Hunter Fell
David van Domelen

[cover shows Magnum Force standing over the fallen bodies of most of the Machine, with Astra about to be restrained. Blood is everywhere. Cover copy proclaims "Magnum Triumphant?"]

   Quietly, carefully, Stiletto used her fingertips like bolt-cutters, cutting through the links of the electric fence. Gauntlet was maintaining the current of the fence by simply holding the fence on either side of the cut, and letting the computerized power couplings of his gauntlets regulate the flow. Unlike the Gauntlets used by the Patrollers, his were large, bulky affairs jammed with numerous weapons and tools, from which his hands could emerge when he needed to do fine work. Gauntlet looked at a meter on the back of his left hand and whispered its reading to Stingray, who spooled out enough wire to exactly match the resistance the fence expected. Stingray then connected the wires to the fence, allowing Gauntlet to pull away and stow the sensitive instruments in their belt pouches, freeing his gauntlets for more combat- oriented duty.
   "Tell me again why we don't just jump the damn fence?" whispered Sledgehammer. "It's only fifteen feet 'r so...."
   "'Hammy, you think too clumsily. The fence is easy to defeat this way, and there's less risk of being seen leaping, or of tripping any other detection systems they may have rigged up. After all, this is their party. Just 'cuz we're invited doesn't mean we wanna ring the doorbell," chided Protus, slipping easily into the role of team jerk that shapeshifters like him always got stuck with in the comics he read as a kid. Well, not all of them, but a lot. "Besides, Gauntlet needs the practice with all the gadgets he got saddled with." Protus stretched a wide (too wide for a human) grin in Gauntlet's direction. Gauntlet ignored him, as usual.
   "We're done here, if you gentlemen will kindly turn your attention back to the mission," hissed Stiletto through clenched teeth. She still didn't like the setup...too easy. The Machine hadn't kept out of the hands of the authorities for this long by being idiots, and they had high tech out the wazoo. She didn't like taking her team into such a blatant trap, but she really had no choice. They still weren't very good, as a team, at tracking down people. If the Machine wanted to evade them, they could probably do so for months. And the boss wanted quick results. Stiletto carefully pulled aside the fence. "Remember, be careful where you step...we can't turn on the antigravs until after we've taken our first shots. They might have gravity distortion detectors."
   As the densest member of Magnum Force (physically, at least...'Hammer vied for that position mentally) Stiletto had to take her own warning to heart as she trod as lightly as possibly across the hard-frozen ground. A patch of mud could cause major problems for her.
   Stingray signaled he'd found an IR 'tripwire' and they stepped over it one at a time. Protus tried to be clever and slide under it, but Stiletto cut that idea short. Soon they'd reached the back of the one building on the property, an old machineworks which had been abandoned in the mid-80s and wasn't worth re-opening. Gauntlet fired a cable up the wall and tested its grip on whatever it had snagged at the top. Stiletto went up first, being the best climber. She double-checked the bundle slung over her back, the 'secret weapon' they had against the Machine, then ascended quickly and quietly. The cable held long enough for her to reach the top, and then she anchored it with her own body while the others climbed up.
   Quickly checking the roof for traps and finding none, Stiletto gave Protus the signal to scout the edges, using his skills to keep a minimum profile against the edge of the building. Finally, he gave a thumbs-up (or something up) on finding the best place to attack from.
   The team crept up to the edge of the roof Protus had indicated and carefully peered over. Down below, the Machine were addressing some kind of camera setup, presumably the same one they'd used to send their 'invitation'. Morons, thought Stiletto. Having a press conference to improve their images when they're about to be hauled off to jail. What was left of them, that is.
   Stiletto broke out the special weapons. Four of them rifles with special anti-force-field munitions designed to penetrate the weaker fields generated by the Machine's suits. Luckily for Magnum Force, Cosmic Defender had apparently not picked up on the latest Patroller trend of making body armor with his Gauntlet, confident that the suit he wore would be enough. The other weapon was a sort of tangler grenade launcher, but it had numerous miniature rocket engines on it, like smaller versions of hobbyist rocket engines. Once it wound around a target, the engines would fire at random order. It was a weapon specially designed for Astra, who was light enough that the engines would toss her about like a rag doll for several precious seconds before she could tear them all off. By that time, it would be five against one, bad odds even for the supposed "Strongest Woman in the World." Stiletto suppressed a snicker. Strength wasn't everything, there were also skill and leverage, which she had in spades over Astra. It might not even need 5-1 odds to beat Astra.
   Cosmic Defender was apparently doing most of the talking, while the other Machiners were alternating between looking into the camera and scanning the area for Magnum Force or the conventional authorities. All of Stiletto's people were in position to fire, and so far none of the targets had noticed the gun muzzles poking over the edge of the roof. She simply whispered, "Now."
   Five shots rang out. Two at Cosmic Defender, who fell in a spray of blood as the bullets pierced his body. One each at Captain Justice and Greymask, who also fell as jets of red punctuated the successful hits. The ammo worked even batter than advertised, thought Stiletto as she watched the slightly slower tangler round hit and wrap around Astra, starting her into a St. Vitus' Dance mixed with fireworks display. "Go!" Stiletto shouted, as she triggered the broadcast power feed and sent power into the antigrav units of her team...

   A few days ago, in a carefully nondescript conference room in a building next door to the Karlmax tower. All of the Machine members had made there way here by various means after the Magnum press conference, to discuss how to deal with the new threat. Dan Thomas, aka Greymask, was the last to arrive, having to make it all the way across town. He entered a room that was rather grimmer than the last one where he'd seen all three of the others together.
   "So," he said without preamble, "what do we do about these Magnum Farce creeps?"
   "Obviously we can't let them hunt us down," began Karlson, who as Captain Justice led the team. Before Dan could make and derisive commentary on that, he continued, "If they should find one of us alone, it would be disaster. If they would find us all together in a populated area, it would be even worse, especially if they get tired of looking here and go to California to hunt for us. I somehow doubt they'd mind going out of their jurisdiction to get us. Also, there's a fair chance they'll try to expose our link to Karlmax, since it's pretty obvious their hunt for us is motivated by Mounts' professional rivalry with us. Anything that hurts Karlmax helps Magnum Inc., and he knows it."
   "So, you're suggesting making them come to us on safer turf...preferably turf we control?" asked Sam Lyons, the Cosmic Defender and the team's Patroller.
   "Exactly. Of course, anything we do to get them there will make them expect a trap, so they'll be loaded for bear. There's a very good chance they out-power us, and they certainly outnumber us...we can't drag the Beacon suit into this mess, nor can we risk hurting the reputation of the Patrol itself by bringing in Janssen or any of his new team. Besides, he's busy, as you know."
   Dan fidgeted. "What do we know about them, aside from what they told during the press conference?"
   Simon pulled out a small folder. "I've been keeping an eye on Magnum ever since that Cyberfist incident. And I'm pretty sure they were also behind that Russian who attacked during the Beacon announcement. From the files that were stolen, we know they have broadcast power and minor force-field technology. They do not have jammer tech, although it's possible they could get it from the Enemy, since we know the Enemy has access to its own version of the tech. So we should plan for power loss.
   "In addition, I suspect they are far better able to fight without their suits and broadcast power than we are, so jamming them wouldn't be too smart. Mounts isn't a fool, he wouldn't have let that man go after us without first being sure he could make more. Expect all of Magnum Force to be denser and stronger than normal."
   "A team of that guy? I don't see how we could beat them! I mean, he could bash through Patrol fields. One was bad enough, but five?" exclaimed Astra.
   "No, I doubt they're that strong or heavy. Keep in mind how you defeated him, Astra...too dense and it's impractical. I figure they're dense enough to have enhanced strength and defensive ability. In addition, analysis of the videotapes of the press conference shows that the one called Protus is a shapechanger, as his name suggests. Not a very stable one, either. Finally, since the Russian had anti-grav tech, we must assume these people do as well, and will certainly use it to balance their extra mass. Negating that balance could give us a tactical advantage, but I doubt it will save the day."
   Astra cocked her head. "So, I suppose Wier is gonna pull a 'Doc' Smith and whip up some new gadgets for us?"
   Sam was the first to say "Huh?" but the others generally followed his sentiment.
   Astra's expression dropped into a pedantic mode. "In a lot of the pulp SF like Smith's, the good guys always went into the big battle with some new pseudo-plausible device that gave them the edge needed to win. Are we gonna do the same?"
   Simon frowned slightly and shook his head. "I'm afraid not. It takes weeks to implement a new upgrade in the suits, even if we had one ready, which we don't. Dr. Wier lost a lot of research time studying Constellation, so there's no new 'magic bullet' we could build in, even if it could be done so fast. Sure, there's improvements over the original suits: my shield has improved power storage capacity and a jammer unit built in, Greymask's IR laser has had its power increased at the cost of instrument-quality beam stability, making it a good crowd control weapon. Sam now carries a number of anaesthetic bombs to toss in with his constructs and KO people inside. Your flight boots now have pitons which can sink into the ground for extra stability when you need it. But none of these will really do much against the Magnum Forcers, who will certainly be ready for gas and minor lasers. No, we have to make use of the assets we already have."
   "Such as...?" asked Dan.
   "Such as Sam, for one. They don't have a real Patroller, so we have that advantage against them. If nothing else, Sam can contain them while we make backup plans if the original plan fails. Second, we'll have the home court advantage if they fall for our lure. No matter how many traps they expect, we can always find one that they don't expect. Finally, we know a lot more about the tech they're using, antigrav excepted, than they do, since we have Wier. I don't think they're going to have anything which can take us down in one shot. Even if they do, we can probably anticipate it. Now, here's the basis of an idea I had...."

   Sam was beginning to worry...they'd been broadcasting for the last hour and no one had showed. Fortunately, the normal authorities hadn't either. It would be a very bad thing for a cop to get killed in the crossfire.
   They'd set up a camera on remote control, and were feeding the signal to all three network affiliates, at least one of which was showing it at all times. They could even ask questions through the speakers attached to the camera. Sam was fielding the questions, and doing a fairly good job of it too.
   "I'd like to repeat, if I may, a plea that the normal authorities not try to confront us. It's not that we couldn't escape them without seriously harming them, but should they get hit by stray fire after the Magnum Force people arrive, we'd feel responsible. This is only an invitation for Magnum Force. We know you want us, and we don't want you to find us in a populated area where more innocents could be hurt. We do regret the collateral damage we have caused in the past, but we are not going to turn ourselves in. We feel we're doing far more good on our own, without having to deal with the legal niceties that bind the police force. It's a sad statement that even while we do our best to help the victims of the Great Quake we're hunted for simply not being as 'nice' as the authorities might wish. And...."
   Sam didn't get to finish that statement. Five shots rang out, and suddenly Cosmic Defender, Greymask and Captain Justice fell in a spray of blood, some of which splattered the camera. A second later, Astra was reeling as some kind of net struck her and started jerking her in every direction at once.
   Five figures leapt from the rooftop and landed lightly, in attack stances. Their leader shouted, "By authority of the Colorado State Police, you are under arrest, Machiners! Do not try to resist, or we shall be forced to do more than seriously injure you. Astra, we outnumber you five to one...desist! Gauntlet, shut off that camera, in case they have allies watching through it." Astra slowly came to a stop as the rocket engines burned the last of their solid fuel. She didn't try to stand, but meekly remained where she was.
   Stingray cautiously approached. "These force-field augmented manacles should hold her, or at least take long enough to break that we have warning." He stepped up to her and gestured for her to extend her arms to be manacled.
   Then she opened up like she'd been slit down the side, and flowed in a sheet to cover Stingray! Stiletto made an instant judgement call. "It's not really Astra! This is a trap! Bail!" she cried as she started to bolt.
   "Cosmic Defender," dripping what was now obviously fake blood, stood and suddenly exploded in a shower of cloth and plastic, revealing the real Astra. "You bet yer skinny ass it's a trap!" she shouted, and dove for Stiletto.
   Hidden panels sprang open in the ground, and the real Captain Justice, Cosmic Defender and Greymask burst out. Sam stopped concentrating on the forcefield mannequins and the spare body-stockings filled with pouches of fake blood collapsed with a sigh. Shifting his concentration, he thickened the walls of the construct he had Stingray in. Stingray was nearly as strong as the Russian had supposedly been, but hopefully not for long. Greymask activated his skimmerboots and was by Stingray in a moment, attaching a small device to the outside of the field. It lit up amber, and several red numbers on it lit up. "We've got their freak!" Dan shouted over the comlink.
   "Commencing jam," replied Captain Justice, who was blocking blasts of electricity from Gauntlet's hands. Knowing the specific frequency of broadcast power let him jam just that, leaving the Machine's power link intact. It might take as much as ten seconds for Magnum Force's supply base to correct for the change, which gave them ten seconds of tactical advantage. Gauntlet's attack stopped instantly as he lost power. Stingray's struggles reduced to a tolerable level.
   Meanwhile, Protus has thrown himself in Astra's way. He knew he had the easiest chance of escape if captured and taken away to the Machine's base, so it was important to let the other, less clever (in his eyes), teammates get away to fight on fairer terms another day. He covered Astra like a shroud, not letting her see, even though he couldn't really keep her from moving.
   "Give me a hole in her stomach, Protus...I'm going to see if I can pop her like a balloon," ordered Stiletto as behind her Sledgehammer tried to smash the nimble Greymask.
   Astra panicked. If Stiletto thought she could pop her, then maybe she could! She summoned all the strength she could, trying to tear out of the puttylike mass of Protus. Almost instantly she was rewarded by a scream from Protus.
   "Aaagh! I'm being sucked in!" he cried. Stiletto paused and looked on in horrified fascination. Parts of Protus were being absorbed into Astra's body, as if she were a sponge, hungry for energy instead of water. And being made of a similar energy, Protus was all-too-vulnerable.
   "Snap out of it, Protus! Get off her, I'll handle her!"
   Protus, or what was left of him, all but poured off of Astra like pudding. She looked somehow more substantial, which is understandable considering she almost ate Protus for dinner. Stiletto leapt forward in a kick intended to knock Astra as far away as tests the 15-lb dummy had sailed half a mile once. Astra was knocked back, being too shocked at suddenly being able to see again to defend herself, but only a few dozen meters.
   Captain Justice looked at the device on Stingray's prison...still amber. He had to take down at least one more member hard...Sam was busy holding various shields and trying to disable Stingray's power source without harming him...and not having much luck. Greymask had ripped off most of Sledgehammer's suit without having been touched, and now was slashing his laser across the man's chest, raising ugly red welts in its passage...the denser skin seemed more vulnerable to the radiation. Simon faked a throw of his shield at Gauntlet, who predictably ducked. The sidekick which Simon used had just enough reach to crush Gauntlet's face, thanks to the strength enhancement in the suit. Gauntlet reeled back in pain, having not felt its like recently, no doubt. Moving quickly, Simon felled him with the edge of his shield. Two down, one held, one going down fast. Looking good.
   Now for the coup de grace, the real trap.
   "Stiletto, I just thought you'd like to know...your authority is bogus out here."
   Stiletto turned to face him and laughed. "Sorry, vigilante, we have authority over all of Colorado to take you in, any way necessary. And last time I checked, this was inside Colorado. You're only making it harder for yourself, fighting deputies of the state while on candid camera over there."
   "Oh, if we'd been worried about that, we'd have turned it off. Astra, do you want to tell her?" asked Simon.
   Astra was already back up to within a few paces of Stiletto. "Federal land, lady. Shoulda read the signs...or did we take those down? I forget. This factory was built on Fed property when it seemed likely that a new Air Force base would be built here. The products of the factory would then be tested on grounds. Unfortunately, budget cuts kept the plan from every getting off the ground, to pardon the pun. Land's still Federal, tho. Your warrant is bogus here. No Fed warrant out on us. By the way..." Astra cocked back her fist, "I felt that!" To punctuate her point, she lanced out with her left foot, catching Stiletto by surprise and sending her into the dirt, landing next to Sledgehammer, who Greymask had finally stopped toying with. "Bitch," she muttered too quietly for the camera to pick up. Stiletto sat up and glared at Astra. "How'd you do that...with our mass difference, you should have gone sailing back?"
   "Looks like I put on some weight, thanks to your gooey friend."
   Simon walked over to the camera and shut it off. "In case you were wondering, the real Cosmic Defender was talking to the press...we just spliced into the feed. Oh, by the'll find your actions here have gotten you in no little bit of trouble with the Feds, and I doubt your official authority in this state will last much beyond the start of working hours tomorrow. Now gather your people up, and get...the...hell...out!"
   The Machine gathered around Cosmic Defender, who formed a platform under them and the equipment they had brought. Then he flew them all away, up into the clouds. Moments later, the shell around Stingray dissolved and he burst out, angrier than a hornet in a castanet.
   "Are we just going to let them get away?" he demanded.
   "What, can you fly? And if they weren't lying about all the Fed stuff, we'd better not even try until we've straightened things out legally. Protus is bad off, and the others aren't exactly tip-top either...even if we can get a fair fight after chasing them, we still aren't powerful enough right now to win it. No, he gave us rope, and we hung ourselves. Let's go back to base and hope we don't face even worse from the boss."
   Stingray gathered up Protus in a force field while Stiletto shook Gauntlet and Sledgehammer into consciousness. Then Magnum Force limped from the field of combat.
   Stiletto paused and looked up in the direction the Machine had gone. "Don't think a little thing like the law will keep us from taking you all down, Machine. We've tried it the nice to be nasty."
   She then walked back to their van....

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Copyright 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen