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Eric Summers, because of injuries he had taken in battle with PRIME, used Jessie Cochran for support as they made their way past the unconscious guards. "Wait a second," said Eric, bending over to relieve one of the guards of his sidearm. "Might just need one of these, at least until I get my 'Charger back."
"Let's hope notmy whole plan is to get you out of here with a minimum of violence," Jessie whispered. "PRIME will be swarming these hallways soon, trying to find you. I'm hoping to have you blend in with them all, but we need to get you to my lab so I can get you into some armor."
"Your lab?" Eric hissed. He had been so overwhelmed by Jessie's sudden appearance that he hadn't stopped to consider just what exactly his old college girlfriend was doing in the middle of PRIME HQ. "You work for these sadists?"
Jessie stopped, squared her jaw and stared forward, speaking with the low even tones of an angry parent in church. "No, Eric, I do not. But PRIME answers to the CIA, as do I, and they enjoy the benefits of my research. However," she turned to face his gaze, "I will not be lectured about my loyalties by you. I'm putting far more than my job on the line here, friend, and I do so gladly, because of all you've been to me over the years, and especially for how you helped me a few months ago. But if you don't want my help, say so now, and I'll happily leave you here to fend for yourself. Understood?"
Eric's face broke into a warm smile. "Lord but I've missed you, woman," he said.
Jessie let out a breath, smiling and shaking her head in disbelief. "C'mon, hero. Let's get you out of here."
Debts and Trespasses
by Stewart Brower
Jessie's lab reeked of stale cigarette smoke, and ashtrays littered the workbenches, desks and tables in her workplace. She led Eric to a desk chair with castors and then rolled him into the center of the room. "I've got a plan," she said. She plugged one end of a long cable into a computer terminal, snapped the other end into a bizarre four-lensed video camera, and walked back around to where Eric was. "Lift up your leg and move it around in all directions, showing me how all the joints move." Eric paused for only a moment before doing as he was instructed, pulling back his hospital gown from his remaining leg.
Jessie began circling him, filming his leg from all conceivable angles. "OK, here's the plan. I've got a suit of prototype armor which you can use to help you escape. However, you won't get far on one leg, so I'm going to make you another one."
"Anotherleg?" Eric paused.
"I can create a forcefield duplicate of your leg. This leg will give me a templatestraighten and bend your knee tooand I can use the imager to invert that template and give you a right leg. I'll use a simple transmitter, attached to your stump, to direct the image. The onboard systems in the PALADIN armor should be enough to maintain the image's integrity and function." Jessie looked up at Eric, lowering the camera. "I hope this isn't all too abrupt, Eric, but PRIME's probably already tearing this building apart to find you, and we just don't have time for finesse."
"How much time do we have?"
"It will take the computers about twenty minutes to compile the image. These calculations get pretty heavy."
"Good. I can use those twenty minutes to find Joey."
"Joey Hewlitt should have been brought in with me. He's an eight-year old Patroller I was trying to trainI've got to look out for him. I promised his mother."
"Eric," Jessie opened firmly, "maybe you're not paying attention. PRIME will be swarming the place looking for you, and they probably know the first thing you'll try is to find this kid. Plus," she scowled, "I've got less than twenty minutes to show you the workings of this new PALADIN armor, and that's hardly enough"
"No, Jess, listen." Eric licked his lips and narrowed his gaze on Jessie. "I'm not leaving the kid, and if I don't get to him fast, Grier and the others will use him for a hostage. To get to me, just like they did before. I can't risk that. I've got to go get him, now, before PRIME can react to my escape."
"And how are you going to rescue him, huh? You're missing a leg, for crying out loud!"
"I've got my wits," Eric said, "and I've got a gun. I'll figure out something."
Jessie looked at the floor and began to slowly shake her head. "More of that macho crap I always found so endearing. Alright," she said wearily, "let me see if I can dig up a location out of the computer network."
"The guards report that they saw no one, sir. Their attacker got them from behind." Sylvester Grier's face appeared on a monitor in Sinjin Garrison's office. The commander's friend and confidant, Adrian Stillwell, rested comfortably in a large leather couch against the far wall. Garrison was not at all comfortablein fact, he verged on total meltdownbut his commanding composure shined him through it well.
"Grier," he began, his calm voice belying his fury over the situation, "I want you to begin a room by room search of the entire compound. One-legged men don't get far, even if he had help, and I seriously doubt he managed to sneak by the base guards and their dogs. He's in here somewhere, Sylvester, so you find him."
"Yessir," Grier replied, his eagerness barely in check. "Grier out." His image blipped off of the viewer.
"That boy," Adrian volunteered, "has a lot of unresolved issues."
"Grier? Yeah, I suppose he does." Garrison began pouring himself a shot of bourbon, no ice, in a glass tumbler.
"You 'suppose'?" Adrian sat upright. "You gotta be kidding me. How many unreported Patrol slayings do you think he commits each month? Two? Three? Not counting the whole Hewlitt fiasco that got us into this situation..."
"What the hell is your point, Stillwell?" Garrison lifted his glass and poured its fiery contents down his throat. "You think I should assign someone else to the search?"
"Only if you want to see Summers alive again, that's all."
"Enough, old man, enough," Garrison said evenly. "We've had this conversation too many times already." He started to pour another drink. "You want one?"
"Too early in the morning for me. I usually wait until at least 0900 before that first shot of the day."
"Sarcasm duly noted." Garrison plopped down on the couch beside his mentor. "What's eating at you anyway?"
"I'm curious about your 'room to room' method of tracking down Summers. Seems to me you're ignoring the most obvious thing."
"Jessica Cochran in research. They were lovers once, and she owes him her life from that fiasco in Albuquerque. Makes her a likely suspect for assisting his escape."
"She's also not here. I checked security logs. She checked out at 5:11 p.m. and hasn't returned."
"She's a techie, Sinjin. Security can be fooled." Stillwell crushed out his cigarette. "But you know that. Why are you purposefully ignoring the obvious?"
Garrison took a sip of his drink, sat the glass on the coffee table and reached for a cigarette. "I am ignoring nothing," he said, cupping his hands around the end of the cigarette as he lit it up. "But I won't operate like that. She's innocent until proven guilty." He took a long draw. "If Cochran is aiding Summers, we'll sure know soon enough."
Adrian Stillwell considered his friend's words carefully and gave the matter some serious thought. He reached for a cigarette himself, and lit it casually. A whole minute passed in silence. When Adrian finally spoke, his voice had the ragged timbre of a freight train.
"Bull," Adrian said firmly. "You are full of it. You are purposefully ignoring the most obvious explanation for this situation. Why?"
"How dare you second guess my command" Garrison began.
"I dare because I taught you *how* to command." Adrian was furious. "Now, you tell me why you have chosen this particular moment in time to ignore every sense God and this United States Army have given you."
Garrison looked at Adrian for a moment, a touch of hurt in his eyes, then he stood and walked over to his desk, careful to keep his back to his friend. "I went to visit Eric right after he got out of surgery. He'd been shocky all the way through the operation. He was barely stable, and the docs weren't sure he'd last another night. I stood over his bed, trying to figure out how this man, who had once been in my charge, ended up losing a leg in that firefight. And all I could think of was this one thing that kept going through my mind 'My responsibility,' I kept thinking. Eric, no matter what all has transpired, is *still* my responsibility. No matter what else happened, Lao was under my orderstherefore, I'm responsible for that man not having a leg right now.
"My responsibility," he said, turning to face Stillwell. "He's been hounded, hunted, had a leg shot off, just because of his beliefs. He's about to face a court-martial and be killed by his own government, just for his beliefs. His beliefs led him to serve this country, and in return, we've crippled that man."
"And for no damn good reason," Adrian Stillwell added. "You're right. This has all gone much too far. And all because we've let ego and pride get in the way of honor and duty. Grier is the worst of us, killing that reporter in cold blood for security's sake, but we let him do the heinous things he does because we call him one of us. Lao goes too far in a firefight, but we forgive it because he is one of us. You," he jabbed his finger at Garrison accusingly, "you pushed the matter of getting Eric back here, because you thought he was still your responsibility." His voice went quiet and hoarse. "And perhaps he was. But this has all gone too far, Sinjin. All to keep the public from knowing that the government has the means to kill Patrollers. All this pain and deathfor the sake of what? Public relations?"
Garrison's face sank and went cold. "He gets his chance to get out. That's enough." Garrison sat down, rubbing his temples in tiny circles.
Stillwell shot up off the couch. "Enough?" he spat. "You think giving him this chance to escape is *enough*?" He marched over and opened the door. "Not by a longshot, boy." He slammed the door behind him.
Sinjin Garrison sat, considering calling security and having Stillwell tossed in the brig, because the old man was too close to all of this not to get involved. He thought how one man looks no smarter than another from behind bars. But Stillwell had been his teacher and confidant for many years, and Garrison would never do anything to betray that man. He cursed himself for actually considering locking up a man he loved more than his own father.
And he finally began to understand how these matters had gone far too far.
Joey Hewlitt sat on the cold tile floor of his room, head down and staring at his own feet. He remembered how his mother looked just fine, but he had been spending the last half hour trying to remember her voice. He knew basically how she sounded, but he found that the more and more he thought about it, the less he could remember the *way* she talked. It mattered to him a lot, and he worried about how she would be doing. When his dad died, a policeman had told him to be brave, that he was now the man of the family. Joey had tried really hard to help his mother, and thought that the Recharger would help him help his mom.
Now that same Recharger was in the lab across the hall from his room, behind some kind of forcefield, kind of like the ones he could make. The Recharger had told the doctors that he would disappear if they didn't keep the two of them close together, so they put him in the room across the hallway. The doctors would ask the Recharger questions, and Joey had told his Recharger to answer them. The doctors had told Joey that if the Recharger answered all of their questions, then they could go free and get back with Joey's mother.
But the doctors had an *awful* lot of questions to ask. And Joey was beginning to wonder if he'd ever see his mom again.
Suddenly, his door burst open, and Eric hopped into Joey's room. He had a crutch under one arm, and a handgun in the other. "Joey? You're awake?" he asked.
"Mr. Summers!" Joey yelled, then he ran forward and hugged Eric around his remaining leg. "Are you going to take me to my mom?"
Eric ran his hand over the boy's head. "I'll do my best, Joey. Are you okay?"
"Yeah, I guess so. I don't sleep a whole lot, but I think Mom made me take too many naps anyhow. Can we get my Recharger?"
"You bet we can. Where is it?" Joey led him across the hall. Eric shot the lock off the door, figuring he had maybe thirty seconds anyway before all of PRIME was on top of him. They entered the dark laboratory, where the only light was the slight telltale glimmering of a Recharger. It was suspended in midair in a force bubble, hanging between two large metal pylons.
Eric knew he didn't have the luxury of the time it would require to figure out the security here, so he turned to Joey. "Joey, your Recharger still has to do what you tell it to, right?"
"Yeah. The doctors make me ask him questions all the time."
Eric spoke slowly, weighing his words with care. "Joey, ask it to escape from the bubble."
Joey stepped forward. "Recharger, I order you to escape."
The strangely musical voice came back, "Joey, I am sorry but I cannot. You have to wear the Gauntlet to direct my energy, and I cannot teleport out of here because of the jammers they are using."
Eric paused for a second. "Can you tell me where the jammers are located?" he asked.
"With Joey's permission," the Recharger began, and Joey started nodding his head furiously, "the jammers are in the northwest corner and are controlled by" Eric had already opened fire, and four shots later, sparks shot out of the computer console and smoke began to bellow out from under a small whirring machine. Moments later, the Recharger vanished and then reappeared on the floor next to Joey.
A sharp cracking noise followed, as Sylvester Grier kicked the door wide open. He leveled his rifle at Eric. "Drop the pistol, Summers, and kick it over to me."
Eric thought quickly, I have to keep him focused on me and give Joey a chance to escape. "Alright, Grier, let's just take it easy. No need to butcher me like all the others, right?"
Under his helmet, Grier's eyes bugged out a bit and his lip curled back. "Just try something with me, you stinking traitor."
Eric knew he was getting to him. He lifted his arms up over his head in surrender, holding his gun by his fingertips. "I give up, Grier, see?" He let the gun fall to the floor. "Let's not go all psycho, okay. I'm not going to give you any trouble. I don't want to fight, and I'm in no condition to run." He paused, and his eyes went bright and crazy. "I only wanted toDance!"
And with that, Eric began to hop on his one foot and clap his hands high above his head, like a flamenco dancer. His crutch clattered to the floor.
"Stoppit!" Grier yelled out at him. "Stop moving, or I swear I'll do you like a turkey shoot, man!"
"Turkey shoot?" Eric continued hopping and clapping. "Is that what you called Los Angeles, Sly?"
Grier hoisted his weapon to his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. A hail of gunfire rang out in the tiny lab, and was met by Joey's invisible forcefield, which he had extended around Eric just after he activated his Gauntlet. Eric stopped hopping and fell onto his butt, puffing a breath of relief. "Get us out of here, Joey. Now."
With that, Eric, Joey and his Recharger, lifted up into the air, crashing through the ceiling and raining debris on top of Grier, who bellowed incoherently as they escaped.
Stillwell sat in the large chair in the middle of Jessie's lab. He was leaning back, arms folded across his muscular chest, a .32 loosely gripped in his left hand and a cigarette in his other. That was how Eric found matters as he and Joey burst through the door.
"Adrian" Eric began warningly. Stillwell lifted his hands in a gesture of mock surprise.
"No, Colonel, sir, the man got the drop on me." Stillwell smiled. "He forced me to surrender my weapon," he said, handing his gun to Eric pommel first. "There was nothing I could do."
Eric spoke quietly, his eyes betraying his relief. "God bless you, man."
Jessie poked her head up from behind her lab tables. "And if you two have finished with your 'moment,' I have another little gift for you, Eric." Stillwell got up from his chair, and helped steady Eric as he hopped around to meet Jessie. "Voila," she said, gesturing toward the forcefield construct.
"My leg," Eric whispered. "It's my damn leg."
Jessie pressed a button on the side of the black disk that rested at the top of the construct and the image faded. "We have a problem and a solution, Eric," she said. "Problemthe construct requires more juice than the batteries in this disk can supply. Solutionlet the batteries maintain the processor chip, and get the Broadcast Power from another source." She moved to the side and motioned at a gleaming black suit of armor behind her. "This will be that power source."
Eric hopped forward a couple of steps, with Adrian moving to keep him steady. "The PRIME armor you'd mentioned?"
"The next step in BP technologies, Eric. PRIME ArmorLite Defensive Integrated Network, or PALADIN. It has enough battery-operated BP to power your leg for over three hours, as well as all its defensive and offensive systems."
"Alright, enough," Stillwell interrupted. "My boys will be here in seconds. Your orders are easy enough kiddo. Get in the armor, tie up the woman, whomp me over the head, and get yourself and the boy out of here. Agreed?"
Eric let out a heavy breath. "Right. Okay, Jessie, get that leg taped onto me. Joey, put a forcefield all around this room"
"I did that already," came Joey's petulant voice. "I'm not stupid, you know. Why can't I just get us out of here now, anyway?"
Adrian interceded before Eric could utter a word. "Because, kiddo, we are PRIME. We kill Patrollers for a living."
Joey's face dropped and he considered the old man's words carefully. "Did you kill my daddy?"
"One of our men did, yes. You are going to need more than just your Recharger to get out of here alive, Joey." Adrian then leaned over and whispered something in Joey's ear. He listened intently, and then began to smile. He nodded to Adrian, and turned back to focus on his forcefield.
Eric looked quizically at Stillwell. "What did you just tell him?"
Adrian replied, "He'll tell you once you're out of here. Now, let's get you strapped in."
Hard-soled boots clamored through the hall, pounding away in rapid succession. Fast behind their steps, the troopers heard the telltale sounds of a PRIME X-O keeping pace. The dozen foot soldiers flattened against the walls as Grier, now fully armored and smarting from his encounter with the Patroller brat, marched through them toward Jessie Cochran's lab.
The door to the lab was now a pile of splinters on the floor. In its place, a translucent field of energy hummed, obscuring any view of the laboratory and forcefully removing all access. "We busted the door down trying to get in, but found this forcefield in the way, sir," said one green trooper.
Grier just ground his teeth. "Clear out, men. Fire in the hole!" The troops ducked for cover as Grier's X-O let fly two SoftShells. They latched onto the field quickly and began to bore through. The field extended around the rockets without warning, and enveloped them. A split second later, Grier leapt out of the way as the two SoftShells came back out of the field, narrowly missing his head, and detonating against the wall, spraying gas in all directions.
"Cute kid," he muttered without the slightest hint of affection. Behind him, a second set of clanging steps approached. Grier's DIVE informed him of the reinforcements. "Hey, Lao, came to join the fun?"
"Problem cracking the field?" Peter Lao asked.
"Problem with these SoftShells, man," Grier said, "is that if a Patroller is ready for them, they won't crack an egg."
"Let's try something new then, chief." With that, Lao stepped forward to the forcefield. On the 'head's up' in his helmet, he chose a special selection he had wired into his armor the previous week. His armor's personal forcefield glistened with a peculiar sheen, and then he stepped into the doorway. The forcefield in the doorframe twisted and buckled around his X-O as he began to step through. "Get past me, Grier, now!" Lao shouted.
Grier jacked his forcefield up to maximum and punched his way past Lao, who fell through the hole he'd created and landed on the laboratory floor, his X-O's joints fused and circuitry scrambled. Lao made a mental note of itthe "SoftPhase" works, but exhausts the X-O. "And the wearer," he dully admitted to himself as he passed out on the floor.
Grier landed in the room in a crouched position. "What the hell," he thought.
Eric stood in the middle of the lab in polished black armor, his face fully visible through the visor on his helmet, but for only a second before it became reflective and silvery. From his left hand, a giant mace formed out of nothing, with massive spikes surrounding the head. He levitated half a foot off the floor.
Grier half-expected some kind of corny battle cry from Eric. Instead Eric simply called out, "Now, Joey!" and the roof flew apart. Within seconds, Grier's perspective had changed completely. He and Eric were held in one force bubble, high in the Washington night air over PRIME's hidden complex. The brat Patroller flew beneath them, suspended in another forcefield.
"Alright, Sly," Eric said, "I've got your attention, I think, so let's talk."
Grier, blind with rage over his predicament, rushed forward to grapple with Eric. Eric swung in a wide circle with his mace and struck Grier in the side. Grier slammed against the inside of the sphere. "My ties to you, and to PRIME, end tonight, Sly."
Grier lifted an arm and let loose with a barrage of automatic weapon fire. The bullets rebounded from both men's armor and sprung around in all directions in the sphere, before finally losing momentum and rolling and settling into a small pile of bullets and expended shells at the bottom of the force bubble. Eric levitated over to Grier.
"Not smart, Sly. This armor is at least as well-shielded as your own." Under his helmet, Eric smiled. "It has some other special features, too, but I won't bore you with that now. Instead, I've got a message for you and for PRIME."
Eric moved quickly, striking Grier repeatedly with the forcefield mace. His was a blurred fury of powerful blows, and Grier's armor failed to withstand the onslaught for long. After Grier's forcefield failed, the large spiked head of Eric's weapon bashed and cut viscious scars in the polymers and metals of the armor. Grier cried and pleaded for quarter, and was given none. The whole fight lasted less than a minute, and Grier's broken armor and grievous injuries only barely matched his beaten spirit.
Eric stood back for a moment, and Grier watched terrorstruck as the mace folded in on itself, reforming into a long, sharp sword. He let out a cry as Eric swung the sword down on Grier's leg. The stroke of the sword was perfect, as it sliced the exposed cables to Grier's boot. Eric reached down and yanked hard, ripping the boot off of Grier's foot.
He looked at it slowly, carefully tracing his fingers across several notches bored into the metal on its exterior. "Nine." Eric dropped the silver field in front of his face so Grier could see him clearly. "Nine Patrollers, all dead, because of you. You little cowardare you that afraid of the future?" In one swift blow, Eric crushed the boot into so much twisted metal. He then grabbed Grier by the collar and lifted him up into the air.
"It ends tonight, Grier. No more random killings. No more secrets. You tell Garrison what I now tell you. Civilization will come aboutit is as inevitable as the dawn. The Patrollers are the only hope this planet has of survival in the coming golden age, but they have one rule that they must live by: No harm. They can't hurt a flythey aren't allowed to.
"But I am. In this armor, I'm no Patroller. I'm a Paladin, and I now watch the Patrol's back. If I ever hear of another Patroller being killed, I come after you. You take another child prisoner, I come after you. You so much as jaywalk and I'll hand you your spleens! Are we clear on this?"
Grier hesitated a moment, and then grinned weakly from between bloodied lips. "There's only one of you...we'll get you eventually...traitor..."
"I'm no traitor, Grier," Eric growled. "I just believe in something bigger than you do." Then, on a hidden signal, Joey dropped the forcefield. Eric dropped to about twenty feet over the roof of the compound, then let Grier go. He fell, screaming obscenities as he thrashed in the night air. He'd break bones, but Grier would live through it.
Eric flew up to meet Joey, and then the two of them headed east, toward the inevitable dawn.
Next Issue: Quiet Time in the Big City. Paladin #6!
Copyright © 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower