Once the Hero Part 3

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The Adventure continues in Part 3!

Once the Hero
Part 3
By
Grover

Chapter Ten

Kansas City, KS
September 9, 2008
ETWF: 13 Days

Steve ‘Matches’ Smith patiently waited his turn to pick up his business mail at the Kansas City post office. He worked at home from his small, somewhat rundown house offering auditing and personnel services for small businesses. His computer let him have clients all over the country and allowed him to set his own hours.

The second his eyes saw the address on the priority mail package his heart skipped a beat. It wasn’t unusual for him to receive such packages, dealing with confidential materials as he did. What made this one special was in the ‘Attention To’ line. He schooled himself to act as bored as usual.

Pulling the brim of his Kansas City Royals’ baseball cap low against the bright summer sun, he shuffled along. Not breaking his normal routine, he stopped at the corner grocers for something cold. It also gave him the chance to see if he was under surveillance. Although he was reasonably certain he was safe, he wasn’t going to take any chances with that letter. It seemed as heavy as the world itself, but there was no way he would let himself fail those who’d entrusted him with it.

Matches had been heading for trouble since the moment he was born. He never knew much about his father except he’d been a mutant. That little was painfully clear given Matches’ mutation. His flaming red skin and blazing eyes were obvious signs he was different. While he spent his childhood running from bullies, his mom struggled to make a living for the two of them in their low-income neighborhood.

She died of cancer soon after he’d dropped out of high school. Matches had little choice because of increasingly violent harassment from the mutant haters and other bullies who knew he couldn’t defend himself without getting in trouble with ULTIMATE’s mutant cops. He’d been under no illusions that even if he only defended himself, that he’d still be the guilty party.

Within days of her death, he was thrown out onto the streets, homeless. Unable to find shelter or work because he was a mutant, Matches had become desperate enough to try to rob a store for food. It was just another convenience store robbery in the poor side of town except this time it’d been by a mutant.

Inside of an hour, ULTIMATE blue dropships and power armor troopers had him surrounded in the rundown ruins of a half demolished apartment building where he’d been hiding. There, numb with fatalism of being ground up by an uncaring world, he tried to prepare himself the best way he could for the mutant version of ‘suicide by cop.’

That’s when the Angels had come for him.

No bright beings dressed in white robes with wings and halos that the priests in the church had spoken of. He’d little use for churches after they’d refused to help him after his Mom had passed away, calling him unclean and defiled by Gawd.

No, these two women were much better. One was dressed in concealing black military style fatigues with night vision goggles with her pockets and pouches filled with gadgets. The other was also in black, but it was a form fitting like a wetsuit. She raised her motorcycle-like helmet’s visor and said the words that changed his life. “If you want to live come with us.”

They’d saved him from the Sturmtruppen, that night, as well as giving him a new life. Matches had begged them, wanting to know how he could ever repay them. The two of them had smiled saying, “Please don't ever feel a debt is owed us. If you want to do more, pay it forward and help others.”

That hadn’t been enough for him and finally they’d given in and set him up here in Kansas City. He had another identity, and with the helpful advice of a makeup artist they‘d found, he didn’t standout as he had before. Then his Angels went a step further helping him get his GED as well as job training.

Using his business as a cover, he handled their covert mail and so helped other mutants like himself. That’s what made that one package weigh so much. The simple code in the ‘Attention To’ line included his middle initial O for Oscar that he never used. Steven Oscar Smith, SOS.

One of his saviors had fallen, and the word must go out.

Thankfully, it wasn’t the other code that said she was dead. This one only said only she’d been taken and needed help. This was still no guarantee that his Angel still lived, but he was sure a rescue attempt would be made. But, if she did not…. Matches may have slept though many of those church services as a child before he and his mother were thrown out, but he did remember that while Angels were compassionate and loving, they were also instruments of holy retribution.

Perhaps that cleansing wouldn’t come tomorrow or even the next day, but she wouldn’t be forgotten. Matches had no idea just how many those two had helped over the years, but by the numbers he could estimate from the mail he handled, it was far more than a few.

A grim smile touched his lips. If something had happened to his Angel, the ones responsible would find an army, the like of which the world had never seen before, looking for them.

Once home he pulled out the CD/ROM from its hiding place among the legion of its less important brethren. On it was a simple spam program advertising his business. It would go out to millions but its message would be comprehensible only to a few, SOS.

That done he forced himself to continue the daily tasks that let him feed, clothe and provide shelter for himself. For the first time in years, he considered going to a church. With his skin dyed and his eyes hidden behind their contact lenses, they wouldn’t bar him this time. Perhaps he was just a minor player, but if even one prayer to the holy host would help then it was worth it. Dressed in white or black, Matches knew in his heart that the Creator would know his own.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Eleven

New York City

ETWF: 13 Days

Maggie Carson stood up stretching languidly to her full willowy 5’11” height as she got up from her desk. It was almost time for her luncheon with some prospective clients for her relatively modest modeling agency. Specializing in sports and the great outdoors, her girls tended to be more physically active than most other agencies' pampered half-starved waifs. That suited her just fine because she enjoyed the advantages her niche market gave her business.

She loved the traveling, and while Maggie was firmly attached to her luxurious lifestyle, she enjoyed ‘roughing’ it. Of course, it let her indulge in her secret life that would shock silly most the people she dealt with on a daily basis. Still this weekend had been especially memorable, and she couldn’t help herself wanting to wake up next to her lover every morning rather than what times they could steal away.

Her partner in their Quixotic Crusade was more practical about such things. It was the very fact that no one was even aware they knew each other, much less were partners and lovers, that protected them. What they were doing was illegal and if it became known, the power of nations would be raised up against them. It mattered not the laws were unjust and prosecuted those who’d done no wrong other than be born.

It was their passion for Justice that had first brought them together and later, their zeal for living, into each other’s arms. Over the years, that quest against injustice had taken a life of its own, but Maggie had never regretted a moment of it. She loved living on the edge and the adventures she’d shared with her life companion were ones she would never trade for anything.

Along the way, they’d helped more than a few good people and busted their share of the bad ones just where it hurt the worse. Those actions made legions of enemies who would cheerful lock them away, forever, to never see the sun again, quite literally, considering ULTIMATE’s Dark-Side Penitentiary Maximum Security Prison was located in a permanently shadowed crater on the far side of the moon.

Although, she still received requests for herself to do photo shoots, Maggie knew she wasn’t getting any younger and it was only because of her mutant physiology that she could still pass for the underside of thirty when in actuality she was on the top edge of forty. The early part of her career had been successful because of her frankness about being a beautiful mutant and loving it.

The public ate up her bad girl attitude although the entire thing was the creation of her publicist. The government, once it assure itself she was just another pretty face, albeit one with something a little extra, didn’t care either. If they’d a clue about just how much she underplayed her abilities they would’ve crapped all over themselves.

Her childhood had been anything but nice. The only good thing about it was it had taught her at a very early age to hide what she really was and what she thought. At puberty, like a butterfly leaving its cocoon, Maggie had become who she’d always known herself to be.

She’d been one of the lucky ones because of a combination being in the right place at the right time and saying the wrong thing to the correct person, she’d gotten a scholarship to the Academy. So rather, than deal with the harassment of not only being different and a mutant, she had spent her four high school years learning about herself and how she might fit into normal society.

Maggie knew she’d disappointed her teachers when she decided to cash in on her mutant gifted good looks rather than her technical oriented powers. She’d made up her mind what she’d wanted to do with her life and that needed serious money and prestige. Modeling offered that as well as other benefits even if other mutants accused her of selling out using her gifts for her own profit.

She might live the good life, but she’d also contributed a, not so small, fortune advocating for mutant rights. That was besides acting as a spokesperson. All along, she’d been taking a more direct, if stealthy, course of action. Once Maggie met the one destined to become her companion, that role had become more central to her future. She’d started her own modeling agency to lessen her public profile, but had expanded her covert activities. Now they had a network made up of those whose lives they’d changed.

Now once more she was thinking of making more changes to her life. Maybe it was just her biological clock catching up with her although it ticked away more slowly than that of ordinary women. Perhaps she was just missing the childhood dream of that white picket fenced house and the kids playing in the yard.

An alert from her laptop pulled her back to the present. Using her powers and without touching a single key she, accessed the one email account her machine was programmed to always page her if it was ever messaged. The carefully set customized filtered email account held just one message but she ignored the body. The sender’s address and initials carried the real information. SOS

With a blink of her eyes, the message erased itself and the account canceled. Her calendar program opened and rearranged itself. A worm program awoke from its sleep at the local telephone exchange. It simply changed a few records, adding a call from where Maggie Carson grew up. Its job completed it went back into slumber.

She called, Jennifer, her assistant in. “I just receive upsetting news that an old friend of the family has suddenly passed away. Please cancel all my appointments for the week and let Linda know she’ll have to take my place for lunch. Yes, I know the meeting was important, but this is not something I can put aside.”

“Oh yes, and please let the garage know I’ll be driving. I need time to think. The GT will do nicely.”

Less than an hour and half later a lipstick red Ford GTX-1 roared out the Big Apple heading south.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Twelve

Area 61

ETWF: 13 Days

General Robert Armstrong Laramie put on his game face and stepped out of his quarters joined by his aids and other hanger-ons. He was well aware this crisis had the possibility of spectacularly blowing up in his face. What was worse, just as with Lafitte, he would be left holding the bag if it did.

He’d made the only decisions he could. Remembering a quote about one of his personal heroes, Ulysses S. Grant, a Colonel named Theodore Lyman had made. "Grant habitually wears an expression as if he had determined to drive his head through a brick wall, and was about to do it.” Steeling himself General Robert Laramie prepared himself to go though his own walls.

Stepping into the conference room, everyone rose to their feet as he entered. He’d almost reached his chair at the head of the table when he heard a disturbance behind him. Robert Laramie felt his hackles rise as he heard Alan Glenn’s voice.

Forcing himself not to react, he sat and turned to see what trouble Glenn was causing this time.

“Hey Guys! Sorry I’m late. For some reason I never got the memo about the meeting, but that’s okay. I’m here now and we can start.” Captain Vroom wisecracked as the Security policemen held him.

General Laramie barked at the annoying ex-hero. “That’s because you don’t have a need to know. We will talk after this meeting.”

Then he ordered the men holding him, “Get him out of here. Hold him in confinement until I send for him.”

The General couldn’t help feeling enjoyment as they ‘frog-marched’ the annoying Glenn away. Taking back control of his briefing he ordered, “Dr. McClellan I think we’re ready to begin.”

The scientist looking startled awkwardly gathered his materials. “First of all the results from their examinations reveal our subjects are all in excellent physical condition and we can proceed on to the next step of the Chiron program which would be Project Daedalus.”

“It, as you remember, uses a computerized program that analyzes each candidate’s unique bio-chemistry and determines what is needed to optimize their performance. Then the necessary food and vitamin supplements are added to their diets. This is vital because, as mutants, sometimes this differs significantly from what is considered human norms. Additionally, our Meridian candidates had their first day of scholastic classes as well as beginning an intense training program to further develop their abilities.”

“Next, the Z-Ray 13 readiness inspection has also been completed and active operations can begin at any time.” The Doctor paused for questions.

The General responded, “Very good Dr. McClellan. It is good to know we are on schedule. What we all want to know is what is the current status of ’Looking Glass?’ Will we have three weeks or not?”

Nervous pushing up his glasses again the scientist called up a graphic. “That is a very good question General Laramie. As you can see here, the power-demand is continuing to climb precisely as we theorized. I have managed to slow it somewhat by fine-tuning the projector. That should buy us another few days, perhaps even a week. We have also brought in additional generators to help ease the power burden as well as updating the backup power supply.”

Nodding his approval General Laramie grunted. “Good work Doctor. How are plans progressing, to move ‘Looking Glass’ to the testing range topside? The last thing we want is for that maniac to blow up down here.”

The scientist called up another graphic, this one showing details of one of the elevator shafts. “What we propose is moving the entire containment unit to this elevator. Shaft 6 is the closest to the ranges and can be sealed off, offering almost as good security as down in the vaults. Additionally, it has the high voltage cable connections necessary to maintain the wormhole. Another dividend is if we place explosive charges, we can ‘eject’ the unit in case of something unexpected.”

“At worse, if it does explode the majority of the force will be vented upwards. However, I must stress that is only from the collapse of the ’Looking Glass’ projector, which even in a worse case scenario by my calculations will be well under a .5 kiloton. If Blazzar energy levels match my calculations, we could be looking at a 25 to 30 kiloton event. It would be a bad thing if that happened in the shaft, but better than in the vaults.”

“As per your orders, construction has already begun on the web of high voltage cables and conductive liquid reservoirs at range one. If we can make sure Blazzar re-enters our space-time continuum there, we should be able to drain away and dampen his energy reserves. In theory that will weaken him to a level that our Meridian candidates can then incapacitate him. At that point we expect him to regain his human form.”

“Since the unit now weighs several tons, including the monitoring and emergency backup power systems, the safest way of moving it from Shaft 6 to the range would be by a trolley system. We are awaiting your approval for the relocation plan before laying the track for it as well as the modifications to the shaft. That concludes all our plans to date with the exception of the containment of Blazzar after he is recovered.”

“If he changes back to his human form, ordinary sedatives should be effective. However, we are at a loss passed that point. Even if we coordinated with ULTIMATE, and send him to Dark Side Penitentiary, there is no guarantee that even they will be able to hold him.”

“Don’t worry about that Doctor. I’ve been in contact with the Joint Chiefs and we have top men in the field ready to handle the problem,” General Laramie stated.

He chuckled watching the assembled mass of PhD’s wonder just who he was talking about. They were the top men in the field and they knew it. General Laramie got a real thrill from pulling their chains. They just did not get it. If Glenn’s teenage oddballs and McClellan’s mumbo jumbo could cut Blazzar down to size, they would use old fashion means of finishing taking care of the problem.

The snipers recruited were the best with top of the line gear. Once Blazzar was vulnerable, again they would guarantee he wouldn’t be blowing anyone else up. If those Navy idiots in charge of Project Leviathan had simply put a bullet into the back of the head of that damn fool that kept changing into that monster, there would be one less disaster in the world ready to happen.

Sometimes men have to do hard things to fulfill their duty. General Robert Laramie would be damned if he was going to let another monster loose upon the world. Not on his watch!

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Thirteen

ULTIMATE Regional office New York City
September 9, 2008
ETWF: revised 20 Days

Inspector Philippe Imbert sipped his own special coffee blend that he liked strong and dark. Looking away from his department’s morning updates, he gave the so-called croissant his well-meaning assistant, Andrea, had deposited upon his desk a doubtful eye. Sighing at Americans’ lack of good taste regarding the culinary arts, he wondered again at the strange fate that had him working so far from his home in France.

Years before, when the UN sponsored ULTIMATE started staffing its various offices, many had grave doubts the Americans would live up to their part of the treaty, especially given how they’d stalled at almost every possible opportunity. Philippe was selected, all those years ago, by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs to make certain the Americans lived up to their part of the treaty

The other UN members had managed to sneak in an amendment switching personnel between countries. Although the charter had each office having to conform to the host country’s laws and traditions, ULTIMATE had vast power in its narrow niche; policing and managing mutants and others with extraordinary abilities on a worldwide scale.

He’d been at the sword’s point from the very beginning when the only support the Land of the Free would provide was castoff equipment. Rappelling in the dark from American Huey UH-1 helicopters that had numerous patches from bullet holes from their South Asian Affair were events he would never forget.

Now he was old and gray, and soon he would be shuffled out the door with a gold watch stuffed in his pocket. Not a bad thing for he missed La Belle France with all his heart. Still he’d seen many changes in his time here.

No more did their agents venture to arrest powerful criminals with weapons fresh from the design labs, unsure if the abominable things would work as advertised or blow up in their user’s hands. Now powerful dropships bristling with weapons carrying armored troopers, who were often more than a match for their opponents, would swoop in to take their quarry swiftly into custody.

Picking up the poor excuse for a proper croissant by two fingers, he sniffed it suspiciously. The biggest changes were in the people. From the very beginning, there were the mutant haters in their ranks. However, in the years since, he had seen what had been a few prejudiced haters become not the exception but the rule.

Even the very ‘surhomme’ who once volunteered to help protect their fellow man were treated so badly they had to be blackmailed and drafted to be made to serve now. The unfairness of that rankled, for many of those selfless souls had not only been dear friends, but had lost their lives in the line of duty.

With one last evil eyed glance at the pastry, Philippe looked around making sure Andrea was not looking and dropped the gastronomic disaster into his trashcan. Looking over the reports from his surveillance teams, that were not the only characteristic about what ULTIMATE had become, caused his nights to be less than restful.

Philippe’s department was charged with investigating a pair of mutants that had been causing problems for twenty years. The reports were always the same. Two women would appear from nowhere rescuing a suspect from arrest. Often they would avoid all contact with ULTIMATE enforcement agents and just as mysteriously disappear.

On the occasion when they could not just fade away, the two fought like the very Furies themselves. Using military style tactics, they evaded capture and for the most part stayed away from excessive force, but not always. A number of agents well known for their brutality to prisoners had found out to their woe, what you sow is what you reap. At least none of those were killed. Unfortunately, there had still been deaths.

He was reasonably certain that those had been unintended and accidental from causes other than enemy action. When you drop enough men and weapons into the cauldron, ‘Crap will happen’ as the Americans say. Friendly fire, isn’t. Of course, his superiors were unwilling to admit this and all too willing to put all of the blame on the two mysterious women. It was far easier to fault someone else than themselves for incompetence.

Another part of their Modus operandi was that none of those they rescued were guilty of anything serious aside from being wanted by ULTIMATE for breaking some infraction of the regulations regarding mutants. Although they’d seen a newer trend of late, involving desperate first time offenders since the jobless rate among mutants had risen sharply. Regretfully that was because new ULTIMATE regulations made employers leery of hiring them, because of the bureaucratic red tape they were force to leap through.

Others with similar skills and abilities of this pair, had been speedily apprehended. These were always the most dangerous and the hardest to bring to justice. However to balance that, there were always records of those with military backgrounds and the necessary knowledge. Granted, there were those who decided to simply disappear, and would probably never be found. That was not the case for these two.

If his deductions were correct these two amazons had actually been at large for nearly twenty-five years, but had only been working together for the last twenty. However, all he had were just that, guesses. No one in ULTIMATE’s extensive worldwide database matched the abilities and skill sets these two exhibited.

Suspect One was codenamed the Tech-Witch. Standing at about 6’ and slim, she was exceptionally fast and strong enough to easily combat even armored suited troopers hand to hand. Vehicles or any machine with electronics had even more of a problem because of her ability to mentally interface and override any electronic device. More bewildering was a telekinesis like power that instantly let her create other devices at need. Her technical expertise was considerable and did much to negate the high tech advantage ULTIMATE field agents depended upon.

His researchers had run down every possible mutant working in the technical fields. Surely, such a one would have loads of patents and designs all had reasoned. They had found absolutely nothing. Baffled, they’d checked out every record they could find of the initial testing all mutants were required to go though upon exhibiting their powers, but had also found nothing that matched this Tech-Witch’s technical magic.

Suspect Two was truly the dangerous one of the pair. After an assault company from India, consisting of three dropships and their thirty Enforcer Power armor suits, had trapped her where she could not avoid action, they had named her. The defeated troopers called her Kali.

However, Philippe thought a certain Greek goddess was more appropriate. She was the goddess of wisdom, for above all else this woman was extremely intelligent as well as terrifying in battle. Therefore, privately he had named her Lady Athena.

Shorter than her companion at approximately 5’ 8,” she had a curvy athletic build. Normally Suspect Two wore a flexible bodysuit with a motorcycle style full-face helmet.

Like her friend the Tech-witch, she had revealed nothing about her racial background. What they did know was she was one of the most powerful mutants on the planet. Blindingly fast, strong enough to rip steel apart with her hands, very resistant to harm, and exceedingly well trained. It was a certainty she had been well schooled somewhere in the covert and military arts, but no records anywhere matched her description.

What stood out about her was, taking that battle with the Indian assault company as an example; no one had been seriously injured. When she had had stopped being defensive and turned to the attack each and every blow had been made with devastating precision and power.

All he had were the interviews, since as normal for this pair, the Tech-Witch had wiped all the electronic records. It had been his very first clue that perhaps Lady Athena was deliberately not using her full range of powers. Not that she needed to given her great strength. Even more telling was the method she used to take out the supporting dropships.

As graceful as any Olympic gymnast she had leaped up and damaged the first’s primary flight control system, before moving on the next. In fact, one of the eyewitnesses had described it just like watching a floor exercise - if a gymnast could leap 60’ from a standing start. She had known precisely where to strike to disable the war machines.

However that first clue made him think that perhaps everything they had done were designed to mislead including the abilities they had demonstrated. With that in mind, he had looked over the database again, this time bearing in mind that perhaps deception had been their intentions from the very beginning. The long list that line of thought had created had been narrowed down over the years to just a dozen of likely suspects even if its basis was no more than pure conjecture.

His gut instincts, as Andrea would say, pointed him at a most unlikely pair, Alan Glenn and Margaret Carson. The deception was the key Philippe told his agents. Alan Glenn was a male speedster who had lost his powers and who now might or might not be counted as a mutant at all.

However, he was extremely well trained by the American military in many different areas including those their mysterious Lady Athena exhibited. Yes, even when he had his special abilities they did not include the astounding strength and toughness Suspect Two exhibited, but he had also been exposed to this Z-Ray 9. The same that gave his brother the ability to produce an atomic blast albeit only once. Who knew for certain what he could do?

As for his being male, well, his companion is a fashion model skilled in makeup, and let's not forget her uniform could simply be a type of padded suit meant to give the appearance of femininity. Additionally his business required him to travel often to the very areas their troublesome duo operated.

Then there was Margaret Carson who had absolutely no connections to the high tech fields since she was a model. However, her records from her school revealed she had an affinity for machines, especially electrical ones. Those records also stated she was at best a Beta class mutant with her physical talents just above human maximums.

Impressive yes, but still not anywhere close to the Gamma rating the Tech-Witch had shown them, which far surpassed anything even the best humans could achieve. It’s possible that perhaps she was an Epsilon that transcended normalcy to being a true superhuman. Yes, the Academy always was a stickler for obeying what the law required of them, but if she was indeed Suspect One then she could have adjusted the very machines testing her or even the records after they were recorded. Then too, even the talented teachers there might not have recognized just what they had, seeing how primitive electronics were in the early 1970‘s.

With only circumstantial evidence, Philippe had used ULTIMATE’s power to ask Alan Glenn to submit to a physical by one of their doctors while another team searched his home and office. He had even called in a favor and had a telepath try to read the mind of the ex-teenage hero. They had all found nothing and the telepath had found the man’s mind impenetrable.

He had decided calling Margaret Carson in would have been an exercise in futility, given his conjecture that she could easily command the machines they depended on to examine her to give any result she desired. He did have her townhouse searched as well as having her mind scanned but had come up again with nothing.

He could not even prove a decisive link between the two. They had met in 1989 during the Senate investigation of Project Meridian and The Rocketeer’s demise, he as a witness, and she as a spokesperson for mutant rights lobbying the committee. They might have gone to dinner together, but had not continued any sort of relationship besides bumping into each other occasionally at social events. He had nothing that could be called conclusive.

The only bright part of the entire matter was, that in the course of looking for these two amazons, they had found several others who had been guilty of other crimes. Ironically, a few of those had also been spirited away by the Amazonian couple.

Philippe had several agents working the other side of coin looking for their purloined suspects new whereabouts, but alas nothing. However now they had new developments. Coming out of nowhere the American Air Force picks up Mr. Alan Glenn for questioning. Not more than 24 hours later Margaret Carson receives a call from her hometown notifying her of an old friend of the family having passed away. She cancels all her appointments and leaves New York City so quickly the agents following her were still trying to catch up.

He considered it very interesting that Dr. Albert McClellan was seen talking to Mr. Alan Glenn right before he was taken away, the very man who was the chief scientist for Project Meridian. A cross-referenced search revealed several troubled young mutants were taking in part in something they called Project Chiron, supposedly a pilot program for a school for mutants. Strange that no records of such project existed outside of the handout the public affairs officer gave his agents. Not to mention that each child matched exactly the requirements and profiles needed for Project Meridian.

No, it was not a coincidence at all. He would wager that for some reason the Americans were about to illegally resume their mutant augmentation experiments. For some reason it also seemed they needed Alan Glenn.

Philippe rubbed his temples in pain. If Alan Glenn was indeed, somehow Lady Athena then he or she might be their best chance to disrupt whatever the American military’s plans were. However, considering just how much mayhem those two could cause he was sure the results would be astounding.

That brought up his other apprehensions about what ULTIMATE had become. France remembered only too well its occupation by Germany in WWII and the harm done to her peoples. It had taken much to get the French people to agree to the Mutant Registration Act. To many, it meant just a short road to back to the tattoos and concentration camps.

Of the twenty years these two troublesome women had been bedeviling agents, the last ten had seen the beginning of a covert network of mutants. Using the classic cell structure, they were well organized. This of course alarmed his superiors and was why he’d been assigned to the case for so long.

What alarmed him was that their goals were not to create terror or advocate for overthrowing their government. They simply wanted to be left alone and their organization was designed to spirit away those whose only criminal act was to be born a mutant.

That was far too much like the French Underground and their heroic actions in denying the Nazis victims. If this was true, that put him, Philippe Imbert, in the role of the hated Gestapo! Not a very pleasant thought at all for a patriotic Frenchman!

Wrinkling his nose at the smell from Andrea’s well-intentioned gift, he made up his mind. He had been behind a desk for far too long. If this was to be his last tilt at the windmills then let it be in the field. Opening his desk drawer, from it he removed the latest development in sidearms for ULTIMATE agents with an acronym so long most agents just called it a Gat, urban slang for a gun. Slipping the weighty energy weapon into its holster, he doubled checked his own personal backup firearm, a more sensible MR-93 with a 3” barrel. He was still ribbed by others at the firing range for his choice of the Manurhin, but he found that a little custom work fixed its small flaws. Besides, it was made in France!

Philippe dropped by his chosen successor’s office and gave him the keys to the office so to speak. Then he found Andrea with her arms full of files and juggling her PDA.

Her eyes opened wide as she took in his kit bag in hand and the look on her boss’s face. “We’re going somewhere?”

“Dump the files, and get your ready kit. Then signal the agents following Margaret Carson to break off and meet us in Charlotte, North Carolina. We will catch up to our subject of interest there,” he directed.

“But what she doesn’t go there? I mean according to our satellite surveillance she is still in Maryland,” she asked, flustered.

He gave his young dark haired assistant a searching look. She had been hand picked by him, and she had much potential; intelligent and dedicated. Only time would tell if she could avoid the corruption that had taken hold of so many others in this bureaucracy.

Philippe watched her eyebrows rise as he grinned broadly at her. “She will be there. Of this, I am certain. Trust me.”

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Fourteen

Area 61

ETWF: 20 Days

Alan flexed his shoulder after the two hulking Air Force cops pushed him inside the cell. Its real name was something along the lines of Interactive Containment and Confinement Unit. A jail cell by any other name was still a jail. The inside of the white hexagonal cell was like being inside a soccer ball. The interlocking hex grid would react to various stimuli like heat or pressure becoming thicker or stronger. It was just Doc’s take on a dungeon for mutants.

Just as he’d remembered, it was bare of furnishings with nothing to sit or lie on but the padded floor. Seating himself in the center of the cell, he settled down to meditate. He was beginning to feel uncomfortable. It’d been 4 days since he’d been able to ‘let his hair down’ and with the emotional stress of being here; it was beginning to take its toll.

Alan had spent longer times ‘hanging with the guys’ as he privately called it, when he’d begun building his business working in the shop or occasionally the pits at the track. When he’d embarked on his mission that’d been a sacrifice he’d chosen to make. However returning to Area 61 had unearthed many old memories. Not all were bad, many were happy but those others were painful beyond belief. It had reunited him with Ollie and that was something that no matter what shook down from all this in the end, he wasn’t going to regret.

Then there were the kids, different from his friends and yet the same in many ways. It pained him that Lizzie was even younger than Joyce had been. It was ironic that she was also the strongest just like Joyce. Ollie had compared him to Josh, but it was William that reminded Alan most of himself.

They shared the same malady, but William had already found a way of using his powers to ease that pain of the heart. If Ollie was right the power to change his appearance wasn’t an ability the youngster had naturally, but one his inner desperation to become her true self had developed.

It was definitely a case of the good and bad thing. Very good, that young William had found a way past that little birth defect. It was also very bad that it happened here with a piece of work like Courtney Hathaway around ready and willing to scramble his brains. That was why he’d just had to make sure these kids were protected from her.

In the background, he heard a warning klaxon go off. “Code Joshua! I say again Code Joshua!”

Alan sighed, remembering other days of the damn thing squawking other codes from days long past, Code Vroom!, Code Blazzar!, and others.

Unsurprised, a short time later he heard the cell next to his opening and his newest neighbor being forced within. Opening his eyes, he saw Josh beating on the hex bars in frustration. After a while, the young man threw himself to the floor in disgust.

“So what was it this time Josh?” Alan asked.

From next door a familiar sarcastic voice answered, “For all of your talk of just going along with the program it didn’t take you long to end up here. If you’ve got to know, I decided I had something better to do than listen to that lame crap Hathaway was putting out!”

Alan smiled shaking his head. “Wow this might be some kind of record. Not here two days and already back in ‘detention’,” he said, making quotation marks in the air.

The teenager gave him an angry look but said nothing.

“Back in my Rocketeer days, I spent so much time in here one of the Air Force cops put up a sign in here with my name on it. Let me give you some advice.”

“Rule number Uno. The Air Force may guard the doors and pay the bills. There might even be some head honcho wearing a blue suit with his name on a door giving the orders but there is only one man really in charge down here. That is Doc Mac. He designed all of this from the stuff top side to the vaults underneath. I have it on good authority that he even did the Nuke that’s under our feet, just to make sure no one gets out of his mad scientist laboratory out here in the middle of nowhere.”

Josh looked up his eyes wide mouthing “Bomb?”

Smiling grimly Alan nodded. “He is the genius everyone says he is and if anything they don’t know the half of it. One of the things you have to understand about Doc Mac is everything, and I do mean everything, is a test with him. You can bet on it that every time you make a break for it, Doc is charting what tactics you chose and how long it took to catch you.”

Alan waved his hand at the geometric prison about them. “Have you ever played any of those brain teasers? You know, the puzzles that test your ingenuity? That is all these really are. I escaped from detention three times. If you can figure out the key you can get out.”

Josh sat up giving Alan his full attention now. “So how did you do it? It’s like being inside a giant Nerf ball. You can’t tear it or it gets thicker and just trying to bend it makes it harden.”

Shaking his head no, Alan explained, “What worked for me thirty years ago won’t do the job for you. Josh you have to learn more about yourself and I’m not talking only about your invisibility power. In fact I’ll wager I know more about how your power functions than you do, and that is without looking at any records of Doc’s examinations.”

“Your power doesn’t affect cameras or recording equipment which means you’re not really affecting ‘light’ at all. It’s called obscuring. That means you’re affecting the brains of the people around you, preventing them from either focusing on you or perhaps even processing visual information about you. That’s important because that means you could potentially, instead of making them not see something that is there, make them see something that isn’t, like an illusion.”

Alan was glad to see Josh didn’t blurt out anything that Ollie had said the night before. Looking at the young man sitting across from him, he could see the rebellion of being forced to stay here against his will in his face. He could also see the need to prove himself not to others but to himself.

Resisting shaking his head, Alan realized that was what Ollie had been talking about when he mentioned how much he was like Josh. Much of Alan’s desire to prove himself was because of his malady which caused him to doubt and second-guess himself so badly.

Josh’s was that of a teenager in the process of becoming a young man who was perhaps more independent than most of his generation. He wasn’t obsessed with being part of the in crowd. That was certainly more like his brother Gus.

“Josh I know you don’t want to be here. Hell, neither do I! However, they have threatened to shut down my shop. I have responsibilities to the business I run. Not only to my customers, but also to my employees that depend on me for their livelihoods. I have to consider the consequences of my actions. My brother Gus understood that. It took me longer to figure it out.”

“He was a good brother and would’ve been an even greater man if he’d gotten the chance. The reason he didn’t was because some self-righteous assholes used him up for their own reasons. They turned him into a monster.”

“The reason I’m in here is because I was trying to find out what is really going on here. Am I going to go along with them? Yes, I have no real choice, but also to buy time for someone, anyone, who can, to do something about this. They have threatened to put you guys under the gun if I don’t help you make progress improving and learning about your powers.”

Alan looked up as he heard the cops coming for him. “If you’re always trying to make a break for it then you’re not learning. That brings you and everyone else closer to what I‘m trying to prevent.”

Standing up he asked one final question, “Is that what you want Josh?”

The sullen youth shook his head. “So I should just sit here and do nothing?”

The door of Alan’s cell slid open. “Nope, never said that. If you’re like me, you’re going to end up here no matter how hard you try. Someone has to keep these zoomie cops on their toes. Wouldn’t want’em getting fat from all the coffee and donuts!”

Looking up as he walked out Alan wasn’t surprised to see Dr. Hathaway. She had a disapproving scowl upon her face. Along with the two beefy zoomie cops, she led the way to his appointment with the General.

“What happened to you? Where is the hero that helped saved the world? Why are you fighting us so hard, when you can make a real difference again?” she demanded.

Alan gave her a disbelieving look. Just what kind of BS was she trying to shove down his throat? But, hey, that was okay. He knew how to play the game.

He answered her, “Oh, do you mean the whole 'You can’t put a speed limit on Justice?'”

She nodded back excitedly. “Yes! I have the entire collection of your comics!”

He sighed. “We’ve talked about this before. Since you’re a shrink, I would think you would understand what the word propaganda means. Those things were barely based on reality at all. That tag line was created by some guy in the public affairs office. You won’t believe what they had to bribe me with to say that in public,” he said, thinking back about all the ice cream he and the gang had gone though because of it.

Then he stopped looking her in the eye. “What happened was I grew up after the boys in blue mutated my brother into a monster and got all my friends killed. Not to mention nearly doing the same to yours truly and putting me into a coma! To the rest of world perhaps we were heroes but to the Air Force, we were just another weapon. Use it, clean it and put it away for next time.”

The two zoomie cops grabbed his arms and frog marched him away.

Ignoring them Alan continued, “Now if you would excuse me I’ve an important appointment to keep.”

He didn’t look back as they left the frustrated woman behind them. All too soon, he had other concerns as he was pushed inside ‘Old Lying to Me’ Laramie’s office. It was much like other military officer’s with a brag or ‘I love me’ wall covered in framed awards and pictures with various dignitaries. The entire thing was suppose to awe the poor supplicants who entered within. Of course, all of the chairs were positioned well away from the desk making you stand while the General sat.

Alan ignored it all and stuffed his hands into his jacket pockets, something he knew for sure would annoy the straight-laced military man. He had to keep from laughing at the bulldog like cigar chomping stereotype the General was presenting. Watching his old nemesis shuffle papers Alan wondered how long he was going to be kept waiting.

Finally, the General looked up and growled at him. “Just what are you trying to pull here Glenn? Do you think I’m buffing? If you don’t get with the program here I will shut down your little two bit grease-pit shop so fast your head will spin!” The General slammed his hand down for emphasis.

Alan crossed his arms. “Well it depends just which program you’re talking about. If you’re talking about my crashing your meeting, then I’ll say I want and need more information to do my job. There is a reason why you’ve resurrected this insanity. Knowing why will help me do what you’re blackmailing me to do. Hopefully without getting myself or anyone else killed.”

‘Old Lying to Me’ Laramie barked back, “You don’t have a need to know! Just do your job of teaching these subjects how to use their powers and you’ll keep them from going under the gun as you put it!”

“Oh so it is my conversation with Josh this morning that has your feathers ruffled.” Alan nodded his understanding.

Glaring at him from across his desk the General shot back, “Don’t you have any idea of operational security? They don’t have a need to know. We will tell them when it is necessary to do so!”

“That might work for the younger kids but not for Josh. He’ll spit in your eye because he’ll know you betrayed him. Hell, that’s what you’re doing to all of them. They’re not subjects, they're children. Lizzie is only six years old for Gawd’s sake. You, we, are acting as their guardians and by throwing them to the lions, we are betraying their trust.

“Oh they’re going along with this for a while just like Gus and our gang did, but Josh doesn’t have family ties to the younger ones like Gus did. He is just a year from graduating and in his own eyes a man. He sees all of this for what it is, a government conspiracy using kids who are different as pawns.”

“He’ll keep trying to run away 'till despite what you told me you’ll drop him because you won’t be able to trust him. I don’t have a problem with that, but then you’ll either replace him with someone who is starting from zero or try to do without him. That will push your precious timetable up and all of them closer to that big zap gun down the hallway.

Alan took a deep breath. “You want me to help. I did. I told him the truth.”

The man wearing the silver stars sat back in his expensive chair. “Talking about the truth are we? Then tell me how you’re interfering with our surveillance. No more bullshit about ghosts!”

“If you don’t want to hear about the ghosts and the little green men then you’re not ready for the truth. Considering what you have locked up down here, I’m surprised you’re so closed-minded. I guess it is true about bureaucrats and their lack of imagination,” Alan said, rocking back on his heels.

Leaning forward the General demanded, “I don’t know how you’re doing it, but it stops! Understand me?”

Holding up his hands in surrender the ex-hero said, “No problem. I’ll just find my Ouija board and pass the word to Kasper and the guys to lay off.”

‘Lying to Me’ Laramie gave him an evil grin that Alan knew he wasn’t going to like was coming.

“Speaking of ghosts from the past I have an old friend of yours that’s been dying to meet you.” He hit the intercom. “Send him in.”

As soon as the door opened, Alan knew trouble had just walked in. Unlike the two zoomie cops that had dwarfed him, the man being escorted in towered over his zoomies. He had to be near 7 feet tall and was over-muscled in the way professional wrestlers and pro football players were. The poor cops looked like children next to him. Dressed in the bright orange of prison coveralls his dark skin seemed even blacker. It was impossible not to recognize the shaved head and the mouth full of perfect white teeth when he smiled. Maxi-Badd.

That unfriendly smile showed the old criminal recognized him too. The Rocketeers had stopped his robbery and murder spree that left over forty dead and millions in damage back in the 70‘s. The bad guy from Chicago’s Southside had been sentence to life with no chance of parole mostly because no one could figure out how to kill him. Immune to poisons, diseases, as well as bullet proof there wasn’t any easy way of killing him. Old Sparky, just tickled and even drowning was only temporary. His healing ability made him one tough SOB.

Maxi-Badd had been one of the first inmates shipped to Dark Side Penitentiary, and now these fools had brought him back.

He might be over sixty and had spent 25 years of hard time in micro-gravity, but all that had not dulled the feral glint in his eyes. Nor had it blunted his intelligence. Alan saw him give a slight nod acknowledging his own thoughts about fools.

A quick glance at his escorts’ hands showed the remotes in both of their hands, which explained why there weren’t any manacles or cuffs, not that those would do a lot of good. Often times a supra-human’s power could be negated, but it had to suppress the way a specific power worked. The all-purpose power suppressor cuffs of the comic books were nothing but fantasy, but implanted explosives worked on everyone.

Control your actions, maybe not, but the threat of setting off a bomb inside your head unless you behaved worked nearly as well. Of course cortex bomb implants were disputed by the ACLU as cruel and unusual punishment and were by law only suppose to be used on the most dangerous criminals.

Tell that to Doc, Alan thought, thinking about his own little gift he’d gotten during his own recent examination. Part of him wanted to jump down Laramie’s throat for being a complete idiot, but he didn’t. He now had an idea what this meeting was really about. They were suspicious that he still had some kind of powers because they’d taken in the odd happenings around him and gotten exactly the wrong answer.

The zoomie cops stood ready in case Alan resisted but he’d expected it as the General nodded.

Maxi-Badd reached out to touch him. There was that split second that the old criminal expected him to try something, but it confused him when his old enemy did nothing.

Alan saw the flash of light as the clone of himself that Maxi-Badd created appeared. It really didn’t look much like Mama Glenn's little boy. As bad, as the mutant from the Southside was, it was his power to make temporary clones of others that really made him a problem. The good news was they didn’t have the same memories of the involuntary donor nor did they look identically like them. They all looked like Maxi-Badd’s versions of themselves, but they did have all the powers and abilities of the original. More to the point, they all had an instinctive knowledge of how to use those powers.

In short, he could make his own super team by cloning his opponents. Fortunately the more he cloned the shorter lived they all were. Second, they all shared Maxi’s vulnerability to telepathy and other mental talents.

Alan wondered just where Hathaway was, knowing she just had to be nearby. This actually didn’t seem much like Doc’s style so he was guessing either she or the General had come up with this particular test.

“So Max, I see you kept yourself in shape. Spent a lot of time down in the weight room?” Alan jibed at the big convict.

“Want to try the He-3 mines there, squirt?” His voice reverberated from the big man’s chest more like something from a machine than anything alive.

Then he saw her and imagined he could see her eyes light up with the use of her power, reading his clone for any signs of being special. It took an act of will power not to grin as she shook her head no at the General.

Speaking of which, he looked unhappy at the news. Well, simple minds did like simple solutions. He didn’t expect those two to figure it out, but Doc? As always, he was a force unto himself. Something for Alan to bear in mind, if Doc hadn’t already figured it all out.

The General got over his disappointment. “Saul Simpson voluntarily enrolled in a program to help encourage young mutants to enroll in the mutant registration program as required by law. He is also here to show that crime does not pay. In exchange, at the end of the program he will be eligible for a parole hearing overturning his sentence which he wouldn’t get without being in that program.”

“Since he’s here he will be aiding in the identification of our young subjects powers as well as offering someone for them to spar against as a team. I expect for you to put aside whatever grudges from the past that you have and work together.” Lying-to-Me Laramie laid it on thick saying nothing about Max putting aside his problems.

So, here is someone to put me in my place if I don’t behave as if blackmailing me with the closing of my business wasn’t enough. Should’ve known the General would fall back to physical coercion.

“You’re dismissed Glenn. You have a class to teach. Mr. Simpson will be placed on the lesson plan for tomorrow,” the General ordered.

Alan turned to leave but stopped as Maxi-Badd cleared his throat. “Be seeing you squirt,” the man said, glaring down.

Grinning at the big criminal and the clone, he’d created, Alan said, “Yeah I’ll be seeing you around.” Then whistling Queen’s ‘Another One Bites the Dust,’ he left.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Fifteen

Area 61
September 9, 2008
ETWF: 20 Days

Dr. Courtney Hathaway screwed up her face concentrating upon the temporary clone Saul Simpson had created of Alan Glenn as she mind read him again. Nothing!

Of course, there was the fear once he realized, he was the clone and was soon going to de-materialize into nothingness. Like all living creatures, this clone of Saul Simpson and Alan Glenn didn’t want to die. That was of no importance to her. Being a temporary construction of energy, you could argue, he never had been alive.

What was important to her was this clone had Simpson’s vulnerability to mental coercion and had all of Alan Glenn’s supra-human powers. Deep reading the clone all the way down to the instinctive level where he knew how to use those powers, she’d found nothing.

Nothing, but more questions regarding this man who was becoming more frustrating to her every day that passed. The clone had no mental defenses, which meant Glenn’s mind was only one of those she simply couldn’t read and not because of some inherent power. Of course, that didn’t explain how he’d been blacking out surveillance or how he’d gotten into the secure areas.

“Sorry Sir,” she reported to General Laramie. “I can’t find any signs of supra-human abilities. If Alan Glenn still had powers, Saul Simpson would have duplicated them in the energy clone he created.”

The General turned to the prisoner who was looking at his clone sadly. “Is that true? If Glenn still had powers you would know?”

The huge prisoner looked up. “Yeah. Any power stuff, he would know,” he said, nodding at his clone. “Magic and mystic Ju-Ju crap won’t but it’s a copy you know? Stuff you pickup or learn just from being alive doesn’t go over. They always have my memories and the special stuff of who I touch.”

Courtney added, “According to records, when he duplicated The Rocketeers, the clones had only their powers at pre-Z-Ray levels. That was how they were able to defeat him.”

The old criminal nodded his head. “Yeah. Like I said, stuff that happens to ya doesn’t go over. Just what you‘re born with or what that mutant thing does to ya’.”

General Laramie scowled at the prisoner, “When I want to know something from you, I’ll tell you.”

Then ignoring the flash of anger on Saul Simpson’s face, he gave out the rest of his decrees, “Keep on close eye on Glenn. He’s causing these disturbances somehow even if he doesn’t have powers. Doctor Hathaway pay close attention to Joshua Dean. If he doesn’t get with the program, I need to know. So far we are on schedule so let’s keep it that way.”

Turning to Simpson he said, “Do as you’re ordered and you’ll be released. If Glenn gets out of hand, you’ll get a chance at him. Am I clear?”

Still disgruntled at his rude treatment, the big con nodded. “Yeah. I understand ya’”

Courtney felt Alan’s clone begin to panic, as its time grew short. What surprised her was Saul Simpson’s compassion for his creation’s imminent passing. In his mind, each time one of those he’d made dematerialized into nothing, they’d died. Worse, they had his memories and believed themselves to be alive. Part of his cold-bloodedness came about because he regarded real people with the same yardstick.

Suddenly the clone flashed into a shower of lights and was no more. Saul Simpson hung his head sorrowfully and let himself be led out. For years, he’d refused to make any more clones, but for the opportunity for freedom, he had once more used his power.

Once more since Project Meridian’s rebirth and her meeting Alan Glenn, she had thoughts about the rightness of this enterprise. The sorrow from the big man had been unmistakable, as he’d been forced to do, what in his own eyes was murder. Even she couldn’t deny the last thought of that clone that had cried out, “I don’t want to die!” as it’s body lost shape and faded away.

Giving herself a mental shake, she pushed away her doubts. Power was the only thing that matters and by making herself shine, she would gain more of what she desired. So what if others were being stepped on. The only way to avoid that was to have the power to be the one doing the stepping she assured her conscience.

Confidently she left General Laramie’s office to carry out her duties despite the small but growing kernel of uncertainty.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Sixteen

Area 61

ETWF: 20 Days

Amanda found herself wondering if that older boy Josh had the right idea after all. He did his vanishing act almost as soon as they’d been seated. All morning was spent learning how to use the computers and the self-paced education programs. At first, she thought it was really lame, but this computer was way smart even asking her questions and seemingly chatting with her. Despite that, she found herself growing bored. It was so different from what she was used to.

Finally, lunch came around, but that was still worse considering the disgusting stuff spooned onto her plate. It tasted as bland as it looked and was about as appetizing as dirt. Looking at everyone else, they all had the same thought she had.

She and Malak had gotten to know each other a little and they’d both been relived to have found someone down here to talk to. Soon they were both chatting away while watching Lizzie who decided playing with the goop was a better idea than eating it.

Amanda did see Bill giving them an glance from time to time that almost made her think he was some kind of freak or something. However he’d such a sad look on his face she couldn’t snap at him. It’d be too much like kicking a puppy. Since she’d spent her own time being thought of as a freak, Amanda was a lot more tolerant now than she used to be. Malik did try to strike up a conversation with him but it didn’t go anywhere.

She did find herself looking at Malak’s brother because although he did look a little strange with his so pale skin and broad lips and nose, he was seriously hot. Although a year younger than her, he looked liked a body builder. The more she thought about it; maybe more exotic than strange looking.

Then their break was over and they were directed to the gym. Opening the locker with her name on it Amanda found a couple of different exercise suits plus this weird looking white one piece looking thing. If she’d any choice she wouldn’t be caught dead in it, ugh!

Malak called to her, “Here is a note. Dress in something loose and comfortable.”

“'Kay,” she replied. “Did you see this thing?” she asked her new friend, holding out the ugly oversized white footie thing.

The red haired girl struck out her tongue making gagging sounds. “No way girlfriend! That is definitely something that is getting lost in the laundry!”

Noticing they hadn’t heard anything from Lizzie, Amanda called to her, “Lizzie, you okay?”

The six year old had a tutu mostly on. Both she and Malak giggled. Well the note did say wear what you were comfortable with!

She helped the little girl finish getting dressed while Malak looked in her own locker. There was some dance stuff in there too. Both she and Malak had danced in the past but hadn’t kept with it. They decided the sweat suits would work for now given it was always chilly down here.

Happily, Ballerina Lizzie bounced into the gym ahead of them. The boys were already there, including Josh. They were in shorts and t-shirts except for Bill who was in sweats like she and Malak were.

That gave Amanda the chance to look over the two older boys. Unlike Malik, the jock, Josh was slimmer but no less athletic. He was more like a runner. His sandy brown hair and rainbow eyes made her wonder if he had a girlfriend back home.

Mr. Glenn spoiled her examination but she’d seen Josh looking at her too in a way that caused her to blush. Hiding her red face behind her long hair, she gently punched Malak who was giggling at her display.

Their teacher pointed to a side room and stood aside as all six of them trooped in. It was one of those Dojo martial arts things she’d seen in movies. Removing his shoes, Mr. Glenn gave the dojo a respectful bow, as did Malak and her brother. The rest of them awkwardly imitated them.

The twins seated themselves cross-legged when their teacher gestured to them. Again, Amanda wondered what was up. This place was so different from any school she’d ever been in and she didn’t know what to expect.

Mr. Glenn was also wearing a sweat suit and had his hands clasped behind his back. “I know some of you have had some previous martial arts training but despite where we are I’m not here to teach you that. Yes, you‘ll pickup some of the basics but that is not the primary purpose.”

“You’ve all changed and gained abilities in the past few months. For some of you that may have been bad and for others it’s been a good thing. I’m here, not only to help show you how to the get the most from what you can do, but also to help you come to peace with what you are now.”

“I’ve chosen the dojo setting for a reason. You’ll still spend more time than you’ll ever want in testing labs, but what happens in here stays here. Whatever anger and ego you have stays out there at the door. In here we seek to explore and improve ourselves.”

“Now with that said, because we will be using the rules of the dojo and its traditions, tomorrow I’ll expect you in your uniforms. I expect those who know how to wear it to help those who don’t.”

His eyes fell on Lizzie and her tutu. Amanda had to bite back another giggle at his expression.

“Normally you’d be expected to warm up and stretch out before class begins but since most of you are beginners; we’ll show you how to do it right. However because you all have your own strengths and weaknesses we’re going to have to be adaptable,” he said, smiling.

“For example, could you please come and stand by me Bill?” Mr. Glenn asked the younger boy.

He showed disbelief and reluctance, but he did as he was asked. Amanda knew Bill was about fourteen and that he did some kind of stretching like stuff. He had blond hair and was okay looking, but still he was a kid two years younger than her.

Mr. Glenn asked him, “I’m not trying to embarrass you. Just making a point, okay?”

At the boy’s nod the teacher directed, “First touch your toes Bill.”

As Bill reached down, Mr. Glenn stopped him. “Not that way Bill. While standing.”

The boy sighed and stood straight.

Amanda felt her mouth fall open as his arms just grew longer till they touched the floor!

“As you can see, normal warm up stretches won’t do him any good at all so we’re going to have to find out what works best for him. This is just one example of how you, all of you, are going to have to help each other find the best way to strengthen yourselves.”

“Here is another example. Bill you can sit down. Malik come stand here please?” their teacher asked.

Amanda watched the well muscle youth stand next to Mr. Glenn and saw he was several inches taller.

“Malik I understand you used to lift weights, but stopped. Can you tell us why?” the older man questioned.

A little self-conscious of being the center of attention, the muscular boy answered, “Yeah, I used to lift, but when I mutated it wasn’t a challenge anymore. I could easily lift my entire weight set and not feel it.”

“Okay. Now I know you’ve had some training. I want you to spar with me,” Mr. Glenn said, taking a step back.

Amanda felt herself take a deep breath. Didn’t they say he’d lost his powers? What if he got hurt?

Malik must have thought of the same thing, because he protested, “But Sensei you lost your powers didn’t you?”

Mr. Glenn inclined his head in acknowledgment, but settled into a stance. “To the second fall. Begin!”

Unsure of himself, Malik got ready as they bowed to each other. It did him no good at all, as the older man smoothly glided up, spinning around the bigger youth.

Suddenly Malik was on the mat! Surprised for only a moment, he vaulted lightly to his feet. He threw a series of punches and kicks, but Mr. Glenn was always just out of reach. Just like before, their teacher passed by him, not even touching it seemed, and their classmate was falling to the mat.

Standing, they both bowed to each other again, and Mr. Glenn gestured him to have a seat.

“Malik is stronger and perhaps even faster than I am, but by denying him the chance to use that strength he was defeated. What I used was Aikido. Just so you know, I’m certified to teach in several different martial arts forms.

“I was first taught when I was here some thirty years ago. I kept it up because I enjoy the meditative aspects, and for self-protection in case any old enemies from my Rocketeer days decide that bygones aren’t bygones after all.”

“What did this match demonstrate?” he asked.

Malik answered, “That superior power is nothing without skill.”

Mr. Glenn smiled. “In part yes, but having the greater strength means nothing if you can‘t apply it to the problem. Lizzie is stronger than you by at least as much as you are stronger than I am. The way her power works is different than yours but it still increases her strength by tons.”

“Think about this. I’m not trying to rub it in, but when your powers came, you had opportunities taken from you such as playing sports and other activities you enjoyed. Now we’ve already said Lizzie is also stronger, so what has she lost?

“She’s a girl. It’s not the same….” Malik began but trailed off seeing the hard looks his sister and Amanda was giving him.

Suddenly Lizzie jumped up and ran to the teacher. He knelt down, catching her.

“It’s okay sweetheart. Why don’t you tell them what is different now that you’re so strong?” Mr. Glenn urged the six year old.

Sniffing Lizzie almost cried, “They won’t let me be a ballerina or play with the other girls anymore. No one wants to pick me up or hug me too.”

The older man smiled at her. “I seem to remember that dance is taught here, and for being hugged…” He hugged her, putting her back on her feet.

Josh spoke up. “Fear.”

Mr. Glenn pointed to him urging him to continue.

The older teenager went ahead. “They were afraid Malak would hurt the other players. It’s the same for Lizzie. Since she’s so much stronger they were afraid for the other kids.”

“Very Good Josh! Not because of anything they did but because they could. They conveniently forgot that in Malik’s case that most football players could do much the same to anyone else, but yes fear.”

“Now Malik said the reason I defeated him was because of skill even though I’m not ‘supra-human’ anymore,” he said, making ditto marks with his fingers.

“No one has been able to define exact where that line is between human and more-than-human. In truth, I’m on the border of the two, but that doesn’t change what would happen if he’d been able to strike me. Again, Josh’s answer is the name of the problem. Fear.”

“Was I afraid of what would happen if he did tag me? Yes! It would be like getting hit by a car. But I had knowledge in the form of skill that let me overcome that fear.”

“You’ll run into people who are going to be afraid of you. The more knowledge you have of yourself the better able you’ll be to assure them you’re not a threat. Now let’s have everyone take a turn showing all of us your power.”

Amanda found herself enjoying this unusual class. Glancing around she saw Josh was still here and hadn’t gone invisible again. Maybe this wasn’t all a waste, she thought, trying not to blush again.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Seventeen

Charlotte, NC

ETWF: 20 Days

Inspector Philippe Imbert watched Margaret Carson’s expensive sports car as it was towed into Rocket’s Speed Shop. It was brilliant. Just outside of Charlotte the red Ford started belching smoke from its engine. Of course, Alan Glenn’s automotive facility would be her first choice given its reputation for working with high performance machines.

Andrea Sloan stared at him. She’d managed to get them and the team trailing Margaret Carson to Charlotte as well as getting their office here to provide vehicles on very short notice. He admitted to himself, that he’d pushed her, but it was necessary for her to become familiar with her limitations.

“How did you know sir?” she asked, mystified.

Not taking his eyes from the marvelous play being presented for them, he answered his assistant, “I did not. It was simply too much of an coincidence that within 24 hours of his being virtually abducted by the Air Force that she would get a message that caused her to drop everything in her busy life and rush off.”

“We may never know how the message was delivered to her, but now we must ask ourselves if she is the Tech-Witch why she would want to enter within?” he asked, indicating the Rocket shaped neon sign.

Andrea looked at the shop and the repair yard beyond it. “The security system. If she is Suspect One, she’ll be able to access all the video data. That’ll give her leads to who took Alan Glenn.”

He smiled at her as she tried to understand the ramifications.

“But that would mean he is Suspect two! I know you’ve explained before how it could be done, but I still can’t wrap my head around it. I mean we’ve had him tested, searched his house, and never found anything,” she said, shaking her head.

“Suspect Two is a woman and he isn’t! I mean even with a padded suit disguise, he’d still be a guy. I just can’t see how Alan Glenn could pass as Kali!” she explained.

As the tall model moved inside the garage, Philippe transferred his attention to the image the roof mounted thermograph scanner provided. Ah the advantages of a company vehicle. The high tech device let one look through walls, even better than the fabled x-ray glasses, by reading the heat differential between items. This latest generation was truly magnifique.

The images were so detailed that he could see the laptop she carried in her carry bag. He paid attention as the supposedly inactive machine’s hard drive came to life and how long it lasted. A suspicious man might deduce she’d used her supra-abilities to locate the information she desired and downloaded it to her machine.

Of course once again no proof, only suspicions. Even if they arrested Margaret Carson, and searched that device, he’d no doubt they would find nothing but what she wanted them to see. Despite this seemingly lack of success, this was the closest he’d come to these two specters in the twenty years of the chase.

Philippe wondered at the relationship between his two amazons. That Margaret Carson had dropped everything so suddenly suggested something close. It was yet another part of this puzzle to bear in mind.

A short time latter, they were tailing her as she took a cab to the airport Hilton. As always, he took the opportunity to further school his young protégé.

“What do you believe our suspect’s next move will be Andrea?” he asked.

“If it was anyone else I would think she’d plans to take a flight since her car is in the shop for several days. However, you’re always saying how nothing is obvious with these suspects. So taking a room near the airport help confuses just what she is intending and if it is as well a diversion, the busy traffic in this area makes tailing her difficult.”

“We also can’t assume she is working alone. This network of theirs could easily arrange a pickup and drop-off. On the other hand, we have access to information she doesn’t about the probable location of Alan Glenn. How do we know she’d be able to track him?” his assistant asked.

Looking as their subject paid the cabby, and her few bags were loaded onto a trolley, the Inspector replied, “First we have to make some assumptions about her abilities, yes? We know she has an almost telepathic-like interface with electronics. This suggests she might be a very able hacker. She is likely not on the same scale as Cybernexx, but still quite effective, I imagine.”

“She doesn’t have to break the Air Force data security. We know Dr. McClellan was present at Alan Glenn’s arrest. If she did get the security footage, she would know him for it was at the investigation of Project Meridian that these two first met.

“Tracking down where Alan Glenn is being held might be difficult, but she has only to find this famous scientist instead. Besides we must also be aware that if these two amazons of ours are as close as we suspect, the secret of where Area 61 is might already be known to her.”

“It is possible that we could be lucky, and she’ll take a flight to one of the large cities near her objective, depending upon that network you mentioned to provide her with whatever equipment she needs on her way. However if they are as close as I believe them to be, we can’t overlook the emotional response.”

“How would you pack if you knew that your loved one was held in a near impenetrable fortress hidden in an inhospitable desert? What’s more you have no idea if he is alive or dead nor do you know of why besides of some trumped up arrest charge,” he asked.

Andrea thought about it. “You think she’ll go loaded for bear?”

Philippe smiled at the colorful American expression. “Yes. She will, as you would put it, bring out the big guns. We have never seen these two really get aggressive. It could be rather spectacular!”

Andrea countered, “What about those agents who’d they’d singled out? All had been brutally treated, and one had even been attacked on three different occasions!”

His smile disappeared. “Each of those had not one but many complaints about their behavior towards those in their custody. It is a stain upon this organization that they all weren’t brought on charges.”

“As for the agent you’re referring to, if I remember correctly he was struck in the groin hard enough to cause damage serious enough to require regeneration therapy not once but on three separate occasions. I can only say they were more merciful than I.”

“We both know it was only because his superiors turned a blind eye to his activities that he wasn’t dismissed for disgraceful conduct long ago. I’ve always thought they showed great restraint given they could have simply killed him. Instead it took not one or two attitude adjustments, but three for him to get the idea to formally resign.”

Philippe turned and looked Andrea in her eyes. “Remember this. These two women avoid confrontations whenever they can. In every incident, they rescue mutants from arrest. It can be argued that they are saving lives given the number of fatalities that happen to those within our custody.”

She started to protest, but he held up his hand to forestall her.

“Yes I know those they rescue had warrants for their arrest and our two amazons are criminals for aiding and abetting their escape among other charges. However remember that here, unlike my home; one is not guilty until it is proven. More over, we must hold ourselves to a higher standard of conduct and not behave like animals,” the old inspector said fiercely.

Shaking his head he sighed. “Forgive an old man for drifting off the subject at hand.”

“She will either disappear here to arm herself or have one of their network meet her on the way with said armaments. If here, it is likely it is Alan Glenn’s secret cache that we’ve been unable to find despite our searches of his property.”

His assistant blinked as he changed the subject. “Do you want to increase the surveillance of his home and business?” she asked.

“No. Have Team Two that has been watching Margaret Carson depart for Las Vegas. They need some time to rest. Team Three that was watching Alan Glenn will take over her surveillance. They will accompany us. If we lose her here, I want search warrants for his home. Perhaps if she is hasty and careless we may yet solve this mystery.”

<<<<>>>>

Between Universes

The entity knew not of hunger or pain. Its very body burned with anger and rage. The immense power within it blazed with energy. Its blood, hotter than suns, burned in its veins as matter was devoured by anti-matter in its rampant heart.

Endlessly, it had been trapped in this fissure between worlds. The rage it felt could not be contained and slowly particle by particle it tore itself free. Lightning flowed like rain as electrons were ripped asunder in a flood of power.

Soon it would burst free of this genie’s bottle and the world would burn.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Eighteen

Charlotte, NC

September 10, 2008

ETWF: 19 Days

Maggie Carson smiled as the Mercedes C-class sedan pulled up to the curb, cutting off a taxi trying to take advantage of the late night nightclub crowd. Her lover jokingly called it, ‘the family car.’ She slipped into the empty driver’s seat; hands snapping shut the five point racing harness as she commanded the car’s autopilot, “Begin Razzle Dazzle.”

The hydrogen powered V12 slammed her back into her seat as it blasted from zero to 60 in under four seconds. The tires squealed as the car nimbly skipped across the lanes of traffic. Val may have done most of the work on the body and motor, but Maggie had added some of her own technical magic as well.

The upcoming traffic light cycled a little slower so the speeding car had a clear road ahead. A Heads-Up-Display (HUD) like that used for high performance military aircraft lit up, identifying upcoming intersections and potential hazards such as the local cops.

Maggie smiled thinking of her pursers’ dilemma. She didn’t need the HUD for that was strictly for Val’s convenience. Using her powers to interfere with her watchers communications she let the autopilot take them away. With luck, no one saw her enter the car, but she wasn’t taking any chances. She just didn’t have the time to screw around.

The car slowed as its system changed the traffic lights behind them to ‘Red Light’ any pursuers. She checked for RPV’s and other surveillance devices but breathed easy when she found none. At a more sedate pace, the ‘family car’ headed for home.

It had started life off as a Mercedes C-class but Val, the car nut, had seen a Brabus Bullit in action. The Brabus Company had taken a Mercedes and after an extensive conversion had turned it into a fire-breathing monster. It was classed with other super-cars costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Of course, something like that was way out of character for their cover identities. Therefore, Val decided to build her own. Purchasing one Mercedes publicly and another used one under the table and off the books; she set out to outdo the original inspiration. Her business contacts made it easy to get the parts she needed and a little pleading to Maggie got her all the technical data with a some discreet hacking of the Barbus company‘s database.

What had come from that was what even she had to admit was a work of art, even if it did look like a sedan. After Maggie had gotten involved, they’d had quite the laugh about the super secret spy car they had. Using what started life off as the self-parking system, Maggie had given it the ability to drive itself and other systems that would have made the fabled ‘Q’ envious, even if they couldn’t show it to anyone. Ever the illusionist, Val had outwardly made the two cars match right down to the serial numbers.

Maggie sighed admitting that she’d gone a little over the top with her improvements. The memories of the two of them working together helped to dispel some the worry she felt about the fate of her partner and friend. She was hugging herself when the car pulled into the garage.

Normally the ‘family car’ would be hidden by parking it in the chamber underneath the ‘public car’ so that only one was ever visible. Val had stolen the idea from an old TV program. This time however Maggie would need all the special help she could get and so was taking the ‘family car’ on its first cross-country trip.

Quickly she grabbed her bags loaded down with all kinds of goodies. In the years, they’d been at their Crusade they’d had to prepare for almost any situation. Selecting the kit with the desert survival gear, she added it to her load. Thinking for a moment, she added both hers and Val’s heavy combat rigs to the pile.

Grunting, it took her a couple of trips to get everything loaded. She was glad for Val’s little folly now. Her Ford GTX could almost match the performance of the ‘family car’ but the sedan had a hell of a lot more room.

Back in her hotel room where she’d reviewed the footage of her lover’s abduction she’d recognized McClellan’s face at once. Knowing where to look online she’d found where he’d been taken in for questioning for unspecified reasons. She’d also seen where his employees had the business’s lawyers involved but didn’t expect them to make any difference.

Hitting the kitchen, she packed a cooler full of food and drinks. After dragging that to the nearly full car, she checked the house’s systems. It’d been maintaining the facade that the owner was still there by playing with the lights and other ruses.

Maggie changed it to notify all, that the resident was going on vacation for a few days. Then tired from the long drive to Charlotte as well as the stress and worry about Val she slipped back into the car ordering it to head for Tonopah NV. Reclining the seat back, she closed her eyes as the ‘family car’ backed out, continuing her quest.

<<<<>>>>

Chapter Nineteen

Area 61

ETWF: 22 Days

Alan pushed the keyboard away, finished with his report to his blue suited blackmailers. Doc Mac and his lab monkeys would be measuring everything the kids could do, but to help them grow into their powers Alan had to evaluate their potential. That was more than just what the mutation had done to them. It was also, about what kind of kid they were and the person they could become.

Would they work at improving themselves? Did they have problems in groups or emotional issues? Not to mention since most of this bunch were teenagers, the whole boy/girl thing. When the mutation did its usual of making one stronger, faster, smarter and what-have-you, it often made one more attractive. That only made sense seeing how much appearance had to do propagating the species.

That didn’t ease his concerns about the looks he’d seen Josh and Amanda giving each other. If that wasn’t enough, Billy was going through his own trial regarding not just his sexuality but his very identity. Both Amanda and Malak seemed tolerant of him so far. Speaking of the twins, they’d been reserved so far. Malik definitely needed an outlet for his athletic energies while his sister needed a large enough area for her to practice her flying.

Then there was the whole question of how to deal with his old buddy Maxi-Badd. In a way, having them spar against themselves would be a nice tool. The problem was Max was a sociopath. Alan could almost feel sorry for him, since it was his mutation that had screwed him up royally in the head. That still didn’t make up for all the people he’d killed and crippled.

Sighing he laid down. Somewhere outside of this Hellhole, his lover was on her way to him. No doubt worried and wondering what had happened to him. Closing his eyes, he smiled remembering the last time he and Maggie had been together.

He’d almost drifted off to sleep on that happy thought when his door creaked open. Pretending to be asleep, Alan opened his Senses. He was instantly flooded with information. Scents, sounds, and the very touch of the air-conditioned breeze upon his skin spoke to him.

Miss Nosy Hathaway was still awake with her door open. She had stopped typing and was presumably listening to what was happening at his room. The kids were all asleep, but for the one coming closer to him now. The smell of milk and cookies she’d had was lingering about her because she hadn’t brushed her teeth. Lizzie.

A force-screen reinforced finger harder than a diamond poked him. Alan winced, dropping his sham of being awake. “Hey why did you do that for?” he asked, rubbing his shoulder while sitting up.

According to Doc Mac’s report, Lizzie produced an energy field about her that multiplied her strength many times over as well as protecting her. Using Psycho-kinesis to boost their normal physical abilities wasn’t a new trick among mutants, but usually it was ‘powered’ by what they ate or in some cases absorbed from other sources.

Lizzie’s power level was way up there. It was a mystery where and how she got the energy. Alan thought her biggest problem was that she was only six and was still figuring out this good/bad thing. She had the potential to turn out to be as much trouble as Maxi-Badd, an immensely strong nearly invulnerable spoiled brat.

Ignoring his question, her blue eyes looked into his. “Why is everyone afraid of me? Is it because I‘m different?”

Alan had a feeling this was one of those conversations he just had to get right. Despite what Ollie had told the kids the other night about keeping even him out, if he had to enter their minds, he could. He‘d shown them what a child of his people needed to know, but he was after all an adult. Besides Alan trusted his friend to mentally reach the child and show her what was right and wrong a lot more than he did Courtney, Nosey, Hathaway.

Of course, if he handled this right, neither of them would ever have to. “Am I afraid of you?” he asked.

Lizzie shook her blond curls. “No you pick me up and hug me all the time.”

He sat up and pointed out, “How about Amanda and Malak? They give you hugs too?”

She let a smile slip in. “Un huh. They give me candy too.”

Smiling back he said, “See? Not everybody at all. So why did you poke me?” he asked again.

Her face showed her concentration before she spoke, “I wanted to talk to you.”

Alan smiled at her wanting with all his heart to reach her with this message, “About people being afraid and if you’re different?”

Not being able to help herself she smiled back nodding yes.

“Did you have bullies at your school that pushed the littler kids around?” he questioned.

Her blond curls shook again at her nod. “Jeffery was always pushing everyone. He was mean.”

“Was he the only one who was bigger or taller than everyone else?” Alan continued.

Lizzie replied, “No. Mary Jo was really tall and Frank was big too.”

“Were they all mean too?” he asked.

Her face screwed up again thinking hard, “Sometimes but not always.”

“So the smaller kids were afraid of them because they were bigger and stronger even though not all of them were bullies?” he inquired.

As she nodded, he smiled. “Well there you are!”

She looked at him confused.

Gently Alan took her hands in his. “You’re a lot stronger now, right? And sometimes when you’re not careful, like you did waking me up, you use more strength then you mean to?”

Understanding dawned on her face and her smile disappeared, “I didn’t mean to hurt you!”

He hugged the young girl. “Shh princess,” Alan comforted. “Just like those kids who were feared because they’re bigger, some who don’t know better fear those like us. Because we can turn invisible like Josh or make the winds blow while inside like Amanda.”

She spoke up, getting it. “Or stronger like Malik and me?”

“I know you’re not a bully because princesses’ and ballerinas’ are never mean, right?” he said seriously to her.

She got a sad look on her face saying, “They’re always beautiful and graceful, but I don’t mean to be so strong and break things.”

Not wanting her to start crying, he told her, “Today in the Dojo, that was what I was talking about. We’re going to show you how to be careful.”

“But now is time for you to brush your teeth and get ready for bed. All the others are already asleep,” he said, putting her down.

She asked, “How do you know I didn’t brush already?”

Smiling and sending her on her way out his door, “Because a little blue bird told me.”

Putting her hands on her hips, she scowled back. “But there aren’t any birds down here.”

Pretending as if he was watching something flying he replied, “These are the blue birds of happiness. You can’t see them when you’re sad, only when you’re happy. Now off to bed.”

She tried for moment squinting hard trying to see the non-existent birds, before turning and running to her room.

As he watched her leave, he reminded her, “And don’t forget to brush.”

He’d heard Hathaway come out of her room behind him. “You did very well for someone who’s never had children, Mr. Glenn.”

“She should be with her family not down here with the lab mice, but you know how I feel about that,” he said, turning around to face her.

The psychologist shook her head disagreeing. “She wouldn’t have stayed there long. Her parents didn’t have a clue how to handle a child like her. They would’ve sent her off to the Academy or some other school. For people like them, who you marry and the children you have are just status symbols. At the very least Lizzie would’ve interfered with their careers and social lives.”

“So that makes you think she is better off here, or is it because it advances your purposes?” he added.

Her face grew a little flush with anger. “I offer you a compliment and you give me an insult in return. Besides what is wrong with both of us profiting from this?”

His eyebrows rose in confrontation. “Let me give you a definition of wrong. Tomorrow a man convicted of multiple murders is going to create a clone of that little girl. She is going to have all of Lizzie’s strength, but the mind inside is going be one responsible for killing a whole lot of folks. I know you should be able to jerk the strings of any clone if it tries anything, but if you can’t, Lizzie may be the only one who can stop it.”

Alan took a deep breath, “That is what I call wrong.”

Crossing her arms, “I can assure you nothing is going to go wrong Mr. Glenn. I’m quite capable of making sure Mr. Simpson and his temporary copies behave themselves. Speaking of which how did you know I could do so, Mr. Glenn?” she asked frostily.

Giving a sideways grin he replied, “I felt you trying to pry where you weren’t wanted from the very beginning. Now you want to know how. Self-defense, Ms. Hathaway. General La Big-Feet thought he could use a telepath to program us to be good little zoomies too. You learn fast if you still want to be you in the morning.”

Turning to go back to bed, he said over his shoulder. “You haven’t been in this business long enough. Something always goes wrong. Good night, Ms. Hathaway.”

To be continued



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