Masks 16: Part 3

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Masks Sixteen: Part Five

by

Rodford Edmiston

"Why would someone say that?! I mean, yeah, Maldren and I are lovers, but so what?! We both fought to defend Earth!"

She was sitting in the office of President Sievers' assist Gompers, a few blocks from both the White House and the Capital. He had personally invited Energia to stop by later in the day as she was making ready to leave the awards ceremony.

Gompers paged through the folder on his desk until he found some loose cards. He selected one and handed it over the desk to the upset super.

It had a photo of the fake Energia from a few years before. The data, however, was for her. Well, some of it.

"'Alien Collaborator'?!"

"Those are spotter cards, which someone published as a way for the uninitiated to identify costumed people. It also rates them on several characteristics, including 'Friend or Foe?' You and Maldren are both classified as 'Foe.' She had these on her, by the way. We already knew about them, from previous investigation."

President Sievers had been even more upset than Energia over the interruption, though she hadn't shown it at the time. Later, she made sure to have one of her people explain to Energia what they learned about the situation. After taking her into custody, the Secret Service had quickly identified the woman and just as quickly figured out who her late husband was. Gompers had taken Energia aside that evening, as things were winding down, to explain what they had learned. Fortunately, the man's office was also one of the few currently air conditioned.

"Why would someone do that?" said Energia, too confused to even be angry. "All the things..."

"We know which company printed these - they normally do sports and challenge game cards - but when we tried to find whoever ordered the work done we reached a dead end at a Post Office Box. Payment was through a money order, bought with cash, so that was also a dead end. About the only thing we do know is that there were fifteen thousand sets printed."

"But... Why does she think I killed her husband?!"

For some reason, asking this brought tears to her eyes. She had killed so many... As far as she knew, though, all were Shilmek or human thugs.

"He was one of the men who attacked you in that warehouse complex," said Gompers.

"Oh, them," said Energia, her sadness vanishing in a cloud of confusion. "I thought they were working for the Shilmek. I mean, some had wooden weapons, which would go through my plasma wall. It seemed like they were targeting me, specifically."

"Two of the seven survived. They both claim they were defending their place of employment against the invaders. They named you as one of them. Saying you were obviously attacking the facility."

"But..." She shook her head. "I was moving along slowly, keeping out of sight and quiet, and definitely not doing any damage. How could they think I was working with the Shilmek?! There was a Shilmek ship right up against the fence of the place, damaged and easy prey, and they were ignoring it!"

"Bigotry rarely makes sense. All seven have a record of anti-super sentiments. Likely, they were just using the War and you being where they could get at you as a reason to remove someone they see as an enemy, regardless of what you actually are."

"I... wondered if that might be it, at the time. I rejected that, because it makes no sense! I was fighting for the Earth! Even an idiot should have been able to see that!"

"Which might have only increased their resentment. They would likely rather have died than have a super help them."

* * *

The call came on her special cell phone a few days later. Jenny was moping around at home and not really feeling like being Energia just then, but the woman on the other end of the call said it was important, urgent, and that Blue Impact, Gadgetive and Ike Kenniman would all be there. Jenny found herself agreeing to attend, as much from a lack of will to decline as anything. Then, of course, having agreed to that, she had to keep her word.

As Energia approached the border of the Bureau's Maryland campus she got out her issue communicator and called ahead, identifying herself. She was granted clearance to go straight to the headquarters building. As she landed out front she noticed that the foyer had been extended, the new space containing a security checkpoint. With a tired sigh, she entered, showed her ID and let herself be scanned. Finally cleared, she entered the actual lobby and found a smiling young man waiting to escort her to the meeting. This was in the office of the Chief, herself.

Her teammates were already waiting, as was Brade.

"Good morning," said the huge super, nodding to Energia, as she greeted the other two women. "Dr. Device is on his way, so I'll wait for him to arrive before starting the briefing."

This was the first time Energia had actually been in this office. She was a bit surprised that while Brade's chair was fitted to her, the desk was normal size. Energia half expected her to have huge desk, if only for the intimidation factor.

Ike arrived shortly after this, breathing a bit hard and looking harried.

"Sorry. My flitter got challenged by a police helicopter and it took me a while to get free."

"I'll get right to this," said Brade, as the slightly rumpled Dr. Device took his seat. "I got a call this morning from the head of the German Criminal Police Office that the officers of the Bundespolizei you met on site in Germany were impostors. The authorities still haven't found the real ones, but the fakes and the apparently genuine Bundeskriminalamt officer and Dampf have disappeared."

Brade watched the stunned reactions of the four supers seated in front of her.

"For now, the Germans insist on handling things," said Brade. "I have the distinct impression they delayed telling us what they learned because they didn't want to admit there was a problem. I'll keep you up to date. Well, as soon as they tell me anything."

"That's all you called us here for?" said Energia, trying to keep her tone neutral and not quite succeeding.

"I was asked - told, actually - very specifically to keep this quiet. As we learned during the Shilmek War, our current coms aren't as secure as we thought, so I pretty much had to tell you in person."

"Since she's the boss," said Blue Impact, giving Energia a stern look, "we come to her."

"Well, yeah," said Brade, a touch embarrassed. "Anyway, thank you for coming. However, there is one more thing. Stop by the tech office, turn your current coms in and pick up new ones. You're in the first group to get these new, much more secure coms."

* * *

Julie Toulon was prepared to knock on her daughter's bedroom door, but found it only half closed. She tentatively pushed it open, to find Jenny lying on her bed, staring listlessly at the ceiling. A catalog from her college lay - apparently unopened - on her desk. That now too-small desk which had served her since middle school.

This part of the US had hardly experienced any disruptions during the War, only occasionally even losing power. Julie knew many areas were still trying to get basic utilities back, and silently gave thanks they'd had an easy time. She also noted - not for the first time - that she really needed to get a larger bed for this room.

"Honey?" said Jenny's Mother. "Aren't you going to select your courses?"

"I think I'm going to skip this semester," said Jenny, trying to sound casual but just sounding tired.

"They managed to get the college back in operation in time for the Fall semester. The Post Office got the catalog here. The least you can do is attend!"

"I just need some time off. The folks at Special Resources said it was okay. Why do you have a problem with it?"

"You need to get back into your old routine," said her Mother, firmly. "Or some sort of normal routine. If you just mope around here, you'll keep dwelling on the bad things that happened."

Julie had watched, live, as her daughter got her medal. She'd known there was some sort of disturbance, but even several days later the details were scarce. She knew that whatever it was, the event had upset her only child. Jenny wouldn't talk about that, though. Any more than she would talk about what she'd done in the War.

"I really don't feel like talking about this right now."

"You really need to talk about this right now. You aren't going to change anything that happened, no matter what you do. You have to deal with it and move on with your life."

Jenny scowled, and looked away.

"All right," said Julie, straightening and crossing her arms. "If you don't, I will."

"Will what?" said Jenny, suddenly suspicious.

"Select courses and sign you up for them."

"You wouldn't..."

"Don't test me, young lady."

"All right, all right," said Jenny, yielding ungracefully to the inevitable and rising tiredly from her bed. "If it'll make you happy..."

* * *

Julie called Randy later about the exchange.

"I wonder if she has post-traumatic stress syndrome," said Julie, sounding worried. "She did have a head injury, besides all that fighting."

"She was checked by doctors after things settled down," said Randy, frowning. "They said she had a mild concussion, nothing to worry about. They did recommend therapy, given all she'd been through. I know she's seeing - whatisname - the psychologist at the Bureau. He said she's handling her traumas very well."

"Maybe they missed something."

"Well, suggest she have a checkup."

"I think it would come better from you," said Julie, with a sigh. "She's... well, I don't want to pressure her about too many things in a short time."

"I understand. We're supposed to meet with the Intrepids in a couple of days, to plan out the rebuilding of their base. I'll suggest she see Dr. Whiskers while we're there."

"Why don't you just go ahead and make the appointment?" said Julie. "Let her know about it on the way there."

"I hate to be that sneaky about this..."

"I think you need to be. She's that stubborn."

Wonder where she gets that, thought Randy, rolling his eyes.

* * *

The medical facilities at the current headquarters of the Intrepids had an air of age, despite all the equipment being in perfect condition. Randy couldn't help but think of several movies - most of them made before he was born - which largely took place in similar settings. Energia had seen most of the same movies (when Randy had to babysit her, he had sometimes shown the mildest of these) but that didn't seem to be why she was participating with obvious petulance. Energia had always liked Dr. Whiskers, but today was barely being civil to her.

The feline physician ran several tests, including simple X-ray photos. Something Energia had be reminded to allow, since she normally absorbed high-energy photons.

"Her concussion was very mild," said Dr. Whiskers. "She appears completely recovered. Neither can I find any other problems. I see no reason for any further medical treatment."

"See?" said Energia, sourly, arms defiantly folded across her chest.

She was not happy about the trick her Uncle had pulled. Of course, these days there was very little she was happy with. Which gave Randy an idea.

"So it's all attitude," said Randy, nodding matter-of-factly.

"What? No!"

He gently took her by the arm and guided her out of the infirmary. He walked them along the slightly musty hall, not really heading anywhere, just moving. There were crates, boxes and pieces of equipment evacuated from the Intrepids' now destroyed base stacked everywhere. Though the facility was quite large, all this additional material made it seem crowded.

"Talk to me. If you know what's wrong, tell me. You're worrying people."

"You're missing the obvious," she said, coldly. "All of you. Yeah, there's all that stuff from the War and the woman at the ceremony, but I'm dealing. Thanks in part to that therapist, and you and Mom and Dad and everyone else being so supportive. Even Rapscallion, in his own way. None of that makes up for Maldren not being here!"

"Oh..." said Randy, mentally kicking himself.

The Prince had returned to the main world of the Shilmek empire to help his Mother rebuild. There was no way to know when - if ever - he would be back. Energia going to join him was off the table for multiple reasons.

"All right," said Randy, nodding. "I think I understand, now. Honey, there's nothing I can do to help with that, but I can help with other problems you have. You know that. I'm here for you."

"I know that, Uncle Randy," said Energia, tenderly, as she hugged him. "I know that. Thanks."

"I've got something in the works which should make you feel better. I'll deliver it when we get together at your place before you go back to college."

He eyed her.

"You are going back, right?"

"Had to," said Energia, sourly but with a trace of anger. "Mother threatened to enroll me in a bunch of courses I didn't want, and while I might get away with skipping a semester, if I flunk several courses I lose my deal with the government."

"That's my sister," said Randy, nodding and beaming with pride. "Masterminds shake their heads in stunned admiration at her ruthless brilliance."

* * *

"Okay," said Jenny, a few days later, when Randy arrived at her family's home carrying a large cloth bag, "what's the surprise?"

"She's hardly talked about anything else since she got back from that meeting," said her Father, grinning.

Jenny glared briefly at him. They were in the entertainment room in the basement, away from prying eyes. Just a private family moment, before Jenny flew off to college the next day.

"I've been working on this since learning you'd get that medal," Randy said, presenting a gift-wrapped box from the bag. "Courtesy of my friends Angelina and Cindy. They put a rush on my order, even though they're currently swamped."

"A new costume?" she said, taking the box.

"You said your formal one was getting too tight."

Inside was, indeed, a new costume. The most notable difference between this and her old ones was a diagonal strip across the chest from right shoulder to left hip, where there was a design reproducing the badge on the ribbon which was part of her award.

"You can wear the pin which came with the medal on your left collar," said Randy, beaming. "Save the actual medal for special occasions."

Jenny held the costume up in front of her, tears brimming. She felt a flood of emotions, not all of them good. However, the strongest was affection for her Uncle. She abruptly spun around and hugged him, costume dangling from her left hand.

"Thank you," she whispered.

"I just hope it fits," said Randy, feeling a bit awkward. "You'll have to transfer all your gear over, of course, and..."

"Oh, shut up," said Jenny, smirking, as she rocked the two of them back and forth. "I do know the drill by now."

"They still giving you discounts for connecting them with the super costume business?" said Julie, after uncle and niece parted, and the latter hurried off to change.

"Yeah," said Randy, nodding. "They also just plain like Jenny."

"Well, she'll be a while," said Max, grinning as he dropped onto the couch. "In addition to everything else, she'll be posing and staring in the mirror for at least ten minutes."

The others followed suit, Julie beside her husband, Randy taking a seat in the lounger across the coffee table from them.

"How is that super PAC of yours coming along, now?" said Julie. "Is it really even needed these days, after supers did so much to defend the Earth in the War?"

"More than ever," said Randy, sadly. He sighed and shook his head. "That success threatens some people, so they've redoubled their efforts."

"Idiots," said Julie, expression darkening.

"What's that called, again?" said Max, quickly, perhaps to cut off a rant from his wife. He frowned. "Your PAC. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever heard it called anything but some variation of 'that super PAC.'"

"That, unfortunately, is not uncommon," said Randy, sourly. "It is officially the Equality for the Enhanced PAC, usually abbreviated EFE. It's not big enough financially to be a super PAC in the political sense - we're actually one of the smaller ones, overall - but people still call us 'the' super PAC and seem to think we're therefore the biggest."

They chatted for a few minutes, until they saw Energia literally floating down the stairs in her new costume.

She hovered over the coffee table, turning slowly, beaming, showing off the outfit. Appropriate complimentary noises were made.

"I take it this lifted your mood," said Randy, grinning, as his niece landed on the couch beside her Mother.

"Admirably!" said Energia, laughing.

"Well, I hate to run, but I promised Karen I'd be back before supper. It's her turn to cook, which means it's my turn to play Momma."

Energia's laugh baffled her parents, since they didn't know that Randy was also Template, and was the one who had actually given birth to Roy. Most likely, her Uncle would soon be her Aunt.

They said their goodbyes, and Randy donned his flight gear.

"Okay if I fly with you part of the way?" said Energia. "That'll give me a chance to break in the new costume."

"Sure," said Randy, with a fond smile.

Together, the two supers flew into the afternoon sky.

Part Six

The current Secretary-General of the United Nations was Arlo Stivers. A citizen of the Netherlands, he was no stranger to recovery from large-scale disasters, nor to using technology to help recover from them... or to induce them defensively. The only area in his country occupied by the Shilmek had been deliberately flooded, substantially hampering their efforts.

"China is the most frustrating," he told Ambassador Fenton. "They were especially hard hit, and keep requesting aid, but reject everything we offer them."

"I understand they were especially firm about rejecting any help which included supers," said Fenton, sourly.

Roger Fenton had been appointed the US Ambassador to the UN only a few weeks before the Shilmek attack. He had tried to convince the Chinese of the seriousness of the threat, but his warnings had been rejected. Politely, at first, but eventually with such rancor he'd given up trying. Now they were claiming they were not warned, and blaming Fenton, personally, for not making the warnings convincing. Both often in the same sentence. They had repeatedly "requested" his replacement, but the President had far more pressing matters to attend to.

"Very much so," said Stivers, nodding. "It seems they want money and material, but no supervisory help. Manpower, of course, they have plenty of."

"Funding is going to be the biggest problem," said Fenton, with a grimace. "From what I understand, they do have plenty of materials. It's skilled supervisors for this sort of work which they lack. A number of people they used to have in such positions were purged over the past few years for either committing corruption or reporting corruption."

"They are trying so hard to be a modern commercial nation, without giving up their hidebound, inflexible system of government."

"We and our allies have first choice on everything," said Fenton, firmly. "If China doesn't like that, well, we aren't required to please them. Especially after the way they allowed the Shilmek to land in various border areas, expecting them to attack outwards."

"I'm glad you're supporting the UN's official position," said Stivers.

"There's really not much choice. There aren't enough resources to go around, not right now." Fenton sat back in the very comfortable chair, looking across the large desk at the older man. The room was cool and pleasant. The Shilmek had largely spared New York as a whole and the UN facilities specifically, apparently expecting to use them after victory. The fact that utilities for most of the city were left intact was helping greatly with organizing the reconstruction. "However, while that was the official reason for asking to speak privately with you, there's something else I want to bring up."

"I'm not surprised," said Stivers. "This matter with China could have been handled much less formally."

He leaned forward, elbows on his desk, steepling his fingers.

"Just what is this other matter?"

"President Sievers wants the UN to declare Pine Island an independent state," said Fenton.

"This has been discussed before, but there was no firm commitment from the US on the issue."

"There is, now. There are several reasons for the change in policy. The main one is that we'd like the UN to select the island as the location for that hospital specializing in supers various members have been promoting. Being an independent nation will help with the operation of that."

Stivers nodded slowly, thinking the idea through.

"I'm surprised no-one has suggested that before. It makes good sense. And not only because there is already a medical facility for supers there."

"This would also be a favor for the people at the school, there. Since it was opened, any time there's an event where a large number of supers are injured, many of them wind up there. Their infirmary is currently swamped."

"So it would be a benefit all around," said Stivers, quickly warming to the idea. "Well, you can count on my help with this."

"Your support is definitely welcome," said Fenton, smiling. "Now we just have to convince a majority of other UN members. Some of whom were hoping to get that facility for their own country."

* * *

On Shilmet, the main Shilmek world, the physical damage from the rebellion and loss of the war was minimal. The social and administrative damages were far more serious. Queen Tolnar had to admire the skill and efficiency of the plotters, however much she hated what they had done with those talents. They waited for a period when the Grand Council was in session, but a large number of the members were away on other pursuits. One of those absentee being Tolnar, herself. Poison gas bombs had taken out most of those in attendance; then followers of the usurpers - pretending to be a mob of angry citizens - had killed the rest, while claiming to have caused all the deaths. The news which later went out to the public was that the corrupt monarchy had been overthrown by a grass roots army of freedom-loving people rising up in revolt. However, at first the events in the Grand Council Assembly building had been kept quiet.

The usurpers - who had support from discontented or discredited nobles - knew enough about the procedures of the assembly to maintain a pretense that there were minor problems with communications but nothing seriously wrong. Another twenty-eight nobles and their staffs were ambushed on return to the capital before warnings were spread of the coup.

Multiple purges - official using both real and invented charges to justify formal execution, and unofficial through simple assassination - by the usurpers had further reduced the ranks of the nobles. Tolnar had brought the several dozen who fled the Empire with her to Earth, and more later joined her there. She and they were now back home, and more were coming in who had evacuated to other safe locations. She had teams of people locating heirs of titles and estates. She was also ennobling many military and executive personnel who had stayed with her or otherwise supported her rule against the usurpers.

All of that together would provide less than half the upper level managers needed to run the Empire, once the recovery was well under way. Even most of those would be inexperienced with such duties. For now, Tolnar was even keeping some of those the usurpers had put in place of the nobles killed or driven off, those replacements who had proven themselves both competent and fair to those in their charge.

Complicating all this, some of the groups who had rebelled against the usurpers while they were involved on Earth were not eager to yield authority to Tolnar.

Currently, she was in a meeting with her staunchest supporters, her son among them. She needed that support. She was about to propose a change to Shilmek society as dramatic as what the usurpers claimed they were providing. Ironically, an earlier, tentative exploration of the same measures were part of what sparked the rebellion.

"Have you read the Terran historical material I provided?"

They nodded, some murmuring assent. Most were keeping their expressions carefully neutral, but a few were already showing disapproval.

"Once we reach a point where martial law needs to be rescinded - and I am well aware that is likely more than a year away, yet - we need to have something ready to replace both the military command now extant and the Grand Council of Nobles. I believe the only alternatives with a chance of working are either a dictatorship, or a constitutional monarchy."

Now even more attendees appeared uncomfortable. However, none challenged her statement.

"I realize both of these solutions are anathema to what our Empire has stood for over these past many thousand years. Unfortunately, I see no way to reestablish the Grand Council in time to do the job which will need to be done. Worse, once we move in either of these directions, there is no turning back. Not easily nor quickly, at least."

There were reluctant nods.

"My own preference is for a constitutional monarchy. On Earth and a few other worlds where this has been tried, some variations were successful enough to last for centuries."

"You want us to work out the details," said Sheppue, who had the advantage of many long talks with his Queen during the stay on Earth and the trip back.

Tolnar was disappointed that Maldren was not the one to guess this. He was still distracted over missing his consort. That was a matter they would have to resolve, and soon, but in private.

"You will all be an important part of whatever form of government we create," said Tolnar, looking around and making eye contact with each of them. "I trust you. To give good advice, to support me in this effort, to hold important positions in the new government... and to let me know when there is something wrong."

Many still looked doubtful, and a few defiant. However, in the end they all agreed to work with her towards the goal.

Tolnar ordered drinks to be served from her private stock. About half of her potables had been looted by the usurpers, though fortunately they had missed some. Once the attendees all had full tumblers, she raised hers.

"To the new Shilmek. Long may we raise our collective head in pride."

* * *

Move-in was underway.

The Ramsey Technical College had not been directly affected by the War, but utilities had been off for varying lengths of time during it. The electricity had been absent the most.

Due to this, some things had to be replaced, and some repaired. The greatest losses were items which had required refrigeration. Besides much spoiled food, many experiments were destroyed. Some of the equipment, itself, had been damaged by the repeated improper shutdowns. The work to repair the infrastructure was now almost complete. The work by the students returning for the new semester to recover their lives was in progress.

There were already plans to use advanced technologies - some developed by the super inventors attending or teaching at the school - to make it as independent of public utilities in the near future as reasonably possible.

Vic beat Alex to the dorm this semester, thanks to being stationed in the area by the Bureau. When the young genius finally called the room to ask for help with her luggage, Vic went down to oblige. What she saw left her a bit startled. She made a point of walking around Alex, as she stood outside the dorm, with her luggage.

"Well, looks like someone has finally started to bud out," she said, smiling.

The difference between the twig figure girl of before and the slightly more curvy, slightly taller one of now was subtle, but definite.

"Thank you for noticing," said Alex, with a tired smile. "Though, if you'll recall, I actually started last semester. I'm just glad the development has continued."

Her attitude was so subdued - at least in comparison to her normal, manic self - that Vic was actually worried.

"You okay?"

"Mostly. I lost a couple of military cousins in the War. Not close relations, but still..."

"Ow," said Vic, moving to give her a hug. It lasted longer than she originally planned, because Alex seemed reluctant to let go. Finally, though, they broke, leaving Vic feeling a bit awkward. She quickly reached for the two biggest suitcases. "Here, let me help you with your luggage."

"Thanks."

* * *

The entire school was subdued the first few days of the new semester. Vic just hoped that mood didn't last long. She was eager to be away from the reconstruction and law enforcement work and back in school. She wanted to get busy, not mope.

Their first meal at the cafeteria after classes actually started saw the usual suspects gathered together for lunch at one of the larger tables, with a few extras present. Energia was there - and in a new costume - but very uncommunicative. Remembering what she had done and what had been done to her, Vic wasn't surprised. She certainly wasn't about to press Energia on the topic, and the others followed her lead. The burden of talk about frontline events of the War therefore fell on Vic. She wasn't particularly eager to be the center of attention, but handled it gracefully. Finally, after Vic gave the sanitized version of her War adventures, the conversation turned... Though people still seemed determined to focus on her.

"How'd you grow your hair back so fast?" said Betty Gonzales, gesturing at Vic's long locks.

"It's an extension," said Vic, rolling her eyes. "I've worn them before, remember. Michelle bought them for me and taught me how to wear them."

"Oh, right; she likes long hair. Guess I just thought, well, regeneration..."

"I've noticed that when someone knows you're a super, they think everything about you is super," said Harriet, grinning. "I've had people ask me to open jars for them, and I'm not super strong. They act surprised - sometimes even offended - when I tell them that I'm a limited shapeshifter, not a strongwoman."

"Anyway, I hope this semester is a quiet one," said Melanie.

Vic was getting mixed signals from her. She suspected the lobster girl was a bit embarrassed she hadn't joined the fighting, but also very relieved that she hadn't had to fight. Vic could definitely understand both attitudes.

* * *

A multi-species, multi-cultural coalition of starfaring civilizations met on a neutral world to study recent events and make plans accordingly. Some saw opportunity in the current situation.

"This is an incredible circumstance, and a chance to gather new worlds into our consortium! We can seize all or part of the Shilmek Empire while they're weak!"

"Are you insane?" said another, mildly. "Queen Tolnar is back in command of the Empire, and she is allied with Earth, the world which defeated those who supplanted her. Together they are more than a match for any other combination of two interstellar powers we are aware of."

"There are far more than two interstellar powers represented here," said a third.

The discussion continued for hours, until the evening break. Then resumed the next day. However, eventually, the consensus was that the best course was to offer aid. For a price, of course.

Not all were satisfied, but most would follow the consensus. Those which objected the most strongly were too weak - even together - to do much about that. Or to the Empire or Earth. Though there were concerns some might try.

* * *

"You look... thoughtful," said Sharma, at the thrice-weekly therapy session with Paula.

"I had an insight," said Paula, nodding, as she settled into her chair. "I realized that I'm not mad at my situation. I'm mad at myself."

"For what?" said Sharma, puzzled.

"For not grabbing back my masculinity when I had the chance. We were in such a hurry to get Penardwen home that I completely forgot about my own problem. Well, we all did, but it was my responsibility. I'm mad at myself for the screwup."

"You talked about this before."

"Yeah. Talking about it and understanding it are two different things. I think I understand - and accept - now. Which is helping me deal."

"That is a significant insight." Sharma paused for a moment before broaching a related matter. "Are you at all resentful towards Susan?"

"No," said Paula, shaking her head as she sat back in her chair. "No, I actually thought this over. Not her, not Pen, not her pantheon. Just me. It was my responsibility - my chance - and it just completely slipped my mind. Until it was too late."

They talked for over an hour, during which Sharma clarified things for both herself and Paula.

"You do seem much more... well, not more content, but less discontented. More centered."

"That's a pretty good summation," said Paula, nodding. She sighed, then gave the mystic a tired smile. "I'm focusing on the positives of my situation. I'll get through this."

"Good. Because we need you. Not just the team, but the country and the whole world. You were a major force for peace as Champion. Whether or not you resume that mantle, you can still do much good."

Paula nodded again, more slowly this time.

* * *

Energia was walking across the campus, just out of her last class for that Wednesday, when she saw her team's large apergy flyer landing in the parking lot beside her dormitory. She lifted into the air and hurried over, worried there was some emergency.

As she descended towards the egg-shaped vehicle, she was surprised to see exiting it not only Blue Impact and Gadgetive, but Ike Kenniman.

Energia landed and greeted the new arrivals all around.

"We need to talk," said Blue Impact. "Ike and I have some news, and we need to let you and Gadgetive know what's going on."

"Yeah, they won't tell me anything until we're all together," said Gadgetive, almost whining. "All they said was that it's an update on the situation in Germany."

"Well, I'm glad to see you, but we're attracting attention just standing here," said Energia, leaning closer and speaking quietly. "Why don't we go somewhere more private?"

"I bet you know just the place," said Gadgetive, with a smirk.



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