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#8
Not Quite a Thousand Points
David van Domelen


   Brian Janssen stripped off his sweat-sodden mask and slumped down on the cot he kept in this bolthole. A thin shaft of light came in a crack in the wooden shed from the sullen moon, and was quickly washed out by the lamp Brian turned on.
   Things had gone seriously downhill in the "occupied" areas over the last few weeks. It had been all Janssen could do to try and keep the violence to a minumum... he'd been too bosy to do more than send a short letter off to Karlson to warn him of the enhanced Russian he'd encountered. Well, at least there'd been no reports of a rampaging strongman in the past month. It was some consolation.
   He took off the thermal top of his "superhero" costume and shivered in the night air of the unheated shed. To even have a chance of stopping the violence among opponents of the peace plan, he'd had to totally disguise his identity. If either side thought he supported the other, he'd simply become another of Them. And no one listens to Them. As long as both sides thought he might be one of Us, he could try to calm the rioting crowds. Still, for all his power, he was only one man. He had no extraordinary powers of persuasion, and knew from a half lifetime in the Settlements that force had been tried and tried and tried...and always failed.
   Finishing his change into the street clothes he kept hidden in the shack, Brian headed out into the night, headed for home. As he walked, he reflected for the hundredth time on how Israel was more torn by violence now that the PLO was at "peace" than in any time in recent years....


   Simon Karlson frowned. Congress would only be in session for another week, and still no action had been taken on the legislation regarding KarlMax's new patents. The fact that the Machine without question used that technology had been a major bone of contention on both sides of the issue, unfortunately. If left simply to the FCC to determine regulations for use of broadcast power, KarlMax could go bankrupt long before the profits could come rolling in. The Broadcast Energy Regulation Act had been pushed to the back of the agenda finally, and would probably not make it to a vote this session. Damn.
   To aggravate matters, Greymask's somewhat overly optimistic boyfriend had been agitating for a position in the Machine. Karlson knew he owed the man something for effectively ruining his life, but Ted was not Machine material. Not in any important respect. Ted was too optimistic, too idealistic to function in a group whose main reason to exist was pessimism. Karlson founded the Machine because he didn't think idealism would serve to bring about Civilization. Not yet, anyway. Ted would just get in the way, maybe get himself killed. Even in the best case, it would kill Ted's idealism...and we'd need more idealists if the future of a Civilized world was to be possible. No, better to find those already disillusioned for the Machine.
   Simon's computer blinked color for a moment. Email on another window.
   He clicked over to his email and saw it was the latest poll results in on the Broadcast Energy Act. Not good.
   Only 34% favored passage of the bill as proposed, which was a fairly hands-off regulatory board. 75% favored the Republican version which would totally regulate the industry and force KarlMax to allow other companies to use the technology for little to no licensing fee to KarlMax. Odd, noted Simon, that the Republicans were coming out with a regulatory bill in the first place.
   The next poll result made it pretty clear why the conservatives felt that way. 86% of the public said they felt that they would have a higher opinion of Broadcast Energy if not for the vigilante actions of the Machine. Congressmen on both sides decried the vigilante justice the team meted out, and the collateral damage they caused. And it was felt that, despite serious PR campaigns to the contrary, KarlMax controlled the Machine.
   Time for a radically different approach. The Machine was still vitally needed...the encounter with that psychic entity had convinced Simon of that more than anything. But it needed to drop out of the public eye. The Machine needed a distraction, as well as a way to help the image of KarlMax in the public eye.
   A smile spread across Simon's face.
   Idealists make such lovely distractions.


   Astra stood in front of a mirror. All about her were probes and sensors and wires and...stuff. Real science was alot less flashy than science fiction, she thought to herself. Most of the apparatus looked more like it belonged in an exhibit on plumbing than in perhaps one of the most advanced labs in the country. Wier assured her that it was supposed to look like that. Sleek flashy devices are the province of movies and commercial products, not cutting edge science, he had said. Advanced research required tools not necessarily available from a catalogue. He actually seemed happy to be back in a lab after a few years of retirement, puttering with various gadgets and gewgaws and getting them to do what he wanted.
   Physicists are strange, she mused.
   "Astra, try to make the bridge of your nose flatter. Just that. I will let you know if you are moving too fast," said Dr. Wier from behind his computer screen.
   Looking in the mirror, she pictured her nose getting smoother, less like some kind of beak. It was maybe the hundredth time she'd tried this since learning she wasn't stuck in a single form.
   For several seconds, nothing. Then her nose started to shift and change form! Eagerly she willed it to straighten and become more elegant...and it rippled and shrank. Then a sensor started to beep.
   "Astra, stop! You're losing coherence!"
   Panicky, she tried to stop her nose from changing, just put it out of her mind. She closed her eyes in concentration.
   The sensors stopped making noise. She opened her eyes.
   Where her nose had been was a flat space.
   "Terrific. Just terrific," she said.
   "This is going to take a little more work, apparently. Why don't you go relax while I analyze the data from when your nose was in flux? I should have some answers in a few hours." With that, the scientist fell into a deep study of the various sensor logs before him. Astra knew better than to try to talk to him when he was like that, and sighed as she left the room.
   Walking down the hall, she almost ran into Ted, who was heading for the training room. He stifled a giggle.
   "One word, Gerhardt, and you get to see what it's like to not have a nose eitehr."
   Smiling, Ted put his hands up as if to say "not a word from me, boss," and ducked past her.
   As she walked into her room, she mused, "At least I wasn't trying to change my mouth...."


   Thanksgiving had come and gone without too much event. Turned out Dan was a pretty good cook and they had a nice traditional turkey dinner. Afterward, Jenny, Sam and Simon watched one of the football games (turned out Jenny knew more about the sport than either of the other two) while Ted and Astra helped Dan clear the debris.
   "I see you found your nose again," commented Dan as he stacked a few plates. "Still needs a little work."
   "Yeah, well it's a good thing I didn't try any major shapeshifting, or I mighta lost more than my nose then."
   Ted was wrapping the rest of the turkey in foil for leftovers. "I know you don't have to eat, Astra...but couldn't you have at least tried some of the food? I mean, you can see and hear, why not taste?"
   Astra shrugged as she put on an apron, not so much to keep from getting wet as out of old habits. "I already know I don't smell, and most of taste is in smell. Even if I could taste, it wouldn't be much of a big deal...just salty, sweet, sour or bitter." She paused for a moment. "Ted, I didn't want to 'talk shop' over the dinner table...how are you doing with that new suit?"
   Dan frowned right away at that. Ted caught the frown out of the corner of his eye and sighed. "Dan, for the last time, I'm not going to be joining the Machine. I'll hardly be using powers at all, really. It's a PR type job. I'll be going around helping out at homeless shelters, teaching kids about avoiding drugs and guns, that kind of thing. The supersuit aspect is almost secondary."
   Dan put a handful of silverware in the sink and said, "Okay, alright already. Just seems kinda slimy though...PR to help Karlson's image problems, plus you have a daily chance of getting shot at."
   "No, it's not that bad. I got a few promises out of old man Karlson before I agreed to this...."


[Flashback, later in the same day as Karlson got the poll results.]   "Okay, Ted...I've found a way for you to really help make a difference. You even get to wear a supersuit."
   Ted did a doubletake. "Heck, even I was convinced I didn't really belong in the Machine now. Why the change of heart?"
   "No change of heart. You won't be in the Machine, and that's final. You'll be taking on a more public role. The Machine is getting a very bad reputation, and some of it is sticking to KarlMax, not to mention hurting the very cause we're supposed to be advancing. The Machine is going to go deeper out of view for a while. In the meantime, I want to get some highly visible heroes out there to help repair the damage done to the reputation of heroes in general."
   Ted smirked. "Sounds like you want me to be some kind of politician for superheroes. I'm not going to lie to people to help you make a profit, Simon."
   "You don't have to. If any lying needs to be done, I have professional liars on my staff to take care of it." Ted almost thought he saw a brief grin pass Simon's mouth. "Your job will be, effectively, public service. I've made arrangements with a group that coordinates volunteer efforts in Denver, they'll be helping point you where you'd be needed most, and teaching you the ropes of things like educating kids and so forth. You told me again and again you wanted to make a difference...here's your chance. The comicbook superhero approach obviously won't win the important battles, the ones for the ideals of the people. We still need the Machine to counteract those who would try to cast themselves as supervillains, but the real battle won't be a fight at all.
   "But it will be a struggle. Are you willing to devote yourself to helping people who may not have any gratitude to give? Are you willing to be a visible target for everyone's resentment, and try to defuse that sentiment? This won't be about playing cops and robbers, Ted, this will be the real thing. Do you think you can handle it?"
   "Yes."

   Of course, they'd had some other disagreements since then. Ted had wanted to let his sexuality be a matter of public knowledge, but Karlson argued that such a move would simply turn away everyone who was against gays. Better, said Simon, to concentrate on the single problem of anti-hero sentiment than to try to tackle several problems at once. And once the one problem was solved, Ted could use his clout and image as a hero to do more for gay rights than he might be able to do right away. Ted didn't totally agree, but Simon did control the money and the suits, so he acquiesced for the time being. For now he'd play it Karlson's way.
   While Ted had been reminiscing, conversation had drifted onto the superbeing Janssen had sent them a letter about. Wier had determined that the likely candidate for creating such a man would have been Weissman, a colleague of his who had been nabbed by the Soviets at the end of the war. Weissman had shown some interest in applying Tesla's theories to the human body, to make a man with greater density and strength. He had apparently succeeded beyond the bounds of reason and practicality.
   "...oh, I think I can take him in a straight fight," commented Astra.
   Ted joined back in the conversation, "How could he even get in a fight, anyway? He's too heavy to stand on anything...he even eats through Gauntlet force fields!"
   Dan nodded as he put a plate on the drying rack. "I agree. No way could he actually get in a fight. My guess is that whoever has him will analyze him to make lighter copies, guys with less density who can actually function in a gravity well. Add in Wier's published stuff, and they might not even have to sacrifice too much strength in the process."
   "I could still beat him..." pouted Astra.
   "Action-reaction, dear," said a voice from the door of the kitchen. Wier had apparently emerged from his lab, where he had gone right after dinner.
   "What?" asked Astra, almost dropping a glass as she turned to face the elderly scientist.
   "You mass roughly seven kilograms. According to Mister Janssen's letter, this man must mass nearly a hundred tons. If you punch him, you yourself will fly back at a great speed from the impact, because his mass will prevent him from moving more than a slight amount. You might be able to keep him held in a grab, but to what effect? You cannot strangle him...if he was under the ground for forty years he obviously has no more need for air than you do. I am no combat strategist, but I'd say at best you would serve as a distraction for him."
   Astra frowned and placed the glass back in the cupboard.


   Monday afternoon. Congress had closed for the year without considering the Broadcast Energy Regulation Act. It was time for the PR campaign to kick into high gear in anticpation of the next session.
   Several hundred members of the Fourth Estate (the press, folks) were crowded into a fenced-in area of KarlMax's parking lot, waiting for the upcoming press conference. Reporters paged through their press packs, leafing through pamphlets and wondering about the t-shirt they found inside. The shirts looked rather patriotic in design...mostly red with a blue band across the chest, and a white five-pointed star in the center of the blue band. A few joked that he was going to introduce a superhero and this was some advance merchandizing. A few reporters even came up with a list of possible names.
   At three exactly, the curtain behind the podium opened and Simon Karlson walked out. Flashbulbs popped as the print journalists started getting in their photos.
   Karlson stepped up to the mike, which was switched on. "Members of the press, esteemed guests, today I announce KarlMax's official entry into the new 'Superhero' community."
   A few rumbles in the crown could be heard as those who guessed on a superhero patted themselves on the back.
   Karlson continued after it settled down a bit. "However, the comic book idea of a superhero is not what we're following. We've had people like the Machine and the Gauntlet-bearing heroes now for several months, and they haven't done much positive for all their visibility. No, we realize that grandiose acts and violent criminal-bashing aren't going to really help anyone in the long run. We need to have a hero who really helps people, and more importantly, helps them see how they can change the world themselves. Yes, this is an old line, I know. But that doesn't make it less true.
   "This is a dark time, and could get darker. Poverty, drugs, guns, crime...all of these could get worse if no one really cares. Superheroes cannot light the darkness themselves, even though some may think they can. No, as brightly as they may shine, they are still only sparks. But a spark is better than nothing, for it shows people that there is something besides the dark. And in seeking the spark, people can help light the darkness themselves. Former President Bush talked about a thousand points of light to light the darkness, but it never really got going. Why? Because none of the sparks he tried to coax burned brightly enough, or long enough. Yes, it is the everyday person who is needed to finally light the darkness...but people need heroes to look to. They need a brightly glowing beacon to show them that light is possible, and to show them a way to become sources of light and hope themselves. Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you what we hope will become such a hero...who will not necessarily make the night into day, but will help the day come. I present, Beacon!"
   The curtain pulled aside as a figure stepped out, accompanied by a fireworks display of flashbulbs. He wore a red bodysuit with the blue band and white star from the t-shirts. His face was totally covered by a helmet, the faceplate fixed in a closed position. Before the press could settle down and start asking questions, he addressed them via a microphone built into his helmet.
   "I will say this before all of you ask," he said in an oddly distorted voice, "my identity is mine to keep secret. Not just for me as an individual, but because it really doesn't matter. Anyone could be in this suit, and in the months that come, many will be. I could be the guy next door. I could be the person who yesterday took your order at a restaurant. Or who chatted with you in line at the bank last week. I could be anyone.
   "And that is the important thing. Anyone can be a hero with just a will and the means. You don't need superpowers, although I do have them, to make the lives of those around you a little better. I won't be running around and breaking up drug rings...I'll be in the local homeless shelter, or working with kids in the schools, or helping save people from a raging fire. This suit lets me help in big ways without worrying about being hurt...but that doesn't mean the small ways aren't important. You may have noticed by now that I'm not the best of public speakers," a few in the crowd snickered or smiled, "but hey, I'm just an ordinary average guy. I think I can make a real difference with these powers, and I hope I can show that you don't even need the powers to make a difference. I'll be working with Helping Hands, a volunteer coordination group, to try and make a difference here. I won't be making press events out of my actions. A media circus doesn't do as much good as simply helping people by doing things. If you want to follow me around for a story, fine. You'll find the number of Helping Hands in the press packs, you can sign up to do volunteer work alongside me. Get involved in this story. Don't just stand back and say how bad it is that people are poor, and how wonderful it is that someone is trying to help...be one of those someones trying to help.
   "I can see the question on some of your lips. What about people who try to imitate me in the wrong ways, who think they can run around and act like a comic book hero? Already several have died or been severely injured trying to imitate other superheroes in recent months. I'll say this for the record, for anyone who might want to be like me: I have powers from this suit. You probably don't. Don't try to act like a superhuman...just be a human who happens to be super. Someday, the technology that gives me my abilities will be available to anyone. But that day is decades from now. I don't want to see someone with hope in his heart kill himself playing superhero. And don't make a costume like mine to go out and do good deeds in either. Why? Superheroes draw fire from people in more ways than bad press these days. If you dress like a hero, you can die like one. Instead, if you want some symbol that tells people you agree with what I'm trying to do, sign up with Helping Hands. I feel like some kind of huckster saying this, but everyone who signs up for at least twenty hours of community service will get a shirt patterned after my costume. Yeah, it seems hokey, but think of it this way: if you see someone wearing one of the shirts, you know that person's dedicated at least some time to helping the community. You know who gives a damn. And the more people you see with them, the more you can see this is starting to work. Eventually, the results themselves will become visible as well. And eventually you may see more people in this outfit too, playing the role of Beacon. Anyone with the desire to help might be Beacon...you'll see men and women, blacks, whites and any other race, rich or poor, religious or atheist, young or old, gay or straight, you'll never know for sure, well...except for the man-woman bit. Beacon is an Everyman, representing how anyone can be a hero. Anyone can be a symbol. The face behind the mask is immaterial...Beacon's actions will speak louder than whatever the person in the suit has or hasn't done."
   Beacon took a step back as Karlson took the podium again. "Beacon's identities will be protected, both to help make Beacon a symbol instead of an individual, and also for the safety of the people who wear the suit. For such service, they deserve at least the chance at a normal life. Beacon's powers are detailed in the pamphlet you have in your press packs, and essentially are defensive in nature. He has ten times his normal strength, and his forcefield is specially designed to absorb an impact so that bullets do not ricochet and harm bystanders. He is able to send out filaments that act as waveguides for his forcefield if he needs to protect a large area from harm. But most importantly, Beacon cares. Everyone who wears the suit genuinely wants to help people both as individuals and as a whole.
   "We will take questions from the press now."
   The usual tumult arose, and Karlson looked for a friendly face. He found none, of course. This was a press corps in full Feeding Frenzy mode. "Yes, Mister Blitzer from CNN?"
   The correspondent cleared his throat and asked, "This is all nice and public spirited, but what about the connections between the Machine and your company? Is this just a smokescreen to hide the illegal vigilante actions of thsoe so called heroes?" Several other reporters nodded, having wanted to ask that very question.
   "The Machine was never officially sanctioned by KarlMax, and you may note they have not been seen in weeks. KarlMax's full support is behind the Beacon project."
   Before Karlson could point to another reporter and before Wolf Blitzer could interject, a thickly accented voice came from the crowd.
   "And what about harboring of Nazi war criminals? You keep hidden and safe a monster from Dachau! What of that?" The man moved down through the crowd, effortlessly shoving past the press of reporters. He had greying hair and a neatly trimmed, if large, mustache. "Men who would strip people of life and soul...monsters without soul themselves!"
   Most of the reporters sighed. The questions about Wier had been answered weeks ago, and the evidence pointed to Wier being innocent of anything save cowardice. Who was this nutcase?
   The man approached the stage and security tried to restrain him. He shrugged and they flew into the air, toward a wall! Beacon quickly sent out a web of glimmering wires and poured power into them, catching the men in a sheet of force and cushioning their impact.
   The man threw off his overcoat and pointed a powerful looking hand at Karlson. "You must die for your evil!"
   Watching the events on CNN, George Mounts smiled. This was going quite well....


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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen