A pale green light shimmered against the walls of his hospital room, the digital clockface a sickly glow against the dark November night. Eric gazed at the clock for an hour, perhaps more, as his perception of time slipped away from him. It didn't matter. When the surgeons in this hidden sanctum removed his leg, they took from him something intangible. A quality some special few on this planet possess. That taste of the whole zen of living that some turn into charisma, or wisdom, money or power. That which he called perhaps, "Pride," but was in truth the accumulation of a young life in motion. Eric had, for the first time ever, been beaten.
   His father had warned him.

PaladinBest Intentions
by Stewart Brower

   He remembered the tones—not so much the words as the way they were spoken. "Eric," the wise old teacher began, "you have got to remember that no matter what you try to accomplish in this lifetime, some people will look at your skin, and just write you off. The only way to fight this is to be not just smarter, or harder working—you just have to be better. Better than other people. It's not how you carry yourself. It has to be a part of a man's character.
   "So long as you are better, son, no one can write you off but yourself." With that, his father finished his lecture, got up from the dinner table, and strode down to the little room he had converted into a library after Terrance had left home. He pulled down a well-read book of poetry, pulled out some money and handed it to Eric. "This is the last money I shall give my son to get started in his life. I've told you nothing you don't already know. Now go and do right by this world and by yourself."
   He left the next morning on a bus for Boston. MIT had accepted his application, Terry had set up a small efficiency for him above the garage where he would work nights for his brother, working on electrical systems, transmissions, whatever needed doing. This would buy him room and board. Somehow, he'd have to come up with tuition, but the wad of bills his father gave him would be a start. Boston would be his next stop, but Chapel Hill would always be home.
   Terry shook his hand as he got off the bus that brisk autumn morning in '79. "Brother, you look good," he said. "How's Dad holding up?"
   "He's well, Terry. He'd like to hear from you a little more often."
   Terry scooped up two of Eric's duffels in one massive arm and began to lead Eric out of the terminal. "And I'd like to hear from him even once." Eric looked away, disturbed. "Oh, hell, man. I don't want to rag on him or anything. Look at you, brother," Terry shifted his tone, "ready for college. MIT, yet. You've got to be anxious about that."
   Eric smiled. "A little. I know I can do the work, and you getting me set up—well, that's great and all. I wish I knew how I was going to make tuition over the next four years."
   "We'll think of something. There's financial aid, loans—"
   Eric interrupted. "Dad said I should avoid being in another man's debt."
   Terry narrowed his gaze. "Dad says a lot of things that don't mean anything out here in the real world, Eric. You are going to have to forget some of what Dad says, and find your own way."
   Eric laughed a bit. "Yeah," he chuckled, "Dad said that, too." The young men laughed as they walked to the subway station to catch the T.

   Laughter from the hallway disturbed Eric's reverie. He recognized one of the voices as Grier's. His was the first familiar face Eric saw when he awoke in this bed, and was the best indication of just how desperate his situation was. Not too many years ago, he and Grier were serving together in Operation Desert Storm—the "Dynamic Duo," as their CO liked to call them. They were Special Forces assignment, and their detail generally consisted of recon and sabotage. Their work began when CNN's cameras went off.
   The two of them became like brothers. Grier always liked pushing the edge, seeing just how far Eric was willing to go for his partner, his friend. Sometimes the missions got bloody, sometimes Grier went off half-cocked, but that was how the game was played, and Eric didn't complain. He did his job. Grier was a trained assassin—that was _his_ job—while Eric would watch his back, take photos, and monitor special jamming equipment which effectively shut down the enemy's computers.
   Three years later, when Special Forces offered the two of them, along with several others, an opportunity to be part of a special assignment to guard the United States against the potential threat of these new "Patrollers," Grier leapt at the opportunity, and Eric followed suit.
   "Yo, Sly—Why the interest in this PRIME project? You don't get excited about any assignments, not usually."
   Grier just looked across the table in that little Korean bar, the glazed look of a predator caught in his expression. "They killed my little brother."
   "I thought...Didn't one of the newscasters say that there's a 'code' of some kind or other that they have to follow? And that they can't hurt anyone?"
   "Must not have applied to Gary. He got himself killed by one of them Patrollers." Eric couldn't bring himself to reply. "Just a couple weeks ago. I knew the kid was mixed up with some drug runners or something—in Denver. Cops would've clipped his knees to put him down. Not this all-powerful superhero, though. Aw, no. He jus' cuts the fool boy's head off...just a baby, man, just..." Grier stiffened suddenly. "Toast. My brother, Gary." Their glasses met across the table. The whiskey slid down Grier's throat like fiery pitch, then he slammed the glass into the table, shattering it and driving shards of glass deep into his palm. His expression didn't waver.
   "I'm going to kill every one of them." Grier's blood mixed with the ash and liquor on the makeshift bar table, filthy testimony to an ominous oath.

   Eric ate his breakfast without sound. His chewing mixed with the white noise of the air handlers, and the tasteless biscuits and gravy sickened his heart. Breakfast, most important meal of the day, reduced to a thoroughly empty and unappetizing experience. Eric remembered the morning meals Terry's wife Jackie would fix—poached eggs, hash browns, rich sausage gravy, thick bacon strips, OJ, coffee—the kind of food a man could leap out of bed for, eager to hit the books or work in the shop next door. Two months ago, Jackie had left when Terry's drinking finally got the better of him. But twelve years ago, he and Eric had been just golden.
   "It can't be the starter, Terry. That one was just rebuilt." Eric stood behind his brother, shining a light over his shoulder into the engine. "I fiddled with it for about a half hour last night—it's like there's a short or something, but I just don't see it."
   "Yeah," Terry replied, "wires coming out of the starter are clean. It could be a short right out of the battery cables, though. I'll look it over later this morning. You need to get going or you'll be late for class."
   "Yeah, I'll make it OK." Pause. "Hey, Terry, you were kinda late getting in last night. Jackie worries about you, you know?"
   "I know, man. Don't give me fits, all right? I was just down with the boys, knocking down a few."
   "You been out every night this week, man. How about dinner with the family tonight, OK?" Eric grinned. "Or I'll come down there and haul you back up here by your belt."
   "All right, man, all right." Terry glanced toward the back of the shop. "You bringing your girl in again tonight?"
   "Jessie Holt isn't my girlfriend—she's my project partner. If she and I win this thing, could be enough scholarship money for the rest of my tuition." Eric looked upward. "Besides, I don't think Jackie would approve of me dating a white girl."
   "You want to bring her to dinner tonight, you just do it. Leave Jackie to me."
   Eric laughed aloud. "Oh, right. Like she isn't going to just pound on you anyway for being out so much this week."
   "Right. That's enough." Terry moved quickly, scooping up Eric at the waist and heaving the 170-pound man over one shoulder effortlessly. "Who's gonna pound me, boy, huh? I don't think I heard you right," he yelled out as he began to spin like a top. "I know you aren't gonna pound on me. So who's gonna do it?"
   "I AM!" came the woman's yell from the porch of the house. The two spinning men fell lopsided into the yard, laughing loudly. "I'll beat both your skulls in if Eric doesn't go get on that train right this minute. Now you go on to class, Eric."
   Eric gathered his books quickly from the shop table in the garage, and took off at a trot down the street.

   I used to run, thought Eric. He curled up in the deep blackness of his thoughts, and stared out at the meaningless numbers on the clock radio.

   INTERLUDE: The woman who used to be named Hewlitt stared out over the lake behind the safe house. She would be moving on tomorrow, for a new life somewhere. Her son was killed, said the men in black, and she could be the next target. She would assume a little, soundless life in some quiet town with white picket fences, she would take a new name, she would keep her head down, and she would stay alive.
   She sipped at her coffee. For a moment, she thought of the other Patroller, the one who swore to protect her baby. Her cold eyes betrayed the thought—"I hope he is suffering in his own little nightmare somewhere.
   "I hope he is dead."

   Eric woke up again, and still the time was nothing to him. Two meals were stacked on little plastic trays in front of him, but he wasn't at all hungry. He slurped a bit of cold tomato soup, drank some room temperature water, and sat back against his pillows. He touched a button and the TV suspended at the end of the room sprung to life. Geraldo, Oprah, some kids cartoon show sped by as he finally found the news. CNN Patrolwatch. A new Patroller has been sighted in the D.C. area, the first to be seen there in several weeks—etcetera, blah. Eric turned off the power. He slowly began to realize that for the first time in a while he actually was concerned for someone.
   Al. Named after Al Jarreau, his Recharger must be concerned about him. It might have even summoned other Patrollers to seek out Eric after the Gauntlet dissolved. It seemed strange, but Eric and Al had become a kind of team, not totally unlike how he and Grier used to be. Only here, Eric had some measure of control.
   Not so with Sylvester Grier. After that drunken confession months before, the two men found themselves in an unusual outfit.
   PRIME. "Patrol Recon, Intelligence, Maneuvers and Eliminations." A Special Forces outfit, loaded with military gear and experimental antiPatrol tech, under the direction of the CIA. Along with a dozen or so others, they formed the core of a special assault unit designed to deal with any potential threats from Patrol-related technology. The leader of the mysterious Machine, Simon Karlson, had provided the CIA with Broadcast Power jammers, naturally assuming that he would keep his technology one step ahead at all times. What he might not have forseen is the terribly competitive and paranoid nature of the military-industrial complex. They ran with the designs and had prototype armor in weeks, serious weapons in months, and SoftShells by early 1994.
   And Grier was nuts for the stuff. He went out on "hit and runs," where he'd test the weapons' capabilities on real Patrollers. The Patrol was and is still not that well organized—a single attack here and there around the US on an unsuspecting Patroller brought about no reprisals. Grier would call it information gathering. What it became—
   Grier armored up just outside of the Los Angeles city limits. Many Patrollers had come from far and near to help clean up after the Big One, the quake that levelled the city. He monitored from a distance for quite some time, until he caught a bit of heated conversation on his mikes. He cut around a corner of a fallen brownstone and spied a Patroller roughing up a young looter. He wasn't physically harming the boy, but instead was playing "Bad Cop," trying to scare the kid a little. Grier watched, something black and hard forming around his mind, as the Patroller threatened to drop the kid from several stories up.
   Grier snapped, and became a flurry of deadly motion. He fired off a "dazzler" grenade, which disoriented the Patroller, who promptly dropped the boy. The looter landed on the back of his head, snapping his neck. Grier became enraged, and opened fire with his assault rifles. The Patroller let the first three shots get past his defenses, cutting open the side of his belly. The SoftShells came next, the tear gas shattering the Patroller's concentration. He soon joined the young dead boy on the broken street below, his body broken and torn by forty-seven bullets.
   Two other Patrollers fell in the confusion of the L.A. quakes. Grier made three notches on the right boot of his X-O armor.

   Eric had come to North Carolina in June to bury his father. Jackie came to pay her respects, but Terry had stayed behind in Boston, complaining that someone had to pay the bills. Jackie was short and shapely, with a killer smile and brusque demeanor. She walked over to Eric after the short graveside service.
   "I thought there would be more of Dad's colleagues here than this," Eric said quietly. "I knew he wasn't popular, but—" His voice trailed off.
   "Terry should have been here, Eric. No excuses," Jackie said, "the man was your father, and Terry should have been here with us."
   Eric pulled off his sunglasses, gazing down at his shoes. "I suppose. Lots of bad blood, there." He looked back at the little wooden casket on the side of the hill. "Neither one of them would let it go, the way Terry defied Dad's wishes. When your firstborn son runs away from home, that has a powerful effect on a father. Builds walls. Years go by without talking things out—that's just the mortar between the bricks." He turned to his sister-in-law. "Sorry, Jackie. I'm just going off..."
   "It's OK, you know? To go off sometimes." Jackie smiled. "I wish your brother would get a little angrier sometimes. He just gets worked up and takes another drink." She paused. "What are you going to do now?"
   "Well, I'm still in the military, with this special anti-Patroller outfit. It's semi-classified, so I can't tell you much." He hardened his gaze. "It ain't like the Army, that's for sure. Some of the things we do, the things Sly does—I just don't believe it's right. But you don't just leave an outfit like this one."
   "Why not?"
   "'National security' is the reason they would give at my court martial if I wanted out. It's funny," he said, "I was going to call Dad and ask him what he thought I should do. I put it off for three days, and on the morning of the third day, I got a call saying he died. And now, I can't talk to him about it. The things we put off."
   "Eric," Jackie said, "you've got all weekend to talk to your father if you want. He's probably a better listener now, anyways." Eric smiled at that. "Look, hon, you go out and talk to your dad. I'll meet you for dinner tomorrow." She kissed Eric on the cheek and walked over to her car.
   Eric watched as she strode away, mentally cursing himself for staring a little too long at his sister-in-law's smooth and muscular calves, wondering how they might feel strapped across his back. Inappropriate behavior, he thought to himself. And at your father's funeral no less. He went back to looking over the casket. There should have been more people here, Dad, he thought.
   "Let's go someplace where we can be alone, Dad," Eric whispered under the sound of a North Carolina breeze. He climbed into his Isuzu Trooper and headed out onto the thin paved roads south of town.
   An hour and a half later, Eric reached some of the old foothills his father and he had hiked when he was a young boy. The grasses grew tall and thick through these hills, with some pine trees scattered in their narrows and ridges. Eric remembered the trail pretty well, considering the dense undergrowth that had formed over the years. Within minutes, the mouth of the old cave came into view. Eric had changed into a sweatshirt and jeans in the Trooper and carried a small flashlight. He remembered how he and his dad, many years ago, made this same trek out to the old cave where one of his dad's colleagues had found some petroglyphs. One of the few times he and the old man had fun doing anything, they marched out to the cave that day, scouted around and found the 'glyphs, and ate a small picnic. They talked easily that day, more than ever before, and rivaling most conversations since. On this one level, where all men are explorers at heart, Eric and his father connected. Now, Eric returned to make that connection again.

   INTERLUDE: The adjustments were finished, Ganymede 7.0 was installed, and the diagnostics were completed. Four simple constructs were programmed into the expert system, and all four had been tested and retested. This time the system would work, she was sure of it.
   The woman stamped out her cigarette in the small metal ashtray, smiling confidently at her work. She picked up some internal mailings, began to rifle through them. She came across a rescheduling for a court martial hearing, cursed under her breath, turned on her heel and stormed out of the room, crumpling the memo in a tight silver fist.

   Eric recieved his subpoena this cold timeless afternoon. He was to be tried for desertion. The word somehow didn't seem to capture the breadth of his betrayal. Eric felt he did more than just leave PRIME—he hurt them.
   Grier had been bragging, going on about how he killed those Patrollers, how he figured they were responsible for all the destruction in Los Angeles, how he caught them looting and beating on the locals, trying to impose their "Civilization" on everybody. But there was something else in the way Grier told his stories to Eric, something behind his eyes that betrayed his fear. No, no not fear, thought Eric. Terror. Something crawled into what was left of Grier's heart when he was in L.A., and that something gnawed at his gut like a rabid dog. But Eric couldn't guess what it was.
   Eric's time with PRIME had been a lot less active than Grier's. Mostly he worked with Lt. Commander Peter Lao and other specialists in configuring PRIME's elaborate gear. DIVE belts, with 360 degree VR similation and "heads up" display for weapons control. Advanced communication and jamming gear. Exoskeletons, or X-Os, with multiple robotic arms for weapons deployment, forcefields for strength and defense, "dazzler" and "jammer" grenades to put the enemy on the defensive. A veritable smorgasbord of destructive firepower. As well as the one development which put PRIME ahead of the pack—the SoftShell, a minirocket which could actually penetrate a Patroller-constructed forcefield.
   The SoftShells had their drawbacks, however, Eric thought. They were slow going rockets, and took a few seconds to latch onto a forcefield, "drill" a hole, and worm their way through. The jamming gear which penetrated a field was also not small, so the payload of a minirocket was pretty limited, usually just concussive-force explosives or preferably a gas grenade. But still, the things were extremely dangerous...
   Eric's thoughts drifted away as he looked down the bed toward his leg. The doctor had told him what had happened. In the final moments of his firefight with Lao and the others in that parking garage over a month before.
   "Take him down," Lao had whispered.
   Lao's companions fired off a couple of smokers, which, in combination with their DIVE belts, registered the exact location of Eric's forcefield. He had drawn it in close against his skin, using the extra pressure to help with his cracked ribs.
   Eric reacted quickly. He extended his forcefield, creating two massive sets of fan blades, which spun and blew the smoke around. It began to dissipate, but Eric's personal field lost some of its strength.
   While Eric fanned away the colored "tracer-paint" smoke, Lao fired off a SoftShell, at close range, toward the ground under Eric's feet. In the confusion, he aimed a couple of inches higher than he had planned. The SoftShell latched onto Eric's leg, wrapping soft forcefield "tendrils" around his calf. It penetrated and detonated more quickly than Eric could react and the concussive force blew his right leg apart. Merciful shock set in almost immediately, and he slumped to the ground.
   As he slipped out of consciousness, he heard Lao apologizing, "I'm sorry, Eric, I'm so sorry..."

   Lao's apology echoed in Eric's mind. Here, this room, where time was no issue, Eric's travels had brought him full circle. Eric's mind had effectively shut out all of his day's activities—his meals, his medications, his physical therapy sessions, all shut out of his mind as he swam deep in the thick, inky black water of his depression.
   "No," Eric whispered to his emptiness. "You glossed over something. Back there. In the cave. Something you didn't address.
   "In that cave. You crawled so deep into the hole. Deep into a crevice at the rear, way past where you had gone with your dad as a kid. You fell into a crack. You were stuck. You were going to starve to death, trapped in that cave."
   As he stretched and pulled upward, one arm pinned under his belly and the other clawing frantically at the rock, the terror set in. His flashlight had fallen before, slipped out of his hand and fell, cracking open against some rocks in the crevasse below him. One of his boots caught up against something, and as he lunged forward, his foot tore free of the boot, and it slipped and fell away. The pit below him could have been filled with water, or snakes, or nothing at all. There was no sound. Eric steeled himself with a panicked determination to never find out what exactly was underneath him. He was not going to fall. No, he thought to himself, I will not fall. But I will most likely die here, Daddy.
   Then, a brilliant light, like an angel on its descent through the atmosphere, cast itself before his eyes. Eric was blinded and screamed. He felt himself begin to slip again. He swung downward with his free elbow and felt it crack sickeningly against a shelf of rock. The pain was maddening, as was the lightshow, but he was still alive.
   "I am a Recharger," came the voice, "the tool of the Patrol."
   Oh, man, thought Eric. I'm a dead man for sure.
   "Will you accept the mission of leading Mankind to Civilization?" asked the Recharger.
   Eric ran his tongue over his lower lip. "I wouldn't think you'd want me," he said. "I belong to an outfit that is designed to control, even kill, Patrollers. We're not your kind of people."
   "Your history is one which can be corrected, Eric Summers. Many people find the experience of being a Patroller a renewing one." The glowing pyramid cut it's luminescence and came closer to Eric. "Just touch me with your hand, and I can save you."
   Eric made an ominous chuckle. "If I move my hand, I'm going to lose my position and fall into this crack," he said. "You keep your offer."
   The Recharger paused for a moment, and when it spoke again, its tone had grown softer and less mechanized. "Why are you so quick to write yourself off, Eric?
   "You can still do right by this world."
   Eric never asked Al how he chose those exact words. He never questioned it at all. From that moment, seconds before he reached up without fear and touched the Recharger, Eric was already a Patroller. The light flowed around his hand in a sheath of gleaming silver, and he was made whole.

   A single tear fell across Eric's cheek. "Damn you, old man. You're going to make me walk out of here on one leg." He started to smile at his pity, laugh at his anguish, and plan his escape.

   INTERLUDE: Across the city, a new Patroller whispered a kind of oath over his Recharger. He then turned and glared at the city lights from his perch, high atop the Washington Monument. His long black hair blew straight back from his forehead, and his olive-toned skin gleamed in the moonlight.
   Wordlessly, he lifted the pyramid and placed it in his backpack. His eyes narrowed a bit as he considered his mission, then he leaped away from the building and soared upward. Places to go, work to be done, he thought. He streamed away into the darkness, his ebony and navy diving suit blending in with the night.

   Eric lay quietly near the door for sometime, perhaps an hour, before it finally opened. A woman came through the door slowly. Eric counted under his breath as the door closed behind the woman. She made her way to the bed, where sheets and pillows took his shape. She started to pull the sheets back when Eric sprung forward, knocking her face first into the bed. In two quick movements he pinned both her arms behind her and clamped a hand around her mouth, cutting off her scream for help.
   Then she bit him.
   He yelped quietly as he jerked his hand away from her mouth. She drew a breath, like she was about to let out a yell to bring the guards running. but her lips drew back into a smile and she started giggling. Eric looked back at her in amazement.
   "Jessie?" he asked.
   "Helluva rescue attempt, huh, Eric?" They stared at each other for a moment, then she stooped down to meet him on the floor, and threw her arms around him. "Oh, you sweet man. Let's get you out of here."

To Be Concluded
Next issue: Eric's great escape, and a show- down with Grier.
And a revelation about the new Patroller.

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Copyright 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower