police, now that you know about Cooley's dad?"

      "A little," the other gal responded. "Y'know, after making vaguely threatening noises that hiring an attorney is an admission of guilt they became a lot more civil. Though they still seemed to be trying to blame me for Cooley getting those pills. The change meant 'letting' me agree that it was negligence instead of malice. They went back into threat mode when I refused that option, too. After I talked to that lawyer the Bureau recommended he did some checking and confirmed that this harassment is due to pressure from Cooley's father. They're really trying to get me to accept blame, even offering to drop all charges if I just admit I gave the pills to her."

      "Ignoring that to get them she somehow opened a locked door and searched your room while you and your roommate were in class," said Vic. She cocked her head a bit to one side. "Still no signs this was due to you being a super?"

      "Not that my lawyer can see," said Melanie, with a careless shrug. "We're not mentioning that, yet. We're also holding off accusing them of colluding with Cooley's father. If this does go to court we can claim the accusations are an excuse to attack the daughter of someone who has stood up to him."

      She sighed, stretched a bit and shook her head.

      "Y'know, maybe I've led a sheltered life, but until this I've never even thought that people might hold me being a super against me."

      "Not really sheltered," said Vic, leaning against the door jam and folding her arms as she took on a thoughtful expression. "Most supers don't have a problem until something points out that they're super to the sort of people who cause trouble."

      "Well, thank you for that list from the Bureau," said Melanie, smiling. "Mr. Juliette is only a junior member of Lewis and Louis but he knows what he's doing. Not to mention being a gentleman and very handsome."

      "Well, I wouldn't know anything about that last," said Vic, airily. "Glad he's working out, good luck, and let me know if I can do anything else."

      "Of course I will," said Melanie, for some reason amused.

       * * *

      Bowman hurried along the corridor, through temporary shoring and spotty work lights to the dig site. He could already feel the heat and smell the sulfur. In moments, he was in the large chamber which was intended to hold the lowest part of the new Intrepids base.

      "What's going on?" he asked the shift supervisor.

      "This doesn't make sense! I mean, sure, we're deep into the basement rock under the mountain, here, so some heat is expected, but this...!"

      One quick look, smell and listen was all Bowman needed. The archer and inventor was neither mystic nor mage, but he'd seen enough supernatural stuff in his life to recognize it.

      "Everyone out," he shouted. "Now!"

      He took a moment to shoot an arrow with a spy head into the far wall, then chased after the last of the fleeing workers.

       * * *

      "How is the investigation into the flying super on approach to the capital being shot down going?" said President Sievers, at a late afternoon briefing.

      "It took a lot of work - including threats of expanding the prosecutions - but I finally got the bureaucrats to get off their asses and do their jobs," said Howers, with satisfaction. "The main benefit so far being the FAA and the Washington air defense folks getting together to agree on flight corridors for various functions. We're actually following the example of the Pine Island Academy. We'll publicize this, emphasizing the proper corridors for supers. Those corridors will be marked with visual cues, mostly rooftop lights. The proper type of flight inside the proper corridor will be closely monitored, but as long as the plane, drone, super or whatever stays where it belongs there will not be an automatic shoot-down."

      "I hadn't realized there was an order for automatic shoot-downs before this," said Sievers, sourly. "Damn Thurlin and his paranoia! And damn the various bureaucrats who didn't think to inform me of it or question its necessity!"

      "Do you want me to tell them to drop the automatic shoot-down completely?"

      "Yes. Definitely. Something like that should always require a conscious decision by a responsible human being."

      "Good luck getting one of those to stay in the system here," said one of the aides, wryly.

Part Nine

      Normally, the Secretary of the Interior wouldn't even be at such a meeting, much less in charge of it. The man from Homeland Security wondered vaguely about this, but was so smugly self-assured that he figured it was about time he got recognition for his hard work. Special Agent Mark Sorensen settled himself confidently into a chair at the small conference table and waited.

      Only minutes later Secretary Adam Thomlinson entered the meeting room, a pair of Secret Service personnel accompanying him. He nodded to Sorensen and sat at the head of the table, the two men standing behind him to either side.

      "Good morning, Special Agent Sorensen," said the Secretary. "How are you doing?"

      "Just fine, sir," said Sorensen, smiling and nodding.

      "Excellent. I understand you organized and led a mission to search for and capture a reported dangerous superhuman at the Kemper Prep School two days ago."

      "Yes, sir," said Sorensen. So, this was about that incident. Well, he might not have captured the rogue but he definitely scared the freak away! There had been no more reports of super activity at the school since his operation.

      "So, to review, your agency received a report of a superhuman causing problems at the school, and you were assigned to investigate."

      "Yes, sir," said Sorensen, proudly. "I gathered my team and responded promptly. There were difficulties with the staff - some were completely ignorant of the dangerous situation in their own school and I think some were actively shielding the super - but we solved the problem."

      That might have been an exaggeration, but Sorensen wasn't one to let any opportunity to blow his own horn pass without using it.

      "The police report says they responded to a report from the principal that there were unknown armed men in the school, threatening teachers and students."

      "Which is why I said some of the staff were actively aiding the rogue super," said Sorensen, a bit of anger showing through. "We clearly identified ourselves to everyone we encountered so they did, indeed, know who we were. The principal still called the police on us. The time wasted dealing with them allowed the rogue to escape."

      "The police report states that they ordered you to leave and you refused to comply until they threatened you with arrest."

      "Well, they would, wouldn't they," said Sorensen, airily.

      "Are you aware that my grandson attends that school?" said the Secretary of the Interior.

      "No, sir I was not," said Sorensen, smugly. "I'm glad to know I was able to protect a member of your family from that rogue super, though."

      "The boy your people tried to kidnap is my grandson, you moron! He had an argument with another student, who swatted him in revenge!"

      "Wh... what?!" said Sorensen, thought processes derailed by this sudden accusation. "No, the report was..."

      "Didn't you think it odd that Homeland Security was called for a student causing a problem, rather than the school handling it themselves or calling the police?"

      "A super was involved! Of course they called us! We're the ones best trained and equipped to deal with supers!"

      "You had no warrant. You had no authorization from school authorities. All you had was a teenage boy calling an anonymous tip line with a vague complaint. Homeland Security is also by no measure the most qualified federal agency to handle rogue supers!"

      "We were doing our job!" shouted Sorensen, furious, still not sure what was going on. "I was defending this country and those innocent children from attack by a rogue super!"

      "You're under arrest!" snapped Secretary Thomlinson. "For bringing firearms onto school property without legal authorization, for terroristic threatening, for refusal to comply with police officers..."

      "You can't arrest me! I work for..."

      "He's not the one arresting you," said a new voice. A deep, female voice.

      Sorensen looked around and saw several people in costume entering the room from a side door.

      "What is this?!" said Sorensen, jumping to his feet, suddenly and obviously terrified.

      "You committed a crime against a super," said Brade. "For that you get arrested by the super cops. There are other LEO agencies with charges against you, as well, but they'll have to get in line."

      "I don't recognize your authority!" shouted Sorensen, frantically fumbling around inside his jacket. "As a badge-carrying agent for Homeland Security, responding to a reported super terrorist attack, I am immune from arrest and prosecution!"

      "That's not what the law says," said Secretary Thomlinson. "Or are you going to claim you can write that to your whim?"

      Sorensen looked around at the Secret Service agents who had escorted him here. Whom he considered brothers in arms in the fight for all that was right and proper.

      "Are you going to let them railroad me like this?!"

      "Far as I'm concerned," said one of the dark-suited men, "someone who attacks a school should be locked up for life."

      "I have a teenage cousin who's a super," said another, his glare visible through is sunglasses.

      "Traitors!" screamed Sorensen.

      He abruptly yanked his hand from his jacket. Everyone tensed, expecting him to draw a gun. Instead, there was a sickly, greenish flash from the device he produced. Sorensen triumphantly jumped to his feet.

      "Now let's see you do anything, you freaks!"

      Three different super-fast individuals grabbed him before he could move, one of them Brade herself, towering over him as she removed the neutralizer from his hand.

      "What?!" Sorensen shrieked.

      "Counter devices," said Brade, calmly. "They're standard issue these days to LEO supers, since so many criminals have illegal access to neutralizers."

      "As if we would have let you escape, even if that had worked," said the first Secret Service agent, angrily.

      Sorensen was dragged away, ranting and screaming threats. Brade remained, at the invitation of the Secretary sitting in the recently vacated chair.

      "Now we just need to get the rest of those involved before news of his arrest leaks," said Thomlinson. He looked older and tireder, now that his anger was fading.

      "The FBI, the US Marshall's Service and the Bureau of Special Resources are all working on that," said Brade, confidently. "All of them keeping things hush-hush, need to know. Even most of those performing the operations will not know their target or the reason until just before the arrests."

      "Good," said the Secretary, a bit of the anger back. He gave Brade a long, evaluating gaze. "I've never been known as someone particularly pro-super, but I have a well-deserved reputation as being anti-bigot. I like to think I would have called you in even it wasn't my grandson who was targeted by those bastards."

      "I think school security and certain members of the teaching staff - as well as some of the students, from what I know of the incident - all deserve praise," said Brade. "They didn't just blindly do what the men with the badges breaking into their school yelled, but ran and hid and called school security. They kept the Homeland Security squad bottled up until the police arrived, despite threats and brandished automatic weapons."

      "They didn't verify with the staff," said Thomlinson, shaking his head and looking astounded. "They just barged in like terrorists themselves - even breaking open a secure door - and started yelling orders and threats. So far, no-one can even verify the call which brought them there - much less identify the source - beyond it coming from a pay phone in the main building's lobby. Though when I contacted my grandson to make sure he was unharmed he had a good guess as to who and what caused the situation."

      "Well, it ended with nothing worse for the innocent and those who defended them than some anxious moments," said Brade, nodding.

      "Let's hope that continues to be the result for such actions," said the Secretary, fervently. "I will say that such events are far more rare now than during the Thurlin administration."

      "Much rarer. From what we're seeing, that is a continuing trend."

      "Thank God," said the Secretary.

       * * *

      The meeting was quite subdued, which was the rule at this institution. The manager of the senior center was accustomed to dealing with haggard, desperate and emotionally overwrought men and women. Such a state was to be expected. Few were eager to admit their parent to this facility. Yet the majority knew it was necessary.

      "I hate to do this but I just can't handle her any more," said Mr. Diddlebach. "She's just living more and more in the past, forgetting that she's not a youngster now. During the invasion it was all I could do to keep her from running out to help! Mother is just so much stronger than me..."

      "I beg your pardon?" said the administrator, jolted back to full attention by that last bit.

      "You do know she's a super?" said Howard, with a sinking feeling. "During the Forties and early Fifties she put on a costume and called herself Loop Lass, since she could fly. Silly name, but those were different times."

      He stared at the administrator, daring him to reject his mother at this stage, after all he'd done to get her in here.

      "Mr. Diddlebach... we don't have the facilities..."

      "The person I spoke to on the phone stated without reservation that you could handle supers. You, yourself, assured me you had the personnel, equipment and training to handle any senior."

      "Not supers!" said the administrator, looking and sounding desperate. "I honestly have to say that it never occurred to me that supers could ever become seniors!"

      "She published her memoirs in the late Fifties," said Howard, irritated. "There was a movie about her in the Sixties! How did you not know..."

      "That's all ancient history!"

      Howard was momentarily stunned at the realization that the head of a senior care facility knew nothing about the time during which many of his tenants had been young and active. He shook his head and got back to business.

      "If you don't carry through on our contract I'll sue," said Howard, tone low and deadly. "Even if you don't have super-specific training and equipment, what you have is far better than what I have. You can get what's needed a lot easier than I can, as well. I want her properly taken care of!"

       * * *

      The alarms were loud, raucous and superfluous. The explosions, shrieks of volcanic gas streaming from fissures in the sides of the volcano and the even more chilling shrieks of demonic creatures swarming out of the ground at various locations around the flank of the non-volcanic mountain housing the Pine base were far more than enough to let everyone on the island - and for a considerable distance out to sea - know something was very wrong.

      There were nearly two dozen special guests staying on the island this night. As well, many staff who usually commuted to the island were here, in various guest cottages. One of those was Template.

      "Exactly at local Midnight, of course!" she screamed, partly out of anger and partly to be heard.

      "Why aren't the demons coming out of the volcano?!" yelled Lori Savage. "Why make other holes?"

      "They're not fire demons," shouted Dr. Piano. "For which we can be thankful."

      "I don't care what kind of demons they are," said Template. "I just want to know how to stop them!"

      "All those I am seeing are subject to mundane forces. They may be tougher than normal humans but they can still be killed by old-fashioned brute force!"

      "That's all I need to hear!" said Eagle.

      Template started to join him and the others rushing to the attack, but Dr. Piano caught her arm.

      "These are merely the phalanx, the forerunners. Their master will be along shortly."

      "Great," said Template, quietly enough for her words to be lost in the clamor. Her posture and expression made her mood clear, however.

Part Ten

      The eastern horizon was just beginning to show light when the master of the demon army finally arrived. Whether it was surprised to find nearly all its troops destroyed the defenders couldn't tell. They were too desperately busy trying to finish the last of the attackers, so they could stop the other demons which were working to bring their master over.

      All through the night a corps of lesser demons had labored to widen the largest of the cracks in the ground, which was at the base of Pine mountain, near the landing field. Those defending the island - and possibly the entire world - included mystics, teachers, security staff, the entire UN contingent on the island, multiple powerful elves summoned by the Prince of Speed and dozens of volunteer supers from around the globe. They had fought valiantly, and to the largest part successfully, to reach that one fissure and stop the work. In vain.

      As if being birthed by the Earth itself, the demon pulled itself out of the crevice its few remaining servants had managed to sufficiently widen barely before the defenders could reach them. At the sight of this new threat the defenders reflexively pulled back and took stock.

      "Well, there go the workers," said Template, tiredly, as the new arrival simply trod upon the lesser creatures serving it, which had prostrated themselves before it.

      The thing - like its predecessors - was humanoid, and in fact looked more human than most of them. The pointed ears, horns and fangs were actually minor differences when compared to the blood-red skin and spade-tipped tail. Many almost laughed at the thing's stereotypical appearance. Almost. It appeared to be either naked but not anatomically correct, or wearing something which was not discernible.

      Students had been ordered to hopefully safe locations, and nearly all the non-legacy young men and women had eagerly obeyed. Though some had needed to actually see one of the demons to be properly motivated.

      However, nearly all those students with family in the business were insisting on helping. They kept evading attempts to keep them away from danger and showing up, often in the most dangerous locations, many of them in costume. The non-combatant staff for the most part managed to direct their efforts to protecting the other students and aiding the injured. Still, a few persistently engaged in direct combat. Some were surprisingly effective.

      The great demon scowled as it looked around, surveying the situation. Hundreds of demon bodies, volcanic chaos nearby, scores of humans and some elves. It made a rumbling sound which might have been a mostly subsonic "Harrumph!" and began walking down the mountain, each stride carrying it nearly a block. It seemed at most annoyed by the attacks of the defenders swarming around it.

      "I hit that thing right in the face with a concentrated dose of conotoxins and it hardly blinked!" said the Alchemist, sounding panicked.

      "That is a creature of dark magic," shouted Ettienne. "It does not follow the rules of normal biology. Try salt!"

      Perhaps it was the very variety of attempts against it, but the master demon began to slow. It was now obviously annoyed. It turned its attention to the gnats harassing it and they began fighting for their lives.

      Eve Hind found an exhausted Dr. Piano and pulled him into a sheltered spot so she could be heard, rather than try to attract his attention through his mental defenses.

      "What does it want?" said the mentalist.

      "Right now, to look around," said the mystic, frowning as he tried to gather his thoughts. "To survey the area, find targets, locate a place to make into a stronghold."

      "Then why is it heading away from the Pine base and towards the school?!"

      Piano's eyes widened with sudden revelation.

      "I... It's attracted to the innocence and naïve sexual energies of the students."

      "Can we divert it to a less populated area?"

      "Yes! Let me confer with my colleagues."

      In short order the mystics and mages had the giant marching up a deep gully towards the volcano, following a false trail. This allowed the defenders to better concentrate and coordinate both their attacks and their attempts at containment. The demon seemed only annoyed by the former and was just beginning to notice the latter. However, with each effect used, with each spell cast, the defenders were learning what would work.

      Template flew high above the scene, feeling lost. She saw a lone figure - the leader of the elf contingent - standing on a rocky knoll. He was contemplating the side of the volcano and did not look pleased. She flew down beside him.

      "What can I do?" said Template.

      "Unless you could somehow bathe the creature in molten lava, nothing," said the elf, his tone dismissive.

      "Of course I can do that!" said Template, hotly. "If you're sure that will help, I can punch a hole in the side of the mountain just uphill of the thing. That valley would keep the lava away from people and buildings, so that would solve two problems at once by keeping it from erupting out at random!"

      "Oh..." said the elf, startled. "Uhm, yes. I forgot the physical... brutality you superhumans are capable of. Proceed."

      Template scowled, but leapt into the air without saying anything. Once on her way she called security.

      "You're going to do what?!" said Lori Savage, once quickly briefed.

      "I want you to check with the geologists to make sure this won't cause more trouble than it'll solve."

      Lori was in the security center of the Pine Base, directing things. She didn't like being so isolated from the situation, but the resources here - especially communication capacity - more than made up for that. She personally contacted Dr. Halvargardsen and made her request.

      While that was going on, Template made a quick stop at her cabin to retrieve her portable cannon. This was an improved model replacing the one Energex had destroyed. She was already charging it as she flew out the door.

      "The geologists are checking their maps and images from the drones," said Lori. "They say not to make the hole more than two meters across. Otherwise the whole slope could come down. Oh, and they'll have exactly where to shoot in a few minutes."

      "It better not be more than a few," said Template, as she hovered high above the battle site. "That thing just turned around and is heading back down. It's moving faster, now, and it isn't stopping. It's like Gaunt heading for Las Vegas but with added Satan."

      With real-time guidance from the geologists, Template flew into position. Meanwhile, Lori made sure that all those actively fighting the thing knew they would have to be ready to move to either side of the valley quickly, and had a way to do so.

      "Remember," said Othar, his voice sounding strangely detached in Template's ear, "you need a steady beam, not a blast. You'll have to judge the output based on the actual results, so start easy!"

      "Got it," said Template, taking careful aim and using the weapon's active smart guidance to lock on target. "Firing now."

      In the gully downstream from the target the demon was puzzled by the gnats suddenly pulling back. It thought at first they were fleeing, but then it heard a noise behind it. Turning, it saw a flying figure attacking the side of the mountain. The demon was now even more puzzled. These creatures were behaving so strangely... Then it felt a low rumble through its feet, and realized the danger.

      The demon turned to its left and hurried up the side of the rocky gash... only to run into both a barrier and active attacks. For some reason the gnats' efforts were now more effective than before. It turned to the right, but there encountered the same problem. It turned to head down the gully. The rumbling grew stronger, and there was a burst of heat and sound behind it. The demon made the mistake of looking back.

      Bright yellow molten rock fountained out a hole partway up from the valley floor and geysered in an arc to splash against the far wall. Most of it then flowed down the wall onto the floor of the valley and ran towards the demon.

      The demon screamed a sound which might have come from a tortured steam engine.

      It frantically tried working some magic against the barrier to its left, but the mystics, mages and elves were watching for that. Though exhausted from the long battle, they weren't about to stop now, with victory literally in sight.

      The giant stopped whatever it was attempting and instead cast a barrier between itself and the rapidly approaching lava. Template, finished with her drilling, turned her weapon towards it and waited, charging. Just before the molten rock reached the barrier she fired, collapsing it.

      The thing looked at her, sending a chill through her soul. Right before the lava swept over it.

       * * *

      Hours later and the exhausted defenders were still busy trying to clean up the messes left by the attack and the defense. Some were darkly joking they didn't know which had caused the most damage. One casualty was the geothermal plant, which had been heavily damaged by the lava flow. At least the volcano was quieting, now. The geologists had been concerned that the relief of pressure might cause an explosive release of gasses but this lava was very thin, so that the gasses mostly just fizzed off. There were some landslides and a few lava bombs - which fortunately hit where they did little damage - but the volcano had been far more ally than enemy.

      "What do you mean this isn't the end of it?!" said Eve, not long after local Noon, as she met with the mystics, mages and elves.

      "This was a powerful demon lieutenant," said Dr. Piano. "We believe he was only here to prepare the way for a true demon lord. Which will keep sending lieutenants until one either succeeds or the lord gets impatient and tries something else."

      "We really need to find whoever is helping these things," said Lori, with feeling.

       * * *

      Pine Island wasn't the only place suffering from such problems. One of the afflicted locations was all too familiar to some members of the Assembly.

      "I can't believe we're back at the same cave!" said Champion, a bit of an edge in her voice.

      "It is a place of mystical potency," said Sharma. "As well as a dimensional nexus. That is why the cultists chose it."

      "So which way in? The tunnel in the side?"

      "That would give the most direct access to the nexus proper."

      Once again, Jade Eagle noted that the current Champion - the third distinct one - seemed to know things from early in the team's history. Of course, if Paula really had been with the team as a security man back then, that could explain the mystery. Jade Eagle was growing increasingly certain it didn't.

      They strode up the steep slope into the old tunnel, then more carefully along it.

      "I don't like what I'm hearing in there," said Champion, quietly.

      "I don't like what I'm mystically sensing," said Sharma, unconsciously rubbing her hands up and down her triceps. "Hold a moment; it's time to cast some protection spells."

      That done, they resumed cautiously proceeding. Soon the others could hear what Champion had heard, and see light ahead. Not long after they could see small, shadowy figures, dancing and singing around the altar in the dimly-lit large chamber at the end of the tunnel.

      "I thought you folks purified that!" hissed Champion.

      "We did. We couldn't permanently seal the rift, though. They are in the process of re-defiling it!"

      "Then let's stop them," said Maciste, starting forward, fists balled.

      The creatures turned out to be a bit more than human in speed, strength and resilience and there were a lot of them. Champion managed to deal with nearly half of them, while Maciste and Thunderer took care of most of the rest. Meanwhile, Jade Eagle guarded Sharma while she did... something at the altar. After several frantic minutes the last of the creatures was down, and the team's shaman was finished with her work.

      "There. It is again blocked. Though, again, it is still there and could be forced back open."

      "What if it were buried in rock?" said Champion, still breathing hard and holding a bandage over a nasty gash on her left forearm.

      "Uhm, that might... well, enough rock would..."

      "You thinking what I'm thinking?" said Maciste, grinning.

      His costume had a few tears - which was impressive enough considering how tough the material was - but he was uninjured. The others had escaped with minor injuries at most.

      "Actually, let's get some demolition experts in here," said Champion, looking doubtfully around the chamber. "Hell, we could bring the whole hillside crashing down into the valley if we weren't careful. Maybe it would be better to just fill this with concrete."

      "That would definitely do it," said Sharma, looking both impressed and wary.

       * * *

      Meanwhile, another team was having a similar adventure.

      "Whew!" said Bowman, wiping his brow as he dropped onto a pile of structural steel members. "Okay, if that's the last of them we need to figure out how to keep any more from getting in here."

      "Before we dispose of the bodies?" said Jet Jaguar, with a grimace of distaste.

      "I know some people who will be glad to take those off our hands," said the Black Mask. He didn't elaborate and the others didn't ask.

      "How do you seal a crack in space?" said Solange, as she frantically rubbed herself with hand cleaner from a dispenser on the side of the portajohn. Having the scantiest costume she had received the most exposure to the ichor the creatures seemed to be filled with. Industrial paper towels were next on her agenda.

      "Grout?" said Bowman, scowling in thought. "No; concrete. We were planning to put a nice, thick, reinforced concrete floor in here, anyway. We'll just make it thicker and more reinforced."

Part Eleven

      Around the world at multiple locations unnatural creatures were forcing their way onto the earthly plane. In most places these incursions created enough of a disturbance - especially given that most were preceded by minor disturbances over a period of weeks to months or in some cases years - that people were forewarned. Other invasion sites escaped notice, at least for the moment. Those would require far more work to excise, later. However, given the overall failure they would not spread rapidly.

      One of the worst of the sites was outside San Francisco, in an industrial park previously owned by a group of connected families. Recently it had come under new ownership following the mysterious disappearance of the CEO. The new owner was also mysterious, both in identity and actions. Many employees were unsettled by some of the new owner's actions, but they had learned through bitter experience from managers both old and new at the facility to keep their heads down and not say anything.

      A few of those working late in the headquarters building this evening were now regretting this. Everyone else who was there when the trouble began was already dead or worse, and the continued existence of the survivors appeared far from guaranteed.

      Workers on the late shift in nearby facilities were startled by strange lights and weird sounds coming from the main office, the oldest building standing on the property, the weird looking one over in the corner near the main road. The work there was performed strictly during normal office hours - barring some emergency - so what was going on? An electrical fire, maybe? It must be a big one...

      Calls to the security center in the old, blocky building went unanswered. Those who approached the building to seek answers in person did not return. The missing soon included police and firefighters, which brought more of both. Who decided to hang back, because by the time this second wave arrived it was obvious to all that what was happening here was not some normal disaster. Finally, someone thought to call in the Bay Area Guardians. Those worthies were actually already on the way, warned by mystic alarms set there previously.

      The team hopper settled into the Little League ball park across the road from the old building. Out poured a significant portion of the team, and one other. They met a small figure who was already there, having been one of the first notified by the magical alarms previously established.

      "I thought you folks sabotaged Gaunt's work!" yelled Tiger, not so much due to the noise from the building as the noisome influences it was exuding. He was technically a member of the support staff for the Bay Area Guardians and not a team member, but as a creature of magic they decided he should come along.

      "We did!" shouted Dr. Freysdottir, who was also not part of the Bay Area Guardians, but was a member of the group who set the alarm spells, wards and "sabotage" effects. "What we're seeing is probably the result of him desperately trying to bull his way through our countermeasures."

      "Can he succeed?" said Mesa, looking worried. He was far more at home punching giant robots than battling demons.

      "I... don't know," said the furry little elf woman, also looking worried. "Gaunt is an unknown variable."

      They quickly reached the consensus to simply keep everyone back for the time being. Something the civilian authorities had no argument with when advised. Those surrounding the structure braced themselves to contain whatever might come out of it.

      The eerie display grew stronger, the foxfire glow brighter and the haunting sounds louder. Abruptly, there was a massive crash as all the windows shattered inwards.

      "Oh, good," said Fen, looking relieved. "It inverted."

      The glow appeared to pull inwards as well, concentrating somewhere deep inside the building, where they had no direct line of sight. The sounds changed from moans and chilling laughter to screams and shrieks. There were multiple secondary effects in the surrounding area - mostly transformers overloading and exploding in impressive displays - but Fen and the other mages and mystics explained that those were not a problem. Well, except to those dealing with the resultant damage. The firefighters, at least, appeared relieved to only have to contain and put out multiple small and medium fires.

      There was another crash, louder and deeper. The sides of the building dented inwards, held for a moment... Then, with a groan those watching could feel through the ground, the walls slowly bent further. The roof collapsed, bringing down floor upon floor of the strange architecture. Within seconds the building was a mass of rubble, which was rapidly shrinking. Soon there was only a large ball of mangled concrete, steel and stone suspended in the air. The glow - masked for a while after the collapse - began to show again as the rubble ball grew smaller. A few flares of pastel light flew out from this, but rebounded from an unseen barrier and were recaptured. Eventually, only a brilliant, actinic point was left. Abruptly, it vanished.

      "Well, that's that!" said Fen, dusting her hands together, looking pleased.

      "What happened?" said Steel Lace, sounding shaken.

      "The hole turned inside out when it hit our wards and rebounded," said Fen. "It should have been both much quicker and less destructive - only the immediate area around the center being lost - but apparently Gaunt managed to put up quite a fight."

      "He lost, though?" said Tiger, his gaze focused on where the last manifestation had been. "I can't feel anything there, now, except a bit of residual ectothere."

      "Oh, yes," said Fen, with a satisfied smile. "As for Gaunt, himself, I don't know whether we've seen the last of him, but I very much doubt he got out of that."

       * * *

      One of Bernard Hickham's proudest accomplishments since his party had gained control of Britain was the Instant Threat Alert System. This involved procedures for quickly spreading word of potentially serious problems and evaluating the threat, then notifying the most appropriate authorities.

      For the sake of appearances some threats - primarily super villain problems - were assigned to the closest of Britain's officially organized super hero teams. However, each alert of Threat Level Yellow or above was also relayed to several national government offices... and to Hickham, personally. Who was already watching for trouble after hearing about the supernatural activities in many parts of the world. He was half expecting the autocall notification that morning. Why Britain was seeing the activity later than other areas he didn't know; perhaps due to defenses instituted following the many previous episodes.

      There were currently several outbreaks in Britain, but the closest to London was also the largest. Avebury Henge was far larger than the more famous Stonehenge, and some thought it - or some parts of it - might be older. Perhaps much older. Perhaps even dating to before the most recent ice age. It also seemed to have a different design. Where Stonehenge appeared to be a place of worship and celebration, the Henge at Avebury - or, at least, the oldest part of it - seemed designed more to contain something. Well, that was what many mystics said. If that were true, it might explain why such extreme effort had been made to restore the henge over the past century.

      Hickham and his enforcers were no strangers to the supernatural. Britain had one of the highest levels of supernatural activity on the planet, and many of its inhabitants had experience dealing with various types of paranormal troublemakers. There was also a large cultural store of information for how to go about that.

      "Grab the iron clubs, boys," said Colbert, urging his troops along, "and the bags of salt. We've got a tough job ahead of us."

      "I'm coming along," said Hickham, surprising his friend.

      "You sure, boss? This could be a bad go ahead of us."

      "Yeah. I have some experience with the fair folk and a few others. Besides, this is an overt attack on Britain by the forces of Hell. Helping repel this will do my image good after the hints and rumors lately."

      Hickham had an ulterior motive in going. He'd had bad news from the doctor two days before. He might be able to live another ten or fifteen years if he had immediate medical intervention and then took it easy and ate "right." Which meant giving up pretty much everything he loved, both dietary and political. No, that wasn't his style. He'd keep on keeping on the way he always had for as long as he could. Then he'd see...

      Hickham prided himself on being able to move quickly, physically as well as figuratively. With help from those he had put in power, he had his men loaded on a train and on the way in less than an hour, and piling out of a commandeered tour bus at the Henge less than five hours after the reports came in; far sooner than the appropriate British government offices assigned to such problems. They were still slower than the supers. Half a dozen were already present, and Hickham could see at least one of their special aircraft on approach. They were all familiar, but he could only name three. One of those three, however...

      The Walrus. Who had saved Hickham's Father during the Dunkirk evacuation.

      Those first arrivals were already fully engaged, but most of them were going after a huge, demonic figure, something straight out of some old fairy tale book. While most of the smaller ones were occupied with harassing the supers from outside the main battle, others looked like they were preparing to spread out, into the countryside. Just like supers to focus on the big problem and ignore the things which could harm the common man.

      "Lay a circle of salt around all of 'em!" shouted Hickham, gesturing. "Make it solid; no gaps. We don't want any of those things getting loose into people's homes."

      "Sir, do we... try to act against the big one?" said one of Colbert's lieutenants.

      "No," said Hickham, sternly, "let the costumes take the piss out of the big one. We'll handle the little ones. Then we'll see."

      Hickham left his men to the work assigned, while he found a good viewpoint just outside the circle of salt. He knew it wasn't an absolute barrier, but it would deter the lesser demons and slow the more powerful ones.

      After many minutes of frantic conflict Colbert came to his boss to report. Afterwards he simply stood watch with him for a while. He was about to rejoin the battle himself when he noticed a well-dressed, very dignified man of late middle age approaching. The enforcer figured this was probably the property owner, but on a second look something didn't seem quite right about the man. Colbert decided to stay with Hickham for a bit, until the man's intentions were clear.

      The stranger approached by a direct route, smiling, his attention on the two men. He seemed oblivious to the battle going on nearby.

      "Good afternoon, gentlemen," he called out, in a proper upper-class English accent. "What a fine day..."

      Colbert's hackles rose. A glance at his boss showed that he was also alarmed.

      "What do you want, here?" said Hickham, his tone harsh.

      "I have a deal to offer you."

      "How did you..."

      "Please," said the man, waving away Hickham's question with a casual gesture. "I was here long before this little altercation began."

      "He's..." said Colbert, terrified and not afraid to show it.

      "Yeah," said Hickman, in a growl. "You. Speak your piece. Then begone."

      "You don't think you'll be tempted?" said the man, amused.

      "Not by anything you have to offer."

      "What about a long, healthy life?" said the demon. "Time to finish your work."

      "D'you think I'm some shallow bint?" said Hickham, outraged. "You'd turn everything I did 'round to do the opposite of what I want!"

      The stranger actually seemed surprised.

      "My, I didn't think you had such scruples. Or such wisdom." He squinted at Hickham, and looked a bit surprised. "There's more than that at work, though, isn't there?"

      "My soul already belongs to Britain!" snapped Hickham. "Now go. You won't find anyone here foolish enough to yield to your wiles."

      "Well," said the man, with a sinister smile, "there are many other places in Britain."

       * * *

      The Battle of the Henge was neither quick nor easy, but the heroes won with no losses. Many were injured, but they would recover. Their unexpected allies briefly celebrated with them. Then both parties tiredly headed back to their vehicles. However, a shout from nearby made them hurry as well as their tired legs could carry them to where a large figure lay all too still. Beside Hickham was Colbert, kneeling on the damp grass, weeping and babbling incoherently.

Part Twelve

      "Are you sure you don't need me there?" said Energia.

      "Yes," said Template, firmly. "We have plenty of volunteers here with more coming in. Repairs are being made and defenses reinforced. What we need now are time and money."

      "Well, I can't help with those," said Energia, wistfully. "Just be sure you call me if you do need help. Or even if you don't. I'm worried about you."

      "The immediate danger is over," said Template, in a reassuring tone. "We're doing all we can to prevent more danger from happening. Ugh. I'm so tired I can't talk straight."

      "Go get some sleep," said Energia, firmly. "I'll talk to you later."


      Energia closed her phone and leaned back on the couch with a sigh of relief.

      "So what's going on?" said Alex, eagerly.

      Energia's friends at Ramsey Technical College knew something was wrong when she got an alert over her phone late the previous evening. She had spent a mostly sleepless night in the central room of the dorm, calling some people and trying to call several others. They eventually learned that the numbers she couldn't reach were all on Pine Island. Eventually she got through to one of the numbers, and soon after the one she seemed most desperate to reach. Who these people were her friends didn't know, but it was obvious that Energia was worried about most of them and very worried about that particular one.

      "Uhm, I can't give you any details," said Energia, as she looked at those surrounding the couch. "There was an attack, it's over, there's a lot of damage. Tem... My contact there said relief teams are coming in, now, and those who fought all night are being told to get a few hours sleep."

      "I'm glad you were finally able to get through," said Vic.

      She wondered if that one, special contact were the flying super's mother.

      "I don't know how much attention you've been paying to the news, these past few hours," said Angela, golden wings held close around her as if to provide protection, "but there's been weird activity in multiple areas around the world. Some people are saying the attackers are demons."

      "Demons," said Melanie, with a shudder. "What is going on with this world? Pogroms, alien attacks, now demons..."

      "Well, the island folks seem to be doing okay. I just hope everyone dealing with these... things is."

      "Okay," said Vic. "You need food, then sleep. I'll spread the word to your teachers you'll be missing some classes due to a crisis."

      "I'm okay. I shouldn't..."

      "You shouldn't risk your health by skipping meals and sleep," said Angela, firmly. "Come on; they should still be serving breakfast at the cafeteria."

       * * *

      Class was - of course - canceled at the Pine Island Academy for the day. As it would be for a few days to come. While human casualties were surprisingly low there had been considerable damage to the infrastructure. Of course, for a school any casualties from combat were too many.

      The staff meeting later that day - after the defenders had a few hours to recuperate - was decidedly subdued.

      "Nine dead," said Eve, tiredly. "Five UN members, three volunteer supers who came at our call and one of the elves. Several times that many injured to varying degrees, though most should make full recoveries. At least physically. We're already seeing several individuals exhibiting signs of mental instability symptomatic of exposure to demons."

      "Is it odd that I don't find it odd that there actually are known symptoms of demon exposure?" said Template.

      She was not feeling too well herself. However, Ettienne and Dr. Piano had both assured her this was the entirely temporary result of what they called "The Demon's Gaze." She had actually heard the capitalization and quotes in the phrase. Template wondered how mystics did that...

      "I'm already getting calls from parents and guardians to remove their students," said Eve. "Since these are almost all students who are not really interested in pursuing careers as masks I am not currently seeing a downside."

      "Experienced supers just seem to expect this sort of thing," said Junker, philosophically.

      The island's mundane defenses were at full capacity, barring those personnel temporarily - or in a few cases permanently -unavailable. Replacements for the UN troops lost and injured were already on the way, as well as for their damaged equipment and the consumable resources they had expended. The elves had left as soon as the giant was confirmed to be extinguished. Template had the definite impression they were not coming back, even if the Prince of Speed so ordered. She couldn't really blame them.

      "What's the status of the hydrothermal plant?" said Eve.

      "Totaled," said Junker. He sighed, too tired to be angry. "All that work to get it ready early, and just before it is it gets flooded by lava."

      "I wish I had known that would happen," said Template, almost in tears. "I had no idea the lowering of the lava level in the caldera would cause fissures to open elsewhere and lava would come out of them. I might've... done something."

      "The geologists didn't realize that, either," said Junker, patting her on the hand. "I'm not blaming you. Hell, I'm not blaming anyone. Even if I had known that would happen, I'd have said 'go ahead.' Though I would have tried to sandbag the plant, or something..."

      "I think we should all be grateful things weren't any worse," said Burgundy, firmly. "Considering what Dr. Piano said >could happen... Well, despite the deaths and property damage we got off lightly."

      "Try telling that to the next of kin," said Lori Savage.

      "The biggest problem now is preventing the next incursion," said Eve. "Both the remaining supernaturals and Academy and UN security are working on finding whoever the collaborator is. After that, the next problem is funding for repairs."

      "With most of the world still recovering from the Shilmek attack, that could be a problem," said Andrea.

      There was a long silence, interrupted by Lori's com.

      "'Scuse me..."

      As she listened to the call, her tired expression turned to confusion, then anger, then pure rage.

      "Find them! Get the remaining magic folks on it, too!"

      "What?" said Eve, as Lori signed off.

      "Two girls have gone missing in the past hour," said Lori, as she stood. "Talisman and Denise Bolivar. Witnesses say Talisman... did something to Denise - who is one of our 'like a human but better' types - and they went somewhere together. The other girls were afraid to stop Talisman, and by the time they managed to find a staff member no-one could find them."

      "Talisman?!" said Eve, startled. "She doesn't have that kind of power."

      "Her instructors say she has recently made a breakthrough and her magic is working much better," said Andrea. She started. "Could that mean... She's the collaborator, and is getting a boost of some sort..."

      "Do you need any help?" said Template, half rising herself as Lori hurried for the door.

      "I'll give you a call!"

      "Best to leave this to security and the mages," said Eve.

      "Meanwhile," said Junker, "I could use your help."

      "All right," said Template, tiredly. "Let's get to it."

       * * *

      "Are they serious?" said one of the Academy security guards, quietly, as he and his partner made their way through the woods at the base of the southeast slope of the volcano. The part not currently suffering from cooling lava and steaming fumaroles. "We're looking for a witch and her sacrifice?"

      "Maybe," said the other. "We don't know. If we find them we may find out. So keep your eyes and ears open."

      There were trails and clearings throughout these woods, made by animals with four legs and two. As well as the occasional escaped experiment with some other number. Students and even the younger teachers sometimes came here for picnics and "picnics" as well as to just spend some time wandering alone through a particularly beautiful area of the island.

      "We're not too far from that old underground base," said the second man. "Project Standby. Should we check there?"

      "You kiddin'?! The UN has that buttoned down tight and constantly monitored."

      "Does their monitoring equipment work against magic?"

      "Oh. Well, we can call ahead and tell them we're checking around it."

      They did that. They soon found fresh tracks leading to the "back entrance" which Template had forced.

      "Okay, that's weird. Two sets of small footprints go right up to that hatch and... that's it."

      "This could just be a prank," said the first guard, frowning. "Kids setting this up just to freak people out."

      "Don't bet on it."

      They called it in. While the first guard was talking on his radio - trying to get the UN crew to take him seriously - the second tentatively rapped his knuckles on the hatch. Or rather, tried to. His hand simply passed through it.

      "Shit! It's some sort of illusion, or... I don't know. Tell them to get a whole squad here right now!"

      The UN team sent two squads, one to the front entrance and one to the back. So did island security. Technically, there was supposed to be approval from UN Security Headquarters before they worked with the islanders, and the full Security Committee before anyone went into the old base. Major Colville - in charge of UN security on the island - told everyone that given the circumstances they shouldn't worry about the formalities.

      "That's straight from Lady Carver."

      Accompanying the island security teams were one mage each, with Dr. Piano himself going to the back door. A man in his early thirties who went by Collidor was with the front door teams.

      "Hmmm, yes," Dr. Piano mused, thoughtfully, as he did arcane things the very mundane island and UN personnel tried to ignore.

      He muttered to himself for about two minutes, using terms such as "transubstantiation" and "phase change transition." Finally he straightened, nodding.

      "Someone cast some powerful and rather nasty spells on this within the past forty minutes."

      "Is it safe to go in?"

      "Yes. Now. Whoever did this was very careful to conceal their work mystically, but as the guard, there, found out they neglected all mundane protections."

      Entry was made at both front and back simultaneously. The squads met in the command area, conferred briefly, then broke into balanced teams to quickly scout the base. Minutes later one of those teams reported being unable to enter the old Myrmidon hangar.

      When Major Colville and his team got there with the two mages the team at the hangar doors were listening carefully, ears pressed against the cold armor.

      "Sounds like a dirge," whispered one of them. "There's voices and music."

      "The most secure room here, naturally," said Major Colville. "Right. Get those doors open!"

      This required both spellcraft and brute force. However, none of those seeking entry were inclined to be delicate about their work, and they were soon heaving the doors open. Inside the room was lit by multiple candles. In the center of the room Denise Bolivar lay naked and covered in blood-red runes in a likewise colored pentagram. Nearby, Talisman sat on the floor, reading frantically from a scroll.

      "Get the lights on!" shouted Dr. Piano, before he and the other mage began quickly casting spells.

      There were shouted incantations and gestures from the three mages, and flares of arcane light back and forth. Soon, though, experience and numbers prevailed over the empowered but young Talisman, and she collapsed.

      "Don't approach them!" said Dr. Piano, striding boldly forward.

      He and Collidor halted a short distance away from Talisman. With the lights on the others could see that she was also surrounded by a diagram, of chalk or perhaps white paint. The voices and music turned out to be coming from a boom box. The two men worked at some arcane task for a few moments, then Dr. Piano deliberately broke the protective circle by scuffing part of it with his shoe.

      "Get her out of here!" said Dr. Piano, as he shut the noise off.

      While some of the security personnel carried the unconscious girl away, the mages began work on the pentagram. This took far longer than the protective circle, but after several obviously stressful minutes Dr. Piano again scuffed the chalk.

      "She's alive!" he called out, as more security personnel hurried over.

      Dr. Piano covered the young teen with his coat, and the medic from the UN team began working on her.

      "I need to get her to proper facilities soonest!" he declared after a brief examination.

      "Go," said Major Colville. "Take a couple of men to help you get her to my transport and use that. The rest of you, guard the entrance to this room."

Part Thirteen

      Five people from Academy Security, a doctor and two nurses and Dr. Piano were waiting when Talisman regained consciousness. Whatever Piano had done to her took hours to wear off, though Talisman had stirred repeatedly in the last twenty minutes. Finally she muttered something sleepily, yawned and tried to raise her hand to cover her mouth. Only to open her eyes in confusion when she realized her arm wasn't moving. She stared at the restraints, the bed rails, the people around her, looking increasingly alarmed.


      Lori Savage stepped into her field of view.

      "Can you understand me?"


      "Renee Sowder, aka Talisman, you are under arrest for consorting with demons, soul binding, assault, aiding and abetting murder and attempted murder and collusion with a hostile agency in the recent attack on this island. You are also charged with the kidnapping and attempted murder of Denise Bolivar."

      "Let me go!"

      She jerked at the restraints, but this was a hospital prepared for superhuman patients.

      Lori named a few other charges, and then the legal protections Talisman was entitled to under the Island's laws and the Academy's charter.

      "Do you have anything you wish to say in regard to these matters?"

      "I am the chosen of Dabbaddan! You will not hold me!"

      She began struggling so hard that the doctor quickly prepared and injected a sedative into her IV line. During the tense minutes this needed to work Talisman cursed those around her, called upon her dark lord for help, tried to cast spells and threatened everyone in the room and some who weren't. She finally passed out, still murmuring dire warnings.

       * * *

      "Just what was she trying to do?" said Andrea, at the briefing on the Talisman situation right after lunch.

      "Oh, sorry; thought everyone knew that," said Dr. Piano. "She was planning to use the life energy of an empowered innocent to summon her dark lord."

      "Gah!" said Lori, shuddering. "That is the thing you said that giant demon was a lieutenant for? I am definitely upping the reward to those two guards for thinking to check that old bunker."

      "How is Renee?" said Andrea.

      "Being kept under moderate sedation," said Dr. Piano. He was remaining on the island for a while as a consultant, to help deal with the aftermath of recent events. "I consulted with the school psychologist and she agrees with me that Talisman is currently delusional. She needs to be conscious for psychotherapy to work. However, she is still quite a potent spell caster, which means we must be very careful about letting her be too clear headed at the moment. Ettienne believes he can help the situation with some healing spells, but whether that will work is outside my field of expertise."

      "What about Denise Bolivar?"

      "In roughly the same condition, though for different reasons," said Dr. Piano. "Ettienne believe that her innocence and the fact that she was unconscious and unaware for most of what happened spared her the emotional and spiritual brunt of Talisman's ritual. She's being kept in a condition of induced sleep until we can perform a thorough thaumaturgical examination."

      "Who or what is this Dabbaddan?" said Eve, not quite keeping the anger out of her voice.

      "I have never heard that name before," said Dr. Piano. "I'll ask around, but my suspicion is that whatever the master is called, it gave her a false name."

      "Oh, lovely," said Eve, sourly. "A gullible young woman, motivated by feelings of inadequacy, makes a deal with a devil and costs several lives and millions of dollars in damage."

      "It should not have happened!" said Andrea, exasperated. "She was kidded some by other students but she wasn't being bullied, she showed no sign that she was more than somewhat dissatisfied with her life here, she revealed no clues as to what she planned..."

      "The only unusual thing was her increase in power," said Eve, nodding. "Since she was trying hard to prove herself her teachers thought the change was due to greater effort alone."

      "To help prevent the success of such subterfuge in the future, there are things which can be done to monitor for supernatural activity which have not been done," said Dr. Piano. "That leaves the reason for why they were not done. That reason is - to echo Miss Kenniman - that they should not have been necessary."

      "I beg your pardon?" said Andrea.

      "Until that minor incubus began causing trouble, there were no indications that this was a troubled place. Even allowing for the at-the-time-unsuspected problem caused by the zero-point generator such an imp should not have been able to enter our world here. This island simply isn't old enough to allow such things. For a while I - and the other mages investigating that situation - thought the creature must have been summoned elsewhere and brought here physically. Now I'm not so certain."

      "One of the reasons we chose this place for the school is the lack of ectotheric potentiation," said Eve. She smiled at Piano's expression. "I may not be a mage, Doctor, but I have been around them and other magical creatures long enough to have a basic understanding of such things."

      "Of course."

      "Well I appreciated the information," said Andrea. "I didn't know about any of this."

      "What are you talking about?" said Lori, looking dazed. "Ectotheric potentiation? What..."

      "Human activity generates patterns in the ectothere; the basic stuff of magic," said Dr. Piano. "Certain types of activity more than others. Even praying or meditating repeatedly in the same spot can potentiate that area. That is one reason that places such as several locations in the British Isles - in fact, the entire nation to a lesser extent - and the old cities of Egypt are more prone to supernatural events."

      "So, since this island was sea floor until the Sixties, it hasn't been around long enough for such activities to have a significant effect," said Andrea, nodding. "In that case, why did this happen?"

      "Why were demons attracted to this newborn place? I have no idea. Even the Subterran tunnel was well below and far to one side of this location. The effects created by the zero point generator alone should not have been sufficient."

      "We need to find out," said Lori, speaking for the first time in many minutes.

       * * *

      "One bit of good news," said Junker, a little later in a short update meeting on infrastructure repair with Eve and the support staff. "On a hunch I spoke to some of the old henchfolk still living on the island. Asked them if they knew of any backup generators Pine might have used and we haven't found, yet. Three of them mentioned that he originally powered the base with a geothermal power plant, the works of which should still be in a chamber deep under the base."

      "Oh, good news, indeed!" said Eve.

      "If it is still there, and if the equipment is still useable or repairable," said Junker, pointedly. "Accounts vary as to whether Pine carefully mothballed it - Old George thinks it was, another thinks it wasn't, the third had no idea - or just welded the door shut."

      "Great," said Template. "Another tunnel exploration mission."

       * * *

      The world at large had little idea of the turmoil faced by certain small parts of it, and how nearly the recent events had come to endangering all of it. Dismissing the vague and often hysterical reports of demon attacks, two men met and talked quietly.

      "Well, they took her," said Lawrence Diddlebach. "Now what? This helps my Mother but for how long? My insurance is already making noises about disallowing the expense. Why does this have to be so hard?!"

      That last was a wail of despair.

      Seymour Lewis had taken a personal interest in the man's case because his own - though non-super - father had similar problems. He wasn't quite as distressed over that situation as Mr. Diddlebach was over his, but realized that might change as his father got older.

      "Most costumed supers don't get old," said Lewis, gently. He had done some research into the situation because of this case, and been mildly surprised at what he found. "They tend to die with their boots on, usually by late middle age. The exceptions either have regeneration and stay young until something kills them or tend to age gracefully. They also usually have family in the business - or at least with powers, too - who can take care of them. Even the exceptions to that generally remain compos until the very end, or close enough that they can't cause much trouble. Having someone stay physically capable of causing superhuman problems while suffering from some form of dementia is... Well, this may be unique."

      "I love my Mother," said Mr. Diddlebach, tears streaming down his face. "God help me, I can't help wishing she won't live much longer. Not just because it would help me, but because it would end her confusion."

       * * *

      Even though the cleanup of the various defeated incursions was still underway - and the undefeated ones were being located and dealt with or at least contained - planners were already considering their options for preventing any more such events. In most of the regions affected and many which weren't people were talking - often reluctantly - to experts on the supernatural. The answers were usually along the same lines.

      "Just how do you permanently seal a rift in space which leads to a demon realm?" said Template, late the day after the attempt by Talisman to summon her master. "I heard several people suggest concrete or grout as purely physical plugs, but some of the mystics said something about ur-ectothere. What is that?"

      "It's... it's like hyperspatial spackle," said Tiger, frowning hard in concentration and making vague gestures with his hands as he tried to describe something English was not meant to describe. "That'll work for the smaller rifts. However, the biggest here - the one the lieutenant came through - will need something more like hyperspatial grout. Maybe even hyperspatial reinforced concrete."

      Tiger had flown in from California with some of the Bay Area Guardians. All of those on the suborbital hopper had a good reason to come here once the immediate problems there had been deal with. In Tiger's case, his presence had been specifically requested by Eve. Perhaps because he was usually able to translate the arcane speech of the mages and mystics into something more understandable by folks who were neither.

      "How do you know so much about this?!" said Dr. Piano. "I know you're a creature of magic, but..."

      "My world had a similar problem, after the Gifting," said Tiger, looking sad at the memories. "We patched and repaired and mended, but eventually about half the Gifted had to leave."

      "That's why you're here," said Template, in revelation.

      "Indirectly. I keep getting caught in dimensional rifts, and was dragged kicking and screaming into your world back in your Thirties. I made several more visits voluntarily, some with Tal. When it became obvious some of us Gifted had to leave our world to ease the problem, she and I and a few others decided to move here."

      "Why, though, is our world being affected in this way?" said Template, distractedly tapping her pen on the conference table they sat around.

      "Partially it's due to the way the congruences of dimensional planes shift over time," said Piano. "Partly to an increase in the numbers of both creatures of magic and people who have learned to use magic. Both due to the increasing human population."

      "Wait... So, this is going to get worse?!"

      "Yeah," said Tiger, with a casual shrug. "More magic, more magical creatures, more incursions. Fun times."

      "There are things we can do," said Dr. Piano, with a scathing look at Tiger. "They won't stop any of this, but they will slow the rate and reduce the magnitude."

      "What sort of time scale are we talking about, here?" said Template. "Years, decades..."

      "Most incursions are on the scale of centuries," said Dr. Piano. "That is, a century or two to reach maximum, perhaps half a century or so at maximum, then a century or two of decline. With a long period of mundanity following before the next cycle. Some cycles have taken longer - one of those being responsible for most of the ancient myths of Greece and Rome, and another long one before that those of Egypt. Some have been shorter. Those can actually be the most disruptive, because the onset is so quick."

      "We have a lot of work to do," said Template, looking overwhelmed.

      "Yes," said Dr. Piano, with an emphatic nod.


This document is Copyright 2015 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net