Welcome to the Machine
David van Domelen

   Present day minus three months.
   One Patroller, charged with nonviolent defense of the planet and preparation for entry of Earth into Civilization, is gunned down from behind by a gang member he though he had disarmed. The fact that he survives is attributed only to luck.
   Another, his friend and partner, lashes out with a plane of force and beheads the gang member who just shot the first Patroller. Almost immediately he feels the Gauntlet on his hand dissipate and he drops twenty feet to the ground, breaking both legs.
   Present day minus ten weeks.
   Simon Karlson has just had a long talk with a Recharger he has found on his ranch in Montana. As a result of the discussion, it has left to find a more suitable Patroller. The other result of the talk is that Simon finally crystallizes his beliefs on the state of the world, from having talked to one of such a differing, yet similar, viewpoint than his. Remembering the news reports from Denver regarding the two people who now are obviously Patrollers, and their subsequent hospitalization, he begins to set in motion a plan. Oh, it's not really a plan yet, more of a glimmering of one. But it blossoms quickly. Two days later, the injured Patrollers have been transferred to a private clinic partly owned by Simon's company.
   Present day minus nine weeks.
   A retired professor of Physics begins to worry that his past is about to catch up to him. When he gets the first death threats, that concern turns to panic, and when he gets an offer of protection from a Mr. Karlson, Professor Wier takes it in an instant.
   Present day minus two months.
   The recipient of Karlson's rejected Recharger goes into action for her first time. Protecting her identity and enhancing her strength by using the Gauntlet to project a new powerful body around herself, she quickly gains a reputation in Chicago as Astra, the world's strongest woman.
   Present day minus seven weeks.
   Dan Thomas, the fallen Patroller, and his partner Samuel Lyons first meet their mysterious benefactor. They find themselves in agreement with Karlson's plans, and Lyons gives Professor Wier access to his Recharger to study it. The Recharger is less than cooperative.
   Present day minus six weeks.
   In a one-in-a-million mishap, a regulator on Astra's Recharger fails. When her Gauntlet runs out of power in the middle of a conflict, it begins drawing power from her real body's matter, leaving her an empty shell somehow maintained by her Recharger, her mind now stored in the Gauntlet's computer. In pain, she goes on a rampage in Chicago until Patroller Lyons is able to capture her and bring her back to the clinic.
   A month ago....

   "Astra, calm down, please. I'll let you go if you promise to listen to Mr. Karlson and not try to wreck this place." Lyons had Astra held in a sphere of force generated by his Gauntlet. It wasn't easy. In the background, Professor Wier was busy getting readings from Lyons's power, to add to his already copious databanks. Thomas and Karlson stood back out of immediate reach, Thomas in a sweatsuit and Karlson in a business suit.
   "Why should I calm down? I'm not human anymore, why act human? I'm just some forcefields and a computer bank. A weapon. I could wink out at any time, I just wanna take as much scum with me as I can before I that too much to ask?"
   Thomas looked to Karlson and noted as an aside, "Well, at least the therapy has her only wanting to kill criminals now."
   Karlson stepped forward. "Listen, please. Your mind is still a little... addled by the change you went through. We can't let you do anything you'll regret when you recover..."
   "Recover? To what? My body is gone. I can't feel it inside this bubble, there's no way to recover." Astra punctuated her words by pounding fiercely on the construct that trapped her.
   Karlson refused to even feel intimidated, much less look it. "I mean recover in mind. You did die, in a way. But you got a second chance. The accident which did this to you may have been unlikely, according to Lyons's Recharger, but the fact you even partially survived it verges on the impossible. I won't dance around this trying to avoid hurting your feelings, that's the job of the psychiatrists I hired. The fact is, yes: you're a cripple. You can't feel, you can't eat, you can't have sex...many of the things that you may have either taken for granted or at least known were possible are now denied you. But you're a cripple who can punch a hole in a battleship's hull. I'm offering you the chance to make a new life with what you can do, for as long as you can do it. It's either that or you just rail at what the fates have done, about what you can not do, until you finally do die. If ever. Now, do you want to try and find life, or just wait for death?"
   Astra stood still for a moment, jutting her lower lip out in a distinctively adolescent pout. For all anyone knew, she could be a teenager... she'd so far refused to give any name other than Astra, saying that all she was now was Astra...her real name was dead with her real body.
   Lyons dropped the shields, but remained wary, prepared to raise them again at a moment's notice.
   "Now, if you'd like to hear my proposal...?" Karlson cocked his head to one side and looked at Astra.
   "Sure, sure...whatever." Sullenly, Astra plopped down into one of the chairs scattered about the lab.
   "I'm sure you know what the mission of the Patrol is, it's the first thing the Recharger will tell you. And you know the limits imposed on the user: no harm to be caused to anyone, even at the risk of your life, or the Gauntlet deactivates permanently. And in case you might have thought that an idle threat, Mr. Thomas here has lost his Gauntlet in precisely that manner, and nearly lost the use of his legs because the power was taken from him while he was flying.
   "I refused to accept the offer of a Gauntlet for precisely that reason. Certainly, the principle offered as defense of the rule is sound in theory. You're not going to promote civilized behavior by acting in an uncivilized manner. But the theory breaks down in a rather serious way when you consider that we're a long way from fitting their definition of civilized. If the world were a little better of a place, I might have accepted their offer. But it isn't. This is a violent world, and sometimes the only way to deal with the worst is to become bad yourself. We need not lower ourselves to the level of the beast to defeat it, but we may need to get off our high horse.
   "I guess what I'm saying is that there needs to be a medium. Someone, or someones, who will deal with those very worst elements, those who cannot be defeated nonviolently, those who can elude the Patrol. For with the advent of the power of the Gauntlets, there will inevitably arise other weapons powerful enough to challenge the fact, Professor Wier has developed a few in the last weeks. There is no guarantee that all these weapons will end up in the hands of those dedicated to society's benefit. In fact, the first rule of weapons is that they find their way into the hands of those who want to use them to society's detriment. If not sooner, then later. Oh, the technology of the Gauntlet is in no danger of being duplicated here for centuries: it's far too advanced. But the built-in limitations of the Gauntlet are chinks in the armor of technological superiority. A weapon against the Patrollers need not even be a weapon as we think of it, it could be a new tactic, or a mindset that exploits the known weaknesses. Right now, it is only a rumor that Patrollers cannot harm anyone...once that's confirmed the Patrol is in trouble.
   "What I propose is that the four of us, and such allies as we can make later on, form a buffer between the Patrol and their worst foes, a transitional step that will have the power to face anything Earth technology can devise, but also lack the weaknesses which anti-Patrol weapons and tactics would be built around. We could be utterly ruthless if necessary."
   Karlson walked over to Lyons. "Lyons here will help us in two important respects. One, he is still a Patroller, and can help us get information otherwise barred to us. His Recharger knows about our plan and disapproves, but has agreed that as long as Lyons himself does not violate the rules, he will not be stripped of his Gauntlet. I also suspect the Recharger, and by extension the Patrol heads, are also aware of the problems I pointed out, and will tolerate us for that reason. Two, it is important to muddy the issue of the standard Patroller weaknesses, and if we're careful we can do that without costing us a member."
   Astra looked somewhat unconvinced. "This all sounds fine, but you and that other guy are just normal humans. What kind of weapons could some old professor make in a few weeks that would be up to Patroller levels? I mean, I'm no scientist, but I'm pretty sure there's no theories to explain all this stuff...he should still be figuring out the basics."
   Professor Wier perked up at the mention of him. He stepped away from his computer and walked closer to Astra. "Ah, but there are theories to explain this."
   "How come we don't have all this neat stuff ourselves then?" asked Astra.
   "Ah, you see, the theories exist, but they aren't accepted by more than a handful...perhaps by no more than those in this room out of all those on this planet. When a theory is devised and can neither be fit in with the orthodox theory nor proven by experiment, it is generally thrown out, and any who adhere to it are branded quacks. Now, usually this is totally correct of the scientific community. However, among the many things I have done which have made me an outcast is my doctoral work. I believed in several of the more... eccentric of Nikola Tesla's theories in my youth, and my attempts to develop them were met with derision. I eventually had to conform to the rest of the physics community and wrote my dissertation in Optical physics, working with some early lasers. But I never forgot those early theories, and when Mr. Karlson found reference to them, he sought me out and offered me sanctuary in exchange for continuing work interrupted in my youth. To be honest, I would have done it without the extenuating circumstances."
   Karlson interrupted the professor, "Doctor Wier has made several intriguing findings based on readings of Lyons's Gauntlet and Recharger. For one, the Gauntlet itself doesn't hold the full charge, rather it serves as a conduit for some form of broadcast energy from the Recharger. Keeping its end of the energy feed open is what the power in the Gauntlet is devoted to. This is actually quite logical, since even if the Gauntlet completely converted its matter to energy, it couldn't power those forcefield effects for more than a few seconds. In turn, the Recharger seems to tap some alternate dimension for power, and is able to maintain this link permanently...except in Astra's case, unfortunately."
   "Why don't the Gauntlets directly tap this power source?" asked Astra, who actually seemed to be getting interested in all this.
   Professor Wier answered, "I don't know. It is possible that to maintain the link requires more equipment than can be made portable. However, Mr. Karlson thinks it is simply another limitation imposed on the Patrollers to keep them from being too powerful. Because they must periodically recharge, they must report back to the Recharger and be held accountable for any questionable actions. As Mr. Lyons is finding out, the Recharger has a fair amount of discretion in choosing its user, and can threaten to leave if not satisfied with the user's performance or explanations."
   Karlson looked straight at Astra. "Because of this, Professor Wier has told me you may be functionally immortal. If you're directly tapping this energy source as the result of your accident, then you'll never fade away. However, it is also possible that your form is being maintained by the Patrol heads because to revoke your power would be to actively kill you. Since it was their fault in a way, they might feel responsible for keeping you alive. However, Lyons's Recharger has been quite silent on that point. However, if they were to revoke your power for causing harm, they would have done so the moment you collapsed that parking garage. My money says you're functionally immortal," he paused and grinned wryly, "I guess you'll just have to live with that."
   "Thank you mister sensitivity," grumbled Astra.
   Thomas spoke up for the first time in a while, "Hey, are the weapons Wier was making ready yet?"
   Wier beamed like a child asked to show off the toys he had gotten for Christmas. "Indeed they are. I was able to copy the lossless broadcast power method used by the Gauntlets, at least to the extent that power loss is roughly five percent per 100 miles from the power source. It ignores the mass of the Earth, so anywhere in the continental United States you should have at least half power. I'm working on improving it. Duplicating the force fields was not as successful. At full power, they can deflect bullets up to machine gun caliber, although some of the energy still gets will sting, but not kill. In addition, the proof of Tesla's theories given by the existence of the Gauntlets opened the door to several new technologies which Mr. Karlson has helped me patent and is developing at his factories. The ones currently ready have been incorporated into the prototype suits."
   Professor Wier walked over to a locked door and punched in an access code. On the other side was a small walk-in closet, which the others followed him into.
   "I have suits for Mr. Thomas, Mr. Karlson and Mr. Lyons. Once I have Miss Astra's measurements I will design a suit for her."
   Astra protested, "I don't need a force field...I'm tougher than it could be."
   Professor Wier chided her, "Ah, but one can never be too careful, no? Also, I was thinking more of movement and communications than defense in your case. You are strong, but no faster than an untrained human...and it is quite possible you will not be able to train to improve. To correct that somewhat, it would be useful to give you greater mobility, perhaps flight. Your invulnerability makes a jetpack feasible, since the exhaust is not a concern.
   "But to the suits already finished. You will have to be careful not to put on or lose too much weight, as they are designed to fit to your skin. They cover your entire body and the forcefields are channeled along fibers in the suit, so as to be skintight and offer extra reinforcement against non-impact damage, such as hyperextension of limbs.
   "Mr. Lyons, your suit is simply protective, with communications systems in the headpiece. Because the broadcast power need not energize any other systems, your shields are quite strong, even at lower power. In the event that you lose your Gauntlet, you should be able to survive the remainder of any encounter, although your combat effectiveness in such a case will be minimal. Your cape is also linked to the force field net, and can be used to protect others in the event your Gauntlet loses power or is taken from you for harming another. The logo you requested is on it, as you see. 'Cosmic Defender' is a bit melodramatic, if I may say so..."
