A Star in the Midwest
David van Domelen

A Christmas Special

   Note: Constellation #18 takes place immediately prior to and coincident with this story.
[cover: vague humanoid silhouette shining brightly from within at center top of cover. Janssen in civvies is looking up at the 'star' from a city street.]

   Janssen pulled over to the side of the back road and killed the engine. Shin Bet agents always make one feel so at home, he thought as he popped the release on the trunk. Of all the various national security agencies in the world, it didn't have the worst record for respecting the rights of citizens, but even if it had the best, that wouldn't be all that good. And considering how much of a threat Janssen could pose to Israel if he really wanted to, it was no surprise that they were on his tail now.
   The 'hideout' he'd used to change into costume for the past few weeks was a total write-off, he hadn't even bothered to go in that direction. Even taking the naive assumption that there weren't Shin Bet agents staking it out at the time, the fire would only distract the ones at his office for a short time, then they could call for someone to go check out his home and the hideout as well. Good thing he had his Recharger in the trunk.
   He stepped out of the car and walked around to the back, contemplating the day's events. Specifically, the rather convenient firebombing of his office. Certainly, the Settlements were violent, but they weren't as active a warzone as, say, Bosnia. Maybe someone identified the Shin Bet agents or their car, and were attacking them. Problem with that idea is that his office was just high enough up that the agents wouldn't have been recognizable from the ground, nor would it have been obvious which office they went into.
   That left Brian with a fairly uncomfortable conclusion. Shin Bet wasn't the only organization to figure out his 'secret ID'. The Palestinian rabble alone probably couldn't have. But someone may have decided to use them as a weapon, feeding them the location of a good target, as well as maybe some cash or weapons. One thing was for sure...with at least two organizations in Israel gunning for him, it was not a healthy country to stay in. Out of the country, at least he'd only have to deal with Mossad, and given time they could be reasoned with. Hopefully the lag time for transferring data on him from the internal Shin Bet to the external Mossad would give him opportunity to find a way to convince them to stop chasing him.
   Then he could concentrate on whoever else was hunting him.
   Opening the trunk, he opened a duffel bag to reveal the Recharger, nestled in with some spare clothes and tools. Putting his hand against the surface of the reddish pyramid, he let the Gauntlet flow over his right arm. His Recharger spoke into his mind, sounding ever so much like Brian's dead uncle.
   "So, y'got into hot water here, eh? Gonna run out on your people?"
   "Look, right now I've got more people chasing me than I can safely handle. I need some time to figure out a way to cut that number down to one I can manage."
   "Hokay...just remember that many seeds can come from one pomegranate. Ya wanna get ridda th' seeds, y'gotta get ridda the fruit."
   Closing the bag and slinging it over his shoulder before taking to the air, Janssen mumbled, "Never did like pomegranates...."

   Off to one side lay the debris of a set of bleachers and a stage, piled for later removal. Occupying the center of the formerly grassy area outside the Karlmax corporate headquarters was a large piece of construction equipment, fitted with some kind of drilling gear. Already a large heap of dirt and rocks had piled up next to it. Off to one side, a small knot of people talked.
   "Sure this will work?" asked one, the head of Karlmax's PR department.
   "Well, according to the engineering guys, the force field outfitted on that drill should let it go pretty deep without needing a bit replacement. Plus, presuming that Aster sank straight down, the drill will eventually hit him, and he can grab it. Sensors at the tip will tell us if that happens. Then the force fields should reinforce the drill shaft enough for us to reel Aster in by it. Presuming, of course, that he wants to be rescued. According to the information supplied us by contacts in Europe, he's perfectly able to survive without air or food for an indefinite period," added Karlson. "Jack, how deep are they now?"
   A man in a hardhat consulted a small notebook computer. "Forty meters right now. Based on his estimated mass of 100 metric tons supplied by your sources, and on the geological survey maps, he should be anywhere from thirty to a hundred meters down, depending on the error in weight and any early thrashing about he might have done. If he'd held still from the moment of starting to sink, he should have been found already, which would mean we simply missed him. The drill we have here has a max depth of seventy three meters. If we reach that and still don't get him, we'll try another hole. The rock right here is sandstone, and he'll sink pretty fast until he hits more solid stuff at sixty meters. Still, once he gets that deep, he shouldn't sink more than an inch a day. Unless he struggles."
   "And if he does struggle?"
   "He could be halfway to the mantle if he really wanted to by now. If he really doesn't want to be rescued, we can't to a thing to help."
   "Terrific. Les, how's the current public reaction to all this?"
   "Well, opinion on Aster is pretty mixed. Half think he's a monster and are glad he's gone. A third think he might have had valid reason to attack you, this is the fraction we've been trying to aim alot of PR at recently. Hopefully it'll work."
   "And the others?"
   "Um, well, most of the rest expressed no opinion, but there's a group, about five percent, with error margin of three percent, that think Aster was made by Karlmax and used as a publicity stunt."
   "Cute. As if I'd create someone with that much power and tell him to try and kill me. Well, at least that's a smaller percent than think Kennedy was killed by the US Government. Howabout the reaction on Astra's little impromptu speech?"
   "Again, mixed. As you'd expect, most of the people who thought Aster was a monster like Astra, since she stopped him. However, the anti-vigilante sentiment is still there, and her support is less than fifty percent. Opinion on the Machine has improved four points on a simple yes/no survey, but when broken into levels of support, we find that the middle has made the big gain. Those who sorta support or kinda are against have gained at the expense of both strong supporters and strong detractors."
   "It's the strong detractors that write Congressmen. And on whether they think we're responsible for the Machine?"
   "Ahem. Unchanged in the yes/no. However, more opinion is shifting to 'helping' from 'controlling'. Which could be good or bad. Less people think you personally should be held criminally responsible for their actions, however, which is definitely good. Legal advises us to start working to pay for damages caused by the Machine as a 'community service' thing before any lawsuits come to trial. They feel it will be less expensive since punitives will be lower if we start helping before we're forced to. They don't think we can get completely off the hook, since as owners of the patents we hold at least some responsibility."
   "How so? Espionage does happen, you know."
   "Er, yes, but even if there's no link at all between us and them besides them stealing our technology, courts favor the 'Least Cost Avoider' theory still. Keeping our devices out of their hands would have been less expensive then anything else, plus we're a large company. This makes us nice targets for laying the blame in a modern lawsuit. However, Legal also assures me that they can hold off any major cases until after the next vote on the Broadcast Power Bill. That way we have a chance of getting some profits in before having to pay damages."
   Karlson frowned. Still, it could be worse. Jack was back with the drilling team, signalling for the drill to reverse. No luck finding Aster then. Questions about that man still troubled Simon. Why did he have such a vendetta against Karlson, instead of against Wier? And why had he reacted so oddly to Astra? Astra had no light to shed on that particular puzzle, claiming to have never seen the man before. And perhaps most important of all, who had equipped Aster with such an advanced piece of antigrav technology? One of those dark men the Machine faced a few months ago? A corporate rival? Or was the Patrol itself trying to keep making things hard on the Machine?

   Solar system, about two light hours our from the Sun, and off the plane of Earth's orbit.
   A slight warping of spacetime was all the preceeded an event that hadn't happened in this system for several months: an object leaving quasi-space, an object from another star system.
   For a moment it sat there, squat and ugly, an obvious machine of war without an obvious target. Then the realspace engines fired up and the ship pointed itself at its target. The target was invisible from here to the naked eye against the brilliance of the Sun, but a moment's thought made the target apparent...Earth.
   Inside the ship, a figure as squat as the ship itself sat and brooded. Brooding was an intellectual activity almost beyond its reach, but with some struggle it managed. The ship was run by computer, leaving this being with little to do. It couldn't even begin to comprehend the computers running the had no say in the overall destination. However, in the event of combat, it knew how to take control of ship functions and kill whoever needed killing. For now there was no one to kill, so it brooded.
   To describe it as humanoid was to use the term rather loosely. It had four limbs, two of which usually took the role humans would call legs, and two which normally served as arms. Between the points where the 'arms' connected to the its torso sat a stumplike...thing...with stubby eyestalks and a row of teeth rimming a cavernous maw which the charitable could call a mouth. This mouth hung agape, for the creature's highly evolved sense of smell operated through that orifice. It had no sense of hearing, for its homeworld's cacaphony rendered such a sense useless. Instead it had...other compensations.
   The closest approximation of the name of its race in human symbols was Zando. This meant nothing, being a contraction of the name of the being who discovered their dimensionally unstable planet. The popular name for Zandos translated roughly as "Shifting Horror." This was because the peculiar dimensional rifts of the Zando world gave its inhabitants the ability to shift partially into another reality, becoming intangible. They also had an uncanny sense of when it was safe to shift back to solidity, that other compensation mentioned. Some scientists thought the Zandos might have been members of the First Empire who so damaged their world with experiments on quasi-space that they collapsed their own civilization and devolved into the animalistic Zandos.
   Whatever the source of these beings' powers, they were quite useful as assassins and enforcers in the burgeoning Second Empire. And the fact that they could even bypass the weaker force fields of Patrollers on unCivilized planets made them useful for assignments there as well.
   Earth was about to get a four-limbed lump of coal in its collective Christmas stocking...

   Cincinnati. To be specific, Fountain Square. The KKK had just won the right to put up their cross, and the crowd of angry bystanders vastly outnumbered the Klansmen. And the police assigned to protect the cross. Fortunately, no one had decided to risk a physical confrontation.
   A few dozen meters away, out of the thick of the crowd, a man stood in thoughtful contemplation in his grey coat and slacks. His long blond hair was mostly confined under a black cap of some sort, which seemed to have flecks of snow on it. He sighed.
   He'd come to this place to get away from senseless conflicts, clashes of polarized groups intent on their causes. To get away from one-dimensional personalities. Yet he found them here as well. The colorful costumes were lacking, but the kind of singlemindedness wasn't. Still, no one had tried to blow up the city yet, or kidnap any scientists, or attack him personally. It was still a break from the reality he'd been dragged into again and again in the past.
   Shrugging, he turned and left. Maybe a different city would be better.

   George Mounts frowned slightly at the latest report from his 'secret' division. The signal from Aster had finally stopped, meaning most likely that something had interrupted power reception long enough for the tiny device's force fields to fail, leaving the sensor open to the effects of the crushing depths or perhaps even magma.
   After discovering that Aster no longer eliminated, Mounts induced him to swallow a small device that was a broadcast power receiver. Not that he was told what it was. But being able to lock onto that signal gave Mounts a perfect homing beacon on Aster should things go as expected. Which is to say, in the event that someone figured out that to beat Aster you needed to smash the belt.
   Apparently Aster didn't take things as well this time as his last experience with burial, and quickly thrashed his way down below the crust. At the last report, he was deep in the Mantle and heading for the core. It would be interesting to know if Aster could survive there. Of course, eventually he'd hit a point where he'd float in the ultra-dense magma, but that would be far too deep to ever get out on his own.
   To cheer himself up, Mounts looked again at the progress reports on Project: Ironheart. So far, five subjects had been found to be compatible with the less-powerful process Mounts' scientists had been able to deduce from readings of Aster. If successful, the final stage would give the recipients strength within an order of magnitude of Aster's, but only a fivefold increase in mass, perfectly acceptable. Then, outfitted with some devices, they could easily match the Machine in overall power, in the event Mounts would ever need to directly attack that group. It was a pity, he thought, that I myself was tested as incompatible...such power would be...gratifying.
   He smiled as he turned to more routine business matters before leaving on his Christmas holiday.

   Denver, Christmas Eve. A line had formed outside a homeless shelter for some hope of Christmas cheer. Attired in a repaired suit, Beacon walked up and down the line, chatting with people, pouring cups of hot cider and generally trying to make the wait seem a little less cold. Some people turned away from the line when they noticed him, but others, especially the children, had to be held back to keep them from crowding around him.
   "Are you the guy who got his butt kicked around th' other week?" asked one teen.
   "Not supposed to say, actually. Helps us Beacons keep our names secret if no one knows when who is where." Ted cocked his head and grinned. The lower half of the faceshield was now clear so that the wearer's lips could be seen. This helped alot in dealing with the public, Ted had found. It also helped deaf people, since this way his lips could be read. Another modification was that the faceplate wasn't rigid time he got slugged in the face it wouldn't shatter and leave him open to the fogging that nearly got him killed. "Besides, even if I was, would I admit getting beaten on?"
   The young man smirked and turned back to concentrate on keeping his place in line. Ted's pitcher was empty now, and he turned to go back in and get a refill.
   "Y'damn fairy superheroes should go get killed so y'stop blowin' up innocent peoples' houses!" shouted a voice from behind Ted. Breathing a silent thanks that Dan wasn't wearing the suit tonight, he slowly turned to see who shouted that. No one seemed to be looking at him at all. A few blew into their hands and coughed. Ted sighed and turned back to the shelter. He didn't really expect gratitude at the early stage, but he was getting tired of the hostility. Not that he was free of that kind of jerk before putting on the costume either...

   "I know it's not really our holiday, but Christmas is a rotten time to spend alone, Brian. Are you sure you don't want to stay a little longer, maybe come help me and Dad at the B'nai thing today?" Steve had asked a few hours ago. Brian had declined, and taken his duffelbag over his shoulder, leaving the house of his acquaintance. Things like making meals for the police on Christmas Eve day tended to make it into the local news, and Brian really couldn't risk showing up on the news yet. In any case, he was about at the limit of safety for Steve's family.
   He'd known Steve from a few weeks spent in Cleveland on the Demjanjuk case a year ago, not well enough that Steve'd be at the top of the Mossad's list for possible boltholes, but a known acquaintance nonetheless. It had been nice to spend Hannukah with friends, and he'd risked a little longer a stay than that, trying to figure out how to deal with the Mossad, but he couldn't stay any longer. As it was, he might already have been spotted and reported on.
   Much as he disliked the option, he figured his best chances now lay in Denver. He and Karlson were about as close to enemies as one could get and still both be on the same side, but Karlson did have clout. And it was likely he would like the idea of having Janssen owe him, so he might help out.
   Brian got off the metro bus and started walking toward the Greyhound terminal. Spending a few days on a bus trip to Denver might let him shake a few more ideas around in his head...maybe he could find an alternative before committing to this distasteful plan.
   This wasn't the main terminal, since if the Mossad was on him they'd definitely have that watched. It was in a rather less pleasant part of town. Not as bad as some of the places back home, but not terribly nice either. Two years in the Israeli Army made him pretty confident he could take a mugger on, but just in case he had his Gauntlet on under his coat and gloves.
   Suddenly, this right hand began to itch. He reached to scratch it then realized it shouldn't itch while he was wearing the Gauntlet. Something was wrong. He didn't want to pull out his Recharger in the middle of the sidewalk and ask it, so first he looked about to see if there was anything odd that might be picked up by the Gauntlet.
   Up in the sky, to the West, was a bright star. It wasn't an airplane or sound. Yet it moved too fast to be a star or even a meteor. Perhaps it was what was making his hand itch.
   Wait...a star in the West on Christmas Eve? Must be for someone else, he thought. Wrong religion.
   Still, it might be another Patroller or something. Might bear checking out. Brian headed as best he could toward the spark of light, keeping in mind that taking to the air was not a viable option until he could be sure he was unseen. He cut into an alley as a shortcut, hoping it wasn't a dead end. The star was still overhead. Then it suddenly shot up and disappeared. Damn.
   Brian considered taking off and trying to follow it, when he heard a scream from further down the alley. Quickly, he turned and ran toward the source of the cry.
   He didn't care too much for what he saw. A young couple was surrounded by five younger 'men', all of the five armed with various weapons. The young woman was very pregnant, and must have been headed to the clinic Brian passed a few blocks back. The man with her, possibly the father of the child, was already bleeding from a few shallow knife wounds. Apparently the muggers had been toying with them before moving in for the kill. Brian pulled his ski mask out of his pocket and put it on, then stepped into the area lit by the lone security light. Apparently the security guard was home for the holiday. Merry Christmas, eh?
   "All right, back away from those two," commanded Brian in his best 'lawman' voice. The punks turned to face him. Two sidled closer to the couple intending to take them hostage. Enough of that, he thought. And as simply as that, the couple was encased in a cylinder of force about five meters high and open at the top. The punks stepped back in alarm.
   "Sh', you wonnadem sup'heros!" All five scattered at that, and Brian started to form in his mind constructs to nab them, but he was distracted by the woman in his cylinder. Her water had broken. Damn. He didn't know a whole lot about medicine, but didn't want to risk having to deliver the baby himself. The punks would have to wait.
   Turning the cylinder into an enclosed sled, he quickly towed the two to the clinic he had spotted, and pounded on the door. When it opened, he said nothing, but helped the woman inside. The doctor wasn't in, but a nurse quickly rushed over and got the woman into the examining room. Before anyone could thank him or make any comment less than grateful, Brian took to the skies, figuring that as long as his cover was blown, he might as well take advantage of his flight power to leave before anyone could ask him to stay. It was a cloudy night, one reason that star had stood out, but he figured he could make it to Columbus or Akron to book that bus ticket before the night was over....

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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen