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David van Domelen
[cover shows the Machiners at some sort of St.Pat's celebration. They're in costume and holding mugs of green beer. Behind them, a phantom claw reaches through a wall, obviously belonging to the Zando.]
The room was dark, save for the flickering light provided by the electricity arcing from a destroyed television set. A glass paperweight rested in the debris of the picture tube, a solitary crack grazing its way through the green-tinted glass. On the desk which dominated the office, a light began to blink redly, lighting briefly the finger that stabbed down to shut it off. The room's sole occupant had no desire to break his isolation just yet. To answer the intercom would have merely set in motion a series of questions and forced the man to take action to answer them, and he wanted a moment to consider what answers he meant to seek.
The electricity feeding the shattered television cut off as the last circuit opened and the last short fizzled out. The room was now totally dark, and it was this darkness in which the man could concentrate best. As much as his public endeavors dealt with light and energy and technology, his past was not solely concerned with such modern conveniences. He had a heritage from when the dark of the night was held back only by feeble flames, an illogical and fear-filled time when one empire had fallen and another had yet to rise. Perhaps this dark heritage was merely based in legend, tales told by his ancestor's enemies, a false blot on the family line. Perhaps it was not. In a new world where men flew through the air supported by barely-understood technologies, where a thought could become reality and where science could create superhumans, who was to say that the old superstitions weren't somehow valid?
There had been a time when, a bored and jaded youth, this man had dabbled in arcane arts such as alchemy and spiritualism. Of course, nothing came of it. At least nothing tangible. But at times like this, when rational planning and technology failed him, George Mounts often reflected back to the philosophies which had accompanied his dabbling in the dark arts. That the mind was a powerful tool, far more powerful than the gross physical form. That the will to power was as important as power itself. The failure of his strikeforce to humble the Machine had reminded him of these truths. The Machine had used more than mere force and cunning: they had woven traps within traps, playing on the mental weakness of Magnum Force instead of playing to their physical strength. Their victory had seriously embarrassed Mounts and his company, and also cost them financially. Restoring Sledgehammer and Protus to health would take time and money, resources which they hadn't particularly justified having spent on them.
Technology had failed him twice now. Aster had been even less effective than Mounts had planned, and Magnum Force's first attack against the Machine had been a laughable failure. Perhaps it was time to look into other avenues opened by the reality that physics as mankind had known it wasn't necessarily true....
As dark as the room had been, at that moment it got darker still. The sound of his chair sliding back on the carpeting was the only sign he had stood. In a hoarse low whisper, he hissed, "I'm not finished yet...."
"I'm not finished yet," came the muffled voice of Dr. Wier from behind the control panels. "Hold still for a moment longer, Astra. I must be certain there has been no mass loss since yesterday, and your movement isn't helping."
Astra frowned slightly, but otherwise didn't move.
"All right, you may step out of the scale now," said Wier. Astra slid aside the plastic door of the balance and stepped off the raised platform. Then she carefully slid shut the door that kept air currents from affecting measurements.
"What's the verdict, doc? Did Protus go straight to my hips?"
Dr. Wier looked up, apparently oblivious to the attempted joke. "Your mass is 42.452 kilograms, with error of point-six grams. Approximately ninety pounds. Within the experimental error, this is the same mass you had yesterday, despite exercises in the intervening time which should have converted approximately ten grams of mass into energy. I am reasonably confident that your current mass is stable, and will not be burned off like the mass you have added in the past from eating. Apparently, the compatibility of Protus's physical makeup with your own allowed you to incorporate the stolen mass into yourself on a long-term basis. So, to answer your question, yes, Protus did go straight to your hips, as well as every other part of your body."
Astra looked at herself in the faint reflection cast by the plastic door to the scale. "Well, I still don't weigh as much as I look like I would, but I guess I won't blow away in a good wind now. Can my jetboots be modified to carry the extra mass?"
Dr. Wier shook his head. "I'm afraid not for long-distance flight. They could still let you travel in a manner similar to that used by Greymask, and assist in long leaps, but flight is no longer an option."
Astra's mood darkened slightly. Flying had been one of the few good things about being stuck as an energy shell. If only she could use the remains of the Gauntlet inside her to fly....<WHUNK> "What the hell?"
Astra opened her eyes, having shut them momentarily in her reverie. She was now up against the ceiling of the lab, with Dr. Wier looking up at her in mild astonishment. "I can fly!" She tried to fly across the room, but instead bounced off the ceiling and crashed into the scale. "Um...oops. Looks like I'll need some practice," she muttered embarrassedly as she picker herself up out of the shattered plastic panels.
"Interesting. Apparently your Gauntlet has managed to use some of the extra energy to repair itself, giving you access to more powers of the device. Please, go outside for a while and practice, by all means. I will need an hour or two to set up another set of measurements. If my guess is right, you may have gained far greater physical integrity along with the mass."
"Meaning, you might be able to change form far more easily now. But do not attempt it yet, I wish to set up some failsafes to help stabilize you if my assumption is wrong." With that, Wier began packing some instruments away to make room for others. "Oh, and walk until you get outside."
But Astra had already left, running up the stairs and outside as quickly as she could.
A few days later, Astra was spending much of her time in front of a mirror, trying out new appearances, and Simon joined Wier down in the lab. Hardcopies littered most of the horizontal surfaces, and were taped and tacked to many of the vertical ones. Most showed 'before' and 'after' data on Astra, showing how dramatically she had improved.
"Well," began Wier, "her flight is clumsy at best. But she mastered flying with jetboots, a tricky skill at best, so she should improve in this as well. She certainly is motivated to improve."
"What's her top speed look like?"
"Currently, approximately thirty meters per second. Slightly slower than her best speed with the boots, and far slower than a Patroller. Her speed will no doubt improve along with her control, but I doubt it will exceed twice what it is now, barring further self-repair by her Gauntlet." Wier tapped a computer-generated diagram of Astra, showing the location in her hollow torso of the remains of her Gauntlet. "Interestingly, from some neutrino scans I've made of her, the remains of her Gauntlet seem to be shaping into a rough pyramidal shape, like a miniature Recharger. This may be an adaptation by the rudimentary AI in the Gauntlet to help preserve her life functions, as well as more efficiently draw power from wherever it is the Rechargers get power from. Another hypothesis I've formed is that her prolonged proximity to Floyd Johnsson, Constellation, caused this."
Simon scratched the stubble on his chin. "How so?"
"Well, he pointed out that his powers warp reality to suit his will. Astra was quite fond of him, and it's possible he felt something towards her as well. Subconsciously, he would have wished her 'healed' of her problems. This subconscious desire would have altered probabilities to increase the likelihood of positive change in Astra. Of course, this is merely speculation. I am certain that the absorption of Protus's mass triggered these changes, but uncertain how the changes came about."
"Fine." Simon nodded slightly. "Now, what about the other project I've had you working on?"
"The Patroller-killer? Well, I've made a minor breakthrough. According to Constellation, there was a slight distortion trail through the rock near the Los Angeles quake. Assuming that this trail was left by the person who has been slaughtering Patrollers...."
"A reasonable assumption, since one was killed at the site of the Quake, and the trail of bodies stretches from there," interjected Simon.
"Yes. Assuming that, and that however he passed through solid matter also enabled him to bypass Gauntlet-created defenses, I designed a rather sensitive gravity meter using broadcast power theory. As you know, the neutrino beam is not blocked by normal matter, but it is affected by gravitational fields. Matter which has been passed through by this being should have residual gravitational fields which would diffract a broadcast power beam enough to be measured. I tested it on a wall which Constellation had passed through, and it showed a drop in signal strength of about a thousandth of a percent. The next step will be to set up another test in Los Angeles, to see if we can map out the path we know is there, from North Ridge to central LA. By putting both ends over the horizon, we can try to find the residual distortions there. If that is successful, we can sweep the area near the latest Patroller slaying to get an idea which direction the killer headed net, and hopefully be there to warn its next target."
"Okay. We can set this up under cover of some of our salvage operations in the area. There's a cordon around most of the more dangerous areas right now, to keep people from getting killed while trying to recover valuables... theirs or someone else's...but we can get to enough areas to get a reasonable data set. I'll have it authorized by this afternoon."
"I shall transmit the plans to the detector to your California plant using the secure neutrino channel. My prototype is only about a tenth as accurate as it could be, they should be able to improve on that," noted Wier.
"Be sure to use channel green. I had to turn over the secret for intercepting channel blue to the NSA yesterday, and I'm sure they're monitoring us," warned Simon as he walked out the door.
As he ascended the stairs to the main part of the ranch house, Simon chuckled grimly to himself. The Clipper Chip was a joke compared to what he was doing. After all, the Clipper Chip was totally public, and applied to communication media so vast that no organization could hope to fully monitor them. But phased broadcast power transmissions held the promise of total confidentiality, total freedom from eavesdropping. At least, they did to those who didn't know how to intercept the transmissions. Soon, every important conversation and data transmission would be sent by PBPT, and the government agencies would have the key to intercepting most of them. No law was passed, the FCC wasn't consulted...this was all another part of Karlson's secret deal with the Powers That Be. The small number of people who could afford PBPT could be completely monitored by even a small department, and for at least a few months this would be free and clear. Eventually other companies would devise their own encryption methods, but since Karlson's people had been working on this for months and the technology for PBPT not yet even unveiled, they would have a serious edge for at least a year. An edge they shared with the government in exchange for greater freedom from interference. But, of course, they didn't share all the edge...
"...I mean, I can't get drunk, and it tastes disgusting anyway, so why should I? It has nothing to do with my age!" protested a totally green Astra. Aside from being green, she also had longer hair than before, and her nose wasn't quite as hooked.
Ted just smirked and raised a mug of green beer. "She can't be a teenager, guys. A teenager would drink anyway. I know I did."
Sam tossed a wadded up ball of green crepe paper in Ted's direction. "Just cuz you were an irresponsible crud in high school doesn't mean all teenagers are!"
"I suppose hiding a dye pellet in that kid's swimming trunks as a senior prank counts as responsible, then?" jibed Jenny.
"Hey, at least I used purple dye. I could have used red, you know. Besides, I never said I wasn't irresponsible crud. Just that not everyone is at that age."
"Uh huh..." nodded Jenny. "Let's take this to the source: Astra, were you irresponsible crud in high school?"
Astra looked a bit uncomfortable. "Um, I refuse to answer on the grounds it may incriminate me." To herself, she thought, and it might let them know I'm not old enough for High School.
Sam looked somewhat sternly at his fiancée. "Jen, when Astra's ready to tell us about her past, she'll tell us. Don't prod her."
"How about I prod you instead?" countered Jenny, as she put down her drink and started poking Sam in his ticklish spots.
Dan sipped his beer and then added, "If you think I'm following that line, Ted, you're insane."
"I think I may be ill," muttered Astra.
"You do look a little green," replied Ted. "Sorry, someone had to say it." Ted cocked his head to one side. "Hark! I think the fearless leader has finally broken away from his phone and is coming down the hall to join the festivities! Ready potato guns!"
Everyone grabbed a small plastic gun from a box on the table, and stuck the barrel into a potato which had been soaking in a bowl of green beer for maximum yuck-factor. The room fell silent as they took aim on the doorway. The door opened. Everyone fired, green pellets arcing toward the door.
And bouncing off a familiar tricorner shield.
"Awww, no fair!" cried Ted.
"Cheat!" added Jenny.
"I kind of expected something like this greeting, so I brought protection," smirked Simon as he lowered his Captain Justice shield. "Besides, I figured I'd get one last use out of this before I hung it up."
"Huh?" was the first response.
"You quitting?" was the somewhat more intelligent follow-up.
"Yes. I've been finding myself more and more busy with my work as Simon Karlson lately. And looking at what I've accomplished as Captain Justice, I decided to stop fooling myself and admit I do far more good without the costume. And before you ask, Ted, no you can't have it. I don't think you're ready for a combat position yet. Maybe in a few more weeks. I certainly don't have any other candidates in mind for the position."
"What about me?" asked Jen.
"I thought you weren't interested in the whole superhero business?"
"Well, not really. But I would have appreciated being considered as well. Besides, it would even out the gender balance on the team."
Simon put the shield down after making sure no one was reaching for another potato. "I'll think about it. I might also want to bring in a new member from my security forces. There's a few promising people there, and the Machine could use someone who's got more formal training in combat and security."
Dan finished his beer and set the mug down. "Y'know, with you retiring, and Astra able to change her look finally, have you all considered the possibility of shaking the rest of our bad rep by just changing all our names and costumes? Sam, I know you've been thinking of changing your look at least, and as long as you'd have to modify the Captain Justice suit to fit a new person, you could make it look different overall."
Simon shook his head. "First off, our rep isn't as bad as all that anymore. Most people still think we're vigilantes who have committed crimes, but far fewer think we should be brought to justice. The incident with Magnum Force helped more than we'd hoped. We came off looking almost like responsible heroic types, trying to make sure no innocents were hurt. Magnum came off like brutal cowards, what with shooting 'us' from surprise and not giving a chance to surrender. Also, it wouldn't take too long for smarter types to link whatever new IDs we came up with to the old ones. Especially Astra. There's a rather small number of superstrong people in the world, after all. New looks might be in order, but if we try to trick people into thinking we're different people, they *will* find out eventually, and it'll blow up in our faces."
Everyone nodded assent or made some kind of affirmative sound.
Sam spoke up first. "Like Dan said, I've been thinking of an ID change. My costume is a bit uninspired, and the name Cosmic Defender is pretty dippy. I know, I know, I picked it in the first place because it was dippy, but I'm regretting it. Constellation's parting remark has gotten me thinking about Arthurian legends, and doing some reading. And if you're going out of active duty, Simon, that does leave me the field leader of the group. In light of that, I was thinking I could go by the name Pendragon, which means war leader, and was a title of Arthur's."
"Doesn't some comic company have that trademarked?" asked Astra.
"You can't trademark a dictionary word...you have to attach it to a distinctive likeness or concept," corrected Jenny. "I suppose if he makes a costume that looks too much like the comicbook character Pendragon he could be sued, but it's not like Pendragon's a word they created."
"Nor could they really find us to sue us," added Ted.
"I could use my Gauntlet to make the new look while the new bodystocking gets made," added Sam.
"All right. We can get some new looks made later. Right now, let's do some serious relaxing. Wier's found a lead on that Patroller-killer, I want to get after him later tomorrow."
At this point, Astra pointed her finger at Simon and shot out a piece of potato from her reshaped digit. Splat. Whatever response Simon had was drowned out by laughter and general partying noise.
Even a Patroller needs some Spring Break time, mused Kelly Naehring, part time superhero and full time pre-med major as she walked along the crowded beach at Daytona. MTV's choice to use San Diego this year suited her just fine, Daytona was rowdy enough without them making things moreso. Of course, just in case things got too rowdy, she had her Recharger along with in her cooler, hidden under some ice. Perhaps it had been a stupid move...with such a huge cooler and no one else with her, people kept hoping she had beer they could mooch. She made the excuse that her smaller cooler broke the other day, so she was stuck with the big one and please bug off there's no beer in here anyway. Maybe later she'd break up one of the eminently unCivilized best-butt contests or something. She grinned slightly at the thought of using her Gauntlet to scoop up a few tons of ocean water and dump it on the crowd of jerk guys who invariably attended such events. He who lives by the wet t-shirt contest....
Her thoughts were rudely interrupted as a squat, inhuman figure burst out of the ground in front of her. She didn't have time to notice that no shower of sand accompanied this...it just came out of the ground. Reflexively she jumped back, throwing her cooler at the thing to try and knock it down. Smart, she thought. Throw away your best defense against whatever this is.
By now, people had seen the creature and were running in terror. Kelly was only too happy to join them, but she felt a sharp pain in her left leg, and dropped to the ground. She looked down to see that her left leg now ended at the knee, and her blood was pumping out into the sand. The creature was reeling in something with one hand, and picking up Kelly's detached shin with the other hand. It seemed to leer at her, as if it was enjoying toying with her. Then it took a bite out of the leg, and Kelly passed out.
A sharp sensation of heat in Kelly's left leg brought her back to consciousness. A man in a gray suit was holding her leg firmly in what must have been a superhuman grip while pointing something at the stump. She managed to force her mouth to form words. "Wh-who...."
"I'm Greymask, of the Machine. Hold still, I'm using my laser on wide-beam to cauterize your wound, keep you from bleeding to death. If I miss I could fry other parts of your body, so don't move."
Kelly stayed as still as she could, but involuntary spasms of pain made her jerk a few times. She felt sick, woozy, nauseous...in short, about how she later realized is normal for people who just had a limb sliced off. There was a lot of sand being kicked around, and it was hard to keep out of her eyes, but she managed to catch a glimpse of that thing which had attacked her being held in some kind of bubble. Greymask finished his work and told her something about laying still, but she was kind of hazy and didn't hear exactly what he said.
Turning her head, she saw her cooler lying open on its side a few meters away. The glow of the Recharger was faintly visible, but apparently no one had noticed it yet. She started trying to crawl towards it, but the effort of moving nearly made her pass out. Above, the creature had escaped the bubble and was trying to slice a tall woman up with the weapon he must have used on Kelly. It wasn't working. Greymask had run over to help against the creature, but didn't seem to be having much effect either. Kelly tried to move again, and this time managed to make it a few inches. At this rate, she'd die of old age before getting to it. She turned to the other side, in hopes of being able to rock herself into a better position. When she did so, she saw two more figures. One was obviously the Patroller who had made the bubble the creature escaped, but she didn't recognize the outfit. Next to him was a man with a shield and some kind of gadget. Through the haze of pain and nausea, she recalled that man was called Captain Justice. This must be the Machine then.
Kelly rocked over again, accidentally grinding her stump into the sand, but gaining a full meter on her Recharger. The shock of pain cleared her head a little, and she wondered what she'd do if she made it to the Recharger? That creature already showed it could escape Gauntlet constructs, and she was in too much pain to even fly straight, much less maintain a construct.
She heard the sound of footsteps behind her. No doubt someone brave enough to get close to the combat had decided to rescue her. Either that, or steal her cooler. Captain Justice must have seen whoever it was, since he shouted to get back. The footsteps stopped, uncertain. Then they continued, and Kelly saw the person run over to the cooler and hunch over it. Damn!
"Here, you'll need this!" hissed the stranger as he tossed the Recharger onto the sand in front of Kelly. Before she could ask him anything, the man darted back to the relative safety of the streets. Whoever he was, he knew about Rechargers, and must have guessed she was the owner of that particular one. She plunged her hand into the Recharger and withdrew her Gauntlet, which slithered up her forearm. Secret identity be damned, she thought as she accessed the program which formed her costume.
"You would be best advised to withdraw," said her Recharger. "You are seriously wounded, and the creature is capable of bypassing Gauntlet defenses."
"I think the Machine figured that out already," she grunted as she got to her feet. The costume had both legs, and acted as an exoskeleton. Still, she could barely stagger, because of the pain. She gathered up the Recharger, keeping an eye on the battle nearby. She was still a very tempting target, she knew.
Suddenly, the creature sank into the ground. Everyone looked about, as if expecting the thing to pop up anywhere. Captain Justice seemed to be tracking the creature with his gizmo, and let out a shout. Kelly couldn't tell what he was saying over the general din, however.
Then the creature burst up in front of Kelly again, with what might have been a grin on what passed for its face. Before it was fully out of the ground, however, Captain Justice hurled his shield, which crackled with energy. The shield hit the creature and stuck, somehow interfering with the monster's ability to pass through solid objects. It writhed in pain and tried to reach out for Kelly's head. Then everything went black and Kelly felt a muffled impact, followed by being thrown back. Then the light came back as the construct placed around her by the Machine's Patroller faded. Kelly was lying on her back against a car, at the edge of a smallish crater of fused sand and blackened rock. Then she passed out again, to wake up hours later in a private hospital ward, her leg bandaged and her minor scratches and scrapes treated.
She groped for the remote control for the television in the room, to find out what the hell just happened....
Copyright © 1994, 1997 by David van Domelen