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Cracking the Foundations
David van Domelen
[cover: photographic art, aerial picture of Los Angeles with a target symbol drawn over it. In the center of the target is the number 9.3]
December 26, the day after Christmas. Some places also call it Boxing Day. One of the busier travel days of the year, as people return from visiting relatives, or go to take those vacation days to visit. One traveler was an Israeli on the run from his own government, boarding a Greyhound bus heading west. Another traveler was heading back north to Montana after an evening of helping in Denver's homeless shelters.
A more omninous traveler was entering Earth's atmosphere, silently and stealthily, as such things go. He was here to celebrate the holiday in his own favored way, and as a result of this 'celebration' there would be fifteen dead in Philadelphia before Boxing Day is over, with no clue who tore their bodies apart, or even how he got into the secure and locked building.
George Mounts was well-pleased. His Christmas present had come a bit late, but it was worth it, he mused. Entering the high security area of his Iowa labs, he casually pressed his palm against the security scanner and leaned forward for a retina scan. That done, he donned one of the white cleanroom suits hanging near the airlock and entered.
On the other side of the airlock was a sight out of some high tech fantasy movie...gleaming white and silver surfaces, ranks of computer monitors and databanks, apparati that boggled the imagination. And dominating the room, five plexiglass tubes filled with fluid. Inside each tube was a human being, hooked up to various monitoring devices and life support systems. Four of them were male, one was female. Mounts had argued for all males, on the grounds that they had a higher baseline strength for the experiment to enhance. But it was explained to him the necessity of a female test subject to determine what effects, if any, gender had on the process. It was to Mounts' credit that he did not insist on a 'trophy' type woman for the process, and let his scientists choose the woman they felt had the best chance of successfully surviving the process.
Mounts noticed almost peripherally the scientists buzzing about at their work, and then looked more closely at the figure in the middle. Although obscured by a haze of bubbles, the figure didn't look like the man who was supposed to be in the tube. In fact, he looked almost...female?
"Jones, why were the subjects moved about? I thought your token female was in the tube at the far right?" demanded Mounts.
The scientist looked up from his computer. "Ah, yes. One of the developments I wanted to discuss before we open the tubes. Apparently, Test Subject #3 has manifested the ability to change his form. It was a theoretical possibility of the process, and this morning he manifested it. In the last four hours, he has changed form five times, alternating between male and female. His psych profile did indicate a weak gender identity, perhaps it is manifesting itself in the manner. Hopefully he will be able to control the changes once conscious."
Mounts frowned at Jones's overuse of the word "manifesting" and turned to look at the big screen over the tubes. It indicated that all five were within acceptable parameters, although #3 was yellow-flagged for observation.
Jones followed his employer's glance and then continued. "All five show evidence of increased density, anywhere from 2.1 times with #3 to nearly eight times normal density with #5. None ever showed signs of the catastrophic density increase evidenced by Aster. Estimates of strength enhancement are very preliminary now, of course, since we don't know for certain the ratio of mass-to-strength that we've established is. However, going with conservative estimates and some readings of involuntary motions during dream states...." he was cut off.
"You let them dream? I thought they were to be totally under while the process was going on."
"Ah, no. It was necessary for their mental health to allow a few minutes of REM-like sleep each day, given the electrochemical process we used to sedate them, one similar to the so-called 'Russian Sleep'."
"Okay. Now, about the strengths?"
"Subject #1, with 5 times density, is estimated to have approximately twenty-five tons of lifting ability, based on his previous strength and our density estimates. Subject #2 was fairly weak to start with, but his current estimated strength is around ten tons. #3 is the weakest of the lot, with perhaps only three quarters of a ton lifting ability, but the shape-shifting abilities should compensate adequately. Subject #4 was designed to be able to absorb broadcast power by means of cybernetic attachments and the like, and provided that they work and he survives their use, he should be able to lift over fifty tons when supplied with power. Otherwise, perhaps ten tons. In addition, he can generate force fields strong enough to deflect medium caliber bullets. Subject #5, although the weakest initially, is the team powerhouse, with over thirty tons of unaugmented lifting ability. Plus, her previous training in hand to hand combat will be useful, as it would otherwise be very difficult to teach the others such skills."
"Can you imagine a normal human trying to spar with someone who can strike with the force of a speeding bus?"
"#4 is intended for more covert work, since his internal devices are too small for detection, and he has internal antigrav generators allowing him to counterbalance his extra mass. The others can be outfitted with suits similar to those worn by the Machine for less covert works."
"Excellent. Now that we're sure of their survival, I can get someone on the task of building them 'identities' and those sort of trappings for when they need such foolishness. Now, Mr. Jones," said Mounts, rubbing in the fact that Jones had never earned his Ph.D., "Let us unwrap the presents, shall we?"
December 29. Already some radio stations were referring to days in terms of "New Year's Eve-eve-eve...." An ugly figure moved silently through the shadows of downtown Chicago. It was roughly humanoid, but concealed itself with a bulky coat and overly large hat. In fact, it had little head for the hat to work with. It was a Zando, a killer sent by the Second Empire to stir things up on Earth and counter the presence of non-Patrol opponents to the Enemy.
A seventeen-story building next to the Illinois Bell tower suddenly turned into a bloom of fire in the background, the explosion pushing over two other large buildings. The Zando could not smile...its face was not suited to such an expression. Yet, if that face could be read, it would have betrayed something as close to a smile as the savage creature could manage. Planting explosives inside the actual metal of a support structure was one of its favorite tricks...it always made such pretty explosions and confused the natives so.
Shifting to all fours, the Zando took off running at a rapid clip, heading west, ever west....
Sam pulled off the ski mask and goggles as he entered the 'ranch' house he lived in as part of the Machine. The rest of the heavy-weather gear soon followed, and he shook the snow out of the cuffs of his pants before putting on some shoes and picking his rifle up and leaving the vestibule.
Hunting hadn't lost any of its charm for Sam, although he had stopped using bullets for various reasons. Aside from what his Recharger might think of the sport, Karlson had told him the deer population was pretty low locally. So by using paintballs he could hunt without worrying about removing the object of the hunt. Sure, it wasn't quite the same, but hey. It did help him feel a little less hypocritical about being in the Machine and the Patrol at the same time.
When he went into the rec area to hang up the rifle, Ted was in there relaxing on a couch and watching some television.
"Bag any?" asked Ted.
"Two for sure, another one maybe...he ran before I could verify the orange splotch."
"You're gonna haveta change colors soon...at this rate all the deer on the property will be orange by next week!"
"Heh...yeah. It's making them too easy to see, too. Maybe I'll whip up some water-based pellets instead. Still, it's nice not having to worry about seasons or licensing."
"Yeah. Um, seen Dan around?"
Sam pulled a cleaning kit out of the cabinet and started to work on the paint rifle. "Yeah, he had one of the real things," Sam nodded toward the cabinet, "and was shooting cans and boots off fence posts. Blowing off some steam, I guess. Funny thing is, I didn't know he was into shooting. He never did it while I knew him, anyway, which is pretty long."
"No, not that I know of either." Ted paused for several seconds. "Sam, I'm about to betray a confidence...tell me if you don't want to hear it."
"It's about Dan's attitude problems, isn't it?"
"Yes. I thought we'd had it out, and for a while he was getting better, but he's back to it again."
"Okay, go ahead. I won't tell him you blabbed."
Ted sighed. "A month or so ago, we had a long heart-to-heart about his anger thing. It was right after Karlson went public, I think. Anyway, he told me how he felt we were being useless, the Machine, that is. How it was like Sisyphus's boulder...push it up the hill with all your might, only to have it roll over you on its way back down."
"Yeah, I've had that feeling too...I try not to let it get me too down."
"I'm afraid Dan doesn't have your...or my...optimism towards this. He sees it all in too short-term of a way. All he sees is the public's hatred, the lack of effect we're having, and he takes it too much to heart. He was almost back to his old self at Thanksgiving, I mean, he even got along with Astra. But I think the problems I had at my debut shook him back again."
"Hmm...actually, I think he was getting a bit snappy right after Thanksgiving, at least to me and Karlson. Maybe he has some other problem he wouldn't tell you about?" Sam paused and set the rifle aside before continuing awkwardly, "Maybe he has...."
"AIDS? No, he doesn't. I'd like to say I'd trust him fully on such a matter, since it does impact me pretty directly, but I didn't. After he denied it, I went to Wier to check. Wier ran various tests on Dan after that thing exploded in his hand *, and bless his sneaky self, ran full blood tests on Dan. Came up negative on quite a lot of things, AIDS included. Although, I really can't see how he could have it, anyway. I mean, when you two got hospitalized after your accident with the gangs the hospital would have found out about that kind of thing while blood typing for the operations. And after that you two haven't exactly had a social life outside this ranch."
"Maybe it's not related to his earlier problems? I mean, maybe he got over whatever was making him act nutso before, but then found a new reason to do it. Maybe we have one of those all-black guys lurking around messing with his mind?" offered Sam.
"Why not mess with all of us? What makes him special that he'd merit special attention?"
A voice came from the doorway. It was Karlson. "He's the only one of us to have a Gauntlet taken away." Sam and Ted both turned with an almost guilty start.
"What about Astra?" asked Ted.
"No, her Gauntlet malfunctioned...there's a difference," pointed out Sam.
"Exactly. Astra was only the victim of blind fate...Dan failed. He was punished. You can only rail so long against the cards chance deals you, as Astra is finding. But when you screw up, you can blame yourself forever. Add to that the high body count he racked up early on, a body count which turned the public against us, and add the blunder that almost cost him a hand. Plus failing to be there when you were attacked, Ted. Dan's made his share of mistakes, and is taking it badly." Simon paused for effect. "Too badly."
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked Ted.
"What it means, I think, is that something is making Dan sabotage himself. Sometimes he does rather stupid things, and agonizes over them later. Sometimes he's not even at fault, but he still kicks himself. This starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy, as he becomes more convinced he's a screw-up. You ever heard of the Minnesota Multiphasic Inventory?"
"Yeah, I had to take one when I applied for a job a while back. Why?" asked Sam. "Wait, when you were having our suits designed, you had us take some psych tests...were those related to the MMI?"
"Yes, fairly closely. And I managed to get my hands on Dan's MMPI results from his old job application recently. You're not the only ones to notice his aberrant behavior, after all, and I wanted to check something." Simon held up a sheet of paper. "Dan tested as a much less violent person the second time around. Less inclined to hurt people in any way. Now, I thought this might have just been a side effect of working as a Patroller...occupational hazard, if you will. But your results, Sam, show no such change. My best guess, and Wier concurs, is that it's a parting gift from the Patrol. When you break the code and merit losing your Gauntlet, the mental control circuitry does a quick rewrite of your mind, to help you 'learn better' to be nonviolent. Perhaps it's meant to avoid having ex-Patrollers turn villainous, or something."
"So what you're saying is that Dan's been brainwashed??" asked Ted.
"In a way, yes. He still has free will, but he's more likely to sabotage himself when acting violently or in other manners not approved by the Patrol. My guess is that the intention is to teach the ex-Patroller that violence leads to failure without outright forcing the person to not be violent."
Sam sighed. "Great. Now, how do we break it to Dan?"
The mountainous areas of Western Colorado. The Zando streaked along at nearly thirty miles each hour, even over the bad terrain. It skirted around Denver earlier in the day, sensing the concentration of power and not yet wanting to confront it, just as it had skirted the entire state of Iowa. Its sensors showed much Patrol-like power sources, but not all were actually Rechargers. A flash of worry flickered across its dim mind, but was soon erased by the waves of self-confidence that filled any Zando on the hunt.
The Zando began to follow two parallel strips of metal, which it understood to be involved in a primitive transportation device, several of which he had passed already in the past few days. Suddenly the ground dropped away, while the rails did not. The Zando stopped with the speed of a predator changing direction to cut off prey. It pulled out a small scanner...yes, electrical current ran parallel to the rail, a sensor of some kind to assure the natives that their road of metal was intact. Stupid the Zandos might be, but they had a knack for absorbing information they needed, like how to blow things up or defeat any security that might actually be able to detect them when in immaterial form.
Sprinting nimbly along the trestle, the Zando stopped when the distance to the ground was greatest. It placed two small devices on the track, which generated false signals to hide what was to happen next. The Zando pulled out two small spools joined together, and began to pull them apart. Between them was a thread of monofilament wire, too thin to see, yet strong enough to hold hundreds of pounds of weight. It placed the spools on either side of the tracks, then nimbly climbed under the rails. Grabbing the two spools again, it let go of the trestle with its feet, falling several meters as the monofilament sliced rail and support alike. It then stopped itself and rewound the spool. Climbing down, it sliced further breaks with its claws until it reached the underside of the arched structure. Satisfied, it climbed back up and sprinted to the other side of the valley along the tracks.
Minutes later its finely tuned senses heard the explosion as a train plunged to the bottom of the valley. Roaring in satisfaction, it turned and continued to run.
Brian Janssen drove along in his 'car', which was actually a construct of his Gauntlet. He'd gotten as close to Karlson's ranch in Montana as Greyhound would take him, and decided that flying in unannounced would be a bad idea. If not for the time limit on the Gauntlet (as well as the fact that the car's wheels didn't actually turn, making for an odd appearance) he might have just taken the car all the way from Ohio and saved himself the problems of travelling by bus at the holidays. Oh well.
He was stopped at the gate by a rent-a-goon security guy, who gave the car a suspicious looking over. However, a buzz from the security station got his attention and he went in to take a call. It must have been Karlson telling the man to let Janssen in, since the gate opened almost immediately afterward. Hmm. Karlson must have sensors to alert him to Gauntlet energies, especially after his last visit.*
Seeing no point in the deception any more, Brian dismissed the car and grabbed the rucksack containing his Recharger from the no-longer-existing passenger seat. He walked up to the door and was let in by some butler or the like, and shown to a small sitting room. He passed a minute looking at the paintings and feeling some snow melt in his shoes.
Karlson stepped in, wearing a sweater and looking like he stepped out of a holiday TV special. He extended his hand and Brian shook it.
"So, what brings you here this fine, if cold, day?" asked Simon. "Oh, by the way...your heavy Russian is currently exploring the mantle, as best as we know."
Brian looked briefly to the mantelpiece of the room's fireplace before realizing what Karlson really meant. "Ah. Listen, let's not insult each others' intelligence any further. You know why I'm here."
Simon's cheery grin didn't even flicker. "Well, I know part of why you're here...it's probably the last place the Mossad will look for you. But I'm not too sure what you want from me, or what you're prepared to give in return."
"I want you to help me get the Mossad, and the Shin Bet, for that matter, off my back. I know you have the kind of contacts needed for that...after all, the CIA and FBI aren't all over your back."
Simon shrugged. "Maybe we're just better at keeping our secrets than you are?"
Brian slammed his fist down on a table next to his chair, sending a small lamp tumbling to the floor. "Don't bullshit me, Karlson. I know enough of how the CIA works to know that they would have had all of your Machine members pegged five seconds out the door. No, you must have made arrangements with them before you even collected your little band of vigilantes. You have contacts, and I need those contacts so I can get back to doing my job as a member of the Patrol. You know that, and you know you have me by the short hairs on this. So let's cut the banter and skip to the barter! What do you want in exchange for making things nice-nice with Israel's government?"
Simon's grin vanished like it had never been. "My arrangement with various intelligence organizations is a perk I extend only to my people. You want the benefits of it, you join the Machine."
"Sorry, unlike your pet Patroller, Cosmic Defender, I still believe in what the Patrol stands for. You can't wash something clean with dirty water, Karlson...I intend to stay as clean as I can."
"Yes, but that water gets dirtied in doing the cleaning, to extend the metaphor. The important difference is that I don't toss out the water when it gets a little tainted...only when it's totally fouled. The Patrol demands too high of standards for now...maybe later on the Patrol's Code will allow for effective agents, but not now. Not against all threats."
"Perhaps. But I still stand by my principles. If I was willing to compromise them so totally as to join the Machine, I would have just stayed in Israel and worked with the Shin Bet."
"Fine. I'll give you a few days to think about it. Maybe one of us will come up with an acceptable compromise. Until then, feel free to stay here as my guest. My butler is preparing the guest room right now, I'm sure you could do with a rest."
Brian looked at Simon as if looking at a drink he suspected was poisoned. He stood, and nodded. "All right, I'll give it some thought."
Simon gestured in the direction of the guest rooms. "So will I."
Five days later, Janssen left. Karlson wouldn't tell the other Machiners what deal had been made, but seemed pleased with himself.
Late at night, January 16. The lush San Fernando Valley enjoyed warm temperatures while the eastern half of the nation suffered nearly lethal cold. The Zando was indifferent to either state...something as mild as -40 Fahrenheit was nothing compared to some of the temperature extremes on his dimensionally unstable homeworld.
Miles below this valley, the Zando navigated through the solid rock using its inborn talents, as well as various devices designed to detect geological instabilities. The minor acts of destruction of the past weeks had been merely warm-up, and it was time to start sowing some serious panic and fear. It moved through the rock, searching for a fault ready to trigger...his equipment was far more accurate at determining such things than the primitive stuff used by the natives.
The sensors pinged ecstatically. A fault, ready to slip and thrust mere hours from now! Carefully, the Zando solidified part of a claw and cleared away a hole in the bedrock. It was painful to do, but necessary. Then it pulled out a small device and let it go solid in the hole. A vibrational amplifier would take any quake and pump energy into it from a matter-antimatter reaction in the device, changing a mere inconvenience into a life-threatening jolt...and a dangerous quake into a catastrophic one.
After checking over the device to ensure it was operational, the Zando began the slow trek to the surface. Hours later, when the softer earth it was in shook to the beat of a magnitude 9.3 quake, it knew it had been successful. This should draw a great many Patrollers in for the Zando to inspect and test...and kill.
Meanwhile, above the ground, Los Angeles crumbled.
Copyright © 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen