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Masks XVIII




by




Rodford Edmiston






Shave and a Haircut





Part One





      Only a few people were present in the central area of the dorm floor as the two supers entered, the one in the rear walking and the one in the lead flying. Those already present were used to both of the people and the fact that Energia always wore her signature costume... as well as that she could fly, and sometimes did so indoors. However, this time her outfit of green and blue was a fancier, more elaborate version of her usual garb, and included her medal and ribbon, and her hair was down instead of in the accustomed ponytail. Meanwhile, Vic - trailing casually behind her friend - had the whole cap and gown ensemble. One thing both women had in common was that they were obviously very fit, though it was more obvious with Energia, due to her snug costume.

      "I am so glad that's over," groaned Energia, as she swung her legs up and landed - already in a seated posture - on the nearest couch, her green, roll-top boots settling on the coffee table. "I'm still pissed they wouldn't let me wear a cap and gown!"

      "Well, you're a war hero!" said Vic, who couldn't fly but was actually more graceful as she moved into fatigued repose beside the other new graduate. She looked over at Energia's fancy outfit, which the other super had repeatedly complained about the discomfort of wearing, and not just today. "Your regular costume is like a uniform. That version is like a dress uniform."

      Energia gave a tired laugh.

      "I have to admit, there were several people graduating in uniform," she said.

      "Well, I am very glad I could wear regular clothes under mine."

      "Wimps," said Alex, grinning viciously as she entered the common area. Vic wondered how long she'd been listening before making her dramatic entrance. "Oh, and pants, t-shirt and running shoes aren't regulation garb for most girls, Vic, though I guess folks didn't notice what you were wearing underneath, with the robe and all."

      "Don't tell me," said Vic, dryly, "you're completely naked under there."

      Alex flipped her tasseled cap across the room like a Frisbee - aiming for the big coffee table but being too enthusiastic and sending it skimming onto the floor beyond - and quickly slipped out of her own gown. To reveal a complete Hello Kitty outfit. Something she had put together specifically for graduation.

      "Tah-dah!"

      "No; it's something worse," said Energia, grinning. She sighed and relaxed from turning to look at the younger woman, letting her body resume its previous posture. "Also, that still doesn't address the fact that I wanted to graduate in graduation robes; not my costume."

      Though she was still complaining, Energia's mood was obviously now lifted.

      "You're not just a war hero; you saved the President!" said Vic, firmly; to Energia, not to Alex. She flipped her own cap to land exactly on top of Alex's, even though she had no line of sight to the target from where she sat. "The costume counts as a uniform. I guess the medal and ribbon go better with your costume - especially the fancy one - than with a gown, too. So, they wanted you to wear your good costume."

      "You're a war hero, too!" said Alex, in a defensive - and perhaps possessive - tone, to Vic.

      "Yeah, but I wasn't in uniform!"

      "Yeah, but you also deserve recognition for what you did!"

      "Right now I just want to rest for a bit and let it sink in," said Energia, with a satisfied smile, paying little attention to the banter. "I'm a college graduate!"

      Vic's family and Michelle had attended the ceremony openly, which was potentially trouble; there were still people with grudges against her for many reasons, and even against the rest of her family for a few. Fortunately that had been avoided. Energia's family had attended, though she had been very careful not to look at them and they had been careful not to show they were connected to her. There would be celebratory dinners later, for graduates and their families and close ones. Energia and her parents, uncle, aunt and cousins already had reservations at a nice restaurant in her parents' home city, with the force-energy manipulator planning to attend in civvies as Jenny. Vick and her group were going to a different fancy restaurant, a bit further away than most of the celebrants, where people hopefully wouldn't recognize the super. After that, Vic planned to take Michelle to something more student-oriented. Then somewhere much more private...

      Energia still thought it a bit odd that she was graduating with some folks who had started the year before she came to Ramsey. It just happened that some of them had needed an extra year. For Vic and Alex this was due to taking remedial classes, since both of them missed a lot of high school. Of course, the Shilmek War had also been a factor, along with the post-war cleanup affecting Vic's schedule.

      "Remember," said Alex, with a demonic grin, as she leaned over the back of the couch between the two supers and swiveled her head to look at them alternately, "you've both still got that press conference, along with several of the other members of the super program..."

      "Oh, God..." wailed Vic, head thrown back.

      "Hey, you, my friends, are part of the college's second batch of openly super graduates, which is the first batch with war heroes in it. Including Energia. Of course, she's a bigger name in the super community than the rest of you together, so they'll likely focus on her."

      "Joy," said Energia, with a tired sigh.

      "The government, the college and the press are gonna make a fuss over all of you. Energia, especially, though."

      "I'd almost rather deal with the fuss caused by the protestors," said Vic, sourly.

      "Well, the cops are making sure you don't have to. Anyway, you've got a couple of hours. Be sure you rest, eat and thoroughly hydrate!"

      "She is entirely too cheerful," said Energia, in a dangerous tone.

      Cackling madly, the hyperactive genius vaulted over the back of the couch, bounced off the seat and onto the floor between the couch and the coffee table, then Groucho-walked to her cap and Vic's. She tossed her roomie's cap to her, then bounded away, down the hall to her room.

      "Try rooming with that," said Vic, rolling her eyes as she absently spun the cap on a fingertip.

      There was a short period of silence between the two supers. The others in the room took little note, being caught up in their own celebrations or just glad this semester was over. There were people coming and going, some offering congratulations to Vic and Energia. More of the recent graduates began to filter in, most already out of their caps and gowns. Elsewhere in the building the celebrations - or at least the relieved relaxations - had already started. Vic thought she could catch an occasional whiff of pot, and there was definitely a tang of alcohol in the air. As a federal agent she was supposed to enforce the laws of the land, several of which Vic could easily tell were being blatantly broken, thanks to her heightened senses; as a very recent college graduate she didn't see the need.

      "So, you going into the graduate program?" said Energia, eventually.

      "Thought I'd already told you. Yeah. Bureau's paying for it, just like they are for you."

      "That's good. We were both lucky, considering the budget cuts."

      "We've both also demonstrated that we can be very useful."

      Vic leaned her head back and closed her eyes, sighing tiredly. Energia felt an urge to giggle.

      "I thought you were physically superhuman. Not to mention a regenerator."

      "I'm not actually physically superhuman; just right at the upper boundary of human capabilities," said Vic, melodramatically. "Also, this is a fatigue of the soul."

      "Well, this soul is going to go shower, change into something less formal and get some food before that press conference."

      "I think I'll join you," said Vic. She suddenly blushed. "Uh, I mean, I need to shower, change and eat. Not that I..."

      She stumbled to a stop at the realization that Energia was already flying towards the exit. Vic sighed, hoping the costumed super had either been too distracted to notice her faux pas or knew her well enough to simply discount it.

      "Just remember to thank a veteran for his service this weekend!" someone shouted cheerfully, as Vic rose to head for her room. Said person might have been at least a little drunk.

      "That's Veteran's Day," said Vic, angrily, to the startled young man. "The holiday coming up is Memorial Day, in two weeks! Don't forget the women who gave all for their country, either!"

      She stormed off while the fellow was still trying to shift mental gears.

       * * *

      There was a significant karaoke celebration that night in the bar closest to the college. The majority of students in attendance were too happy, too drunk or too combined to worry about anything. The main problem in the world as far as most of them were concerned was keeping Apparat kick from modifying the rig. Other than that, a good time was had by nearly all. Of course, there are always a few who are not satisfied with their accomplishments...

      Harvey Bailey had managed to stay in school and even to graduate, though with a delay. At first he had been as happy as any of the others graduating today. However, as the alcohol level in his blood increased, his mood decreased. He currently wanted to talk politics. Even though everyone else at the table where he sat kept ignoring him. Or tried to.

      There was an election coming up. While President Sievers was still riding the crest of a huge wave of popularity for winning the war - despite critics who said there should never have been one, and, besides, their person of choice could have done a lot better - she was reaching the end of her second term. So, both major parties and several minor were organizing campaigns.

      On one side, presidential candidate Harold Gibbons was strongly supported by influential Senator Andrew Wyler and a favorite in the polls. Gibbons was charming and charismatic, handsome, tall and athletic, his hair still solid black at age fifty. His campaign didn't mention supers often, but his most famous proclamation about them was that they shouldn't expect to be given any sort of privileges for helping defend the Earth against the Shilmek. That they were only eligible for the same reward as all the others who participated: The nation's thanks. Half those hearing this cheered him on; the other half asked what privileges he was talking about.

      On the other side was Milton Garber. He primarily proposed continuing the policies of President Sievers. Which led to accusations that he either had no agenda of his own, or that he was keeping it secret. Though he had done a decent job as first mayor of his home town and later governor of his state, he was seen as bland and lacking charisma. He was nearly twenty years older as well as shorter and obviously less fit than his opponent. Yet to the well-informed he made the most sense.

      "You still going on about the election?" said one of the tablemates, whose name Harvey didn't recall. He appeared to be well on his way to blackout.

      "Yeah. Everybody should be."

      "Gibbons reminds me of a character played by James Garner," said another - and only slightly drunk - guy. "Problem is, Garber reminds me of a character played by Jack Lemon. Neither strikes me as particularly suitable to the job, but would you rather have a straight-laced moralist who is otherwise bland, or a casual sinner who is charming?"

      "Just remember," said the first tablemate, sagely, "no matter who you vote for, you always end up with a politician."

      Harvey was very definitely in favor of Gibbons. Unfortunately, almost no-one else at the bar that night was. He went back to his off-campus apartment early, and surly.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The emergency meeting at the headquarters of the Bureau of Special Resources finally came to an end. As the others drifted out of the conference room Brade sighed and pushed her massive, custom chair back from the table, but made no attempt to rise.

      She really liked this room. It was an addition made right after the war, specifically to take advantage of both Lunie and gadgeteer contributions and salvaged Shilmek equipment. It was big, more than roomy enough for this small meeting, and had advanced audiovisual facilities. That included holographic conference call equipment which could handle over a hundred channels. Still, that had been one of the few improvements made to Bureau facilities before the first of the budget cuts had hit. Much of the rest of this building was actually looking a bit worn.

      "Oh, come on," said Dr. Piano, smiling at her as he stood beside his chair. "It's not that bad."

      "Gremlins in the halls of Congress is pretty bad," said Brade. She gave a humorless laugh. "Real gremlins, I mean."

      "We are keeping up with the incursions."

      "Yes. Barely. You and others have said they'll get worse, though."

      Piano hesitated, then came to a decision.

      "I have something to tell you, off the record."

      "Okay," said Brade, puzzled. "Shoot."

      "Even off the record I can't give you many details, but... many in the magical community know what to do to reduce these invasions from other planes. A few are actively working on doing it."

      "So what's the prognosis?"

      "Good, actually. Though not swift."

      "Why is that so secret?" said Brade, angrily. "Why not just tell the rest of the world you're working to make things better?"

      "The magical community is a smaller minority than even the masks community. We're also more heavily persecuted. I think the secrecy is both practically necessary and a matter of habit."

      "I guess that's fair," said Brade, relaxing and leaning back in her oversized chair. She looked up at the wizard. "I can also see people blaming you for causing the problem if you announce you're working to solve it. Just... keep me as up to date as you can, okay?"

      "I promise," he told her, smiling.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      A few days later and a couple of states away, three good friends were rooming together in a very different structure from a college dorm, though in many ways their situation was similar. In other ways they were more like firefighters waiting in their station, for a call they actually hoped would never come. Tricorne was back together for another Summer.

      "What's got you so upset?" said Energia, to Gadgetive, the second morning of this period with her favorite hero team, as the mad inventor left the kitchen and entered the large, main room. This was their first get-together since Energia had graduated, and only the second since the war.

      Energia had spent a week with family and friends to catch up and unwind before coming here, which had left her in a very good mood. However, Gadgetive - as usual the last downstairs and only just finished with breakfast and still not fully dressed - was obviously not.

      There was more going on behind Energia's good mood than working with her friends again. She was glad to be having another session of heroing out of the old bakery. After all the changes of the past weeks - and months and years - she needed that stability. Of course, even their headquarters had undergone some changes recently. Blue Impact - in her civilian ID - had actually made a show of having contractors clean and repaint the exterior and move new - if unidentifiable in the crates - equipment in, over the past few months. This was actually the cover for another round of upgrades to the lair, all the work being done by folks from the school. At least the neighbors had stopped griping about when something would be done with the old eyesore (though it was already one of the least decrepit buildings in the neighborhood) to complaining about how it now made their businesses look bad (though most of them were already in worse shape than the bakery had been in before the renovations).

      "Oh, there was a retrospective of the Shilmek War on TV the other day," said Gadgetive, as she moved to the main couch and sat beside Energia, "and the stupid interviewer kept saying B.I.G. A.L. was invented by Ike. While interviewing him, with him telling her, over and over, he just helped make the units suitable for mass production! He even mentioned me by name twice, and she kept gushing about how brilliant he was to have invented something the Shilmek couldn't jam and didn't even notice."

      At least she was wearing pajamas this time. Her partners didn't feel the need to make her go put more clothes on.

      "Hah! Poor, widdle Gadgetive!"

      Energia laughed, briefly hugged the barely mollified Gadgetive, then sat back. In the quiet which followed, the energy/force manipulator gave their lair a thorough - and approving - scan. She had to admit the place did look better than it had the Summer before. There was panelling on all the walls inside the building, now, instead of paint over brick for the larger rooms. Of course, between the panelling and the walls was structural reinforcement, insulation and armor. Supers had learned a lot about what might be needed to disguise and defend a lair in the past few years. Tricorne was benefiting from that, in multiple ways. One of them being government support in the form of funding and equipment. Supers who had proven themselves successful against the Shilmek were getting money and first pick of scavenged alien equipment. All three members of Tricorne had been major players, with Energia arguably being the most important in terms of bringing harm to the enemy. Tricorne had actually turned down some of the offered items and services. Then had been deluged with "If you don't want it, we do!" requests from other teams. That, of course, had to be hashed out between them and those who were supplying the aid.

      It was still just the three them, here, most of the time, plus the cat and the rare visitor. Right now, that suited Energia. She hoped they would have a nice, quiet Summer for a change.

      Speak of the devil, the former tom who served as their informal mascot jumped onto the couch, walked over Gadgetive's lap and settled onto Energia's, purring. She smiled and rubbed his head, as Gadgetive glared.

      "I built the automatic feeder and waterer for him, and several entertainment devices. Yet you're the one he goes to. Even more than Blue Impact, and she takes him with her to the school when this place is empty."

      "You just have to know where to scratch," said Energia, smugly.

      "What's this I hear about you signing up for guest teaching spots at Pine this Fall?" said Blue Impact, entering from the garage. With her ears, the others knew she had heard the entire, previous exchange.

      "Yeah," said Energia. "It's actually part of my advanced studies at Ramsey. Learn by teaching. I get both college credit and money."

      "Now that sounds like a good deal," said Blue Impact, grinning. "If I remember correctly, you also get access to the teacher's lounge."

      Energia snickered.

      "Anyhow," said Blue Impact, deliberately throwing herself onto the reinforced couch, which barely even scooted, "here's to a quiet Summer."

      "Now I have to align the couch again," muttered Gadgetive, determined to have something to complain about.

      "At least it's not due to gremlins," said Energia, snickering.

      "Yeah, but that couldn't have happened to a nicer group," said Gadgetive, joining in on the snickering.



Part Two





      The two men had known each other for a couple of years, but this was a first date, so naturally, they were nervous. Even though both were in their early thirties, and were both professionals in related fields, and both single for too long.

      They were at a small table in a back corner. Something nice and private. Even though the management was known to be gay-friendly, the two men found this far more suitable for now. Harry tried to make small talk as they passed the time until the waiter arrived.

      "I'm finding this a bit... unsettling," said Harry, with an embarrassed smile. "Though I don't make any secret of being bi, I haven't had a boyfriend since I was seventeen. Back when I was still female."

      "What..." said Gordon. He gave Harry an odd look. "Is that some sort of joke?"

      "Sorry. I thought you knew. My case was a bit famous, locally, a few years ago. I was female until I was..."

      He stopped, looked away, swallowing nervously.

      "Sorry," said Harry, quietly. He felt phantom pains in anatomy he no longer had. "It still hurts, even after all this time. I was... gang raped. Beaten. Between the doctors using an experimental technique to save me and my latent power activating, I wound up completely male. Right down to the chromosomes."

      "You have powers?!"

      "One power. Once. Years ago."

      "I don't think this is going to work," said Gordon.

      He rose and hurried out of the restaurant.

      Harry sat there, stunned, for several minutes. Finally, he told the obviously embarrassed and sympathetic waiter they wouldn't be eating there, after all, and rose and left.

      As Harry exited there was a distant rumble of thunder, from a clear sky. Harry didn't notice. Few did. Later that night, though, the freak storm would get a lot of notice.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      President Sievers and Queen Tolnar were meeting in the Oval Office for what was likely the last time. There were four guards present for each ruler; Secret Service for the President and Monarch's Honor Guard for the Queen. Both sets very determinedly did not listen to the discussion. Finally, after a long discussion on a particular matter, the two leaders reached an agreement and both sat back a bit.

      Tolnar glanced out the window as the President made notes on the agreement they had just reached, and couldn't help but be impressed with the progress made in repairing the damage from the war. She just wished her own Empire had made as much improvement in that time. Of course, social change was much slower and more difficult than physical change.

      "I'm very glad we finally worked that out," said the President, with a tired smile, putting her pen down. "I have come to like you, personally, and your people as a whole, but these prisoners were a major problem. With you taking them back to the Empire for repatriation that relieves us of a great burden. I'm certain that even with the possibility that some will be prosecuted for their part in the coup against your rule, they would rather be back in their home culture."

      "I think you underplay your own nation's hospitality and fairness," said Tolnar. "They were housed and fed and treated well. Which is more than those who used them so poorly did."

      "There is still the matter of those who have requested asylum..."

      "They are citizens of the Shilmek Empire and must be returned," said Tolnar, volume still at a conversational level but tone much firmer.

      "These are people who have specifically requested sanctuary in the United States," said Sievers, tone effectively identical. "With the help of your security forces we identified the war criminals - those who sympathized with and willingly aided the rebellion and invasion, including those who held me and those with me in that dome - and turned them over to you. Those remaining have no such charges against them, even by your own government. These are people who have honestly requested asylum here, who want to live in our society."

      "They are deserters."

      "From a defeated military, which they were forced to fight for against their will," said Sievers. "Few have said anything against you personally, and the main complaint of those who have is that you weren't able to maintain control for those several months."

      That was not strictly true, but the President was trying to negotiate; not speak with complete honesty. She was well aware that Tolnar was in the same mode.

      "They are still citizens of the Empire who are attempting to leave without permission."

      The President leaned back in her chair and thought for several moments. She had discussed multiple approaches with her advisors, and they had consulted with several sources before advising her. Including the refugees, themselves.

      "What if we call them immigrants?" said Sievers, leaning forward, resting her forearms on the desk. "That would be more palatable to some on both sides."

      "Not to me," said Tolnar, firmly.

      The President frowned. She didn't want to give these men and women up. Aside from the pragmatic benefits of having the resources of several Shilmek of several professions available, that would set a bad precedent. Tolnar was well aware of both factors. Still, there were things of far greater value - to the world, as well as the US - which she would not sacrifice to keep them. Something Her Highness was also aware of.

      "There is a concern - far more mine than theirs - that they would be mistreated if they returned to the Empire."

      "Are they being treated fairly, here?" said Tolnar, pointedly.

      She did have a point. Public opinion was still very strongly against the attackers, even those who were not actually involved in battles. Of course, some people were against all Shilmek, and not just the invaders. Sievers realized she was temporizing, and sighed.

      "We gave our word they would be allowed to live here," she said, firmly. "Would you have us go back on our word?"

      Tolnar scowled, and the President realized she had made a strong point with the honorable Queen. Still, she couldn't allow anyone who had participated in the rebellion - even if unwillingly - to be rewarded in this way. In that she had much in common with many of Sievers' critics.

      "We are - and I freely admit this is a lesson learned from the aftermath of your own Civil War - officially engaging in a policy of reconciliation," said Her Highness. "I am fully aware that we cannot guarantee fair treatment from everyone towards those we would return, or even towards those already returned. That is our official policy and I stand by it."

      "Perhaps we should come back to this at another time," said the President.

      "No. I think we need to solve this here and now."

      Sievers nodded.

      Eventually, after more than an hour - not including a short break when tempers seemed to be too close to flaring - they reached an agreement. Tolnar would personally speak with those requesting refuge in the US. Pointing out the problems they would have trying to integrate into the very different society here, and promising fair treatment back in the Empire. Hopefully, all would agree to give up their asylum request and return. If any didn't, each would be dealt with on an individual basis.

      "Well, it's not ideal, or what either of us wanted," said the President, tiredly, once agreement was reached. "However, that probably means it's as fair as we can manage right now."

      "Words of wisdom," said Tolnar, with a weary laugh. She stood, regal and formal. "One more thing. I, personally, and my people as a whole, owe your people a great debt. Several, in fact. Possibly the greatest is your help and advice in restructuring our government. There is much to still be worked out - likely generations of details - but we have a stable rule in which all have a voice. Thank you."

      There was little to be said in response to that which wouldn't sound trite. The President instead stood as well and extended her hand. The two shook, very firmly and formally. Then the Queen left.

      There was still much to settle during this trip to Earth, but nearly all of that was with others. Most of it through the United Nations. Her work in the United States was completed for the time being.

      As she boarded the short-range transport - given special permission to fly to and from the White House lawn - Tolnar smiled a bit, remembering the problems she'd had her first couple of visits to Earth, keeping those two very different organizations straight. Then she and her escort flew back to the spaceport.

      Even as she entered her own starship, Her Highness kept to herself one of the more stressful meetings she planned. One the other participant didn't even know about yet.

      "Reconciliation..." she said, quietly, to herself. "No matter how personally difficult."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Several people were already in the room when the head of the Pine Island Academy arrived.

      "Why did you call this meeting?" said Eve, a bit sourly, as she seated herself. "School starts back in three weeks and we still have a lot of work to do!"

      "We found something interesting - and potentially problematic - during our restoration of Pine's old geothermal station," said the school's chief engineer.

      "Just dandy," said Eve, with a tired sigh. "Wait. I thought that was long finished..."

      "Is the power station still working?" said Template, suddenly worried.

      "Yes. This doesn't involve it directly. The power plant is fine."

      "Then what is the problem?" said Eve.

      Was it Junker's imagination, or was Eve unusually testy today?

      "Pine was studying the Puerto Rico Trench," said Junker, approaching the matter indirectly. Which only aggravated his boss's mood. "Or, rather, he had several of his people develop ways to monitor activity there. He never told them why. We now think he was checking whether his raising of this island had affected the plate tectonic movement."

      "The which, now?" said Eve.

      "The Trench is where the North American plate is sliding past and subducting under the Caribbean plate," said Template. "Though this is the first I've heard of it in connection to our school."

      "The hotspot Pine created is slowly - very slowly - moving in that direction; south-southwest," said school geologist Dr. Othar Halvargardsen. "Although this island we are on is continuing to move in the same direction as the North American plate as a whole, which is generally southwest. Normally, at least many centuries should pass before there would be any significant movement - or change of movement - of either."

      "However...?" said Eve.

      "Dr. Halvargardsen had the island's engineers and some of the engineering students put a bunch of the base's old geological monitoring instruments back into operation," said Junker. "In addition to things like standard seismometers, magnetometers and tiltmeters he - Pine - had some non-standard stuff. Including things specifically meant to keep track of what's going on in the trench."

      "We were surprised to find that some of the instruments placed there are still working," said Dr. Halvargardsen. "He had multiple, many-kilometer-long cables laid, across the seafloor towards the Puerto Rico Trench, with sensors along their lengths. Most of the sensors had failed in the past decades. However, what we saw on the surviving instruments encouraged us to institute a major repair program. Between aquatic teachers and students in the shallow areas and drones for the deeper work we now have most of the stations back in operation."

      "We believe some of the sensors actually in the trench were buried by slides and maybe even subduction over the past forty-six years," said Junker.

      "What are the remaining stations telling you?" said Eve, becoming increasingly irritated at their reluctance to just say what the problem was but keeping her temper. So far.

      "We're... not sure," said Dr. Halvargardsen, shifting uneasily in his seat. "That's why we're asking for funding to make an on-site inspection. Drones first - we need to rent or build some capable of handling the pressure at that depth - then possibly an actual presence in the trench."

      "What are the symptoms?" said Eve, trying to be patient.

      "Multiple earthquakes in the trench and surrounding seafloor," said Junker. "The vast majority too small to feel; the rest barely noticeable. However, there are a lot of 'em; far more than normal given the history of that area. In fact, there's almost constant seismic activity. Temperature sensors are also showing a rise in sea water temperature along most - perhaps all - of the fault."

      "Could this be another demon incursion?!" said Template, alarmed.

      "We consulted with the magical staff and they say almost certainly not," said Dr. Halvargardsen. "The pressure is too great even for most demons. However, this could be connected to the incursion here."

      "Just how deep are you planning to go?" said Template, puzzled, knowing demons were generally immune to all but the most extreme non-magical effects.

      "The deepest part of the trench - and the Atlantic Ocean - is the Milwaukee Deep," said Dr. Halvargardsen. "That's over 8,400 meters. It's the only place where the North American plate is subducting."

      "Hooooo..." said Junker, startled. "I didn't know it was that deep. Yeah, we definitely need specialized equipment."

      "Approval granted," said Eve, scowling. "We've had almost three years of peace and quiet - and rebuilding and improving - and I don't want to risk that by having something unknown coming at us from the bottom of the ocean!"

      "Especially with the new hospital about to open," said Template, with feeling.

      "Is there any update on that?" said the Principal.

      "Still waiting on an inspector from the mainland," said Junker, with a heartfelt sigh. "He's supposed to approve the work we've done so we can get the permits to do it."

      "Uh..." said Template.

      "Yeah. We have to do the work, get it inspected, then get the permits for it. Things are complicated, since we're still a US possession and this is a medical facility which will accept patients from any nation. Maybe even from off the Earth. The whole approval system is screwed up beyond belief. Even the people inspecting and permitting know this. There's just nothing they can do. Been like this for decades and will likely continue to be. The war sure didn't help things along, either, even with pressure on Congress to expedite inspections and permitting to repair the battle damage. They pass laws and then nothing changes."

      "Bureaucracy perceives improvement as damage and attempts to heal it," said Eve, sagely.



Part Three





      The next morning at the old bakery started pretty much as usual. Blue Impact rose first, followed shortly by Energia. As was their routine they had breakfast together, finishing before Gadgetive even made it downstairs. None of them thought it a bit unusual that all three wore masks and two their full costumes. Gadgetive, as was her habit, was in panties and t-shirt until after she cleaned up post breakfast. Though she lacked the Olympic-level fitness of her partners, this garb - or lack thereof - made obvious the fact that she was also in good physical condition.

      With Gadgetive finally getting breakfast the other two put their dishes in the dishwasher and went into the main room. Energia settled in to watch TV - mainly to catch the local news and weather - and Blue Impact began checking messages and notifications at the corner workstation.

      "They're still having repeated severe storms north of here," said Energia. "Forecasters are having trouble explaining them. Sometimes one storm won't even die away before the next one forms."

      "Uh-huh," said Blue Impact, absently.

      Well, storms there were not a concern here. Finished with the news, Energia checked the DVR for recorded shows, and decided there wasn't anything she wanted to see there. She began channel surfing, not really paying attention, while Blue Impact continued her work. Energia could hear Gadgetive finishing in the kitchen and smiled. This was essentially family time. With nothing of interest to her on TV, she decided to turn that off and turn on the local NPR station. However, something unusual intruded on their morning routine as she reached for the remote.

      "Energia..." said Blue Impact, her tone odd, "you have a message."

      Something in the older super's voice raised the younger woman's hackles.

      "What is it?"

      "I think... you better read this, yourself," said Blue Impact, as she rose to let Energia have a seat at the console.

      The feeling of dissociation increased as Energia looked at the screen.

      "You have got to be kidding me."

      The message was from Queen Tolnar. She was requesting a private meeting with Energia that afternoon. Just the two of them.

      "Uhm..." said Blue Impact, uncertain what to do as Energia read the message again, then again, then just sat, staring.

      "All right," said Energia, with determination - and not a little anger - in her voice. She shoved back from the computer desk and stood. "Don't tell Gadgetive about this. I'll go. If... something happens you'll know."

      "Are you sure..."

      Energia turned to face her mentor, nodding.

      "Yeah. I want to know what she wants. Besides, something about the way this is worded... It's almost apologetic."

      Her former teacher nodded, having noticed the same tone.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Energia approached the rendezvous early. So did Tolnar. The two of them slowed and hovered, facing each other, just out of reach, floating with deceptive calm in the warm Summer skies.

      "Your Highness," said Energia, her tone carefully schooled.

      "I wish... to apologize," said the Queen, obviously uncomfortable. "What you and my son have is... very special, and I separated you. Not out of malice, as I hope you know, but out of necessity."

      "I understand that," said Energia, barely covering her surprise at the apology. Her urge to smite the older woman with a lightning bolt - admittedly never very strong - faded.

      "I hope that someday, if circumstances permit, I will be able to invite you to our home. That... just isn't feasible right now."

      "I... do understand," said Energia, swallowing hard. "Just... tell Maldren that I love him and wish him well and still think fondly of him."

      Tolnar smiled.

      "He told me to tell you the same, before I left for Earth."

      They faced each other for a moment longer, but there really was nothing else to say. With a mutual nod, they turned and flew in different directions.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The members of Tricorne were on stakeout, hovering silently over a small section of the city where there had recently been a series of mysterious crimes. Stealth mode and station keeping were engaged, and the occupants were monitoring multiple instruments, including the local police channels. This was a far cry from the stakeouts Blue Impact had been on in her solo career. The only downside she could see to doing this in the team's large apergy flyer was that it was so comfortable she kept wanting to doze. Energia, on the other hand, was wide awake, but seemed obviously lost in thought; the others decided not to comment. Blue Impact had a general idea of why Energia was preoccupied and didn't want to press. Gadgetive was focused on their instruments in that single-minded way gadgeteers and mad inventors have. There was no danger of her falling asleep, either.

      "It would be a big help if the cops knew how the perp is getting in," said Blue Impact, as much to keep herself awake as anything. "So far they haven't figured it out, and they haven't given us permission to go into any of the stores in an official capacity. Since we're not even private investigators that means we stay outside. For now. Though I think that if we don't spot anything tonight we should go ahead and talk to the victims tomorrow, anyway."

      "If they were spoofing the alarm systems that could be detected," mused Gadgetive, puzzled. "Even by regular CSI. That's not what's happening, though. It's like they're just bypassing the alarms completely."

      "That reminds me of a tale I heard about Bowman," said Energia, startling them a bit. "My uncle heard it from Amazonia, when he was working for the Intrepids."

      Energia went quiet for a moment, there in the darkened cockpit of the team's large apergy flyer. When she had first thought of the story she had forgotten the situation through which it had been related. Energia had never met Amazonia, but she had heard much about her through other members of the Intrepids. Especially from her Uncle Randy, who obviously still felt her loss. He especially regretted that he hadn't been able to help her, even by becoming a healthy version of her to harvest antibodies to try and fight the cancer. That had just prolonged the strong woman's suffering. Energia shook her head, realizing the others were waiting for her to continue.

      "Sorry. Anyway, Bowman pulled a prank on an entire security center shift change. The new shift showed up, the leader waved his ID card at the sensor for the door to the security center. There was a beep and a muffled click, but the door didn't slide open. Same guy tried again. Same result. Another guy tried, same result. One of those coming on shift was a techie, and she quickly plugged her analyzer into the card reader. Which kept telling her it was working perfectly and that the lock was reporting that the door had opened.

      "They called the security folks already inside. They had noted the door opening and closing, but only black on the other side. The quickly got up to check and found... another door."

      "Wait, what?!" said Gadgetive.

      "Bowman had made an entire fake door and frame - in one solid piece - and glued it over the real frame."

      "Oh, that's hilarious!" said Gadgetive, howling with laughter. "The system says everything's working perfectly, but they can't open the door! Because everything is working perfectly, it's just not the door they think it is!"

      "I admit, that's not one I'd heard before," said Blue Impact, with a smirk. "I wonder if Rapscallion gave Bowman the idea."

      "That's what my uncle said. Also helped Bowman install it. Oh, and they made sure the fake door was flimsy enough that the security people could tear it down easily."

      After a few more hours the trio decided to call it a night.

      "I'm actually not disappointed," said Blue Impact, as she took the pod off autopilot and started them towards the lair. "This is the most excitement we've had all Summer; a few late-night robberies. No-one injured, no bystanders endangered, no violence at all."

      "Well, despite the media hysteria, crime usually goes down during and for a while after a crisis," said Energia.

      "I wonder if it could actually be gremlins," said Gadgetive, thoughtfully. "Or maybe some other supernatural critter."

      "Unlikely, but something to keep in mind," said Blue Impact. "However, I suspect these are plain, old, mundane, superhuman crimes. Which will require guile and patience to solve as much as our powers."

      Since the previous renovation of her lair Blue Impact had been able to move the large flyer and some of the other equipment in that beach shed to the bakery. With the latest she no longer had to park the flyers on the roof, tied down and left in stealth mode. Instead, the most recent new construction had blocked the old loading dock entrance from view to anyone not actually on the property. Additionally, the old roll-up door had been replaced with something which looked identical from the outside but was armored, silent and opened and closed very quickly.

      Blue Impact guided them down between bakery and fence into the alley, then under the old awning. The door was already opening at a signal from the silent and invisible flyer. Deftly, she steered the vehicle inside and parked it, between the small flyer and the maintenance bay.

      "Everybody out," she said, popping the canopy, the outside door already closed. She grinned. "Make it snappy. It's getting close to my bedtime."

      "Ah, well," said Energia, lifting out of her seat, smiling and stretching as she flew towards the entrance to the main room. "We've got another week together. Let's hope it stays quiet."

      "Yeah," muttered Gadgetive, as she clambered out. "You just know, the way these things work, the day after we start back at school there will be a rash of daylight super crimes."

      "In that case, just tell people we're so good the criminals lay low while they know we're on the job," said Energia, smugly.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      I entered the garage at the rear of the old San Francisco theater and headed for the enclosed stairs. I had been a bit surprised at the summons. I had thought - hoped, actually - that after Gaunt's building had imploded into another dimension I was done with magic for a while. A good, long while, if I had any say in it. It turned out, though, that magic wasn't done with me. Or, at least, one particular magical creature.

      "Hello, Fen," I called out, a bit more tentatively than I meant to, as I entered the loft.

      "Come on in!" called a familiar, male voice.

      I recognized him, of course. I was only mildly surprised to see him present. He was Fen's adopted human son, after all.

      Dutch has known Fen about a decade longer than I have, and he's about thirty years older than me. Yeah; he's a century old, looks fifty and doesn't even have regeneration. Being the protege and adopted son of a magical creature will do that for you.

      Moments later I was seated on the left end of the human-sized couch, with Dutch on the right. Across the massive coffee table from us, Fen was sitting on the elf-sized couch.

      "I suppose you're wondering why I called you here," she said, with a toothy grin. With those fangs, the blunt muzzle and the fur I had no trouble believing that a century and more earlier she had pretended to be a midget werewolf in a carnival freak show.

      "A follow-up on Gaunt?"

      "Only in part. A small part. I mainly want to talk about how the higher level of magic in the world now is causing multiple problems."

      "I've heard about that, of course," I said, nodding. "I hope there's something we can do about that."

      By "we" of course I meant "you." I didn't want to have anything more to do with magic.

      "We aren't the first to have this problem," said Fen, surprising me with her apparent non-sequitur.

      "I kind'a figured," I said, after a moment. "Didn't something like this cause the withdrawal of the various pantheons from this plane, thousands of years ago?"

      "I think a good place to start working on a solution is Oak Island," said Fen, not addressing my question.

      "Wait... the pirate treasure place?" I said, puzzled. "What's magical there?"

      "Yeah!" said Dutch, grinning with enthusiasm. "Treasure hunt!"

      I laughed. He and I were much alike in some ways. However, he was also a much more upbeat person than me. Which meant he could often lift my mood or even make me laugh. I suppose doing that was a habit he picked up when he used to - I hate to say "babysit" since I was in my early teens when we first met - keep an eye on me. Just now, he was stimulating my own sense of whimsey.

      "Don't tell me it actually holds the Ark of the Covenant!"

      "No," said Fen, absently but seriously, "something much older."

      "Oh..." was all I could manage.

      "The US and Canadian governments know about it - unofficially - as do may other institutions. Both Presidents Roosevelt were involved with the Island, before either was President. As well as the Delanos before that. Theodore was there several times in the Eighteen-Nineties; Franklin was there in 1909. He tried to organize an official expedition to excavate it in 1939, but with war looming he couldn't spare the time or money and decided he didn't want to draw attention to it."

      "Oh..." I said, again. "So, we - I assume you are including me, or you wouldn't have invited me to this meeting - are going to Oak Island and having an actual, serious..."

      "Treasure hunt!" Dutch repeated, laughing as he caught the lead-in I fed him.

      Over the next two hours our little trio exchanged information, then plotted, planned and schemed. In the process I got some information on my semi-nemesis. The good news was that there was no sign that Gaunt had returned or was trying to. That still left us with the larger problem, which we proceed to address. When we were done we had a well-organized campaign, one where each of us knew our part, and where each part was important. There would be others assisting us, of course, but we were the core group.

      My own benefit from this was that if we did, somehow, reduce the rising impact of magic, that made it even harder for Gaunt to return.

      During that planning session I quickly learned why I was included in the project. While I know quite a bit about magic I am not magical myself, powers notwithstanding. I can't use it any better than most people. My contribution to the effort was through my contacts and other information sources.

      I sat there for a few minutes after we completed our brainstorming. Then I sighed and shook my head.

      "This is going to be a mess. Just getting the permits will take months. We also need permission from the property owners, the..."

      "Others without our resources have done this before us," said Fen, sternly. "We should have few problems."

      "Yes, Ma'am."



Part Four





      "There was a robbery last night, while we were on watch, right under our noses," said Blue Impact, angrily, as she came into the kitchen for breakfast. She had, as was her custom, checked for messages and alerts immediately after coming downstairs. "Perhaps literally."

      "I swear, my sensors were working properly!" said Gadgetive, for once eating with the others.

      "So were mine," said Energia, meaning her inherent super senses.

      "Again, there were no alarms, no sign of how whoever is doing this got in."

      "You sure it's not something supernatural?" said Gadgetive. "That's getting more common."

      "The cops actually called in Sharma a few days ago - which I only just learned about - and she checked several of the scenes. She says there's no sign of magical intrusion. Don't ask me how she can tell."

      "So it's obviously either a super, or someone with super gadgets," said Energia. She tipped her head a bit to one side. "Teleporter? Perhaps someone who can go desolid?"

      "Maybe a probability manipulator," said Gadgetive, seeming eager. "I always wanted to see one of those in action, but they're so rare..."

      "I had a run-in with one, when I was with the Young Guardians," said Energia, making a face. "Not fun. Fortunately, they are rare."

      "So are phasers," said Blue Impact. "The only one I can think of offhand who is still active is..."

      "The Prince of Speed!" Energia and Gadgetive chorused, grinning.

      Blue Impact rolled her eyes.

      "I'm glad you two are going to different colleges next week. You're spending much too much time together."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The mandate of the Bureau of Special Resources was deliberately vague. Mainly because any attempt to strictly define and closely constrain the job of an organization intended to handle super problems would have been folly. Which didn't mean that many politicians hadn't tried... The independence and willingness to operate outside the normal bounds of government bureaucracy which was exhibited by the Bureau's employees was typified by the fact that nearly half of those attending this routine meeting wore flashy costumes, most with accompanying masks and a few with capes. Even their giantess boss wore a costume. The central topic in this weekly briefing was the weather. However, there was nothing mundane about the particular weather being discussed.

      Originally, the Bureau had two branches. However, with the post-war budget cuts those had been combined into one. Brade was now in charge of the whole thing, instead of just the law enforcement branch. She very definitely would have traded the additional authority for the lower workload of the previous arrangement.

      Much of the reason for the Bureau's funding cutbacks was due to critics claiming they hadn't actually done anything to defend the Earth during the Shilmek War. Of course, it was Bureau training and resources which had made so many of those who were praised for their effective role in the war so effective. Brade suspected that enemies of the Bureau were deliberately distorting things, and their followers blindly repeating the misinformation until those too busy or uncaring to check simply believed it.

      "We think we've discovered the source of these unusual weather problems," said the meteorologist. Like the others in the meeting room he was a federal employee, but unlike the others he was a guest here. He seemed a bit intimidated, especially by Brade. "They were localized enough that we tracked them to one fairly small area. We at first thought it might be a research lab or perhaps a gadgeteer or even something supernatural, but ruled all those out through various means. The focus kept moving around, making the actual source difficult to determine. We now think it's one person. Who probably doesn't even know what they're doing."

      Brade scowled, tiredly. Given the losses in facilities and personnel they frequently had to turn down requests for help, even from other agencies. However, this seemed too significant to ignore. Also, she thought she could get help from non-Bureau personnel on this.

      "All right." She turned to her own people. "Get together with Dr. Timberlake and his team. See if you can identify the specific person, and make contact. If they can, explain the problem and offer training. If they can't find this person let me know and I'll talk to some people who might be able to help with that."

      There was one more matter to deal with for this meeting. Brade leafed through her notes.

      "Okay, what's the story with the opening of the Pine Island Super Medical Center being delayed?"

      "Sabotage," said Doro, sourly. Thanks to keeping busy and Brade's insistence on her getting therapy, she was almost normal, these days. Though there were times when Brade realized that the way Doro was now might be the new normal, for the foreseeable future. "A lot of it boils down to some people seeing 'Super' in the name and having a knee-jerk rejection. Funding bills have been delayed or killed outright; certification of both facilities and personnel have been delayed without valid cause; even private donations have been interfered with, in some cases even being diverted to the wrong project. Ike Kenniman has been investigated three times because of his equipment and patent donations. Folks are accusing him of violating security protocols for the equipment and information he's providing, saying he wasn't cleared for access to some of it. Which is crazy! He invented most of what they're complaining about, himself! The man has security clearances for things most members of Congress aren't even allowed to know about!"

      Well, that last was probably a minor exaggeration, but Brade understood what Doro meant.

      "In spite of all of that, they're only about four months behind schedule."

      "I'll ask Template what she's doing about the holdups," said Brade, with a tired sigh. "Maybe have the Bureau check into some of the shadier occurrences. That's about all we can do. We can't support the construction of a private - and very specialized - hospital. However, we can try to find who is spreading the rumors. I can also personally contact some super-friendly politicians and business folks."

      "What is causing this?!" said Converse, a super with communication abilities. "I'm supposed to be able to know when someone is lying, but I swear I'm hearing people tell me truthfully they support the hospital, then two days later someone in their office has - to use Doro's term - sabotaged it. I confront them over this and half the time they don't even know about it! When they do, half the time they don't see the contradiction!"

      "For a few it's a case of their assistants doing something without their knowledge," said Brade, sighing again. "They do what they think their boss would want, or what they think is best for him to do. For some people it is - as Doro also said - a reflex action. I suspect that for a few people it suddenly comes home that this is an institution which will help supers only. They then get an odd twinge somewhere in their subconscious that this is a bad thing."

      "As a general rule, the more mundane power someone has the more of an instinctive wariness they have in regard to someone with super power," said Doro, sourly. "Because anyone can be a super, even without the hard work of being born rich and managing their inheritance."

        "I think that's enough for today," said Brade, dryly. "Unless someone has something in addition - something work related - we better adjourn before we get accused of plotting armed rebellion."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Blue Impact had finally managed to receive official police approval to inspect some of the crime scenes. They had simply not been able to figure out how the valuables targeted were being accessed and removed. She knew that if her team failed to stop the thief, that would let the cops point fingers at them. However, she felt confident that Tricorne would be able to uncover at least something important.

      The looks of the customers and staff as the costumed trio walked into their first stop of the day was a bit unnerving. However, they were all three experienced with public reactions.

      "Hey," said an older man, who hurried up to meet them. "I'm Herve Rodriguez, the owner. The safe's back here."

      All eyes followed them as they walked into the back.

      "Mind the store," Herve snapped at one of the employees, when he appeared about to follow them.

      The customer part of the pawn shop was crowded with heavily stocked shelves, but clean and well-lit. In the back it was still well-lit, and even more crowded. The owner escorted them to the office, then fussed from where he stood with Blue Impact outside, watching through the door as the two younger members of Tricorne located the point of entry.

      "Okay," said Gadgetive, as she finished scanning a wall in the office. "Definitely signs of hyperdimensional rupture. Very subtle, though; nothing altered which affects four dimensional integrity."

      Blue Impact nodded and smiled, feeling vindicated.

      Gadgetive next turned to her right and repeated the operation with the large, free-standing safe. It was an older model, but far from antique.

      "Same here, though with differences which suggest the thief rummaged around inside for a bit before removing something, rather than just briefly passing through. The scent of the quark distortion shows prolonged contact."

      "Did you understand any of that?" the pawn shop owner asked of Blue Impact.

      "A few words," said the older super, mildly. "What's important is that she knows what she means."

      "With this information I can consult with some folks who know more than I do about insubstantiality," said Gadgetive, absently, as she put her equipment away. "Once we know exactly what form of the ability he uses we should be able to create something which can hold him. Or her."

      "What good does that do me?" said the store owner, almost whining. "He's already raided my safe!"

      "If we find him, the cops can find what he stole," said Blue Impact. "Or who he sold it to. Then backtrack to the thief from there."

      "Oh."

      "If nothing else, if the police can learn what happened to your property the insurance company will pay more quickly."

      "Yeah..." said the man, sighing. "I had to take a policy with a large deductible. Thought having a good safe would be enough. How was I supposed to know a thief could walk through walls?!"

      "It's a very rare ability," said Blue Impact, as she watched Gadgetive finish and in her turn look expectantly at Energia. Who was staring at the same part of the wall, frowning in concentration. "Well, true intangibility is. There's lots of supers who can walk through walls; most just leave holes when they do it. Anyway, there is some good news, if a bit late to the party: We are working with Ike Kenniman to apply Shilmek technology to block people with insubstantial powers. That will be much more practical than mad inventor gadgets for the same purpose."

      "Another piece of expensive, specialized equipment."

      Blue Impact decided he was just in griping mode and stopped trying to lift his mood. Instead, she moved up beside Energia.

      "Anything?"

      "Huh?!" she said, actually starting a bit. She immediately looked a little embarrassed. "Uh, yeah. I talked to Zeep and he showed me some things to look for. Not anything as definite as what Gadgetive found, though."

      "Well, between the two of you we should have a good start." She looked at Gadgetive. "Would it do any good to examine the outside of the wall?"

      "Nope," said the middle member of the team.

      "Then let's get to the next store on our list."

      They walked outside, into the late Summer heat. In spite of the temperature and humidity, there was a crowd waiting for them. Some were simply curious locals, wondering what was going on. Though not all...

      "Great," said Blue Impact. "The press is here."

      "That TV crew still dogging you?" said Gadgetive, as she exited the shop behind the senior member of the team. "Whoah! That's a lot of cameras! Plenty more than just that one crew."

      "That one crew is still bugging me as much as they can without violating the court order. The traffic tickets they got from chasing me helped with that." She frowned, as she examined the assembly of TV crews and onlookers.

      "Smile and wave," said Energia, following her own instructions.

      They did so, though Gadgetive muttered humorous, obscene descriptions of the news crews and their personal habits through her grin on the way to their apergy flyer. Many of them in Yiddish.

      "Hey!" one of the reporters yelled out. "When do we mere mortals get one of those fancy, antigravity flying cars?!"

      "It's not antigravity!" yelled Gadgetive, at this aggressive push of one of her buttons. "Don't you know antigravity is impossible?! Learn basic physics and then maybe you wouldn't make so many stupid mistakes!"

      Blue Impact quickly stepped between her and the crowd.

      "The FAA is still trying to figure out how to design certification tests for apergy - not antigravity - vehicles. We - as anyone can - fly ours as an experimental aircraft."

      She quickly herded the others into the vehicle, hopped in herself and closed the hatch.

      "Whoof," said Energia, once they were safely underway. "All we needed to make this worse was Mano Dura showing up."

      "Oh, right," said Gadgetive, startled. "He patrols near here."

      "Yeah. I hear people have been pressuring him to solve these crimes. Which is not his strong suit. He's been in a really bad mood over it."

      "One more reason to move on to our next appointment," said Blue Impact, firmly.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Investigation of the next two robbery locations had further exposed the team to both onlookers and news crews. After the third stop Gadgetive announced that there was nothing more to be learned from further examinations. Blue Impact was actually glad to declare it was time for lunch and get back to base. After they ate Gadgetive locked herself in the ground floor lab until she finally emerged for supper. From her attitude the others could tell she had not made any breakthroughs. Though she did reveal that all her data had been sent to Ike Kenniman and a few others. The fact that she felt she had done all she could - at least for now - was confirmed when instead of returning to the lab she joined the others watching TV after their evening meal.

      "I feel cheated," grumped Gadgetive, after the local news was over later that day. "They cut from his question to your reply, leaving out my correction!"

      "Well, of course," said Energia, spreading her hands. "They won't show anything which implies one of their reporters might be wrong about something."

      "That may be an exaggeration," said Blue Impact, managing to keep a straight face. "However, they do tend to omit anything which portrays one of their staff members in a bad light."

      She looked at the TV, now showing a late-night monster movie program.

      "When you were in the john you missed the news from the station which keeps harassing me. They showed us leaving the store then cut directly to the flyer lifting off. I'm going to choose to believe that they didn't want to show someone from another station."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Over the next five days there were two more robberies. All had the same modus operandi: Someone came in through a wall or ceiling or floor close to the target, moved straight to it, removed what was wanted and left the same way they came in. Sometimes the target was cash; most incidents involved valuable items which could not be traced easily. Silver bullion bars and coins were popular with this thief, as was older jewelry. This again demonstrated a knowledge of the material; much new jewelry had identifying serial numbers on both the settings and the gems.

      "Obviously, they're casing the joint first," said Gadgetive, as she paced back and forth in the main room at the old bakery.

      "I knew letting her binge watch all those Thin Man movies was a mistake," said Blue Impact, in a stage mutter, from where she and the third team member sat on the couch. They watched the hyperactive gadgeteer stride around, while their team mascot was attended by Energia.

      "Hey, those were fun," said Energia, defensively, as she stroked the cat. He rolled over and presented his belly for rubbing, purring madly.

      "We need to show photos of the suspects to all the owners and employees and as many regular customers as we can," said Gadgetive, "to see if there's this one person they all recognize."

      "We don't have any suspects," said Blue Impact, a bit tiredly. "Neither do the police."

      She sighed and stretched.

      "The perpetrator is very careful not to disturb anything except the specific contents of cabinets, safes or vaults he or she wants. No alarms trip. No fingerprints are found."

      "Do any of those shops have security video running all night?" said Energia.

      "No," said the senior member. "That's probably the reason they were chosen. The shops which were hit all turn off internal continuous video when they close for the day - a false economy, if you ask me - and rely on motion detectors and trip switches and such. None of which showed any intrusion."

      "Could the culprit be someone already trained in security measures?" said Energia, looking thoughtful. "Maybe even someone working for a company which installs the equipment?"

      "The police already checked that. Only a few the targeted businesses used the same security company."

      "Phones," said Gadgetive, stopping and smacking right fist into left palm. She had modified her outfit's gloves specifically to make that act more impressive. Or at least louder. "Or maybe Internet connections. Someone who installs or repairs phone lines or Internet connections. They'd be in a position to learn about security measures. Maybe even work to hook them to the outside world for the business."

      "That I don't know about," said Blue Impact, nodding slowly. "I'll ask my contacts."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The next shop hit was different from the previous ones. Before that the "Robbery Ghost" as the thief had been labelled had gone for items of intrinsic value. This latest theft, though...

      "The insurance coverage was for $12,000," said the store owner, sounding tired. "That's what I had it priced for, too. I would have settled for nine grand, though, if I had to sell it now. The market's down. Just don't tell the insurance company that. Should be back up eventually, but no-one knows when."

      He had photos of the comic book in question.

      "I have a few others worth more than this, several of about the same value and many worth just a bit less. They were all together, too, in the fire safe. This is the only thing taken."

      "So..." said Blue Impact, frowning. "The other robberies were likely for money. This was something the thief specifically wanted. That just might help us catch him."

      "The police thought of that. Asked me if anyone had come in asking about that comic lately. Nope."

      "Did you have that advertised online?" said Blue Impact.

      "Yeah. I have a Web page with all the in-demand, rare and high-priced comics I have for sale. As well as a list of my own wants, both for the shop and personal. There were no inquiries on that specific comic for over a year. I also occasionally put adds in various periodicals. Nothing about that comic from those recently, either. That type of comic is in low demand right now."

      "So, it's likely someone who wanted this for a long time, for their own use, and they won't sell it."

      "Yeah," said the shop owner. He sighed and shook his head. "I've been in this business nearly thirty years and I still don't understand some collectors. I bet the guy won't even read it. Would probably be horrified if someone even suggested taking it out of the Mylar bag."

      While they spoke, Energia looked around with more than casual curiosity. She had never been a comic book reader. Now, here she was, a super hero in a place which sold art and stories about super heroes. She found the experience both amusing and a bit unnerving. She wondered if the customers knew the members of Tricorne were real, or thought they were part of some sort of promotion.

      Fortunately, Blue Impact was soon done talking to the owner. Unfortunately, the pair now realized that their third member was missing.

      "Gadgetive!" said Blue Impact.

      "Coming!" came a reply from deep in the crowded (though mostly with shelves full of comics and magazines and tables full of boxes of same) store.

      "Just getting my monthly fix," she said, as she plopped a stack onto the counter. "You have a lot of stuff my usual sources don't!"

      "Uh, thanks?" said the owner as he began ringing the items up.

      "Do you ever come across any Young Atomic Engineers books?" said Gadgetive, as she handed over her money. Exact change, of course, calculated in her head.

      "Sorry. Not my line. I carry a few paperbacks and a very few hardbacks, but not YA literature."

      "Too bad. I've only got two more books to go. They're really obscure, though."

      "Can we go, now?" said Blue Impact, after Gadgetive collected her purchase and turned to her teammates.

      "Sure!" said the gadgeteer, grinning around her mask. "I'm happy!"

      "At least we got out of there before the parking meter tripped," said Energia, as they walked to the large apergy pod.



Part Five





      Another night, another stakeout.

      "You sure that will work?" said Energia, as Gadgetive hunched over the display built into the dash of the flyer. "We're running out of time, you know."

      "Yeah," said the gadgeteer, absently. "That sensor pod I hung on the front hardpoint will detect etheric disturbances. I've already mapped the background and masked it out."

      "What if he comes up through the ground, like he has a few times before?" said Blue Impact.

      "This isn't three dimensional," said Gadgetive, sounding irritated.

      She said nothing else, apparently considering that explanation - or perhaps reminder - to be a sufficient answer. The other two looked at each other and shrugged.

      "Okay..." said Energia. "Here's a question I've had before but kept forgetting to ask: Why are we using this instead of - or with - Gadgetive's super detector?"

      "There's dozens of supers in this city," said Blue Impact. "Including us. As far as we know, there's only one desolidifier."

      "Ohhh, yeah," said their gadgeteer, a bit later, with a gleeful chortle. "Got something. I think..."

      "Can you put the image on the console display?" said Blue Impact.

      "Huh? Oh, sure..."

      The display for the center console popped up and showed what she was seeing. The position of the screen gave a good view to all those in the flyer.

      "Just remember, we can't go onto private property without invitation unless there's someone actually in danger," said Blue Impact, as she tried to decipher the image. "The city gave us permission to go onto their properties, with the understanding that any harm which comes to us there is our fault."

      "I can tell you're a lawyer," muttered Energia.

      "You mean from the fact that I teach legal courses at the Academy?" said Blue Impact, innocently.

      "Shush!" said Gadgetive, suddenly. "Definitely have something."

      "Get the net shooter ready," said Blue Impact, reflexively snugging her seat harness.

      "It's armed," said Gadgetive, after flipping switches without looking away from her display.

      Blue Impact lowered the flyer between buildings near where Gadgetive had spotted the furtive figure. The craft came silently around the corner, and she slewed to point the nose where they expected the target to be. Unfortunately, the person was moving quickly towards a building which held - among other businesses - a jewelry store. The target was also paying attention. Despite the silence of the craft, they were spotted. The quarry abruptly reversed course. Blue Impact yawed the flyer in his direction and drew a bead just as the figure dove through the pavement.

      "Call up the utility plans for this block!"

      "I've already got those," said Energia. "Putting it on the console screen."

      "That," said Blue Impact, after a few seconds, "is a maze."

      She looked at Gadgetive.

      "You still tracking him?"

      "Sorry, teach. Whoever that is must have at least low-level super speed. They're already out of range. They also made several sharp changes of direction while I was still watching."

      "That's definitely someone who knows the tunnels and sewers around here," said Energia.

      "Okay," said Blue Impact, with a tired sigh. "At least we scared him off this time. I'll let the police know what happened. Oh, make a copy of that video I can give them. He may have been masked, but at least we have build, height and such. That may help the cops."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      When Energia came downstairs the next morning, Blue Impact was already on the phone. After listening for a moment to this side of the conversation she realized the senior member of their team was talking to that same comic book shop owner they had visited the day before. She resisted the urge to use her powers to "listen" to the electrical impulses to the speaker so she could hear the other side of the talk.

      "Woke up with a hunch," said Blue Impact, after ending the call. "I got the name, phone number and address of the man the shop owner bought that one comic from."

      "You think he may have wanted it back?"

      "The shop owner said he sold it to him two years ago, to fund repairs on property which was damaged during the war. That the former owner was unsatisfied because the store wouldn't pay what the other guy thought it was worth."

      "A suspect!" cried Gadgetive, from the stairs, where she had come down in just panties and a t-shirt. She was almost crowing. "A valid suspect!"

      "Get dressed," said Blue Impact.

      "We're going after the guy?"

      "Eventually, but right now I'm going to tell the police about him. I just want you to put on some clothes!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The previous owner was quickly eliminated - too old, too tall, had a good alibi for several of the robberies - but when questioned by the police he mentioned that a private collector contacted him just days after he sold the book. That man's description fit what the police had been able to determine from the video. Of course, that was pretty general.

      "They won't tell us anything about this second suspect," said Blue Impact. "That's understandable. They want the arrest to stick so they're following proper procedure. However, they also want us standing by in case he makes a break for it."

      "Standing by where?" said Energia. "They won't tell us where he is!"

      "It's apparently close enough for us to get to quickly," said Blue Impact, with a shrug.

      They stayed in the old bakery the entire day. They trained, they ate, they cleaned and repaired, they watched TV and played games. Not only was there no further word on what the police learned from the suspect, there was no other trouble in the city which needed their special sort of aid.

      "I know I said I wanted a quiet Summer," said Energia, tired from doing nearly nothing. "This is ridiculous!"

      Finally, a call came in. A Detective Blue Impact knew reported that the interview with the man the previous owner of the comic told them about had produced nothing solid. He had even let them search his home without a warrant.

      "However," Blue Impact relayed, once the call was over, "since we know that the culprit has some super speed his alibis could be challenged. The police are putting a stakeout on him. Hopefully, he doesn't also have super senses."

      "So what do we do?"

      "They can't tell us his name or where he lives or anything else personal about him," said Blue Impact. "However, that doesn't mean we can't look for ourselves. Gadgetive, do you think you can find the stakeout team? That specific one?"

      "I can sure try!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Finding the stakeout took a few hours. However, between Blue Impact and Gadgetive they had sufficient resources to do that without breaking any laws. Soon the large apergy flyer was hovering over the suspect's house, fully cloaked. The timing was fortuitous; the man had just gotten home from work.

      "Okay, baseline scan completed and background features masked. If he does go desolid I'll know it immediately!"

      "We're very early," said Energia. "The crimes happen during the night, and it's still afternoon."

      "If he's going out tonight - and there's no guarantee of that, even if he's the culprit - he'll likely leave early. Remember, the police didn't find any of the stolen items or the costume at his house."

      "So he'll have those stashed somewhere," said Gadgetive, nodding.

      "He's smart," said Blue Impact, also nodding. "However, I actually do expect him to go out tonight. We stopped him last night before he could steal anything. He'll want to catch up."

      "Funny how we know so much about him - even where he lives - but not his name," said Energia.

      They stayed on station, stealth mode engaged, for over an hour before anything unusual happened. Then things went fast.

      "Got the signal! He's in the basement... He's in the ground, heading for the storm sewer!"

      "Windscreen overlay, please," said Blue Impact.

      A transparent map with a moving dot appeared on the front of the canopy. Blue Impact moved the flyer above the dot and kept it there, flying high enough that buildings weren't a problem.

      "How big is that storm sewer? He's moving at a good pace."

      "According to the official city maps, a meter and a half," said Energia.

      "If he can move that fast crouched over..." said their pilot, frowning. "I've got the reflexes but not the ground speed."

      "Yeah," said Gadgetive. "We may need to hem him in before trying to catch him. How do we do that to someone who can go desolid, though?"

      "You made the net so I could handle it easily, remember?" said Energia. "You get it close to him in an open area and I'll guide the net in."

      They followed the trail to an apartment building. There their quarry went from storm sewer to utility tunnel, through a basement, up to ground level to cross an empty lot, then back underground in the basement of the apartment building on the other side before resolidifying.

      "Lost him," said Gadgetive. "Unless he's got his stash hidden in the basement, we don't know which apartment he's going to."

      "Doesn't matter," said Blue Impact. "So far all we have him on is misdemeanor trespassing."

      "He wasn't staying long anywhere there wasn't air," said Gadgetive. "So he likely doesn't have breathing gear in whatever he was wearing when he left home. We'll see if there's any in his costume, I guess."

      They waited for two more hours, snacking on food bars.

      "Okay," Blue Impact said, finally, "it's still well before dark and he doesn't seem to be going anywhere any time soon. I say we take a break."

      The others were reluctant to leave the stakeout, but both of the younger team members also admitted they could use a restroom.

      "We'll make it quick," said Blue Impact. She glanced at Gadgetive. "You really need to find a way to put a bathroom in this thing."

      "To preserve modesty we'd need a larger vehicle to have enough space for a separate toilet," the inventor muttered.

      They were soon back on station with still more than an hour until sundown. Feeling much better.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "On the move, again!" said Gadgetive, suddenly, four hours after their break.

      "Keep on him," said Energia, excitedly, as Blue Impact maneuvered the flyer.

      This time his path was even more indirect. Finally, though, he traversed through a short section of packed earth between a utility tunnel and the basement of an office building.

      "Wonder which business in there he's after?" said Blue Impact, on full alert.

      "He's staying desolid. Moving upwards."

      "Is there an online list of who or what is in that building?"

      "Sorry," said Energia, after working for a moment. "Not seeing it. Got the address and the name of the building owner but not who is renting."

      "I wonder if there's a sign listing them at the front..."

      "He's... doing something," said Gadgetive. "Not going fully solid, but that's probably a partial rematerialization. He must be grabbing what he's after."

      "All right," said Blue Impact. "Stay alert! Gadgetive, as soon as he leaves I want you to project his path, give us a best location for netting him."

      "Roger!"

      He didn't follow the exact same path on the way out, but as Gadgetive noted aloud there were only so many pipes and basements in that neighborhood and he was still avoiding long periods in volumes with no air.

      "There," said Gadgetive, very shortly after their target began his retreat. "He should surface to cross that empty lot!"

      As predicted, the dark-clad figure - clearly visible in the eerie green of the amplified light image displayed on the windscreen of the flyer - was seen climbing rapidly out of the ground just beyond the foundation of a building. Blue Impact aimed the flyer, leading expertly, and launched just before he reached the center of the empty lot. He glanced up at the sound, then frantically lunged to his left. Energia used her powers to change the course of the net and guide it to the man, then wrap him in it.

      "Got him!" she crowed. "It's holding him, too!"

      "Calling the cops," said Blue Impact, as she also guided the flyer onto the ground beside the fallen figure. "Make sure you keep holding him!"

      "On it," said Energia.

      They got out and surrounded the silently fuming figure. The scene was a bit eerie, full of long shadows and glaring brightness, due to being sidelit by the flyer's headlights.

      "That, my friends," said Gadgetive, beaming, "is how you do it!"

      "I hear sirens," said Blue Impact, looking up and off towards the street.

      "With your ears they could be the next county over," said Energia, grinning.

      Soon they could all hear the sirens, approaching rapidly. Sure enough, several police cars quickly pulled up at the nearest curb.



Part Six





      "Oh, now that's good work," said the lead Detective, as he hurried over. "We had just gotten word he was no longer at home and were about to notify you, when your call came in."

      "Girls, this is Detective Sandersen," said Blue Impact, very deliberately not mentioning that they had found the stakeout and followed the guy here from his home.

      "Have you searched him?" said the Detective.

      "We are waiting for you to do that," said Blue Impact. "Energia is actively holding the net so he can't move much, and with police doing the searching there will be fewer legal problems."

      "I want them arrested!" shouted the figure on the ground, angrily writhing in the net. "They assaulted me without provocation!"

      "Tell it to the DA," said the Detective. He squatted to give the fallen figure a visual once-over, after which he retrieved the stolen item: A black velvet bundle. When opened this proved to contain a silver cup filled with silver dollars.

      "Oh, yeah. To my experienced eye, this is well over the value limit." He turned to Blue Impact. "Okay, professional opinion needed, here, from you masks. Does this guy fall under Coltman vs. Dachshund, or can we pull that hood off and get a good look at his face?"

      The guy began struggling and swearing. Energia held him firm, despite being a bit startled by the Detective's question. She wondered if he knew Blue Impact was an attorney. Or maybe just suspected.

      "Hey, don't I have a say in this?" wailed the prisoner, finally accepting he wasn't going to get loose on his own.

      "Sure you do," said Sandersen, dryly. "Just not one we have to listen to."

      "Hmmm, in my... professional opinion, he's not a known mask as either a criminal or a hero. Legal precedent since that decision holds that the costume of a hero or villain is not intended to conceal their identity but to provide an immediately recognizable alternate identity; a public identity. That 'mask' he's wearing is actually just a ski mask, and the rest isn't even a proper costume. Just black jogging clothes and work gloves. He's either a common thief or a very warm jogger."

      "You don't even have to unmask him," said Energia. "He's carrying keys, a wallet, a smart phone..."

      "Hey! You're spying on me!"

      "I'll keep a grip on him and guide you to where those items are," said Energia.

      "Good idea," said the Detective. He bent down to rummage through the prisoner's pockets, with occasional advice from Energia. The man tried to wiggle away, but between the net and Blue Impact helping to hold him still the man's pockets were soon emptied. The Detective finished and stood, holding the items. "I'm so used to costumed types not carrying ID I didn't even think of that. In spite of you telling me he doesn't count as a mask."

      He opened the wallet and nodded.

      "Okay, got his name and face from his driver's license. It's who we thought, all right."

      Sandersen then pulled off the ski mask and officially arrested the man, by name, for grand theft. When finished he looked up at the trio of costumed supers.

      "How do we get him out of that net while still holding him?"

      "Uhm..." said Gadgetive, suddenly thrown for a loop. "Well, you have to put the net in a place where he can't walk through the walls, then open it."

      "Great. We don't have such a place."

      "We can't just keep him in that net!" said one of the other plainclothes officers present.

      "We need that net back, anyway," said Blue Impact. "We'll give you contact info for Ike Kenniman. He's already working on a device specifically for desolidifiers. In the meantime, an ordinary neutralizer will work on his powers."

      "Without a court order we can't put him under a neutralizer," said Sandersen. He straightened and sighed, looking tired. "He hasn't demonstrated any offensive ability."

      The state law in re. usage of neutralizers had been hastily rewritten just before the war, in response to complaints about abuse by several state and local government agencies; most of which weren't even directly involved in police work. As a result the law was largely useless, restricting application where it was needed and doing little to reduce the abuse. The lawmakers refused to address the issue again, blithely saying they had done their jobs and it was up to the courts to apply the new law. Then complaining about activist judges ruining their work when the courts did so.

      "The net's power supply is good for about another ten hours," said Gadgetive. "If we don't hear from you sooner I'll be at your station in nine to give it a recharge."

      "We'll get right on that court order, then." He shone his flashlight on the man again and sighed. "We really can't keep him in that net for any longer than absolutely necessary, anyway."

      "Here," said Gadgetive, kneeling beside the prisoner. "I'll - very carefully - adjust the net so he can move around but still can't get out of it. That should help."

      "Thanks. Now we just need to figure out what he was doing between the time he left home and the time he came here."

      "We followed him here from an apartment building," said Blue Impact. Again not mentioning how they found that place. "Since there's only a couple of keys on that ring I suspect he left his house keys there. We can show you where it is."

      "I really want to see what he has stashed there," said Gadgetive, hopefully.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Very soon, with a bit of help from the landlord, they were in the man's room.

      "I swear, he never caused any trouble, always quiet, got along with everyone else in the building, always paid his rent on time..." said the man, babbling nervously.

      "It's all right," said Sandersen, ushering the man out. "We'll take it from here."

      "I am very glad there wasn't a fight in here," said Gadgetive, with feeling, as she looked around the room. "Wow... He even has a complete set of Young Atomic Engineers. Several editions of some volumes. I almost hate that we had to arrest him. Guy has taste. Let me know of they auction any of this off when the legal stuff is all settled."

      "Just don't go any further in than this," said Sandersen. "This is very much a look but don't touch situation."

      "Looks like a large part of the money he got from selling what he's stolen went for other collectibles," said Blue Impact. "Wow."

      The walls were lined with shelves and display cases. These were full of books, artwork, framed pulp magazine covers, miniatures, props, movie posters and many other collectibles. The room was cool, and a dehumidifier hummed away in the middle.

      "He must have been spending it nearly as fast as he was bringing it in," said the Detective, impressed. He sighed and shook his head. "Sorting all this out may take months."

      "Years," said Gadgetive. "You need to be really careful with how you pack, move and store this stuff, too."

      "Well, you three have the official thanks of the city," said the Detective, shaking hands all around. "I'm afraid we have to clear out for the forensics team, now.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "One of my contacts sent me the information the police now have on the phantom thief," said Blue Impact, late the next morning. "Turns out he was a city employee, working in utilities. Something with the electrical grid. Oh, and his father is a jeweler."

      "That fits," said Gadgetive. The court order for the neutralizer had come during the night, so she had gotten up early - for a change - and gone to the jail where the man was being held to retrieve the net. Which she had done by staying outside the cell with the neutralizer and telling one of the CSIs how to do it. She'd still managed to get breakfast later than her partners in crime fighting. Energia suspected she saw getting breakfast last as a challenge. "He'd have access to the businesses beforehand, as well as knowing the underground routes and the merchandise."

      "They still haven't found where he stashed the stolen items," said Blue Impact. "Well, except for a few collectables he kept for himself in that apartment, like that comic. They're pretty sure he's already sold the stuff he could get rid of quickly. The rest must have been put in yet another location. He's made several large deposits to his checking and savings accounts, lately, as well as lots of large withdrawals. He likely already did enough to attract the attention of the IRS. The police also confirmed that the collectibles we found at his place were recent purchases. Most of which came from out of state. When the cops pressed him on the money coming in he claimed he'd made several sales from his comic book collection."

      "Ah-hah!" said Gadgetive. "That's our guy, then."

      "You mean you weren't already sure?" said Energia, with exaggerated innocence. She grinned as the gadgeteer blew a raspberry in her direction. Then she stretched. "Oh, well; mystery solved and still a day and a half to go."

      "I don't know whether it's connected," said Blue Impact, sounding a bit wistful, "but he's also recently divorced."

      "Hah!" said Gadgetive, oblivious to the subdued attitudes of her teammates at this bit of information. "Yeah, marriage is for suckers. Like you'd ever see me married!"

      "You're asocial," said Energia, a bit more tartly than she intended. "You don't even date."

      "Hey! I'm seeing a guy at college! We just both know it's purely physical."

      "Yeah," said Blue Impact, quietly. "Purely physical."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Just after lunch - naturally, at a time when there was no-one in the main room - a message came in. A mission assignment. Even with Energia flying in from the kitchen, Blue Impact got to their new com center first. She read the message aloud as the others entered the main room.

      "Oh, come on!" said Energia, who had been upstairs in her room, packing nonessentials to get a head start on leaving for school. She currently didn't even have a cape on. "We just closed one case, we've got just over a day before we planned to leave and they send us on a manhunt?!"

      "Yeah, teach," said Gadgetive, sourly. "They don't even know who they're after."

      "That's why they want us on the job. This person is causing property damage and injuries and likely doesn't even know it. Between you two we should be able to find the source of the disturbance."

      "What about school?" said Energia. "I know we're due back on different days, but we'd all planned to head out at the same time, a few days ahead of the first school opening, to leave time for personal stuff. What if this takes a while?"

      "We'll head out to the affected area in just a few minutes," said Blue Impact. "Make a preliminary survey. If we can't find them today, well, we'll just have to wait and see how long this takes."

      "Y'know," said Gadgetive, thoughtfully, "even after we head back to school we don't have to quit. We all have ways to get back here quick and easy. We could continue in the evenings for a few nights, maybe work on weekends."

      "We'll see," said Blue Impact.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The best guess as to the location of their target was in the downtown area of a city only half an hour away from the bakery by flyer.

      The team's large apergy craft was the size of a minivan and much heavier, besides being far more streamlined. It had multiple safety features, including stabilizing software. They were still tossed around as they dropped into the storm from the stratosphere.

      "This is rough," said Blue Impact, whose superhuman reflexes were taxed keeping them on an even keel and on course. "Much worse than any of the storms reported before."

      A sudden, hard, prolonged gust tipped the flyer and shoved it sideways.

      "I'm glad I'm riding in here instead of flying out there!" said Energia. "I thought weather warpers could barely affect things on this scale."

      "They can't make quick changes," said Gadgetive. "This has been building for weeks. That's one reason the trackers have such a good idea of where the source is. The only problem is that the source is moving around a small city, and sometimes going outside it."

      Blue Impact didn't even try to land, but kept above the buildings, moving at a low ground speed.

      "It's like a small hurricane," said Gadgetive, "only it stays over this area!"

      "So is this guy doing this in his sleep?!" said Energia. "If it's continuous..."

      "Sleep isn't unconsciousness," said Gadgetive. "It's an altered state of consciousness."

      "So if he can't - or won't - stop when we find him or her drugging them might work?"

      "Almost certainly," said Blue Impact. "If the person causing this turns hostile you may have to zap him."

      "Understood."

      Energia's stunning shock effect was rough, but actually safer than hitting someone with enough drugs to quickly knock them out. Even with those high doses, her way was also much faster.

      "All right," said Blue Impact, putting the flyer in station keeping mode above an intersection. "According to our instruments and the satellite photos this is the center of the storm and it's currently holding still here."

      "So it's not like a hurricane," said Energia, peering upwards through the transparent canopy of the flyer's cockpit at the ominous clouds overhead. "There's no eye."

      "I'm not getting anything definitive," said Gadgetive. "Can you sense anything unusual in the energy fields here?"

      "Nothing," said Energia, after a few moments.

      Very few supers could detect other supers directly, and she wasn't one of them. Even with all Zeep had taught her. Her super senses just didn't extend in that direction. There had been hope she might be able to detect the weather manipulator's powers in action, but that wasn't proving out.

      "Wish the Super Monitoring Network were still around," muttered Gadgetive, as she continued working. "I understand why Ike killed it, but these short range detectors just don't have enough resolution."

      "I guess it doesn't help that there are three supers closer to the detector than the person we're trying to detect," said Energia, with a wry laugh.

      Gadgetive froze. Then began swearing in five languages as she angrily worked the controls. Fortunately, none of them were English.

      "Are you telling me," said Blue Impact, slowly and carefully, "that you forgot we three are all supers?"

      "No! I just... forgot to mask out our presences."

      This required a few minutes. With Blue Impact fuming, Energia fidgeting and Gadgetive fussing, the latter soon had their signatures blocked.

      "Huh. This thing is only supposed to spot active supers; the more they're using their powers the better the range and definition."

      "'But...'?" said Energia.

      "Well, I'm seeing several supers. However, the closest is in the building over there. Which is close enough to the current center of the storm for government work."

      "So, how do we approach this?" said Energia. "Just walk in?"

      "If possible, we wait for Gadgetive's blip to move," said Blue Impact, frowning in thought. "If it leaves the building that would be best. We can contact whoever that is on the QT, preserving their privacy while we check whether they're actually our target."

      "We could wait until quitting time," said Energia. "Whoever it is will presumably brave the storm to go home."

      "We shouldn't wait that long," said Blue Impact, "the storm's doing too much damage. Though we should fly around and get several bearings on the supers you're detecting. All of them."

      This they did, Blue Impact keeping them high enough to avoid being blown into buildings. In spite of some occasional strong downdrafts.

      "We're actually attracting some attention," said Energia, peering out the side of the canopy. "There's folks in buildings watching us out of their windows, and even a few pedestrians."

      "Any law enforcement?" said Blue Impact.

      "Not so far. Weren't they notified we were coming?"

      "They were supposed to have been. Maybe they were asked to stay out of the way."

      "Most cops would rather let supers deal with supers," said Gadgetive, the majority of her attention on her work.

      "I'd say it's more likely they are busy with the storm," said Blue Impact.



Part Seven





      After an hour of this, though, Blue Impact decided they had enough data.

      "We have the location of the person most likely causing the disturbance isolated to within a few centimeters," she said. "The longer we wait the more damage the storm does."

      "Yeah, it's definitely getting worse," said Gadgetive, with a quick check of satellite photos. Though just hearing and feeling the wind and rain should have been enough.

      They landed in the parking lot for the building - with a bit of difficulty due to the gusts - using a space for vans, then hurried inside. The receptionist seemed stunned by the sight of three people in masks and costumes entering her building. This was likely amplified by them stopping to shake and stomp off water on the vestibule carpet.

      "Uh, good afternoon?"

      "Good afternoon," said Blue Impact, as she walked to the receptionist's station. She was annoyed that in spite of her dewatering efforts her athletic shoes squeaked on the flooring. Somehow, the footgear of her partners didn't. Perhaps due to her greater weight. She introduced herself and the other two. "We're here on behalf of the Bureau of Special Resources, looking for someone."

      She thought about asking if they did any weather research, but the place was listed as a local government office, something to do with building permits. Also, she didn't want to give away that the person they were after might be causing the storm. Hopefully, even the fact that the person they wanted was a super would be up to the individual to reveal to their coworkers.

      Before the woman could answer there was a gust of wind which drove rain hard against the windows and rattled the front doors. Blue Impact grimaced. They really needed to get this done quickly.

      "Who is it you want... to talk to?"

      "That's what is making this so awkward," said Blue Impact, managing to not look as uncomfortable as she felt. "We know their location but not who they are."

      She turned to Gadgetive.

      "The target is on the second floor, about ten meters from the rear of the building and two meters in from the west wall."

      "Meters," said the woman, blankly. "Is that, like... feet?"

      Blue Impact resisted the urge to roll her eyes, and translated.

      Decades after we were supposed to convert to the metric system and half the people in this country still aren't even sure what it is.

      "I, uh, don't know who is in that exact position, but I can have security escort you to the location."

      "Thank you."

      "What we should have done," said Energia, while the woman talked on the phone, "is tell the Bureau and have them send someone in plain clothes."

      "They're stretched very thin," said Blue Impact. "We'll even have to take whoever it is to the training facility and Dr. Timberlake ourselves. Even that is only if they agree to go, of course."

      "Huh?" said Gadgetive, startled. "They have to go, right?"

      "Nope," said Energia. "It's strictly voluntary."

      The security guard arrived, did the expected double-take, then had what the trio wanted explained to him. A bit uncertainly, he took them to the elevator and upstairs. Once they stepped out onto the second floor he started down an aisle between adjustable partitions, taking the lead.

      The floor contained a typical cube farm, with few people able to see much outside their workspace. The unusual procession garnered almost no attention as they proceeded.

      "I think the one you want is this way."

      He walked up to an open doorway and knocked on the frame. At first Blue Impact was the only member of Tricorne who was able to look inside. She saw a man was of medium build and perhaps northern Mediterranean coloration. He looked... down. Defeated. Perhaps even clinically depressed.

      "Mr. Daniels? There's some... people here who want to speak with you."

      Okay, not an Italian or Spanish or even Greek name. He could still be of those stocks on his mother's side.

      Harry looked up, puzzled, as the guard stepped back. His curiosity switched to sudden concern as three women in masks and costumes entered his small office.

      "Mr. Daniels? I'm Blue Impact. Uh, excuse me for a moment."

      She looked at Gadgetive, who was looking at something like a GPS unit in her hands. The gadgeteer looked up at their team leader, nodding.

      "Is there some place we can speak in private?"

      "What's going on?" he said, voice squeaking.

      "I'd rather speak in private."

      "Am I under arrest?" he said, voice too loud.

      "No. If you're who we think, we're here to offer you training through the Bureau of Special Resources."

      "Uh..." said Harry, train of thought now completely derailed.

      "We really do need to speak with you," said Energia. "I also think you don't want us just standing here while we do it, either. Can you suggest a place to speak privately?"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As it turned out, Harry knew of a small coffee shop near the office building. He grabbed his rain coat and they set off. They all got soaked in the short, hurried walk, but that was ignored. What they did note was that the storm had, somehow, become even worse while they were inside.

      Once in the coffee shop they sat at a round table with high stools. When the astonished waitress came over they all ordered hot coffee - though of several different varieties. After some uncomfortable shifting, their target broke the silence.

      "So... what's this about?"

      "Have you ever had powers testing?"

      "Uh, yeah," said Harry, "in my teens."

      A bit uncomfortably, he gave them the digest story of how she had been assaulted, given an experimental treatment, and had that react with a power.

      "Another probability manipulator!" said Energia, startled. "Like Vic, only in the other direction! Has to be."

      It was a measure of the man's preoccupation that he scarcely reacted to this information. Fortunately, the uncomfortable silence which followed was broken by the waitress bringing their orders.

      "Well, probability manipulation is the most common form of weather control," said Gadgetive, frowning, once the waitress had left again.

      "Weather control?!"

      That finally seemed to break through his personal cloud of gloom.

      "Have you had any significant changes in your life over the past few weeks?" said Blue Impact. "Especially things which added stress?"

      "Uh, yeah," said Harry, swallowing noticeably. "A breakup, then I failed to get a new job I applied for. Those were both followed by bouts of anger and depression. My doctor sent me to a psychologist, who suggested tranquilizers. He said what I had wasn't technically depression, that I just needed a little help getting over the disappointments."

      "Do you have any of those tranquilizers handy?" said Blue Impact.

      "At my apartment," said Harry. He looked worried. "I only took them a few times. I don't like what they do to me. You can't seriously mean that me not taking those might be affecting the weather?!"

      "We don't know for certain, but that fits," said Blue Impact. "If you want we can take you to your apartment. You take one of those prescribed pills. Then, with your permission, we fly you to a Bureau facility where they can check and make sure what's going on."

      "What if I am causing all this?" said Harry, obviously concerned. "Then what?"

      "It's all volunteer," said Blue Impact, tone reassuring. "If you are a weather controller you'll be offered training. I want to emphasize that we are not here to arrest you. We're here to find out if you are the cause of this... unusual weather and if you are help you find a way to stop it."

      He nodded, obviously still concerned.

      "Do you have a car?" said Blue Impact, prompting him when he didn't speak for a while.

      "Ah, no. I take the bus in weather like this. It's actually close enough I can walk when it's nice. It... hasn't been nice for a while."

      "Then we will fly you to your apartment building," said Blue Impact, firmly, when he still just wanted to sit there.

      They paid their bills and headed out. Entering the flyer actually elicited wide-eyed wonder from their passenger. Before they could even lift off, however, they were getting alerts about local storm-related problems. As Energia had suspected, the storm was getting worse. Likely due to the stress Harry was currently experiencing.

      "My suggestion is you bring the bottle back out to us before you take any of the pills," said Blue Impact, as they lifted off. "We'll check by radio whether the medication is appropriate. Then you can take it here - we have water - and if you want Gadgetive will then fly you to the proper Bureau facility in our vehicle. Energia and I will stay here to help with the problems until Gadgetive can get back."

      "Okay," said Harry, numbly.

      Taking that as agreement for all she had proposed - including transporting him to the Bureau facility - Blue Impact had him guide them to his apartment building. She landed close to a side entrance and the trio waited while he went in.

      "What if he bolts?" said Gadgetive.

      "You track him and we take him in," said Blue Impact. "He's already consented to go."

      "Besides," said Energia, quietly, "that guy looks like he's about at the end of his rope. He's not going to run."

      "Yeah," said Gadgetive, nodding after a bit of consideration. "I was expecting a fight or at least a chase, but this guy needs help and knows it. Still..."

      "While we're waiting I'll contact the local emergency services," said Blue Impact. "I think Energia and I should stay here and help while you take Harry to the doctor."

      "If he comes back," muttered Gadgetive.

      However, Harold Daniels did return to the flyer. He showed the bottle to Gadgetive, who consulted with specialists at the Bureau facility.

      "They said to take the recommended dose and lie down and wait for it to take effect," she said. "Also, try to avoid stress until I can get you there."

      "Avoid stress," said Harry, sourly. "Sure."

      The offered him a bottle of water and he downed a capsule.

      "Okay, Gadgetive, she's all yours," said Blue Impact, as she turned control of the flyer over to the woman who had designed it. "You get him to Dr. Timberlake's people - Don't hurry! - and then get back here quick. We'll work with the locals on the emergencies."

      "I had one power, half my lifetime ago!" the man said, loudly, partly due to the storm noise, partly due to aggravation. "It changed me from a woman to a man! That's it!"

      "Yes, sir," said Blue Impact, calmly. "They'll soon have this straightened out."

      She certainly hoped so, as she rose and headed to the rear of the flyer.

      Blue Impact and Energia squeezed past their passenger and into the rear compartment. Which was just as crowded as the front, in part because Blue Impact's motorbike was there, on a rack which doubled as a launcher.

      "Okay, we're hovering - sort of - just a meter off the ground, a block from the first accident, which is straight out from the back door," Gadgetive called to the others. "Energia, you'll have to fly yourself to the coordinates I sent to your com. Be careful out there!"

      "Roger," said Blue Impact, putting her helmet on as the clamshell rear doors opened.

      "Roger," said Energia, flying out as Blue Impact pulled the bike and launcher into position.

      "Better hurry, teach," said Gadgetive, as the view out the rear door wove drunkenly. "I'm having trouble holding her steady with all the buildings affecting the winds."

      "Launch!" yelled Blue Impact.

      The magnetic accelerator shot her and the bike out the rear door. A normal human would have blacked out. Of course, a normal human wouldn't have been able to hold on. Even with her greater weight Blue Impact - braced for this and experienced with the procedure - managed to hold her position on the bike. The bike itself was more than strong enough for both the launch and the landing.

      The trouble came from how the winds blew bike and rider sideways. Blue Impact leaned against the movement, so that when the tires hit the extra motion righted her. She was already giving the throttle a twist, and once the wheels planted (as well as they were going to with the wet pavement) she added more. Unfortunately, the winds weren't steady in either force or direction, and she wove back and forth for a couple of seconds before getting the bike steady.

      Fortunately she was not only an experienced rider but had superhuman reflexes. Within seconds she was tearing down the street to the wreck.

      As the request for help had stated, there were police on the scene but no rescue workers, and no special equipment. The cops were doing what they could but that wasn't much. Blue Impact braked to a stop. The noise of the storm kept them from even noticing her until she was almost on them. However, they had been told to expect her, and were glad to see her. Blue Impact secured her helmet to the handlebars, then hurried the last few steps to the closest officer. The other uniforms moved in to join them, huddling, heads together.

      "What do you need?" said Blue Impact, shouting to be heard over the winds.

      "Just get the car open!" the senior officer on the scene yelled back. "She's conscious and from what she says and what we can see not seriously hurt, but we need to get her out and to a hospital! Don't worry, the power's off!"

      "For the whole neighborhood!" one of the other officers yelled.

      The wooden utility pole had fallen across the car's roof in the rear, the weight of the multiple transformers impacting the roof doing enough damage that the doors were jammed and the windows all crushed down too small for the woman to get out.

      "You okay in there?" Blue Impact yelled, as she looked the situation over.

      "Get me out of here!"

      The woman was crowded down across the front seat, and despite being covered with blankets provided by the officers she was soaking wet and shivering. If nothing else she was already heading into hypothermia.

      Blue Impact gave the situation a quick once-over and quickly decided on a plan of action. First she squatted, put a shoulder under the pole and stood, then walked the pole behind the car, dropping it between the rear bumper of the damaged car and the front of the cop car behind it. Then she began peeling back the roof, actually rolling it instead of simply pulling up on it. The force needed for that would have moved the car too much. Even before the roof cleared the headrests the woman was clambering out over the dash, onto the hood. The officers quickly moved in to help her.

      They got her standing on the pavement. She weaved for a few moments, shaking her head. She looked at Blue Impact. Despite shivering so hard she could hardly speak, she made a point of doing so.

      "Thank you!"

      "You're welcome!" said the super, smiling.

      The officers got her into the police car beside the wreck, and the driver of that vehicle took off - carefully. Blue Impact then moved the pole to the side of the road.

      "Thank you!" the senior officer on scene said, actually shaking her hand.

      "Do you know of any other locations which need my help?"

      "If you can get this car out of the road, that would be a big help. It's blocking a lane and a half and this is a major route for emergency vehicles."

      "Roger."



Part Eight





      Energia had trouble flying at first. Then she got the idea of using her magnetic powers to anchor herself to the fixed pieces of metal all around. Once that was done she used a combination of her flight and magnetic powers to pull herself towards the fire station.

      The place was a mess. She could see a few firefighters outside, tugging futilely at an enormous tangle of sheet metal and wire which had somehow gotten wrapped around the building. Some even had metal cutters, but the pile was just too much for quick removal that way. The front and back vehicle doors were blocked, and even the human door on the windward side. Energia wondered if all that mess had blown in from one building somewhere, or had built up as it moved, like a snowball rolling downhill.

      One of the firefighters spotted her, waved, then got the attention of the others.

      "Hey, there!" she shouted, as she landed beside them. "Where is it safe to pull on this? I mean, which direction? I don't want to damage your building."

      With a combination of shouts and gestures, they indicated what they thought would be the best course of action.

      "Then just pile it in that lot? Okay, better stand back."

      Energia anchored herself, then spread her hands to help her visualize what she was doing. She was fighting not only the weight and resistance to bending of the metal, but the winds, as well. She worked carefully, making certain she had a firm magnetic grip on what she was moving, which was not a solid piece but a loose pile of several different materials. In spite of this a few pieces came loose, most of them rolling away in the wind.

      Standing there, the wind-driven rain stinging her face, concentrating on the task, Energia strained. The effort required was due less to the amount of brute force needed than the necessity for fine, careful control with slow progress. Finally, she had all but a few loose pieces of debris wadded into an easier to control mass, which she deposited - very firmly - in the empty lot. After watching for a moment to make sure it would stay where she put it, she let go.

      "Whew..." said Energia, sagging.

      She relaxed a bit too much, forgetting to stay anchored. A gust of wind nearly shoved her off her feet. One of the firefighters - a woman, in fact - quickly caught her.

      "You okay?"

      "Yeah. That just took a lot out of me."

      "Come in and rest for a bit. Most of us will be going on a couple of different runs now that the doors are clear, but you're welcome to hot coffee and cold doughnuts."

      "Thanks."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The police led Blue Impact to some other traffic accidents where she could help. At two of them she simply served as a human tow truck, clearing undrivable vehicles off the road until they could be properly dealt with. At one, though, she had to move a car which had hit a building, pinning an elderly man in wreckage which couldn't be moved until the car was out of the way.

      The situation was too delicate for the hydraulic rescue equipment on the scene, but for someone who could exert sufficient force directly by hand while experts oversaw and aided, it was just feasible. Once Blue Impact - very carefully - moved the car out of the way the rescue workers got busy. The victim was in bad shape, but as they closed the doors on the ambulance the EMTs told Blue Impact they thought he'd make it.

      Finally came a situation which was almost comical: A fire hydrant had been hit by something - perhaps wind borne storm debris - which snapped it off level with the sidewalk, creating a geyser. This added to the water already running down the street and into the drains but otherwise wasn't causing a significant problem. The police had opened a manhole to gain access to a cutoff, but didn't have the right tools to close the valve. Blue Impact dropped into the hole and simply twisted the valve spindle with her fingers. Carefully.

      "That's got it!" one of the cops yelled down the manhole, when the flow finally stopped.

      "That's that," said Blue Impact, as she climbed out. "You know of any place else I can help?"

      "No. Thank you. I just heard that your teammate - the flying one - was able to get the trapped rescue workers and fire personnel free, so they can now get to the problem sites in this area. The storm also seems to be weakening, so hopefully there won't be any more accidents for a while!"

      Waving as she walked away, Blue Impact went back to her bike. With her dense tissues she had little problem remaining stable as she rode away in the fading gusts.

      "How's it going?" she asked on her helmet radio.

      "I'm finished," said Energia. "Just needed to move some debris blocking the doors of a fire station, but that was a tough job. The stuff was loose and almost had the entire building wrapped up. Real finicky work; took a lot out of me. They made me rest afterwards. I even got coffee and doughnuts."

      "Great. Let's meet at city hall and see if anything else comes up. If not, that's a good landmark for Gadgetive to use for picking us up."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Blue Impact reached the large building a few seconds before Energia.

      "Is it just me or is the storm not as bad, now?" the younger super asked as she landed.

      "The cops I was working with said the storm was dying down."

      "Guess we got the right guy, then," said Energia, grinning.

      "They also told me the Red Cross has a place to get food in the rotunda of the courthouse, over there," said Blue Impact, pointing. "You've eaten; I haven't. Check and see if there are any more problems we can help with, and let me know if Gadgetive gets here before I'm finished."

      As it turned out, Blue Impact was done with a very large snack and back outside waiting in the waning winds before the flyer returned. She'd thought she might get an argument about taking advantage of the free grub, but tales or her work had spread rapidly and they were glad to feed her. Even better, by the time Gadgetive got there the storm was hardly a problem.

      "We must'a got the right guy," Gadgetive said, beaming, as the others entered; Energia clambering in the front and Blue Impact bringing her bike in through the rear clamshell doors.

      "Yes, Gadgetive," said Blue Impact, flatly, as she stowed her bike. "We must have gotten the right guy."

      "Uh..."

      "What did they say at the training center?" said Energia.

      "They said they couldn't make any decisions until they made an extensive examination."

      "Typical," said Energia, as she took her seat.

      Blue Impact moved to the front of the flyer and took the controls. Without saying anything, she lifted them straight up, to well above the clouds.

      "It even looks better from up here," said Energia, peering out of the canopy, down at the clouds.

      "You okay, teach?" said Gadgetive, concerned at Blue Impact's silence.

      "Hmm? Oh; sorry. I'm just wondering what they'll do with that man. Harry. He didn't mean to cause all this damage, but there could be legal impacts."

      "Wow," said Energia, startled. "I hadn't thought of that."

      "Normally, there would be a hearing and once the judge and district attorney's office were convinced there was no deliberate harm or malice the charges would be dropped. Though there could be civil suits, separately. This... is very unusual."

      "If we don't tell anyone who caused the storms, would the Bureau?"

      "I'll have to ask Brade about that. I don't think this has come up for one of their cases before."

      "That poor man," said Energia, sadly. "I hope he doesn't have to deal with that on top of everything else."

      "Anyway, that's all done," said Gadgetive, cheerfully. "Hopefully, noting else will come up before we have to head back to school."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      So far, graduate school wasn't much different from regular college, at least as far as Vic was concerned. Of course, part of that was due to her unusual circumstances. One of the few benefits of the extra year she'd had to spend at Ramsey was that she, Alex and Energia had graduated together. Unfortunately, almost none of the other supers she had started with here were still around by then. She missed some of the others - especially the bewinged Angela Florello and Melanie Perron, who was super strong and could grow a protective shell - and so far she just hadn't made any close connections with any of the new super students.

      Of course, as Winter moved in there was more on the minds of at least some students and teachers at the Ramsey Technical College than grades and holiday plans. Vic included.

      "How do you feel about Gibbons winning his party's nomination?" said Alex, one lazy evening at the dorm.

      She, Vic and Energia had gotten together in the dorm room the first two shared, ostensibly to discuss classwork. However, they were all obviously distracted by the recent political exercise.

      Not the same room, Vic thought, looking around, as she waited for Energia to answer, but it's the same floor in the same wing.

      Graduate students usually took apartments near the campus. However, Vic was spending a lot of her time with Michelle at her apartment - was even helping with the rent - so didn't see a need for an apartment of her own. Of course, her roommate the past five years - while also now a grad student - was younger than her peers and no-one else wanted to room with her. So, Vic's official residence was right back in the same old dorm. For some reason the rooms seemed much smaller now than when Vic and Alex first started here. On the other hand, it no longer seemed strange - to her or Alex - that one of their frequent visitors wore a costume with cape and mask.

      "I honestly don't know," said Energia, frowning. "The man has hardly said a word about supers, though some of what he has said hasn't been super friendly. On the other hand..."

      "On the other hand, his Veep choice is known to be an admirer of disgraced former President Harvey Thurlin," said Vic, hotly. She sighed and shook her head. "I guess we'll just have to wait and see just how anti-super Gibbons actually is. As well as how smart."

      "Smart?" said Energia.

      "Will he be stupid and immediately come down hard on supers?" said Alex, ticking her points off with raised fingers. "Will he be a little smart and work slowly and behind the scenes, hopefully to be exposed before things go too far? Or will he be really smart and simply ignore supers, since popular opinion is now so strongly on your side? You also have to take into account whether his Veep - Whatisname? Carl Donner! - will have any influence, and what it might be."

      "He's largely unknown," said Vic, "barely made any sort of mark in politics. No-one seems to know what he's gonna do..."

      "When did you become so politically aware?" said Energia, surprised.

      "Since it dawned on me that politicians could declare me illegal," said Vic, sourly. She looked pointedly at Energia. "You, too, for that matter."

      "Well, yeah," said Energia, shifting uncomfortably. "I do know that both the main candidates are very close in the polls, with everyone else far behind."

      "You should keep up with the rest of this stuff, too."

      "It's funny," said Alex, breaking the short silence which followed that. "You folks still have it better here than most places. Most other countries where supers helped fight the invasion are working on ways to further regulate them. Turns out the powers that be in lots of places had it rammed home just how effective supers can be in fighting tyranny and are getting very, very nervous."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Many people were reacting to the victory of Gibbons, in many different ways. One of them in ways which would have surprised anyone who knew him, or anyone who thought they knew who was actually running Gibbons' campaign.

      Alvin Montgomery smiled in delayed satisfaction as Milton Garber conceded. All was going according to plan. Soon, people he had picked would again be in charge of the White House and most of the US Congress, plus multiple other political positions. All the while, no-one who knew him in his mundane life realized just how important he was, and those who knew how important he was had no idea of his actual identity. He preferred to work behind the scenes, where he was free from pestering by politicians and lobbyists. Where his work could remain pure.

      Montgomery didn't look very impressive. He was a mousey little man, in late middle age, unimportant to those who only knew his public persona. Those who knew him as the Secret Keeper didn't care what he looked like or sounded like. They'd never even seen the real him, or heard his real voice; only the digitally altered versions of both through which he ran the organization that was going to save the world. Billionaires and politicians followed his advice; true patriots at all levels followed his orders without question.

      He'd had his setbacks over the past nearly twenty years since realizing that if he wanted this country put right, he needed to do it himself. That was to be expected. The forces arrayed against him ranged from influential individuals through superhumans to much of the military industrial complex. None of them wanted to fix things, to get back to the roots of what made this nation great, and the world orderly, unless it benefitted them and their narrow interests! What helped him so much was that members of those groups - even sometimes those within a particular group - would work against other members who didn't exactly agree with them. Unfortunately, that often also frustrated his work. Compromise, it appeared, was a lost art. More often than not, though, appealing to such extremism aided his cause. All he had to do was slyly let someone know he supported them, and they would do what he recommended. All on the QT.

      As the Secret Keeper he ran a covert organization that even many of those working for it didn't know existed. Another advantage of being anonymous was that the setbacks never affected him personally. Though the Five Great Powers nearly had. He had succumbed to their diabolical mind control within minutes, and only the general nature of their commands had kept him from helpfully putting all his resources at their disposal. Thanks to his Border Guard plant, Freedom's Secret, he had beaten the Five Great Powers! Only to see first supers who were late to the party and then the Shilmek take credit!

      Well, he wasn't in this for credit. Leave that to history. He was more concerned with the present, and the near future. Though he was starting to feel concern that the near future was becoming the not-so-near future. Progress was slow, with multiple setbacks. Sometimes it was one step forward, then two - or even three - steps back!

      Damn that Sievers woman! How she had gotten elected he was still trying to figure out. None of the analysts whose reports he had used - reports conducted thanks to him prompting various political entities which didn't even know they were doing his work - had given her a serious chance! Even doctoring the polls once he realized she was being unexpectedly successful hadn't ruined her. "Social progress, desire for change..." What garbage! Even if that was what some people wanted, how could a middle-aged, childless woman who had been widowed after only three years of marriage appeal to voters?! She hadn't even been properly trained! She actually thought she was qualified to run a country, and had somehow convinced voters of that! Twice! He hadn't taken her seriously, concentrating on his choice in the opposition party... who hadn't even made it through the presidential primaries! Then the same thing happened during Sievers' reelection. What was wrong with this country?! Should he even try saving it?!

      He stopped, took a deep breath, and calmed himself. Yes. The United States of America was well worth saving. The core was still there, just waiting for the opportunity to reassert itself, and restore this nation to the greatness it had once known. All it needed was motivation and direction. With Gibbons in office his plan could be put back on track. Despite being delayed for several years. Partly thanks to the desertion of Eve Hind, just when her influence would have been most useful... But mostly due to someone he had trusted as his backup if something happened to Thurlin.

      "If Gould hadn't betrayed Thurlin we'd be there by now," said Montgomery, quietly.

      "What was that?" said the man at the next workstation.

      "Nothing. Sorry."

      Montgomery sighed and set back to work. His mundane work, that is. So much to do, and he couldn't afford - yet - to give up his day job. The connections here were too valuable.



Part Nine





      The election seemed to take many people by surprise. Indeed, some expressed disbelief that it was that time again, already, a few wondering aloud if the election was being held early due to the war. Once it was over, millions in the US saw the results on the news and screamed that no-one had told them there was an election, and they'd been cheated out of their chance to vote. This complaint was heard repeatedly during the holidays. Some even said this when they saw the inauguration...

      Clearly, much of the population had other things besides politics on their minds.

      The holiday break went well for Energia, in spite of many people in her family being upset at the election results. Fortunately, her parents, uncle and aunt also were simply too busy with Christmas and the continued - if now rapidly fading - postwar problems to worry about politics, though they had all voted. So were the few non-mask friends she had in town. Of course, Jenny was quite capable of having concerns of her own.

      As she was packing for the return to college, Jenny (Energia) Toulon heard a gentle knock on the frame of her open door.

      "Hi, Mom!" she said, not surprised to see who was there. "What's up?"

      "Honey... You seemed a bit down several times during your visit. Is something wrong?"

      Jenny hesitated. Then sighed.

      "When you were my age did you wonder if you'd ever have children?"

      "Oh, my," said Julie, smiling, "what brought this on? Is your biological clock running fast?"

      "Mom! I'm serious! The only guy I ever really loved isn't even from the same planet!"

      "Come here," said Julie, taking her hand and sitting them both on Jenny's now too-small bed. "Don't rush things. You two may get together again, however unlikely that is. Also, don't feel like you're betraying Maldren if you fall in love with someone else. He's in the same situation, and if he doesn't understand I'm sure his mother will explain it to him."

      Before her meeting the past Summer with Tolnar Energia would have thought that unlikely. Now, though... She nodded, thoughtfully.

      "It's... There's also the fact that I don't meet a lot of guys my age in my civilian ID. Most of those I do meet I wouldn't trust, because they're probably just after the costume."

      "Didn't you meet Maldren in costume?"

      "Well, yeah," said Jenny, suddenly realizing that. "But..."

      "Don't say 'That's different.' It's always different. You have more ways things can be different than most people, I admit, but you're not alone in that. Don't force things, don't be in a hurry. If you keep looking - even if you just keep your mind on the fact that you might want to look - you'll eventually find someone."

      She laughed.

      "I'm not one of those women in a hurry to have grandchildren! Even if I were, I can sublimate that with Randy's kids."

       * * *

      Though she had enjoyed her time at home - especially playing with her young cousins - Energia was glad to get back to school. She was far more used to that and heroing with Tricorne these days than staying in her old room at home and doing shopping and holiday decorating. When she got back to Ramsey after the holidays she found that Vic had similar feelings... including, surprisingly, those about children. Talking this over, they both realized that while they would always value their families and pre-college friends, they were making their own lives, now. As for children...

      "Michelle and I do want children," Vic admitted, a bit uneasily, in private to Energia. After several years as a female she still found the topic discomforting. "We're also talking about marriage, after I graduate. Even if the Bureau assigns me somewhere else in the US, a skilled beautician can get work just about anywhere. But children..."

      "Adoption?"

      "That's one of the things we've talked about. I guess we'll have to see."

      "You know, with modern medical techniques you two could have kids of your own," said Energia. She smirked, remembering how her uncle had spent nearly ten months as Template to have their first. "You could have one, and Michelle have one, then together you could decide if you want any more."

      "Yeeeee..." said Vic, actually cringing.

      "What?" said Energia, laughing. "It's just biology."

      "Yeeeee..." Vic repeated.

       * * *

      "I think a large part of what happened in the most recent presidential election," said Dr. Delacroix, the sociologist teaching an advanced course which both Vic and Energia were in, "is that most people simply weren't too concerned about the election, being more focused on continuing the recovery from the war and dealing with the increasing integration of advanced technology from the Shilmek, Lunies and gadgeteers and inventors into daily life."

      Energia nodded to herself, thinking specifically of the adoption of a new technology she was familiar with through Tricorne. Thanks partly to Gadgetive and Dr. Device - with a kick in the rear from events during the war - apergy driven craft were finally, actually, honestly being evaluated by the FAA. Even so, there were delays in adopting the technology, largely due to problems the feds were having developing appropriate tests. Simply applying traditional aircraft safety trials would mean most of these new vehicles would be immediately rejected, because their method of operation was so different. As just one example, they didn't need wings so most omitted them, which meant they couldn't glide.

      "It seems that with the press treating one candidate as bland and uninteresting - whether he was or not - and the other as interesting - even if often saying things most voters disagreed with - voters tended to choose the name on the ballot which had the most recognition value. They were simply too busy with things immediately important - to them, their families, their friends, their communities - to pay much attention to politics. In spite of that the election was close, both in the popular vote and the Electoral College."

      After class was over Energia was distressed to hear a small knot of students in the hall outside severely criticizing the teacher's analysis of the election. They apparently felt that the man they had supported had to have won because he was the best candidate, and everyone must acknowledge that! Energia sighed, and looked around for Vic.

      "There you are!" said Vic, from behind her.

      "Don't do that!" said Energia, mildly annoyed. "I was looking for you!"

      Vic laughed, and Energia relented and smiled.

      "Okay, did you hear about Hat Squad?" said Vic.

      "What about Hat Squad?"

      "They pulled a big job in Iran - taking advantage of the chaos there due to the damage from the war - and got away with a huge load of ancient treasures. Things which the regime claimed they had destroyed but which they'd actually stashed somewhere and were selling a few at a time to private collectors. Hat Squad got into the place with forged documents, loaded several semi-trailers with the contents - leaving an empty warehouse - and drove off. The trucks were next seen in the Iraqi capital, parked outside the government's main building! With a note that they were a present to Iraq. Of course, the rulers of Iran are claiming the whole thing is a hoax, intended to discredit them, and, besides, those are their property and they want them back! The Iraqis are saying these were a gift to the Iraqi people and would be restored and put on display."

      "Hah!" said Energia, grinning. "I don't like the way those guys earn a living - and I'm not just saying that because they got away from us - but they definitely have style."

      "Well, they apparently also kept enough stuff which was valuable but not historically important to pay their expenses and throw a big party."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Good afternoon," said Brade, as she entered the briefing room. After sitting and opening her notes she continued. "How is everyone today?"

      "Feeling like an endangered species," said Doro, sourly.

      "Well, no-one can accuse the new President of being a slacker," said Brade, just as sourly, knowing her second in command was referring to the notice of further pending budget cuts for their agency. "He promised to 'rein in outrageous government overspending' and he and his supporters have definitely acted quickly to cut federal budgets."

      "Right now, we can no longer cover the rent we are paying for all of our off-campus facilities," muttered Doro. "We'll have to move some of them out of those buildings and into somewhere else. Of course, with the personnel cutbacks we have enough room to bring all the people and equipment into the few facilities we have left. Well, with a bit of crowding."

      "Consolidation is usually good," said Brade, sourly. "It's just that we were barely started in our operation, were already under budget cuts due to the recovery from the war, and there was not all that much to consolidate even before the layoffs."

      "When is he going to meet with you, anyway?" said Doro, looking angry. "The new President, I mean."

      "Probably never. It's not just me, either; he likes to 'delegate.'"

      There was some muttering among the attendees at this bit of news.

      "From what I've heard," said Converse, a bit more quietly than he likely intended, "Milton Garber would have insisted on even more cuts. His reputation is that he's a bit of a miser."

      "Well, let's get to business," said Brade, heading off any potential political arguments. "What's going on with our new acquisition, the weather warper?"

      "He's doing quite well, once he accepted that he actually was affecting the weather," said Dr. Stadtler. "He has shown no indication of wanting to join our organization or use his powers to fight crime - probably a very good attitude, given our budget cuts and how slowly such powers work - but will complete the training program so there are no more accidents."

      "Excellent. Now, moving on..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      After only a bit over a month of working for the man, Alice Clarke was already regretting her career move. She'd thought being Gibbons' chief White House aide would be a major boost. Instead, she increasingly found herself disliking both the man and his policies, as well as his laziness. Not to mention his taste in music... Still, the pay was good; also, unlike some politicians and businessmen she had worked for - and in spite of his reputation - he kept his hands to himself, and his compliments were well short of sexual harassment. She'd stay on for at least a while longer.

      So, today it was walk into the Oval Office (there were other rooms more suited to briefings, especially small ones like this, but this was where Gibbons wanted to "hear it") and after a perfunctory handshake sit in a chair in front of his desk. There were only three other people in the room; two Secret Service agents - one male, one female - and a technical advisor for one of the subjects on the roster.

      "Okay," said Gibbons, "first, what this about US Senator in good standing Erwin Radetsky backing off on his bill to defund all financial support for super teams and disband all those with a direct federal mandate? I understand he was also trying to make it law that only people individually approved by the government could wear masks, like in Germany."

      "Turns out he had somehow forgotten his cousin - also-Senator Carol Perkins - is a low-level super," said Alice, keeping a straight face in spite of the amusement she felt over that situation. "She called him on the practical and civil rights problems with his bill and told him, on the floor of the Senate, to back off the supers or their mutual grandfather - who was big in civil rights in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies - would disown him. Given the current popularity of supers for what they did in the war and are continuing to do to help the recovery she had a lot of support."

      "Y'know, politicians are supposed to use polls to get an idea of what the public wants," said Gibbons, wryly. "Not to directly determine policy. Oh, well; it was probably too extreme, anyway. What's next?"

      Alice and the President went through several minor topics - mostly public relations matters - before she flipped to the next page of her note pad and saw the item there.

      "You wanted to review options for dealing with the Pine Island Academy."

      "They ought to nuke Pine Island off the map," growled Gibbons, slouched in his chair and playing with a fidget spinner. "Should have done that as soon as they realized what Pine had done there. We waited too long and now there's a whole nest of them. A hive. A school!""

      "They tried that, remember?" said Clarke, wondering if the man actually thought Pine himself had set up the school. He was politically savvy and knew his way around the Hill, but his knowledge of anything outside the Capital was - at best - hit or miss. Especially when anything more than twenty years old was involved.

      "Who tried what?" said Gibbons, mildly.

      "Sung hit them with a multi-megaton nuke. All it did was mess up electronics for a thousand miles around. Though not on the island."

      Gibbons sat up suddenly.

      "You're serious."

      "Sure. You mean you didn't know this? It caused an international incident. Even affected Florida. Millions of retirees threw fits - and their oatmeal - when they couldn't watch their soaps."

      "Soaps?" Gibbons shook his head. "Never mind. Okay, nukes are off the table."

      "Seriously?" said Clarke, astounded. "You were seriously considering using nuclear weapons on a kids' school?"

      "What's it to you?" said Gibbons, irritated. "They're not your kids."

      "Right," said Clarke, making a decision. She looked back at her notes. "All right. Economic attempts have been only mildly successful...."

       * * *

      Energia came into the central dorm area the next morning intending to get breakfast. Given the complications involved in attending college - especially graduate school - in her mask ID taking a room off campus just wasn't practical. Not that continuing in a single room at the same dorm was a hardship. CNN was playing on the large flatscreen and though the volume was down she read the scroll at the bottom and stopped, staring.

      "What?" said Vic, already eating but not looking at the screen. Her friend's sudden reaction had triggered her sense of perception and put her on alert.

      "Alice Clarke resigned as Gibbons' aide. Says he seriously proposed nuking the school. I mean, the Pine Island Academy. When she protested, he said 'They're not your kids.' When asked about this, Gibbons responded that his comments about the matter were a joke and Clarke has no sense of humor. That someone should 'do something' about her."

      "'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'" said Vic, quietly.

      "You don't really think..."

      "I just hope she's careful," said Vic, tone ominous.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "Gibbons has these odd blind spots," said Andrea Valentina, Head of Administration at Pine Island Academy, a few weeks later. She was delivering the digest version of a report written by some of the school's psychology and politics teachers, at her request in response to Gibbons' remarks about the school. "He never questions what he favors or disfavors, but simply assumes that any decent, educated person has the same views he holds. His staff tries to keep him well informed, but whatever doesn't reinforce what he already believes is simply dismissed. He is then caught by surprise when decent, educated people vigorously object to his policies, especially when they demolish his positions with evidence and reason. He then assumes - sometimes angrily - that either they are crazy or ignorant or they're deliberately trying to make him look bad."

      "So he's like a typical human being, only moreso," said Eve, with a slight smile.

      "I remember a press conference during his final days of campaigning, when he argued that the Pine Island Academy should be abolished and all the students forced to attend school in their home areas," said Template, nodding. "He claimed this would be cheaper than having a dedicated school and produce supers who were more 'normal' and conventionally socialized. Ignoring the fact that our school is private and gets very little federal money. When someone pointed out that normal schools didn't have the facilities or training to handle super students he asked what more did they need that normal schools couldn't offer?"

      "I remember that," said Andrea, nodding. "The reporter responded 'Staff who can teach a kid with electrical powers how not to accidentally electrocute someone.' Gibbons just stared at him. Like a robot which had encountered a situation outside its programming."

      "So what do we do about him?" said Eve, pointedly.

      "So far, he's pretty much sabotaging his own position on the school very effectively," said Lori Savage, Head of Security. "Though he seems oblivious to that fact. Just let him keep talking, and encourage reporters to keep asking questions."

      "The Super PAC can help with that," said Template, absently tapping a gloved fingertip on the table top as she thought things through. "However, keep in mind that this guy isn't nearly as incompetent as Thurlin. He's careless but not stupid. Now that he knows some people - according to independent polls, something like 80% of the voting population in the US - actually like supers and want them to keep going the way they are, he's moderated his spoken views. Again claiming that he was joking before, and chastising his critics for not realizing that."

      "So here's hoping he doesn't simply move to secretly acting against supers," said Junker, sourly. "For our own good, of course."

      "Oh, I'm pretty sure he doesn't consider our well being when making decisions," said Template, hotly.

      "He hasn't actually said much about supers," said Andrea. "He's said even less about the magic problems. It's just that things he has said or done impact both supers and the magical communities, if only by reducing what they can do. Sometimes directly, but more often indirectly."

      "The magical incursions have been mostly low-key the past few months," said Eve, frowning. "Also, the mages and magical creatures working on the problem have been very diligent in dealing with them. Most people who don't deliberately look for matters magical have very little awareness of the small problems or even the big problem."

      "I just hope that gives them time to develop something which works to stop these 'incursions' before they're all big ones," said Lori.

      "I think that's enough for this meeting," said Eve. "I know some of you want to get started on your Spring break plans. I'll see you when school resumes."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The patient was being transported by helicopter from Bermuda, where the airliner bringing him from New York had landed. Pine Island still could not safely handle large, conventional airplanes, and the logistics of the transfer had taken several hours to work out. Hours which the patient could not really afford. However, he was finally almost here.

      The helicopter landed on the pad atop the brand new Amazonia Memorial Super Specialists Hospital, several staff members already waiting nearby on the roof. Once the helicopter crew signaled, the doctors and orderlies hurried up the ramp onto the pad, the self-propelled gurney barely managing to keep up. This was their first serious patient and they were determined to do things right.

      Due to that attitude, not only were all the hospital personnel meeting the helicopter wearing full hazmat gear, but the patient was in a sealed transport pod, the exterior of which had been sterilized before leaving the isolation ward at the New York hospital which had referred the man to them. He was wheeled inside the hospital and quickly placed in an isolation room, and the medical personnel set to work.

      "Is the emergency arrival here?" said Eve, on videophone to Dr. Nief - who was now Physician in Chief - a very short time later.

      "Patient is one Justice Dagger, aka Dagger of Justice, aka Blade of Truth, aka a few other things, age forty-six," said Dr. Nief. "He's an experienced mask from New York. He was found unconscious in an alley three days ago. No obvious injuries except for what he got from falling when he passed out."

      "Whatever is wrong with him must have come on suddenly."

      "That's the best guess, and why we're keeping him isolated. It's most likely either a toxin - possibly due to an attack - or some sort of extremely contagious organism. It could be - though this is very unlikely - some sort of metabolic problem. He has no record of health issues such as diabetes, though. We're doing multiple blood tests, a physical exam and an ultrasound."

      "Ultrasound?"

      "The folks who checked him in New York said they found an unusual lump in the small of his back, just left of the spine. If we confirm there is something there we'll probably do a biopsy."

      "It sounds like you folks have this well in hand," said Eve. "Just keep me updated, please. I also want a full briefing once you've completed your preliminary examination."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The couple woke slowly and mutually, cuddled in each others' arms. Normally, one or the other had to be up first, often by a good measure, but today - thanks to a combination of the Spring holiday and a low crime rate, but mostly due to the family being on vacation - was a rare day when they could both sleep in. The man of the family kissed his wife on the top of the head.

      "So, how do you like your life?" said Randy, grinning.

      "Okay, I have a house in the suburbs of a city I love and I commute to work using tunnels built by the lost, ancient, Subterran culture," said Karen, ticking things off on her fingers, "I have a spouse who knows exactly how to please me and knows what I'm going through..."

      "Thank you," said Randy, kissing her on the forehead.

      "I can take a trip to a tropical island any time I want, thanks to said spouse's job..."

      "Sub-tropical," said Randy, still grinning.

      "I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful husband - who happen to be the same person - I have two wonderful children - one of whom I gave birth to myself. What's not to love?"

      "Maaaaaa!" came a call, right on cue. "When's breakfast? You said I couldn't make it myself any more. Maaaaaa!"

      "Well, there's that," said Randy, wryly, throwing the covers back.

      "You can't fool me. You love that as much as I do," said Karen, doing likewise.

      Karen put on a robe and hurried into the kitchen of their bungalow, while Randy got Sarah up and ready. The vacationing adults turned making breakfast into a family affair. As they sat eating their fresh, hot muffins, though, Randy noticed his wife looking both thoughtful and amused.

      "What are you thinking about?"

      "A guy I used to date, in college," said Karen, with exaggerated innocence. "I still talk to him, occasionally."

      "Why would us eating muffins make you think of him?"

      "He's a nice guy," said Karen, "but he has this really annoying way of eating a muffin."

      "How can eating a muffin be annoying?"

      "Instead of taking bites out of it, he plucks pieces off and pops them in his mouth."

      Randy leaned in close and gave her an evil grin.

      "I'll have to remember that."

      "No!"

      He leaned back in his chair, laughing, while Roy looked back and forth between his parents, confused. Little Sarah didn't even notice, focused as she was on the very important matter of eating her hot, heavily buttered muffin.

      "I wonder what powers they'll get," said Randy, after a moment, meaning his two children.

      "They may not get any, remember," said Karen. She grinned at her daughter. "Though if Sarah gets my powers she should call herself Giant Tess."

      "You and your online comics," said Randy, rolling his eyes.

      Spring vacation this year saw Randy and family in a bungalow as guests of the school. Keeping Randy and Template separate from those who weren't in the know was causing some minor problems, but just now there were few students here and not even a full staff. There was also little need for Template, which made things easier. Unfortunately, they had just one more full day and a partial before they returned home.

      With the dishes rinsed and put in the dishwasher, they faced the dilemma of what to do until lunch.

      "Jungle hike?" said Randy. "Lagoon swim? Ocean swim? Volcano fishing?"

      "Volcano fishing!" yelled Roy.

      "I'm pretty sure there's no such thing," said Karen, glaring at her husband.

      "Volcano fishing!"

      "Roy, that was a joke," said Randy, realizing he was now in trouble with two members of his family.

      "Vo-canno fish!" yelled Sarah, grinning and kicking enthusiastically.

      Make that three members.

      "Okay, we can hike up to the lookout point and take a look at the volcano's crater," said Randy, hoping that would satisfy the kids.

      "Voooo-caaaaay-nooo!" howled Sarah, almost making it a song.



Part Ten





      Randy led his family on a leisurely walk to the volcano, on a path which took them through the dormitory section of the school. He and Karen waved casually at the few adults and students they saw. One in particular caught Roy's attention.

      "Who's that girl and why is she gray?" he asked, making no attempt to keep his voice down.

      "That's Hazel," said Randy, quietly. "Her body is largely iron. She's one of our rescues. She finished high school here and is now one of our physical trainers."

      "I remember you telling me about her," said Karen, softly. "Also how much she was upset by her friend's death in the war."

      "Allessandra," said Randy, nodding. "That may have been the only noble thing she did in her whole life. It wasn't even completely selfless, since Hazel was her friend and being endangered by the attackers."

      "Well, I consider that selfless," said Karen, firmly.

      "Anyway, she's a lot better after so much time here, among other supers and people used to dealing with and caring for them. It helped that she had other friends - most of them on the island - and a couple of boyfriends. Now, we need to take that next left..."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      At the new hospital, a surgical procedure was taking place under the baleful green glow of a neutralizer.

      "I hate working in these suits," muttered Dr. Harvest, absently, as he carefully worked to expose the cyst. "Normal gloves are okay - can even amplify the apparent size of things and improve grip under the right situations - but..."

      After examining two sets of ultrasounds and a CAT scan, Dr. Harvest had decided that instead of performing a biopsy he wanted to try and excise the grape-sized, fluid-filled pocket entire, along with what appeared to be some sort of short tail. He was worried that it might be a contained tumor and that rupturing it would spread some disease throughout the patient's body.

      "They're for the patient's protection as much as yours," said Dr. Nief, over the PA of the contagious ward's operating theater, as he faded away. She wondered at his sudden quiet; he normally talked during surgery to ease his tension. He had been invited to join this hospital - and had very eagerly accepted - because he was arguably the world's leading expert on alternate biology and - most importantly in this case - physiology in superhumans.

      They had confirmed that Justice Dagger had been poisoned with a neurotoxin, a synthetic version of a tetrodotoxin found in puffer fish. They now knew he had also been moved from wherever he had been originally drugged, then placed in the alley where he was found. Investigators in New York were still trying to determine if he had been taken anywhere else between those locations.

      "This... looks artificial," said Dr. Harvest, quietly. "Also very fragile."

      Well, that explained why he had stopped talking.

      Dr. Nief immediately became more alert, and leaned forward as she tried to think if there was anything else they should do, given this revelation. However, the whole ward was already sealed and everyone in it except the patient in protective suits. She opened her mouth to ask a question, then thought better about disturbing the surgeon.

      "It looks like it was implanted empty laparoscopically, then filled from an external reservoir. All that showed externally was an insertion point, barely more noticeable than a vaccination. It's firm, probably stretched taut. I'm not sure it can be removed intact."

      He spent several minutes looking all around the object. Then reexamined the MRI and CT images. Then he looked back at the actual item.

      "We should be safe in these suits, but the patient is at risk. I think I can remove this intact if I excise the tissue around it. That will support the object and hold it together. The patient will have a longer, more difficult recovery, but since we don't know what's in this thing I believe that is the right decision."

      "It's your call, doctor," said Dr. Nief.

      "I'll remove it. Though first I'll spray a fixative on the object and the tissues around it."

      That took time, since a container of the appropriate substance had to be sterilized and introduced through an airlock. Soon, though, the reinforcing spray had set and Dr. Harvest set very carefully to work.

      Meanwhile, Dr. Nief realized this might be part of a larger assault against the island, and hurriedly called Security.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      All of Pine Island was a geologic shambles. The main substance of the island had been raised from the deep seafloor by Pine's graviplanor. The surface had originally been a mass - and mess - of seafloor silt with occasional bits of rock showing through, supported above the waves by the pressure of the magma plume Pine had pulled up under it. It had even continued growing - though slowly - for more than a decade after he shut his device down. How he had kept the whole thing from simply falling apart from the actions of wind and wave and gravity had been carefully detailed in his notes, but half the geologists who read them claimed they were pure fiction.

      Biologically the island was also rather strange. Pine had covered the more public sections with topsoil and seeded and planted to create an idyllic scene. For the rest he used chemical methods to draw out and sequester the salt so it would wash away easily in the rain, then seeded what remained with a plant mix mostly made of salt-tolerant species. The animals came later. He'd had plans for a staged development of the growth on the island through several decades. However, his exposure as a dangerous criminal mastermind and the subsequent seizure of his assets had put that on hold. Instead, the island's biology had developed on its own, with only occasional help or hindrance by humans. The result was pleasantly wild.

      The hill the Devons currently walked on was largely consolidated sediment, but decades of weathering and plant growth had resulted in a robust soil which produced reasonably solid ground. On this had been placed a high-traction pathway of some substance the gadgeteers had literally cooked up, supplemented with steps and handrails in the steepest portions.

      Randy marveled at his family as they walked the steep path up the flank of the hill overlooking the volcano. Roy - already seven and a half years old - no longer aped Randy's powers... or Template's. In fact, he didn't seem to remember doing so, or that he had spent some time as a girl. He accepted his parents' powers - and those of some of their friends - as a matter of routine, and was surprisingly good at keeping the double lives involved secret.

      Finally, they reached the lookout. This was a raised platform at a - presumably - safe distance from the artificial volcano. Even so, there was an occasional whiff of hot, sulfurous air when the wind was right. The peak of the volcano had originally stood higher, but simple erosion - augmented by a few super fights - had broken it down until it was now only the second highest point on the island.

      "There," said Randy, pointing. "You can see the divot in the crater rim where Energex hit, then down there where the side was patched after the lava got the demons. The lava lake has cooled so much over the years that it's not even glowing, now. Though sometimes you get a crack with still-molten lava oozing out."

      "Deeee-maaaaans!" shouted Sarah, bouncing in the baby carrier strapped to Randy's chest. At nearly a year and a half old, she was a bit precocious in some areas, and a bit behind in others. Some of which may have been due to her being slightly premature, though the doctors doubted that. According to them, kids her age rarely matched the average in all things. Neither did kids of any age, for that matter.

      Like her brother, she had mimicked her mother's powers when in close contact. In her case, though, her mother was Karen/Colossa. That ability had fortunately faded quickly. A giant baby desperately needing a change was almost as much of a panic inducer as a shrunken one the parents worried about losing in the couch.

      "Cool!" said Roy, beaming as he leaned forward, looking through the fencing which ran between the adult-chest-high safety rail and the platform.

      "Not cool," said Karen. "A lot of people got hurt - many of them badly - before that."

      "Also, lava?" said Randy. "Very hot. Even when it's crusted over like that is."

      "Not funny," said Karen, rolling her eyes.

      Randy - and Karen, to a lesser extent - talked about the history of the island and how the volcano was slowly dying because the pool of magma pulled to just under the surface by Pine was cooling.

      "Another thirty or forty years and there won't be anything molten left, at least above sea level," said Randy. "The magma deep underground should stay liquid for several more decades, but it will also eventually solidify, since it's a pretty small amount as such things go and not being replenished. Though the solidified mass would still be very, very hot for a lot longer."

      "Are you gadgeteer channeling, again?" said Karen, teasing.

      "Nah. I just pay attention when people talk about this thing. In large part because of our thermoelectric plant. We'll eventually have to shut it down, once the magma cools enough."

      They walked back down the steep path. Since they were already heading that way, Randy took them past the old Project Standby base. The jungle had been cleared for a good distance around it and a fence erected well inside the clearing.

      "The UN took it over as their base on the island," Randy explained. "I could arrange a tour, but, really, there's not much of interest to see since the last of the Myrmidons was removed and scrapped."

      "Miiiiir-meeeee-donnnnsss!" shouted Sarah.

      "I hope she learns soon that she doesn't have to yell when she's practicing new words," said Karen, wincing. "I'm starting to wonder if she'll have sonic powers."

      "Hey, I'm the one with her strapped to his chest!"

      "Speaking of which, that carrier is too small for her, now."

      "She doesn't seem to mind. Though, yeah, if we weren't going over so much rough terrain I would have let her walk."

      "You mean run," said Karen, grinning. "You just didn't want to have to keep catching her."

      "Maybe we should get one of those harnesses with the leash."

      Randy waved to one of the armed UN security guards as they walked past and on to the coast.

      "There's the rock which got hit by that missile which was chasing me."

      All of them had seen the actual school before, and the oldest three had been in the long repurposed Pine base. Randy therefore simply walked them around the island, showing them the natural sights and a few non-natural highlights. Finally, with lunch nearing, they took a path from a secluded beach and headed back to the bungalow cluster.

      "What is it?" said Karen, as noticed Randy looked thoughtful.

      "Just realizing how small this island really is. It seems bigger, partly due to the variety of terrain and partly because some of it is so heavily overgrown, but it's only a few hectares. C'mon; it's getting near lunch. Let's get back to the bungalow."

      However, as they approached the cluster of low buildings they were intercepted by the head of island security.

      "Just letting you know there's a medical emergency at the hospital," said Lori Savage. "We are under a quarantine alert."

      "Already?!" said Randy. He sighed in exasperation. Then became very alert. "Wait, this won't endanger our kids, will it?"

      "Not according to the medical experts. The hospital called a lockdown about half an hour ago due to a contagious patient, but he arrived in a sealed transfer unit and wasn't taken out until he was in the special containment section of the hospital. This is just a precaution. As part of this we are also locking down the entire island, just to be safe."

      Randy and Karen thanked her and continued on to the bungalow

      "I think I better get changed and go check on this."

      "Go on, honey," said Karen, giving him an affection peck on the cheek.

      Randy left, walking quickly to a small clearing he knew of, a place near a beach with heavy brush all around. There he shifted to Template. Though access to the island was strictly monitored, some means of egress still had a few gaps. These weren't as many or as easy to use as some students thought, but there were places where a single person could leave without being noticed. Of course, Template would later have to work out some subterfuge with those who knew she was also Randy to balance the books, so to speak, in order for him to rejoin his family. Sometimes she hated this double life nonsense. She hurried into the sea and flew under water along a narrow crevice out a few klicks before surfacing to fly back in.

      Template called island traffic control, letting them know who she was and where she was going. She started for the hospital, then realized that though her flight had dried her she was definitely a bit fishy. A quick trip to the teachers' showers, an exit through the full-body blow dryers - in full costume the whole time; it could take it - followed by a quick brush of her hair and she was presentable. Template then went to the main entrance of the medical center and checked with security to make certain she could safely come in. Soon she was in Dr. Nief's office. The physician briefed the super on the patient and the "cyst".

      "It was safely removed and placed in our level 4 biohazard containment lab," she finished.

      "That's good news," said Template, relaxing and finally sitting. "I just hope it stays good."

      "Well, we didn't discover anything else which shouldn't have been in his body and he's responding to treatment. We even went over the transport capsule very thoroughly, just to make sure."

      "You spoke with the hospital which sent him?"

      "Yes. They're checking in multiple ways - including taking cultures from his costume and bedding and even in the alley where he was found - and so far have found nothing alarming. Of course, we're still identifying what was in that synthetic cyst. It could be harmless; I wouldn't bet on that."

      "When will the quarantine be lifted?" said Template.

      "Another hour or two. We want to be completely certain, since we're dealing with an unknown."

      The costumed woman sighed and shook her head.

      "This... How could someone do this? There's several hundred people on this island, including some children!"

      "It takes a special kind of mind," said Dr. Nief, angrily. "A type which needs chemical correction."

      "It's like Alice Clarke told the press," said Template, still astounded at the method of this attack. "She said Gibbons was planning to destroy the school, through the hospital, though she didn't know how. I thought she meant either finding a way to cut our funding or shutting it down on a pretense... that it wasn't up to code, or something. This, though! This!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The next day arrived with no further scares. Karen and Randy packed their belongings and children and took the underground shuttle to the terminus on the mainland where they had left their car.

      "It's hard to believe this is ours," said Randy, as he closed the rear door of their minivan on the last of the luggage. "I still don't understand why we bought it in white!"

      "Cream, dear," said Karen. She laughed, and took a quick look around before moving a bit closer and speaking quietly. "Have you noticed that both your color discrimination and color vocabulary are better when you're Template?"

      "Voooooh-cab-ary!" shouted Sarah.

      "No, I hadn't," said her father - well, technically mother - startled. "I'll have to check that."

      "Later. Right now, you're driving."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Despite wanting to relax after returning to their home, Randy had responsibilities on the island. These were especially pressing after the attempted biological attack, meaning that instead of another couple of days off he - as Template - needed to return today. After a minimum of time back home helping to unpack and then to decompress a bit, he changed to Template and flew off.

      Once at the school she joined with Eve for a meeting with Dr. Nief and some of the hospital staff. In the meeting they learned that a surprising amount had been uncovered about both what had happened to their patient, and the boobytrap embedded in his body. Much of this new information was dire, indeed.

      "The virus in that pouch is incredibly dangerous," said microbiology specialist Dr. Carl Dunning. Thanks in large part to gadgeteer equipment provided to his lab here, he had completed both an initial RNA scan and run multiple computer models on the virus. "It targets a gene sequence known to be in nearly all active supers. Unfortunately, it is also in a significant portion of the dormant super population, as well as many, many more who do not have enough super genes to ever develop powers. Which would be at least a hundred million people on the planet as a whole. It also shows a disturbing characteristic of mutating through generations, changing which gene complex it affects. Our models show that before it evolved into being simply another contagious virus it could have killed at least a billion. Even once it so mutated, it would still cause serious illness, and more casualties.

      "I have to believe that whoever sent it against us didn't know just what they were using," he finished.

      "It could have killed a substantial fraction of the human population," said Dr. Nief, quietly. "It was that virulent and that unconstrained."

      "Wow..." said Template, stunned speechless.

      "How are you coming with a defense against this contagion?" said Eve, getting right to the most important point.

      "It's very virulence is making treatment easy, once we figured out what affected it," said Nief. "We've only worked with lab animals so far, but the response was consistent. Dose the patient with the appropriate antiviritics and the infection is effectively over in a few hours. Of course, in those few hours it can very easily destroy enough of the target's cells to kill someone. Without those - still uncommon, unfortunately - medications even supers with boosted immune systems have little chance.

      "In addition to those working on finding what existing treatments work, we have three teams here and several others around the world working on both vaccines and specifics. We need to immunize as many people as possible as quickly as possible. We particularly need something which acts more quickly than the available antiviritics and with fewer side effects. As it is, there is so little time between infection and permanent damage that we have to flood the patient with three different medications. Any one of these can cause problems at these doses, and together... Well, the patient might survive and make a full recovery from the virus but they'll be sick for weeks just from the treatment!"

      Template stood and began pacing. She was obviously furious. The others present said nothing, not sure how to react. Finally, she stopped, turning towards them.

      "This school is my life's work. Even leaving aside this... incompetent attempt which could literally have killed billions, it is under threat from multiple sources. What? Do? We? Do?"

      "For now, gather all the information we can," said Eve, with deliberate patience and calmness. "Not just about this attempt, but about anything which might be connected to this and other attempts. I know it's frustrating to wait for more information, but premature, rash action could make things worse."

      Template sighed, visibly relaxed and nodded. Eve gave her a cold smile.

      "Don't worry. The time will come for action. Given the fanaticism of some of those arrayed against us, that will likely include some very cathartic violence."



Part Eleven





      "If our new facility hadn't been ready," said Dr. Nief, "the referring hospital would have treated him. I've spoken with the chief surgeon there and he admits they would not have taken the precautions we did."

      "If our people hadn't been at the top of their game, due to this being our first emergency patient," said Template, "if we hadn't had a world class surgeon and facilities, if..."

      "Yes," said Lori Savage, not minimizing what Template was saying but not wanting to dwell on it. "Luck was very much with us this time. You can believe I am taking measures to make certain luck never plays such a big role again."

      "My question is, what is our next step?" said Eve.

      "We have to keep this quiet for as long as we can," said Lori. "Tell the CDC and a few others, but make sure they know it needs to be kept quiet."

      "Agreed," said Eve.

      She looked around, and all the others also agreed.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The school notified appropriate health monitoring agencies at both the US government and the UN. By consensus, there was no press release from any of the organizations involved. The agencies the hospital contacted unanimously agreed that there should be no public notice. This was partly to avoid a public panic, partly to avoid a hasty response from some organization due to pressure from non-medical personnel, and partly to keep whoever was behind this virus in the dark. Part of the reason for this measured response was that two different groups - one of them at the Academy's Amazonia Memorial Hospital, under the supervision of Dr. Dunning - had already developed potential vaccines. Those would be tested and at least one proven to work before the news was released.

      However, a scoop of this type was very tempting, and some people yield easily to temptation. It took a good three days, but the news broke. Yet there was still no official announcement on the attack from the new US administration. Finally, at a previously scheduled press conference, reporters had an opportunity to bring the matter out into the open. Unfortunately, the new President was reluctant to take it seriously.

      "Let me get this straight," said Gibbons, smiling nastily at the reporter who had asked the question, as he spoke in an exaggerated version of his usual mild drawl. "Some mad scientist on that island cooked up a killer bug, they barely got it under control before it killed everybody there and maybe on the mainland, and now they're saying 'Don't worry. Just take this shot and you'll be fine.' Right."

      "Sir, the evidence says..."

      "They don't have any evidence! If they do, where is it? Why haven't I seen it? Why haven't they given it to the police? No, this is just another mess the masks have caused which they're trying to cover up."

      "Mr. President, the school reported this to the CDC..." one reporter began.

      "This is like that whole Shilmek attack," said Gibbons, apparently not hearing. "If they hadn't aggravated them, they wouldn't have had any reason to come here! Leave diplomacy to the diplomats! Self-appointed ambassadors - even if they are supers - have no official standing!"

      Several reporters were now on their feet, some of them trying to shout answers to Gibbons own questions, to contradict his claims. The President spoke loudly, and they quieted.

      "No, this is just more evidence that that school needs to be erased from the surface of the Earth and the kids put under proper supervision. For all we know that virus was somebody's science project!"

      "Getting back on topic," said a respected senior news commentator, quickly and loudly enough to head off the President's claims that this wasn't the actual top+-ic, "the revelations from Alice Clarke were already causing you to lose popular and party support. There's no evidence - despite loudly voiced suspicions - that you were yourself involved in the attempted biological warfare attack against the school. However, some of the evidence has been traced back to your Vice President, Carl Donner. For several months between you choosing him and the actual election, he was in contact with an old friend who at that time was in charge of several black programs. Exactly what those programs were working on is not available - all Freedom of Information Act requests have been ignored - but previously revealed programs have, indeed, worked on bioweapons, often in violation of international treaty."

      "Carl Donner is a noble human being," said Gibbons, actually seeming insulted. "Alice Clarke is a liar who worked for me just long enough to acquire a patina of respectability. A patina which has now worn completely away."

      There was a confusion of shouted questions. Satisfied he had blunted this attack on him and his office, Gibbons smiled and walked away, waving amiably.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The staff of the Pine Island Academy had good reason to pay attention to this press conference. Two days later they had a meeting to discus it, and matters related to it.

      "In spite of the recommendations of the CDC and several other governmental and non-governmental health agencies, the new administration is not only not helping with the vaccinations, but actively working against them," said Template, not happy but not surprised, either.

      "That's about the size of it," said Dr. Nief, nodding. "The CDC is spearheading a voluntary campaign but so far can't get any of the pharmaceutical companies to make the vaccine, because the President won't get behind it. However, several non-US governments are taking this threat very seriously - some of the enemies of the US because they claim this proves we plan to use biological weapons against them - and are looking into both manufacturing our vaccine and developing their own."

      "I'd love to know where this stuff actually comes from," muttered Junker. "I know that with modern lab equipment a small but talented team could make this in a few months, but..."

      "Not this," said Dr. Dunning, firmly. "This is more like a something from a poorly overseen black project. One with substantial funding. As was brought up in that news conference, and denied by Gibbons."

      "I'll get my contacts on that," said Template.

      "As will I," said Eve, her tone rather more sinister.

      "I think part of the problem we're seeing with the new administration," said Junker, "is due to the giggle factor Gibbons and his people have for anything the least bit unconventional. 'A virus which could kill billions of humans in a few months. Suuuurrreee. Write it up for the next Skiffy Channel movie.' I am very glad the war came before they were in charge. They'd have been denying it was happening even as the Secret Service tried to evacuate Gibbons."

      "You definitely have a point," said Template, nodding slowly. "That could also be why there's been no official response to the magic problem. Though I think that's a good thing."

      "Part of what's going on with the magical creature incursion situation is that after that rash of events a couple of years ago things got very quiet," said Lori. "Magic just dropped off the radar for most folks. Again."

      "Has there been any decision on what to call this bug?" said Junker.

      "The Black Virus," said Dr. Dunning, quietly.

      "How is the island vaccination program coming along?" said Eve, after the moment of silence following that.

      "We only started this morning," said Dr. Dunning. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat. "I hope you understand that we aren't used to working this quickly. If it weren't for the combination of need and the new tools we have available - in part due to Lunie and Shilmek contributions by way of our own gadgeteers - developing an effective vaccine would take at least months. However, we should have half the inhabitants vaccinated by this evening."

      "How about people like Hazel, who can't be injected normally?" said Dr. Nief.

      "We should have a nasal inhalation version by the end of the week. Though those with metabolisms as radically altered as hers don't actually have anything to worry about. They can't even be carriers, except by external contamination, where vaccination wouldn't help."

      "What worries me," said Lori, "is whether whoever set this up was careful enough."

      "A valid concern," said Dr. Dunning, nodding. "However, given the sophistication of the attack the odds are good they took proper precautions. If nothing else, we haven't seen a rash of mysterious super deaths."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Alvin Montgomery fumed at the lies. The virus would only affect supers, not normal people, like him! His contact had sworn this or he wouldn't have used it! Yet even President Gibbons was repeating what the supers were saying about that weapon, even as he refused to believe it came from outside the school!

      Montgomery was particularly aggravated that this plot had failed. He'd started it well before the election, knowing he would need time to covertly maneuver those he'd chosen for the task into thinking the plan was their own idea. After admitting the virus ploy against the school had somehow failed, he'd attempted to get more from his contact. He wanted to try again before the supers could convince the government to develop a vaccine against it - them having already made their own was obviously a lie; they hadn't had the time. Unfortunately, he was told that there simply was none. That had been the only sample. Montgomery himself had never come near the virus, instead having it shipped to one of his agents in a roundabout manner. Even the doctor who had done the work had carefully maintained containment, then sterilized all his equipment as part of destroying the evidence of the operation.

      The original black project which developed it had been shut down due to budget cuts and all the documents put in storage while the equipment had gone to other projects. That one sample had been made and put into a freezer, months before Montgomery became involved. His highest-placed government agent had worked for half a year on this for him, and this was the result! All wasted!

      The supers had found who poisoned Justice Dagger and taken him to have the pouch implanted. They weren't surprised to learn the attackers were a group of his enemies, people who had teamed up against him before. They all denied any involvement, of course. Even if they cracked, they thought the pouch would poison their foe over several days; not spread an anti-super virus. Fortunately, due to to the Secret Keeper's precautions the trail ran cold past there. The lab where the villains had taken Justice Dagger for the procedure turned out to be an old candy floss factory, abandoned for years, with no sign of recent use. The doctor who provided the drug and the virus and performed the procedure had operated under a fake ID, and was nowhere to be found.

      Well, he had other ways to attack that school! Though with so many projects already underway they might have to wait for a while. That was probably for the best. A hiatus would lull their suspicions.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Template was busy with the usual problems which came with school getting back in session. That included attending the daily briefing in her boss' office given by someone from security, just to help them keep on top of things. Today, as usual, the meeting was with Lori Savage, head of security.

      "Did you hear that Alice Clarke is missing?" said Lori, as she sat in the chair across from the Principal's desk and beside Template's seat.

      "Was she killed or is she in hiding?" said Eve, startled, leaning forward.

      "No telling, yet. However, Homeland Security has a warrant for her arrest, for spreading lies about Gibbons and Donner."

      "So is Gibbons honestly trying to find her to punish her," said Template, slowly, "or is this a bluff to cover up the fact that he's had her kidnapped or killed?"

      "Again, there's just not enough information yet to tell which," said Lori.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Gibbons was coming to hate press conferences. People kept rudely shouting questions about things he wasn't there to discuss. They also kept coming back to topics he'd already made clear he wouldn't talk about, time after time. What did it take to satisfy some people?! Or, failing that, to quiet them?

      At least this one was at the capital building, after a scheduled talk to that assembly. He'd had a good reception from the adults. Now to try the kiddies.

      Almost immediately, it went sour. Not only were the idiots asking questions about things long settled, a few kept asking about Alice Clarke.

      "I haven't heard from her since she quit," said Gibbons, flatly. "I've heard a bit about her, but nothing of substance. If she has disappeared, good riddance. Maybe she finally came to her senses and shut up. Or maybe her fifteen minutes of fame are just over!"

      He was still fuming as he left the front portico and headed inside. In his preoccupation he walked past architectural marvels of polished marble and carved sandstone without noting them. With his entourage of aides and Secret Service he hurried on a path intended to deter reporters from following.

      It worked. However, he soon discovered that had more to worry about this day than the Press. The President was walking towards the exit where his limo was waiting when Senator Wyler approached.

      "We need to talk," said Wyler, giving Gibbons few options by taking his arm and guiding him into a narrow hallway, away from his intended path.

      As they proceeded, Wyler looked at the Secret Service guards for the President - who had known him far longer than Gibbons.

      "Boys, can you give us a moment, please?"

      They nodded and divided into two groups; one at each end of the hallway. Wyler stopped in the middle and turned Gibbons to face him. However, the President spoke first, obviously trying to take the initiative.

      "What's this about, anyway?" said Gibbons, irritated and not concerned about showing it.

      "They found Alice Clarke two hours ago," said Wyler, just as unconcerned about showing how angry he was. "The news hasn't been released, yet."

      "Good. I hope they throw the betraying bitch in jail and forget about her."

      "She's dead, Harold. Murdered. Mutilated. They were only able to identify the body thanks to that new computerized facial reconstruction process the FBI just started using. A computer program you objected to as an unnecessary expense. DNA confirmation is underway, but it's pretty certain."

      "I don't know anything about it," said Gibbons, flatly. Whether he meant the software or the murder of his former aide he didn't clarify. Likely both.

      "Scott Michelson says it was on your orders!" said Wyler, hotly. "Not directly, of course, but he claims the orders came down through channels from you!"

      "Michelson..." said the President, blankly. "Wait, you mean that guy from Homeland Security? If I ordered her killed, why would I use official channels?! Why would I use Homeland Security?!?!"

      "I'm not saying you ordered her killed. I'm saying that because of things you have said and done and indisputably ordered, there are people who think an order apparently coming from you to murder someone would not only be appropriate, but legal! Michelson is under arrest and will be prosecuted, but later. Others have also been arrested and more are being sought. Right now we - you - have to prepare for the necessary damage control."

      "You know what?" said Gibbons, testily. "I don't care. If someone goes off the reservation and performs an illegal act, that's their problem. Not mine."

      "You're the President! You have a duty to present a responsible leadership! If you make statements which encourage illegal behavior, because you don't like someone or for some other spurious reason, what results is at least partly your fault, whether or not you actually gave the order to do something to them!"

      "It's a free country," said Gibbons, with a smirk. "Besides, I'm President and there's nothing you can do to change that."

      "What about impeachment?" said Wyler, tone dangerous.

      "You wouldn't dare," said Gibbons, sneering harder. "Impeach a President in your own party? They'd eat you alive."

      "I made you. Keep this up and I'll break you."

      Wyler released Gibbons' sleeve, spun around and stormed away.

      "You didn't make me! You just endorsed me!" Gibbons yelled at the man's back. "I had help from others, too! People whose advice I trust far more than I do yours!"

      He stormed off in the opposite direction, fuming.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We need something better than hoppers and the Subterran tunnels," said Template, at the school staff meeting later that week. "I've been talking to several different teams and they all say this, but none have workable suggestions for anything better. The apergy flyers show promise, but they're still experimental, with only a few in actual service. Even those are only slightly faster than a traditional hopper. Though they're a lot more convenient."

      "I keep hearing that teleportation isn't an answer, but not why," said Lori Savage.

      "Technological teleportation is notoriously unreliable," said Junker. "One-shot devices will usually work, if built by someone who knows what they're doing. Some of the greatest geniuses who ever lived have failed at making multi-use devices consistently reliable... or safe. Even biological teleportation - through powers - isn't all that safe. That guy who blasted Shilmek ships with nukes during the war only moves nonliving items, except in dire emergencies. That includes himself."

      "Yeah," said Template, nodding. "That's what caused Zeep. Artificial teleportation, I mean."

      "I did not know that!" said Lori, startled. "I thought he was just a regular super, only moreso!"

      "That may be what allowed him to survive that teleporter malfunction," said Junker. "That he was a super, I mean."

      They were quiet for several seconds. They were waiting for Eve to arrive, just free associating, the conversation starting with Junker mentioning an upgrade to the school's hoppers and how they still weren't fast enough.

      "I just realized," said Template, "the teams with primarily federal funding - including those who are actually licensed federal agents - are the ones doing the loudest complaining about not having enough resources. The privately or mostly privately funded teams are actually doing pretty well as far as funding and access to other resources is concerned. Their sponsors saw how useful they were in the war and reconstruction and have actually increased their support."

      "You'd think, with the economy doing better, that Congress would be easing off on the budget cuts," said Junker, sourly. "Taxes and income for some federal agencies from fees are up, and a few have had the cuts relaxed. Anything involving supers, though..."

      "Too many people in power - whether elected or not - don't want supers growing more powerful," said Lori, sourly. "Including Gibbons. Even though he's also being pressured by powerful people to improve the use of supers."

      "Yes, but there's more than supers having budget problems," said Template. "Though they do seem to be having more than most. Super teams are also being harassed in other ways."

      "So there's lots of folks in the same boat, but supers have it worse," said Junker, nodding.

      Template noticed Eve standing in the doorway. Before she could say anything, the Principal spoke up.

      "I think a large part of the problem those in power are having with Gibbons is that several different groups covertly or even overtly supported him, thinking he would be a counter to their opponents in both parties. Now they are surprised he's going his own way. Which is exactly what he promised in the campaign and how he behaved in his prior political career.

      "As interesting as this is, however, I think we should move on to school business. Agreed?"

      "Yes, ma'am," they replied.



Part Twelve





      The Toyota Corolla wagon had been equipped with a siren and the same sort of behind-the-grill lights as unmarked police cars. Vic used them, as well as a magnetic mount light on the roof. However, as she hit the exit ramp she turned the lights and siren off and pulled the roof light in. Her orders were to get there quickly, but to approach quietly.

      Naturally, I get sent on a mission in another city on a school night, was Vic's irritated thought, as she navigated off the Interstate and onto a state road. Damn budget cuts. I miss flying in near-supersonic business jets.

      The time of day was late afternoon, and fortunately the call had come after her classes were over. The trip wasn't all that far, and she had avoided both heavy traffic and police interference from those who might think lights and siren could not possibly be valid on her particular vehicle. In previous instances she had simply presented her ID and mentioned budget cuts; that and a radio check usually solved the problem. Fortunately, even that hadn't been necessary this trip; Vic might need the time. She had no idea how long this assignment would take or much else about the situation. Vic only knew that local law enforcement had asked the Bureau of Special Resources for help dealing with a rogue super at a mall.

      She soon came to the turnoff to the mall entrance. However, Vic found the road thoroughly blocked by police vehicles. She drove up to the barrier and showed them her badge, but they just waved her away.

      More than four years since the Bureau was created, some cops still don't recognize our badges, she thought, tiredly. Of course, what happened here is that they didn't even look!

      Rather than argue with the perimeter guards, she parked nearby and got her bike out of the back of Monstro. No-one seemed to notice. The bike, too, had lights and siren - and other non-standard equipment, thanks to the Bureau and gadgeteers at her college - but she wouldn't use those this close to the mall. Soon she was cycling across open ground, completely unhindered as she peddled over the well-tended grass, saddlebags bouncing.

      She bumped over the curb onto the pavement of the parking lot and actually rode up to the police gathered around their mobile command center before anyone took notice of her. She parked her bike and walked to the nearest clump of uniforms as they turned towards her, confused. Vic removed her helmet as she approached, tucking it under her arm. Again, she pulled out her badge holder and opened it, holding it in plain sight as she announced her name, rank and agency in a clear voice. A couple of them frowned; the rest went back to what they were doing. Which seemed to mostly be standing around, talking.

      "Beat it, kid," said the older of the two. "This is a crime scene."

      Of course, part of the problem is that during a tense situation some folks get so focused on what they perceive to be important that anything else may get shunted aside.

      Vic had been there, herself, so she kept her temper.

      "You should have been told someone from the Bureau of Special Resources would be here," she said, loudly. "That's me."

      Muttering under his breath, the cop jerked his thumb in the direction of a Captain a few cars away.

      "You're the BSR rep?" said the startled Captain, who had Blakely on his jacket.

      "I'm older than I look," said Vic, dryly. "I'm in a graduate criminology program. Also a decorated veteran of the Shilmek War."

      "Oh," said the Captain, stunned. "All right. Uhm, the situation is that some guy in a crude costume walked into a book signing by Cyanide and blasted him with a power. Lots of people hurt, lots of panic, guy's holding hostages, won't talk to the negotiator. We have only a vague idea of how many are hurt or how badly."

      Vic nodded, excused herself and stepped away a bit. She pulled out her Bureau-issue smart phone and hit the speed dial. She was soon talking to someone at the nearest Bureau facility. Well, the nearest one still open.

      "That's the situation as the police know it," she finished. "Okay, that would be great! Thank you. Yes, I've met him. Right."

      She put the phone away and moved back to the Captain.

      "They're sending a super who is good at stealth. A Bureau employee named Gilbert Harkner, code name Smoke. He's in this area and should be here in under half an hour."

      "All right," said the Captain, noncommittally.

      Smoke actually arrived in under 15 minutes. Vic sensed something and turned to look just as the new super materialized. She hadn't seen him with his power active before; even in his solid form he looked like a grey man made of smoke. She remembered that he didn't wear a costume; he didn't need to.

      "Ah, good," said Vic, as Blakely did one of the few legitimate triple-takes she had ever seen. "You're early."

      Vic briefed Smoke on the situation and what was needed. Then she turned to the Captain.

      "Can you think of anything else?"

      "Uh, no. That about covers it."

      "He can - with your permission - get in there and scout the situation. Then come back and tell us. Without the suspect knowing."

      "That... could actually be useful," said the Captain. He thought for a moment, sighed and nodded. "Go ahead."

      Smoke nodded and faded from sight. Vic was left wondering how long this would take.

      As it turned out, less than ten minutes. Vic had just sensed Smoke returning and was looking in the direction of his approach as he materialized. He seemed to be in distress, coming out of whatever immaterial state he had been in a bit too far away and too high off the ground, then dropping and staggering the last few steps to those waiting for him.

      "All the hostages are down," said Smoke, looking sick despite the lack of facial detail his powers caused. "Some of them are probably dead. Maybe all of them. Including Cyanide."

      "Damn," said Vic, now also feeling sick. The Captain didn't look much better. "What can you tell us about the suspect?"

      "He had this glowing shell, probably a force field. He was ranting, talking to himself, or maybe the hostages. I don't think he knows they're out or dead. He's... really demented. Not rational. No idea what his powers are, but there's a lot of physical damage. No signs of heat or cold or energy blast damage, but there's what looks like explosion damage."

      Vic looked at the Captain, who now appeared rather grim.

      "I need to get in there," she said, quickly. "I think I can take this guy out with little or no collateral damage. Even if I can just get him away from the hostages that would help. Be sure your people are ready to go in on short notice. SWAT if I can't handle him, and EMTs either way."

      "Roger," said the Captain, nodding. "How... will we know if you do need help?"

      The report on the situation and Vic's quick decisiveness had made him realize the situation was well outside his competence zone and that she was the expert on scene. While not exactly deferential, he was now obviously much more receptive to her suggestions.

      "I have a two-way radio in my helmet which covers police bands," said Vic. "I'll set it for whatever frequency you need."

       She looked at Smoke.

      "Also, I want you following me. Do not engage; you don't have enough training or experience for a super fight. If I can't call for help, you do it. You got that?"

      "Yeah," he said, voice squeaking a bit. "I have my radio, too."

      Vic went to her bike and started pulling her combat outfit from the saddlebags. Thanks to good design and long practice it went on quickly. Mostly it was the same armor she had started with her first year at Ramsey, though much had been repaired and some parts replaced. The weapons were largely the same, as well. The most significant new component was her helmet, which was the same one she had worn riding her bike here. This had been built specifically for her by techs at the Bureau. It had built-in com gear and neck protection which tucked inside the collar of her armor. The same techs kept trying to get her to allow them to install sensors in the helmet, but with her sense of perception and heightened normal senses she didn't need those.

      "That should do it," said Vic, after a quick inspection.

      "I don't doubt it," said Smoke, looking very impressed.

      Vic noticed that even the cops now seemed to be taking her more seriously. The two supers set their radios and set out.

      "How are you going to deal with that guy's force field?" said Smoke, quietly, as they approached the nearest entrance.

      "I have something which should work, given your description," said Vic.

      She had actually practiced using her abilities against a force field, thanks to the folks at the Bureau of Special Resources. They didn't work as well through the immaterial barrier as through physical armor, but they did work. Though only for people who "wore" their invisible protection close to their bodies. Fortunately, this guy did. Even if the Purple Art was ineffective against his shield, she could probably use throws to disable him. He didn't seem to be unusually resilient, from what Smoke had seen. In fact, the less experienced super had described him as "pudgy."

      Smoke vanished before they reached the door, moving ahead unseen. Vic did a quick around-the-corner glance, saw it was clear inside and entered. She moved quietly towards the bookstore where the signing had been held. There were obvious signs of damage to the store and the area immediately outside it.

      Vic went flat against the store's wall and sidled up to the broken display window. She carefully peeked around the edge.

      The stranger was Caucasian, maybe in his early thirties, overweight and wearing an obviously homemade costume. No mask. His hair was light brown, unkempt and already thinning. He was pacing around, occasionally stumbling over something - or someone - heedlessly, muttering to himself.

      Vic steeled herself, took a deep breath, and stepped into view.

      "I am Special Agent Vic..."

      "Yahhhhh!" the man screamed, shrilly, charging.

      Vic jumped backwards, unnerved by his strange attack but glad to be getting him away from the injured. She dodged repeated attempts to hit her, leading him out into a central atrium of the mall. Suddenly he paused, gasping for breath. Vic was quite happy to let him just stand there, and didn't close. After a moment, though, he posed again. She thought about telling the Captain the culprit was away from the hostages, but decided she didn't want to remind the guy of them. Hopefully, Smoke would relay that information.

      "What do you want?" she said, as calmly as she could.

      "Ah'm Billy Bang!" he screamed. "Ah'm gonna' bang ya'!"

      "What?!" said Vic, startled.

      He may have been trying to take advantage of her being startled, or perhaps had already decided to attack. He charged again. He was fast but clumsy. He lunged at where Vic had been well after she dodged out of the way. She snapped a light punch at him, using the Purple Art and ki projection. She was thrown around and backwards, her entire arm stung and throbbing.

      Vic rolled nimbly to her feet. Billy Bang shook his head for a moment, looking stunned. His lip was bleeding on the left corner, so at least she had hurt him a little. He looked at the floor in front of him as if expecting to see Vic lying there. Vic did not try to take advantage of his distraction. She was still shaking off whatever he had done to her, noting that her armor was damaged around her right fist. Unfortunately, he quickly realized she wasn't lying on the floor and spun around.

      "There you are! Cain't hide from me!"

      This time, when Vic dodged his attack she went for more separation, then threw a concrete trash can at him. It struck, and exploded, hurling fragments.

      His force field reacts explosively to attacks! she realized.

      That made corralling him much more difficult, but at least she had him away from the hostages. She thought about using one of her weapons, but wasn't confident of still being able to project the Purple Art through his protections that way. Even her gloves and boots would slightly hamper that, and she likely would need every advantage she could get.

      He posed, raising his arms wide, fists clenched.

      "Bang yah!"

      He slammed his fists together. That protective barrier of his reacted by projecting a blast of explosive force at Vic. She couldn't dodge - the effect was too wide - but she was able to prepare herself. The blast hit her, and she rolled with it. She hit a wall, crashing through into a service corridor.

      Thanks largely to her armor Vic was not hurt and only a little stunned. She rolled away from the hole, out of the line of sight with Billy Bang. Then she did a kip-up and light-footed it to the wall.

      She could sense his approach. Vic moved along the wall to beside the hole her exit had made and waited. Just before the demented super reached it she attacked with a plain, old-fashioned roundhouse kick, swinging her foot around the edge of the hole and putting everything she had, everything she had learned, into it. There was a substantial blast. Vic cried out at the pain which radiated from the armored top of her foot up her leg. The wall moved, actually shoving her back over a meter as dust filled the air, but even as the echoes from the explosion faded she could tell that Billy Bang was gone, beyond the range of her senses.

      Vic grabbed the ragged edge of the hole and stood on one foot to examine the damage to her leg. The armor was busted up but there wasn't any blood. Indeed, a tentative test showed her leg would support her weight, if she went easy. She looked around the edge of the hole, and as the dust settled was not surprised to see another hole in the far wall. She was a bit surprised to see another hole along the same line in the wall beyond that. She was astounded to see the holes continuing all the way outside. Vic really hoped he hadn't gone much further than that.

      She hopped across the destroyed atrium, through the hole there, across the next room, and so on until she reached the outside. Billy Bang, fortunately, was lying unmoving in the parking lot. He appeared to have hit and bounced multiple times before coming to a stop. Even better, this was not the side where the cops were waiting, and except for a few cars left from the evacuation it was otherwise empty.

      Vic limped over to Billy Bang. He was out. Very soundly out. She sighed with relief.

      She looked up as Smoke appeared.

      "That was incredible!" he shouted.

      "Actually, he did most of it," said Vic, wincing as she put too much weight on her injured foot. She explained about his force field. "I managed to turn that against him."

      Several police officers - most of them SWAT - came running around the corner.

      "Any of you have portable neutralizers?" Vic called out.

      Three suddenly reversed course. Vic sighed.

      The others surrounded Billy Bang, well out of reach, aiming various firearms at him. More cops arrived, the Captain among them.

      "Are the EMTs heading in to help the victims?" she asked.

      "Yeah," said Captain Blakely. "I sent them and some officers in as soon as the security cameras showed you had this nutcase away from them."

      "Good work," said Vic. She suddenly felt tired, but managed to not sag. This often happened when her regeneration kicked in. She was just glad it would wait until she was no longer active and needed the energy for something else. She'd need food, soon. "I think, though, that you need to get one of the EMTs here to check him. He's still not moving. Does anyone have any information on this guy?"

      Even with the name she gave them and now photos being sent out, the answer came back as a negative.

      "Oh, here comes the neutralizer," said one of the cops.

      "Better not use that until you have one of the EMTs check him," said Vic, reflexively moving back as they set the older model, breadbox-sized gadget on a sturdy tripod, aimed at Billy Bang.

      They didn't like that advice, but the Captain agreed and sent word.

      "I hope this guy is just stoned," Vic said, with a grimace, as she looked down a the still-unmoving figure. "I hate to think I had to do this to someone not responsible for his actions."

      "Whatever his reason," said Captain Blakely, "he's going to be put away somewhere for a good, long time."

      "Amen," said Vic, nodding.

      She was about to say something else when someone screamed. Vic looked quickly at Billy Bang... and froze. He was still lying there, motionless. However, a shapeless thing rose from his form, gathered itself, and headed for Smoke. Who stared at the sight, in stunned immobility where he hovered well above the others present.

      Vic sprang towards the... creature, grabbing a weapon from the assortment on her back. She leapt and swung the wooden tonfa overhand at the thing, reflexively projecting her ki through it. She expected the tonfa to pass harmlessly through it, but there was a solid impact.

      The indistinct thing screamed, then lunged at her. Vic dropped and rolled away, coming back to her feet with her second _tonfa in her left hand. The thing had turned back to Smoke, who was frantically dodging. Vic lunged in, striking alternately with both weapons, working them long, mixing swings with thrusts. Despite her armor she did not want to get any closer than that.

      The thing now turned its entire attention to her. It attacked; she dodged and struck. This sequence was repeated, over and over. Each time it came at Vic she dodged and swung; each time she hit it seemed diminished... yet it kept coming at her. Until, finally - with one last, hard strike - it vanished with a distinct pop.

      "What... was that?" demanded Captain Blakely.

      "I have no idea," said Vic, catching her breath, and now feeling really tired. "I can assure you that I will do everything I can to find out, though!"



Part Thirteen





      Early afternoon, in San Francisco. Among the people walking around the shops and stores of this downtown area were at least two who were much more than they seemed.

      "Are you sure he wants a cell phone?" said Tiger, as he and Tal wandered around a shopping district.

      "Chet hasn't said anything about that," said Tal, with a knowing smile. "However, he has repeatedly complained about his current phone not being able to do this or being too slow for that or not showing enough bars or holding a charge."

      Tiger's mind was mostly on what his wife was saying, but his engineering side couldn't help but take notice of all the new construction. Some was directly due to the war; some indirectly; some long planned. New stores, offices and banks were going up, with some old ones coming down.

      "Well, that last could be cured with a new battery."

      "No, dear; it's a sealed unit."

      "Well, that's stupid," muttered the engineer.

      "I know, dear. That's what he has."

      "Okay, I guess we get him a new phone," said Tiger, with a careless shrug. He frowned as they turned a corner. "What's all that?"

      The sidewalks and even the streets were full of people, much to the distress of drivers trying to get somewhere. Amidst the horns blowing and the babble of excited talk came muffled sounds of some sort of heavy activity.

      "Great," said Tiger, sourly. "Come on; let's try this way."

      "Don't you want to see what's going on?" said Tal, who obviously did.

      "None of our business."

      Some supers might have used their enhanced strength and agility to bypass the crowd in their way and continue in their planned direction. Others might have boldly moved in to investigate. Tiger wasn't one to show off. Showing off was for social creatures; a way of reinforcing or enhancing their standing in the herd. Something Tiger didn't worry about. Tiger - with Tal rolling her eyes and following resignedly - simply went wide to go around the blockage. He wasn't there to get involved with whatever had caused the crowd. He and his wife were shopping for their son's birthday present. Without that mission he might have let his curiosity lead him into investigating, but right now he was focussed.

      However, when someone crashed through the double panes of thick safety glass in the window of a nearly-finished building about twenty stories up and across the street, Tiger reacted without hesitation.

      He leapt straight up and kicked off from the side of the building he'd been walking beside. From there he bounded across the street, to kick off from there. He caught the stunned young man only a couple of floors below the broken window. Tiger's momentum carried them down and across to another building, where he used his free hand to cushion their impact then slow their fall. Tiger pushed off and cradled his passenger for the last two stories, landing on his toes and going all the way to his knees.

      He laid the man carefully down and was just starting to check for injuries when noise - screams not least among them - caught his attention. Tiger looked up to see either a robot or a bulky suit of power armor leap through the ruined window.

      The contraption fired rockets to cushion its drop, but still hit hard enough to leave deep footprints in the pavement.

      "You've interfered for the last time!" someone shouted over speakers built into the thing.

      The right arm raised and a panel opened to let a light machinegun deploy. By which time Tiger had grabbed the young man and ducked down an alley. The massive machine trundled to the entrance and discovered it was too big to fit.

      "You think this will save you?" the same male voice screamed, sounding almost hysterical with anger. "I will burn this whole alley to ash!"

      The machine gun panel closed and another opened. Before whatever was inside could extend, though, something crashed into it from above, jamming it.

      "Too bad we're not there," said Tiger, from well up on a fire escape.

      The operator - or occupant - of the machine was just starting  to turn the cameras upwards when a chunk of steel slammed into the seam between the head and neck. This was backed by the momentum of a grinning Tiger, who dropped down and double-kicked the piece of fire escape handrail deeper. Upon seeing the metal was deep enough he sprang away.

      "Zap 'im!"

      Under the assumption that the device was well insulated both electrically and thermally, Tiger had deliberately pierced whatever screening was present, using a seam for easy access. Now Tal took advantage of that to send a miniature lightning bolt into the workings via the protruding chunk of metal.

      The thing dropped, the front sliding down the building corners on either side as the legs buckled then pushed backwards. It sputtered and twitched, smoke rising from the rupture. Tiger dropped onto its back and heaved on the metal chunk; it bent but the seam also widened. He then yanked the handrail out and got his fingers in. He gave another heave and off came the dome-shaped head. Inside was a stunned - and scorched - middle-aged man in a jumpsuit.

      "Anybody we know?" asked Tal, dryly, as she clambered onto the machine to stand with her husband.

      "He talked like he knew me, but I don't know him," said Tier.

      The subject of their exchange was beginning to stir.

      "Can you check on the victim? He's behind the dumpster."

      "Sure," said Tal.

      While Tiger extracted the man from the suit of powered armor, Tal went to the young man.

      "You... won't get away... with this," said the grey-haired man, giving Tiger a venomous look.

      "You mean get away with rescuing someone from attack by a maniac in powered armor who endangered hundreds of bystanders and caused a couple of million in property damage?"

      He ignored the man's further attempts to speak as he used his claws to cut the restraints holding the guy in place then hauled him out and onto the sidewalk.

      "He doesn't seem seriously hurt!" Tal called out. "I'm contacting 911 for an ambulance and the police and the BAG for a pickup."

      "Good," said Tiger, a bit distracted as he removed several items from the man's outfit. "Wow. This guy has full-paranoid spy stuff. Even had a fake suicide needle. Wonder if he has a shoe phone..."

      He held up a small, pressurized injector, similar to those carried by people with severe allergies.

      "You sure it's fake?"

      "Yeah. Pseudotetrodotoxin to knock him out and lower his vitals. Might be fatal, but he's in good enough shape he'd probably survive."

      "You... liar. I am prepared to die for our nation!"

      "Maybe. Looks like whoever sent you knows that but doesn't want to lose you yet."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Several hours later - much of that time required for the Bay Area Guardians to convince the local police that Tiger hadn't been the cause of all the mayhem - the suit was in the team's garage, the operator in their detention center and the young man in their medical wing.

      "Sorry your day was interrupted," said Mesa, as he and Tiger walked to the interrogation room.

      "Hey, beats shopping."

      Tal had been debriefed and gone back to buy their son's birthday present. Tiger, though, had been asked to stay. Not only was his technical knowledge potentially useful in examining the suit, but Steel Lace thought he might be able to get the man who had worn it to talk. He obviously knew who Tiger was and - to put it mildly - didn't like him. That might allow them to get a rise out of him, which in turn might lead to some revelation.

      "The attacker's injuries were minor," said Mesa, handing Tiger a stapled sheaf of papers, "and because of the power armor they're letting us hold him pending further investigation. Here's what we have on him so far."

      "Name, rank and serial number, huh?"

      "No, he's refusing to talk. Literally hasn't said a word. He's even had his fingerprints and retina prints altered. We put a rush on his DNA - thanks in part to new Lunie tech - and the military sent this."

      "Horace Middleton, former Captain in the US Army Special Forces," said Tiger, reading the document. "Dishonorable discharge for torturing Iraqi civilians he 'knew' were insurgents. Not to get information, but to 'teach them a lesson.' I thought that suit looked like rejected military tech from a few years ago."

      He sighed and shook his head as he finished leafing through the document.

      "Looks like he got into the service a few years before the new psych screening. Of course even that's not perfect, but it does cut down on the expert liars. Not that this guy would agree that's a good thing."

      "We also have a bit on the man he attacked. Armistead Murchison. Construction worker, mostly lays cable in new buildings, good at his job, never in trouble with the law."

      "So why was this guy after him?"

      "Murchison is a latent super. He got tested by the Bureau in that pre-war project of theirs to try and find, activate and train supers to get ready for the Shilmek. The war was over before they could figure out how to activate him. Then came the budget cuts. He went back to his old job."

      "So this nutcase was trying to eliminate Murchison before he could come into his powers?"

      "Actually... From what the witnesses say, he never tried to kill him. Just... stress him."

      "In my vocabulary 'stress him' does not include throwing someone through a window on the twenty-first floor!" snarled Tiger, his aura flickering.

      "Well, that was after several minutes of chasing and attacking and endangering him and his coworkers. I think Middleton was getting a little fed up with his tactic not working."

      "Wait," said Tiger, turning to his friend. "He was trying to activate Murchison's powers?!"

      "The young man's political views read like a milder version of Middleton's."

      Tiger's aura appeared in full; a glowing image of a tiger. A very angry tiger.

      "Let's talk to this guy," said Tiger, his voice distorted and inhuman.

      "Uh, yeah," said Mesa, reflexively stepping away, even though he was not the target of that rage.

      A standard interrogation technique involved putting the subject in the interrogation room and letting them sit and wait for a while. Knowing this man was familiar with the routine, Tiger and Mesa were already in the room when Middleton was brought in. He covered it well, but Tiger could tell he was startled. Playing on this, as Middleton was escorted to the other side of the table the two supers glared at him, with Tiger actually glancing pointedly at his wristwatch. As if Middleton was late. The man managed to hide it, but to Tiger's enhanced senses he was thrown off balance by this reversal of the usual technique.

      "Scaring someone to trigger their latent powers is the stupidest..." said Tiger, further startling him. He leaned forward, aura flickering. "Didn't you idiots learn anything from Tokyo?!"

      "Their fear is irrelevant," said Middleton, tricked into talking by being thus put on the defensive. "What's important is having another super to defend this country!"

      "Even if you break most of a neighborhood in the process?" said Tiger. "Even if the person - whether you activate their powers or not - hates you for what you did to them"

      "If they're a responsible adult they'll accept that it was necessary!"

      "You just don't get it, do you?" said Mesa, calmly, his measured, resonant bass a counterpoint to Tiger's staccato baritone. "You think that because you want more supers working for your cause you can do whatever it takes to get more supers. Well, you're not only wrong - demonstrably, illegally wrong - your whole premise is flawed! As far as your victims are concerned - me, too, for the record - you're a madman who uses all this violence as a flimsy excuse to hurt people. Because you like to hurt people, something which folks who encounter you soon realize, including your victims. If your subject does survive they'll wind up hating you and your cause."

      "It's obvious you care nothing for this country!" yelled Middleton. He tried to stand but the security guard pushed him back down.

      "I care enough to take you out of circulation," said Tiger, ominously. "You've done enough harm to the US and its citizens."

      "You will not get away with this," said Middleton, again, his tone and posture haughty and triumphant. "The Secret Keeper knows."

      "The who which?" said Mesa, confused.

      "Somebody with no imagination who thinks he's important but can't even come up with an original tagline," said Tiger, smirking.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "An actual conspiracy?" said Tal, later, not really surprised. She had dropped by the Bay Area Guardians base to pick up Tiger after finishing her gift shopping. "Not just militaristic anti-super groups talking about an ongoing war for supremacy between supers and normals which nobody but paranoids seem to notice?"

      "Yeah. Probably a bunch of 'em, actually. We've seen it before, with groups like those idiot middle-managers who were behind the super child slavery ring and that undersea base on the Atlantis Seamount. In this case, different groups have been taking advantage of the post-war confusion to organize, collecting rejected people and equipment, each building a secret task force, all ignorant of the others or at most barely aware of them. I imagine that others who were working in the shadows for years before the war have also benefitted. That suit of powered armor was one of three from a canceled program, all missing. No surprise it was cancelled, as easy as we took it out. Oddly, it seems that the specific group behind this effort is not anti-super; in fact, now that we know what to look for we have found multiple incidents where someone likely from this group located active supers for recruitment and tried activating latents. Usually in vain, in both situations. Sometimes fatally."

      Tal, Tiger and Mesa were in the team's breakroom, using it for its intended purpose. Snacks were mostly over and drinks nearly finished by the time the other two had brought Tal up to date.

      "Of course," said Mesa, "you aways have pure opportunists who see a tragedy and think 'Now is the time to act!' even if what they then do is something they should never have done, much less after a tragedy. Some of these groups which ostensibly have the same goals are actually in competition with each other. Some without realizing it!"

      "Then they wind up accomplishing the exact opposite of what they claim their goals are," said Tal, sourly. "Like those maniacs shooting utility workers who were just trying to get the lights and water back on."

      "Yeah. They even claimed in their defense that they were fighting the alien occupation. Weeks and months after the invasion was defeated."

      "This sounds like it falls under civil authority," said Tal, after a moment of thought. "The local and state police."

      "Local and state police aren't interested," said Mesa. "While there have been a couple of incidents here in California which can be blamed on these people, they're based out of state. The federal agencies we've spoken to - including the Bureau of Special Resources - are so busy and have had so many cuts they can't devote much attention to the problem. Brade actually told Steel Lace we could go ahead with whatever steps we thought were appropriate. Just keep them apprised."

      "Whoah," said Tiger, suddenly sitting upright, eyes wide. "I wonder if that's deliberate?"

      Both were used to Tiger's sudden leaps of intuition, thanks to years of exposure. That didn't mean they always followed what he meant, but this time it seemed obvious.

      "You think that there are still folks in the federal, state and local governments - people still following Thurlin or maybe someone new - who are deliberately working to promote these cutbacks?" said Tal. "To make their own illegal plans easier to hide?"

      "Yeah," said Tiger, nodding slowly, his gaze distant. "It fits."



Part Fourteen





      "So that was a demon," said Vic, stunned. She shook her head.

      "Surely you suspected this," said Sharma, puzzled.

      "Well, yeah. Suspecting is different from knowing!"

      The two of them were sitting in the conference room of the Bureau of Special Resources facility closest to the Ramsey Technical College. In this specific case, BSR personnel shared a building with the FBI and a couple of other federal acronyms, all of them affected - or afflicted - by the budget cuts. This was the only room in the building with video conferencing capability. Getting it reserved had taken both perseverance and patience. That, however, had allowed the Bureau time to call in a specialist - Sharma, from the Assembly - to examine both the scene at the mall and Billy Bang. Several days after the fight, Doro had finally notified Vic that the conference to discuss the results of the investigation was on for that evening. Once again, Vic was out late on a school night, for the Bureau.

      Participating by video were Brade and Doro. The huge super had asked the mystic - who was on retainer to several government agencies, federal, state and local - to travel to the scene of the attack and check it out, as well as the federal prison hospital where Billy Bang was being held. He claimed no knowledge of his actions, and insisted that he didn't have powers. He was of about average IQ with somewhat subpar language skills and a slightly belligerent attitude, though that last could be due simply to the situation. He did have a record, of several misdemeanor and two felony convictions for various offenses, including assault.

      "The traces are clear," said Sharma. "He was possessed. Most likely by something which didn't bother asking permission, but simply empowered a weak-willed host desirous of being more potent. Why Cyanide was targeted is currently unknown. He has been retired for years, and was never much more than a super celebrity."

      "Naturally, he survived," said Brade, her tone irritated. "Sorry. Had a couple of unpleasant encounters with that glory hog late in my career as a crime fighter."

      Sharma turned from the monitor to Vic, giving her the same sort of long, penetrating look Dr. Freysdottir had on more than one occasion. It was just as unpleasant and unnerving from her.

      "You were fortunate that you thought to use your ki techniques against it. It was non-corporeal."

      She began to stand, as if intending to leave. Vic, Brade and Doro all began asking questions.

      Sharma hesitated, and sat again, looking puzzled.

      "You have more questions? I thought I had adequately described the situation."

      "Do you have any information on where, when or how this man was possessed?" said Brade.

      "No."

      "How about some way to protect him in the future?" said Vic.

      "No."

      That caused consternation.

      "I don't..." Vic began.

      Sharma sighed.

      "As long as men desire, there are things which will take advantage of that." Her tone was slow and patient, as if explaining something to a not particularly bright child.

      After a few more questions were likewise given - at most -vague and unsatisfactory answers, Brade reluctantly let her go.

      "That is why I hate dealing with mystics," she muttered, after Sharma left. She shook her head, then straightened. "Well, at least it's good to know that you have something which works against demons. Or whatever that was."

      "I really don't want to fight any more... things like that," said Vic, with feeling.

      "Unless something some of the magical types are working on succeeds, you may have to." She shook her head again, more slowly, looking tired. "We all may. Because this massacre will only be a start."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Oscar Congreve frowned - then scowled - at the report as he read it. He reached the end, then went back and searched for several things. Even when he found what he was looking for, the information did nothing to help his mood.

      He couldn't understand how his operative had been betrayed. Somehow, one of the greatest enemies of freedom and order had intercepted Middleton during what should have been a routine operation. One which was already going wrong even before Tiger had shown up. Or, at least, that was the official account. Unless he could speak to someone who was actually there - Middleton would be ideal, but he had been disarmed of his "suicide injector" and was in a high-security federal prison - he'd have to extrapolate from obviously biased reports.

      Well, both he and Middleton were patient. That was one of the things Congreve looked for in his men. They would both wait. Wait for an opportunity to act. Eventually, Congreve would find a way to free the man. Meanwhile...

      Congreve sighed, put the papers back into the folder and put it in his FILE basket. Let that wait. He had plenty of things which wouldn't already on his plate. Like figuring out how his organization would compensate for the loss of the Big Man powered armor. They had cannibalized the only two other suits to keep that one running. There weren't enough parts left to put either of the other two into service. He'd been counting on that armor!

      Well, no help for it now. If only he could get information on exactly how it had been defeated! Accounts were fragmentary and conflicting, and the suit was currently at the Bay Area Guardians base, while he and the majority of his assets were in an isolated government-owned area in Arizona. However, the official version of the battle was obvious nonsense. Congreve had personally supervised the covert acquisition of those pieces of equipment because he knew their potential, while those blind bean counters at the Pentagon had dismissed the suits as not worth the minor and eventually correctable flaws. He had personally insisted their one working suit be used for that mission because the city was heavy with active masks and Tiger was known to live in the same area as the target. He had not expected any of them to interfere - this was supposed to be a quick, in-and-out operation, with plans to contact the subject later if they were successful in activating him - but was prepared if they did. Only... Congreve sighed and shook his head. Again, there was no sense dwelling on this until he had more data.

      Congreve continued his work. His office was soundproofed, including the windows, which also had heavy drapes drawn. He didn't like interruptions. Which is why he was annoyed when his office door opened. There was no call ahead of time asking for permission. Not even a knock. He whipped his gaze up towards the door, mouth open, prepared to ream whoever had dared to disturb him when he was working. Only the rant died in his throat as Tiger stepped into his office.

      "You're a hard man to find." said Tiger, mildly, smiling. "Almost as hard to get the attention of, too."

      Behind him came a large, muscular man in a costume of muted browns and reds. He looked a bit like one of those Olmec ball player statues. Some small part of Congreve's brain identified him as Mesa. Congreve reached under his desk and pushed the alert button. Carefully showing nothing.

      "What... How..."

      "Like he said," rumbled Mesa. "It wasn't easy. But it was worth it."

      "We got our break when someone thought to check if any of Donner's cohorts from his pre-political days had ever been involved in projects connected to the equipment used in these attacks," said Tiger, calmly moving up to Congreve's desk. Mesa remained at the door, very effectively blocking it. "At first that gave us bupkis. Only, someone remembered a guy named Frederick Nunnally asking a lot of questions about that power armor project. Then the armor went missing. Very suspicious. They looked for Nunnally, only he turned up inconveniently dead. Investigation of him found that a bunch of other stuff he had some connection with was also missing, including nearly a hundred million in funds. Someone managed to track some of those funds, and found they were part of what was paying for this place."

      "Yeah, there was some pretty creative financing going on there," said Mesa, scowling. "Fortunately, the good guys also have some folks who are good at tracking stuff like that. Though, really, you couldn't have gotten better facilities for a hundred million?"

      "Of course," said Tiger, "that was mostly circumstantial, and while folks were investigating they weren't acting, yet. What changed that was the tetrodotoxin your guy had in that autoinjector. It's the same stuff used on Justice Dagger, or whatever he's calling himself this week. Investigators - super and norm - were already closing in on the source of that. Once we spread word the same stuff had been used somewhere else, they moved on the supplier and captured his records. Which led us directly to this charming place. Hence, the raid."

      Tiger leaned over the desk, grinning, causing the man seated behind it to reflexively pull back.

      "Nearly all of that was accomplished by non-super, ordinary federal investigators, trying to figure out what happened to a bunch of equipment and money, and despite severe budget cuts. Coincidence? I think not!"

      Congreve was baffled by that odd non sequitur. However, if these idiots wanted to waste time talking nonsense while his security forces mobilized to stop two powerful supers, that was fine with him. He stalled, waiting on his rescue.

      "You have nothing on me or the feds would be here. Somehow you sneaked into my office without alerting anyone, but that won't last. You'll be under arrest for trespassing on federal land in a few minutes."

      "The feds are here, handling the roundup of the other personnel and securing the property," said Tiger, casually. "The whole base has been seized. They asked several of us supers along in case you had any more super-class surprises. When they realized what was here they realized they were short handed for actually taking a military base, even one last officially used in World War II. Mesa and I volunteered to handle you."

      "Yeah," said Mesa, grinning nastily. "We can't actually arrest you for a federal crime, but we can keep you here if you try anything. So, please... try something."

      Congreve didn't believe him but by now knew something was wrong with Security. He suddenly drew a portable neutralizer from the holster attached inside his desk's footwell and shone its sickly green light on Tiger and Mesa. His triumphant snarl vanished when Tiger quickly took the bulky weapon from him and tore it to pieces.

      "Idiot..."

      Tiger quickly and deftly yanked the man out of his seat, laid him over his desk and zip-tied him. The supernatural creature turned in time to help the drooping Mesa into a chair, then used his com to tell the federal law enforcement officers conducting the operation that he'd had to restrain Congreve for assault. They said they'd send someone as soon as they could.

      Moments later a pair of Deputy Marshals hurried in.

      "That's him," the senior of the pair said, nodding, as he lifted Congreve's head and looked carefully at his face. "He had a neutralizer?"

      "That's what's left of it," said Tiger, casually, from where he was checking Mesa. The big super was by now groggily insisting he was all right.

      "Next time try to leave the evidence intact."

      "I'm a federal employee, the man in charge of this installation!" yelled Congreve, finally regaining his voice. "You are all here illegally! This is a secure installation, and you must have authorization from the Secretary of Defense to even enter these grounds!"

      "That's funny," said one of the Deputy Marshals. "Our boss checked with the SoD this morning, and he'd never heard of you or your facility. This is supposed to be a nature preserve."

      The two men hauled the protesting Congreve away, leaving the supers.

      "Too bad neither of us has super speed," said Tiger, when Mesa had recovered a bit more. He sighed and grimaced. "I am sincerely sorry about that. It never occurred to me that he'd have a neutralizer right at hand. I saw him reaching for something, but figured it'd be a handgun, which wouldn't do more than inconvenience either of us."

      "So did you mean him or you when you said 'Idiot'?"

      "Me," said Tiger, with another sigh. He gave his friend a sloppy smile. "Well, both. I do get too cocky sometimes."

      "Talk about cocky, did he not know that wouldn't work on supernaturals?!" said Mesa, already almost back to normal, thanks to the very brief exposure. "Or did he not know you're one?"

      "I think part of the reason - maybe even the main part - is that people like that don't want to believe neutralizers aren't the complete super-stopper they want to have."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Several days after the arrest of Congreve there was a major conference between the Bureau of Special Resources and several supers not employed by them. Normally it would have been considered improper for a federal agency to share information in this way with those outside government employment. However, given that they were already asking reputable super teams and even a few individual supers to help make up for the shortfall from the budget cuts, Brade felt this sharing of information was only fair. Therefore, once a preliminary analysis of the material recovered from Congreve's organization had been performed she sent copies of the files to those groups and individuals via secure Internet connection. A few days after that, she organized this virtual meeting.

      "I hope you've all had time to review the information," Brade said as she opened the conference.

      At each location in the conference someone confirmed this.

      "Our own people have already begun a review of what the Marshals Service recovered. I believe Doro would like to make a preliminary statement on the matter."

      "The super activation program was only about a quarter of what they were doing, and nearly all of it was illegal," said Doro, obviously outraged. "However, that was the most blatantly harmful part of it. They, themselves, documented multiple incidents where they assaulted people just to try and stimulate their powers! None of those attempts were successful, several people were injured, and three died, with over five million dollars in property damage! Yet their records - including comments and observations - show no sign of remorse of even a reconsideration of their actions, and they kept complete records! I can't believe this guy thought he was helping the US with his actions!"

      "We all need to keep in mind that many fringe groups see the post-war situation - especially with all the budget cuts - as an opportunity to further their goals," said Brade. "I've seen it before. They'll make use of the lower degree of monitoring by various government agencies due to distractions in the post-war environment and lower funding more recently to make off with dangerous equipment, to train more openly, to act more openly. They know they're right, so they have no qualms about breaking laws or hurting people. It's all justified in their minds. I'm just sorry it took us so long to connect what were previously seen as isolated anti-super attacks."

      "I have seen this phenomenon, as well," said the Black Mask, over the video conference rig. He swept his gaze around all the holographically represented faces in the Intrepids' new council room. "Be on your guard!"

      "I just wish the Super Liaison office hadn't been one of the casualties of the budget cuts," said Converse, with a sigh. "This would be so much easier if someone close to him could get the President's attention!"

      "Definitely," said Brade. "Anyway, here's what we've learned which isn't in that report."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "It's confirmed that Oscar Congreve really is Frederick Nunnally," said Steel Lace, at a briefing of the Bay Area Guardians the day after the video conference. Her green-colored, flexible power armor had been through many changes over the past thirty years, but the reason for her nome de guerre was still obvious. "Officially deceased for several years. Besides what we already knew about, we now know he also improperly attacked several valid special interest groups while accusing them of being extremists, and improperly supported some actual extremist groups. Yet Donner - who presumably was aware of all this - persuaded some friends of his in Homeland Security to put Nunnally in charge of several black projects, several years before the recent election. Then, after Nunnally had been revealed as a criminal, his death was faked and he was set up with a new identity, presumably also with Donner's help. Whether all this was intended to support some illegal effort Donner planned for later or was just him helping a friend is unknown."

      "Donner is looking more and more like the power behind the throne," said Cumulous, scowling.

      "Maybe," said NightMist, frowning. She leaned forward a bit, resting her forearms on the table. "Or maybe his true goal is to manipulate things so that public opinion turns so strongly against Gibbons that he resigns, and Donner takes over legally. Or - perhaps - he is counting on generating enough outrage to cause someone to assassinate the President, or Donner will have him killed in a way which is presented as an assassination."

      "That would still be an assassination," said Tiger. "As well as a coup."

      "Whatever is going on at the White House these days, it's going to take a lot more than what we currently have to bring either the President or Vice-President down," said the Collator.

      "Agreed," said Steel Lace, after a moment. "Our information connecting Donner to these acts is mostly circumstantial. I don't recommend any individual super or super team actively try to gather evidence against Donner, but we should keep his apparent role in mind and share anything suspicious we uncover."

      "That would be two traitorous Veeps in a row," said Aura, scowling.

      "Gibbons could still be the actual brain in this," said the Collator.

      "All the more reason to keep what we know as secret as we can," said Steel Lace, sternly. "In all likelihood, whoever is behind these events will lay low for a while, after the recent scandals. We need to be patient."



Part Fifteen





      Former Presidents did not receive the same level of protection as acting Presidents, though they were far from unguarded. Even with the post-war cutbacks Livia Sievers felt she had little to worry about as she sat in the office of her home, working on her correspondence. In fact, she was so unconcerned - and so caught up in reading an interesting letter - that when her maid entered with the afternoon tea Sievers didn't even look up, but simply gestured for her to put it on her large desk. She was caught completely by surprise when the hood dropped over her head and the several thousand volts shot through her body.

      Limp and unresisting, vision, hearing and scent cut off, she was loaded onto the draped bottom of the tea cart and hustled from her study. She was off the property before the security guards could even notice there was a problem.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      She was never completely unconscious. However, between the stun gun and the sensory isolation from that stuffy bag Sievers was not actually, fully aware during the trip. She was lifted by two or three people - probably male - from the tea cart and dumped into the back of some large vehicle. As it drove away - in what seemed like a normal fashion - she was searched then thoroughly bound.

      She could occasionally hear people talking, but between distance, the noise of her ride and the hood couldn't make out any details.

      What seemed like long hours later the vehicle stopped. She was lifted out and carried inside some structure. After a trip with several turns she was dumped on what she quickly realized was a bed. Her bonds were removed and the hood whipped off. She had a confused image of several people hurrying away, one of them wearing a maid's uniform. One stayed behind.

      "Irving Frankel," said Sievers, startled. "Gibbons' new White House chief aide."

      He smirked.

      "Welcome to your home for the next few days."

      Sievers was astounded. The few times she had met the man - all of them before his current job - he had seemed a bit twitchy and nervous as well as self-effacing. Timid. That he would be involved in this... Was all that an act, or had something driven him to this in spite of those characteristics?

      "I can't believe you came here yourself," said Sievers. "There goes plausible deniability. Which means your 'few days' is a lie. You wouldn't have shown your face if you planned to leave me alive."

      That realization gave Sievers a chill, but she refused to show it. She had faced down Shilmek warriors and mad scientists, as well as supervillain attacks. She had also stood her ground negotiating with a superhuman alien queen. This was nothing, barely anything out of the daily routine from her time as President.

      "I had to take care of this myself!" said Frankel, so angry he was almost shouting. "Too many people were disobeying me, refusing to do what I told them; or else doing what I told them and getting it wrong! I had to make sure they got you and not one of your doubles!"

      "Doubles?!" said Sievers, now more confused than anything. She shook her head. "So why kidnap me instead of killing me? Did you just want to gloat before getting rid of me?"

      "We're not going to kill you," said Frankel, still angry but giving her a cold smile. "We'll let you loose in a few days, dosed to the eyeballs with psychotropic drugs and ranting incoherently, to take the blame. You'll be so discredited by then that no-one will believe your accusations against me."

      "Blame for what!?"

      "With you in prison that'll take the heat off the President!" said Frankel, triumphantly. He didn't seem to be listening. Or maybe just wasn't fully understanding.

      "Just how is that supposed to work?" said Sievers, outraged. "I haven't even been charged with anything, much less tried and convicted! This also isn't a prison! Just a secure room in a government safehouse!"

      "Who cares about all that? You're away from your contacts and the press. We can blame you for anything - Everything! - and no-one will contradict us!"

      "You know, if Gibbons had just backed off a bit and bided his time, he could have gotten away with anything," said Sievers, calmly, trying a different approach. "However, each time things haven't gone his way - each time his more fanatical supporters have been frustrated in their actions and ambitions - you've doubled down."

      "That smug idiot Gibbons doesn't even know what we do to help him consolidate his power! We're protecting the sanctity of the office, after finally getting it back in proper hands!"

      Okay, that was an interesting and potentially useful bit of information. If she were ever in a position to use it.

      "He doesn't know how the sausage is made! He's just our figurehead! But we have to keep him in power to keep us in power! So we can get this country back on track!"

      "Okay. Even if Gibbons isn't implicated in this, you're doing it in his name. You've - stretching the metaphor a bit, I admit - now so overextended your credit to cover your risks that even if you somehow won this gambit, no-one will ever back you again. Because the payout for this is trivial compared to what you're betting on it."

      "Oh, I am so going to rub your nose in that in a few weeks!" Frankel sneered. "Yeah. That's all we need to turn this around. You'll see!"

      He turned and stormed out. The spring latch very distinctly locked behind him. Then the deadbolt was locked manually, presumably by the very large man Sievers glimpsed standing guard out there. There were only keyholes on this side.

      Sievers wandered around the two rooms of her prison, checking her options. No windows. No landline phone, though she found a wall jack for one. The President remembered something from a Secret Service briefing about being able to attract attention by shorting phone wires, but she didn't even have a paper clip.

      Okay, what had they left on her person? She had no cell phone, or any of her possessions, actually, except her clothing. Even her shoes were gone. The ceiling was solid, as was the floor. The only visible exit was blocked by a metal-clad security door. There was a full bath, but it lacked even an exhaust vent. It looked like the only way out of this was by magic.

      Sievers stepped into the center of the main room and waited for a slow count to ten. Not because that was necessary for what she was about to do; simply to make herself ready for the hoped-for result. She then took a deep breath and spoke, in a loud, clear voice.

      "To right this wrong with blinding speed!"

      There was a pause of several seconds. Then several minutes. She began to wonder if it had failed. She reminded herself that even the person she was calling needed time to respond. She thought about sitting down to wait, but decided to give it a bit longer. Suddenly, a green blur zipped in through a wall and solidified into a tall, lean man in running clothes and bycocket cap, all in green; a man with long, green hair, green eyes and pointed ears.

      "Madame President," said the Prince of Speed, smiling as he doffed his cap and used it to perform a sweeping bow.

      "I'm surprised that still worked," said Sievers, hugely relieved.

      "Well, when I set that up after the war was over I put a lot of mojo into it," said the Prince of Speed, his smile turning into a boyish grin. "It should last for at least another couple of years. Meanwhile, let's get you out of here."

      "I've never traveled at super speed before," said the former President, as the Prince picked her up.

      "You could close your eyes."

      "Are you kidding? I want to see this! Let's go!"

      He laughed, and they went.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As it turned out, one reason His Highness needed time to respond to the summons was that after he received it he contacted the Bureau of Special Resources. A plan was quickly hatched, for the Prince to locate the source of the summons, retrieve Sievers and deliver her to a designated location, then make sure she was kept safe while the closest Bureau personnel traveled to the house where the kidnappers had taken her. They actually caught Irving Frankel and several others at the safehouse before anyone there knew Sievers was gone.

      "That's impressive," said Sievers, once she was able to speak to Brade over a video link from the Bureau office the Prince had taken her to.

      "You were noticed missing pretty quickly," said the huge super. "We were already looking for you when we got the call from His Highness."

      "Did they find my maid?" said Sievers, concerned. "Is she all right?"

      "Yes. They searched the whole property after they noticed you were gone, and found her unconscious in a closet. She's expected to make a full recovery. Anyway, the BSR was one of the agencies notified and we were already on full alert when His Highness contacted us."

      She laughed.

      "Ironically, the closest Bureau facility to the location where they were holding you was one of the few we were keeping open after the cutbacks. It was actually overstaffed, due to having personnel and equipment from closed offices moved there. So we had plenty of people and gear to throw at that safehouse."

      "Well, there are many people I need to thank for this rescue whom I haven't seen yet," said Sievers. "However, I think they'll excuse me if I tell the press about this first!"

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The news of the kidnapping and the involvement of a member of President Gibbons' personal staff in that operation hit the news fast and hard. The President - the current one - immediately declared a press conference, confidently announcing that the supposedly arrested Irving Frankel would be there at his side. Then he rescheduled it. Then he cancelled it. Rumors raged, including inside the White House, when Frankel could simply not be found. Even his own personal assistant claimed that the last she knew, he was in his office working on a special project.

      Word spread that Gibbons had lost his famed cool and was literally ranting as he stormed around the Oval Office, demanding answers no-one had. It didn't help that his Vice President was late to the gathering the President ordered. He'd sent his regrets, first claiming that he was busy with urgent business, then that security measures required him to participate via video conference. That was true, though not strictly adhered to by Gibbons and his people. During the delay Gibbons ordered the conference moved to the situation room because of the better video conferencing equipment there. Soon, though, it became obvious that Donner would not be appearing even by video. The White House staff wasn't even sure where he was. Neither was Donner's own staff; when queried - first by increasingly high ranked White House staff members, then by Gibbons himself - they eventually responded that when the news came in he had quickly made several phone calls. Then he had departed with his personal security team - not his Secret Service men and women, as required by regulation - with an announcement he was on his way to the White House. This shortly before he called Gibbons with his apologies that he couldn't make the press conference. His whereabouts were currently unknown.

      "I wonder who Gibbons will nominate for the new Vice President?" mused Tiger, smiling at all the fuss. "His new chief aide was certainly a hit."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The Secret Keeper was doing some ranting of his own. Alvin Montgomery's carefully scheduled plan had gone off the rails so quickly and thoroughly he was still giving orders under the assumption all was proceeding as planned for over an hour after Sievers' rescue. In fact, it was one of his contacts who - rather timidly - asked why they were going ahead with the planned release of disinformation when the subject had already given a press conference revealing the plan!

      A quick and frantic check by Montgomery revealed that not only was the captured former President now free, but all those involved in her kidnapping had themselves been captured! He sat back, stunned, with a vague and confused thought that he was glad this was happening on a weekend, when he could work to salvage his efforts to save the nation from the privacy of his home.

      Montgomery shook his head, and began cancelling the releases of information incriminating Sievers in various plots and plans. She had preempted that program by stating that those behind her kidnapping had planned to do this, which meant doing so now would only support her claims!

      What he would do about Donner he still didn't know. Montgomery had been counting on him as his highest-ranking insider. The man should have stayed and bluffed it out! By fleeing like this he had ruined any option for continuing his important role in the current administration. Instead, now even Montgomery didn't know where he was! All he could do was run damage control, which included heading off leads to his operatives who were connected to Donner and Frankel.

      Finally, exhausted, he sat back, wondering exactly what had happened. None of his operatives outside of those who had been in on the plot - and who were now all unreachable, for one reason or another - had even known Sievers was missing before her press announcement. Even her own Secret Service staff had only just started looking for her when the Bureau of Special Resources suddenly announced they had rescued her! Montgomery simply had no information on how she had escaped.

      Finally, he stirred.

      This was a setback - a major one, since it meant the loss of Frankel and Donner - but he still had many other schemes in progress. He would prevail.



Part Sixteen





      The caller ID told me who was behind the ring. I sighed, considered not answering, then sighed again and picked up the receiver.

      "I assume you're not calling about the latest political mess," I said. I was glad Sievers was safe, and feeling rather afraid about what those who had ordered her seized might do next. However, Fen would say that was all fugitive and outside our mission purview, and we needed to focus on our own, longer-term tasks.

      "The which, now? Oh, right... Sorry, I've been both busy and distracted with more important matters."

      Not quite what I'd just imagined her saying, but close.

      "Are we ready?"

      "We have to be. There's a mystically important time approaching in under a week. If we're not ready by then we'll have to wait nearly a year."

      "What happened to the long term?"

      An ominous growl came over the line, and I figured I better stop joking.

      "Well, I'll go pack."

      "Lawrence Hawthorne I know you," said Fen. I could almost hear her toothy grin. "You've been packed for days, occasionally repacking when you think of something."

      "So, I'll grab my bags and get there as soon as I can," I said, rolling my eyes.

      "Be here - at the theater - bright and early tomorrow," said Fen, pointedly. "I've already reserved a hopper from the Bay Area Guardians and filed a flight plan for that airport you found. If you aren't here, we'll come looking for you!"

      That last was obviously meant as a joke. I had no doubts, however, that she would feel no reluctance to land on the roof of my building if I were late.

      Getting the permits and permissions to dig on Oak Island had been vastly more difficult than anticipated. However, all that was done, in the name of a small corporation I had established. This entire operation was all legal and above board; others had been doing the same for decades, with varying degrees of success in their efforts. Most of the funding for our effort had come from Fen, though I had spent some of my own money as well. I had managed to keep this dig out of the press except for a few bland notices which led then to briefly report that yet another group of fools were about to waste millions digging on Oak Island.

      The place had been used as a base and rest stop and depository by smugglers and pirates for centuries. Most of what they put there had either been retrieved by them later, or found by treasure hunters who didn't advertise their success. However, for more than a century there had been rumors - most completely unsupported - that there was far more on that island. Perhaps even long-lost ancient holy relics. I didn't know whether what we sought counted as holy, but I had on good authority that it was, indeed, ancient.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      The next morning I pulled my Corvette into the garage at the back of the old theater. Dutch closed the roll-up door behind me, then came over for a greeting and to help with my luggage.

      "Would you believe this is the first time I've parked in here?" I remarked, as we hauled my barely fitting suitcases out of the 'Vette's minuscule trunk and put them in Fen's full-sized van. I grinned. "Also, have you ever noticed the trend of small people buying the largest road vehicles they can?"

      "Yes, to both," said Dutch, grinning. He paused in his loading and tipped his head to one side, gaze momentarily distant. "Fen says she'll be down in a minute."

      Dutch was a telepath, which was how he and Fen had connected, back in the Thirties. He'd needed help as a young man learning to control his ability. So, it wasn't uncommon for them to communicate mentally at a distance.

      Fen did, indeed, soon join us. She insisted on driving. Which I had figured, since the pedal extensions were already installed.

      In minutes we were at the Bay Area Guardians' reserved section of an airport outside of town. There we parked in the hangar and began transferring our gear to the assigned hopper.

      "Something else I've never done before," I muttered.

      "Pardon?" said Dutch.

      "I've seen these before, including up close. I've even ridden in other types of superhero team vehicles, including flying ones. This will be my first ride in a hopper."

      "You know Fen got her license from Orville Wright, back in the late Teens, right?"

      "You are filling me brim full with confidence."

      "Well, if it would help, I could take the controls," said Dutch, innocently. "I got my license in 1939."

      "I hate you," I said, mildly, as he closed and latched the door to the cargo compartment.

      "Let's go, people!" said Fen, from the cockpit. "We're burning daylight, and we're already four time zones too far west!"

      "I still don't understand why you didn't start this from your Kentucky home," I said, in a stage mutter, as the engines started.

      "You, Dutch and I were already here," she shouted, to be heard over the rapidly rising noise.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      We landed the hopper at a private airport a couple of towns over from our destination. The owner was an former mask who had guaranteed privacy. We rented a full-sized van from a nearby agency and set out, with Dutch driving. Once we reached the island I was put in charge of getting the equipment to where Fen wanted it and then set up to dig. I'm no engineer, but I know how to tell experts what is needed and let them decide how to do it.

      Fen, meanwhile, arranged for the covert transportation of some of her kin to the island. I wasn't certain exactly how they got there or even why they were there. When I asked about the former Fen ignored me. When I asked about the later she sighed and said "Just in case."

      A small amount of heavy construction equipment was moved across the causeway and along a rough trail to a clearing near the target location. The main rig - the one which would dig the actual hole - was a gadgeteer development based on studying equipment the Subterrans had used to excavate their underground tunnels and habitats, all those thousands of years ago, to escape the ice age. That was the most important piece of equipment. Below a certain level the ground here was full of both tunnels and natural caves, all flooded. This gadget would quickly dig down as far as needed, sealing the walls as it went.

      With that underway I looked for Fen and Dutch. He and I would be staying on the island in a locally rented camper van; Fen said she would stay with her kin, in the woods. I soon found Dutch and the van, and together we looked for Fen and her cousins. They were somewhere away from both our construction crew and the few locals who lived on the island.

      "We really need more people for this," I muttered, as I tramped through the woods with Dutch. "You, me, Fen and a few of her Bluegrass Elf friends, plus the construction crew is it."

      "Too bad the Walrus couldn't make it," said Dutch

      "He's too busy training the new Victoria."

      "You keep up with that stuff a lot more than I do."

      "Out of sheer survival necessity."

      Fen and her cousins were sitting around a small clearing, chatting. I had never seen so many pointed ears in one place before. As Dutch and I entered several of the little people there waved. Fen rose and walked to us, demonstrating that she was, indeed, taller than most Bluegrass Elves.

      "We have a preliminary location. To narrow it down I need to check alone. Well, without any other psychics present. Too much interference for delicate work with more than one doing the search. Dutch can come, if he keeps his distance."

      "Just try to keep me away," he responded, enthusiastically.

      Okay, I now knew that one reason for her kin to be here was to help find whatever it was we were supposed to retrieve. They had apparently lined up and walked a grid in the hours I needed to get the equipment on the island.

      The three of us donned day packs - Fen's the same size and weight as the other two - and set out down the newly bushwhacked trail. We soon reached the area the elves had picked out.

      I watched Fen center herself. With arms slightly out, palms down, she began walking around the woods. She was slowed by the necessity of diverting around the many trees here. This land had never been excavated, according to the best information I had. However, it had been cleared a couple of times, most recently in the Sixties. That was enough of an interval for some sizable trees to grow up here.

      "No dowsing rod?" I asked.

      "Those are for amateurs," she said, in a scornful tone.

      I had to smile at that.

      Dutch and I watched her for over an hour, occasionally placing stakes where she indicated. Finally, she had it narrowed down to a tiny area.

      "It's directly under here."

      We marked the spot, and I looked at the surrounding woods.

      "They'll have to 'doze in a new access road. Don't know how long that will take."

      "Sooner started, sooner finished."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As it turned out, we managed to get the new path made and the digger thingy in place just barely before dark. The next morning the operators made a final check, and started it working.

      The custom gadget was both fast and thorough. A built-in pump at the bottom of the digging part kept the small amount of water which did leak in promptly removed. Down and down it went, as the spoils pile grew. At the end of the first day of digging Fen announced that we were actually over half way to the target.

      She was the only obvious non-human the workers saw; her cousins kept out of sight. Given the reaction of the workers to just her, I figure that was a reasonable precaution.

      Shortly after lunch the second day of vertical burrowing the digger hit something solid. That in itself was not unusual; there were both rocks and chunks of metal from previous excavations - some of them undocumented - all through the area. Even though this particular area had never been dug - supposedly - we kept hitting rocks of various sizes. This, though, was a large piece of hard stone, flat and horizontal. The rig was stopped, and the foreman sent a couple of men in bosun's chairs to the bottom.

      "That's not native rock," he said, after they examined the obstruction and reported back. "It's also been worked. Smoothed and fitted."

      "This might be the lid to a buried chamber," I guessed

      They had actually taken a video camera down. At one point, one of the men stamped his foot experimentally. The stone was too thick to tell if there was a hollow below from the sound.

      We briefed Fen, showing her the video on a laptop screen. She made a show of considering what the next action should be.

      "I think my partners and I need to discuss this," said Fen, finally. "Take off work early. We'll get back to you tomorrow."

      Naturally, once they'd left Fen's kin hurried over, carrying hand tools. They didn't need the bosun's chairs. Five of them simply levitated down to the flat stone.

      Within half an hour they had what turned out to be a stone-lined vault open. It was full of water, which immediately started rising in the caisson. Fortunately, the pump had been left on automatic. Working by feel in the dark, brackish water the elves wrapped ropes around... something. This was then hauled back to the surface. While the rest of us clustered around what turned out to be an old - very old - crate those in the hole did another check in the vault, then resealed it and dressed the bottom of the pit back the way it had been. When the crew came back the next day they would find things apparently just as they had left them. We'd have them crack open the vault and discover it empty. I would then reluctantly close down the operation.

      Meanwhile, Fen was acting like a pre-teen human tearing into a Christmas present. Soggy wood and water went flying as she worked, causing most of us to step back.

      "How do you stop her when she gets like this?" I asked, hands raised protectively.

      "Hey, I just smile, nod, step back and hope there's not too much spatter," said Dutch, smirking.

      "That sounds about right," I said, nodding.

      Inside the huge chest was a grey box.

      "Look," said Fen, pointing with a claw-tipped finger. "Wrapped in lead sheeting, with the seams soldiered. All hand work."

      We heaved the box out of the waterlogged chest and set it down where we could get a good look at it.

      "Hundreds of archeologists are rolling in their graves, right now," I said, breathing a bit heavily from the exertion.

      After a quick examination of the second box the elves took pity on me and joined together to use the telekinesis some of them - Fen included - possessed to put it on a heavy work table.

      We used shears to carefully cut the lead open enough that we could start peeling. Inside was another sturdy box, a chest, this one also of wood. Impressively, it was bone dry. As Fen examined this, I glanced over at the remains of the outer box. I made a mental note to have a sample carbon dated, just to satisfy my own curiosity.

      With some effort we pried the heavy chest open. Inside was yet another box, also of wood, but much older. Vastly older. This one was not of normal construction. In fact, there was no obvious way to open it; it appeared to be a solid block of some hardwood. Except it was light enough to reveal it must be at least half hollow. Somehow, though, I knew it could be opened... that it wanted to be opened.

      "What... is that?!" said Dutch, quietly, after a moment.

      "The Ancient Egyptians called it..."

      Here she spoke a short phrase in a language I didn't understand.

      "According to my grandfather that's a corruption of the Atlantean..." and she said something which sounded vaguely similar. "Modern mystics who are aware of it generally refer to it as 'The Thing.'"

      "Uh..." I said, brilliantly.

      Dutch grinned and began singing.

      "Get out of here with that," he thumped the table with an irregular, three-beat rhythm, "before I call a cop!"

      "Okay, I remember that song, now," I said, grinning.

      Several of the elves began singing the song, partly in celebration. Also partly to annoy their cousin.

      "I wish I didn't," muttered Fen, glaring at the singers. "Okay, we need to get this back to Los Angeles, stat."

      "We're not going to open it?" I said, disappointed.

      "Not here. This Thing requires a carefully controlled setting. The Bay Area Guardians are setting up a facility at one of their auxiliary buildings for preparation. We've already organized several mystics to provide help. Even Dr. Piano will be there. When we're ready we'll move The Thing from there to the site."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "What are you doing?" said Dutch, when he saw me writing something at the table in our camper van that evening.

      "Just updating my journal."

      "You still doing that, Larry?"

      "Yeah. You can blame Mack Risk. He persuaded me to keep a record of both my personal life and our adventures as detectives, 'way back in 1940. He said I had a talent for writing."

      Dutch picked up the plastic bags with the samples I had taken from the crate and chest. He glanced at the labels I had written and nodded, then put them back on the table.

      "You ought to publish those," said Dutch, as I finished and closed the notebook.

      I paused, looked back at him and smiled.

      "What makes you think I haven't?"

      I exited the camper while he was trying to decide whether he should pursue the matter. You can't really ask for a better straight line than that.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      I hadn't been in the Bay Area Guardians' base since that first affair with Gaunt. I had never been in this particular room, before. Aura - the team's mystic - was there, as were Fen and a few others I knew vaguely, including Dr. Piano. There were also some folks I didn't know. I was a bit annoyed when no introductions were made. Especially since they needed me to legally do what they wanted to do. Something which had caught everyone - me included - by surprise late the day before, thanks to "need to know."

      I had only learned that I wasn't finished with all this magical stuff when someone thought to check on how to access the land where they planned to perform the ceremony. Turned out Fen hadn't asked and I hadn't known to tell her that I was the one to talk to about that. Ah, well...

      "Glad to see you made it!" said Dutch, cheerfully shaking my hand.

      He had been sitting in a folding chair at a folding table near the front of the storeroom when I entered. He'd almost jumped to his feet when he saw me. I guessed that he was bored.

      "I still don't know exactly what they plan to do," I said, once I retrieved my hand. At his gesture I sat on one of the other folding chairs. He sat, too, and we leaned towards each other across that somewhat flimsy table, speaking in low tones.

      "I know, but only vaguely. They will use what's in the box and some powerful enchantments to place regulators on the flow of ectothere. That's..."

      "The basic substance of magic," I said, nodding.

      "Yeah," he said, nodding in reply. "They can't stop or remove magic, but that will make it harder to use. That in turn will greatly reduce the chance of success for the sorts of actions which cause incursions and make those harder to happen."

      I glanced at the organized chaos taking place inside a portable pavilion which had been erected in the center of the large storeroom. I noticed Aura heading towards us.

      "Any idea when they'll be ready?"

      "Tomorrow," said Dutch, also watching the gorgeous mystic approach. "They need to be at the site by mid-morning at the latest. They've already arranged transportation for all those who will actually be taking part."

      "I won't be," said Aura, looking disappointed, as she joined Dutch and me. "I'm one of those who know what is happening who will be charged with monitoring the world situation to watch for problems, instead of participating."

      "Ah," I said, nodding as if I had expected this. I turned back to Dutch. "I'll make certain to be there early, then."

      "Well, you've got the keys," said Dutch, reasonably. He grinned. "Just be glad Fen agreed to put you up for the night. She's a great cook."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Eve hind sat back from reading the message, smiling in fierce satisfaction. She was at her bungalow on Pine Island - she rarely left the island these days but definitely made use of both modern and not so modern methods to keep in touch with the rest of the world - in her study, at her oversized desk. The message had been hand delivered just minutes before, and came from a detective agency she had hired years before.

      "Found him," said Eve, quietly but triumphantly.

      The man behind the plot to have Harvey Thurlin elected President - who had somehow tricked her into helping with that - had been located and named.

      Now, she could have her revenge.



Part Seventeen





      Once again, I was the outsider protecting magical types as they worked on something so esoteric they couldn't adequately describe it to me. I had thought I would be left out of this stage - Fen had even told me after Oak Island that my part was over - but multiple factors had conspired to change that situation. Not least of them the location they had picked. It turned out that Fen hadn't known who now owned the land where they wanted to perform their spell.

      "This is the first time I have been on these grounds," I announced, looking around. The grass was already tall and the lot as a whole starting to look wild. There were even some saplings rising enthusiastically towards the sky. "Unlike my other recent firsts, I could have gone the rest of my hopefully long life without breaking that streak."

      I had only seen this property from the outside, before now. Most recently from the top of a nearby hill, late at night. At least this time we had a nice, sunny day for the work. That didn't change the fact that my empathy was going crazy, telling me many bad things about my surroundings.

      The land where the "Local Gozer Worship Center" had stood had been taken over by first the feds, then the state, then the city. None of them actually wanted it. It had been declared a hazmat site, even though tests showed no chemical or nuclear contamination. People who worked on the reclamation kept getting sick, though. This reaction was declared psychosomatic, even by the magical types called in to investigate. Though I suspect they meant something different by that term.

      "I thought you'd be interested in visiting here," said Dr. Piano, puzzled. "After all, it was through your machinations that Gaunt's plans were derailed and the location of his supposed triumph wrecked."

      "Don't say that out loud!" I said, cringing. "It wasn't anything like that direct! I just let a few people know that Gaunt had bought this property and I didn't know what he planned to do with it."

      Though that alone had been enough to mobilize a number of magical types in the region - many of whom normally would cross busy streets to avoid each other - to cooperate on Gaunt's downfall.

      "My apologies," said Piano, with a slight bow of his head.

      "Besides that possibly inaccurate assessment," said Fen, giving a toothy grin (with those fangs of hers, it's hard for her to grin any other way), "being someone already aware of the situation who is not themselves a mage of any type means you're ideally suited to defend the rest of us as we work."

      "You folks do tend to get distracted," I noted.

      "Beyond that," said Sharma, "there is the potential of purely mystical attack or possibly backlash. Things which would not affect an insensitive such as yourself."

      Well, that was comforting. Maybe.

      Those of us present - mages and their mundane guardians - began hauling equipment from the odd assortment of vehicles we had used to travel here. Prime among that was a plain, wooden box, which was only handled by Fen. Something the mystics treated as a great treasure. Some of the boxes were promptly opened, but not that one. Clothing, braziers, stands for those and much other equipment was pulled out and arranged. At least I knew we had proper permission to be here, and to perform this rite. All I had to do was stop at the office of the real estate agent who handled things for me locally to get the key.

      The property now belonged to me. It had sort-of belonged to me before I traded those documents to Gaunt; though that was possession only in the sense that I had information which could be used to bring question to the legitimacy of the Wold claim to ownership. The Wold family - which had lost the property first to Gaunt then to the Feds - had tried repeatedly to get it back, but so far had been unsuccessful. That was due less to any effort on my part than to them still reeling from the loss of the previous patriarch and the top two contenders for that position before Louis Carstairs took over. Only for him to be killed and then revealed as one of the Five Great Powers. All those losses of leadership had left both the family and the business conglomerate disorganized, and missing important information. They also found themselves owing debts - monetary and other - which Carstairs had taken on as part of the Five's unsuccessful bid for world control. Then their main building and the land it was on had been acquired by Gaunt through mechanisms legal, financial and mystical - causing further confusion and loss of information - only to be imploded into another dimension within weeks. Not long after that, many of the Wold family's other properties - and individual members - had been adversely affected by the war. Even that huge, wealthy, influential tribe was having trouble regaining their former position in the world after all that.

      While they hadn't actually given up trying to get this particular location back, they were currently focusing on keeping some of their other properties which were under various, immediate threats. I figured by the time they turned their attention back to this land they were very likely to figure "Eh, it's not worth it." Especially considering what was about to take place here. That family had a history of avoiding conflict with powerful mages, and there were thirteen here, apparently doing my bidding. Something completely unplanned by me. Sometimes you just get lucky.

      I had purchased the land - from the city of San Francisco, at a bargain price - mainly to keep it out of the hands of anyone who might misuse it. Including the Wolds. The location was still a "magical nexus" (whatever that meant). At the time I hadn't expected that my ownership would make access for this operation ridiculously easy. Since it was also suitable in other ways - not least due to having been used for whatever it was Gaunt tried to do - this must be the place.

      In fact, from what the mystics were able to explain, Gaunt's activities were what pushed things over the edge, magically. He had apparently created some sort of portal to bring in extradimensional allies or perhaps mercenaries. That alone would have opened the floodgates for magic in the world. The mystics who had foiled this had inverted the portal, actually driving all the magic in that building - along with the building - the other way. (They claimed they hadn't intended that operation to be so thorough. I tend to believe them.) That loss of magic just wasn't enough to stop what had already been triggered. Something they needed a while to realize.

      The thirteen members of the magical community present for the operation wandered around the fresh sod which had been carefully laid over the fill which had been brought in to replace the hole left by the removal of the building. They muttered to themselves and each other, in several languages, none of which were currently in use by non-mages. I looked at the other guards - all non-magical but either empowered in some way or very skilled - and we collectively shrugged.

      As if choreographed, when Noon - local, not by the clock -approached the mystics - of three genders and four species - placed that box we had retrieved from Oak Island in a carefully chosen location and moved to form a perfect circle around it. I had been told earlier that this was as close to the center of the disturbance as they could get without a major excavation... which fortunately was not necessary. The location they chose wasn't exactly in the middle of the former building's footprint, but close. The actual site had likely been in a deep subbasement. Perhaps even in a well dug beneath that. At least, that's what I had gathered from the mystics and their assistants in the planning sessions for this event.

      There was a secure fence around the property. The city had hoped to turn it into a park, but that plan had fallen through due to the "psychosomatic" effect. So they fenced it in. I got the fence as part of the deal. However, the fence only impeded access, not the view. Our activities had gathered spectators around that fence, people watching us. Many of them had cameras of various sorts. Some were professional news folk.

      "I don't like this," I muttered, as I glanced at the gawkers. "I don't like it for what we're doing. I don't like it on a personal level."

      "Don't worry," said Carl, one of the other protectors. "The whizzes put up a distortion field. Cameras and such will just see blurs."

      "They should have put up a MYOB field," said Sally, another one.

      I nodded, wishing I'd thought to suggest both of those things. Oh, well; live and learn. If I survived.

      "I just noticed," I said, quietly, as the mages worked. I gestured at their circle. "There's six males, six females, and Mer."

      "A perfect balance," agreed Sally, nodding.

      I'd met her a couple of times before. She was a gorgeous, mid-level physical super - a soft brick in the parlance of masks - who hired herself out as a bodyguard. She normally did celebrity security, but was currently working for a dumpy-looking man I'd never heard of before today, but whom the other mages seemed to respect. I definitely found her attractive, but before this our encounters had been too brief - and too involved with business - for me to pursue anything further. Maybe this time would be different. From what my empathy was telling me, I thought she might feel the same. Or she might just be admiring the body I was wearing. Though similar to my base form, it was physically augmented as much as my powers could manage. Which meant I currently looked rather more striking even than usual.

      Of course, right now we both needed to keep our minds on business.

      We were all armed. I don't know about the others - well, some were carrying obvious non-firearm weapons, semi-legally - but I had a licensed handgun, concealed. My still nearly new 10mm. Plus a light sword Fen had loaned me, after determining that my occasional practice of various forms of blade fighting included such long weapons. It was presumably enchanted in one or more ways.

      Dutch was also there, similarly armed. He was the only one of the guards whom I knew more than casually. I glanced over at him.

      "Do you think there actually will be a need for us?"

      "Probably not. But it's better to have us and not need us..."

      He didn't finish the well-worn but appropriate quote, instead simply giving an expressive shrug.

      Don't ask me what the mages did. Oh, I can describe some of the actual actions they performed. Sometimes they chanted. Sometimes they sang. Sometimes they danced. A few of them drew diagrams. On the ground and even on each other. But what they actually did remains a mystery. At least to me.

      Some of the spectators left. More arrived. The number seemed about constant as the procedure continued. At least we hadn't attracted the attention of the authorities. So far. I was almost lulled into a fugue state, but knew I needed to stay alert. I literally shook myself, and began focusing. I started to think that maybe they would finish with no interruptions... except that they kept going on and on.

      I was just starting to wonder if we guardians should take staggered restroom breaks when the attack finally came. Naturally, it was rather unexpected in method if not in occurrence. Their approach was blocked from our view by the onlookers around the fence. Our first indication that something was wrong was a disturbance in that crowd. Boldly, the attackers approached the main gate, the crowd parting uncertainly but quickly from their path.

      The scene was so surreal that if all of us bodyguards hadn't all had plenty of experience with the surreal we might have doubted our own eyes. Figures in dark red robes approached in an angled formation, one man in the lead, six spreading out on each side behind him. That's right; another group of thirteen. Though this one didn't look as diverse as ours. They were all chanting in an almost musical fashion, but it sounded horrible.

      "The Devil's Chords," said musician Dutch, ominously, "but they're not Jimi Hendrix."

      When they reached the gate they simply kept walking, passing through the chain link and galvanized tube steel as if it weren't there. Only, once the thirteen of them passed through we could see that now much of the gate wasn't there.

      I drew my 10mm, but hesitated. So far nothing they had done counted as an attack; only property damage and trespassing. A quick look around showed no other attackers, but I couldn't see the entire property from here. Our mages didn't even seem to notice the strangers coming straight for us. The guardians on the other side of them didn't seem to have noticed the intruders yet, either.

      "There is a protective shell around them," said one of the other guardians. "Magical attacks - even from melee weapons - will be of greatly reduced effect. Purely physical attacks will be reduced somewhat but if potent enough should get through."

      I nodded; I'd made the right choice going for the gun. Still, though, I could not legally shoot. If they simply kept walking my only choice was to stand firmly in their way and see what happened.

      Maybe they didn't know that. Maybe they did but didn't care. All I know is that that the chanting suddenly rose in volume and speed, and the leader drew a sword from under his robes. He held it tip up, edge towards us. Specifically, towards me.

      I had positioned myself just past the part of the curved driveway where the walk in front of the building which had formerly stood here now ended in fresh sod. Naturally, that sword seemed like it was meant for me, personally. I shivered, but stood my ground. However, not everyone on my side did.

      Sally to my left and Carl to my right moved from their positions, out and then forward, swords of two different types in their hands. They moved ahead on either side of me, turning us into a receptive wedge of three to meet their approaching wedge of thirteen. They did not attack, but readied their weapons. The strangers did not change pace, but their chanting suddenly was punctuated with a shout. Sally and Carl were hurled away. I fired on the leader.

      I saw the bullet slow and almost stop, its passage causing their magical protection to come partially into view. The jacketed hollowpoint smacked the leader squarely in the forehead. Not hard enough to kill or even seriously injure, but it rocked him, shaking his hood back. Now I had a clear view of his face, including the rapidly rising welt I had just caused. He was very, very angry with me.

      I fired again, and again, and again, quickly, now, aiming for center of mass. Sally and Carl were back on their feet and charging. I heard more shooting, from Dutch's direction. None of the bullets did more than hurt them, but we were shooting quickly and each bullet wore away at that mystical barrier.

      My slide locked back. I dropped the empty magazine and reloaded. Sally and Carl swung their blades and rebounded. Carl dropped his sword and drew a small automatic, probably a .380. Sally scowled and swung harder. Her strength was greater than human, and the blade obviously stronger than normal weapon steel. She was hurled back again, but her attack caused the second in line on her side to flinch, as that blade came uncomfortably close to her target before rebounding. The chanting of the intruders sounded desperate, now, but their pace was the same. The lead man - and that sword - was nearly within reach. I rapid fired, the bullets slowing less each time, hurting the man more.

      Dutch had recharged his .357 with a speed loader. Between him, Carl and me with our guns and Sally with her strength and sword, something broke, almost like a giant balloon popping. They didn't last long after that.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Alvin Montgomery was incensed.

      "You have nothing on me!" Montgomery yelled at the detective interviewing him. "I don't have any pornography of any kind in the cloud! I certainly don't have any child pornography anywhere! I'm not a pervert and I'm not stupid!"

      A sudden chill came over him as he thought of something.

      "Unless you planted some..."

      They had come to his office, arrested him and hauled him away, right in front of everybody. That was bad enough; however, once he got to the station he learned that they were trying to get a warrant for his house! They took his keys during the booking. This meant that based on what someone - they wouldn't say who - had said, claiming he had placed child pornography online, once they got the warrant they could enter his house, invading his privacy, with ease! Naturally, passwords were needed to access anything on his computers normally, but with physical access to his equipment...!

      "Let's stay on topic, please," said the detective, making a mental note to recommend a psychological evaluation. "You had some pretty impressive security on the material in your accounts."

      Montgomery bit back on his outrage and decided to change tactics. He'd present them with the very image of a wrongly accused innocent citizen, someone who would cooperate with the police in a reasonable manner, in spite of his honest outrage.

      "Well, yes," he said, obviously still irritated but sounding reasonable. "Any responsible person does, these days."

      "Except you used security software from your job with the federal government for your online data storage accounts."

      "Yes. On my home computers, too. When I saw how well it worked I decided to use it for all my personal stuff."

      "Mr. Montgomery, these software packages and applications are not available for private use."

      "Oh, I got it through my employee discount," said Montgomery, blandly.

      Hallover looked him in the eye.

      "There's no such thing. So, either you stole this from your work or somehow illegally obtained it from the supplier. So, even if the tip was wrong, we can hold you until we find out where you got this."

      Montgomery scowled. This was trivial.

      "I can't talk about that," he said quietly. "You can ask my boss about the use of office security software for people who occasionally work from home."

      Hallover nodded. That actually sounded reasonable. Though he'd definitely have someone check with the man's boss as to whether that could be legally done, and whether it had been done in this case.

      "So, when do I get out of here?" said Montgomery, hotly. "I have a lot to do."

      "That's not up to me."

      "Not up to you?! You're the one interrogating me!"

      "I just report what I uncover. The District Attorney's Office makes the decisions."

      "Another mindless drone," said Montgomery, tone scathing.

      "I think we're done, here."

      He called the guard, and the fuming Montgomery was taken back to his cell.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      We stood there, panting, for a moment, looking at the fallen attackers. Most were still alive, some moaning in pain. The leader looked like an old piece of chicory root. He was even smoking, his sword a rusted wreck.

      I quickly glanced around. Our mages were still busy, paying us no attention. There were no other signs of attack. I relaxed a bit, and switched to a fresh magazine.

      Sally and Carl looked the worse for wear, especially Carl. However, they resumed their positions. We waited, standing guard. Eventually, we heard sirens in the distance. Bizarrely, most of the onlookers were still there, clustered around the fence, except for the main gate. I worried that police or even EMTs might try to interrupt the ceremony taking place behind me. However, shortly before I saw the first LEO approach the fence a glow from behind me began casting a strange shadow on the ground in front of me. I had no desire to look and see what was causing it.

      When the cops did get there they took one look and backed away. Smart. I wished I could have joined them. A strange tension began making the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. Then all of my hair, like a classroom demonstration of static electricity. I held my ground. Then, slowly, about twenty minutes after the attack had been thwarted, the sensations and eerie light effects faded.

      "There," said Dr. Piano. "Not so bad as we feared. Quite neat and quick, in fact."

      I could have shot him.

      "Where did they come from?" asked Sharma.

      I finally glanced back. Everything looked exactly as it had before they started - though things definitely felt better. The box was again closed. I felt irritated I hadn't even gotten a glimpse of what was inside. Then decided maybe that was for the best.

      The mages were all now registering the fact that we had been attacked, and the attackers felled.

      "Any of you know these folks?" I asked, gesturing at the fallen, robed figures.

      "Those are Myrenic Cultists!" gasped one of them, the pudgy guy Sally was there with. "They were wiped out!"

      "Someone must have found some of their tomes," said Piano, ominously. "I always felt there were a few missing."

      "Is it okay for me to let the cops and paramedics in?"

      "Eh?" said Piano. He looked up and finally noticed the folks at the gate. "Oh; yes. Definitely. This area is now clear."

      "Very clear," said Fen, beaming.

      All of them looked insufferably pleased with themselves.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      As it turned out, the DA's Office forwarded the case to the State Attorney General. Who called in the FBI. Who got a warrant to have Montgomery's computers seized. Over the next few days, as more and more suspicious activities on his part were uncovered, Montgomery was moved first to a state penitentiary, then to a high-security federal prison.

      As Montgomery sat in his new cell, it dawned on him that in his desire for anonymity he had avoided applying any protections for his civilian ID through his authority as the Secret Keeper. Which meant that unless they gave him online access so he could send word that "Alvin Montgomery" was to be exonerated and protected from further investigation, he would be treated like any ordinary person in prison.

      The psychological evaluations were the worst. At first he pretended to be an ordinary federal office worker caught up in a mistake. However, the psychiatrist had quickly determined he was concealing something. Gradually, she - Of course it was a woman! - had weaseled out of him that he was influential in behind-the-scenes politics. Then used that to declare him a paranoid with delusions of grandeur! Wasn't that just like a woman?! Let her in a bit, and she'd use the shared confidences to sabotage you!

      Since that revelation he had completely refused to cooperate. Just let him get online, then he'd show them. Only, they had uncovered enough from what they had deciphered on his computer to now consider him a national security risk; they were not about to let him anywhere near a computer or even a cell phone with Internet access. He tried telling them he was protecting the nation, but they wouldn't listen! Meanwhile, he'd been forced to use a landline to contact an attorney. So far that man hadn't been much help.

      So he waited, fuming.



Part Eighteen





      "I'm not sure how seriously to take this," said Special Agent Sanders, concerned. "Either this guy is a raving lunatic, completely divorced from reality or he's the secret power behind one of the nation's major political parties! As well as at least two of its biggest political scandals!"

      "Who says he can't be both?" said Special Agent Thompson, sourly. "Or that he's the only one? In either party?"

      "Please leave your cynicism outside the office," said Special Agent in Charge Covington. "Focus on what we know about this case."

      "Right," said Sanders. He looked down at his notes. "Well, we have enough on him to hold him without bail until trial. That trial will be spectacular, too, even if he does just turn out to be delusional."

      "What, exactly, was he doing?"

      "The biggest plan currently in the works was to support Gibbons - whom he saw as a moderate but easily deceived - in order to get Carl Donner in a position to execute a bunch of operations he - Montgomery - saw as essential to returning the US to its former greatness. As he saw it. Which largely means putting the world back as it was towards the end of the Cold War. If his records are accurate he previously tried going straight for the win with Thurlin, only to have that bomb because his Veep turned against him. Then he backed Sievers' opponent - twice - and lost completely - twice. This time Donner was to be Montgomery's man in the office, doing what Montgomery wanted to be done, with Gibbons kept in the dark. Gibbons was being set up to take the fall if Montgomery's machinations through Donner were uncovered, hopefully leaving Donner as the new President."

      "That almost sounds reasonable," said Covington, frowning. "Well, if this were a third world dictatorship or eastern Europe in the Sixties."

      The two agents spent nearly three hours going over what they had uncovered from Montgomery's computers and physical records with their boss.

      "This... It's detailed enough that he obviously was keeping close track of not only what the general public knows about political affairs in the federal government over the past fifteen years, but an enormous amount of inside information," said Covington, when they finally finished. He sat for a moment, slowly shaking his head. "That includes stuff that's classified. Yeah. This is big. I'm going to make some calls."

      "I just hope we can keep what this guy was doing quiet," said Sanders. "At least until the trial."

      "Not much hope of that, I'm afraid," said Thompson. "We arrested this guy at his office, which is a federal workplace. The news hounds are already sniffing for a scandal."

      "Just do what you can," said Covington.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Again, the desire for a scoop and the temptation to be the one who provided it overcame the secrecy measures employed by the feds. Within two days of the meeting multiple news outlets had multiple versions of what Montgomery had done, though few came close to the truth in facts or evaluation of potential impact. Within a few more days there were enough additional leaks and official press releases and comparing of notes that the basic framework of the story was available.

      Gibbons' tactic at this revelation was to smugly proclaim that this proved he had nothing to do with any of the scandals. Ignoring that he had been a patsy in the operation.

      In the main room of a certain defunct bakery these events were definitely a topic of discussion.

      "Wow. There's sure a lot of red faces - more from angrily shouting denials than embarrassment - among politicians these days," said Gadgetive, as she madly channel surfed. "Everybody is denying being affected by outside influence. They're even claiming PACs don't impact their decisions. Then having to explain why they changed their position on something after a donation."

      "What gets me," said Energia, scowling, "is the ones saying that letters, e-mails and even phone calls from voters don't affect their decisions."

      Tricorne was again together for the Summer when the news broke. Though all three members tried to leave politics out of their heroing operation, some things were inevitable.

      "Looks like both sides were involved," said Blue Impact. "Turns out Montgomery was collecting info on others who were doing the same thing to the various political parties as him. None of them were as extensively involved as he was, but it was there. Some were even working the same party he was, though none were pushing it in exactly the direction he wanted."

      "Do you think this might bring about reform?" said Energia, obviously doubtful.

      "For a while," said her teacher. She shook her head and gave a wry grin. "Folks who think this is something new or unusual aren't paying attention. There have always been those who were the 'hidden power behind the throne' or wanted to be. Probably always will be such people. That's why we have to keep checking these things."

      "What I don't understand is the folks in power who are still supporting Gibbons - most of whom were also Thurlin supporters, and may still be - and denying that this Montgomery guy had any influence on them or those they supported," said Gadgetive, getting back to her point. "Despite the evidence of how he even redirected their funding and organizational activities in ways they didn't even know about!"

      "I just wish they could find Donner," said Energia, with a gusty sigh. "Of course, if they do he'll take a lot of the heat away from Gibbons."

      "Eve Hind is certainly feeling smug lately," said Blue Impact. "She'd been hoping to get back at whoever it was who maneuvered her into supporting Thurlin for those few, early years of his political rise. She was disappointed that it wasn't some vast conspiracy. Just a half-vast clever idiot with delusions of grandeur.

      "The really sad part is that Montgomery was only responsible for part of the lies and distortions. A significant part, but only a part. He even complained - in the journal he kept about his covert activities, and in person once he realized he wasn't escaping punishment, accusing others of the same crimes he committed - about others interfering with his work. He didn't know who most of them were and they seemed completely unaware of him, but he was certain there was some group deliberately working against his project. The data they're getting from his logs is helping the investigators find some of those others."

      "Well, all that still won't get rid of Gibbons," said Energia, irritated. She threw her arms wide in aggravation. "He's refused to accept responsibility for, well, anything."

      She settled down a bit, though she was still scowling.

      "Truthfully, all he's done is trash talk and make 'jokes.' You might get him on inciting violence, I guess, but that's unlikely. As Gibbons himself has said, it fails the Reasonable Man test; no reasonable, rational person could misconstrue his 'jokes' as serious orders. Nothing he's actually done is impeachable. Also, there's so much resistance to his more outrageous ideas that even most of the folks in his own party aren't supporting them. So we will likely have to live with him for at least the next three and a half years."

      "At least the housecleaning these events forced on him have resulted in competent, responsible people being installed in a lot of the positions which previously went to Montgomery's choices," said Blue Impact. She grimaced. "Mostly."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Of course, not everyone was paying much attention to the scandal. At least, not all the time. Some people were actively busy trying to help others. Some of them worked for the Bureau of Special Resources.

      "Whoever did this guy's - formerly gal's - previous powers evaluation was an idiot," said Dr. Timberlake, sourly, as he gave his weekly report to Brade and Doro. "He's an odd type of probability manipulator. I suspect that on some level she either wanted to be a man or was envious of males."

      "Umph," said Brade, frowning. "Well, does it look like he wants to turn back, now that we know how the change happened?"

      "No. He's... satisfied. Interestingly, learning how to control his powers went a long way towards correcting the neurochemical imbalance causing his mild, recurring depression. The researchers are joyously predicting several award-winning papers being written once they figure that one out."

      "I recall that he was cleared to return to work," said Doro. "Does it look like there any legal or social consequences to that?"

      "No. We managed to keep quiet that he was causing the storms. The meteorologists never knew it was him and haven't told anyone but us that the storms had a single person causing them."

      "Good," said Brade, nodding. "With luck, this guy will be able to live out his life normally. Except for maybe helping with the occasional weather emergency."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Getting the legal complications involved with our operation at the old Wold property settled took longer than the actual operation and fight had. Much longer. The fact that witnesses uniformly testified that we were peacefully holding our "religious ritual" and the cultists forced their way onto private property and attacked us should have made it a clear case of self defense. However, the fact that half of us were armed - even though technically legally - engendered significant suspicion. The fact that the cops couldn't figure out how to open that one box didn't help. Fen's raft of attorneys plus my own and those of some of the other participants had to organize a unified assault on the District Attorney's office to even get bail.

      After conferring with each other, speaking in a language at least as exotic as what the mages had used for their spell, the defense attorneys petitioned for a summary judgement as soon as possible. Largely because several of the people involved were not locals and needed to be elsewhere immediately. The DA's office was so used to people - innocent or guilty - asking for delays and extensions they weren't quite sure what to do about this. Mention of the guarantee to speedy trial further confused them. Once mention of magic came out, however, there was a collective silence for about three hours... then abruptly all charges against us were dropped. It's like they suddenly wanted to be rid of the lot of us.

      Fortunately, they decided to continue holding the surviving cultists.

      "Just how did you arrange that?" I asked Fen, giving her an accusing look.

      "Wasn't me," she said. "I didn't even want magic mentioned."

      We - that is, the entire bunch of us, mages and defenders - were in Fen's loft over her theater in downtown San Francisco. This was the first time I had ever seen the roomy place crowded; Fen isn't one for parties. I glanced warily at the mages and their guards; some of them were obviously envious of Fen's art collection, which among other items included original work by several famous cartoonists from a century earlier. One page even included a rendering of Fen, as some sort of leader of a fantasy werewolf pack. Oddly, the art was getting more attention than her 1938 Nobel Prize.

      "Me," said Dutch, raising a hand. "I knew that all the magical activity in that park lately had both the state and city politicians spooked. They had just gotten things quiet and managed to placate the fundies of all stripes who were demanding the land be exorcised. They didn't want to start that up again."

      I nodded in sudden understanding. Given the conflicting demands from self-proclaimed representatives of multiple different religions - some of which didn't even officially exist - of course the city and state would want to avoid bringing attention to that property again.

      "So, that land is safe, now?" I said, hopefully.

      "Oh, definitely," said Dr. Piano, who had wandered over to learn what we were discussing. "What do you plan to do with it?"

      "I dunno... I have a lot of my funds tied up in that," I said, making a show of rubbing my chin and looking uncertain. "I might need a while to decide."

      "You're going to leave it fallow, aren't you?" said Fen, laughing. "Just leave it, and every time the city makes a fuss hint that you might have a buyer but can't reveal the details. When they ask you what happened to the sale, sadly say nothing came of it. From now on."

      "Hey, what's the use of having an indefinite life ahead of you if you don't make long-term plans?" I asked, innocently. "It helps that the Wolds already had it zoned for basically whatever they wanted to do."

      "You just want an excuse to have a private bit of wild land on the outskirts of a major city," said Dutch, grinning.

      "Maybe," I said, smiling.

      Even Dr. Piano laughed.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "We now know the source of the Black Virus," said Lady Carver, back on Pine Island specifically to deliver information which officially didn't exist from the UN. "An illegal black project, as I understand you people already suspected."

      "I'm surprised the Gibbons administration admitted this," said Eve. "Even in private to UN officials."

      "They're... embarrassed. They knew nothing about the program. Of course, neither did anyone in the Sievers administration. According to the records from Montgomery's computer, during Sievers' first term a group of rogue officials decided they needed unconventional weapons, for reasons making sense only to themselves. They covertly organized several programs to develop them, ostensibly for the deterrent effect. Though how something kept secret even from one's own president can deter enemies wasn't explained. These programs were conducted with people sworn to secrecy using diverted funds and kept hidden from all elected officials. Then those who organized this mess started falling by the wayside, for multiple reasons. The program which produced the Black Virus was one of the last to fall, and none went to completion."

      "Yet the Black Virus exists," said Template, angrily.

      "What Congreve - well, Nunnally - acquired was the rushed final effort of the program's director, to try and justify it. It was not by any means intended as a finished product, but rather a preliminary article intended only for further testing; a starting point."

      "Damn," said Dr. Dunning, paling. "No wonder it was so... indiscriminate."

      "I have made certain that the information on how this organism was created has been destroyed," said Lady Carver, flatly. "In fact, that and several similar operations have been performed by the Gibbons administration and verified by the UN. Once you destroy your samples there will be no more Black Virus."

      Left unsaid was the fact that there would be no negotiation of that act. Given how much the school depended on UN support, the virus would be destroyed.

      "At least we can be sure, now, that the Black Virus didn't get out, and likely won't," said Eve, nodding.

      "What about our vaccine and the notes made on the virus?" said Template.

      "Those can't be used to recreate it," said Dr. Dunning. "We only have sketches of the RNA; and even if we had a complete map that alone wouldn't tell anyone how to make it. That would require a major research program."

      "Good riddance," said Eve.

                              *                                    *                                    *

      "I am very glad we're through with that mess," said Brade, with a tired sigh. "Well, for the time being. There will likely be repercussions for months. The actual situation seems to be on the mend, though."

      She sighed again, and stretched.

      "I hate politics and I really hate political corruption, and worse than all that is political opportunism taking advantage of indifference."

      "Well, here's something to cleanse the palate," said Converse, handing Brade a report. "Summing up, there's a major hurricane moving towards Texas. They'll likely need super help, and we should start organizing now."

      "All right," said Brade, with a slight smile. "I'll have Doro get on it immediately."

      She scratched her head and yawned.

      "Let's just hope it isn't too bad."

                              *                                    *                                    *

      Later that evening - after Lady Carver had observed Dr. Dunning's sample of the virus thoroughly destroyed, thanked all those involved and left - Eve came across Template sitting on her favorite rocky outcrop, staring out at the ocean.

      "You seem thoughtful," said Eve. "Perhaps even unsettled. Are you dissatisfied with this resolution of the Black Virus matter?"

      "Oh, no," said Template, with an uncomfortable laugh. "I'm... actually a bit embarrassed to admit something. That I didn't get to engage in the cathartic violence you predicted."

      "Well, I think that, just this once, you should be satisfied without that," said Eve, amused.

      "Amen to that."



      End



      This document is Copyright 2017 Rodford Edmiston Smith. Anyone wishing to reproduce it must obtain permission from the author, who can be contacted at: stickmaker@usa.net