North Ridge
Part 1 of Under Beyond
by Michael Mendoza

PREVIOUSLY: Nyla told her parents that she was a Patroller. Meanwhile, Mitsuko Hasegawa returned to Japan and prepared to confront his brother Sekino, who has gained a frightful power in recent weeks.

   The world as we knew it ended early in the morning on January 17.
   On the day after, Nyla Shapire stumbled backwards into her bedroom. From the doorway, she fixed her eyes on the television. Then she closed the door, but she could still hear the terse voice of the news anchor. "...the city of Los Angeles is no longer with us... estimated 9.3 magnitude... still trying to open a phone line... God save us all..."
   Nyla felt the presence of her old friend Jennifer Dwierlest on the other side of the door, even before she knocked. "Nyla?" The door opened slightly. "Are you okay?" Jen asked. She spoke softly and blocked the doorway so that none of their guests in the living room could see Nyla.
   "I'm fine. It's just a terrible shock, a whole city... I mean, who could have expected it?"
   Jen carefully edged her way into Nyla's room. "Nyla, your dad..."
   "Routine business trip," Nyla replied with a twinge of dark humor. "He's been there since Saturday." She turned away as Jen approached. "I have to go. I've got responsibilities."
   "What responsibilities?"
   Nyla's voice dropped and her defenses rose. "Home. I can't leave my mom alone at a time like this. I need to comfort-"
   "Bullshit!" Jen slammed the door shut. "You're going to what's left of LA because you're a Patroller and you have to go save the world."
   The curtain lowered on Nyla's secret life a little further. "You know?"
   "We both know. We figured it out, no thanks to you." Jen felt like a monster for snapping at Nyla, especially now. But she deeply resented the way Nyla kept such an important part of her life to herself for so long. Didn't Nyla trust her and Lexi?
   Still, Jen calmed down and tried to replace the anger in her voice with compassion. "Do you think you're going to just fly in there and rescue your dad from the rubble? I know this sounds cruel, but you heard the casualty reports. It's probably too late. And when you finally realize it you're going to blame yourself and tear yourself apart. Nellie, it doesn't have to be that way."
   Nyla sighed deeply and her turmoil lodged itself in her throat. "It goes beyond that. I'm needed. What happens to me isn't important." She threw on a sweatshirt and a hooded jacket. Then she took on her Gauntlet and put her Recharger inside a dufflebag. Jen watched the silvery metal flow onto Nyla's hand with awe. "Beautiful, isn't it?" Nyla asked. She was out the door before Jen was able to reply.
   Nyla waved at their guests as she ran to the door. "It's been great but I have to go. Unexpected business. Bye."
   Before Nyla ran out, her oldest friend Lexi Holden called out to her. When she caught Nyla's attention, Lexi silently mouthed the words "Be careful."
   "We all have to be careful," Nyla replied, and then she was gone.

   She left France around ten in the evening. Through her Gauntlet she created a small silver and red airfoil. It was a rough copy of the airfoil Mitsuko Hasegawa used to fly her to Hong Kong a few months ago. Her Recharger guided the flight path across the Atlantic Ocean. As Nyla shot forward in her suborbital journey, she wondered at the sun which rose over the western horizon. While she knew she was simply traveling through different time zones, she imagined that she could fly back in time to stop her father from going and Los Angeles.
   The sun was just beginning to set when Nyla touched ground in Vermont, where she grew up. She wanted to check with her mother Maire. Nyla found her curled up asleep before the TV. Rolled-up balls of tissue paper lay scattered on the carpet before her. Maire Shapire's haggard face signaled that she hadn't slept at all the previous night.
   The television was tuned to CNN, which had covered the LA quake non-stop these past two days. At that time, reporter Mark Kristing was covering the heavy Karlmax presence in the rescue effort. The electronics corporation delivered emergency supplies on flyers powered by their revolutionary Broadcast Power System. That same technology provided heat and electricity to the refugee tent cities fifty miles north of LA (The camps were placed so far north to protect them from the aftershocks, which actually weren't so bad as people feared). The Karlmax flyers made this distance feasible. Karlmax provided people as well as equipment; their human resource personnel helped the American Red Cross coordinate the rescue effort.
   When Kristing's report ended, Nyla decided to move on. Rather than wake up her mom, she got a blanket from upstairs. She placed her blanket over her mother and then she kissed her on the cheek. And like Maire Shapire's heart, Nyla was gone.

   The snow-covered hill seemed endless. Nyla's stubby legs plodded upwards towards the towering figure which cast its shadow over her. Tiring, she doubled her resolve, but her body wouldn't reciprocate. She fell forward and cried out, "I'm tired! I can't go anymore!"
   Nyla stood, but with her next step, her hastily-laced left boot slipped off. In her bulky snowsuit, trying to balance on her right leg and wipe off her foot was futile. She shrieked as her foot hit the snow.
   As Nyla was hoisted into the air, the kind of indignation that only an eight year-old could know consumed her. Why does everything have to be so hard? Her frustration was deafening, a flock of birds crying out in the wind...
   "Nyla? Snap out of it, Nyla!" It was Polly yelling. Polly was a construct of a parakeet that Nyla's Recharger used to communicate with her. It flew just inches before her face, flying backwards towards Los Angeles.
   "Sorry, Polly. My mind was wandering."
   "No kidding. You were really spaced out. For a second, I thought you'd fallen asleep with your eyes open! You shouldn't be so inattentive while on duty."
   "Relax!" Nyla snapped. "We still have a ways to go before we hit LA, don't we?"
   "Actually, we're almost there now," Polly said. Apparently, Nyla's perception of time had been grossly distorted by the past day.
   Nearly thirty Patrollers were operating in the LA area by the time Nyla got there. She stopped by the relief camps first. It was a crowded city of lost souls that Nyla found, full of lives violently rerouted by what was called "The Biggest One". She formed her Aventine uniform and asked the first relief worker she found there for a list of known survivors. She was bounced around from administrator to administrator for the next half hour. None of the workers showed any reaction to dealing with someone wearing a colorful uniform and a mask. Apparently they had been dealing with a lot of Patrollers lately. When Nyla finally got access to the database, her father's name wasn't included. Still, several people reassured her that more people were brought in all the time.
   Nyla closed her eyes and concentrated on the tingling sensation which her Gauntlet left on her left hand. She placed her Gauntlet over her heart, and her thoughts fled from the frantic chaos all around. She remembered Polly's description of the otherdimensional Infinite source of the Gauntlet's energy. A blink of the cosmic eye away existed a reality composed of a single essence, one boundless energy. Nyla imagined herself connected with that Infinite essence; and the fear from within ceased its petty grumblings and watched impotently as Nyla joined the task of reclaiming the survivors and burying the multitudes.

   "Are you sure it'll be safe leaving you here?" Nyla asked Polly. She and her Recharger were by one of the heavily-guarded Broadcast Power generator tents.
   "You're talking to me like I was a little kid, Nyla. I am a Recharger, remember? Quite possibly the single most powerful piece of technology on the face of this pre-Civilized world? I'll just stay out of everyone's way and I'll be fine. If I do have to move anywhere, I'll let you know, so don't worry about me. Actually, you'll have to worry about yourself."
   "I've gotten reports about a number of Patroller murders in the vicinity over the past two days. Right now there are two Patrollers searching for whoever's responsible, but-"
   "Good. I'll make sure to watch my back when I'm out in the field. See you in about twenty-four hours."
   If Polly could actually experience emotions and not simply simulate them, she would worry about Nyla's apparent lack of concern or fear.

   That night, the Patrollers who worked during the day took a much-needed break. Whoever didn't immediately crash for the night found one another in a tent set aside as Patroller housing. After dealing with disaster all day, they craved human contact. Some sat around a plastic table, drinking hot chocolate and introducing themselves to one another. Other Patrollers were scattered about the tent, alone or in small groups.
   Nyla sat on the ground and watched TV. The cup of cocoa had grown cold in her hand and she had yet to sip from it. Patrollers Keith Corvair and Beth Pollard walked up to here. "...been crazy rumors about some kind of monster running around here. Excuse me. Mind if we change the channel?" Beth asked.
   "Go ahead." Nyla wasn't paying attention anyway.
   To her left, the people at the table began arguing. The heated exchange was instigated by Martin Hears-the-Wind, a thin man with long hair, a sharp chin and deep bronze skin. "I just don't see why all you people have to dress up like this and hide your identities."
   A man covered in black replied, "We just want to keep our personal lives intact from our Patroller duties, so you can get off that moral high horse you've been riding all day, Martin."
   "First, we are not on a first-name basis. Second," Martin said as he held up his Gauntlet, "what do you think this is? A hobby? Something to do when you're off the 9 to 5 track? That's really pathetic. Nothing's going to change with that kind of attitude..."
   Nyla refocused her attention on the TV. Still more earthquake coverage. Meanwhile, Beth and her friend Keith had sunken to flirtation and banal small talk. "...the only problem with the desert is it's dry. Dry like the roof of your mouth..." Phosphorous images of shattered lifeless bodies flashed across Nyla's eyes. The heightened voices to her left escalated to yelling.
   Enough. "Will all you people just SHUT UP!"
   The tent silenced. Keith tried to defuse the scene with humor. "You can switch the channel back if you'd like." But Nyla flew out the tent without hearing him.
   "Maybe one of us should go after her," suggested the man dressed in black. "Make sure she's okay."
   "Just let her have her cry, boy scout," Martin muttered.

   Nyla thought she could play the brave little soldier, persevering for God and Civilization. A gross over-estimation of her backbone. The tragedy she's witnessed was finally sinking in and taking root. The images of this day would stalk the edges of Nyla's soul for what remained of her days. All the buildings, proud monuments to the grandeur of human society, shaken to a landscape of humble debris. The expert marksman who thought the earthquake was God's declaration of war against the faithless. The shrieking infant buried under the crushed bodies of her parents. Worst of all were the endless corpses whose open eyes saw nothing at all.
   She cried upon a pile of rubble. Her tears grew into dry empty wails and then faded into a quiet despair. How could they hope to Civilize this world, when in the blink of an eye an entire city could die? Under the shadow of an instant holocaust, what hope did any of them have? Oh dad...
   That's when she realized that her Gauntlet must be nearly out of energy. She flew back in the direction of the relief camp and hoped nobody was still angry with her.
   Nyla heard some kind of a whooshing sound behind her. She turned around and her eyes bulged with shock. It was a missile aimed right at her! She threw up a shield and braced for impact. The missile hit the shield but it didn't detonate. Instead, it pushed through Nyla's shield.
   "Concentrate," Nyla thought. "Concentrate or you're dead!" Still the shell pushed through. Gas burst out of it and burned Nyla's eyes. Panicked, she still had enough composure to throw up a new shield before her as she flew blindly. She slammed into the ground and did not rise. It was over in seconds.
   From the ruins sprang an armored man. He was Sylvester Grier, an agent of a newly-formed government strikeforce called PRIME. PRIME's purpose was to prevent the Patrol from upsetting the government's authority. In Grier's dictionary, that translated to blowing as many Patrollers to hell as possible.
   When Grier first heard of the Biggest One, he knew that Patrollers would be going there in droves. It was the perfect opportunity to field-test PRIME's anti-Patrol weaponry and power jammers; the ultimate shooting range.
   He checked his target and saw that Nyla was still breathing. "Damn," he muttered. "Looks like I'll have to use real ammo on this one."
   That's when a dark figure emerged from the night's darkness. "You will leave the Patroller alone, Sylvester Grier." Its icy voice echoed directly into Grier's mind.
   Shocked by the mental intrusion, Grier cursed "Jesus! What the hell are you?" and fired his high caliber machine gun at the shadowy figure.
   "Who am I?" the creature retorted. Despite the gunfire, Grier could hear it perfectly clear. "I'm the creature under your bed. I'm the man on the grassy knoll. I'm the illegal immigrant welfare queen and the pro-life fanatic with your daughter in my cross-hairs." It calmly walked through the barrage unharmed towards Grier, who stumbled back in fear and kept firing. Then the dark creature pounced on Grier and forced him to the ground.
   He didn't even have time to scream.

Sylvester stood in the family room of his modest childhood home. For that matter, he was standing in his modest childhood body. Before him towered the Cosmic Defender, who was perhaps the most widely know Patroller at the time. He was poking Sylvester in the chest with his latest report card. "Dammit, boy, is this the best you can do?" the Defender bellowed. "It's no wonder I had to come in and bring Earth to Civilization!" The Defender used his Gauntlet to create a thick belt. "Boy," he said quietly, "go to the corner and turn around."   In the kitchen, a Recharger floated in the air. It watched but did nothing.

   "Oww! Ah! Please stop! I'm sorry sir, I'll do better!"
   The Emissary crouched and patted the head of the veteran soldier who whimpered on the ground. "Listen carefully. I don't want to do this to you. It truly pains me. But the presence of the Patrol on this world mandates my actions. If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be here. You remember that."
   The Emissary let Grier run away and it savored his terror from a distance. Then it turned to Nyla and looked upon her as only an Emissary could. It saw a steady stream of fear flow out of her. "How ironic that a servant of the Enemy's foes could provide the Enemy with so much nourishment," thought the Emissary. "I'll have to take a closer look at this one before I decide whether or not to crush her."
   First, the Emissary had to insure that Nyla would survive the wounds she suffered from her fall. It searched for the nearest Patroller and planted a mental impulse in his mind to come here. The Patroller in black showed up and breathed a sigh of relief when he found a pulse on Nyla's left hand. Then he saw the silver gleam of her Gauntlet bleed away to a weak pale shade before it dissipated entirely. "Damn," he muttered as he carefully picked up Nyla's body and flew away.
   And amid the shadows the Emissary pondered the fate of Nyla Shapire.

Next: Flights of Angels

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Copyright 1995, 1997 by Michael Mendoza