   Lyons nodded, and replied, "Yeah, but I want to keep my identity secret. No one would think of me as being so brash and bombastic as to call myself that, so it's a good camouflage."
   Professor Wier smiled, "Of course. Mr. Thomas, or Greymask as I believe you will be calling yourself, your suit was designed before we could be sure Astra would be interested, so it concentrates on physical power. At full power, you have the strength of twenty men, and if properly braced can lift upwards of three tons. The defensive screens are weaker as a result, but are strong enough around the hands to prevent damaging yourself. I'd estimate that anything over a handgun could penetrate your force field, and possibly damage the will have to be careful. As a contingency, your suit has a battery pack on the right forearm, here. It can store enough power to run the suit for approximately ten seconds after broadcast power is blocked or shut off, giving you time to flee or defeat your foe. It can also boost your power when you are operating far from the broadcast point, or be discharged through the glove as a powerful electrical burst. However, using it too many times in this manner will degrade the batteries. On the left arm is an infrared laser, with the emitter array on the back of the left hand. It is not so much a weapon as a tool. At current output it can burn flesh slowly, ignite combustibles or blind someone. A normal laser of this power would require a briefcase-sized power supply and an emitter the size of your thigh. However, with broadcast power, and with the forcefield between the emitter and your hand meaning less cooling system space needed, I have significantly reduced the size. Your mask has lenses which can be changed to either let you see the otherwise invisible beam, or to protect your eyes from it. Finally, the boots are equipped with powerful air compressors and gyroscopes, allowing you to hover on most flat surfaces, and reach speeds of up to thirty meters per second. Be careful, however, as using all systems at once will reduce your shields to uselessness." Wier handed the suit to Thomas, who immediately shrugged out of his sweatsuit and started putting it on. Astra looked a bit embarrassed and averted her eyes.
   "Finally, Mr. Karlson, your Captain Justice suit. It concentrates on protection and speed. The force fields in your suit are the 'normal' strength I mentioned, capable of handling anything up to large caliber machinegun fire. The suit triples your physical strength, and gives you reflexes significantly faster than normal, since the force fields help move your limbs faster than mere muscles could. Your shield," Wier held up a triangular object, roughly a meter on a side with straps on the back, "has a backup battery like in Greymask's armband, and additional force field generators. It would take a howitzer to penetrate the shield at full power. However, laws of inertia still apply, and that howitzer blast would throw you back several dozen meters at least. Thrown, it can dent concrete, and is drawn back by a force field tether of sorts. Finally, it can project a dome of force, but this drains the batteries, which as I said degrade if drained too often. Both your and Greymask's batteries will recharge fully in about 90 seconds at full power levels, longer as you get farther from the broadcast point. Your motorcycle has been modified to run on broadcast power as well, and has its own force fields to protect it. The gas tank and most of the engine have been replaced by a large battery capable of powering all three suits for a minute at half power should broadcast power be interrupted. It is still being tested, however."
   Karlson turned to the others. "We'll spend the next two weeks training with the equipment, then I have a few ideas for our first mission...."

   Present day.
   A television set drones on with the local Denver news as its owner putters about in the kitchenette. "...and our lead story today is yet another street gang left battered and frightened, with their weapons destroyed as well as their morale, hung by their ankles from street lamps in their 'turf'. The police have eyewitness reports that it is once more the work of the group dubbed by the press as the Justice Machine, then renamed the Machine after a comic book company complained of trademark infringement. Although not the first group of superpowered vigilantes to show up in recent months, this is the first one to include members who apparently do not use the mysterious Gauntlet device. And theories that Gauntlet users had to be nonviolent are apparently not true, as the so-called 'Cosmic Defender' uses his Gauntlet with every bit as much aggression as the other members of the Machine. He would be the third Gauntlet user in Denver in recent months, the previous two having been seriously injured and apparently retired after an encounter with gang violence on our streets...."
   And in the sub-basement of one of Denver's many under-occupied office buildings, Patroller Lyons was once again justifying himself and his actions to his Recharger.
   Finally, in a hotel in downtown Denver, a middle-aged Israeli checked in to egt a good night's sleep before checking out the lead he had on a Nazi war criminal named Richard Wier....

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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen