Masks 18: Part 13

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Rodford Edmiston

Part Thirteen

Early afternoon, in San Francisco. Among the people walking around the shops and stores of this downtown area were at least two who were much more than they seemed.

"Are you sure he wants a cell phone?" said Tiger, as he and Tal wandered around a shopping district.

"Chet hasn't said anything about that," said Tal, with a knowing smile. "However, he has repeatedly complained about his current phone not being able to do this or being too slow for that or not showing enough bars or holding a charge."

Tiger's mind was mostly on what his wife was saying, but his engineering side couldn't help but take notice of all the new construction. Some was directly due to the war; some indirectly; some long planned. New stores, offices and banks were going up, with some old ones coming down.

"Well, that last could be cured with a new battery."

"No, dear; it's a sealed unit."

"Well, that's stupid," muttered the engineer.

"I know, dear. That's what he has."

"Okay, I guess we get him a new phone," said Tiger, with a careless shrug. He frowned as they turned a corner. "What's all that?"

The sidewalks and even the streets were full of people, much to the distress of drivers trying to get somewhere. Amidst the horns blowing and the babble of excited talk came muffled sounds of some sort of heavy activity.

"Great," said Tiger, sourly. "Come on; let's try this way."

"Don't you want to see what's going on?" said Tal, who obviously did.

"None of our business."

Some supers might have used their enhanced strength and agility to bypass the crowd in their way and continue in their planned direction. Others might have boldly moved in to investigate. Tiger wasn't one to show off. Showing off was for social creatures; a way of reinforcing or enhancing their standing in the herd. Something Tiger didn't worry about. Tiger - with Tal rolling her eyes and following resignedly - simply went wide to go around the blockage. He wasn't there to get involved with whatever had caused the crowd. He and his wife were shopping for their son's birthday present. Without that mission he might have let his curiosity lead him into investigating, but right now he was focussed.

However, when someone crashed through the double panes of thick safety glass in the window of a nearly-finished building about twenty stories up and across the street, Tiger reacted without hesitation.

He leapt straight up and kicked off from the side of the building he'd been walking beside. From there he bounded across the street, to kick off from there. He caught the stunned young man only a couple of floors below the broken window. Tiger's momentum carried them down and across to another building, where he used his free hand to cushion their impact then slow their fall. Tiger pushed off and cradled his passenger for the last two stories, landing on his toes and going all the way to his knees.

He laid the man carefully down and was just starting to check for injuries when noise - screams not least among them - caught his attention. Tiger looked up to see either a robot or a bulky suit of power armor leap through the ruined window.

The contraption fired rockets to cushion its drop, but still hit hard enough to leave deep footprints in the pavement.

"You've interfered for the last time!" someone shouted over speakers built into the thing.

The right arm raised and a panel opened to let a light machinegun deploy. By which time Tiger had grabbed the young man and ducked down an alley. The massive machine trundled to the entrance and discovered it was too big to fit.

"You think this will save you?" the same male voice screamed, sounding almost hysterical with anger. "I will burn this whole alley to ash!"

The machine gun panel closed and another opened. Before whatever was inside could extend, though, something crashed into it from above, jamming it.

"Too bad we're not there," said Tiger, from well up on a fire escape.

The operator - or occupant - of the machine was just starting to turn the cameras upwards when a chunk of steel slammed into the seam between the head and neck. This was backed by the momentum of a grinning Tiger, who dropped down and double-kicked the piece of fire escape handrail deeper. Upon seeing the metal was deep enough he sprang away.

"Zap 'im!"

Under the assumption that the device was well insulated both electrically and thermally, Tiger had deliberately pierced whatever screening was present, using a seam for easy access. Now Tal took advantage of that to send a miniature lightning bolt into the workings via the protruding chunk of metal.

The thing dropped, the front sliding down the building corners on either side as the legs buckled then pushed backwards. It sputtered and twitched, smoke rising from the rupture. Tiger dropped onto its back and heaved on the metal chunk; it bent but the seam also widened. He then yanked the handrail out and got his fingers in. He gave another heave and off came the dome-shaped head. Inside was a stunned - and scorched - middle-aged man in a jumpsuit.

"Anybody we know?" asked Tal, dryly, as she clambered onto the machine to stand with her husband.

"He talked like he knew me, but I don't know him," said Tier.

The subject of their exchange was beginning to stir.

"Can you check on the victim? He's behind the dumpster."

"Sure," said Tal.

While Tiger extracted the man from the suit of powered armor, Tal went to the young man.

"You... won't get away... with this," said the grey-haired man, giving Tiger a venomous look.

"You mean get away with rescuing someone from attack by a maniac in powered armor who endangered hundreds of bystanders and caused a couple of million in property damage?"

He ignored the man's further attempts to speak as he used his claws to cut the restraints holding the guy in place then hauled him out and onto the sidewalk.

"He doesn't seem seriously hurt!" Tal called out. "I'm contacting 911 for an ambulance and the police and the BAG for a pickup."

"Good," said Tiger, a bit distracted as he removed several items from the man's outfit. "Wow. This guy has full-paranoid spy stuff. Even had a fake suicide needle. Wonder if he has a shoe phone..."

He held up a small, pressurized injector, similar to those carried by people with severe allergies.

"You sure it's fake?"

"Yeah. Pseudotetrodotoxin to knock him out and lower his vitals. Might be fatal, but he's in good enough shape he'd probably survive."

"You... liar. I am prepared to die for our nation!"

"Maybe. Looks like whoever sent you knows that but doesn't want to lose you yet."

* * *

Several hours later - much of that time required for the Bay Area Guardians to convince the local police that Tiger hadn't been the cause of all the mayhem - the suit was in the team's garage, the operator in their detention center and the young man in their medical wing.

"Sorry your day was interrupted," said Mesa, as he and Tiger walked to the interrogation room.

"Hey, beats shopping."

Tal had been debriefed and gone back to buy their son's birthday present. Tiger, though, had been asked to stay. Not only was his technical knowledge potentially useful in examining the suit, but Steel Lace thought he might be able to get the man who had worn it to talk. He obviously knew who Tiger was and - to put it mildly - didn't like him. That might allow them to get a rise out of him, which in turn might lead to some revelation.

"The attacker's injuries were minor," said Mesa, handing Tiger a stapled sheaf of papers, "and because of the power armor they're letting us hold him pending further investigation. Here's what we have on him so far."

"Name, rank and serial number, huh?"

"No, he's refusing to talk. Literally hasn't said a word. He's even had his fingerprints and retina prints altered. We put a rush on his DNA - thanks in part to new Lunie tech - and the military sent this."

"Horace Middleton, former Captain in the US Army Special Forces," said Tiger, reading the document. "Dishonorable discharge for torturing Iraqi civilians he 'knew' were insurgents. Not to get information, but to 'teach them a lesson.' I thought that suit looked like rejected military tech from a few years ago."

He sighed and shook his head as he finished leafing through the document.

"Looks like he got into the service a few years before the new psych screening. Of course even that's not perfect, but it does cut down on the expert liars. Not that this guy would agree that's a good thing."

"We also have a bit on the man he attacked. Armistead Murchison. Construction worker, mostly lays cable in new buildings, good at his job, never in trouble with the law."

"So why was this guy after him?"

"Murchison is a latent super. He got tested by the Bureau in that pre-war project of theirs to try and find, activate and train supers to get ready for the Shilmek. The war was over before they could figure out how to activate him. Then came the budget cuts. He went back to his old job."

"So this nutcase was trying to eliminate Murchison before he could come into his powers?"

"Actually... From what the witnesses say, he never tried to kill him. Just... stress him."

"In my vocabulary 'stress him' does not include throwing someone through a window on the twenty-first floor!" snarled Tiger, his aura flickering.

"Well, that was after several minutes of chasing and attacking and endangering him and his coworkers. I think Middleton was getting a little fed up with his tactic not working."

"Wait," said Tiger, turning to his friend. "He was trying to activate Murchison's powers?!"

"The young man's political views read like a milder version of Middleton's."

Tiger's aura appeared in full; a glowing image of a tiger. A very angry tiger.

"Let's talk to this guy," said Tiger, his voice distorted and inhuman.

"Uh, yeah," said Mesa, reflexively stepping away, even though he was not the target of that rage.

A standard interrogation technique involved putting the subject in the interrogation room and letting them sit and wait for a while. Knowing this man was familiar with the routine, Tiger and Mesa were already in the room when Middleton was brought in. He covered it well, but Tiger could tell he was startled. Playing on this, as Middleton was escorted to the other side of the table the two supers glared at him, with Tiger actually glancing pointedly at his wristwatch. As if Middleton was late. The man managed to hide it, but to Tiger's enhanced senses he was thrown off balance by this reversal of the usual technique.

"Scaring someone to trigger their latent powers is the stupidest..." said Tiger, further startling him. He leaned forward, aura flickering. "Didn't you idiots learn anything from Tokyo?!"

"Their fear is irrelevant," said Middleton, tricked into talking by being thus put on the defensive. "What's important is having another super to defend this country!"

"Even if you break most of a neighborhood in the process?" said Tiger. "Even if the person - whether you activate their powers or not - hates you for what you did to them"

"If they're a responsible adult they'll accept that it was necessary!"

"You just don't get it, do you?" said Mesa, calmly, his measured, resonant bass a counterpoint to Tiger's staccato baritone. "You think that because you want more supers working for your cause you can do whatever it takes to get more supers. Well, you're not only wrong - demonstrably, illegally wrong - your whole premise is flawed! As far as your victims are concerned - me, too, for the record - you're a madman who uses all this violence as a flimsy excuse to hurt people. Because you like to hurt people, something which folks who encounter you soon realize, including your victims. If your subject does survive they'll wind up hating you and your cause."

"It's obvious you care nothing for this country!" yelled Middleton. He tried to stand but the security guard pushed him back down.

"I care enough to take you out of circulation," said Tiger, ominously. "You've done enough harm to the US and its citizens."

"You will not get away with this," said Middleton, again, his tone and posture haughty and triumphant. "The Secret Keeper knows."

"The who which?" said Mesa, confused.

"Somebody with no imagination who thinks he's important but can't even come up with an original tagline," said Tiger, smirking.

* * *

"An actual conspiracy?" said Tal, later, not really surprised. She had dropped by the Bay Area Guardians base to pick up Tiger after finishing her gift shopping. "Not just militaristic anti-super groups talking about an ongoing war for supremacy between supers and normals which nobody but paranoids seem to notice?"

"Yeah. Probably a bunch of 'em, actually. We've seen it before, with groups like those idiot middle-managers who were behind the super child slavery ring and that undersea base on the Atlantis Seamount. In this case, different groups have been taking advantage of the post-war confusion to organize, collecting rejected people and equipment, each building a secret task force, all ignorant of the others or at most barely aware of them. I imagine that others who were working in the shadows for years before the war have also benefitted. That suit of powered armor was one of three from a canceled program, all missing. No surprise it was cancelled, as easy as we took it out. Oddly, it seems that the specific group behind this effort is not anti-super; in fact, now that we know what to look for we have found multiple incidents where someone likely from this group located active supers for recruitment and tried activating latents. Usually in vain, in both situations. Sometimes fatally."

Tal, Tiger and Mesa were in the team's breakroom, using it for its intended purpose. Snacks were mostly over and drinks nearly finished by the time the other two had brought Tal up to date.

"Of course," said Mesa, "you aways have pure opportunists who see a tragedy and think 'Now is the time to act!' even if what they then do is something they should never have done, much less after a tragedy. Some of these groups which ostensibly have the same goals are actually in competition with each other. Some without realizing it!"

"Then they wind up accomplishing the exact opposite of what they claim their goals are," said Tal, sourly. "Like those maniacs shooting utility workers who were just trying to get the lights and water back on."

"Yeah. They even claimed in their defense that they were fighting the alien occupation. Weeks and months after the invasion was defeated."

"This sounds like it falls under civil authority," said Tal, after a moment of thought. "The local and state police."

"Local and state police aren't interested," said Mesa. "While there have been a couple of incidents here in California which can be blamed on these people, they're based out of state. The federal agencies we've spoken to - including the Bureau of Special Resources - are so busy and have had so many cuts they can't devote much attention to the problem. Brade actually told Steel Lace we could go ahead with whatever steps we thought were appropriate. Just keep them apprised."

"Whoah," said Tiger, suddenly sitting upright, eyes wide. "I wonder if that's deliberate?"

Both were used to Tiger's sudden leaps of intuition, thanks to years of exposure. That didn't mean they always followed what he meant, but this time it seemed obvious.

"You think that there are still folks in the federal, state and local governments - people still following Thurlin or maybe someone new - who are deliberately working to promote these cutbacks?" said Tal. "To make their own illegal plans easier to hide?"

"Yeah," said Tiger, nodding slowly, his gaze distant. "It fits."

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