Masks 14: Part 3

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Masks Fourteen: Part Five

by

Rodford Edmiston

The return of Monstro from its trip for maintenance attracted a small audience. The car was actually a bit famous around campus. Most of those interested, of course, were simply checking up on their favorite way of bumming a ride.

"Ooh, shiny," said Alex, when Vic got back from her maintenance trip.

"Yeah," said Vic, smiling as she gave Monstro an affectionate pat on the fender. "There's a car wash next to the dealership, owned by the same guy. They gave me a wash and wax for free, since this was my first time."

"Mask transportation is often weird," said Energia, with a smirk. "I think this is the strangest super ground vehicle I've seen, though."

"Don't diss the car, girl," said Alex, almost as protective of Monstro as its rightful owner was.

"It's supposed to be low-key in appearance," said Vic, defensively.

"I just remembered something," said Energia, with a laugh. "When Blue Impact started her career, in her teens, she rode a ten-speed bicycle. Until she pedaled so hard she broke it."

"Bicycle," said Vic, thoughtfully. "Huh. That would be good to have. A lot more convenient for some trips than either running or driving."

"Not as cool as flying, though," said Alex, giving Energia the eye.

"I'm just surprised I'm the only flyer here," said Energia. "It's not that rare a power. About one in ten on Pine Island can fly, and a few more can levitate."

"We don't have that many supers, here," said Vic, with a shrug. "This is still mainly a normal technical college. Though, yeah, there's a lot more than ten. Or even twenty. Maybe something skewed the percentage on the island. Or here. I don't recall flight being quite that common among the general super population, though."

"Okay, enough of that," said Alex. "It's lunchtime!"

As the small group headed for the cafeteria, Energia again expressed her favorable impression with the campus. Nearly every building was clean and neat. With few exceptions, they were all new or recently refurbished, and those which were neither simply didn't need any work.

"The feds really poured the money into this place," she said, as they walked.

"Well, Rokuro did a lot before that," said Vic. "He didn't even have a chance to finish most of what he planned for the infrastructure. Of course, that included things like secret tunnels and built-in monitoring equipment in every room and much of the campus grounds."

"How do we know the feds didn't go ahead and do all that?" said someone whose name Energia hadn't caught.

"They let a committee of students and staff inspect both the plans and the work underway. They mostly kept Rokuro's plans - though they were modified to remove the illegal stuff - for the improvements in facilities and security equipment."

"Given some of the things which happened before the new security equipment was installed, I'm definitely in favor of that," said Melanie, with feeling. "Just the same, I am very, very happy they got rid of all those bugs. I am also glad he's in jail."

"I just hope that's him," said Vic, sourly.

"Well, I'm meeting my boyfriend for lunch with his mother," said Energia, as they neared the cafeteria. "In fact, I think I see him now! Hey, Maldren!"

She lifted off the ground and waved. A figure in normal - if custom tailored - clothes leaning against the wall at the main entrance to the cafeteria came alert and leapt into the air, zooming towards her as she swept towards him.

They met just above head height, their horizontal collision turned into an upward twin spiral as they climbed into the sky.

"Maldren? You're all... tingly."

"You make me tingly," he said, hugging and kissing her.

"Will you look at them?" said Melanie, amazed. "It's like some sort of mating flight. Beautiful."

"They're just showing off," someone muttered in the background. "Telling us 'We can fly and you can't.' Thumbing their noses at us."

"I don't think noses are the body parts they're thinking about, right now," said Melanie, who watched until the pair were out of sight.

* * *

"Finally, the Israelis are upgrading their old Ziz aerial fortress, with help from us and several others," said Brade, as she finished her briefing of the President late that afternoon. "That includes advice and hands-on assistance from Shilmek technical advisors."

"That should be a big help," said Sievers, nodding.

Brade sat back, stretched, and smiled.

"Well, we finished before full dark for a change."

"There's one more thing, before you go," said President Sievers, shutting down her tablet and putting it on her desk. "A matter of personal curiosity. I was reading earlier about the hostage rescue you were part of in Seventy-Four. It was one of the last and best documented of the operations by Dick's Boys. However, I could not find any mention, anywhere, about how your team was inserted into the area."

"Typical," said Brade, with a gruff laugh. "It was something supers do all the time, but the brass classified it. I mean really classified it, forbidding any mention of it even in the classified documents. Out of fear that other people might learn about it and use it against the US and our allies. Even though, as I said, it was common for supers long before then, and still is. Of course, part of the reason for all that was also due to Nixon getting increasingly paranoid as the investigation of his illicit activities progressed. They must have deleted that information along with all that other stuff. Anyway, it was a HANO mission."

"A what, now?"

"High Altitude No Opening. In other words, people tough enough to make a parachute jump with no parachute, or who could fly. Both, for some of the participants."

Sievers laughed, shaking her head.

"So, meeting tomorrow at Oh-Eight-Hundred?" said Brade, as they rose.

"I'm afraid so. Just my staff and a few special guests, but it will be long, because it's going to be thorough. A full review of our defense preparations, with evaluations of the best of the suggestions from all sides."

"Not looking forward to that," said Brade, with a sigh. "Lots of pet projects involved, and we can't do them all. Now I know why you suggested I get back early from this last mission. I'll make sure to get to bed early."

"That makes two of us."

Sievers sighed.

"Can you believe that some in my own party have been criticizing me for spending so much time and effort on defense preparations? They say I should already be working for my re-election."

"Idiots," said Brade, casually. "If we're conquered, there won't be an election."

* * *

Even though classes started the next day, several of the residents of the female side of Vic's dorm floor were up late, chatting in the common room. Mostly about how Energia's date went. Vic was a bit disturbed to find herself nearly as interested as those born female.

"It was pretty tame, really," said Energia. "I mean, his mother was there, after all. Anyway, she met us in Detroit, we had a nice lunch and talked a lot about a lot of different things. Then Maldren insisted we show her his favorite clubs, even though most of 'em aren't open during the day!"

Left unsaid was many details regarding identity and logistics. Energia simply assumed this would be understood, and most folks did. That Maldren's mother was Tolnar, and that she was the reason both government and supers were making ready for war was something Energia hoped they wouldn't find out. Included in what she was omitting was the fact that much of their talking had been rather serious. The whole luncheon had been Maldren's attempt to help his Mother to relax for a while, and done in spite of the general rule of keeping the two separate to avoid creating too tempting a target. It had only been partially successful in helping the Queen to relax, but at least they hadn't been attacked. All three had worn mundane clothing and used mundane methods of transportation, avoiding attention.

"Clubs?!" said Mel, startled.

"I introduced Maldren to clubbing a few months back and he's become addicted," said Energia, with a laugh. "He likes it more than I do, now. His mother acted like she wanted to try it, but I think she was just trying to show an interest in something her son likes."

"I thought aliens didn't 'get' music," said Alex, puzzled. "Or dancing."

"Maldren's people's brains are still enough like ours that they have similar tastes in music. They also like dancing, but most of their stuff is a lot more ritualistic."

"Huh? Still enough like... What do you mean?"

"Their ancestors were taken from Earth as lab animals by the Sh'pokt nearly a hundred thousand years ago," said Energia. "After several semi-successful escape attempts and acts of sabotage, their captors grudgingly admitted they'd made a mistake and unintentionally enslaved sapient creatures. They couldn't put them back, 'cause that would 'pollute' the native population. They made it up to them by freeing and educating them and giving them their own planet in an isolated system in the local part of the galaxy. The Shilmek responded by eventually building an empire and wiping out their former captors."

For some reason she now turned to Vic, giving her an evaluating look. She had obviously decided to change the subject, though it turned out the change was to something connected.

"So, what sort of music do you like?"

"Lots of different stuff," the martial artist replied, shrugging. "I've always had wide-ranging tastes, and those have just gotten wider since my powers activated. Been listening to a lot of Apocalypse Jaguar, lately."

"Rage-driven elfmetal!" said Alex, when Energia looked at her.

"Why am I not surprised?" said Energia, wryly.

"Try rooming with that," said Vic, smirking.

She went around the rest of the group, receiving few surprises.

"Have your tastes changed since you got your powers?" she said, returning to Vic.

"Not a whole lot, but in some surprising ways," said Vic. "It's not just my keen senses which are responsible, either. My brain seems to process music differently. Used to, I couldn't stand anything dissonant, and just didn't get the more esoteric jazz stuff. Now, I practically drool over modern jazz trumpet, the more arcane the better."

"Some of the stuff she listens to," said Alex, shaking her head. "I mean, it sounds like a bunch of preschoolers snuck into the band room and are abusing the instruments."

"A large part of it is the way they explore the way music is made," said Vic, passionately. "What music is."

"Music is not random noise. Music has pattern, rhythm..."

"I have the feeling this is an ongoing argument," said Energia, grinning.

"What do you like?" said Alex, less eagerly than almost accusingly.

"Entmusic," said Energia, deliberately picking the most unusual of her musical tastes. She smiled at their confused expressions. "What can I say? One of my friends is a Bluegrass elf."

"Uh...," said Alex.

"I've heard of that," said Vic, frowning. "Something about reading tree rings with an optical scanner."

"Got it in one. Only the elves do it with their minds. Then interpret it with instrument and voice. They say you can hear the rhythm of the seasons in it."

"Is there anything you find entertaining or pleasurable now, which you didn't before you got powers?" said Alex, more warily this time.

"Hmmmm," said Energia, thinking. She'd had her powers for so long that they seemed normal to her, now, as if she'd always been able to sense electricity and magnetism. "Well, some frequencies of high-voltage electricity give me a really pleasurable tingle. By which I do mean pleasurable!"

She laughed.

"I made the mistake of mentioning this to Maldren, and now he sometimes includes that in foreplay."

TMI, thought Vic, who was still occasionally surprised at how readily some females of the species would reveal intimate details like that.

"I love storms," said Energia, wistfully, as she continued. "The moving electrical charges are like white noise, like waves on a shore in kind but very different in effect. Then, there's that little spike I get from distant lightning. That tickles me a bit."

"Doesn't a nearby strike hurt?" said Alex.

"No. I can feel it building. Plenty of time to get ready for the jolt."

Alex suddenly burst out laughing.

"S-sorry. Just had this image of you needing a surge protector."

"Hah! No, but sometimes electrical equipment has needed surge protection from me!"

"Eep!"

"Oh, that was in the early days. Now I don't do that accidentally. Though I can certainly do it deliberately, as several people - including supervillains and their henchfolk - have learned."

She suddenly yawned.

"Oog. Getting late, and I have a class at nine. Better turn in."

"I think most of us will," said Melanie.

"Hey, youngster," said Energia, teasingly, as she looked at Alex. "Better get moving. You need sleep more than us grownups."

"Just remember, you're a frosh," said Alex, with a nasty smile. "I outrank you."

The group collectively headed to bed on that note.

* * *

The meeting in the White House Situation Room the next morning began on time, though Brade could see that some of the attendees hadn't quite made it mentally, yet. However, all were seated and at least partially attentive as the President stood.

"Good morning. First, I'll give a review. Then move on to certain specifics.

"The current plan is one of layers of defense. Zeep and a few other deep space supers and the Lunies' officially nonexistent fighting craft will be assigned to long-range defense. This will be a sphere centered on the Earth, extending from lunar orbit to five times that, with the option for the fastest defenders to head off ships spotted further out. If some of the attackers get through that - and we know it's all but certain at least some will - then the Lunies' local defenses will coordinate with the rest of the space-capable supers and the Termites for medium-range defense. That's from low Earth orbit to Lunar orbit. The Lunies are supplying space suits to supers who need them, though they may not be able to tailor them to every customer.

"For short range defense - low Earth orbit and down - we're depending on traditional AA missiles, some of the new super weapons and the bulk of supers who can fly or have powers with significant range.

"Finally, we are establishing a dispersed command and communication structure which will coordinate what is essentially a guerrilla war if the Shilmek knock out our command centers and emergency bunkers and get a significant enough force on the ground to occupy important areas."

"Aren't you omitting a huge stage, there?" said General Harvest, more than a little anger in his tone. "What about conventional ground warfare against their forces?"

"All our analysts - including those at the Pentagon - say that would be a waste of resources," said Sievers, sourly. "Each of their soldiers is at least a low-level physical super, and many are medium-level. Their individual equipment multiplies that enormously. Their personal weapons are as potent as our heavy artillery, their protections make them as durable as main battle tanks. Worse, they can target many of our heavy weapons, even in storage. Ordinary troops in head-on combat would be slaughtered."

"That's... not very encouraging," said Vice President Sargent, looking distressed on his monitor.

"Would you rather I gave you false hope? Our best chance - assuming they can't be driven away before they actually land and occupy a significant part of the planet - is to wear them down. Interstellar war is hideously costly in resources. There are fewer than a billion Shilmek total, and that population is spread over twenty-seven planets and a huge number of habitats in a volume more than sixty light years across. Every analysis I've received says they can take our planet and they can destroy our planet, but they can't hold it."

That caused a stir.

"They almost certainly won't destroy it," said Brade, quickly. "Habitable planets are too rare, too precious. If other interstellar societies learn the Shilmek have made a previously habitable world uninhabitable there's a good chance many of them would put aside their differences and gang up on them. In fact, they probably won't even try to permanently occupy any place on Earth. Their most likely tactic will be to hit hard and fast, locate and take out Tolnar and as many of her people and ships as they can, then leave. She's their real target, after all. Of course, they will assume we'll do everything we can to prevent them from succeeding. So as part of their attack they'll go after anything they think we can use against them. Supers, military bases, government centers... Not necessarily in that order, of course."

"We can't count on them only doing that, though," said Sievers. "That's why we're going to work on a defense in depth. Depth in space, in time... and in layers of command. That, plus civil defense methods to protect the population during a war... and a possible occupation."

"Okay, we have several types of drones available or being put into production," said General Harvest, broaching a topic which was obviously dear to him. "What about power suits?"

"Did you ever wonder why Doctor Device gave up wearing power armor?" said Brade, dryly. "It was after his third concussion."

Harvest and some of the others got it. After a bit of explanation, the rest did, as well. A normal human in a suit of power armor was still a normal human. A hard jolt which would barely stun a low-level physical super could hospitalize a normal human in a power suit. Advanced padding and active countermeasures helped, but couldn't completely prevent the damage. Isaac (Doctor Device) Kenniman had even tried adding inertial dampers, but they turned out to be serious power hogs and even he could not build them small enough for a suit of power armor.

The discussion now turned to who was in favor of or objected to what parts of the plan.

They talked. They argued. There was some shouting. In the end, though, all but the most stubborn were convinced that the basic plan was the best available. Even General Harvest said - reluctantly - he would follow it. That didn't mean they all agreed on all the details.

Sievers called a break for lunch before they could get too far into those. The attendees separated into small groups, usually by office. An hour later they were back at it.

"Still a lot to do," said Sievers, nodding, as four O'Clock approached. "We got a lot done today, though. A lot of good work."

She sat back for a moment, stretching a bit and sighing.

"There is one more matter I want to discuss before we adjourn," said the President. "Some of you already know about this, because you've been doing some of the work. We have begun exploring the creation of artificial superhumans."

"Not a good idea," said Chad Dunnerton, the President's health and medicine advisor. "Genetic supers have biochemical pathways laid out in the womb. You can't just give those types of powers to norms; at best they'll only be a pale shadow of someone born super. At worst they'll have a slow and grisly death."

"Yes, I'm aware of all this," said the Sievers, tiredly. "There are several methods to evaluate, though. Some have had at least partial success in the past."

"Most of them simply won't be safe. As just one example, those supers Dr. Hereford made for Hiran all got very sick very quickly."

"Yes, but he was really pushing things," said Sievers. "Those folks had a raft of powers, and were all in the eighty range. What we want is a way to put our soldiers in the same general class as the Shilmek soldiers."

"That might actually be doable," said Dunnerton, thoughtfully. "I'm a little out of the loop on that, but know people who should be up to date. I'll ask around."

"Please do. I already have folks working on this, but an approach from a different angle would be very helpful."

"When it comes to empowered, we are very much outnumbered," said Brade, frowning in thought. "I admit I'm uncomfortable with the idea but, as long as you're doing it responsibly, well, the more the better."

"I'm surprised you are so much in favor of our plans," said Sievers. "We're probably going to kill a lot of supers if the invasion does come."

"We'd die anyway, if there's an actual invasion," said Brade, flatly. "The people who are now in charge of the Shilmek Empire hate those born with overt powers as much as they feel contempt for those born without the sorts of abilities most Shilmek have. That includes normal humans. So we're all in the same boat. The clearer that is to everyone on Earth, the better for our defense efforts."

"That's a rather cold-blooded attitude," said the President, more than a little taken aback.

"She's right, though," said General Harvest, nodding. "One-on-one, the supers are more invested in defending Earth than we are. Because the run-of-the-mill Shilmek hate them the same way they hate the Primus Shilmek, only there are far fewer of them and they can be detected. They'll be singled-out."

"Brade, do you think Template's PAC will get behind this?" said the President.

"Her group isn't actually political... at least, not in the normal sense. They're focussed on a pretty narrow goal, and determined to achieve it, through whatever means are legal. I do believe they will have little or no objection to creating artificial supers per se."

"Most PACs these days want to maintain the status quo," said Sharon McGuinness, in charge of monitoring public opinion for the President. "Hers wants to improve things. Yes, they're focused on improving things for supers, but I think there's substantial historical precedent that removing bigotry against any one group improves an entire society."

They got back to discussing artificial supers for a bit, keeping to the sub-topic of how they might be produced.

"While her organization might go along, I'm worried that Template personally might have objections to this," said Sievers, as they finished. "Brade, will you schedule a meeting between us?"

"Of course."

"Well, unless there's anything else, meeting adjourned."

* * *

Energia's first day of classes was a continuous situation of minor revelations. One of the most disappointing was that kids in college could still be as petty and mindlessly cruel as those in grade school and high school. She hadn't thought attending in costume would be a problem, but she overheard several classmates making critical remarks of varying degrees of rudeness. Bizarrely, several were from males who thought she didn't show enough skin. Twice, in different classes, someone actually tried to get the instructors to force Energia to dress normally. Both times the teacher replied that her being allowed to wear a costume was part of the school's agreement with Energia.

Six different guys made passes at her, though only one was obnoxious about it. To Energia's surprise, two female students also expressed interest.

"Vic, would you please pass the word that I'm straight?" said Energia, that evening. She seemed more amused than anything else.

"I thought I already had," said Vic, surprised when she heard about this.

"Oog," said Energia, stretching. "I'm going to bed. This day has just worn me out."

"You're not the only one," said Melanie, with feeling, as she rose to head to her room.

Part Six

Days passed. Both students and teachers settled into the new semester. Energia deliberately had an easy set of classes, knowing she would also be working with the faculty and perhaps giving talks on heroing, and not wanting to overload herself this first semester. She was still busy. So busy that she came to value the evenings in the common room of her dorm floor. The other supers she knew here tended to, as well, and also many normal students.

"So, are any of you other super gals going to try for a sorority?" said Melanie, stifling a yawn one Friday evening as the usual group got together. "I've got a couple I'm checking out."

"Let me put it this way," said Speedy Sue. "I'll check out any sorority which addresses my interests."

"Don't most sororities prohibit super members, anyway?" said Harriet.

"No; there was a big lawsuit over that, a few years ago," said Melanie. "Some still reject supers who apply, and there's several court cases pending with them, but most these days openly accept supers. There just aren't many who apply."

She looked at Energia.

"That's why I was asking. We're trying to recruit more."

"For which sorority?" said Vic. "Why didn't you ask me?"

"Oh, I'm sorry; this for all of the sororities at the school. Anyway, this is part of an administration effort to recruit supers for sororities, and there's a group of guys working on the fraternities. Since they're deliberately trying to attract supers, the school wants to make it clear they're welcome to participate in all activities, including the extra-scholastic."

"So howcome you didn't ask me?" said Vic, again, tone carefully neutral.

"First it's a new program, and I'm just getting around to asking anyone," said Melanie, smiling sweetly at Vic. "Second, well, having known you for a year already I was pretty sure you wouldn't be interested in all the girly stuff."

"Uh-huh," said Vic, not entirely convinced.

"Oh, come on," said Melanie, laughing. "I can just see you pledging, and..."

"Okay, okay, I'm not really interested," said Vic, relenting with a laugh. "Just giving you a hard time."

"Anyway, anyone interested?"

As it turned out, no-one not already checking into sororities was.

"Oh, well," said Melanie, with a sigh. She stretched, and yawned broadly. "Oof. Lobster Girl needs sleep. See you folks in the morning."

As she rose and departed, Vic suddenly remembered something.

"Oh; Coach Trujillo wants to know when you can check out the target range," she said, turning to Energia.

"Hum. Not sure. I'm flying home for the weekend and Monday's already full."

"He said you could do it during lunch Monday, if you want."

"That would be fine," said Energia, dryly, "if I didn't need to eat. Sorry, but I think it'll be at least the day after. I have a two hour stretch after lunch free next Tuesday."

"I'll tell him."

"So, when are you seeing Michelle again?" said Harriet.

"Saturday," said Vic, smiling.

"Michelle?" said Energia.

"Her girlfriend," said Harriet, grinning. "Works at a salon in town. Vic met her when she went to get a haircut. Which is most of the reason she hasn't had one, yet."

"What can I say?" said Vic, smiling. "She likes long hair."

"So, is she the one who bleaches your tips?" said Energia.

"Those aren't bleached," said Vic. "My hair was lighter before I changed."

"Oh! That's unusual."

"I don't think there's anything about my transformation which is usual," said Vic, dryly. "Say, why don't you and Maldren come with us on a double date? We're going to a dance club downtown."

"You would ask that for a weekend when I promised my family I'd visit," said Energia, grinning. "Maybe next time."

Vic thought for a moment Energia was putting her off, perhaps because she didn't want to be around lesbians on a date. However, her manner was very easy, with nothing to imply duplicity. Then she realized something.

"You're going to fly home under your own power, right?"

"Well, sure," said Energia, airily. "What other way is there?"

That brought snorts from a couple of their rapidly shrinking group.

"That must be so neat," said Vic, wistfully. "I've been carried flying a few times, but to do it under your own power..."

"I'd like to be able to fly," said Angel, even more wistfully, spreading her wings. "I got a lot of things when my powers came... including non-functional wings."

There was a long, somewhat uncomfortable silence at that. Then Vic yawned and shook her head.

"Ugh. Physical super or not, I need to head for bed, too. Night, all."

"Good night," said Energia. "I'm pretty much right behind you."

* * *

"'Bout time you got in," said Alex, mock scolding from where she lay in bed, reading something technical. She put her book away and turned her light out as Vic finished her own bed prep.

The room was now dark. Which was no impediment to Vic.

"I'm not late," said Vic, defensively. She glanced reflexively at the clock beside her bed, even though her sense of perception didn't depend on her eyes. "Well, not much late."

She was already in her usual warm night sleep gear of panties and nightshirt, having changed as part of her evening ablutions in the women's showers.

"You seem a bit subdued tonight," said Alex, as Vic dropped into her bed.

"I just realized something," said Vic, frowning, as she lay down and pulled the covers over her. "Nearly everyone - some sooner, some later, but eventually almost everyone - asks me about the gender change. It's something anyone would be curious about. I know she knows I used to be a guy - she's mentioned it, offhand - but... it doesn't matter to her. As if she already had her curiosity satisfied."

"Weird," said Alex, in a sleepy mutter. "Night."

"Night."

* * *

"Well, at least all this preparation is boosting the economy," said Harold Topler, Sievers' economic advisor, in a small meeting between her and his staff the next day. "I just wish more of the end result had commercial application."

"That's a good idea," said Sievers, suddenly. "Put people on that. If we can't make a silk purse out of some of this we're not trying hard enough."

"Yes," said Harold, nodding thoughtfully. "Yes. That could end the recession, right there."

"Well, I think that's all," said the President. "I need to answer some calls and some mail, get lunch, then have a meeting with Brade and Template."

"I feel uneasy, you being alone with those two," said Harold, shifting in his seat.

"What, you think they're going to murder me in the Oval Office?" said Sievers, raising an eyebrow. "If I didn't trust them, I wouldn't be counting so much on them."

"Yeah, I know. It's not anything I have against either of them - I like Brade, and have had lunch with her a few times - it's just the idea of the President of the United States being otherwise alone with two people who each can lift tanks."

"Don't worry," said the President, straight-faced, as she rose. "If either of 'em tries anything I'll just order an airstrike."

* * *

"So," said Sievers, after explaining in brief her plans for applying supers to the problem of the potential Shilmek attack. "What are your views?"

"I have spoken with Brade about this before," said Template, nodding. "Neither I nor the Super-PAC have objections to anything specific. Some of us have suggestions, but we have already spoken with Brade about them as well, and I believe she has relayed them to you."

"I just wanted to let you know - from me, personally - that there are no plans to sacrifice supers simply to get rid of them."

"I really think that if there were, you'd have heard from us by now," said Template, dryly. "Was there something else you wanted to speak with me about?"

"Yes. If action by the Shilmek doesn't come soon, I really need to start planning for my political future. There's less than two years until I face re-election. I haven't heard anyone in the opposition mention the Shilmek problem, even in private discussions, unless I brought it up. I don't think they take the idea seriously. Which means I need to be re-elected if we want this program to continue for more than two more years."

"What do you want from me?" said Template, getting back to her previous question.

"Give me an example," said Sievers, leaning back in her chair, "of how you want to improve things for supers."

"I want a world," said Template, quietly, "where a man can fly, just for the sheer joy of it, without worrying about being shot down by a missile."

"I beg your pardon?" said the President, confused.

"A friend of mine, someone who has helped the Pine Island school, was flying in international airspace when he was shot at with four at-the-time-experimental Harpy missiles. We eventually found the planes came from the secret seamount base which later kidnapped over fifty children from our school. All that was part of the plans of that group of maniacs who fancied themselves the secret rulers of the world. One of whom hated this friend of mine simply because the man flew over an area where he - former Senator in serious disrepute Edgar Storey - was visiting."

"Oh..."

"I think that is more a matter of changing society than anything politicians can do," said Brade, softly.

"I know, it's... an intangible. Getting people to not hate us just for being us and doing harmless things only we can do. It's still a valid goal."

"Amen," said Brade. "It's a sort of anti-elitism. There are people who think that because they can't do something, no-one should be allowed to do it. Of course, that attitude holds for far more than powers."

There was a brief silence, before the President sighed and sat up a bit.

"There is one other matter I wanted to discuss with you," said Sievers. "You say you have only minor reservations about processes to create artificial supers. However, there's one which you might have a personal objection to. Several of my plotters and schemers have suggested we replicate Energex's process."

"They're out of their minds," said Template, flatly. "This is not simply an emotional response on my part, due to my experiences with him, or due to the source of his process being Nazi death camp experiments. Leaving aside for a moment evidence that his self-application turned an amoral person into a cold-blooded sociopath, the only person of eight known who has tolerated for more than a few seconds the powers his device gives is him. Even that is only because he keeps tinkering."

"I thought Eagle got his powers from one of Energex's devices," said Sievers, puzzled.

"Except that Eagle is a genetic super. Energex's machine activated Eagle's powers, though at first they were unstable. That's why he originally was only able to use one power at a time. They just happened to be powers similar to Energex's."

"I did not know that," said Sievers, startled.

"It's news to me, too," said Brade.

"I didn't know until Eagle told me," said Template. "I think he's embarrassed by the connection to Energex. Anyway, Energex' technique was tailored to work just on him. That's why it killed - in rather grisly fashion - every other genetically standard person who used it. They literally melted down, most instantly, the least fortunate one in a bit less than a minute. I wouldn't try it on people with super genes, hoping to activate their powers, either. It has already killed both of the nimrods who tried that, after learning about Eagle. Which may be another reason he doesn't want people talking about his connection. Trust me on this; because of our history I've done some pretty extensive research on Energex."

"More bad news," said Sievers, looking a bit worried. "Okay, yes, I'll tell my people. I still think it's vaguely possible Energex's method could be adapted to someone else, but we already have more likely methods we're exploring for awakening powers."

* * *

Energia walked slowly down the indoor range towards the back, examining the facility with more than just human senses. The buffer at the end of the range received particular attention.

"Looks good," she said, nodding as she walked back to the firing line. "Ceramic armor, Faraday shielding, water spray, the works. This has everything I've seen in other ranges except force fields."

"Well, those are not something we want to get into just yet," said Trujillo. He grinned and rubbed his hands together. "So, you ready to give it a try?"

"Okay. Just a paper target at fifteen, for the first try, please."

He pushed a button, and an overhead track brought one of the target holders to the firing line. Trujillo clipped a large paper bullseye to the holder. Another push of the button sent it out to fifteen meters.

Energia pointed a finger. A beam of white light bridged the gap from fingertip to paper; she corrected a bit to bring it to the center. The target smoked for a second or two, then burst into flames.

"Why'd you start so easy?" said Trujillo, as he pushed the button to bring the nearly empty frame back to the firing line.

"I've learned to start small and build up slow with things like this," said Energia, wincing as she recalled a couple of times she'd caused damage showing off. "Okay, I want to try a hotter beam, just shooting downrange to test the buffer."

"Sounds like a plan."

Over the next hour and a bit Energia tested her powers on the range itself. Each time she switched to a new effect she started easy and built up slowly.

"That's convenient, having someone so flexible in their powers to test this for us. We can get it all done in a short time."

"Well, I went full out with my CW effects," said Energia. "Given the minor damage that caused, I don't think I'll try my wave motion effect burst in here."

"Your what?

"I build up as much energy as I can hold, then let it out in one big pulse or beam."

"Ouch," said Trujillo, wincing. "Yeah, I didn't know anything about that. I don't think anyone involved in designing or building this facility did, either."

"I did try warping things with both direct force and magnetism," said Energia. "It seems sturdy enough for practice with those, too."

"I'm not sure what you're talking about, there."

"Okay, direct force is pretty complicated. It involves interacting with subatomic and other forces in the same way matter does. I mean, I'm simulating matter doing it, but I'm using my powers instead. Magnetic force is just that."

"Okay. I've read enough about you and others - and seen enough for myself - to know most force manipulators move things with magnetism. I don't know why. I'd think that, since magnetism only affects magnetic materials, you'd use direct force more often."

"Force manipulation takes both more energy and more concentration. Well, for me, and for most others from what I know about the subject. It's a lot easier to just grab something conductive with the Meissner effect - it doesn't have to actually be magnetic, just conductive - rather than use direct force. I also have much better control with magnetism. I hardly use direct force any more."

"Learn something new every day," said Trujillo, smiling ruefully.

* * *

John and I were trudging through some very rough terrain, after parking our government-issue SUV at the end of the vague track which led us here. I was actually glad to be out of the thing. It was on loan from the Park Service, and I honestly believe they deliberately gave us their most worn and decrepit vehicle.

Fortunately, we soon came to the dry creek bed the map promised. We began walking along that, uphill. The path was far easier, now, at least physically.

"My Grand-Uncle, Arthur Twambley, used to tell me about some of his adventures," I said, with a sigh. "I thought he was full of shit, making it all up. He died before my own powers manifested and I started having adventures of my own. Else, I'd have apologized."

John grunted noncommittally. I eyed him sourly, wanting conversation and not getting it.

"Sometimes I think the President is trying to kill me," I muttered, trying a change of subject.

John laughed, after nearly an hour finally reacting to something with more than the bare minimum... or not even that. However, he quickly sobered again. I thought I might know why he was so dour, but wasn't sure I believed it.

"Surely you're not afraid of ghosts!"

"I am when they're real ghosts!"

That was both amusing and frightening. John Love was a supernatural character - a literal demigod from the Olympian line. For him to be frightened of something because it was supernatural... I focused my attention on walking, with an occasional glance at our only reference.

As the old map - which we had a hand-drawn copy of - promised, at the top of the dry creek bed there was a narrow cut through the ridge. So far nothing looked improper, or even out of the ordinary for the area. However, I well knew this appearance was deceptive.

Our map was hand-drawn because the original wouldn't photocopy... or photograph, or digitally scan. Neither would this copy, or any other. The ridge could be photographed, including from the air, and showed on maps. However, the cut didn't. You could only see it if you climbed up the creek bed and looked for yourself. Effectively, the route only existed for those who sought it and already had a good idea of where it was.

"Interesting," said John, pausing as we reached the cut. He cautiously extended a hand. "This reminds me of the portals to the realm of Olympus. A few other things, too."

I was glad on the one hand he now seemed to be taking our mission more seriously. On the other, I was worried he now seemed to be taking our mission more seriously!

I sighed and, since he showed no willingness to, stepped into the slot.

I felt nothing unusual. Neither did I see or hear anything unusual. However, as we moved forward I started feeling increasingly uneasy.

"I believe this is a deliberate effect, rather than due to anything inimical here," said John, hardly bothered by the sensation. "Something to keep the riffraff out."

"That's reassuring," I said, through gritted teeth.

I needed a lot of concentration to keep going. Fortunately, the slot was not long. Soon, we were standing in a misty valley. The sky overhead was completely overcast, which was a major difference from the mostly clear weather outside.

We could see a fire in the distance, though only vaguely due to the mist.

"That looks like our destination," I said, encouraged that so far things were as described in every account I had read about this place. Well, every understandable account... Some of those who had returned from this trip had not been coherent. There was no reliable count of those who had not made it back.

Shapes became visible around the fire as we approached. Some were tents, others horses, some were men. Or what appeared to be men.

"Oh, this is very bad," said John, actually frightened, though he kept up with me. "They are not ghosts, but... something else. Something awesome."

I could tell he was using that last word in the original sense.

"They've helped the US before in times of need," I said, quietly. "No-one knows their origins or motivations. Just that in their first verified appearance in 1883 they stopped a Mexican plot to spread plague through several western towns. Each time they've acted since then it was to help either the nation as a whole or the southwest against outsiders."

"Who goes there?!" came a sudden challenge.

John and I both jumped in surprise. I was distressed to hear my voice squeak as I gave our names.

"Lawrence Hawthorne and John Love! We need to speak with your commander."

"Advance and be recognized!"

The sentry slowly gained resolution as we moved closer. He appeared human, if archaic. The uniform was of the US Cavalry, from roughly the mid Eighteen-Seventies. Not that I'm an expert on historical military uniforms; this all came from my briefing.

"Colonel! Two civilians, unarmed! Both have powers!"

Okay, just how did he know that?!

Another uniformed man approached. Where the sentry seemed a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, with only a mustache, this was a mature man of early middle age, with a full and rather bushy beard. He radiated both authority and irritation.

"State your business," he said, rather gruffly.

"The United States has given shelter to the deposed leader of an alien culture," I said, wondering if he could even understand what I meant by "alien." "The new leaders are certain to try to capture or assassinate her. This is likely to involve at least a hit-and-run attack, and possibly a full-blown invasion. The President of the United States sent me to request your aid in repelling these invaders."

What would he make, I wondered, of that President being a woman?

More and more of them approached as I spoke. Fortunately, they weren't trying to surround us, or I likely would have bolted. They looked determined... and angry. Very, very angry. Though, I suddenly realized, I wasn't feeling that anger through my empathy. In fact, according to my empathy, John and I were the only ones there! That realization spooked me far more than anything else about them.

"We failed our country at Bitter Creek," said the leader, he and his troops appearing simultaneously sad and angry. "We vowed never to do so again."

He cast his gaze over the assembled cavalry.

"What say, men?"

A fierce cheer rang out, the echoes persisting long after the initial sound. There was more than mere sound involved as well. This entire realm seemed to resonate with their resolve. I needed a moment to gather my voice.

"Do... we need to... call upon you when..."

"Now that we are asked, we will respond when the need arises," said the Colonel, formally. "You have my word."

Neither John nor I remembered much about subsequent events. We came to our senses just outside the cut, back at the dry creek. Talking later, we both had the definite impression that, having delivered our message, our presence was no longer to be tolerated.

"I'm starting to share your suspicion that the President is, indeed, trying to kill you," said John, with feeling. "Likely me, as well."



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