Masks 18: Part 9

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Masks XVIII

by

Rodford Edmiston

Part Nine

The election seemed to take many people by surprise. Indeed, some expressed disbelief that it was that time again, already, a few wondering aloud if the election was being held early due to the war. Once it was over, millions in the US saw the results on the news and screamed that no-one had told them there was an election, and they'd been cheated out of their chance to vote. This complaint was heard repeatedly during the holidays. Some even said this when they saw the inauguration...

Clearly, much of the population had other things besides politics on their minds.

The holiday break went well for Energia, in spite of many people in her family being upset at the election results. Fortunately, her parents, uncle and aunt also were simply too busy with Christmas and the continued - if now rapidly fading - postwar problems to worry about politics, though they had all voted. So were the few non-mask friends she had in town. Of course, Jenny was quite capable of having concerns of her own.

As she was packing for the return to college, Jenny (Energia) Toulon heard a gentle knock on the frame of her open door.

"Hi, Mom!" she said, not surprised to see who was there. "What's up?"

"Honey... You seemed a bit down several times during your visit. Is something wrong?"

Jenny hesitated. Then sighed.

"When you were my age did you wonder if you'd ever have children?"

"Oh, my," said Julie, smiling, "what brought this on? Is your biological clock running fast?"

"Mom! I'm serious! The only guy I ever really loved isn't even from the same planet!"

"Come here," said Julie, taking her hand and sitting them both on Jenny's now too-small bed. "Don't rush things. You two may get together again, however unlikely that is. Also, don't feel like you're betraying Maldren if you fall in love with someone else. He's in the same situation, and if he doesn't understand I'm sure his mother will explain it to him."

Before her meeting the past Summer with Tolnar Energia would have thought that unlikely. Now, though... She nodded, thoughtfully.

"It's... There's also the fact that I don't meet a lot of guys my age in my civilian ID. Most of those I do meet I wouldn't trust, because they're probably just after the costume."

"Didn't you meet Maldren in costume?"

"Well, yeah," said Jenny, suddenly realizing that. "But..."

"Don't say 'That's different.' It's always different. You have more ways things can be different than most people, I admit, but you're not alone in that. Don't force things, don't be in a hurry. If you keep looking - even if you just keep your mind on the fact that you might want to look - you'll eventually find someone."

She laughed.

"I'm not one of those women in a hurry to have grandchildren! Even if I were, I can sublimate that with Randy's kids."

* * *

Though she had enjoyed her time at home - especially playing with her young cousins - Energia was glad to get back to school. She was far more used to that and heroing with Tricorne these days than staying in her old room at home and doing shopping and holiday decorating. When she got back to Ramsey after the holidays she found that Vic had similar feelings... including, surprisingly, those about children. Talking this over, they both realized that while they would always value their families and pre-college friends, they were making their own lives, now. As for children...

"Michelle and I do want children," Vic admitted, a bit uneasily, in private to Energia. After several years as a female she still found the topic discomforting. "We're also talking about marriage, after I graduate. Even if the Bureau assigns me somewhere else in the US, a skilled beautician can get work just about anywhere. But children..."

"Adoption?"

"That's one of the things we've talked about. I guess we'll have to see."

"You know, with modern medical techniques you two could have kids of your own," said Energia. She smirked, remembering how her uncle had spent nearly ten months as Template to have their first. "You could have one, and Michelle have one, then together you could decide if you want any more."

"Yeeeee..." said Vic, actually cringing.

"What?" said Energia, laughing. "It's just biology."

"Yeeeee..." Vic repeated.

* * *

"I think a large part of what happened in the most recent presidential election," said Dr. Delacroix, the sociologist teaching an advanced course which both Vic and Energia were in, "is that most people simply weren't too concerned about the election, being more focused on continuing the recovery from the war and dealing with the increasing integration of advanced technology from the Shilmek, Lunies and gadgeteers and inventors into daily life."

Energia nodded to herself, thinking specifically of the adoption of a new technology she was familiar with through Tricorne. Thanks partly to Gadgetive and Dr. Device - with a kick in the rear from events during the war - apergy driven craft were finally, actually, honestly being evaluated by the FAA. Even so, there were delays in adopting the technology, largely due to problems the feds were having developing appropriate tests. Simply applying traditional aircraft safety trials would mean most of these new vehicles would be immediately rejected, because their method of operation was so different. As just one example, they didn't need wings so most omitted them, which meant they couldn't glide.

"It seems that with the press treating one candidate as bland and uninteresting - whether he was or not - and the other as interesting - even if often saying things most voters disagreed with - voters tended to choose the name on the ballot which had the most recognition value. They were simply too busy with things immediately important - to them, their families, their friends, their communities - to pay much attention to politics. In spite of that the election was close, both in the popular vote and the Electoral College."

After class was over Energia was distressed to hear a small knot of students in the hall outside severely criticizing the teacher's analysis of the election. They apparently felt that the man they had supported had to have won because he was the best candidate, and everyone must acknowledge that! Energia sighed, and looked around for Vic.

"There you are!" said Vic, from behind her.

"Don't do that!" said Energia, mildly annoyed. "I was looking for you!"

Vic laughed, and Energia relented and smiled.

"Okay, did you hear about Hat Squad?" said Vic.

"What about Hat Squad?"

"They pulled a big job in Iran - taking advantage of the chaos there due to the damage from the war - and got away with a huge load of ancient treasures. Things which the regime claimed they had destroyed but which they'd actually stashed somewhere and were selling a few at a time to private collectors. Hat Squad got into the place with forged documents, loaded several semi-trailers with the contents - leaving an empty warehouse - and drove off. The trucks were next seen in the Iraqi capital, parked outside the government's main building! With a note that they were a present to Iraq. Of course, the rulers of Iran are claiming the whole thing is a hoax, intended to discredit them, and, besides, those are their property and they want them back! The Iraqis are saying these were a gift to the Iraqi people and would be restored and put on display."

"Hah!" said Energia, grinning. "I don't like the way those guys earn a living - and I'm not just saying that because they got away from us - but they definitely have style."

"Well, they apparently also kept enough stuff which was valuable but not historically important to pay their expenses and throw a big party."

* * *

"Good afternoon," said Brade, as she entered the briefing room. After sitting and opening her notes she continued. "How is everyone today?"

"Feeling like an endangered species," said Doro, sourly.

"Well, no-one can accuse the new President of being a slacker," said Brade, just as sourly, knowing her second in command was referring to the notice of further pending budget cuts for their agency. "He promised to 'rein in outrageous government overspending' and he and his supporters have definitely acted quickly to cut federal budgets."

"Right now, we can no longer cover the rent we are paying for all of our off-campus facilities," muttered Doro. "We'll have to move some of them out of those buildings and into somewhere else. Of course, with the personnel cutbacks we have enough room to bring all the people and equipment into the few facilities we have left. Well, with a bit of crowding."

"Consolidation is usually good," said Brade, sourly. "It's just that we were barely started in our operation, were already under budget cuts due to the recovery from the war, and there was not all that much to consolidate even before the layoffs."

"When is he going to meet with you, anyway?" said Doro, looking angry. "The new President, I mean."

"Probably never. It's not just me, either; he likes to 'delegate.'"

There was some muttering among the attendees at this bit of news.

"From what I've heard," said Converse, a bit more quietly than he likely intended, "Milton Garber would have insisted on even more cuts. His reputation is that he's a bit of a miser."

"Well, let's get to business," said Brade, heading off any potential political arguments. "What's going on with our new acquisition, the weather warper?"

"He's doing quite well, once he accepted that he actually was affecting the weather," said Dr. Stadtler. "He has shown no indication of wanting to join our organization or use his powers to fight crime - probably a very good attitude, given our budget cuts and how slowly such powers work - but will complete the training program so there are no more accidents."

"Excellent. Now, moving on..."

* * *

After only a bit over a month of working for the man, Alice Clarke was already regretting her career move. She'd thought being Gibbons' chief White House aide would be a major boost. Instead, she increasingly found herself disliking both the man and his policies, as well as his laziness. Not to mention his taste in music... Still, the pay was good; also, unlike some politicians and businessmen she had worked for - and in spite of his reputation - he kept his hands to himself, and his compliments were well short of sexual harassment. She'd stay on for at least a while longer.

So, today it was walk into the Oval Office (there were other rooms more suited to briefings, especially small ones like this, but this was where Gibbons wanted to "hear it") and after a perfunctory handshake sit in a chair in front of his desk. There were only three other people in the room; two Secret Service agents - one male, one female - and a technical advisor for one of the subjects on the roster.

"Okay," said Gibbons, "first, what this about US Senator in good standing Erwin Radetsky backing off on his bill to defund all financial support for super teams and disband all those with a direct federal mandate? I understand he was also trying to make it law that only people individually approved by the government could wear masks, like in Germany."

"Turns out he had somehow forgotten his cousin - also-Senator Carol Perkins - is a low-level super," said Alice, keeping a straight face in spite of the amusement she felt over that situation. "She called him on the practical and civil rights problems with his bill and told him, on the floor of the Senate, to back off the supers or their mutual grandfather - who was big in civil rights in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies - would disown him. Given the current popularity of supers for what they did in the war and are continuing to do to help the recovery she had a lot of support."

"Y'know, politicians are supposed to use polls to get an idea of what the public wants," said Gibbons, wryly. "Not to directly determine policy. Oh, well; it was probably too extreme, anyway. What's next?"

Alice and the President went through several minor topics - mostly public relations matters - before she flipped to the next page of her note pad and saw the item there.

"You wanted to review options for dealing with the Pine Island Academy."

"They ought to nuke Pine Island off the map," growled Gibbons, slouched in his chair and playing with a fidget spinner. "Should have done that as soon as they realized what Pine had done there. We waited too long and now there's a whole nest of them. A hive. A school!""

"They tried that, remember?" said Clarke, wondering if the man actually thought Pine himself had set up the school. He was politically savvy and knew his way around the Hill, but his knowledge of anything outside the Capital was - at best - hit or miss. Especially when anything more than twenty years old was involved.

"Who tried what?" said Gibbons, mildly.

"Sung hit them with a multi-megaton nuke. All it did was mess up electronics for a thousand miles around. Though not on the island."

Gibbons sat up suddenly.

"You're serious."

"Sure. You mean you didn't know this? It caused an international incident. Even affected Florida. Millions of retirees threw fits - and their oatmeal - when they couldn't watch their soaps."

"Soaps?" Gibbons shook his head. "Never mind. Okay, nukes are off the table."

"Seriously?" said Clarke, astounded. "You were seriously considering using nuclear weapons on a kids' school?"

"What's it to you?" said Gibbons, irritated. "They're not your kids."

"Right," said Clarke, making a decision. She looked back at her notes. "All right. Economic attempts have been only mildly successful...."

* * *
Energia came into the central dorm area the next morning intending to get breakfast. Given the complications involved in attending college - especially graduate school - in her mask ID taking a room off campus just wasn't practical. Not that continuing in a single room at the same dorm was a hardship. CNN was playing on the large flatscreen and though the volume was down she read the scroll at the bottom and stopped, staring.

"What?" said Vic, already eating but not looking at the screen. Her friend's sudden reaction had triggered her sense of perception and put her on alert.

"Alice Clarke resigned as Gibbons' aide. Says he seriously proposed nuking the school. I mean, the Pine Island Academy. When she protested, he said 'They're not your kids.' When asked about this, Gibbons responded that his comments about the matter were a joke and Clarke has no sense of humor. That someone should 'do something' about her."

"'Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?'" said Vic, quietly.

"You don't really think..."

"I just hope she's careful," said Vic, tone ominous.

* * *

"Gibbons has these odd blind spots," said Andrea Valentina, Head of Administration at Pine Island Academy, a few weeks later. She was delivering the digest version of a report written by some of the school's psychology and politics teachers, at her request in response to Gibbons' remarks about the school. "He never questions what he favors or disfavors, but simply assumes that any decent, educated person has the same views he holds. His staff tries to keep him well informed, but whatever doesn't reinforce what he already believes is simply dismissed. He is then caught by surprise when decent, educated people vigorously object to his policies, especially when they demolish his positions with evidence and reason. He then assumes - sometimes angrily - that either they are crazy or ignorant or they're deliberately trying to make him look bad."

"So he's like a typical human being, only moreso," said Eve, with a slight smile.

"I remember a press conference during his final days of campaigning, when he argued that the Pine Island Academy should be abolished and all the students forced to attend school in their home areas," said Template, nodding. "He claimed this would be cheaper than having a dedicated school and produce supers who were more 'normal' and conventionally socialized. Ignoring the fact that our school is private and gets very little federal money. When someone pointed out that normal schools didn't have the facilities or training to handle super students he asked what more did they need that normal schools couldn't offer?"

"I remember that," said Andrea, nodding. "The reporter responded 'Staff who can teach a kid with electrical powers how not to accidentally electrocute someone.' Gibbons just stared at him. Like a robot which had encountered a situation outside its programming."

"So what do we do about him?" said Eve, pointedly.

"So far, he's pretty much sabotaging his own position on the school very effectively," said Lori Savage, Head of Security. "Though he seems oblivious to that fact. Just let him keep talking, and encourage reporters to keep asking questions."

"The Super PAC can help with that," said Template, absently tapping a gloved fingertip on the table top as she thought things through. "However, keep in mind that this guy isn't nearly as incompetent as Thurlin. He's careless but not stupid. Now that he knows some people - according to independent polls, something like 80% of the voting population in the US - actually like supers and want them to keep going the way they are, he's moderated his spoken views. Again claiming that he was joking before, and chastising his critics for not realizing that."

"So here's hoping he doesn't simply move to secretly acting against supers," said Junker, sourly. "For our own good, of course."

"Oh, I'm pretty sure he doesn't consider our well being when making decisions," said Template, hotly.

"He hasn't actually said much about supers," said Andrea. "He's said even less about the magic problems. It's just that things he has said or done impact both supers and the magical communities, if only by reducing what they can do. Sometimes directly, but more often indirectly."

"The magical incursions have been mostly low-key the past few months," said Eve, frowning. "Also, the mages and magical creatures working on the problem have been very diligent in dealing with them. Most people who don't deliberately look for matters magical have very little awareness of the small problems or even the big problem."

"I just hope that gives them time to develop something which works to stop these 'incursions' before they're all big ones," said Lori.

"I think that's enough for this meeting," said Eve. "I know some of you want to get started on your Spring break plans. I'll see you when school resumes."

* * *

The patient was being transported by helicopter from Bermuda, where the airliner bringing him from New York had landed. Pine Island still could not safely handle large, conventional airplanes, and the logistics of the transfer had taken several hours to work out. Hours which the patient could not really afford. However, he was finally almost here.

The helicopter landed on the pad atop the brand new Super Specialists Hospital, several staff members already waiting nearby on the roof. Once the helicopter crew signaled, the doctors and orderlies hurried up the ramp onto the pad, the self-propelled gurney barely managing to keep up. This was their first serious patient and they were determined to do things right.

Due to that attitude, not only were all the hospital personnel meeting the helicopter wearing full hazmat gear, but the patient was in a sealed transport pod, the exterior of which had been sterilized before leaving the isolation ward at the New York hospital which had referred the man to them. He was wheeled inside the hospital and quickly placed in an isolation room, and the medical personnel set to work.

"Is the emergency arrival here?" said Eve, on videophone to Dr. Nief - who was now Physician in Chief - a very short time later.

"Patient is one Justice Dagger, aka Dagger of Justice, aka Blade of Truth, aka a few other things, age forty-six," said Dr. Nief. "He's an experienced mask from New York. He was found unconscious in an alley three days ago. No obvious injuries except for what he got from falling when he passed out."

"Whatever is wrong with him must have come on suddenly."

"That's the best guess, and why we're keeping him isolated. It's most likely either a toxin - possibly due to an attack - or some sort of extremely contagious organism. It could be - though this is very unlikely - some sort of metabolic problem. He has no record of health issues such as diabetes, though. We're doing multiple blood tests, a physical exam and an ultrasound."

"Ultrasound?"

"The folks who checked him in New York said they found an unusual lump in the small of his back, just left of the spine. If we confirm there is something there we'll probably do a biopsy."

"It sounds like you folks have this well in hand," said Eve. "Just keep me updated, please. I also want a full briefing once you've completed your preliminary examination."

* * *

The couple woke slowly and mutually, cuddled in each others' arms. Normally, one or the other had to be up first, often by a good measure, but today - thanks to a combination of the Spring holiday and a low crime rate, but mostly due to the family being on vacation - was a rare day when they could both sleep in. The man of the family kissed his wife on the top of the head.

"So, how do you like your life?" said Randy, grinning.

"Okay, I have a house in the suburbs of a city I love and I commute to work using tunnels built by the lost, ancient, Subterran culture," said Karen, ticking things off on her fingers, "I have a spouse who knows exactly how to please me and knows what I'm going through..."

"Thank you," said Randy, kissing her on the forehead.

"I can take a trip to a tropical island any time I want, thanks to said spouse's job..."

"Sub-tropical," said Randy, still grinning.

"I have a wonderful wife and a wonderful husband - who happen to be the same person - I have two wonderful children - one of whom I gave birth to myself. What's not to love?"

"Maaaaaa!" came a call, right on cue. "When's breakfast? You said I couldn't make it myself any more. Maaaaaa!"

"Well, there's that," said Randy, wryly, throwing the covers back.

"You can't fool me. You love that as much as I do," said Karen, doing likewise.

Karen put on a robe and hurried into the kitchen of their bungalow, while Randy got Sarah up and ready. The vacationing adults turned making breakfast into a family affair. As they sat eating their fresh, hot muffins, though, Randy noticed his wife looking both thoughtful and amused.

"What are you thinking about?"

"A guy I used to date, in college," said Karen, with exaggerated innocence. "I still talk to him, occasionally."

"Why would us eating muffins make you think of him?"

"He's a nice guy," said Karen, "but he has this really annoying way of eating a muffin."

"How can eating a muffin be annoying?"

"Instead of taking bites out of it, he plucks pieces off and pops them in his mouth."

Randy leaned in close and gave her an evil grin.

"I'll have to remember that."

"No!"

He leaned back in his chair, laughing, while Roy looked back and forth between his parents, confused. Little Sarah didn't even notice, focused as she was on the very important matter of eating her hot, heavily buttered muffin.

"I wonder what powers they'll get," said Randy, after a moment, meaning his two children.

"They may not get any, remember," said Karen. She grinned at her daughter. "Though if Sarah gets my powers she should call herself Giant Tess."

"You and your online comics," said Randy, rolling his eyes.

Spring vacation this year saw Randy and family in a bungalow as guests of the school. Keeping Randy and Template separate from those who weren't in the know was causing some minor problems, but just now there were few students here and not even a full staff. There was also little need for Template, which made things easier. Unfortunately, they had just one more full day and a partial before they returned home.

With the dishes rinsed and put in the dishwasher, they faced the dilemma of what to do until lunch.

"Jungle hike?" said Randy. "Lagoon swim? Ocean swim? Volcano fishing?"

"Volcano fishing!" yelled Roy.

"I'm pretty sure there's no such thing," said Karen, glaring at her husband.

"Volcano fishing!"

"Roy, that was a joke," said Randy, realizing he was now in trouble with two members of his family.

"Vo-canno fish!" yelled Sarah, grinning and kicking enthusiastically.

Make that three members.

"Okay, we can hike up to the lookout point and take a look at the volcano's crater," said Randy, hoping that would satisfy the kids.

"Voooo-caaaaay-nooo!" howled Sarah, almost making it a song.



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