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   2300 hours. Thursday, 8 May
   "Mark."
   "Twenty-three-hundred hours, Eric. You have approximately 14 hours of usable charge and exactly 39 hours to return the Gauntlet before it dissolves. Good luck."
   Eric, dressed head to toe in a black jumpsuit, pulled the cuff of his sleeve down over his wristwatch, slipped the ski mask over his head, and flew out of the motel window without a sound. Al, his Recharger's persona, watched him go, then silently flickered out of existance.


PaladinFinish Line
by Stewart Brower


   2309 hours. Same day.
   Eric used the Gauntlet to form a two-dimensional hand which slipped under the window and opened it from inside the brownstone condo which once belonged to Gene Hewlitt and Family. Now it was just Family, and Eric was determined to discover who killed Gene. Gene's kid Joey now had the Recharger his father once wielded, another mystery to be followed up on later. For now, Eric would settle for any evidence as to who killed Gene.
   He moved easily through the open window, assuming a vertical position once inside. Eric hovered over the floor noiselessly, floating through air past the dining room table over to a desk with a telephone. He didn't know exactly what he was looking for, but figured a dead man's desk as a good place to start.
   Using his Gauntlet to produce a soft light, Eric scanned the top of the desk. Phone, answering machine, small canister of what looked like dead pens, notepad and blotter. A small pile of unpaid bills accented one corner of the desk. Something about the unpaid bills touched Eric inside. He reckoned that Hewlitt was the kind of man who tried to be a provider, who wanted to take care of his family as best he could. Eric sympathized with that kind of commitment.
   Eric already knew who had the ability to kill a Patroller, but wanted some evidence to link his suspect to this particular killing. Hewlitt was a reporter. It stood to reason that perhaps he had stumbled onto a story, one that got him killed.
   A telltale tinkle of ice in a glass made Eric stiffen. He turned slowly to see a small-framed woman in her late thirties pouring whiskey into her glass. She stood framed in the kitchen doorway, silhouetted by moonlight, the slight reddish glow of a cigarette in her left hand. She pushed back brown hair from her eyes, and spoke with surprising clarity. "I knew they would send one of you eventually," she said.
   Eric gathered his thoughts quickly, cursing himself a bit for his carelessness in being seen. "I'm sorry if I am intruding, ma'am. I can go."
   She cocked an eye at him. "No," she said. "No, that's okay. You need some answers and I need some—" she paused, "um, some assurances. Why don't you come in here and sit with me?" She turned and walked slowly toward the living room loveseat. "And take off that ski mask. You look like a mugger." Eric did so and followed without a word.
   The woman curled her legs underneath her, taking care to drape her housecoat over her lap. She sat the bottle on the coffee table in front of her. Eric reached toward the floorlamp, but she reached up a hand. "Please," she asked, "don't turn on the light." She took a long draw off of her cigarette and flicked the ashes onto the floor.
   "Gene Hewlitt," Eric began, "that was your husband, right?"
   "He was."
   "Do you have any idea who killed him?"
   "I have a suspicion. I kept it from the police because I thought a Patroller might come. I thought you might want to try to take care of your own people." She sipped at her drink. "Gene loved being a Patroller. He felt like he was part of something. Something important."
   "Will you tell me who you think killed your husband, Mrs. Hewlitt?" Eric leaned toward her, and kneeled a bit. "I want to try and help."
   "Help. You want to help me." Her eyes fell cold and grey, sizing Eric up in a glance. "Alright, then. First, you promise to take the Recharger away from my boy."
   Eric was surprised. "You know about Joey?" he asked.
   "Of course."
   "Then you probably know that your husband's Recharger chose the boy. Please believe me when I tell you," he said, "that I have absolutely no control over any other Recharger than my own."
   The woman fell across Eric's shoulders, her hands crossing just behind his neck. She sobbed gently, her head bobbing lightly against Eric's chest. "I'm going to lose Joey, too—I'm going to lose my baby..."
   "I'll try to protect him, Mrs. Hewlitt. I'll try to train him."
   She pushed him back, snarling. "Training—is not protection! Training is what you do because you expect situations. There shouldn't be any situations for a six-year old little boy. He shouldn't need training at all. I want my boy to be safe dammit!"
   Eric looked downward for a moment. "Alright," he said, "alright. I'll keep your boy safe—I'll find a way to keep him safe somehow. Please, Mrs. Hewlitt..." His voice trailed off.
   Soberly, she began, "I was so scared something would happen to Gene. I made Gene swear that somehow he would make certain Joey was safe. I wasn't worried for myself. I just wanted Joey to be safe, even if Gene was somehow hurt or—killed. Two Patrollers were killed, right here in D.C. While Gene just got angry about it, I was afraid for my baby boy. He promised he'd keep Joey safe.
   "Then, about a month and a half ago, he got a phone call at dinner. Said that those two Patrollers died so some CIA operatives could test out their weapons. A secret organization he called PRIME."
   Eric nodded his head slowly, and stood up. "Thank you, ma'am. I'll handle it from here."


   2320 hours. Same day.
   <Bzzt> "Sir, we've been identified by name. Over."
   <Bzzt> "I copy, Lieutenant Commander. Shadow Summers as we discussed. The regulars will see to the woman. <Bzzt> Lao, keep your DIVE belts scanning a wide field. The boy is still unaccounted for. Over."
   <Bzzt> "Understood, sir. Sir, should I neutralize Summers if he finds any hard evidence? <Bzzt> Sir, do you copy?"
   <Bzzt> "Neutralize target only, I repeat, only if no other options are available. <Bzzt> Bring him back alive, boys. Garrison out."

   0240 hours. Friday, 9 May
   Eric's fingers ran across the keyboard, typing in the user ID and password for Gene Hewlitt, given to him by the dead man's wife. The offices were mostly vacant, and none of the midnight shift had any interest in what was going on at Hewlitt's vacant desk. They just made up their assumptions to fit the situation—new reporter, computer repairs, another cop—and left it at that.
   Eric listed the main directory, then switched to "Working.Stories" and found that all the files had been deleted. He backed up to the main directory and listed it again.
   Old.Stories
Working.Stories
Phonebook
EMAIL
Notes.to.Self

   He then systematically listed the contents of each subdirectory, finding them all wiped clean. Damn, Eric thought. Somebody has purged everything. But why even leave the directories in place? Just to give the appearance of nothing having happened?
   "Yeah," Eric muttered quietly, "just for appearance. Just like the feds..." He didn't even check for hidden directories—he just changed directories to PRIME. The terminal beeped back at him sharply.
   Password? it queried.
   Eric stroked his chin. Could be anything, he supposed, but he had a guess. He typed Joey and hit the return. He was in.
   Listing the files, Eric could see the amount of work that Hewlitt had put into this. Notes from all forms of covert meetings, personal dossiers on the dead Patrollers—even a fair attempt at deciphering what the PRIME acronym might mean:
   Patrol Recon Restrictions Rehab? Reprogramming Intelligence—? Interrogations Information Military Marines E ???
   Eric smiled to himself a bit. The one word for which Hewlitt had no guess was the same word that chilled Eric to his marrow. E for Eliminations.
   He had names of some military experts, CIA historians, a couple of high-ranking federal contacts—but one name stood out from the pack. He recognized the name of one of his fellow PRIME officers. He barely took in the name, when suddenly his screen went blank. He sat up abruptly, then the computer beeped at him. A message appeared on the screen.
   From: as34nn-x To: Eric Summers
Thanks for giving us this info, Eric. Meet me outside in one minute, or I take Hewlitt's son to our stronghold and put his face on a milk carton.
Lao.

   Eric raced over to the closest window and hurled himself through it.

   0247 hours. Same day.
   Lt. Commander Peter Lao stood on the top level of the Post's vacant parking garage. His X-O armor shimmered with the broadcast energy that surrounded it. One of robotic arms from the armor's midsection held Joey Hewlitt suspended from the waist. His virtual reality headgear in his helmet fed him information from all 360 degrees, using radar and night vision. He saw Eric Summers approaching a full 5 seconds before he came into view.
   "Let the boy go, Peter."
   "You should come quietly, Lieutenant. We need to talk all this out."
   Eric boiled with fury, but forced his voice into a steady monotone. "The boy is non-negotiable, Peter. Put him down, or I'll rip this whole town apart to flush you and your boys into the open."
   "And you'd play right into Garrison's hands. You know better, Lieutenant."
   "Don't you dare call me by rank. I've quit that job." Eric extended his field in several directions at once, and lifted himself a foot above the tarmac. The roof began to crack and shake. "You have five seconds to hand that boy over to me." Several of the forcefields began to fire off streams of "shrapnel" in all directions. Lao's nightvision and radar were very effectively jammed.
   "Three seconds," Eric warned.
   A shrill noise gave Eric telltale warning of the incoming SoftShell missile. It latched onto his forcefield from behind and began to penetrate. Eric focused his concentration, and formed a hollow tube which directed the missile through his dome and out the other side. It detonated near Lao instead, and forced him a couple of steps back. Eric seized the moment and flew forward at tremendous speed. He cut through the X-O's arm and lifted the boy into the night sky.
   From above, an AV-4 hovercraft fired off four small hunter missiles. Eric began to change course when two of the hunters detonated against his forcefield. The blast drove them back down toward the parking garage. He maintained his concentration, softly setting down near the garage exit. The two remaining missiles corrected their flight paths to bear down on Eric from opposite vectors. He focused and created a broad, flat extension which swatted one of the hunters away. It careened wildly through the sky, detonating against the top offices of the Post.
   The final missile broadsided his defense screen and blew Eric and Joey across the garage's bottom level. Joey bounced off of a car hood and skidded to a halt on the concrete. Eric's forcefield barely held as he slammed full tilt into a steel support beam, creasing it slightly in the middle. He felt a rib crack from the blow. Something slid around loosely inside his left ankle. His vision went narrow and black for a moment, but he forced himself to his feet anyway. As he stood, he drew his forcefield in tight against his body, and poured on the concentration to increase his field strength.
   Lao, flanked on either side by PRIME agents in their X-Os, stepped toward Eric quietly. "You're forcing us into these manuevers, Summers. We've got the boy back now, but he needs immediate medical assistance. If you come quietly, I swear we'll get him to the MedVac in record time. But every minute you give us trouble is a minute he loses more blood."
   "NO," Eric spat. His voice was chilled gravel. "Give him to me. Now."
   Lao whispered through his comlink to the others. "Take him down."

   Sunlight streamed between the window's bars, quiet testimony to the breath of a new day. Between strips of gauze and tape, eyes fluttered open to bear witness. He looked down across his hospital bed, across the tubes and wires, toward his feet. He felt a twinge, and shifted his weight.
   The nurse's shadow fell across his face. "You awake again?" the broad-shouldered woman asked.
   "Yeah," he whispered through dry lips. "How long?"
   "How long—have you been here?"
   "Please. What day izit?"
   She paused a moment. "It's Saturday. Saturday, the 12th."
   "Naw," came the reply. "You mean 10th, right?"
   "No, Eric," came a familiar male voice. "She means July the 12th." Sylvester Grier's face came into view. "Over a month—since we removed your leg."
   Eric slowly turned his head toward the foot of his bed, and caught his breath on a muffled moan from deep inside his chest.


To Be Continued
Next issue: Eric's story. A special double- sized issue.


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Copyright 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower