Eric Summers flew alone through the Washington night sky. He had deposited the boy at the YMCA where he had taken a room for the night, and he had one last mission to complete before he would say that the matter with PRIME was finally settled. Joey didn't like being left behind. After all, old Adrian Stillwell had told the boy about the secret files stored in the armor's memory, not Eric, and the boy felt like he should be the one to deliver them.
   Eric vetoed that decision. "Pay attention, boy. You work for me. I will train you. I told your mama that I would protect you. You will follow my orders like a good soldier, or I will drop you into an orphanage. Is that clear?"
   He would be hard on the boy, and he chided himself for that, but he had never learned another way. Either from his father or the military, the rules of the house were always clear. And it worked fine for me, Eric thought.
   Suddenly, an alarm sounded inside the PALADIN armor. On the heads-up display, an alert flashed, "Patroller-type field within 100 meters. Defensive systems activated." Eric dismissed the warning with a voice command, "Computer, affirmative." He would have to change the voice commands—only a true techie like Jessie would find the cumbersome things appropriate.
   Eric brought up the radar, and found the Patroller just behind him. If its the boy, thought Eric, he's in for a world of hurt. "Computer, camo field, night sky." With that command, Eric virtually disappeared against the night, as he came to a full stop, and rose to an altitude a comfortable 20 meters above his pursuer. The Patroller following him came into view, and was clearly not the boy. Long straight black hair, very tall (or long, as the case was with flying), and wearing a black and blue diving suit. He was slowing, clearly confused by his quarry's disappearance. Eric fell in close behind him, and reverted his forcefield to transparent, letting the silvery black finish of his armor glean against the moonlight.
   "May I help you?" he asked.

Paladin-The Chill Beats Time
by Stewart Brower

   The man turned slowly in midair, his face betraying nothing. From nowhere, a familiar image sprung to life between the two men. The glowing holographic image of Al Jarreau.
   "Al?" Eric dropped the screen from his face so Al could recognize him.
   "Yes, Eric, it is me. I'm glad to see you are still alive."
   Eric finally began to realize. "You have a new Patroller."
   Al's face dropped a little. "I'm sorry, Eric. After the Gauntlet vaporized, I realized you were in danger, but before I could find you—Ranger found me."
   "Ranger? That your handle, friend?" The man with the long ebony mane simply nodded. "I don't understand, Al."
   Al looked to Ranger first, and Ranger nodded his consent. Then he turned back to Eric.
   "When the Gauntlet is compromised, the Recharger is given an option, dependent entirely on its relationship with its Patroller. It can either search out the missing Patroller, or it can search for a new Patroller. I had just begun my search for you when Ranger discovered me. Since I was bound to no Patroller at that moment, the Code dictates that I must offer myself to the one who finds me. Ranger agreed to the code, and our bargain was struck."
   "And I was left for dead." Eric's eyes had narrowed to bare slits. "Fine example you Rechargers set for Civilization."
   "We are tools of peace, Eric, but we often operate under conditions of war. Our programming dictates that we should find acceptable Patrollers with speed and with care. I'm sorry about this, Eric. To Ranger's credit, his first mission was to find you, and he undertook it—"
   Eric cut him off. "Too late. If it hadn't been for Jessie and Adrian, I would never have escaped from PRIME."
   Al finally lost his patience. "We were going to make you a bargain, Eric. You are in no state of mind to deal with this reasonably, therefore, we take our leave of you for now." Al and Ranger took to the clouds as a great green dart.

   Mark Kristing sat on the roof of his apartment building, bundled tightly against the chill November winds. The things we do for a story, he thought. But Gene Hewlitt was an associate, even if he wrote a rival column On Patrol for the Post. They had drinks together a couple of times, talking about the Patrol. He accused Kristing of being too enamored with the concept of Civilization—that the whole idea of becoming Civilized was a desperate attempt to fend off an alien invasion. Kristing retorted that Gene was too hard on the Patrol, that these were still human beings who needed an opportunity to show the world a better way.
   When it was revealed to the public that Gene Hewlitt was, in fact, a Patroller himself, the outcry was not particularly positive. A Patroller writing about the Patrol went beyond bias, according to many newspaper editors. They claimed it to be outright deception, and that Hewlitt was probably feeding disinformation to the public all along. The public quickly lost interest, thankfully, and instead, focused on the sadness of Gene's grieving widow and son.
   Then, just one hour ago, a phone call. "I have information on the people who murdered Gene Hewlitt."
   "Who is this?" Mark asked, looking at the clock at his bedside. 3:45 am. Cripes.
   "Hewlitt was brought down by a branch of the CIA and military special forces known as PRIME. If you want more information, as well as proof of his murder at their hands, meet me on your roof in one hour." Click.
   And so here I am, Mark thought. Freezing my butt off up here. He's got five more minutes, then I'm headed back to bed.
   One minute later, Mark saw a silvery glint of moonlight in the night sky. But that's not a Patroller, he thought. Seconds later, the armored man landed silently on the roof.
   "My name," came the darkly scrambled voice, "is Paladin. Take this." He held out a floppy disk and Mark took it from him.
   "That diskette contains briefings and files on PRIME. They are a strike force specifically created to kill Patrollers. They murdered Gene Hewlitt. The information on that disk will tell you everything you need to know."
   Mark looked at the disk, then back up at Paladin. "Where did this come from?"
   "Gene Hewlitt's own files, plus files I acquired from PRIME's computers."
   Mark looked cautious. "This could have all been faked. If it has, I'll find out." He then raised his eyebrows a bit. "However, if you're telling me the truth, then I just want to tell you thanks, and that you have an ally in me."
   "I would never have given you the disk," Paladin said, "if I thought you were anything else." With that he took to the sky. Mark Kristing dropped the diskette into a pocket, and headed back to the warmth inside.

   November was a busy time for Eric and Joey. They took an apartment over a small garage, and Eric spent twelve hours a day doing repair work. Joey went to a new school, under a new name. Their nights were spent patrolling Washington, and training.
   Joey was more accepting of his situation. He still missed his mother, but he was interested in school, learning much about the Patrol, and acting like a pretty good kid, in Eric's view.
   When Thanksgiving rolled around, Eric finally felt some of his paranoia about PRIME slipping away, and especially when the governmental investigation uncovered Grier's "extracurricular activities." Eric stopped looking over his shoulder long enough to buy a couple of tickets to Boston to visit his brother.
   Terry met them at the train station. Eric and Terry hugged, and Eric introduced his brother to little Joey. After the long trip, Joey needed to sleep, so Terry loaded them into his car, and drove them to his house. Joey settled in to nap, and Eric and Terry sat down at the kitchen table to catch up.
   After Eric explained about losing his leg and escaping from PRIME, Terry let out a long sigh. "You been through hell, brother."
   "Yeah. I suppose so." Eric looked up at Terry. "You've looked better yourself, though."
   Terry's expression dropped. "You gonna start on me too?"
   "You've been drinking too hard lately, haven't you?"
   "Too hard?" Terry was surprised and a little amused. "Jackie up and leaves me cold, and you think I been hitting the bottle? Hell, yeah! I've been drinking too hard. But it ain't outta control. I know what I'm doing."
   "Jackie left months ago, Terry. Time to give up the bottle and pay attention to yourself and your home. Look at this place." He motioned around the little dark kitchen. Pots and pans piled up in the sink. Dirty dishes and glasses on the counters. "When was the last time you mopped the floor, or cleaned out that refrigerator?"
   "I'm a busy man, boy. My wife always cleaned this house, and fixed my meals. So I eat out now, and I drink sometimes, and I find myself a hook once in a while. There's nobody in my home, so I take care of myself."
   "Yeah," Eric laid out the words in dull, sarcastic monotone, "and a great job you're doing, too."
   Terry looked at his brother evenly, and said with finality, "I get by." They finished their drinks in silence. Then Terry got up, not so much as looking at Eric, turned and went to his bedroom.
   The next morning, Terry got up at nine, and made for the kitchen to get some coffee before heading down to the garage. When he walked in, he couldn't believe his eyes. Joey was at the table eating cereal. Eric had cleaned the dishes, made up a pot of coffee, and even mopped the floor. "Yeah," he said, "and I cleared out the refrigerator and bought some fresh groceries, too." Terry sat down at the table, where Eric had sat out toast and juice, along with little individual boxes of cereal and a carton of milk. Eric came over and poured a cup of coffee for his big brother.
   "You were the one who taught me how important breakfast is. I'm just returning the favor."
   For the next couple of days, Eric and Joey picked up the house, cleaning and dusting and vacuuming. By the second day, Terry started pitching in. First he cooked up some fine liver and onions for dinner. Then he closed the garage the day before Thanksgiving, spending his time showing Joey and Eric around Boston. It had been a while since Eric had seen his old stomping grounds. They ate out for lunch at a Cantonese place, then visited the zoo.
   They went out for a huge meal Thanksgiving night at a local restaurant. Turkey with brown gravy, oyster dressing, new potatoes in butter, broccoli with rice and cheese, and huge flaky wheat rolls.
   Eric noticed that Terry was still drinking quite a bit. Terry tried to put it in perspective. "Don't worry so much, Eric. I'm not going back there. I got a clean home, and I'm gonna keep it that way."
   Terry even wrote letters to Washington after Eric and Joey left. But still, Eric was concerned about his brother.

   The knock at the door late one evening put Eric on edge for some reason. He wasn't expecting any company, so he took the precaution of powering up PALADIN's weapons module. After slipping on the somewhat bulky glove, a large sword appeared in his hand.
   "Who is it?" he asked through the door.
   "You call me Ranger," came a hoarse reply.
   Eric opened the door to the man with the long black hair. "Can we talk here?" he asked.
   Eric considered it for a moment, then let the man inside. Ranger stood about a head taller than Eric. He was wearing a long black coat and hiking boots, and looked around the small apartment with curiosity. "Nice place. Small."
   Eric thought the guy was a little strange. "What do you want, Ranger?" he asked, powering down his weapon.
   "I need your help." Ranger paused, looking closely at a picture on the wall of Eric and his father. "I need training."
   "I don't train Patrollers anymore."
   "What about the boy?"
   "I'm teaching him in order to keep him alive. I'm also the only guardian he has right now, so I didn't have a lot of choice in the matter."
   "Al says you should train me."
   "Al has no say in the matter," followed Eric. "He abandoned me."
   "Al tried to help you. I got in the way." Ranger threw a casual look at Eric. "Blame me."
   Eric squared his jaw. "Believe me, I do." He walked slowly over to the couch. He had been practicing with his plastic prosthesis during the day, so as not to burn charge out of his PALADIN armor needlessly. Joey recharged the batteries in the armor frequently, but Eric preferred to be at full power in case of trouble. "Besides, you've been doing this awhile. You even made the paper a few times. What do you need any training for?"
   Ranger then turned fully to face Eric, and broadened his posture. "Something is coming," he said. "Something bad."
   "What do you mean?" Eric asked.
   "I had a vision," Ranger continued, "of a city on fire. There is a mad king and—" he paused a moment, "And I saw a Gauntlet covered in blood."
   Eric was careful with his words. "A 'vision'?" he asked. "Look, I don't want to make light of this, but, I mean, how do you know these things you saw will actually happen? Couldn't it just be a bad dream or something?"
   Ranger lowered his eyes for a second then looked right at Eric. "I was wide awake when I had my vision. It is no dream. The mad king is a Patroller. He will turn against us all. Many good people will die. A city will burn." He paused, looking away. "I can't handle it myself." Eric just shook his head slowly. "I'm sorry—" he began. But Ranger crossed the room quickly, opened the door, then looked back at Eric.
   "We will all be sorry." Then he left. And after he left, Eric felt a most terrible chill run up his back.

   Interlude: Just outside the ruins of what had been Los Angeles, deep in a small range of newly formed mountains, stood a ramshakle prison, made from large corrugated sheets of metal, barbed wire, chain link, and automobile body parts welded together. A twisted sculpture of captivity, this bizarre jail held about twenty men, wearing torn and battered clothes, but healthy and clean on the whole.
   One prisoner, after several days of stretching his arm nearly out of its socket, had managed to bend a small piece of wire back and forth, until it finally broke off in his numb hand. He jammed the wire into the lock on his cage and worked it around and around.
   Even if this works, he thought, damn if I'll be able to skin out of here in daylight. Have to wait until night, risk the coyotes, and try to make the run to Nuevo Angeles before sun comes up.
   I try to run during the day, he thought, and he will find me for sure. Suddenly, the lock popped open. One of the other prisoners heard it, and turned around to look. He realized immediately what had been done, and knew also that this man had hardly any chance at all of escape.
   "You make it to New Angeles," he whispered throatily, "you tell them about us, boy. Tell 'em to send in the Army."
   "Whatchoo mean, old man? Don'choo want me to get the Patrol?" They smiled at each other and laughed, low and sad.

   Mark Kristing sat fidgeting in the newschief's office. He'd sooner go one on one with an Emissary than try to deal with an angry boss. And this day, Lou Holtz, executive producer at CNN and director/producer of Patrolwatch, was just about boiling, but not quite.
   Lou was a master of the kind of calm anger that really put Mark on edge. He sat behind his desk, looking over Mark's copy and notes and a burgeoning folder of collected photos and documents. "Sonuvab—," he would semi-mutter, and "Holishi—." Finally, he finished reading the papers in front of him, but rather than look at Mark, he just leaned back in his overstuffed leather chair and looked straight up at the tile ceiling above.
   "You," he started, then just as suddenly he stopped, and opened a desk drawer, pulled out a pack of Marlboros, ripped one out of the pack, shoved the bent cigarette into his mouth, shot a three-inch flame at its tip from his lighter, and puffed.
   "You," he started again, "want to accuse the President of the United States of murdering a Patroller—"
   Mark lunged out of his chair. "God, no! Lou..."
   "You might as well—You accuse everyone else in the Fed of it!"
   "No!" Mark was firm. "One of these guys, Lou. One! A maverick who never gets named in these files, but an investigation by the Army will find out who."
   "Their commanding officer allows this to happen, Mark. Chain of command all the way to the President!" Lou drew and bellowed smoke as he talked. "Tone it down, Mark!"
   "I've got files, Lou. A covert strike force that can take down Patrollers. One of our own, a reporter, killed by these—these jackals of PRIME."
   Lou stood up and spoke with regal clarity. "I said tone it down."
   Mark looked at Lou with apprehension. "Tone it down?"
   "Yes," Lou said. "Give me fresh and less inflammatory copy by eight and it goes on tonight."
   A huge smile broke out across Mark Kristing's face. "Yessir," he choked out in a single breath. Then he turned to leave.
   "Mark," Lou stopped him at the door, "be very careful, here. You've got thorough documentation and evidence out the wazoo, but these boys sound like they play for keeps."
   Mark recognized the sincerity in Lou's voice, and nodded his understanding before he made his way to the editing room.

   Eric just smiled and smiled, folded the newspaper and left it on the counter at the little diner, along with three quarters for the coffee. Got 'em, he thought. Kristing nailed them to the wall, and now all the papers want a piece of it. The story broke three nights ago on CNN Patrolwatch. Now it was all over the press, with the entire news media pressing the Federal Government for details. If those Senators get their way, there's gonna be a full investigation of PRIME. Sonsovb—
   His reverie was broken as a huge jet black car slid up alongside him. Two men in black suits came out of nowhere on either side of Eric and forced him into the passenger's side of the car. One of the men slid in next to him and jabbed a gun into his ribs. "Remain calm, Mr. Summers, and you'll be on your way in a minute."
   Eric ignored the man, saying nothing, just glaring at the man sitting across from him in the limo.
   "Do you know who I am, sir?" the man asked.
   "Yessir," Eric responded stiffly.
   "Do you still recognize my authority over you as a soldier in the United States military?"
   "Of course, sir," Eric snapped out.
   The man across from him leaned forward, nodding his approval. "Good, good," replied the President. "I have a mission for you, Mr. Summers. There's a situation in Boston, and the country, maybe the whole world, needs your help..."

To Be Continued in PATROL: Back Top of Page Next

Copyright 1995, 1997 by Stewart Brower