Fight Seen
David van Domelen

[cover: Beacon reeling back from a mighty blow from Aster, as Astra flies in from the background]

   The man who only knew himself as Aster stood in the cold late fall air, but he felt none of the chill. He was as insensate to the cold as to pain, or to the yammering American words coming from the gaudy man at the podium. Even had Aster understood the language well enough to follow the rapid speech, he didn't care to know what the man was saying. All he knew was that he was here to sin against God. To kill a man.
   Why? For the thousandth time he asked himself this, and needed not even a second's pause to answer himself. Because God had abandoned him, and George Mounts had saved him, that's why. And because this Simon Karlson was sheltering the kind of monster who made Aster what he now strong he could shatter steel with the barest touch, yet so massive he would easily sink to bedrock without the special belt Mounts had given him. He had been to the pits of Sheol...who was to say he was not now a spirit of that place, sent back to Earth to dispense holy vengeance on the monsters of this world? He was Aster, the star, a bringer of light. Whether he brought God's light or that of the other light-bringer he cared not. What little life he could hope to have he owed to Mounts, and that swept away any niggling little doubts he may have had about his mission.
   Karlson must die before he befouls the world with his unholy discoveries, discoveries made on the blood of innocents like Aster. And if this tricolored servant of Karlson's would seek to bar him...well, Thou Shalt Not Kill once violated or twice violated is little difference.
   Karlson was taking questions now. Aster waited for a pause, and then shouted the words he had so carefully practiced with speech tutors the past few days, words he felt with all of his heart, and if he yet had one, with all of his soul. "And what about harboring of Nazi war criminals? You keep hidden and safe a monster from Dachau! What of that? Men who would strip people of life and soul...monsters without soul themselves!"
   Around him he heard sounds of annoyance from reporters. They didn't want to hear about this anymore. To them it was a dead issue. Not to Aster. And if he perhaps shrugged a few of them aside a little too forcefully, it could be understood.
   As he approached the stage, blue-coated men ran to stop him, but with an easy sweep of his arm they went flying. The gaudy protector leapt to save them, leaving a path open to Karlson. Aster pointed an accusing finger at the man he was here to kill. "You must die for your evil!"

   In an alleyway in a city across the nation from the scene that galvanized television watchers, a figure suddenly appeared.
   Not in the sense that he suddenly stepped out of the shadows, although there were shadows aplenty. One moment he wasn't there, and then he was, an inky blot against the grey wall.
   Yet, if you were to blink at the wrong time, you would never have seen him as an inky blot, for faster than a blink he was no longer a shadow. He now wore a dull grey parka and slacks. Thrusting his grey-gloved hands in his pockets, he looked about, as if expecting to be followed. Satisfied there were none about, he walked out of the alleyway and onto the busy early-December city streets.

   Ted really didn't like the way this day was going. His little speech had fallen rather flat, which was bad enough, but now that superpowerful person Janssen had warned them of was apparently here, and as strong as advertised. The other Machiners had better be watching this on TV and get over to help pull his ass out of the fire...his suit was so built for defense that there was no way he could really drop this killer-wannabe. The best he could hope for is not to get killed while holding the looney off.
   Making sure the rent-a-pigs were safely out of the way, Ted turned back to the Russian, who was now threatening Karlson in a fairly thick accent. "Greyhair! Yeah, you! You'll have to get past me first!" he shouted with a lot more confidence than he felt. Pointing at his foe, he unleashed a number of filaments, which enveloped the man in a 'soft' force field. Karlson took the opportunity to dive behind the curtain of the stage, where presumably he was whisked away. Maybe he'd be able to get to his Captain Justice gear in time to help Ted out. Maybe not. But as long as Ted could hold the Russian here, the reporters and local politicians could escape.
   Ted nearly didn't get to regret spending too much time looking where Karlson had gone, as he felt his head snap back as everything flared violet. "Your threads not stopping Aster!" shouted his antagonist as he followed through on his punch. Ted's 'soft' force field was soft because it dumped energy as light rather than transfer it back to the attacker. Hence bullets would thud to the ground instead of ricocheting. Also, it helped keep Ted from being bowled over by attacks. However, even with the shields dumping energy way up in the violet part of the spectrum (it was normally at the radio wave level) he still flew back nearly a dozen meters into the stands, and his helmet's chin was shattered by what made it through. If he'd been using a 'hard' field like the Machiners did he might not have been hurt as much, but he'd be halfway to the Rockies by now, he figured.
   Picking himself up, Ted saw Aster heading backstage. Stretching out both hands, he sent out as many streamers of force as he could. If he could concentrate on this instead of woolgathering, he could keep Aster put for a while. Keep the threads elastic, let Aster feel like he was trapped in bungee cords...yielding without snapping. It was working! Aster was swatting about him like a man who had wandered into a cloud of gnats, trying to free himself from the tangles of momentum-sapping force field. "Yes!" exhaled Ted.
   Bad move. The momentum-sapping bit worked both ways...that's why his costume had a helmet instead of just a mask. The vapor from his breath was suspended in the field, quickly forming a thick mist that he couldn't see through. And he had to see Aster to keep him off balance. Risking the weakened fields it would cause, Ted pulled back one hand to bat away the mist. He could see again, but didn't care much for what he saw. Aster had taken the moment of stability to destroy the tendrils assaulting him. Ted checked his Heads-Up Display...not enough filaments left to keep up the tactic now. And punching would do no good...even with his increased strength the force field made it like punching with balloons for hands. Or did it?
   Aster had apparently decided it was necessary to concentrate on Ted. Good and bad. Ted reached into the bleacher setup he had landed on and wrenched out a steel support rod about five meters long. Making sure none of the remaining reporters were in his swinging radius (the idiots value the story over their lives! sheesh), Ted brought the pole down on Aster's head.
   No effect. Didn't even make him flinch. Ted let go quickly before he could be pulled in by the pole, and leapt over Aster's head to land behind him. Using one of his remaining filaments, he tried to sweep Aster's legs out from under him. No go. Aster must still weigh hundreds of tons, despite the odd fact that he wasn't sinking into the partly frozen dirt.
   Aster spun around and kicked Ted, a glancing blow that sent him a few meters while making his shields flare redly. Reaching down, Ted found a power cable used for the PA system, and ripped it up. Aster was about to deliver a killing shot to his downed prey, but Ted was fast (and lucky) enough to roll aside and let Aster punch into the exposed cable, his fist ripping through the insulation and making him close the circuit. Maybe only a few amps, but maybe it would work....
   Or maybe not. The electricity crackled over Aster, limning an aura that Ted hadn't seen before, a faint orange glow around the man. But Aster himself was unhurt. Time for desperate tactics.
   Leaping back and up to the stage, Ted sent his filaments at Aster's face, trying to get at least one down the man's mouth. This could be fatal, and wouldn't help Karlmax's image any, but it was down to Ted's death or Aster's. The filament snaked into Aster's innards, coiled under cybernetic control, and then exploded outward in a spiral of destruction.
   Or that was the theory, anyway. In reality, nothing happened for a second, except that Aster looked mildly uncomfortable. Then he clamped down his teeth and severed the filament. Aster smiled and brought both fists down on the stage, tossing Ted up in the air. He came down to meet the fist of Aster, and everything went white...

   A lot of people envision cramped, dark rooms with a single light shining in your face when they think of being 'debriefed' by an intelligence agency. Or maybe of a deep basement room padded against any sounds that the subject might make. They don't think of an unimpressive middle-management style office on the third floor of a nondescript building. Well, most don't.
   Brian Janssen certainly did. He had no real choice...he was being debriefed by an intelligence agency in such an office. Of course, it happened to be his own office, but in a sense it also belonged to the Shin Bet as well. Because the 'private' group he had been working for, hunting down information about Nazi war criminals, turned out to be secretly controlled by Israel's own counter-intelligence agency.
   Not a terribly big surprise, but still a bit of a rude shock when you enter your office and find three men with very official demeanors waiting for you, pictures of yourself changing into and out of costume arrayed on your desk and no doubt some videotapes somewhere in one of the briefcases.
   "Mister Janssen, would you like to explain why you kept secret the fact that you were one of those possessing the power of the 'Gauntlet'?" asked the lead man.
   Brian refused to be flustered by the man and sat down at his desk. "Because I felt I could make a bigger difference if my allegiances were not known to the public. I may not have done much to stop the violence in the occupied territories, but I would have accomplished nothing if people knew I was an Israeli. The Arabs would have ignored me and the settlers used me as a rallying point for more violence."
   The one on the right spoke up, "Janssen, we're not the public, we're the government. And we insist on knowing where your allegiances lie."
   Janssen knew he had to be very careful. He didn't have the Gauntlet with him, and doubted it could do anything to protect him now. If it came to a struggle, he didn't think he could defeat three highly trained agents without trying to kill them, and that was pretty much out, thanks to the Code. "I want to see the peace process go smoothly. It helps neither side to continue this pointless violence."
   "You didn't answer the question."
   "Didn't I? All right, in words of blatant simplicity: my allegiance is to peace, and Civilization. Not to the chaos that is erupting all around us."
   "You're being needlessly idealistic, Janssen," replied the one on the left. "Your country has been looking to find the secrets of that device you use for some months now. If you help us, it could mean the peace you want. Israel would be safe from all enemies and wouldn't need to enforce its security at gunpoint."
   Janssen smiled patronizingly as he shook his head. "Sorry, I've been digging through too many old files lately. I've heard that argument too many times coming from the pens of Nazis and Stalinists. 'With this device, we will finally be secure from our enemies.' In reality the security is an illusion, as the enemies quickly find countermeasures and the advantage is lost...or they simply sabotage the project. Already in America there are those abusing this even if I were to help you, it's too late, someone else already has the secrets. Superiority over enemies, or 'defenses' against them, is no way to be secure. The only security comes from having no enemies."
   The lead agent scowled grimly. "The only man with no enemies is one who is long dead."
   "Is that a threat?"
   "Only if you force me to make it one. Please don't." Janssen noticed that the agent on the left had moved to block the door, and the one on the right was moving to the window behind Janssen. As he looked at that agent, Janssen saw something that apparently none of the agents did.
   Flickering as it wobbled end over end was a flame. A flame attached to a bottle. A bottle full of gasoline. Welcome to life in the Settlements, boys and girls.
   Janssen dove to the corner of the room, a move that confused the agents only for a fraction of a second until they decided he must have a concealed weapon there. The one by the window leapt to intercept him...
   ...and was enveloped in flames as the molotov struck him squarely in the back. The agent by the door darted through then slammed it shut so the fire wouldn't spread. The lead agent grabbed a coat hanging on the wall and started to smother the flames on his partner, and the alarms began to ring as the agent in the hallway pulled on the fire alert bar. Janssen knew this would be his only chance to get away and dove out the window, three stories up.
   As he arced through the air, he saw the small band of Arabs running from the area, having spent their bombs and not wanting to suffer the wrath of the security forces. The tree Janssen had hoped would break his fall was beginning to catch fire, gasoline from the molotov having splattered out the window. Terrific. He crashed into its branches, luckily not hitting any strong enough to snap his ribs, and landed on the ground in considerable pain, but without major injury. Already emergency vehicles could be heard in the distance as Janssen fumbled with the keys to his car. If he could make it to the outskirts before being caught, he would be able to get free and clear.

   Astra watched the fight from the sidelines. She had tagged along against orders, since she wanted to see the speech in person and not on TV. Good thing, too, she thought when Aster began his rampage. She had been about to leap into the fray, then paused.
   What if he can kill me? He's strong, maybe stronger than me...all he has to do is poke a hole in me and I might pop! Besides, Ted can hold him off, right? Yeah, he's doing okay, ow...well, he's still up, anyway. Maybe the Russian guy will get bored and leave once he finds he can't kill Karlson? Do I really need to put my life on the line here? To save that guy from a pounding? I mean, he's nice enough, but if it's him or me, well, I don't owe him anything, do I? It's not like Aster's gonna kill him, right? Aster wants Karlson dead, not Beacon....
   Aster brought his fists down on the stage and lofted Beacon into the air. Before Beacon could regain his balance, or even land, Aster's fist plowed into Beacon's chest and everything flashed white for a second as the force field dumped as much energy as it could. Ted landed with a dull thud, moving only sluggishly. Aster moved toward the fallen hero and raised his foot above Ted's head....
   "Damn! Damndamndamn!" cursed Astra as she threw aside her jacket and activated her jet boots. At top speed, she was barely able to reach Ted and shove him a few inches out of the way before being brought to a halt by his weight. Aster's foot sank several inches in the hardened turf, instead of several inches into Ted's skull.
   Astra stood and tried to get a grip on the slippery field surrounding Ted. Aster looked into her eyes, and seemed to recognize her or something. A chill went down her spine. Aster's eyes lit up like a child's on Christmas, and he shouted something that sounded Russian. Astra didn't know what he was talking about, but was glad for the distraction. Picking Ted up, she tossed him as hard as she could over the bleachers...his force field would keep him from being hurt by the impact, and it would get him out of danger. But now she had to stop this guy.
   The joy in Aster's eyes turned to a cold flame of hatred. "False! Fake! Lie!" he shouted as he rushed Astra. He stumbled and crashed into the bleachers after Astra jetted out of the way. False? Why did he now hate her guts so much? she thought.
   Aster grabbed some debris and threw it at her with almost supersonic speed. She was blown backward into the high-rise behind her by the impact, but otherwise unhurt. She grabbed a shard of glass from the window she had struck. "Right back at ya!" she shouted as she hurled the shard at Aster, where it exploded into a glittering powder. Then she noticed Aster was only barely leaving footprints. How can that be? He must mass a hundred tons! Maybe he lost weight?
   She didn't want to get close enough to try and grab him to test that, though. Instead she grabbed a guywire from the bleachers as she flew down, and used it like a bullwhip to entangle his legs. She pulled as hard as she could. SNAP! She was hurtling toward him at a rather higher speed than she cared for. Obviously he was still just as massive, she thought as she barely evaded a savage kick. Then she noticed the belt Aster wore.
   Its 'buckle' was disturbingly familiar to the power collectors on the costumes of her fellow Machiners. He must be getting broadcast power from somewhere, and using it to negate his mass somehow! Maybe someone figured out the antigravity angle of the Gauntlet. And if she could take out the belt, she could take out Aster.
   Just barely she dodged a chunk of stage. She hoped it didn't land on anyone way she could stop it anyway. Aster was still raging at her, shouting what she imagined were rather nasty Russian words. Why the hell was he so angry? She'd never met him before, how could she be a liar to him?
   Dodging about, she looked for an opening large enough to get in and smash the belt, but there was none. Aster was too fast and too angry. She had to try something new, something she figured she might be able to do but never had cause to try.
   Her vocal cords were made of force fields, like the rest of her. And in fact, weren't really vocal cords at all...without lungs for the construct she had once worn as armor, vocal cords wouldn't work anyway. Instead, the back of her mouth was a vibrating diaphragm, like a speaker. She'd never used it above normal shouting levels, but....
   "Yaaaahhh!" came the sound, a sound that could be heard for miles. 160 decibels of sonic energy, concentrated on Aster. The dirt at his feet compacted under the pressure, and Aster himself reeled...after all, he still had ears, nearly-invulnerable though they be.
   Ignoring the funny feeling in her throat, Astra dove at Aster and smashed a fist into his belt buckle. There was an orange flash as everything overloaded, and Astra was thrown back into the wreckage of the stage.
   "NNNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOoooooooooo............." screamed Aster as he rapidly sank in the only partially frozen prairie soil. The hole filled in after him.
   Astra got up from the debris. What was that Latin phrase, "Ad Astra Per Asperum"...from the dust to the stars? Her voice, damaged by the shout, croaked, "Ad asperum per Astra...from me to the dust, and may you choke on it."
   A few of the bolder reporters started to edge forward to get better shots of the hole. One who apparently was too bold for his own good shouted a question to Astra.
   "Astra, was it necessary to kill him? Aren't you just fulfilling the public's worst fears about the Machine? And how did you come to be here...are you connected to Karlmax despite Karlson's claims to the contrary?"
   "He's," squeaked Astra. She paused and tried again, more loudly and closer to her normal voice tone, "He's not dead, he's just stuck down there until someone can pull him out. He was trapped underground for decades from what I hear on the superhero rumormill. As for how I was here, just cuz I'm a superhero doesn't mean I don't get cable. Duh. I saw the fight and flew in."
   "But do you plan to turn yourself in to the police for your vigilante actions?" asked another reporter. "A lot of people are saying you're a cure to crime that's worse than the disease."
   Astra turned to the reporter. "Look, mister. We're trying to change things. And any time there's a threat of change, people will cower and blame the change for all sorts of evils. Most would rather lead a nice comfortable existence now and damn tomorrow all to hell! Sure, we've made mistakes, we've overreacted at times...and it doesn't help that the criminals try to blow us up with explosives now that they know guns won't work. But look around you in any city...crime, despair, hatred...they're as common as the trash on the sidewalk. A hundred Machiners couldn't do the kind of damage these conditions will inevitably do...but we're fast, we look to the long term and not the short, and thus we make good targets for all the sheep to bleat at!
   "Yes, sheep! For every one person who is willing to take the chances, endure the discomfort that come with being free and in control of one's destiny, there's a hundred who don't care about where they go tomorrow as long as they're comfortable today. They bleat because the thought of someone actually trying and making a difference makes them uncomfortable...things might change after all, and they fear change. They don't care that the way things are going they're all headed for the slaughterhouse...oh, when they get there they'll bleat about it, but it'll be too late.
   "People fear us, try to pass laws against us, don't want us in their backyards not because we're evil or want to harm them directly, but because we're actually doing something about the world we live in. Even if we're making for a better future for the next generation, everyone's afraid we'll cause them some discomfort at the next paycheck." By now a number of reporters and camera crews were clustered around, but they didn't try to interrupt her with further questions...not yet.
   "I can see you presshounds waiting, hoping I'll pay out enough rope for you to hang me with at the next newsbreak. Does it really matter? We're already in the gas chamber of public opinion, a little hemp isn't going to matter much.
   "But all of you...reporter, viewer, everyone...think on this. Do you really hate and fear us for doing what we do?
   "Or do you hate and fear yourself for not doing anything?"
   With that, Astra activated her jets and tore up into the air, rapidly outdistancing the clamor of the press and the whines of ambulances. She knew Karlson would chew her out something fierce for her statements to the press, but for now....
   For now it felt pretty damn good.

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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen