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David van Domelen
[cover shows the Zando looming over a fallen Patroller, Patroller's face is in shadow, mask is torn by the Zando's claws. Cover copy "AFTERSHOCK!"]
"...measuring at 9.3 on the Richter scale is perhaps the strongest earthquake in the last million years. Authorities estimate the death toll at nearly ten million all told. This is the greatest disaster in the history of the nation..." choked the announcer. Even a professional broadcaster couldn't totally insulate himself emotionally from what had happened. Chuck turned off the headset and concentrated on the building in front of him. Unless he wanted it to become ten million and twelve, he'd better be damn careful.
As close as it was to the North Ridge epicenter, Burbank was really badly off. Chuck was surprised this building was even still partially standing, but it could go any second, especially if an aftershock hit. Focusing his will into the Gauntlet he wore, Chuck visualized braces around the structure, trying to hold it from inside and out.
"I've got it stabilized!" he shouted to the dozen people inside, "Just follow the silvery trail and you'll get out fine!"
A few seconds later, he saw the first head poke out of the shattered window at the end of the trail he laid inside the building. A man carrying a box of computer disks gingerly stepped over the crumbling sill and onto the ramp now stretching to the ground. He was followed by a young woman who supported an injured man, probably her father. Slowly, as if afraid that any move might make the earth shake again, the survivors crawled from the wreckage.
"Anyone still in there?" Chuck asked.
The man with the disks was the first to answer. "I think so. I'm pretty sure the Super was inside this morning. I'm not sure if he survived, but he would have been in the basement...so it's possible." Almost as an aside to himself, he glanced at the disks he carried and muttered something about "issue 8 going to be a bit late...."
Chuck set up a platform with a blinking beacon using his Gauntlet, and directed the people on to it. "Any helicopters overhead should see this and pick you up. I'll be back if I find that man, but otherwise I need to keep looking for more trapped people." God, he sounded lame, he thought. Not that waking up at four in the morning and spending the next several hours saving people was real conducive to sounding on top of things. Scratching his neck under the hot ski mask, Chuck went into the building.
Inside, he was greeted by a sight that we becoming a lot more familiar than he wanted it to become. Cracked walls, fallen false ceilings, doors knocked ajar and partially collapsed masonry. He'd stopped looking to see if anyone was under such piles of brick...he was just too numb to care, and too tired to want to make himself look at more corpses. It was a minor miracle this building was still in as good of shape as it was...the builders certainly didn't skimp on this place. Not that it mattered...next aftershock would drop it like a house of cards.
The door to the basement was wedged shut by the shifted superstructure, but a quick slice with a force construct and the way was clear. Chuck carefully braced the doorway with another construct, as the door might have been the only thing keeping that wall up. Creating a light from his own defensive shields, he made his way down the steps, careful to fly and not touch the stairs themselves. He came to a door marked "Superintendent" and shouted, "Is there anyone inside? Can you hear me?"
A faint grunt came in reply. Chuck carefully sliced open the door, and saw a form huddled in a corner, under a fallen ceiling beam. Something seemed wrong....
The figure twisted and leapt at Chuck like coiled lightning, baring its hideous face and claws! He barely was able to throw up a barrier in front of himself, and the creature, whatever it was, bounced off. Quickly, he changed the wall into a sphere around the creature, trapping it.
"Whoa...what the hell is this?" he asked himself aloud. It certainly wasn't the superintendent. At least it was trapped...nothing could get through the Gauntlet's force fields.
Someone had apparently forgotten to tell that to the creature, which slowly squeezed through the shimmering barrier. Panicking, Chuck thickened the wall, but to no effect. He put all of his will into the barrier around the creature, and sighed as the creature was slowed to a snail's crawl.
Unfortunately, the constructs supporting the building had been all but removed by this effort, and before he could switch his focus, the ceiling fell in on him.
Darkness. And pain. Lots of pain. Still, he had gotten shields around himself in time to prevent being killed. All he had to do now was get out. Hopefully that thing was killed in the collapse.
Chuck's hopes, and his life, were snuffed out moments later when a claw swiped through his neck, severing his head. His Gauntlet dissolved as his blood pumped out into the wreckage. The Zando took the head back to the surface with him, throwing it towards the crowd of bait he had saved for this purpose. It would let the bait live, so people would know a Patroller had been killed. After all, the Zando had killed ten million people today. It could let a few go...
A few miles West, over the epicenter of the quake, almost nothing was left standing higher than a few feet. A lone man, dressed in gray and wearing a black hood, stood in the center of a destroyed college campus.
"This isn't right somehow," said the figure. A voice in his mind answered, ++No, it isn't. All these deaths...++
"That's not what I mean. I mean...this can't have been natural. This is a quake zone and all, but 9.3? C'mon...the faults here shouldn't have been that bad. What do you see?"
++From here? Nothing, really. We'd have to get down inside the fault and see from there. Too much matter in the way to really tell from here, although there's a few too many neutrinos in the area.++
"Okay, let's head down. There's no one alive here anyway," he said with sad finality as he turned totally black. He then sank into the ground.
If trying to fight crime in Denver has been frustrating, then this is almost beyond endurance, thought Dan. He and the other Machiners had gotten down to LA as fast as they could after the quake, to try to save who could be saved. Still, there was so little he could do! So many had died instantly... in any lesser quake, there would be a few dead, sure, but mostly people trapped, or in danger from fires and the like. People he could save. But there were so few buildings with enough remaining to hold the promise of survivors. If the quake had happened later, there might have been more survivors to find, people out on the streets or in cars. A five million car pile up would have resulted, but a good chunk of those would have survived, unlike now, where the buildings simply fell on their occupants.
Damn. Even the homeless were bad off, since buildings didn't just fall straight down, they toppled over onto the areas where homeless stayed. A few parks had large groups of survivors, and Sam was dealing with flying them out. Dan's job was to look for the smaller, less obvious pockets of life. And it was the most heartrending thing he'd ever had to do. The psychic torture he'd been through a few months ago* was nothing compared to this reality. He felt like a glass about to shatter.
He spotted movement and zoomed towards it, using his hoverboots to jump over the debris and rubble. But it was just a dog. Animals seemed to be having better luck than people...was God trying to say something here? After all, he'd been the victim of something about as close to the Devil as he could figure...maybe there was a God after all? And by the looks of things, He was pissed.
Something flickered in the shadows. Dan turned towards it, hoping this time it would be a person. He then saw a sight that chilled him in a way the death around him could not. A humanoid blackness rising out of the ground. That bastard. He wasn't content to arm gangs and attack minds...he had to prey on an entire city! No wonder the quake was so bad!
Filled with rage, Dan turned on full throttle and charged up his wrist units to full. If he hit by surprise, he might be able to take that inky devil down in one shot...
Down below the ground. Normal sight was useless, but the gravitational sense Constellation gained from his partnership with Dot let him see as if he was floating in clear gelatin. Ripples of denser material, an even fog of groundwater...a phantasmagoric landscape stretched out in all directions.
I think the fault point is down here, thought Constellation.
++Yes, I can see it clearly from here...you're improving at my senses. Here we are. Odd...++
What's that buzzing noise? I thought I translated mental impulses as sound...there can't be anyone down here, can there?
++It's another sense, I guess I have more than you.++ Constellation could almost feel his partner grin for a moment before lapsing back into the dour mood of the day. ++It's what you'd call neutrinos, I think. There was some kind of explosion here. See the fractures?++
Yeah, not just a fault slip, more like a bomb! But how could a bomb have been gotten down here? I can't see any signs of a tunnel, do you?
++Not a tunnel, exactly, but a trail of some sort. Very faint, almost like a dimensional ripple. It leads up to here, and then back to the East. I can't tell which direction it goes in, though...++
That's okay. Tracking the source or the end point probably is just as good. And if there's nothing at one end, we can check the other out. Let's try the first branch you mentioned...I think I can see it now, kinda heading South.
For a few minutes, Constellation carefully followed the dim ripples that were almost like a slime trail. Eventually he 'broke surface' and emerged into the light. It took him a moment to adjust back to sight and sound, and the first thing he heard was a high pitched whine, almost on top of him.
He whirled, and saw a man in a gray bodysuit bearing down on him at an incredible speed. Fortunately, while all black he was intangible, and felt nothing as the man passed through him. Then he recognized the outfit.
"Wait! Greymask! I'm not a supervillain...I'm one of the good guys!" he called out.
"Nice try, bastard! You expect me to fall for that? Come to inspect the handiwork?" With that, Greymask took another pass at Constellation, again passing through. "I've called in my friends, this time we get rid of you for good!"
Damn, he has me confused with someone else. We gotta keep him from killing himself, or us, if he can figure out how. With that thought, Constellation surged into solidity with gray astral matter.
Greymask was startled for a moment, but then resumed his next charge. "Illusions won't save you...why don't you try to warp my mind again? Or can't you do that more than once?" taunted the Machiner.
The charge was cut short when a shower of twelve stars sprayed out from Constellation's fingertips and formed the points of a twenty-sided solid. Lines connected the dots, and then astral matter flowed out to fill in the sides, trapping Greymask. The walls shuddered and almost broke under the assault of Greymask.
++Perhaps if we cut the power broadcast beam I see coming from the north?++
Good idea. How?
++Like this.++ Suddenly the walls turned a darker gray, and Constellation could just barely see a beam wink out of existence. A few hammerblows to the walls followed, but soon stopped.
Now what? We can't hold him forever, and he has the rest of the Machine coming here.
++Well, he mistook us for someone else. Maybe if we look normal we can avoid the misunderstanding from happening again. I think we could probably fake a Gauntlet.++
True. Stay on as a hood, so I can hear you.
"Well, Greymask didn't do more than bruise his knuckles, so he's back out looking for survivors. He's not too happy, but I convinced him you weren't the guy he thought you were. Now, what's your story? How can you become immaterial if you aren't the person you looked like?" asked Cosmic Defender.
Constellation shifted uncomfortably on the shattered wall he was sitting on. Should he continue to lie, pretend he was a Patroller? Probably not a great idea...Cosmic Defender was a real Patroller, and might be able to tell if someone else was. He sighed. "I'm from another dimension."
"This coming from someone who uses a power object sent to Earth by an advanced alien civilization? C'mon. Anyway, my normal form is black, covered with stars. I can go totally black and be intangible, and I was doing that to check out the quake's center. I guess that look describes your enemy a bit too well."
"A bit. Go on."
"Well, Greymask was right about one thing...someone did cause this quake. We found..."
"Um, long story, I'll tell you later. I'm a gestalt, if you know what that is." When Cosmic Defender nodded, Constellation continued, "We found pretty conclusive signs that a bomb of some sort was planted at the epicenter, to either start the quake or make it worse. Whoever planted it had to be able to go desolid like me...well, not exactly like I do, but you know. So it might be whoever Greymask thought I was."
Cosmic Defender paused, apparently listening to something on his headset. "A colleague of mine wants to know if you detected anything else of interest. he can hear you over the open channel, just speak up."
"Lots of neutrinos, whatever that means."
Cosmic Defender paused another moment, then said, "All one frequency, or spread out?"
++All the same, roughly++
"All the same," Constellation passed on.
After a shorter pause, Cosmic Defender nodded. "Matter-antimatter blast of some sort, according to my friend. There's no technology on this planet capable of separating out that much anti-matter, however...."
"Are you back to accusing me?" asked Constellation.
"No, no...listen, you apparently know about the origin of the Gauntlets, right?"
"Yeah, I found one a while back on my first trip here. Didn't take it, though...I already have enough power, and no restrictions like the Gauntlet imposes."
"Well, one thing they don't tell prospective Patrollers is that there's an Enemy out there in space, competing for worlds with Civilization. What you just told me confirms that the quake was their dirty work. And that they're not being subtle anymore...."
The day after. Aftershocks still rattled the area, but were strangely weak, puzzling seismologists. Of course, Sam knew the truth now...those were the size of aftershock that should have happened, had the quake not been artificially enhanced. Wier was probably still questioning that Constellation guy, but Sam had wisely chosen to grab a few hours of sleep in the trailer Karlson's men had hidden a few miles outside the valley. He still ached all over from carrying all those survivors to more stable areas, but it was a good ache. It came from saving a few thousand people who might have died otherwise. Between the Machine and a few dozen independent Patrollers from around the world who made it there in time, nearly fifty thousand people who otherwise would have died were saved. Today began the grim business of checking the suburbs, where the houses weren't so large, and people might have survived on their own, only to find themselves without food, water or power. No doubt there was panic. The immediate business of searching the urban areas had diverted them yesterday, but on overflights they could see many small mobs forming, as people banded together in fright. Sam did not look forward to today's tasks...there was a really good chance frightened people had done some very bad things to their neighbors yesterday in the suburbs...blaming each other for some unknown sin against God, repenting in a decidedly non-Christian way. Astra had already stopped a lynching of an unmarried couple by some scared 'Christian people'. As if unmarried sex caused the quake. Not that he could tell people what really did cause it...then the panic which was mainly centered here would engulf the planet.
Sam shrugged into the top half of his costume, having slept in the bottom half. He clasped the cape on, making sure the wiring was connected, and grabbed his helmet. Then he stepped up to the Recharger.
"Recharger?" he asked, half expecting not to get a reply.
"Yes?" came the voice in Sam's mind.
"There's something that's been bothering me for a few days, and I think I deserve an answer."
"Are you sure you deserve anything? Even with your recent improved conduct, you still fall far short of the ideals of the Patrol."
"Oh, I deserve to know this, alright. I want to know if, and why, the Patrol brainwashes people who break the Code."
If a machine could sound surprised, this was it. "What?"
"My friend Dan, who lost his Gauntlet when he killed the person who shot me, has been psychologically altered. We think it was because of the Gauntlet, altering him to be more 'civilized' as his reward for failing."
"Absolutely not! Manipulation of psyches is the tactic of the Enemy, as you have found. Civilization would not deserve to stand apart from the Enemy if we used the same tactics."
"All other causes have been ruled out, Recharger. The change happened before we ever met the Enemy, so it's not from that."
"Perhaps," started the device, "perhaps it was another malfunction." The voice in Sam's mind was very reluctant, like a child admitting he didn't actually wash behind his ears. "Emergence from faster than light travel into this system was not without event. Many Rechargers self-destructed after finding serious errors in their programming as a result of the difficulties. Apparently not all of the damaged Rechargers could sense their own damage."
"So...not only do you not tell us about the Enemy in advance, we get to discover on our own if there's damage to our Rechargers? Like what happened to Astra? Exactly what kind of Civilization treats prospective members like that?" demanded Sam.
"We didn't know there had been damage in the remaining Rechargers. Had we known, they would have self-destructed rather than risk harming anyone in this way. But what happened with Astra was thought to be a one-in-a-billion happenstance, not the result of unnoticed damage to the circuits. We will try to track down any other damaged Rechargers...we are truly sorry for violating our own credo by harming those we would help." The Recharger sounded genuinely contrite. "If you can convince your friend to touch his hand to any Recharger, we will endeavor to see if the damage to his mind was caused as you say...if it was, we can repair it. But if it was caused by some other factor, it is out of our jurisdiction...we cannot simply act as miracle healers. We can only undo the damage we cause...to change a mind otherwise is to act like the Enemy."
"Fair enough." With that, Sam touched his palm to the glowing surface of the Recharger and the Gauntlet flowed onto his arm. Time to clock back in...
February already. Far from the warm, if battered, West Coast, a young man struggled with the layer of ice on his driveway. He muttered under his breath.
"Stupid ice...gosh, I love it here in Columbus...I'm so glad my Dad got a transfer here. 'Almost never really snows in Columbus, I hear,' right. It just snows a little then dumps a ton of ice on top of that. At least school's out...no temptation to screw things up like I did at my old school, at least for one more day."
Under the wool cap the boy wore, a fading bruise over his eye could be seen. In general, he seemed to have that kind of look and bearing that just attracts bullies like flies to...honey. A glint of frustration danced in his eye, and an astute observer could tell you it wasn't just because of the layer of ice he was slowly chipping away. It was as if he knew he could deal with the bullies, but was somehow forbidden from doing so.
Without warning, the shovel buckled in one corner. "Damn!" he exhaled. Then he looked around carefully, making sure no nearby was looking at him. A pale luminescence darted out from his hand and coated the shovel, unbending it and strengthening it. The ice shattered easily under his shovel blade now, although he had to be careful not to shatter the blacktop underneath. A man in a white parka approached down the sidewalk, and the boy reluctantly went back to using the unenhanced shovel. No sense in getting noticed while doing something minor like shoveling. It had been pretty 'fun' trying to explain his day-long absence from home during the Quake...no need to draw more suspicion.
The man stopped in front of the driveway. "Avenger, I have a proposition for you," he said.
"Huh? Um, who's Avenger? And who are you?"
"I'm a Patroller, like you are. A saw your heroic identity in California, but there was no time then to talk. I've been contacting various Patrollers who responded to that emergency, about forming an alliance, to work together. My name is Janssen, Brian Janssen."
Janssen had been reluctant to track down this one, this "Avenger", especially once his suspicions about the boy's age were confirmed. Still, Avenger was one of those most vulnerable in the absence of a group, being only a teenager. He'd gotten in some trouble with his Recharger for using his powers to scare some bullies a few months ago, and had mostly lain low since then, until the Quake. Janssen's own Recharger was a real gossip at times, just like the uncle of Brian's that it sounded like. Of course, being told all this information obviously meant he was expected to act on it. Brian wasn't too sure he liked the role of policing the Patrol, but he seemed stuck with it. And it was hardly the most onerous of his burdens.
In order to get Karlson's help in keeping the Israeli government off his tail, Janssen had agreed to assemble a team of Patrollers. A team which, as leader, Janssen could keep away from the Machine. That was his end of the bargain, to look the other way, and keep as many Patrollers looking the other way as possible. It left a sour taste in his mouth, but he did see the need for a group. For some reason, few people were actually taking up the Gauntlet, and of those, fewer still were banding together. Maybe it was this Enemy Karlson talked about, maybe it was just bad luck. In any case, Brian was now the man to do something about it. He wrapped up his pitch to the young man.
"Take this disk. I know you have modem access, this will let you get on to a network I'm establishing, as well as containing some files on how to better use your Gauntlet, and general advice. Even if you don't choose to join, this should help you. Your mother seems to have seen me...just tell her my car got stuck and I was asking where to find a good place to eat while I waited for a tow. Until we talk again." Brian waved to the house, then set off in the direction of a restaurant he had spotted on the way over.
Jenny closed the door of the trailer which had been her home for the last month, at the edge of a refugee encampment set up by the Army with the help of Karlmax. She stripped off the helmet of her Beacon costume and slumped wearily onto the bed, running tired fingers through matted hair.
"Happy Valentine's Day," she muttered to herself. "Whee."
A month after the disaster, and things were finally beginning to settle down. Rebuilding was pretty much a moot point in most cases. There were so few people left, and so much damage, it was unlikely the area would ever be a metropolis again. Sure, the highways needed rebuilding, and a few stalwarts wanted to rebuild in the area, but it would still be months before all the rubble was cleared. Tent cities had been set up for the million or so survivors, but most were being relocated to other cities. There was really nothing left to return to. The economic damage was incalculable, but probably pretty large. Insurance companies were at least being more lenient, not expecting people to try and find their copies of policies, but they still had to be careful of fraud. Karlson had been on the phone for days without interruption, helping more out of costume than he could ever have in it. Getting supplies airlifted in, providing broadcast power stations to run emergency operations and the tent cities, and in general pushing his resources to the limit to help the victims of the Biggest One. Congress actually stopped its bickering for once and an aid bill went through without delay or rider amendments. Shortly afterward, they approved the Broadcast Power Act as a sort of repayment to Karlmax for its efforts...Karlson was altruistic, but not stupid. He must have known all this aid, especially with conspicuous use of Broadcast Power, would swing the Bill into Law. Within hours of the Act passing, there were three major companies applying for broadcast licenses, indicating how far the 'secret' had spread before being made public around Thanksgiving. Karlmax' financial future was secure. Good thing, too, given the amount this aid effort cost...and the fact the Quake wasn't totally natural. Jenny knew the real effort was still to come, and hoped she could endure long enough to see the Civilization promised to humanity.
Of course, right now, she just hoped she could make it another day. All the suffering, the loss...it wore down on her day after day. A dozen full time psych counselors were on the staff just to deal with the problems of the aid workers, in addition to the social workers helping the victims. The pain seemed to concentrate in those helping, as a little bit of each victim's pain rubbed off on those who helped. Jenny felt like she carried the pain of a city on her shoulders now...and in a way she did.
She closed her eyes and grimaced, as if trying to squeeze the suffering out through her eyelids like tears. When she opened them, the room was filled with roses.
"What...?" she started.
Sam stepped out from behind one of the clusters of roses he had created with his Gauntlet. "Be my Valentine?"
Tired as she was, Jenny leaped off the bed and into Sam's arms, burying her face in his shoulder. He didn't say anything, just held her tight. Neither moved for what seemed a very long time....
Copyright © 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen