0300 hours. Tuesday, 6 May
   "Target is leaving the building. He's exiting on the northwest side and maintaining an altitude of about a hundred feet. Bzzt. Coffee, have you acquired the target? Over."
   "You so fresh, Grier. Bzzt. Aw, yessup, Massuh Grier, I gots him in my sights. Ovuh."
   "You're hysterical, Coff Bzzt."
   "Cut the chatter and bag this Patroller so we can go home, you dipsticks."

PaladinPrimary Target
by Stewart Brower

   Gene Hewlett flew quickly but carefully through the night sky, a bundle of papers tucked tightly under one arm. He knew what was going on now, and he'd be able to use these documents to finish his story for the paper. Gene had been hired on by the Washington Post to write for their new Patrolling the Patrol column, largely because it seemed he could dig up more information on Patrol activities than any other writer in the U.S. Not surprising, really, since he was a Patroller himself.
   Over the past few weeks, however, Hewlett had stumbled onto something rather large. Only two Patrollers operated in the Washington area before Hewlett arrived, and two months ago, they both vanished on the same night. President Clinton immediately launched a major investigation, and then, just two days later, called it off when the bodies were pulled out of the Potomac. "Gang-related" was the term used, and the cops started working double-time in the streets to clean up the gangs.
   Gang-related killings? thought Gene. Two highly experienced Patrollers brought down by common street thugs?
   As if.
   He got on the case, called in a couple of government contacts. Nothing specific, but a rumor was floating around of CIA involvement in the investigation. Even if the feds were called in on a local investigation in D.C., it would fall under the jurisdiction of the FBI, not the CIA. Asked point blank, the CIA laughed off involvement. Off the record, however, it was a matter of Presidential security. Not terribly unlikely, Gene supposed, what with the assassination attempt a while back.
   Something about it all rang untrue. The President had welcomed the Patrollers to Washington, was thrilled by their continuing presence, used them in photo-ops, the whole bit. After their disappearance, he was genuinely shocked and hurt over the loss—even a cub reporter could tell the difference between grandstanding and genuine Presidential angst. And these two Patrollers were no threat to the President.
   Finally, like out of a John Grisham novel, came the mysterious phone call. Hewlitt was at home with his wife and seven year old boy. They had just sat down to dinner together when the phone rang. A dusky male voice came over the line in slow even tones. Murder, said the voice, in the name of weapons testing. Subordinate organization to the CIA. Real cloak and dagger. An agency set up just to keep the Patrol in line, and it was getting out of control. No names of individual personnel—just an acronym for this special task force: PRIME.
   The same night as the phone call, over six weeks ago, mysterious explosions in Arlington. The Pentagon spokesperson called it a "munitions malfunction." No reporters were allowed to inspect the site, and military choppers kept out potential fly overs by press helicopters. They were deadly serious about the whole thing. It smacked of a major cover-up, but this time around the military could care less how it looked. No one was going in.
   One highly unreliable witness, an old drunk on the Francis Scott Key Bridge had seen something. With a remarkable sobriety, he told Gene he had seen someone fly out of that area that night, just after the explosions. A Patroller.
   Now, after weeks of preparation and nosing around, asking all the right people all the wrong questions, Gene was ready. He flew into the Arlington site, gathered up all the proof he could possibly want, and then flew out. The paper went to bed at four in the morning—he'd have to wake his editor, come clean about being a Patroller, write some fast copy (Of course who was he kidding—stuff this good practically wrote itself!), and get home to his family. They needed to know what was going down.
   Gene's mind had just begun to settle back into the present, when he heard a whistling noise nearby. Suddenly the air around him exploded into a collage of bright firecracker lights and ear-piercing white noise. His mind reeled in the confusion and he started to drop, his flying ability suspended with his concentration.
   Gene shook his head rigorously as he fell. Snap out of it, he chided himself. Dammit, it has to be PRIME—they're onto me. He started to peel out of his dive, arcing back upward when something cracked against his left shoulder, spattering the side of his face with blood. He screamed in pain, but quickly assembled a perimeter field around him, about ten feet out. He then constructed a tight bandage around his shoulder.
   He hovered there, clutching his shoulder, panic and anger playing out a struggle in the lines of his face. He called out, "That's it! I know all about you! I'm blowing the lid off of this—and unless you can crack a Patrol force-field, there's not a thing you can do to stop me!"
   Dead silence was the only reply.
   He started to turn, to fly away. Then, it was all over him—a small missile kicking loudly through the air. Something in Gene said to run, to avoid it, and he trusted this instinct. He launched himself straight up, and the minirocket altered course to pursue him. It caught up with him quickly and impacted against the force-field. He allowed himself a half-second of relief, then gazed downward, just in time to catch a glimpse of the rocket as it cut cleanly through his defense and detonated. The blast was only mildly disorienting, but with his next breath, Gene began to hack and gag on toxic fumes. His body stiffened, his concentration fell apart, the field collapsed, and he began falling again.
   This time the gunshot split his head apart. He crashed loudly against the wet pavement below.

   0720 hours. Same day.
   Eric Summers was relaxing with a hot breakfast in a small cafe in Fort Collins, Colorado. Two poached eggs, two strips of bacon, grits, toast, orange juice and coffee. He was glancing over the morning paper, trying to find some kind of "short time" job possibility. Money was getting more scarce for Eric, and coffee shops and diners were a weakness. Being a Patroller didn't leave a body with a whole load of free time anyway, but the kinds of missions he was getting sent on ate up all his time. He would follow the code—Don't Use the Gauntlet for Personal Gain—but at the same time he would occasionally swoop down over an orchard and gather up some fruit, or net a few fish or waterfowl and cook them up. At least Al knew that he had to eat.
   Al, in fact, was sitting across from him in the window booth, and had stared at him, unspeaking, during the whole meal. Eric looked up from his plate, mildly agitated. "What?"
   "What what?" replied Al.
   "Why are you looking at me? Why don't you read the paper or something?"
   "I'm looking at you precisely because I have no need to read the paper. I've heard all this over the airwaves. I listen in on CNN, CNBC, the Weather Channel, the local NBC, ABC, and CBS affiliates..."
   "What? No FOX?" Eric was smiling.
   "There's news on FOX?" Al was genuinely surprised. "I must inquire however, are you planning on taking action over the Patroller's murder?"
   Eric glared at Al fiercely. "Keep your voice down!" he hissed. "What murder? What are you talking about?"
   "It must not have made it into the morning edition. The networks are all abuzz about the murder of Gene Hewlitt in Washington, DC. He was the writer assigned to cover the Patrol for the Post."
   "He was a Patroller?"
   "Yes, but this is not general knowledge. His Recharger disappeared after his death, and now belongs to a new Patroller."
   "Is the new Patroller in Washington?"
   "Yes. He is young and inexperienced, but his Recharger seems to be excited about the arrangement and has high hopes."
   Eric stopped and thought for a moment, sipping quietly at his coffee. PRIME, he thought. It could be those bastards from PRIME. Even if it's not them, though, I'd better take this slow and easy. My injuries have healed up pretty well, but I'm nowhere near top condition, and somebody out there apparently has the power to kill Patrollers.
   "Would the Civilization mind if I took a hand in the training of the new Patroller?" asked Eric.
   Al gazed slightly upward, as if talking to someone just behind Eric. He then returned to his original look. "That would be acceptable." He smiled.
   As far as Rechargers go, Al was about as amiable as you could want. He had a mild sense of humor and was finally starting to get an ear for jazz. Eric wondered sometimes though just how much influence Al was exerting over him. The fiasco with Jessie was a "direct order," and in this case he got the feeling that Al was telling him all of this just so he'd get involved.
   Of course, if this really was a PRIME hit, there was no way in hell, Patroller or otherwise, that Eric would stay out of it.
   "All right then. You lock onto his Recharger's location, I'll finish eating, and we'll go."
   "Certainly," replied Al.
   "And Al?"
   "Read the newspaper."
   "Yes, Eric," said Al sullenly.

   0900 hours. Same day.
   The Sanctum is tremendous, thought Cobalt Pawn to himself. He walked slowly into the room, careful to keep his awe in check. It is one thing to seem enthusiastic— another thing entirely to look like an overexcited youth. His Rook and Queen sat next to one another at the massive conference table in the middle of the grand hall. No one else occupied the Sanctum this morning. He crossed the dimly lit chamber more quickly, the leather soles of his combat boots marking time against the floorboards as his made his way toward them.
   Once he reached their side, Cobalt Pawn immediately dropped to one knee. "Ah am in your suhvice 'til the Fallen rises again," he said with solemn conviction.
   "Until the Return of the Fallen," returned the Cobalt Queen, the metal of her mask turning the words wispy and cold. The Rook had turned his head toward the ceiling, defiantly ignoring this ceremonial exchange. His leather armor shined with a cool grey, and his velvet cloak concealed all manner of weaponry underneath. The Pawn was fully aware of the Rook's reputation as a stone cold murderer, and quietly hoped he wasn't offending him. He stood up.
   "Veertech has been compromised as you feared, Queen. Lewis Wilcox is dead and the police think Jessica Cochran was his killer."
   "Do you agree with their findings, Rook? Should we pursue Cochran?"
   "She probuhbly did kill him, ma'am, but it's not the only reason we need to find her. She stole one of the new Jammahs that Veertech was working on. If she starts working on it, she might stumble across some of our, uh, special technology."
   Cobalt Rook spun in his chair, cursing and spitting. "I told you, woman! I tried to warn you what would happen if we tried to use any of our front labs for researching our technology."
   "The potential benefits outweighed the risks, Rook, and they still do. I'd suggest you keep a civil tone, but nothing seems to keep that waggling tongue of yours in check."
   Rook was seething. "If you had listened to me, Queen, perhaps this kind of fiasco could have been avoided!"
   "Listen to me, you little pit bull," said the Queen, a steady kind of menace in her voice. "There was no way to forecast the intervention of a real Patroller, but perhaps we can salvage something out of this. Lewis Wilcox was a worthless little toad and we are just as well off without him. We close one Veertech lab in Albuquerque and shunt the personnel to other labs. For now, however, you will go find this Jessica Cochran and bring her here. The initial reports mentioned a compromised Gauntlet. If we could get our hands on that, combined with a little of our own 'voodoo,' we might just be able to make the kind of power play you and I have discussed for so damn long. I think that's worth the loss of but a single front, don't you?
   "Just think of the points." The Queen folded her arms across her chest. The Rook smiled under his hood.
   "That's all fine, my Queen, except for one thing." The Rook reached into his cloak, pulled out a small lavender handgrip with a long green tube attached. He pointed his arm out toward the Pawn and squeezed the grip. A sharp whistle was followed by two hollow popping noises. The Pawn felt a deep pain in his stomach, and began to gasp for air. Within a few seconds, his body lost its cohesion and slipped apart into so much thick, chunky fluid inside his armor.
   The Queen turned away and gasped quietly to herself. The Rook stood up slowly and carefully replaced his strange weapon.
   "No witnesses," he muttered, just before he walked out of the Sanctum.

   1020 hours. Same day.
   "No witnesses, huh? You're sure this time?" The CIA director was glowering over his desk at Commander St. John Garrison. If Garrison hated anything so much as being chewed out by a 'suit,' he certainly couldn't have hidden it so well.
   "Sir," he said evenly, "my men acted in the best interests of national security. He had design plans for the X-O's, personnel files, detailed listings of our activities—enough information to put PRIME completely out of commission. Whether he was working for an outside agency or on his own is irrelevant—he broke into our stronghold and stole from our files. The security threat had to be neutralized."
   "Neutralized, huh? A very friendly kill, I take it?" The director sat down, his head in his hands. "Dammit. You should have taken him prisoner. Either that or just...let him go."
   "Sir, you must be kidding." Garrison was clearly getting fed up with all the second guessing by bureaucrats. "He was going to die from the fall. All my men did was insure that case."
   "The police are going to run ballistics, Garrison."
   "And it will be chalked up to more gang violence," finished Garrison. "No one will figure this out, sir. This situation is all clear."
   "Except for Summers," the director reminded him pointedly. "He could still blow this thing wide open."
   "Yes. Summers." Garrison stopped to choose his words carefully. "We hope to clear up that situation soon as well. Hopefully, last night's activities will flush him out into the open. We'll capture him, and bring this whole matter to a close."
   The director squared his jaw. "The President does not know anything about any of this. As of this moment, neither do I. But I'm warning you mister—one more snafu like that one last night, and I'll personally strip you of your command. Am I clear?"
   "Sir!" yelled Garrison mockingly. "Yes, Sir!"
   The director leaped up from his chair, pointing angrily toward the door. "Get the hell out of my office, Garrison!"

   2103 hours. Same day.
   A soft light sillouetted a young boy's body, hiding under the covers of his bed.
   "Joey," came the voice, "are you ready for your first mission?"
   "Yeah," said the young boy. "I guess so."
   "Good. Let's get started."

   2124 hours. Same day.
   Eric Summers gazed at the lights of the Washington skyline with a certain longing. "That used to be my town, Al—back when I had a home."
   "Do you miss PRIME?" Al was concerned about Eric. He had hardly spoken at all on their way here.
   "No," Eric snapped, more harshly than he liked. "No, I guess I'm just tired of being on the run all the time. I'm sort of glad about all of this, in a way. It's a chance to try and put a lot of ghosts to rest." Eric had darkened the areas around his eyes with camo makeup, and now was pulling on a black ski mask.
   Al reminded him, "I could fashion one of those for you with a force field, you know."
   "I don't want my concentration divided among too many things. If this was a PRIME hit, I'm gonna need my wits about me.
   "Otherwise, this'll be the last skyline I ever see."

To Be Continued
Next issue: Eric comes face to face with Washington's youngest defender.

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Copyright 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower