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#13
Opposite Numbers
David van Domelen


   Note: Constellation #19 takes place prior to this story.
[cover shows all the Machine members looking in surprise at five shadowed figures who are between them and the reader. Cover copy shouts "Introducing MAGNUM FORCE!"]

   Well, thought Sam, he's gone. He came here for refuge from his troubles, but wound up causing more problems here than he'd had back in his native reality. A pity he couldn't stay...his powers made him unique here, and a potentially great force for Civilization. But when Wier confirmed that Constellation's presence was causing Rechargers to develop odd malfunctions, everyone knew he had to go.*
   Sam was kinda surprised that Astra didn't go berserk on Constellation when she found out he'd indirectly caused her predicament. Spoke well for her recovery...although he kinda suspected it was also because she had developed a crush on the visitor from another reality. The next few days would tell the tale of that. The news that he'd have to leave really put a damper on the mood at the ranch. Maybe he and Jenny'd tell everyone now, give them some better news. He'd have to talk to her about it.
   Still, one thing Constellation had said to him before leaving wouldn't shake loose from his mind...


Everyone had assembled in the living room to bid Constellation goodbye. Sam and Jenny had come back from California for a few days when they heard the news, and they stood together next to the other Machiners as they said their final farewell to Floyd [Constellation's 'real' name].   Dan was the first to speak. "I know we didn't meet under the best of circumstances, Floyd...but it's too bad you have to go. Maybe you can, well, visit...." He was cut off by Karlson.
   "No, Dan. He can't come back, you know that as well as I do. Any time he spends here puts Patrollers in danger."
   "You're a real bastard, you know that Simon?" was Dan's response. Sam quietly agreed. But he knew Karlson was right. No point in sugar-coating the truth.
   "I...I hope you can work out your problems at home, Floyd," started Jenny. "You can't run from them forever, you have to deal with them." If Constellation sneered slightly at the mention of the word 'home' no one mentioned seeing him do it. Ted stood silently by Dan, not really having anything to say. Wier looked almost impatient to get back to his work.
   Astra tentatively approached Floyd. Despite being noticeably taller than him, her posture made her look like an uncertain young girl. Which she was. "I'll miss you," was all she said, then wrapped her arms gently around him in a hug. Constellation looked rather uncomfortable at this, but didn't break the embrace...not that he could have done so easily. When Astra stepped away, only Constellation saw the tear that briefly formed in the corner of her eye, then vanished as if it had never been.
   Before Sam could say anything, Constellation turned to address him. "Sam, there's something I've been meaning to mention to you for a while. I don't really know how useful it'll be, but...." He paused for a moment, as if searching for a way to avoid sounding foolish. "I know another Sam Lyons, back in the universe I left before coming here. He doesn't really look like you, but he acts a lot like you, and there's a lot of other little similarities. Thing is, he's that world's incarnation of King Arthur [see Constellation #16]. If you're as linked to him as I suspect, well...keep an eye out for swords."
   With that, Constellation vanished, rather than get entangled in a more lengthy farewell.

   "Keep an eye out for swords," Sam muttered to himself. A quick check after Constellation left showed that no one had mentioned the incident with the Emissary to him. Could it be? Arthur?
   Sam shrugged and turned to his Recharger, to extract from it his Gauntlet. It wasn't a sword, at least not normally, but it would do...


   "So, does this group you're forming have a name?" asked the stocky young woman.
   Brian Janssen was recruiting for a global network of Patrollers, for reasons both noble and self-serving. So far he'd gotten one definite yes, and a strong maybe. He was on his third prospective recruit. And he didn't have a name for the group.
   "Not officially, not yet anyway. We can't just go by 'The Patrol' since that covers all of us, not just the ones in the network I'm trying to form." Brian paused for a moment. Sarah Graham looked unimpressed. "Um, one of the other members," the other member, he thought, "suggested the Terra Patrol, since eventually we should have all Patrollers on Earth as members. Right now I'm just trying to find and recruit Patrollers who are willing to be part of a larger group...you'd be surprised at how many prefer to go it alone, even now."
   Before Sarah could respond, Brian's Recharger flared up redly. He placed his palm against it to hear what it wanted to say.
   "Brian, I think you should turn on the CNN channel...the young lady has cable hooked up."
   Obviously Brian's Recharger had been using audible communication, since Sarah snatched up the remote without being asked, and clicked the channel over to CNN. A grim-faced anchor read the latest reports.
   "The gunman is tentatively identified as Doctor Baruch Goldstein, an American Jew who immigrated to Israel several years ago. The Army claims he died by his own hand, while Moslem reports indicate he was torn apart by the mob after running out of ammunition. The President will be issuing a statement on...." Brian didn't hear the rest of the words. He recognized that temple in Hebron, and knew Goldstein from some of his appearances in local news over the last few years. Damn. As if things weren't already incredibly bad between settlers and Palestinians. He thrust his hand into the Recharger, withdrawing it with the Gauntlet on.
   "Whoa, why the hurry? It'd take hours to get there, and local Patrollers'll certainly get there before you can," said Sarah.
   "I am the local Patroller." Brian mentally toggled on the image of his costume, the all-white bodysuit he used to wear, but now replaced with a Gauntlet creation most of the time. Since it gave him superior protection, it made sense to do it. Oddly, he'd gotten the idea from Avenger.
   "Just a second...I'm coming with," added Sarah as she ducked into another room, presumably to get her Gauntlet. She re-emerged a minute later, wearing riding gear and leather gloves over her Gauntlet. "I go by Rider. What should I call you in public? Or don't you bother with a secret ID?" she asked while pulling on a motorcycle helmet.
   Brian paused for a moment and sighed. This whole business of code names and costumes and superhero stuff had seemed to foolish before, he'd never given it thought. But that was when he was working solo, and it was easier to conceal his identity from the people he was trying to save...if not from his own country's intelligence agencies. "Well, the press has hung a few labels on me, generally either unflattering or far too flattering. I suppose one fits well enough. You can call me Maverick if you need to get my attention."
   Sarah nodded and the two stepped outside. One advantage of being a horse-trainer as an occupation...plenty of room between you and your neighbors, so no one would see two figures take to the air from the front porch. One mounted.


   Simon was, as usual lately, on the phone. Between relief efforts for what was left of Los Angeles, and the ramifications of Congress passing the Broadcast Power Regulatory Act, he was one of the busiest people in the hemisphere. So, needless to say, he was annoyed when Dan burst in on him. And apprehensive as well...no one had told Dan that his mood problems were probably linked to a Recharger malfunction. No doubt he'd figured it out on his own, thanks to the Constellation business, and was going to call Simon on the carpet for not telling him.
   As a result, Simon nearly choked on his coffee when Dan made his actual query.
   "Okay, Simon...it's about time you told us why we're not being harassed by the FBI, CIA, NSA and ETC. Janssen told me he was having trouble with his government, and I can't believe that Israel's got better spies than we do. So what kind of Devil's Bargain are we part of?" Dan grabbed a chair and sat down rather more solidly than he needed to.
   "Actually, in some ways Israel does have better spies than we do. They have more reason to be paranoid, after all."
   "That doesn't answer my question. Even the local cops must have a good idea who we are by now. Secret identities only work in the comics, you know."
   "Okay, I'll lay it out for you. You get to tell the others, I don't have time for Q&A on such a peripheral issue. You know there's ways to block broadcast power, Wier came up with one months ago, and we know the Enemy has such devices from painful experience. Well, now our government has them too. And they will continue to be apprised of countermeasures against our technology as we develop them. That's the deal."
   "Ah, so in exchange for not interfering with us, they get the means to totally shut us down if they want? What a bargain!"
   "Look, Thomas...I'm not an idiot. For every countermeasure there's a defense, and for that defense another counter. We may be keeping the various government agencies one step ahead of everyone else, but we stay another step ahead of them. So they can shut down any other group using this technology, but even if they break their bargain with us, they can't shut us down so easily. But they still have their tried-and-true old methods of ruining our lives, so we keep our side. And they probably suspect we don't tell them everything right away, so they keep their side. It's a delicate balance, Dan, a dance on a tightrope. Eventually, either we'll fail on our own, or succeed enough that the government becomes an actual ally, instead of a wary rival. So don't worry about it. For now we're safe from the Feds. And without active help from the Feds, the local authorities can't get too far against us. Despite your overestimation of their capabilities, the local police don't have the manpower to spend figuring out who we are."
   Dan scowled for a moment, then stood up. "Okay, I don't like it, but I suppose I can live with it. For now." He then stormed out.
   We'd better get that man some mental help before he goes totally out of control, thought Simon. Damn good thing he was satisfied by only part of the truth...the whole truth would definitely have set him off. And Simon had enough problems on his hands without a...cranky...team member. LA was slowly being evacuated and the rubble salvaged. Licensing of broadcast power frequencies was hitting snarls in all the normal places, and some abnormal ones. Three Patrollers had been killed by a mysterious being, possibly the same one who had a hand in the Quake. Things were finally moving, after infuriating months of inactivity in November and December...but there was no way to tell which direction they'd end up going.
   All the lights on his phone were flashing. He sighed, grabbed something out of a desk drawer to counter the inevitable headache, then picked up the phone.


   In an area not particularly known for calm, it was a rather...un-calm day. Palestinians rioted to protest the deaths of dozens of their people at the hands of an Israeli gunman. Israeli Settlers rioted to protest the death of the gunman at the hands of the surviving Moslems. Both sides also rioted on general principles, since neither extreme faction wanted anything to do with the peace plan being slowly constructed. In between the two sides was the Israeli Army, much better armed than either side, although smaller in number.
   Already a few Moslems had died, and rumors floated around of the Army shooting a few Settlers as well. Despite a few individuals calling for peace among the rioters (although generally from a safe distance), neither side seemed willing to calm down and let things be sorted out. The preferred to sort things out themselves...or rather to let God (by whatever name they called Him) sort things out after sufficient deaths had occurred.
   The Army wasn't having any real luck calming things down, and their use of deadly force perhaps only made things worse. The peacemakers and politicians were too removed from the situation physically to do much good. And even if they were present, they'd probably be struck down before accomplishing anything. A few prayed to their God to stop things...but most just prayed for more of them to die than of us.
   Fortunately someone was able and willing to go into this mess and try to find a solution without violence. He had to. Violence was not an option to a Patroller.
   Most people heard them before seeing them. A strange sound, like hoofbeats, echoed through the sky. People briefly looked up, thinking it was perhaps a helicopter come to teargas them, or worse, fire on them. What they saw was, even months since the appearance of Patrollers, an incredible sight. Literally. Some thought they had started to hallucinate from the fumes of burning tires and tear gas. But the rest realized that the flying man and the person riding a flying horse must be real. As the pair came closer, a few recognized one, and started shouting out various names. Some of them started to flee, knowing what was likely to happen. Some opened fire.
   The bullets, when they hit, bounced off without notice. Even the horse, which should be expected to shy from gunfire, took it in stride. A home made firebomb arced up toward them, but was obviously going to miss and fall back to the crowd below. But then it was caught in a giant fist, and exploded harmlessly above the ground!
   During the moment while people froze at that sight, the man, known to some as Maverick, held out his hand and a wall sprang up between the two sides of the conflict. At first it twisted and bent to make sure that no one was left on the wrong side, then it slowly straightened, forcing the sides apart. Once it was totally flat, it took on a mirror-like sheen...
    
   Brian had been quiet most of the way into orbit and back down. Although they could communicate via the radio headsets Brian had brought along, Sarah quickly found her prospective leader wasn't much of a talker. He told her how to seal against vacuum, how to use an elliptical semi-orbit to get to Israel faster, and told her to let him do the work and act as backup. Then he had clammed up.
   After the brief radio silence during re-entry (and the blinding glare of the atmosphere heating up in front of their force fields), Brian had led the way to the precise part of Israel where the worst rioting was likely to be. Apparently he had a lot of experience with riots in the Occupied Territories, thought Sarah.
   As they closed in on the ground, Sarah pulled out a trick she'd been so proud to figure out on her own: how to make sound with her Gauntlet. Brian looked over at her when the horse image she rode started to loudly gallop across the sky, but didn't tell her to stop. A moment later, he muttered over the comlink, "Well, at least you didn't start playing Ride of the Valkyries."
   Now there's a thought. She'd have to scan that sound into her Gauntlet's memory when she got home.
   A few stray bullets started to come her way...obviously they'd been noticed. Sarah hugged close to her horse. She hadn't thought of using Gauntlet constructs as personal armor, and now wasn't the time to experiment. She settled for extending the stirrups of her horse over her legs, and hoped no one would get lucky. Brian grabbed something that was obviously going to miss, and when it exploded in his Gauntlet-construct, she saw why he'd bothered. They pulled to a stop above throwing range, and Brian created a wall to force the rioters apart. Once he'd straightened the wall out, he made it into a mirror. It was high enough that it blocked thrown rocks and grenades, and made it hard to aim launched objects.
   Brian's voice came over the comlink, "I'm going to try and talk some sense into them. You watch for anything that might go over or around the wall."
   "Sure. How you gonna do it? Talk in Hebrew and you piss off the Palestinians...talk in Arabic and piss off the Army and Settlers...."
   "Talk in English and piss off all sides. I know. Just watch and listen."
   Before the novelty of the mirror had worn off, Brian created two glowing spheres, one on each side of the mirror, neither visible to those on the other side. Then he spoke, in English, and his voice came out of each sphere in the right language for that side. Made Sarah's hoofbeats seem pretty lame in comparison, she thought.
   "Look at yourselves! Just look! What do you see? Do you see good people, or monsters? You shall not kill, commands God: are you setting your hatred above God? Do you worship hate?" Some people started to quiet down, and look slightly ashamed. Others, however, simply shouted back at Maverick, anger in their voices. Sarah figured it was probably a good thing she didn't understand what they were saying. "Yes, the Settlers are driving out the Palestinians. But before that the Israelis were driven out by the Arabs. And before that the Arabs were driven out by the Israelis. And before that, the Israelis were driven out by the Persians. And before that the Canaanites were driven out by Joshua. And before, and before, and before! And before that? Before that there were no Hebrews, no Arabs. There were just humans. People who didn't divide themselves on trivial lines like who had last oppressed whom...nor did they spend much time oppressing each other to begin with. They had to work together just to survive. Now you seem not to care about survival...things have made it so you can fool yourselves into believing that you can keep splitting into smaller and smaller groups and still make it on your own. Well, wake up! We can't keep splitting into little bands who hate everyone else...soon there would be every man a nation of one, warring against all other such nations. And that way lies death. We must learn to live together, or we will die apart. If you don't believe me, look at your neighbor. He holds a rock, or a gun, or a grenade or a stick. He uses it now against someone you both hate, but once that target is gone, the hate will remain. Who will he hate when his old enemy is gone? You. We must stop hating each other, for by doing so we hate God and ourselves. Now go home, stop this fighting, and try to start letting go of the hate. Or it will surely destroy you."
   People started wandering off on both sides of the wall. It was obvious this fight was over, so those looking to keep fighting went elsewhere to fight. But maybe just a few took the words to heart, and went home to think about them. Others were just tired, and now that the momentum had been broken, went home as well.
   Dissolving the spheres, Brian said to Sarah, "Yeah, I know. Probably just a small drop in a big bucket. I've lived here for years, you don't need to tell me this won't do much. But someone is bound to have listened. And the reducing the largest mountain to dust starts with a few cracks. And time. A lot of time."


   Sunday dinner at Karlson's ranch. Several days had passed since Constellation had left, and a little more than a day since the Machine learned of Janssen's actions in Israel. They considered going to help, but decided it better not to interfere in 'local' events they weren't normally part of. Too much chance of doing more harm than good. And there were still hundreds of people needing to be saved every day as they foolishly tried to go back into LA for possessions...theirs or otherwise.
   Sam took a long drink of water, then cleared his throat to get everyone's attention. When they looked up, he announced, "I guess this is as good a time as any to tell you guys...Jenny and I are gonna get married, as soon as we can get the time and let our folks know about it."
   General murmurs of "Congratulations" and the like floated around the table, except for Dan.
   "So, this makes what, five?" he asked, making a show of ticking off points on his fingers. He grinned widely.
   Jenny tossed a napkin at him. "Be quiet. This is only the second time we've gotten engaged and you know it. And this time we're a lot more emotionally mature...unlike some people at this table," she added, shooting a mock-vicious glance at Dan. Astra grinned and made a hissing sound, while Ted drew a '1' in the air.
   "Hey, I'm the one who gets to insult Dan," said Ted, with a hurt expression quickly replacing his grin.
   "Choose your next words very carefully," warned Dan, dangling his knife over Ted's lap.
   "Children..." chided Simon. "Sam, Jenny, just let me know if you want any help arranging things, especially with your parents."
   "Thanks, Daddy Warbucks," replied Sam. Everyone (except Simon) snickered. Simon rolled his eyes. At least spirits were high, for a change.
   Too bad that wouldn't last.


   Monday, and Karlson was back in his main offices in Denver. The location had changed, but the harried manipulation of contacts and phone connections hadn't. At least here he had a switchboard to route the more important calls.
   A small light on his desk flashed. It was the phone connection that this day was being used for Machine communications. He quickly finished his current conversation and pushed the button next to the light.
   "Karlson here."
   "Simon, this is Sam. Turn on channel 4, Magnum's apparently managed to sneak a press conference into town without our finding out about it."
   Damn, thought Simon. Magnum's been a problem ever since that intrusion by Cyberfist. No doubt they hired him, but less doubt that they couldn't be connected to the act. Simon put down the phone and turned on the television mounted in the wall of his office.
   George Mounts, damn his smirking face, was at a podium deliberately designed to look like the one Karlson had used when introducing Beacon a few months back. The curtains behind it were even similar, although they bore the Magnum Inc. corporate logo on them. He was making some kind of speech about civic responsibility, trying to minimize the fact that he'd done almost squat to help the Quake victims, and to make up for what was left. Simon had a sinking feeling about this.
   Mounts continued. "Sadly, this project was completed too late for the participants to give more than token aid to the victims of the horrible tragedy in California, and they had to be withdrawn after it was apparent that their training was incomplete. But now that training is complete, and in full cooperation with the City and State authorities here in Denver, Magnum Force will help bring the Machine, and any other vigilantes, to answer for their actions in a court of law! May I present, MAGNUM FORCE!"
   The curtains parted to reveal five figures in high-tech outfits similar to those worn by the Machine. As they stepped forward for individual introductions, Simon felt his heart sink all the way down to the first floor. Obviously, the Feds weren't going hinder local authorities either....


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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen