This Is Only a Test...
David van Domelen

[Cover shows Greymask and Cosmic Defender as reflections in a gunman's scope. The sniper's face is totally in shadow. Cover copy is "Scoped!"]

   "...and finally, to end our Superhero report for the night, a 25 year old man died today at the hands of gang members in Kansas City. He was dressed up as a superhero and carried a shield; a shield that did nothing to keep him from being shot in the back while he tried to break up drug traffic in one of the city's lower-income areas. Police have not released his name yet, saying that they need to find his next-of-kin first, but...>KLIK<."
   Simon Karlson steepled his fingers contemplatively in front of his face after putting down the remote control. He'd figured there would be copycats, but not this soon. Time to get the PR in motion...convince people that if they don't have a Gauntlet they shouldn't try to go out and fight crime. Criminals preparing to face a truly superhuman foe tend to turn enthusiastic normal people into closed-casket corpses.
   Turning to his computer, he began to type up a series of memos to his PR staff.

   It was a particularly cold mid-Autumn night in Denver. The stars invisible through the city lights, the moon hidden behind one of many highrise office buildings. The streets were bustling with early night traffic, diners and barhoppers filling the streets and the sidewalks. The mood was somewhat subdued, however, as if the people were afraid of something. Crime? That had dropped markedly over the last few weeks. No, the people were afraid of being caught in a crossfire the next time the city's "protectors" chose to make another strike against the dwindling criminal element.
   Ask the average person on the street what they thought of the Machine, and a few would enthuse that they were the best thing to happen to the city. Most, however, would gladly be rid of them. In the City Council chambers, worried aldermen met to discuss how anything could be done about these vigilantes. Representatives of the poorer, more crime-ridden areas pointed out that although crime had dropped significantly, it was at the cost of large-scale urban destruction. Was the cure worse than the disease? If not, was there at least a less traumatic cure?
   The heat of the debate removed the chill neither from the night air nor the hearts of the debaters.

   Jack had lived in LA during the riots. His business had been burned to the ground, and he decided not to rebuild. Instead, he moved to Denver, where "that kinda thing doesn't happen, right?" He moved in with his brother, Mal, and got a decent job working at the kind of place he used to own.
   Too bad his next door neighbors ran a crack house.
   Oh, the crack business next door was a constant danger, but one you could adapt to if need be. And he and his brother almost had enough cash socked away to start a small business and move out of the neighborhood it wasn't exactly permanent, was it? Three more weeks, and they could make the down payment on a storefront with an apartment above it. Three more stinking weeks was all he needed.
   The Machine gave him one. Then they raided the area, beating up drug dealers and smashing crackhouses. Jack and Mal escaped with their lives, but their savings were gone up in the resultant fire...Oh, not all of it, but alot of it. Enough that the dream of moving away had to be put back months if not forever. Enough that the rest was barely enough to pay medical bills from injuries they suffered getting out. Now they had no home, no savings and not alot of hope.
   Jack cursed as he saw two Machiners zoom past him in the night. Then he headed back to the hostel, hoping there was still room, and knowing there wouldn't be.

   "Hey, did that guy just give us the finger?" asked Greymask.
   "I wouldn't be surprised. We're not exactly popular around here, you know. I really hope Kar...Captain Justice has plans to spin control this, or move somewhere else," replied Cosmic Defender over the wind.
   Greymask tilted to make a sharp turn. "I know we're not in this for gratitude, but I'm not too thrilled with being reviled for putting my neck on the line to stamp out crime."
   The pair's patrol brought them into an area that had been recently bulldozed after the extensive damage they caused.
   "Maybe we're stamping too hard. You and Astra seem to really like causing excessive property damage...her I can understand. But you? Having troubles with..."
   Greymask cut him off. "We're doing okay, okay? Maybe I just get pissed at these scum leeching off normal people. They're a cancer...sometimes you need to take some healthy tissue with the cancer, or it'll keep spreading."
   "Yeah, but you don't amputate the head because of a brain tumo>UNGH!<"
   Cosmic Defender flipped over in the air, lost control and glanced off a wall. Greymask immediately looked in the direction opposite the one his partner had bounced in, looking for a sniper. He found more than he was looking for.
   Several dozen gangbangers streamed out of hiding places, carrying heavy weapons normally not seen outside a military base. Greymask cursed himself for falling into a predictable patrol route...they'd walked into an ambush. Cosmic Defender, stung by the bullet but not killed thanks to his costume's force field, regained control and set up a wall around the area, to prevent any misses from hitting surrounding buildings.
   Gangmembers inside the wall began firing at Greymask, who dodged as best he could, knowing he was the least defended of his team. Those outside continued to rush the wall. Cosmic Defender wondered what they hoped to accomplish.
   Then one of the attackers hit the wall, acting as if he expected to pass through like the wall were paper. He didn't. A device on his neck glowed red and he shrieked in pain. A voice boomed out of nowhere, it seemed.
   "Patroller! The devices my men wear will cause them harm if you touch them with your fields! You know what that means! I suggest you drop your wall..." the voice trailed off with an audible sneer.
   Several gangmembers looked about in confusion. They had been lied to, that much was obvious. They thought that the phrase "He won't be able to use his powers on you" meant they could pass through the fields like they weren't there. Now that they knew the true meaning, several panicked and tried to run, but they were surrounded by the wall. A few shrugged and kept firing. One snapped utterly and rushed the wall again. Lyons cursed and dropped his fields.
   Most of the gang members took the freedom that offered, and bolted. The few that remained decided that was a pretty good idea and turned to run. Greymask took advantage of the fact he wasn't being shot at, and grabbed the nearest opponent.
   The device glowed red again and the gangbanger shrieked in pain. Greymask grabbed the device on his foe's neck and tugged on it, but it seemed to be affixed pretty strongly. So he pulled with his superhuman strength.
   The device came out. And with it a handful of flesh from the kid's neck. Blood began to pour out, but the gang member didn't have time to bleed to death as the device chose that moment to detonate.
   "YAHH!" shouted Greymask as his hand immediately went numb from shock. The kid's head was blown cleanly off by the explosion and the two of them blown several meters apart. Greymask spun as he fell back, as his hand had taken most of the force. Overcoming his momentary shock, Cosmic Defender quickly scooped up his partner in a force construct and flew off with him at best speed.
   Surrounding both with an airfoil shape, he pushed his flight, trying to go as fast as he could. He felt the rumble as he broke the sound barrier while still in city limits. Had he bothered to look down, he'd have seen windows shattering under his flight path. Minutes later he was over the ranch in Montana and signaling for emergency medical assistance.

   A few minutes ago....
   Astra was bored. It seemed to be one of her only two remaining emotions lately. Boredom and anger. When you can't feel physically, you stop feeling at all, she thought. Why had she decided she should take that stupid Gauntlet thing? Did it ever help her get a date? Did the job of Patroller pay any? No. Sure, she made money now, but what could she spend it on? Why buy clothes to attract a guy when you can't do anything once you've got him? And socially she was a bust...over six feet tall and coyote-ugly. Forget a social life. Maybe if she'd had the accident after she'd learned to make a decent face.... No, then she'd be a pretty freak. What's the difference? She'd still be a bubble person. An empty shell that might pop any day. Cure? Ha. Nothing left to be cured. She was doomed to a life of uncertain length and certain crappiness. Thanks to that damn Patrol thing. Like, who cares if we get Civilized anyway? Maybe we like being rude, crude and nasty?
   She sighed, but no cloud of fog marker her breath. Scowling, she tried again. Nothing. Damn, another thing she couldn't do anymore...her mouth might be able to make sounds, even blow out a little air, but she didn't have lungs. Her breath was as freakish as the rest of her.
   She decided maybe that old professor guy might have something interesting, so she went back inside.
   The damage from that asshole Janssen was repaired, and she supposed it was warm inside. Not like she could tell, anyway. Wier was tinkering with something that looked like a Recharger with the top lopped off, and technostuff stuck on the sides.
   "Whuzzat?" she asked, as if she were interested. Right.
   Wier gave a little start, then looked up. "Ah, Astra. This is a lens, of sorts."
   "Lens? Doesn't look like one to me."
   "Well, not of light. It's actually a power receiver and transmitter. You see, one of the major problems in using broadcast power to energize your teammates' gear is that the power beam needs to follow their movements very closely. Feedback cycles help the tracking, but in order to let them move at combat-feasible speeds, the beam must be fairly wide to be sure that they don't leave it and lose power. The farther away they are, the harder it is to keep the beam on them...despite the fact that their angular velocities go down, the feedback cycle takes longer, and the beam must be spread further."
   "Fascinating," commented Astra, trying to keep her sarcasm down to a low roar.
   "Indeed it is. This device will help solve that problem and allow greater power levels at greater range. The main power broadcast need only focus on one of these devices, which then rebroadcasts to the individual Machiners. By putting one of these in a van or whatever near the scene of action, the main power beam can focus on a stationary site and reduce the power loss to almost nil. The range from this lens then becomes the important quantity."
   "Why does it look like a hacked-on Recharger? Irony?"
   "Actually, there is a physical reason for the shape. The truncated pyramid seems to be the ideal shape for channeling broadcast power. It has to do with the geometry of the waves. I can only theorize that the reason the Rechargers have points is that the top part of the device is the computer brain of the Recharger, as well as containing the physical Gauntlet. However, without further study, I cannot confirm this, nor can I determinte how the Gauntlet gets from the 'capstone' to the user's arm." The doctor leaned back and sighed. Astra noted his breath wasn't visible...must be warm in here then.
   Then the comlink beeped. It was Cosmic Defender's frequency. Wier reached over to open his end of the link. "Wier here, what..."
   "Dan's hurt! I need a med team ASAP!"
   "I'll get Dr. Bannon to set up immediately, Mr. Lyons. Meet him in the infirmary."
   As Wier made the appropriate calls, both to Bannon and Karlson, Astra mused that maybe it was a good idea to come in here after all. Could be interesting....

   "Someone not only knows the weaknesses of the Patrol, but exactly how to exploit them. How?" demanded Karlson as he met with the other Machiners. "Lyons?"
   "My Recharger still won't talk to me except to berate me. No idea."
   Karlson sighed in exasperation. "Well, get back on it's good side as soon as you can. If need be, I can pull you off missions so you can build up some brownie points or whatever the machine wants. Any ideas, Dan?"
   Dan glanced at his bandaged hand, quite glad that nothing had been broken, just bruised. "Not really, except that it's gotta be pretty advanced tech. I mean, a gizmo the size of a walnut had the power to not only tell when its wearer was touching a force field, not just the power to put him in extreme pain, but also the power to explode like a hand grenade when removed."
   "Hmm. Any ideas who else might have the scientific training and knowledge to work with force fields, Wier?" asked Simon.
   "No. As far as I know, I am the only person currently living who worked with those theories enough to actually build on them. Even if someone was tipped off by your search for information and looked into the theories, it would take months to even get a basic idea of the technology."
   "Damn. That leaves us with nothing. A mysterious enemy who knows at least as much about the Gauntlets as we do, if not more." Simon Karlson, aka Captain Justice, was not pleased.
   "Boskonians," muttered Astra.
   "Hm?" Karlson turned to glare at her.
   "E.E. 'Doc' Smith's Lensman series. I read it once...Doc Wier talking about his broadcast power lens reminded me of it," she shrugged.
   "What about these...Bosco...?"
   "Boskonians. Y'see, in the Lensmen books, there's two main groups. The Good Guys, the Lensmen, who work with Civilization to make the universe a better place, and the Bad Guys, the Boskonians, who want to smash Civilization and make the universe their private battlefield. Pretty standard space opera, and kinda like our situation, I guess."
   Simon paused for a second. "So if the Patrol is like these Lensmen, it might stand to reason we have some kind of Boskonians too, that's what you're saying?"
   "Yep. Except in the books, the Lensmen started out on Earth, so the Boskonians were always a step or two behind in terms of the Lens. Here, the Patrol is pretty much established already, so we're a few steps behind the bad guys. They have their tactics already in place, designed to exploit the weaknesses of the Patrol. We might be in trouble."
   Dan sat bolt upright. "No, we aren't in trouble. We're not Patrollers, except for Sam. We can hurt people as much as we damn want. And as long as we don't do stupid things like grabbing trapped devices," he winced, "we have a tactical edge. And if that lens thing Astra said Wier was working on can get us up to full power at any combat site, even my defenses should be enough to stop whatever they can throw at us."
   Sam frowned. "But we just lost part of that edge. Whoever supplied those punks now knows for sure that we're not all Patrollers. He'll change tactics soon enough. And he knows that at least one of us is vulnerable, that the force fields we use aren't invincible. If he knows enough about the fields to make those gizmos, he knows enough to make something that'll cut through them like a knife through water."
   "Then we'll just have to try and freeze the water. Wier, I want those boosters ready for production ASAP, and then I need you to work on a way to cut through the fields. Once we know how it can be done, we'll know how to stop it. Dan, you and Sam stop patrolling for a few days while you heal up. In the meantime, Sam, I want you to get back in the good graces of your Recharger. Maybe go do good deeds in San Fran. We need more info on these Boskonians. I have a PR campaign to get rolling to keep idiots from getting themselves killed playing superhero." Karlson turned to leave, when he heard a slight cough.
   "Um, anything for me to do, chief?" asked Astra.
   "Yeah, practice with that flightpack. I know crashing after three seconds of flight gets boring fast, but your biggest liability is you're slow. If you can get adept at that 'pack, it's one less thing enemies can use against you. And maybe read some more of that space opera...maybe, just maybe, the writer was contacted by the Patrol to help lay groundwork." He grinned, then left.

   In a seedier section of Denver, a dark figure brooded. He now knew that somehow the locals had figured out how to duplicate some of the Patrol technology. The usual tactics wouldn't work...time to fight fire with fire. He picked up the phone.
   "Dave, it's me. Yeah. mentioned? Yeah, well, I need to have some info dug up. Yeah, that way. Someone's making some revolutionary tech gadgets out there...yes, the Machine, you read my mind. Anyway, I wanna know who's making them. My backers don't like the idea of superhuman troopers being out least not when my backers have none of their own. Yes, exactly. Samples would be nice, but plans are enough. Payment? Howabout some insider info in trade? Great. Once he's on the job I'll give you some juicy tips. Yeah, my backers can make sure they pan out. Okay, you know the number. Bye."
   The Emissary grinned. Fighting fire with fire was so much fun. And it's just too damn easy when you can read minds. Picking up the phone again, he made some...other arrangements.

   Brian Janssen was in a foul mood. It had taken him three days to get his clearance through...damn State of Emergency. And now he was getting told that Karlson was charging his employers for the damage to his ranch. Explaining that was going to be just loads of fun. Nearly as fun as sitting in a musty filing room, half buried in string-tied packets of documents, information gathered by the KGB over a half century. Information on Nazi scientists. Somewhere in this haystack was the needle Janssen needed to prick Karlson's bubble of self-confidence. He placed another paper into the 'useless' pile without hardly looking at it. Then slowly, the contents seeped up to conscious level, and his eyes shot open. Frantically almost, he grabbed the sheet up and carefully reread its contents. His jaw dropped.
   The document would mean little to someone who hadn't spend weeks researching Wier's past. Oh, it didn't refer to Wier at all, that's why he had been about to discard it. But what it did refer to made Janssen's heart sink into his stomach. And it had had 50 years to continue unhindered. Under his breath, Brian muttered an old ward against evil his mother had used to use. And he knew it wasn't nearly enough. Nowhere near.

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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen