2300 hours. Tuesday, 6 May
   The two muggers waited in the doorframe, the rain gently pattering against the sidewalk. If they could score maybe a couple of credit cards and some light cash, they could wheel and deal that into a few hot meals or a pinch hit of coke. If the dice went their way, maybe a night with one of Mickey's girls—they were always the sweetest in D.C.
   They both figured their hit without even looking at each other. Older broad, with some kind of fur coat and a big handbag. Her right hand held up a big black umbrella, while her purse hung loosely on her left shoulder. Probably a Senator's wife, out looking for her man in the wrong part of town, figuring (maybe rightly) that the old man was out looking to scare up some fine young thing and a cheap hotel room.

PaladinDesperate Encounters
by Stewart Brower

   2302 hours. Same day.
   The mugging went down smooth and easy—Juice coldcocked her with the butt of his handgun, while Bailey ripped the purse from her arm. They ran two whole blocks before coming to rest under the front steps to some old brownstone. Bailey emptied the purse onto the wet pavement, and they began to cull through its treasure. Just as Juice was counting out his half of the cash, he heard a small, distinct noise behind him. He figured he must have heard wrong, so he continued counting.
   They both heard it this time. Somebody clearing their throat. They whipped around, Juice with his gun out, and saw him—a small boy with a big red cape tied around his neck and a Lone Ranger mask on his freckled face.
   "Aw, jeez, kid," said Bailey. "You nearly give me a heart attack, there."
   Juice just waved the gun casually in his direction. "Get lost, little superhero, 'fore I see if you c'n stop a speedin' bullet."
   The little boy just started smiling at them. "Are you going to come quietly," he asked, "or do I have to mess you up?"
   Juice stood up, towering over the small boy in his red and gold superhero costume. "Ain't Halloween, kid, and this ain't no toy," he said, indicating his gun again.
   "I know," the kid replied simply. "I'm not afraid of you, you know."
   "Juice, let the kid go, willya?" Bailey was jamming his pockets with the stolen purse's contents. "Let's just get out of here."
   Juice looked at the kid's side. He saw a glint of light off of something metallic. His eyes widened and he leveled the gun at the boy's head. "Drop the gun, kid! I kill you if you don' drop the gun!"
   Bailey looked closely at the boy. "That ain't no gun, Juice—it's a...a..." His eyes widened. "Aw, no."
   The kid lifted up his Gauntleted hand into the dim light of the street. Juice snapped off two shots which ricocheted off a force field. One of the bullets struck Bailey in the knee. He fell over onto his side, screaming and thrashing. Juice slipped past the boy as he stood in shock, watching the blood pouring out of the mugger's wound. His heavy footfalls careened off of slick pavement like the sound of anvils ringing through the night.
   Joseph Hewlitt pulled his mask down around his neck, and spoke with a trembling lip. "Oh, wow. I'm sorry, mister. I'm real sorry if I hurt you." He turned away from the mugger and lifted up into the night sky, just as the police sirens began to wail in the distance. Bailey drifted off into peaceful shock.

   0307 hours. Wednesday, 7 May
   Eric sat on the rooftop, his legs dangling over the edge. A black ski mask covered his face. His Recharger, Al, sat next to him, covered in a duffel bag, but it projected an image of a face that hovered in the air near Eric. Eric had just recharged his Gauntlet, preparing to confront the new Patroller in D.C.—the Patroller he would be training. He was beginning to get impatient.
   "Where is he, Al?"
   "Patrolling, I would assume. One of those things we like our Patrollers to do once in a while." Al smiled gingerly, but Eric was far from being amused.
   "He'd better hurry up. I want to train him at night, if that's possible, and dawn is only three or four hours away now."
   "You know, Eric," Al said soberly, "we don't mind you taking a hand in the recruit's training—but you need to understand that we have our own way of doing things."
   Eric gave a little chuckle at that. "Yeah, you sure do. Like not telling a new Patroller anything beyond, 'Here's your key to the infinite! Don't screw up or we'll take it back.' You Rechargers revel in half-truths and incomplete information."
   "That's unfair, Eric."
   "Oh yeah?" Eric shot Al a look. "I bet you can't even give me a straight answer to a simple, stupid question."
   "The simplest questions are often the most difficult..."
   Eric was getting fed up. "One question, any question, and I bet you won't answer it fully. Just tell me just one whole truth about our new Patroller."
   Al beamed. "What do you want to know?"
   Eric thought for a second. "You told me before that he was young. How young is he?"
   "Oh, he's younger than you, of course. That should make the training easier, shouldn't it?"
   "Not necessarily, Al, and you still haven't answered my question. How old is he?"
   "That's not what you asked me for..."
   "His age, Al. Give me a number. That's all I want. How many years old is this kid?"
   "I'm six," came a small voice from behind. Eric and Al turned simulaneously to meet the gaze of a young costumed hero.
   Eric looked back at Al. "Now that," he motioned toward the boy, "is a straight answer."

   0547 hours. Same day.
   St. John Garrison, commander of PRIME, sat unmoving, staring into an empty coffee mug. Adrian Stillwell, pilot and friend, sat across from him at the otherwise empty table, sopping up the last of his egg with some dry wheat toast. Stillwell had known the younger man for most of his military career. He helped in his training to become an officer, and considered himself almost a father figure to the young Garrison. The only reason he was in PRIME at all was at the young Sinjin's insistance.
   "Butter," Stillwell said. "No butter for my toast and no smokes for my shirt pocket." He paused. "Hell, even POWs are given smokes now and again. I serve my country for, oh, coming on thirty years, and I don't get any smokes. That seem fair to you, Sinjin?"
   Garrison looked up from his cup and stared blankly across the table at Stillwell. "Life," he said, "is rarely fair."
   "Sinjin, my boy," said Stillwell, "some mornings you are an absolute blessing to be around. You make excellent breakfast conversation, or at least better than the average 'What calibre is that anyway?' or 'Did you see the measurements on Miss June?' we usually hear from the boys." Garrison smiled a bit. "When you're like this, though," he stabbed the air with his toast, emphasizing his point, "nobody wants to be anywhere near you. That includes me." Stillwell stood up and took his tray over to the garbage bins. Garrison rolled his eyes a bit, then grudgingly got up to follow him.
   "I'm not trying to bring you down, Adrian. It's just that—" He paused, lowered his voice, and measured his words. "I'm worried about the future of this outfit. The bureaucrats are so enamored with the Patrol that they've forgotten about the potential dangers of having that kind of power running loose in our country."
   "Bureaucrats forget. Politicians break promises and the British have never been able to cook. These, m'boy, we call 'truisms.'"
   "I know. But after the incident with that reporter—"
   Stillwell gritted his teeth. "We discussed that. The order was a good one. The implementation...could have been better."
   "Agreed. And Grier is a loose cannon we need to get a reign on." He pulled out a cigarette and lit up. They were outside now, and early morning mists were just beginning to creep up over the compound. "It was, at best, a sloppy victory. What we need is a clear cut victory. Something to impress the boss."
   Stillwell smiled a quirky grin. "Wanna bust ol' Sullivan Green out of his cage?"
   "Gah." Garrison coughed a bit. "No. No, I don't think we should do that."
   "Then what? We're military, Sinjin. We deal with situations—we don't create them. I understand your fears, but we have to trust these things to work themselves out. The people have told their elected officials that they trust the Patrol. Until we see the Patrol do wrong, we have no reason to interfere."
   "Yeah," said Garrison. "I just wish they were working with us, instead of independently. They should be more loyal to their country."
   "There's all kinds of loyalties, Sinjin." He paused, considering whether or not to let dead dogs lie. He decided to speak his peace. "If you're thinking about Eric Summers..."
   The commander threw his smoking cigarette to the ground. "His loyalty left with him. He's a Patroller now."
   "He did what he thought was best, Sinjin."
   Garrison crushed the smouldering cigarette out with the toe of his boot. "We all do what we think is best, Lieutenant Commander." He stormed away silently.
   Stillwell stood a moment, then spoke to no one in particular. "But sometimes the best thing to do is still the wrong thing to do, m'boy."

   0742 hours, Mountain time zone. Same day.
   The Cobalt Rook moved swiftly and smoothly between the bicyclists, kicking into a lower gear for the straightaway. He had entered this race unannounced, and three kilometers past the starting line. The race held no interest for him, though, and had entertained no thoughts of winning. All his attention was focused on the woman in the azure bodysuit ahead of him, one Jessica Cochran. He had followed her to this race, tracing her when she tapped into the broadcast power relays. The authorities might think it was something else—commercial sabotage, perhaps, or a prank of some kind. Rook knew better. He recognized her frequency as specific to a kind of technology not even the Patrol would know. It led him to this Colorado bike race she had entered. The cash prize would be substantial for a woman on the run, and her Gauntlet might give her an edge to make it seem less of a gamble.
   He looked around to see that the two of them were at least a quarter mile ahead of the pack, and then lowered his thumb to a strange orange stalk just below his left brake handle. In his head, he compensated for the distance, the wind, and her speed. Then, the Rook slowly wrapped his index finger around the thin tube and braced himself.
   A tremendous whining noise filled his ears as a giant craft, roughly shaped like a minivan, decended from above, deployed a net, swooped Jessie along with her bike clean off the paved mountain road, and swung away, neatly dropping out of vision only seconds after he had first heard it. Rook peeled to a halt. Seconds later the pack overtook him, but he was staring toward the horizon, and did not notice them.

   0942 hours, Eastern. Same day.
   Eric slammed his fist down onto the bedside table. It buckled and cracked under the weight of his anger, spitting wooden splinters into the cheap motel carpet. In telepathic link with Al, Eric was seething over the new developments.You should have told me.
   It was felt that such information was to be given on a need to know...
   BULL! Eric only used telepathy on two occasions. One, when discretion dictated. Two, when his fury overrode his ability to speak coherently. I was going to oversee his training—I had every need to know about this.
   So you say... came Al's simple reply.
   Besides, why does this kid have his father's Gauntlet anyway? You can't tell me that was coincidence.
   Sometimes, Al began softly, there is attachment, when a Recharger becomes too close to his Patroller, or his family. You are correct—this is no coincidence—but neither is it some sort of conspiracy. All I can say is that, while it is an uncommon event, it is not without precedence and that the Recharger may choose whomever it likes, so long as they promise to obey the code.
   Is that all you can say, or all you will say? asked Eric.
   Believe me, Eric, I gain no pleasure from keeping you in the dark on some matters. But you need to learn, as does all your planet, in your own way. I cannot give you all the answers. Al paused a moment. I can give you something to consider however.
   I guess I'll take whatever I can get.
   Think on this—It was no coincidence that I, the Recharger of a man slain by a PRIME agent, found my way to you. Similar forces are at work here, but, much as I might want to, I cannot explain them to you.
   Was Joey's dad killed by PRIME?
   I truly do not know, Eric.
   Eric drew a long breath. He laid back on the bed and folded his arms over his chest. "All right then. After I get some sleep, you and I are going to go get some answers."
   And Joey?
   If Eric had a plan for Joey, he would keep it to himself. Within two minutes, he was dead to the world.

To Be Continued
Next issue: Eric begins his campaign against PRIME in earnest.

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Copyright 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower