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#7
Djinn and Tonic
David van Domelen


[text page on inside front cover]

What has gone before:
   In order to advance the cause of Civilization, the Rechargers were seeded on Earth during the Perseid meteor showers of last summer. Those who found the Rechargers became members of the Patrol, possessed of great powers, but shackled by the Code: Do No Harm. Simon Karlson decided that he couldn't abide by the Code, and set about assembling a team of like-minded individuals, who would help him dispense a somewhat more uncivilized brand of justice. They are Sam Lyons (Cosmic Defender) and Dan Thomas (Greymask), one a Patroller and the other an ex-Patroller who violated the Code, and Astra, a girl who possessed a Gauntlet until a one-in-a-million accident trapped her with an immensely powerful energy body. With the help of aged scientist Dr. Richard Wier, they gained the technological edge needed to be superhumans without the restriction of the Code (Lyons excepted). Karlson took the identity of Captain Justice, and together they formed the MACHINE.
   Operating in Denver, they fought gangs, faced another Patroller (Brian Janssen) who suspected Wier of war crimes in WWII, and found out the other reason for the Patrol...the Enemy. Facing an agent of this mysterious enemy forced them to face some of their deepest fears, and they're still recovering.
   Meanwhile, Janssen has uncovered a legacy of the Nazi experiments at Dachau that could mean great danger for the Patrol, and industrial spies have uncovered the secrets Wier wrested from the Recharger, forcing Karlson's company Karlmax to go public before their competitors could.
[end text page]


   "Hey, Dan, wait up. I got some ideas for a suit I could wear in the Machine! It'd have alot of armor, a flight pack and some kind of energy gun. I'd call myself Blastrex...wanna see my sketches?"
   Dan sighed and fought down the urge to blow up in Ted's face. Instead, he controlled his voice, turned to face Ted, and said, "Look, first off, we don't have working flight systems. Before you say Astra's got flight boots, remember that she's only about fifteen pounds. And my laser aside, working energy weapons are a bit beyond what Wier's been able to figure out. So will you cool it?"
   "Fine, fine. I still want to join the Machine. I mean, as long as I'm being hunted by your enemies and can't go back to my regular life, I might as well get to play hero too..."
   That was pretty much it for Dan's patience. He dearly loved Ted, but his fuse was extremely short these days, and Ted had a way of being cheerfully annoying that really rubbed Dan the wrong way right now. "It's not a fucking game! Can't you get that into your damn head? With your damn kiddieshow attitude, you'd get us all killed, so forget it!"
   Ted stepped back a little. "Um, Dan, I think I've wandered into your emotional minefield just now. Wanna maybe let me help defuse some of them? I mean, we hardly talked all the way to Denver and back...you're not like this Dan. Really. What's bugging you?" He decided not to try any comforting gestures right yet, worried that it would trigger another 'mine.'
   Dan's face closed up like a wall. "Nothing. You're just so annoying, man...is it a crime for me to get pissed once in a while?"
   "Nothing my ass. You're not being 'pissed once in a while,' you have some kind of permanent mad-on, Dan. Sam agrees with me..."
   "So, you've been discussing my mental health behind my back?" Dan interjected with a sneer. "Grrreat."
   "I'd love to discuss it in front of you, but that kinda requires you being willing to talk about it!"
   "Fine...maybe I'm just hacked off that you were put in danger to get at me. I'm sure you can understand that, right?"
   "Not good enough. Sam says you've been edgy and violent for a few months now, long before I got kidnapped. What gives? I'd think that getting to be a superhero would help you relax, get out the frustrations on people who deserve it."
   "HA! Fine, I'll tell you. Just promise you won't tell anyone else, okay? I want to be the one people find this out from. Promise?"
   Ted paused, then nodded slowly. He hoped it would be something he could help Dan deal with on his own...he didn't want to have to choose between helping Dan and breaking a promise to him.
   "Okay, here's the deal. All the stuff I do as Greymask, all the criminals I bust up, all the gangs we scare out of town...mean squat. Anytime we're off the streets for more than a day, all the punks are right back in. The ones we beat on don't go to jail because the law protects them too much, the ones we injure sue, the ones we kill add to the howls for our heads, and not a damn thing really changes for the better. Karlson's big mission is a big failure, and I don't see how the Patrol can really succeed either. And for all our efforts, for all the pain we suffer when the criminals strike back at us, what do we get? Hatred. People in the neighborhoods we clean up give us the finger. People in the 'nice' neighborhoods bug their representatives to pass laws against us, or have us brought in before we go after the crime in their areas. Idiot kids pick fights with gangs while carrying homemade shields and we get blamed. Yet if we stop, it gets even worse, crime goes on its merry way. So I keep busting my ass, hoping that today will be the day that I actually do some real good, and that never happens. The Machine is bad joke, and I'm one of the saps it's being played on. Now you are too."
   Ted thought for a second. "If it's a joke, you're not getting it, are you? Sure, right now you're feared and hated for what you do and who you are. But you were never bother by that before, were you? Did the fact that the majority of the people in Colorado think being gay is evil make you dump me and go straight? No. You hardly bothered with it. It's the same thing now, you're just in a smaller group, and you haven't found your support yet."
   "Being gay didn't give me the power to accidentally wreck lives or kill with a gesture. And it certainly didn't get me specifically all over the news as a 'Menace or Savior' thing. I don't really think the comparison is all that valid, Ted."
   "Isn't it? Give it time. There's other Patrollers out there, they're going through alot of the same things. Once the shock wears off, you're gonna find alot more people out there support you. Hell, those idiot kids you talk about idolize you. At least someone doesn't hate your guts."
   "Terrific. I'm looked up to by kids without the sense God gave a halibut. Just the kind of reward I want for risking my life...."
   "Enough with the self-pity. There's something else you guys do, even if your war on crime is a total bust. Something far more important in the long term."
   "Huh?"
   "I've been reading some of the reports Karlmax has been releasing to the press in the wake of the patent announcement yesterday. All that new technology with the potential to change the world, if only people believe it can. And you guys, running around in your skintight suits playing cops and robbers at least prove the stuff works! Broadcast power is enough to give a man a field that protects him against anything up to a bursting shell! Lets him lift several tons! Go faster than a locomotive, more powerful than a speeding bullet, and all that stuff! Sure, it's in the very expensive prototype phase, but still, those prototypes look damn good to the public. Think, within a few years, society may be transformed beyond recognition...."
   "By broadcast power and force fields? What, is everyone gonna start playing superhero?"
   "And you call me immature. Sheesh. What's the biggest problem we have with alternative energy sources, that keeps them from being feasible. Well, the two biggest?"
   "Um...most are easiest to get where people aren't...and you can't run a car on them."
   "Basically, yeah. Solar works best in places like deserts, hydroelectric is best in areas with lots of rivers and steep hills, like Montana here, geothermal is limited to a few locations yet, wind needs open space, et cetera. Getting the power from where it can be had to where it's needed is a pain. Oh, and also tidal power is a neat idea, but a problem because of location. And even 'cleaner' sources like Hydrogen and natural gas that can be ported about easily have the problem that they work best at larger scales. You can heat a home from a static pipe of gas, but can't run a car for long yet. Electric cards are still years off because they can't perform as well as gas guzzlers, and hydrogen powered cars farther off still. No alternative energy source is going to catch on until it's close and convenient.
   "Broadcast power makes any source convenient." Ted looked about as far from his usual irreverant self as possible. "Once the minutae are ironed out, like frequencies and payment methods, you can have a solar panel farm in Arizona powering cars in California. You can have a vast river network supply power to millions without moving them to the river and destroying the forest around it. You can take the metal used for wires in power lines and use it for other things. Since the broadcast beam interacts weakly if not at all with matter, there's no health risk like with high tension lines, and you can project right through the Earth itself to anywhere on the globe in need of power. Sure, we might open up a few new environmental hazards with the alternative sources, but they'll be far 'nicer' than what we do with fossil fuels and nuclear power and so forth."
   Dan smirked. "You rub the lamp and wish for a utopia. Too bad you can't see the consequences of the wish until it's too late to take it back. The Djinn is out of the bottle, Ted. Karlson didn't want to let it out, he had to let it out, or someone else would get the next wish. Someone stole the secrets from one of his labs...if that hadn't happened, it might have been years before we let out the full plans. Ever think of what the OPEC states will do when it's found that fossil fuels won't be needed as much? And how many lobbyists will do their damnedest to block approval of the technology in the houses of Congress? The economic dislocation, the problems of switching over and who gets switched over first? Oh, this will mean an end to our current society within a few years...question is, will there be anything left to replace it? Karlson didn't release the information because it was the right thing to do, but because it was the only thing to do."
   "You say dystopia, I say utopia. Probably it'll be in the middle somewhere. But that's why I want to join the Machine, not to play around in spandex, but to help push the scales to the right side."
   "How do you propose to do that? People hate our guts, remember?"
   "The adults, maybe. I think most of that will pass. But what about the kids? Think long term, Dan. Utopias can't be brought by technology...science is neither good nor evil, it just is. We have to look to the minds that will use the technology, the ones who will grow up in this brave new world. Even if we don't make a difference right away, we're trying to prove that things can get better. That it's not a pointless fight, that by keeping at it we seriously expect to do good. Years ago, kids could dream of growing up to be President, to have the power to affect the world. Anyone could seriously hope for this...it wasn't like the old kings and emperors...anyone could grow up to make a real difference. But nowadays, the elected leaders aren't really making much of a difference. Kids soon lose the hope of being able to ever affect anything, and focus on simply making themselves comfortable, affecting just their immediate environment. Let the world go hang, they can't do anything anyway.
   "But the Machine represents another hope! You don't have to be born with some extra gene, or be bitten by a radioactive tick, or have the rocket carrying you from a distant planet crash in Kansas...you can just put on a suit and be a Superhero. Anyone can make a difference, be a hero! Sure, you may not have new members for some time, since the suits cost money and don't make much profit, but is it unreasonable to expect that by the time kids grow up there will be plenty of openings? Any man a superman with a simple device. Police able to ignore bullets and catch criminals with electric zaps, rescue workers able to lift collapsed roofs with their hands, this is the kind of future kids can hope for! If we give up, it's admitting that even a superman can't make a difference, and we'll have lost the struggle for Civilization before we start.
   "Yeah, none of this is gonna happen for years, but kids have years to grow up, to hope. If they think they can make a difference, they will make a difference, no matter what technology you give them. If they don't think they can make a difference, forget it. The Machine is only a spark, but if it isn't kept alive, the flame will never catch." Ted leaned back against the wall, a little exhausted by his speech.
   Despite himself, Dan felt a little of the cynicism around his heart crack and fall off. But only a little. "I'll believe it when I see it, Ted. I still think we're trying to empty the ocean into a thimble."
   "Well, it's a start. Try to loosen up a bit, okay? I don't wanna see you tear yourself apart over this. You're supposed to be the stable, mature one, you know." Ted paused for a moment, then pulled out an art pad. "Now, here's an idea for a suit I call the Osprey..."
   "Ted, don't make me hurt you..."


   One 'good' thing about Israel these days, it's not too difficult to explain having gravel imbedded in your internal organs, thought Janssen. Makeshift bombs were popping up in the darnedest places, usually conveniently near to Settlements. Of course, he wasn't totally believed, but his clout with the war crimes group let him smooth over the rest of the questions. Unfortunately, pretty soon he'd have to explain his Gauntlet to his bosses.
   A quick patch job and pickup of a flak vest later, and Janssen was zooming back North into Russia. Darkness was starting to fall, so he had to hurry if he wanted to find that rock outcropping again and make another try to rescue the experimental subject. Thank goodness he couldn't really go anywhere. Someone with that much power and uncertain sanity could do alot of damage if left unchecked. Brian'd worked out a construct that should hold the man while he was over the Black Sea, and saved it to the Gauntlet's memory. This time he'd be prepared for anything.
   Except finding that the man had been taken away over an hour ago....


   Working through an interpreter was always awkward. That's why George Mounts had always tried to learn every language he needed himself. And Russian was one he had long felt he needed.
   The man was lying on a Titanium slab resting on concrete, a setup that was designed to hold up to a thousand tons. However, it was obviously not meant to hold that kind of weight concentrated on an area the size of a man, and the metal block was already warping slightly. The man himself didn't look too imposing on the surface, naked save for a towel thrown over his midsection. His muscles were those of a farmer, and he had some of the flab of encroaching middle age. His beard was short and stubbly, and his mustache like something out of a picturebook of Mother Russia, and both were greying. But he seemed to give off an aura of strength nonetheless. Add to that they way things bent before his slightest move, and he was downright impressive.
   "Hello," said Mounts in slightly accented Russian.
   The man shifted a little to look at Mounts. "Can you help me or kill me?"
   "Probably both, but we'd rather help you. Do you want us to help you? Mister...?"
   "I...I've forgotten..." he began to sob. "That eternity in the ground, and I have been freed only to not know myself anymore. I remember my wife's name was Anya...I thought of her constantly. But I have forgotten my own... name...." His body heaved with sobs, and the concrete beneath the metal slab started to powder.
   "Please hold still. We are trying to figure out exactly what was done to you, so we may cure you. You seem to be dense like a star...would you mind if we called you Aster until you can remember your name?"
   "Call me whatever, only help me..."
   Mounts turned away and suppressed a grin. He had no intention of curing the man if he could help it. Such power! But with the information Cyberfist supplied him with, it should be possible to find a way to let him keep the powers and still be able to walk on the ground.... And when that way was found, the simpleton would be so grateful that he'd do anything for Magnum Inc.


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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen