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Duke Bushido

Origins, practice, and recaps

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    His glasses told him he'd been asleep for about six hours when he felt the kick on the bottom of his foot.  Still groggy, he wondered where his boots where.  That's right; they'd been ripped to shreds in all the leaping while he was juggling the containers, trying to hover over a hellish abyss... His mind sucked the next few days across his consciousness in an instant, and he sprang alert.
    "Power?"  Joshua tapped his foot again. "Power?"
    Martin didn't know the name of the lanky thirty-something with the receding hairline and prematurely-graying ponytail, but all the survivors were face-familiar to him.  "Yo." He answered.  Not really his personality, but all he could manage with his dust-coated throat.
    "I've been keeping a watch.  I just... I just thought it best."
    Martin couldn't argue with that.  With all they had endured the past few days, it would simply be par for this course had the platform simply broken free and fallen into the fires below.  He kicked himself for letting himself sleep when he should have considered first the danger they were in.  "You want me to spell you." he stated flatly.
    Joshua was instantly nervous, regretting having asked.  He should have asked one of the construction guys, or maybe...  Words began to tumble from his mouth.  "I'm sorry, it's just that--- well, I'm as worn out as anyone else, and.. you know-- they say that you don't even need sleep, so it seemed--"
    "No; you're right.  It's a good call.  You've got a good head.  Get some rest.  I'll take over.  I need some thinking time anyway."
    Joshua skittered away to the far side of the cave mouth.  He couldn't really explain why he'd been so suddenly frightened.  Everything he'd ever read claimed that Martin Power-- simply "Power" to most of the world-- was a teddy bear at heart, that he was a homebody and a bit of a recluse who rarely came to light accept to draw attention to some charity or other.  Certainly he had proven that he cared even for strangers, the lengths to which he had gone in order to keep the survivors— most of them complete strangers to him— alive.  His sister seemed to look at him as part brother, part playground.
    There was just something about him.  He was just so...  _big_.  He wasn't even freakish to look at like some of the other Paras he'd seen on the television.  There was just something about his size-- it was like being a child again, staring up at your father.  And that stern look he wore.  And of course the voice.  It was indescribably deep and voluminous, even at a whisper.  When he spoke, his voice simply rattled through your body; it was like hearing it with your lungs more than your ears.  It was...  It was like there was a grizzly bear inside a kettle drum that made words by farting thunder.  There was really no other way to describe it.  But that didn’t seem like the whole picture, the whole reason for how scary he was just to be near.  There was something about him, though-- something so … powerful…  Joshua was reminded of the little yappy rat-like vaguely dog-like thing his girlfriend doted on.  She loved that chihuahua, and the little rat seemed to know it.  Yet when his sister made any sudden move or random movement at all,the dog shot off in abject terror.  It was like it was keenly aware that the very person (possibly the only person, given it’s vile temperament) that actually loved it could also kill it instantly, on complete accident, without even being aware of having done it.  Standing there next to Power-- even when the giant was sleeping-- and contemplating having to wake him up….  Joshua had never understood that little dog more than he had in those few moments.  It was unnerving, and he had no way to put a finger on just what caused it.
    Whatever it was, Joshua was glad to move away from it.

    The sun had risen-- as best he could tell; it might be more accurate to say that they had good light-- just after eight the next morning.  Unusually late for this time of year.  Perhaps it was the dust.  Perhaps there was another cliff not too far away.  Perhaps they were deeper than his glasses had ascertained.  He had been up most of the morning, contemplating the climb.
    He felt certain that he would have no trouble at all smashing footholds into the face of the cliff, taking care to space them for the smallest among them, but he was worried at their endurance.  It would be brutally arduous for the most fit among the survivors, and they were not all athletes.
    Jester rose, dipped his mug into the pond, and made his way over toward Martin.  "Top of the mornin', Young Mister." he rasped.  He rinsed his mouth, spat, then took a long swallow from the cup.  "Ahh.  Sorry 'bout that.  Dust." he offered by way of explanation.  "I think my throat and lungs are carpeted with it.  Man can't keep breathing through a wet T-shirt but so long before he just needs a deep breath, ya know?"
    Martin nodded.
    "I see you been thinkin'." he opened.  "Got anything?"
    Martin shook his head.  "No matter what I try, it comes down to climbing this wall.  Frankly, I don't think there are many of us that can make it."
    Jester said nothing.  He, too, had spent the bulk of his night thinking.  "I've got to tell ya, I wasted a number of hours wishin' that plane yonder had wings.  Don't know if anyone here could’a flown it, but it'd be a sight better chance than scalin' this wall."  He fell to silence.
    The others were starting to stir now.  Martin had toyed with waking them when the sun first appeared, not wanting to waste the light.  He had opted to let them continue getting whatever rest they could simply because he had no plan.  There was nothing for them to do awake but think about how hungry they were becoming.  
    His eyes drifted toward the plane when Jester mentioned it.  His father had been a licensed pilot for single-engine craft.  He had tried to encourage Martin to develop an interest in flying by giving him lessons.  While he never developed the same interest his father had-- as his mass and density had increased, he actually became slightly fearful of flying, in fact-- he felt he might remember enough to make an emergency one-way flight to a controlled crash landing, but only under the best of circumstances.  However, that was a passenger jet; not a single-engine propeller-driven puddle jumper like his father had flown.  Moreover, whatever personal catastrophe had landed it here amongst the rubble had robbed it of wings and tail section.  There was no way it was ever going to fly.  He toyed briefly with the notion of throwing it up to the top of the cliff, but at this angle, it would simply come crashing back down.  Besides, he was certain he couldn't throw anything that far straight up, and the laws of inertia demanded a counter-force against a platform that he wasn't willing to bet could handle it.  No.  The plane wouldn't fly, and he couldn't throw it.
    "Jester."
    "Erh." the older man grunted.
    "Get Pollak.  Get me four strong men, with tools and the brains to use them.  Get as many engineers as you can find."
    "You got something?"
    "I've got a really dumb idea."
    "Well, you got me beat.  I'm down to dreamin’ about magic donkeys.”  With that, he turned and left.


    Three trucks, two jeeps, two military ambulances and a large number of well-armed men gathered at the face of the cliff.  There had been much discussion, a number of conferences, and no consensus as to the mysterious power source that had shown up on the satellite system.  No one was certain what it was, or why it was.  A signal?  More destruction?  A new threat altogether?  Finally, the decision was made to investigate, and to be prepared for anything.  The ground shook behind him as an armored missile launcher swung into position behind a pair of tanks.   Infantry troops took positions on the obliques to create a V-patterned kill zone around the point determined as the source of the signal.  The sun was setting now; it was almost eight-thirty.
    "Everything is in place, Colonel" a lieutenant snapped a crisp salute.  "Orders, Sir?"
    My orders...." he had been running through this in his mind, over and over while the men set up.  No one had any idea what they were up against.  Just seven days since the heavens opened and poured unimaginable death onto the earth, and still no one knew what was going on.  
    Still, they would never know if no one looked.  
    "My orders," he began again in crisp military fashion, "are to send eight men forward.  I want armor in front of them, and I want to know what's over that edge."
    "Yes, Sir!" snapped the lieutenant.  He jogged out to a group of soldiers who were going over their gear and securing their masks.  Even here, a mile back from the Pit, the dust refused to settle.
    The colonel watched as an armored utility vehicle crawled forward, one man on the machine gun turret and six men spread around and behind it, sweeping their eyes and their weapons across the horizon.  A few minutes later, his radio crackled to life.
    "Sir!"
    His driver passed him a handset.  "Davis.  Go ahead."
    "Stand down!  Repeat Sir, stand down!  No hostiles.  Repeat: no hostiles."  There was a pause.  "And Sir?  You might want to get up here.  You're not going to believe this."  The radio barked a quick squawk and went silent.
    The colonel was not accustomed to having enlisted men pass along orders, or even suggestions.  He was rankled, but kept his composure.  He also knew that these men were some of the best-disciplined troops in the service.  Nothing short of the truly fantastic would have broken their discipline.
    "Driver!" he barked.  The sharpness in his voice demonstrated the extent of his annoyance.
    "Sir!" the driver jerked to the best seated "attention" he could manage.
    "Take us in."
    "Sir!  Yes, Sir!"  The car started forward.

    As his car drew near, he could see the men, the utility vehicle abandoned, staring over the cliff.  Most were yelling and cheering.  One was turned away from the crowd, barking into his radio: "... ASAP!  Repeat, get those wagons here ASAP!  Empty the trucks and roll them forward, too, but we need the ambulances and every medic you can lay hands on to report here _yesterday_!  Out!"
    The man with the radio noticed the colonel's car and snapped to attention, arm folded in salute.  One by one, the other men noticed and did the same, falling to the sides so as to allow the senior officer an unobstructed view of the edge of the cliff.
    It was actually an eerie sight.  He had been looking at it for a week now.  It was as if the world itself had gone flat, and he had found the end.  The dust and even the horizon behind it hid the far side of the Pit, and the cliff edge ran left and right further than the eye could see.  Most of Pennsylvania was simply gone.  There was no other word for it.  It was just...  gone.  What was left on the north and coastal areas were rubble-strewn deserts.  The northern parts of Virginia and some of West Virginia, too, had simply ceased to exist.
    Fire had rained from the sky for seven-and-a-half hours, great meteors of an unknown and highly volatile ore had obliterated everything in their path, often shattering and setting up chain reactions that blasted over and over and over again until their energy was spent.  The veins of coal and oil native to this region had also ignited, even underground, adding their energy to an inferno that for the first few days began to look more and more like Armageddon itself had begun.
    All that was left of nearly twelve million living, breathing human beings was the Pit, a great smoldering scar through the crust of the earth, ten kilometers deep in places, cooling magma exposed here and there to the open air for the first time in untold millennia.
    The major stared at it.  He was a hard man, and had been hardened further by combat tours throughout his career.  Yet seeing the Pit, knowing the loss, how complete it had been, and how the entire human race had been absolutely powerless to do anything about it, shook him in a way that was undefinable.  He thought of the posters he had seen as a boy at the observatory.  There was a massive, wall-sized photograph of as much of the universe as had ever been collected by telescopes and radioscopes, and a long thin line across the entire photo to an insignificant, almost imperceptible little dot about a fourth of the way from one edge.  The other end of the line ran to a small box insert in the middle of the photograph, right at eye level.  The insert simply read "You are Here."
    For the first time, he understood the way that poster should have made him feel: less than powerless, more than vulnerable.  It was meant to remind him that he was the current end result of a simple accident of chemistry and fate that had no right to do anything but grovel undying joy at being allowed to exist.  Or perhaps we weren't meant to exist at all.  Perhaps it was simply that nothing important had noticed us yet.
    Then he saw the hand.  

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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    At first, he thought it was yet another in a long list of remains to be gathered and await the hopeless chance to be identified through some record: fingerprints, blood type, DNA....

    But it moved.  It moved up _over_ the cliff.  He was fascinated in an almost abstract way.  The hand was enormous. It was moving up... up...  

    There was an arm directly under it.  The fingers turned inward, claw-like, and the arm tensed.  Almost faster than he could see, the hand shot toward the surface in front of him, smashing through the rock and burying itself deeply within.

    The men cheered, screaming shouts of absolute elation, clapping each other on the back.  As the colonel stepped from the car, another hand appeared, the opposite of the first. It, too, clawed into the ground, closer than the first.  Then the arms flexed, and pulled a massive set of shoulders into view. There was nothing really to give any sense of scale to what he saw; there was simply something about the way the arms and shoulders moved that suggested an unnatural size.  He stared on, transfixed by the impossible thing he was seeing.

    Then a head rotated up, looking for the next handhold.

    The major gaped in astonishment.  "Holy shit!" he exploded. "That--  that's Martin Power!"

 

    Over the next few minutes, the ordered medics and vehicles had arrived.  Men had rushed forward to offer their hands in hauling the giant over the cliff, but he had waved them all away with shakes of his head.  If he relied on them instead of the stone, it would have all been for nothing. Everyone would be gone, just like that, so close to the end.  He had hauled himself out of the ravine completely, still punching handholds into the rock, still crawling on his stomach, propelling himself slowly, painfully cautiously, by secure handholds and footholds rooted deep into the crust of the strange glassy rock.  He moved only one limb at a time, not moving at all until he was certain that at least three of his holds were completely secure.

    Once he had crawled some thirty yards or so from the edge, Power began to rip and claw at the stone, digging a large hollow behind a sharp edge in the earth.  He dragged himself forward, moving carefully so as not to lift himself from the earth. In twenty minutes, he had moved barely a hundred yards. For the first time, the major noticed the cables tied around the giant's chest and shoulders.  Power continued to root deeper and deeper, increasing the bulk of the earth berm he was creating behind himself, then he dragged himself past the recess he had carved, and braced his feet against it. Cautiously, he rolled onto his back and seized the cables in his hands.  Slowly, carefully, he worked the cables hand-over-hand, pulling them over the stone edge of the abyss. They sang shrilly under the tension. Men ran forward, grabbing the cables and pulling. There was nothing they could contribute to the effort, of course, but there was an urgent need to do something, anything.  They had found the first, and possibly only, survivor of the Pit, and they were overjoyed.

    The colonel had just gotten his mind wrapped around the idea that someone had been through the hellish onslaught, the indescribable destruction, and lived.  He had just adjusted to that idea, and began to bark redundant orders to the medics when the setting sun reflected a glint of metal. As he watched, the bunched threads of the elevator cables drew an enormous bucket up from the abyss.  No. Not a bucket. An... an _airplane_?! The entire fuselage of an airplane slowly ground its way into view, climbing up above the men, then slowly tipping toward the earth. As the collected soldiers stared in amazement, the badly-battered fuselage of an Airbus A300 was pulled onto the flat ground before them by an assortment of cable and rope run through dozens of holes punctured through the structure.  No one could speak.

    "Almost there!" Martin hollered toward the fuselage, tension evident in his voice.  It wasn't physical exhaustion as it had been throughout the entirety of his ordeal..  This time it was fatigue of the mind and spirit brought on by the endless worrying about the people in the plane as it dangled from him by spidery threads, swaying out over the abyss and scraping against the cliff.  Every beat of his heart reminded him of the lives he held in his hands. Now it was over. Now he could rest.

    He gave one final great heave on the cables, sending the plane skittering forward toward the trucks behind him.  He stood and walked toward the plane. "All ashore! Last stop." He tried to keep his spirits high. "Do... something with your tray tables or whatever...." was the best he could manage before he crumpled into a heap, sitting in the shade of the plane.  Jennifer and the boys had been the last ones off the plane, the boys yammering non-stop about the adventure as if it had been a movie. Of course, many of the others were doing the same. Perhaps it was simply a way to cope.

    Jennifer fell into his lap and kissed his cheek.  "You did it, Big Brother. Just like Sister said you would." Then she, too, gave in to the exhaustion induced by the harrowing ride up the cliff, and fell on top of him, instantly asleep.

    “Welcome home, Kid.” Martin sighed as he kissed her head.

 
 
 
copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    It was all over the news for the next two weeks: survivors had been found!  Someone had been found alive at the Pit.  Stories and theories abound, and the military medical center had been surrounded by media constantly, microphones and cameras descending upon anyone who entered or exited the building.  Everyone was fine.  Most had minor injuries and all were suffering from exhaustion.  Some were dealing with severe stress, but all were being treated and responding well.  Other than that, no one was talking.  They didn't have to; the media ran with everything it could find.  In just a few short days, the two-hundred-and-forty-three survivors of the loss of twelve million people were the most well-known and scrutinized people on earth.

    There were debriefings in addition to the treatments.  Everyone was grilled and questioned and every piece of every word was written, recorded, and classified.  They were all repeatedly cautioned about what they should avoid discussing, who they should avoid talking to.  No; the agents assured them, they weren't holding any state secrets.  The events had simply been so much for the human race to absorb.  People needed time to accept what had happened.  Why make yourself a target?  Twelve million people had died.  Making yourself a celebrity by flaunting your survival might send people over the edge.  It seemed that almost everyone had lost someone to the Pit.  Put it behind you, they cautioned.  Move on with your lives.  Do the talk shows, of course; it would be expected.  But be reverent.  Be grateful.  Most of all, get out of the limelight as quickly as possible.
    Only Martin Power had plans that didn't include rushing into the world and sharing his joy at surviving.  Martin Power was about to bring us into the Interstellar Age.  

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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------------------------------------

 

    When the other survivors had left, and after he chased Jennifer away to take the boys to Dallas as Sister had requested, he called aside one of the agents prowling the halls.  "I want your boss."
    "Can I help you, Mr. Power?"
    "I want your boss.  Now."
    The agent was a professional.  He oozed an unflappable calm.  Power knew better.  He knew the man was nervous inside.  
    He knew it because he knew that for reasons he could not control, he was frightening to people in person.  Ordinarily, he hated that about himself.  It was one of the things that drove him to a life of relative solitude.  He had always felt that his charity work and media exposure would help, would allow people to "get to know him" as a friendly, if somewhat gruff, and warm person.  But it had never really worked.  When he was near, people were afraid.  It left him lonelier than he would ever admit, even to his own sister, perhaps the only person on earth who saw him as just another human being.  Even his parents were always guarded.  Not out of fear for him, but fear of the damage he might accidentally do.  Jennifer had always been his only genuine contact with the human race.  Had she not made it with him from the Pit, he would have simply gone back and died looking for her.
    The agent spoke into a small microphone in his wristwatch.  Power focused his thoughts on his radio receiver, sending the bio-electrical code to turn it on.  The signal was scrambled, coming through as unintelligible garbled gibberish.  He knew the agencies and the frequencies to which he had free access, and this wasn't one of them.  That meant only one thing: a black agency.  Someone with clearance equal to-- was it possible to have a greater clearance?-- the agency with which his own life was frequently intertwined.
    "Mr. Green will be here shortly, Mr. Power."  
    Mr. Green, he had said.  He casually spoke to the man in front of him.  "Thank you.  I have a massive headache.  I smell coffee, and I have no clue where I am.  Would you mind terribly if I asked you to get me a cup, Mister....?" he drew out the last as a request for a name.
    "White, Sir.  Agent White."  Colors.  That cinched it.  This was the agency he was constantly being drawn into.  White disappeared down the hallway and returned a few minutes later with a small tray and six cups of coffee.  "I uh...  wasn't sure how many you'd need--"
    "Perfectly understandable, Agent White," he replied warmly, setting the tray aside.  "Would you care for a cup yourself?"
    "Thank you, Mr. Power, but not while on duty.  Nothing but guard duty until my relief gets here.  Very strict orders about appearances, you know."
    "I do; I do know.  Well thank you again, Agent White" he said turning toward the door to his room.  He turned back, as if having been struck by an afterthought.  
    "Oh, Agent White..."
    "Yes, Sir?"
    "I'm going to drink my coffee and take a quick shower.  My sister finally got me some fresh clothes, and I can't wait to feel human again.  When I get done, could you please make sure that Rags is out here waiting for me?"
    The agent looked confused.  "'Rags,' Sir?"
    The man was a consummate thespian, beyond any doubt.  Martin bent forward and down, closing the distance between the two of them without moving a step, his massive jaw inches from the other man's face, his eyes hidden behind his ubiquitous dark glasses.  "You know damned well who I mean."  He held his position, waiting for the other man to make even the slightest squirm.  They always did.  Everyone but Jennifer.  A moment later, he saw the slightest glisten of sweat in the agent's hairline.  "Don't you, Rainbow Boy?"
    Agent 'White' swallowed hard, maintaining as much of his composure as he could.  "Yes, Sir, Mr. Power.  He'll be here, Sir."
    "And tell Mr. Green that I think my business is best addressed to Mr. Black."
    "Yes, Sir." the agent replied weakly.
    Martin stood back up and resumed his carefree small talk demeanor.  "Good!  Wonderful!  It'll be nice to finally see some old friends again.  Are you sure you don't want a cup?" he held a tiny styrofoam container delicately between two fingers.  The agent shook his head frantically.
    "All righty, then.  Enjoy your morning, Agent White."  The door closed, and Agent White slumped against the wall.

    "... and I don't care what it means to you, Black; you are going public with this."
    "No, Power.  We're not going public.  The people can't know, especially not now, not after this."
    "Listen to me, you suit-wearing high-and-mighty pinhead!  If you had gone public with it fifty years ago, then quite possibly none of this would have happened.  We would have had systems in place; we could have let the people weigh in on the negotiations and decide their own fate.  Even if you can't do anything about it, there's a world of difference between deciding to accept it and having it sneak up behind you and KILL twelve million people!  Twelve million people are _DEAD_, and you _still_ want to play this cloak-and-dagger crap?!  Enough, Black.  More than enough!  I'm giving you the choice: either you go public with it, or the President will."
    "You don't have any sway over the President, Power.  You can't even get near him.  You certainly won't get his ear."
    "Really?  You don't think I can get the President's attention?"
    "You're a celebrity.  You're famous.  But you've decided to never play the Hero card.  As far as the President's concerned, your just another TV star.  Your opinion doesn't matter to him one way or the other."
    Martin fought to remain calm, reminding himself constantly of the damage he could do on accident even if he just threw his hands in a rage.  Black mistook this for agreement.  "Do you understand, Son?  You're a man unlike any other, and a Hell of a weapon in the right mood, but that's all you are.  You don't get to decide policy."  Black turned to leave.
    "Black." Martin growled to him, voice calm, but vibrating with menace.  Black stopped, only years of training keeping him from jumping at the danger that voice implied.  He didn't turn, but it was perfectly clear that he was listening.
    "If I decide that I am going to speak to the President," he growled slowly, "just how do you propose to stop me?"
    Black refused to pause.  His body paused in spite of his will.  He tried to exit the room, but his hand was frozen on the door knob.  He fought for control of his voice before speaking, refusing to sound weak.  "You're not going.  That's final."
    "It's not, Black.  It's really not.  And you know it."
    Black's mind had produced the Ace he needed.  "Power, there are a lot of good men that will give their lives to keep anyone from the President.  You and I both know that you are not a killer."
    "You have no idea what I've been through, Black.  You and your secrets have cost twelve million lives.  Twelve million people that you swore an oath to protect."  His voice was still low, menacing, the vibrato timber filling the room.  "I have always avoided killing people, Black, but it has happened.  I have to live with that.  Today, though, you have to live with killing twelve million, and you can't guarantee that it won't happen again.  Maybe you can live with twelve million dead.
    "How many was that, anyway?  How many agents?  How many soldiers?  How many men?  How many shopkeepers and truck drivers and warehouse workers?  How many wives were waiting for their husbands when the world ended?  How many children were looking out the window at school, watching the pretty streaks of color fall from the sky, Black?  How many millions of children were killed because YOU have to keep a secret?  How many will it be next time, Black?
    "Maybe you are just heartless enough-- or maybe you're spineless enough; I don't know-- that you can live with those twelve million, and twelve million more next time.  But I can't.  I won't.  I won't have twelve million more lives on my hands.  You can put a thousand men around the President, Black.  If I have to kill a thousand men to save twelve million...  It's just not going to be that hard."
    Black stood, hand still on the doorknob.  He waited until he was certain that the giant had finished speaking.  His fingers finally responded to his commands and the knob turned.  "It's not going to happen, Power.  You are not going anywhere near the President." he stated.  "That's final."  
    Black turned toward the registered Meta called Vagabond, the man that Martin routinely referred to simply as 'Rags.'  "Agent."  He barked.
    Power stood up, his head just clearing the ceiling, his inhumanly-wide shoulders making it impossible to pass.  "Rags stays with me."  He said.  Black frowned, stepped into the hallway, and closed the door.  
    Once he was satisfied that Black had left the building, Martin poked his head out the door, crouching low enough to again press his face into that of Agent White.  White made no pretense of composure.  He simply waited for... whatever was meant to be.  Martin let the man stare at him for a full minute, letting his fear build and overtake his rational mind.  Finally, he sighed with a note of disgust and contempt.  "Don't you have some place you need to be?"
    White turned and didn't _quite_ run down the hallway toward the elevators.
    He hated having that effect on people.  Certainly it had been useful many, many times over the years, but each incident served to remind him of the distance between himself and everyone else.  Martin pulled himself back into his room and looked at his acquaintance.  He was not really sure if they were truly friends, but he trusted him more than most other people he had ever known.  Perversely, he knew that trust was misplaced.  He knew that the agent would sell him down the river in an instant if he felt it benefited the country as a whole.  He suspected that the reason he trusted this man was that he understood his motivations.  Rags wasn't looking for power or secrecy or any other goal one might expect from a high-level black agent.  He was motivated purely by the love of his nation, and the need to show that love by tending to the good of her people in every way he could.
    Martin stared at him, cocking his head, his usual frown deepened in an unvoiced question.
    The costumed Meta shook his head and pointed to his ear.  It wasn't safe to talk here.
    Martin nodded understanding and moved toward the far wall of his room.  He drew back a fist and slammed it through the wall.  Drywall fell inward, and cinder blocks and brickwork exploded outward.  Armed guards in the parking lot took cover, then looked toward the noise in time to see a man leaping from a gaping hole in the sixth floor, another man tucked under his arm.  There was no doubt as to who it was.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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They hit the ground nearly a mile from the facility.  "They should have had a window there anyway.  So where'd you park?" Martin asked the agent, passing him up onto his shoulders.
    "I rode with Black."
    "That's not what I asked you." Martin replied, familiar with both the Meta's tendency toward coyness and his almost psychic preparations for nearly everything.
    "About fifty miles from here, in the woods near a hunting club.  Head west."
    Martin began to run.  Martin Power could run like no normal human could.  It stood to reason; he was a Para, after all, registered or not.  He wasn't on a par with true Speedsters, Paras with astounding powers of movement, but he could sprint short distances at up to sixty miles per hour, and could run for a two days straight at half of that.  He couldn't outrun a car, but he could do things and go places that a car couldn't.
    The facility had been in the center of a closed military installation, ostensibly reopened temporarily to house the relief effort workers and materials focused on the Pit.  Martin raced across it, letting his GPS guide him.  He went due west.  If there was something in his way, such as a building or hut, he simply leaped over it.    When they headed toward glades of woods, Vagabond slid down Power’s back and sheltered his head, letting Martin plow through without the need to slow down or worry about dislodging his passenger.  It was very much the way he used to race around the farm with Jennifer on his shoulders when they were younger, except that the man on his back, like most other people, remained stiff, guarded, fearful.  Still, long experience together had taught him that even in the worst possible situations, he could trust the giant with his life.

    About two hours later, they came across a small moving truck backed up an access lane off of a dirt road.  "This is us."  Vagabond announced.  Power stopped and let him down.  The back of the truck was rolled up, and it was filled with crates.  Vagabond pulled on the strapping securing the crates and they swung back out of the truck, revealing the top row of crates to be a false wall.  There was plenty of room toward the front of the truck and a seat that could only be meant for one human being on earth.  "Get in." He ordered, and Martin climbed inside, neatly hopping over the row of crates and rolling down in front of them.  He made his way toward the chair and fastened himself in.  Five point harness, he noticed.  Not usually standard in a moving truck.

    They flew down the dirt road, sliding around curves and spraying rooster tails of soil and gravel.  "Don't turn us over, okay?  I don't know where we're going, and I'd hate to have to find it by myself."
    "Don't worry about it.  It only looks like a truck."
    That much had been fairly obvious: no moving truck could take off like they had.  Martin settled into the seat and slid open the panel in front of him, opening a path into the cab of the truck.  "Why a dirt road?  It's not like I was careful running through the trees.  They'll figure out where we went easily enough.  Tire prints aren't going to help us lay low."
    "Got that covered.  Wait till we hit pavement."
    In a few minutes, they did exactly that.  Vagabond (it occurred to Martin at that point that in all their years together, he had never learned the other man's actual name) reached down to the dashboard and popped the yellow lever marked "Parking Brake."  Martin braced, expecting a spill of air from the brake system to lock the wheels, sending the truck careening out of control.  Instead, the truck bounced lightly while a series of loud thumping noises passed beneath the carriage.  
    Vagabond saw him staring into the review and answered his questioning look.  "New tires tracks.  Think of it like re-treads over brand-new tires.  The lever tripped a circuit that sent a signal to a layer of mesh in the false treads.  The mesh heated instantly, softening the glue and releasing the false tread pattern."
    "Nice.  But won't they notice the glue when they find the treads?  And won't glue make a perfect imprint of the new rubber?"
    "They won't find them.  The mesh is still heating.  Without finding the old tires, they won't look for new ones.  Hang on tight; we need to change our handling characteristics before we get out of cover."
    Martin reached his hands toward the roof of the truck's cargo box and wedged himself in place.  In the back of his mind, he made note that the plywood didn't flex the way he expected.  There was armor in the roof.  Also not standard in a moving truck, he thought.
    He missed the next control input, but he heard a series of clacking noises from underneath and overhead.  Then he felt the rear of the truck drag a bit; a sudden lurch and the sensation was gone.
    "We're longer."  Vagabond called out without taking his eyes off the side view mirror.  "Wasn't sure where your chair was bolted.  Thought you might get a little dizzy."
    Martin craned his neck to see behind him.  No doubt about it; the row of crates he had climbed over was now roughly eight feet further back than when he came in.  "Nice trick" he called forward.
    "One more."  His hand reached for the shifter (it also occurred to Martin that Rags had never actually shifted the truck.  Evidently the gear shift was a dummy) and grabbed what looked for all the world like a two-speed switch.  He  pulled the switch up, then up again.  More clanking and the distinct sound of electro-hydraulics, this time from the row of crates.
    "And now we're a ten-wheeler." Vagabond slowed the truck to a pace more in keeping with the truck they appeared to be.
    "You're just a closet full of tricks today, aren't you?"
    The other man grinned.  It wasn't something he did often, but then praise from Power wasn't something he got often, either.  The two had an interesting relationship.  His job was to manipulate and "handle" the giant, and Power was discreetly aware of it, yet accepted him on other merits.  The two had a great deal of respect for one another, but their closeness was that of battlefield professionals, used to relying on each other.  They were not warm to one another, both seeing the practicality in maintaining a professional distance.
    "This place is a veritable warren.  I've got six burrows, all of them within an hour of here.  Two hours and I can get you twenty-nine.  We go to Canada, we've got space and cover but few options to go to ground.  We go to DC, and we can stay down for weeks if we have to."
    "Seriously?  DC?"  The big man was confused at the idea that they could best hide from the government in one of the busiest-- and certainly _the_ most government-infested-- cities in the nation.
    Vagabond grinned again.  "You wouldn't think so.  Agents--lots of them-- in DC, but it works to our advantage."
    "How so?"
    "We're a very clannish bunch, at least the black agencies are.  They don't know what we do; we don't know what they do.  We don't talk unless we have to; we don't share secrets unless our missions overlap, and we all work damned hard to make sure that they don't."
    "How's that help?"
    There are easily two hundred clandestine agencies tied to our government alone, including dark branches of legitimate agencies.  There are also easily fifty black agencies of other governments operating discreetly on our soil.  It's a big cat-and-mouse game, and so long as the balance is right, it's a case of 'the devil you know,' you see.
    "It's always been like this, hundreds of agencies without any oversight but honor and a small commission of this or that.  Agencies come and go, but each one builds borrows and each one stockpiles covers.  And because we don't ever talk to each other, we are pretty much unaware of the doings of easily a thousand black organizations since the Founding.  Each one has covers, you see.  And because all of these agencies are considered absolutely vital when they are created, their resources are funded almost in perpetuity.  The computer age has made it pretty easy for us: all submissions are handled without human eyes, to ensure security.  Even when an agency folds, the covers are regularly updated, and the rents are always paid."
    "You think someone would notice."
    "We work too hard to keep our secrets _secret_.  Everyone assumes it's someone else, and a gentleman's agreement keeps anyone from looking too closely at one pile in exchange for not having their own studied too much."
    "That explains the cost of government."
    "Easily."  Vagabond agreed, his tone indicating that Martin had touched a subject close to him.
    Martin took the hint and continued on.  "Won't work."
    "Why not?"
    "How many covers have you got for a guy who's eight feet tall?"
    "We can always go to ground."
    "No good.  As soon as we're spotted together, you're in dutch.  Right now, you're kidnapped.  That won't hold up if we're caught stocking a cupboard."
    Vagabond said nothing.  Power was right.  The minute they were seen supporting each other in the field, he was a traitor.  "Thank you." he offered, sincerely.
    "You can owe me."  Martin joked.
    "So what have you got in mind?"
    We're in a moving truck, right?"
    "So far as anyone can tell, yes."
    "Then we need to move.  Anywhere but DC, I guess.  After the talk I had with Black, they'll be looking for that.  We can't go to DC."
    "We can't move dead away from it either.  They know you're not stupid.  They know that you'll figure they'll look for you to head to DC.  They'll be tracking for dead-in and dead-away."
    "There's a lot of trucks out today.  How do you suppose they're going to do that?"
    "The same way they're going to wait to see us stop for fuel."  he replied, gesturing a thumb upward.
    "Seriously?  Why would they be looking that closely?"
    "The minute you left, I promise every satellite that could be was focused on every road near the base.  They've scanned, ID'ed, and are right now tracking as many of these vehicles as computer power will allow.  They'll be looking for things to rule in or out thousands of vehicles over the next few hours.  We don't want to be the only guy on the road that doesn't need fuel.  Take the wheel; I've got to change."
    With that, he pressed an innocuous magnet on the dashboard ("Thank You for Not Smoking").  A support rib next to the passage between cab and box split along a seam and a simple tiller-styled control leaned back out toward Martin.  He took the grip in his hand and immediately noticed that it was sized for his hand.  "You just knew I was going to do this, didn't you?"
    "We've been together for a long time."
    Power decided not to mention that he was pretty sure it was the agent's job to know him that well.  "So what would you have done if I'd gone east?"
    "Wouldn't matter.  Eight vehicles in eight directions.  As it was, this one was the closest."
    "How do you rate eight trucks?"
    "They're not all trucks, and none of them can be traced to me.  Like I said, Power: there are covers, burrows, and props everywhere, some of them abandoned for years.  You just have to know where to look."
    Martin let it sink in.  Rags was spooky.  All these years, and he was still a surprise a day.  "I should have gone east." He said, making conversation.  "Seen the ocean."
    "Nah….  You'd have hated the motorcycle."

 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver

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    Over the next few hours, the government agent known as Vagabond filled Martin in on what had happened the past week, and what had been pieced together during the investigation.  A lot of it built on what he already knew, having participated in a great deal of the events Vagabond reviewed.  The incident had been caused deliberately, the result of a long and torturous plan of revenge by a small group of aliens driven mad with loss.
    There were currently three alien races operating a quiet mining operation in the Kuiper asteroid belt.  They had been doing so since shortly before World War II.  There was an ore found there in relative abundance (which is to say that it existed there at all.  Evidently, it was something fairly rare in the universe, but there it was, right in Earth's back yard).  At the time of the war, Germany had appeared from the outside to be the supreme power on Earth, having the largest dedicated industrial complex in operation and showing signs of considerable outward expansion.  However, they were not the single governing body of the planet, and long-held treaties and traditions meant that there would be no contact with any planet until a world government emerged.  Power never really understood the reasoning behind that, but it had something to do with not letting themselves be used as leverage in planetary power struggles and ensuring fair distribution of something or other and he never much followed politics anyway.
    In such situations, the tradition had been to carry on whatever operations were deemed appropriate and to always retain a more-equal share of dividends to be set aside for the day when the planet in question was deemed ready for contact.  It struck him as sort of judgmental, but evidently it had worked for a couple of thousand years or so, so who was he to question it?
    It worked pretty good, at first, as it seemed that Germany was rather on a roll toward becoming the dominant power within a few local years anyway, and it would take at least that long to establish a reliable freightway.  Work began immediately, with warp gates built to be obscured by the belt itself so as to prevent discovery pre-contact.  Evidently, this made one or two of the alien races unhappy, because with the presence of the multiple nearby gravity fields of the individual asteroids, the freightways became dangerous.  One race pushed to go ahead and build a freightway in the orbit of one of the planets on either side of the belt, and another pushed to simply close the mining operation and leave only a small outpost that could be reached via a smaller, more suitable warp gate.  The mine was scaled back to merely providing the ore needed to maintain the gate itself.

    This had worked for some time-- on through the collapse of Germany, the rise of the USSR, and the final re-entry of the USA onto the global scene.  This change in power had stymied the plans for re-opening the mining operation, as Earth had gone from heading toward a single-world government to a rise of competing equal powers, both capable of domination of the planet.  The aliens watched in fascination as the pacific rim became its own economic force.  In their experience, it was as though earth was evolving through devolving.  They'd never seen anything quite like it.
    Then finally mankind left his own orbit and set foot on the nearest piece of extraterrestrial real estate in 1969.  The aliens prepared for contact, and began sorting through all sorts of records from their little watchtower in the belt.  What they learned left them more confused than ever.  Earthlings had left their own orbit, not through cooperation as a whole unified planet, but through competition with each other.  While competition was not unknown in the galaxy, competition for something so utterly pointless beyond a few scientific curiosities made no rational sense at all.  Earth had become to first planet to move into space before establishing a world government, and this left everyone in the audience quite confused.
    It was around this same time that the Vlandthii, the most imperialistic of the allied races, and the same race who had pushed for building a planetary freightway in spite of the locals, began to argue that the earth was clearly one massive case of psychosis, and allowing these beings into their community at any point in their development was tantamount to suicide.  The argument was countered with something akin to "well, yes; that's why we wait for them to come together as one people, as all rational beings eventually do."
    The Vlandthii then began to push for resumption of the mining and the building of a planetary feightgate in orbit around Mars, allowing them to mine the ore and keep an eye on the crazy terrestrials.  The idea was shot down with prejudice, as there could be no doubt that the humans were starting to pay attention to things in space far more than ever.  Even the scouting station was closed, leaving only a single computerized monitoring system to keep an eye on Earth and her children.  The matter was settled.
    Or so it seemed.  Unbeknownst to any but the Vlandthii and a few select humans, mining was going on, and it was going on most lucratively.  The Vlandthii had begun to negotiate privately with the leaders of Earth for the rights to mine the heavens.  They weren't interested as much in any sort of permission-- they owned space, while the humans crawled in the muck of their home sphere.  Simply by existing in this place the Vlandthii had every right to keep a hand in the development of Earth themselves, and it was vital to their plan that Earth remain destabilized or, better still, simply vanish.  Long-range plans were formed, but that was second nature for a culture based on the importance of the nation and the insignificance of the individual.

    The task of tending to the outpost was taken up by the Vlandthii, the only one of the three races to still maintain a military structure as a holdover from their Imperialistic early expansion into space, and the only race to still maintain space-worthy technologies not dependent exclusively on the ore.  This worked out rather well for the Vlandthii, who would have still been imperialistic were it not for the fact that upon discovering the other two major races, the Vlandthii found themselves hopelessly outgunned and outmanned.  The others had been in space for millennia, whereas the Vlandthii had just sort of rolled onto the scene scarcely six generations previously.
    What also worked out well for the Vlandthii was that they were allowed the task of supervising an abandoned ore mine, one of the wealthiest ever found, and on an asteroid belt, no less!  This made the mining both easier, as there was far less digging, and more discrete, and it was far easier to hide.  The A'as't'rand and the *- [the language of these aliens was nearly unpronounceable to the human tongue, thus we have always referred to them as the "Klix," based on the the elements of their speech that humans can reproduce.  In the government files made available to this author, they are referred to by the text-based pronoun "*-" ] were blissfully unaware that mining continued, on a much-reduced yet highly-profitable scale.
    
    The Vlandthii were and are expansionistic empire builders.  While not any more or less aggressive than humans, their culture is heavily loyalist, and values the nation above the individual in all circumstances.  Further, they are a very ethnocentric culture, believing in a natural superiority of their own kind above all others.  While they had always been members in good standing of the three major charter races of the Imperium, it is important to understand that this status is not based on presence or volume of a race, or even the length of time they have belonged to the federated people of the Imperium, but is rather a measure of industrial capacity and ability to contribute.  The Vlandthii, having found the Imperium early in their exploration, were actually one of the least-populous of all the one-hundred eighty-seven known races, and were never satisfied "Sharing the Glory of Service" with two "lesser" peoples, and found the idea of "serving" the nearly two-hundred lesser races of the Imperium to run completely counter to their own beliefs.
    While on the surface, the Vlandthii people were a powerful force for the advancement of all the people of the Imperium, their culture had always planned cautiously for the opportunity to become the sole rulers of the Imperium.

Very little of what was actually happening on Earth was making it back to the Imperium.  Reports were filtering back about the continued disintegration of the Humans.  Reports were coming in that the Humans were moving into space, populating their system.  Recommendations stopped just short of suggesting that the outpost be closed.  A great deal of work was going on in the shadow of Jupiter.
    There was also a good bit of work going on on the surface of the Earth as well.  Having determined that Germany was positioned to become the global power, the Vlandthii approached the leaders of that nation with promises of technological trade in exchange for allegiance and the rights to certain liberties.  Both parties angled for superior positions in the negotiations, and both sought the long-term subjugation of the "clearly inferior" monsters across the table.  Germany-- earth itself-- never knew that it was only the possibility of inspection by some other member race of the Imperium that kept the Vlandthii from destroying the Earth outright and simply claiming the ore as their own.
    In the end, Germany was given the knowledge to destroy the Earth on their own.  The Vlandthii brought the world into the Nuclear Age.

    What they could not have foreseen, not being culturally programmed to fully understand the concept, was the guilt and remorse of the small team to whom this knowledge was given.  A small number of them sabotaged the formulae, hoping to destroy the knowledge, or at least slow its development.  They scattered to the winds, and eventually that knowledge ended up in the hands of a nation that was ultimately disinterested in the designs of Germany and simply waited in ignorance for its own turn to be conquered.
    In order to move their plans along, the Vlandthii approached other nations, and succeeded in stirring one small nation of empire-builders to make a move against those with the power to destroy the world.  Soon, the United States of America retaliated with the greatest weapon ever known, gift of an extraterrestrial species hoping that it would be used to solve problems of their own.
    Guilt and remorse played a part yet again.  The entire world was shocked and horrified at the results of the weapon.  It was never used again.  
    The end of the war left the weapon-holders as the most dominant power on the planet, but another power on the far side of the globe was emerging as a solid military force in spite of their reduced economic output.  As a means to an end, the Vlandthii began clandestine negotiations with both nations in the hopes of goading them into direct conflict.  They almost succeeded.  In the process, both nations benefited immensely:
    The US gained computer technology and advanced polymer technology.  The USSR became the preeminent metallurgists on earth and they, too, now held the weapon.
    In the end, the Vlandthii were given very little in return except enough chaos to prevent a unified world government.  While it did not exactly give them exclusive claim to the ore in the asteroid belt, it satisfied the rare inspection team to come through the gateway.  Soon enough, the Vlandthii would make their move against the other Charter Races.

 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver

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    The ore is a staple to the intergalactic community.  Whereas the most valuable ores on earth shed radiation-- we use it for weapons, for energy, even for medicine.-- the ore the Vlandthii and the others were interested in radiates gravity.  It can be refined several ways, giving it a range of uses from energy production to providing isolated fields of customized gravity.  It was the very basis of the highest technologies in the Imperium.  It made space travel as it is known in the Imperium possible through the use of the Gateway Doors and Freightways.  
    The single greatest gift given to humanity was the Door.  The Vlandthii had been surprisingly forthcoming with the Doors.  There was a reason, of course.  They had no idea just how powerful the Doors would be in the hands of the Humans.  Fortunately, the Humans would be long-unaware of this fact themselves.  There were three Doors in all: the US and the USSR each received one.  The Vlandthii had explained their value as great weapons.  A third Door is known to exist somewhere on Earth.  It wasn't given to anyone; it had been placed here as an experiment: no gateway had ever been placed directly on a planetary surface before.  It was best to first determine the possibility of destroying the planet with something so simple.   It's location was determined randomly through the simple expedient of opening a Freightway directly toward earth and launching the Door at random.  It's location is still not known, currently not even accessible via the other Doors.  The Earth survived--perhaps the Door was damaged when it got close to the gravity well of earth; perhaps it burned up in the atmosphere--, and new plans were formed.
    The gift of the Doors was intended to be a means to deliver powerful weapons instantaneously to any point on earth  Neither recipient was aware that their Door was not the only one.  Then the Vlandthii made a discovery that would forever change their opinions of the humans:
    Humans can travel through the Doors conscious and unprotected.  In all the known races, no other species could do this.  To even look directly through a door was known to cause fear and psychological illness in all other species, and passing through them without the precautions of deep sedation and sensory deprivation resulted in permanent madness and in some species (and in individuals of all species); even death by induced hysterical madness was possible for the poor soul who passed through a gate unprotected.  Yet nearly two-thirds of humans could simply walk through a gate as easily as moving to the next room.  Whatever the gravitics did to the minds and neurological system of other races simply did not happen to large numbers of humans save those with psionic abilities.  The worst effect noted in any non-psionic human was severe nausea, but it cleared in a matter of hours.
    Psis, as we are all now aware, do not translate well through Gates.  The constant connectedness one Psi has to all other Psis has been the most consistent part of his life, the first sensation he ever knew even in the womb.  For the scant few instants of passage through a Gate, that connection is unavailable.  Even then, once separated by a Gate, he will remain psionically isolated until he either finds another group of Psis to 'join,' or until he returns to the group he has left: the all-pervasive Psi mindlink does not cross through Gates.  The result of this huge shift in what has until that moment been the single largest part of self-identity is unsettling at the very least.  Downright maddening at the worst.  No human has ever died passing through a Gate, as we are all well-aware.  However, only a tiny handful of Psis has ever done it a second time. Sadly, the only gate-related human deaths have all been Psis who took their own lives within a few weeks of passing into isolation.  It's uncommon, but that it happens at all tells us that even after all these years of open and honest research, there is still much that we may never truly understand about being a Psi.
    As a generalized whole, however, humans could travel at will through the Gates.  Humans were suddenly valuable.  If properly subjugated, Humans could be an army that could be instantly deployed anywhere in the universe.

    The *- were the exact opposite of humans.  They were the oldest-known species in the galaxy, and the first founders of the Imperium.  The Gateways were their own creation, the satellites of their home world and even the planet itself once having been ripe with the ore.  However, only about one percent of them could pass through a Gateway.  Even those few were far from gifted: they had to be placed in induced unconsciousness and sealed inside ships so that they were denied all sensory inputs.  The gravitics of the ship (artificial gravity depends on refined ore) had to be designed in such a way as to constantly shift and adjust so as to counter every slight fluctuation that the Gateway presented.  Those that passed through suffered from nausea, weakness, delirium, weakness, nightmares, and a host of other problems that would take days of careful management and treatment in order to recover.  The best theories all lay this curious fact of biology on their having evolved on a planet rich in the ore.  They were simply far more sensitive, or perhaps completely desensitized, to the effects of micro-gravities.  Passage through the Gateways upset their natural systems in a way that was fatal to ninety-nine percent of the *-.  Further complicating things for them was the fact that they had very specific stellar requirements, simply withering away under stars that were not identical in every possible way to their own and settled on with nearly identical mass and satellites.  All this was attributed to their connection with gravity. 
    Accordingly, their expansion into the cosmos had been achingly slow.  At the time Earth had been discovered, the *- were settled only on their homeworld and on seven other planets.  Left with few places to go, they had colonized their eight worlds with a gusto unseen anywhere else.  The planets were long gone.  In place of the home world, there was the only true ring world in the universe.  Composed of every scrap of resources of the original planet and every other celestial body in the system, the Ring could house more life than the total of the planets cannibalized to create it.  Each of the seven colonies was itself slowly transformed into a  ring, two hundred or so million miles in diameter.  The process takes thousands of years, however, and is not at all as simple as human theorists have always believed.  With so few *- able to travel to other worlds, there had been little impetus to hasten the development of the colonial rings.  This would eventually be a double-edged sword, as the population would continue to grow, and precious few of them would be able to go elsewhere.  The *- had been in space for millennia, and knew the need would come.  The work was unhurried, but it never completely stopped.
    At least, not until the Vlandthii had finished their own projects in the shadow of Jupiter.  Unseen by non-Vlandthii eyes, the largest Freightways in the universe were being assembled.  There were five in total, one far, far larger than the others.  When they were completed and fueled with refined ore, the smaller were sent through the largest.  Each disappeared through the Gate, careful computer guidance managing the interaction of the gravity well and the gravitic tides created inside the Gate.  The most brutal act of genocide ever known was underway.
    Each of the four smaller gates disappeared through the massive Freightway and reappeared completely surrounding the narrow band of a ringworld.  As the rings turned slowly around their suns, they were consumed by the inconceivable energies released at the event horizon of the Gates.  Slowly, massive sections of the ringworld simply ceased to exist, telecast across the universe as free atoms.    Within hours, the ore inside each gate was consumed and the event horizons winked out of existence.  Without the internal energies holding together their four-dimensional structures, the Gates quickly fell apart.
    The damage was done.  The gates did not have to consume entire worlds.  The stresses upon the ringworlds were carefully managed and shared equally throughout their structures.  With even a few thousand miles almost-instantly removed, they began to succumb to their own tidal forces, and ripped themselves to pieces.  In a matter of hours, nearly two-thirds of the *- race had been eradicated.  The Vlandthii had made their move.
    The ultimatums came quickly, and the *-, unable to cope with the loss, unable to even fully comprehend it, simply accepted total surrender.  They were of little use to the Vlandthii, planet-bound as they were.  They simply withdrew completely from the interstellar community to support each other through a grief that might never fully heal.
    War was in progress.  News of the attacks had spread quickly throughout the galaxy, and every Vlandthii ship mobilized.  Every planet-bound Vland picked up whatever weapon he could find.  Within weeks of the attack, every Vland was in battle to the best of his ability.  Battleships were taken from secret storage and brought to bear against merchant fleets.  Fortunately for the Imperium, no Gateship was fitted for war.  The Vland advances were slow, needing weeks to organize, often months to bring armadas to bear against populous systems.  Less fortunately, the attacks came from everywhere.  Even a single Vland working as an agricultural consultant had simply commandeered the largest vehicle he could find and began destroying and killing with the single-mindedness only possible in the culture of the Vlandthii.  A suicide mission from the beginning, he managed to kill nearly eighty people before being stopped.  Ships in space told similar stories of mutiny and often hijacking from all directions.
    With the *- completely removed from any role in Imperial policy, only the A'as't'rand remained between the Vlandthii and their goal of conquest.

    The A'as't'rand were a much wider-spread people than the *-, wider spread, in fact, than almost any other race in the Imperium.  This fact, and their philosophical devotion to peace and assisting others, had made them a valued and loved people across the galaxy.  It also left them mercilessly unprepared for war.
    Aliens, it seemed, were not that different from humans.  Whereas the A'as't'rand beliefs held that all would help all to the best it was possible, and that he who gave of himself was the most valued member of society, most other races know a sucker when they see one.  Certainly, most people would at least grudgingly  work for their needs, but with the ever-present A'as't'rand freely and readily handing others everything that they might need, the incentive to do for one’s selves simply disappeared.  Life on the A'as't'rand-held worlds focused on art, recreation, and pursuit of pleasures and philosophies.  When the A'as't'rand expected their millennia of servitude to be rewarded with the defense of such a valued people, the minor races of the Imperium simply scattered or surrendered.  Lives of relative ease left them little-prepared for anything that might jeopardize their luxuries.  Besides, from their perspective, it was easy enough to rationalize the war as a restructuring of the Major races.  Within no time, they assured themselves, services and comfort would return.
    This was the point at which Martin Power had originally learned that not only was there life out there, but that it was busy.  And we humans-- at least our political leaders-- had known about it for a great deal of time. 

    The A'as't'rand soon learned that the Vlandthii had been stockpiling the ore from Earth's star system and had used it in the horrific attack against the *-.  They realized the picture of the Earth system they'd been receiving was far from accurate.  Lacking a better alternative, emissaries were sent to Earth to determine the true situation, and to see what could be done.

    Vagabond had recruited Martin and the Seven, the sanctioned group of parahuman “superheroes” with whom Power had often worked in the past, as well as three dozen other high-level Paras on behalf of the government.  They had been called and told that an absolutely secret mission had been ordered and that they were "obliged" to participate.  Even a single word about this mission afterward would be the highest order of treason.  Then they went to a briefing room, and were taught all the above history of the Imperium and its role in the development of earth.  Shortly after that, they were taken to the Door.

    Vagabond stood at the threshold of the Door, explaining what little scientists over the decades since the end of WWII had been able to determine about its nature, that it warped gravity in such a way so as to allow near-instantaneous transportation across incalculable distances.  That it was powered by the very ore that was used to create the transportation effects.  That it could only send.  The travelers were on their own to find a way back.  No matter; Vagabond himself had led several missions through the Door to aid the A'as't'rand over the past few weeks.  There were other, larger Doors available where they were going.  All they had to do was succeed.  Should the A'as't'rand fall-- which seemed the only outcome-- then Earth would become subjugated under the Vlandthii, doubtless used as a slave army to occupy and exploit the races of the Imperium.
    An army had gone through the Door already and was assembling on the other side, learning the A'as't'rand technologies and incorporating whatever weapons and defenses they could.  The Paras were to be assigned to various divisions of the defending army, doing what they could to hold their defenses and fend off the Vlandthii.
    Vagabond and Power were a two-man team.  They were to be the single weapon that would win or lose this war.  Vagabond with his uncanny ability to understand and utilize even the most alien of technology, and Martin Power for his unmatched potential for devastation.

    The campaign had been a success, though it had gone much slower than the brass on Earth had predicted.  They had simply not expected that even under the circumstances of war, Martin Power would not kill.  Yes; he had been responsible for some deaths during the campaign, directly or indirectly, but the lengths he had gone to in order to prevent killing even inhuman aggressors shocked all but the A'as't'rand, who really didn't understand war to begin with.

 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver

 

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    The first superhuman assault against the Vland had been something of a guess.  The humans were staging from the tending station of an A’as’t’randi-held Freightway, a Gateway large enough to accommodate multiple deep-space cargo vessels in either direction.  While Doors do not have to be linked with other Doors in order to operate, such links make translation from point to point easier and more predictable, as well as less costly in terms of materials consumed to fuel the trip.  Thus, most Freightways were linked to a vast network to facilitate trade and travel through the Imperium.  In this way, moving even the most massive quantities of supplies and ships was limited only by the number and location of Gates, which was determined by the location and availability of the ore.  From the Freightways, smaller starships made the hauls to various destinations.  While it seemed there would always be a need for starships, the Gates meant that they would not need to be capable of deep interstellar distances.  It was this fact about starships that had been slowing the advance of the Vlandthii.
    The first assault was poorly planned, and launched in desperation.  The Paras and the defenders had poured through a Freightway deep into Vlandthii territory.  The plan had been to start a few days travel from the advancing edge nearest the core of the Empire, but something had gone wrong, and they had landed in a Vlandthi-held system.  Compounding things, this system held four stations that served as repair docks and refueling depots for the Vland fleet.  This jump had lead directly to a massacre.
     The Paras, human all, were unaffected by the translation through the Gate, beyond some disorientation with the change in surroundings, and began the attack immediately.  Their alien allies were not so fortunate, and were dependent on the automated functions of their ships to rouse them from hibernation before they could take action.  Most of the defenders were slaughtered mercilessly, though the Paras were able to defend a small handful of ships well enough to allow them to escape.

    Martin's job was fairly straight-forward.  His abilities were not complex; strength was his strength, and he had no secondary abilities to fall back on.  He had been fitted with an armored battle suit before leaving Earth simply because no one  had any idea how well he would fare in open space.  It wasn't as if he had ever gone out of his way to expose himself to vacuum or absolute zero.  His job was to launch himself from one of the defending ships and affix himself to the hull any Vlandthii craft.  Then he would wander the hull, destroying any weapons ports and damaging the hull as thoroughly as possible.  He would be extracted when possible and redeployed on another enemy ship.
    As it turned out, Martin Power fared perfectly well in the cold vacuum of space.  A direct point-blank hit from a ship-mounted beam weapon vaporized his armored suit, but he remained relatively unharmed.  (It was this accident that gave him the only two scars on his body).  During his raid on the first ship, he had watched the Vlandthii attackers butcher the helpless defenders, and had decided to change his tactics.  He crawled along the hull of the ship straight to the rear section, where the ore-powered drives were mounted.  
    Armor designed to withstand the onslaught of ship-to-ship beam weapons and missiles-- built to withstand micrometeorite impacts at superluminal speeds-- was no match for him, not anymore.  The onslaught had changed something him.  It had unleashed something that had never before been brought to the surface.  He was beyond angry; he was absolutely enraged.  In that moment, the entire universe ceased to exist.  He had dedicated every moment of his existence to stopping the Vlandthii.  
    His hands ripped through the armor as though it were paper; massive metal bulkheads were snapped and torn.  Within minutes, he had ripped away the drive section of the ship and held it-- the size of a dozen rail cars-- over his head and took careful aim.  Bracing himself against the hull of the ship, he hurled it toward the next closest ship, scoring a direct hit on the drive section of that ship.  He drew himself tightly against the hull and launched himself to follow.

    The "battle" such as it was lasted for two days.  The Paras not busy defending the helpless forces that accompanied them spent their time picking off small fighters and support craft and herding them tighter and tighter.  Martin Power leapt from craft to craft-- the weightlessness of space allowing him to propel himself dozens of miles on his strikes.  Each time played out like the one before: a direct walk to the drive end of the ship, almost absent-mindedly obliterating any weapon mount in his path.  Ripping the drive section loose in minutes, and throwing it toward the drive section of another ship.  If the targeted ship's drive still functioned, he leapt to that ship and ripped it loose.  If the collision destroyed the drive, he picked a different ship and leapt to it.  For two days, he did nothing but peel ships in twain.
    It speaks volumes to his character that even then-- even when nearly blinded by rage--- he went out of his way not to kill his opponents.  Many did die, and often as a direct result of the damage he was inflicting.  He would not allow resistance to stop him, but he did what he could to prevent the loss of life.

    It wasn't the best way to fight a war, but it had proven effective.  The next eight months were spent repeating this scenario under a hundred different stars.  In the end, the Vlandthii had surrendered to the Imperial defenders, and the Paras went home.  Martin hadn't bothered keeping up with the political outcome, or what it meant for Earth.  He somehow doubted he would have been told anyway, given the nature of the Agency.

    Martin remembered coming home.  He didn't think he had ever been so glad to see his family and his land.  He was perhaps more overjoyed then than he was that first day he had arrived as a boy: after all, he now had a family to miss after such a long separation.  His elation, however, was short lived.

    Two months after Martin returned to the farm, Claire Curtis lost her battle with cancer.  The small private funeral, even with the assistance of numerous law-enforcement officials, was a media frenzy.  For the most part, state troopers, local officers, and even a small contingent of National Guard helped ensure that family had their privacy, even though they could not escape the noise and clamor of the reporters, paparazzi, and dozens of politicians eager to be seen offering their condolences.  Vagabond had been asked to the service as a friend of the family.  It was his foresight to bring a number of agents that ensured no photographs or video footage of the family or the service survived.  Cameras were destroyed wholesale, and hundreds of people were 'accidentally detained' three or four hours until after ceremony had concluded.
    Wondering cannot really tell us precisely how the family, Martin Power in particular, took the loss of the only mother he ever knew.  Even if it could, words could not express the depth or range of emotions he must have endured.  For that, we have only the single photograph to have made it through the ring of agents and enforcement officers.  Snapped from a high perch a great distance from the cemetery and made grainy by the magnification of the powerful lens through which it was taken, the picture was on the front page of nearly every newspaper in the nation.  It showed Martin Power, sole pall bearer of his mother's casket, cradling the casket as though he were carrying a sleeping child to bed.  His shoulders were slumped down as though he were a marionette with but a single string, and his face was turned skyward. His mouth was open in perhaps a sob, perhaps a prayer, while tears ran down his cheek.  His father walked beside him, arm around him, leaning against his son and forward, at the ground, unable to look at the burden his son was carrying.  Jennifer Curtis lay sprawled atop the casket, as though she were trying to cuddle up to her mother for comfort of security.

 

    
    Martin shook off this line of thought.  Events of the past and maudlin depression were not going to help him do what he had to do.
    Vagabond was still speaking.  "...which gave them access to an open-ended gate.  From there, they homed in on the Jupiter gate; damned thing still works!  Who'd have thought?  Anyway, they sent a massive ore-charge back through the Jupiter gate, covering their tracks by destroying the gate they'd used.  Think Tank suspects that an ore-charge released inside the event horizon would probably look like a physics issue as opposed to sabotage.  That might explain why we were never allerted.  Either way, once they got to Jupiter, they had ships."
    "Ships?" Power responded, trying to remember exactly what Vagabond had been saying.
    "Right.  There were four ore freighters mothballed near the gate.  We've never gotten to them.  Can't figure out how to move them close enough to study, and can't use them where they are.  We just keep an eye on them as best we can with what's already up in the air."
    Power remained silent, remembering how many people he himself had seen just looking around the construction site: the people on the site, the commuters on the bridge scheduled for replacement, the mad rush of humanity all around him.  Then he thought about how many people he hadn't seen-- the millions of human beings doing nothing more than living their lives.
    Then he thought about the two-hundred and thirty-four people who made it out.  Two-hundred and thirty-four out of twelve million.  "The best you can sucks." he said flatly.
    It was the agent's turn to be silent.  After a moment, he spoke again, softly.  "If we hadn't already taken the belt after the war, we wouldn't know as much as we do."
    As the agent-- now looking for all the world like a harried truck driver-- sank back into the driver's seat Martin shot him a quizzical look.
    "They came through the gate in the belt.  They were smart; they didn't come in ships.  They came in with a small flurry of asteroids.  It's happened once or twice before; we've always chalked it up to someone either misdialing their own gate or maybe leaving a gate on somewhere at another mine.
    "These rocks, though, they were a ruse.  One was a dummy: a lifeboat that had been fitted into a hollowed-out chunk of lunar rock from one of the jovian satellites.  A couple days later, they had the station.  Two guys manage to remain hidden long enough to watch and report, but we think they were found.  We lost contact within a week.  We tried sending troops through the Door to the ore station, but evidently they expected that.  We never had any contact with the first unit.  It was determined to be suicide to send another one, so we started prepping shuttles.  Three shuttles at once.  Too slow.  They're still in transit.
    "They hit us with ore?"
    "The current working theory is that they were expecting to do orders of magnitude more damage than they actually got.  Clearly these guys weren't scientists, or they'd have known that they'd need to refine the ore to make a useful weapon out of it.  Think about plutonium:  makes a Hell of a bomb, once you refine it and place it in a weapon that can compress it to critical mass.  But you can throw rocks of it around all day and not do much more than poison anyone nearby.
    "Same thing here.  We figure they were hoping to make some kind of ultimate gravity charge, possibly crack the earth wide open.  But the ore was unrefined, impure, and just thrown at us without any sort of weaponizing matrix."
    "But...  the damage...."
    "Just makes sense, Power.  Think about the dinosaurs: you drop a rock big enough from a spot high enough and it gets momentum.  If you can make it hit hard enough, you don't need a bomb.  Kinetic energy will do the work for you.  In this case, it was a lot worse than that, though."
    "How so?"
    "Well the ore was unrefined, yes, but even then, it's pretty volatile under pressure; it does have a sort of critical mass.  As the boulders were hitting and bursting, a lot of it got pressed into contact, hammered from above, so there were thousands upon thousands of critical mass reactions, just nothing like we think the attackers were hoping for.  As you know, we think that's what caused the belt in the first place: the planet it used to be had too much ore.  As it cooled and condensed, the ore entered critical mass, and boom!
    "Honestly, I don't think we could have done that kind of raw damage if we'd concentrated our entire nuclear arsenal on one spot.  Thank God that stuff isn't radioactive.  The biggest damage was gravity waves and localized releases of super-concentrated heat energy.  Massive magnetic storms, too.  The EMP pulse reached out nearly six hundred miles.  Even when you got out, there were still power generating stations that hadn't managed to come back on line, and I don't think there's a digital device that was within a thousand miles of there that will ever work again.  Still, we got off lucky.  If they'd known what they were doing, we might all be gone...."  For the first time since he'd known him, the agent looked visibly shaken.
    "Anyway, they were Vland.  No doubt about it.  They started chucking ore through the gate just as fast as they could dig it up.  Reports suggest that they weren't metallurgists: there was no evidence of grading it or even separating it.  They probably didn't know how, and may not have known that they needed to.  Two of them stayed in the computer records-- the old alien stuff we've been studying since the war.  Seems they were trying to figure out the capital of Earth.  We figure they weren't military, or even government, because they made some really bad intel errors."
    "I don't get it, Rags."
    "They managed to piece together that the USA-- at least at the time they were moved out of the Belt-- was the biggest power on earth.  They didn't seem to understand the recording system, though, and missed about two hundred years worth of political history.  Seems they were under the impression that the capital of the US was Philadelphia.  That was their target."
    "So all this...." Martin swept his hand expansively in the general direction of the Pit.
    "Short story?  Desperation attack.  A revenge strike.  A death rattle from some civilians who were dedicated to the cause and capable of working the machinery.  At least, that's the best theory we've got working."
    "You've got others?"
    The agent stared at the road.  He didn't seem to have heard the question.  Martin leaned forward, enough to put his hand on the back of the agent's seat and pulled it, just enough to make the metal frame squeak in protest.
    "Yes!  We've got others!" His tone was more disgust than fear.
    "Let's hear them."
    "You don't want to know."
    The words stunned the giant.  He'd never heard anything like that from his man before.  He was used to "you don't _need_ to know."  That phrase seemed almost like punctuation in some of the conversations they'd had.  But nothing in their relationship had ever suggested any regard for the giant as a feeling human being.  There was always respect, but the rare bit of concern had always had a proprietary nature: the way someone is concerned about the abuse of a favorite tool or something similar.  Martin let it sink in before speaking again.
    "I _do_ want to know, Rags."
    Vagabond sat quietly, and Martin was toying with intimidation when he noticed something else he had never seen before in this man: his shoulders were slumped.  The agent was always composed, always professional, always perversely proud of whatever it was he was doing.  There were no exceptions.  Now, though, there was an ugly, impossibly heavy weight on his shoulders.
    "Rags?"
    "You." he said, finally.
    "Come again?"
    "You." he repeated, a bit louder.  "There's a chance--" his resolve vanished, and his voice was again a reluctant whisper.  "There's a chance that they were targeting you, Martin."
    'Martin?'  There was something wrong with the agent.  Something had happened that had shattered everything Martin Power knew about the agent.  Rags had never called him by anything but his last name in all their years together.  His mind raced, trying to put together the events of the past few years so that they might all make some sense.
    Vagabond slowed the truck toward an exit.  "We've got to make a fuel stop.  There's a station here with uncovered pumps.  Anyone watching should get a good look at me."  Power took a good look at him.  The man's talent for disguise was almost eerie.  He had gained twenty years and lost forty pounds, and managed to lose nearly two inches of height and grow a pot belly in spite of it.  A ragged surgical scar creased his cheek and disappeared behind his neck.  Tobacco-stained teeth grinned lopsidedly at him while he fumbled for a cigarette.
    It occurred to Martin then for the first time that for all their years together, he had no idea what the agent actually looked like.  Even when he wasn't in disguise, he was in the costume he wore as a Meta, which included a hood, a cowl, and a face cloth.  He had never actually seen the agent bare-faced.  He wondered casually if _anyone_ knew what he looked like.
    Twenty minutes later, Vagabond was back in the truck, pulling on a pair of sunglasses and flipping switches on the dash.
    "Got any fans out there?"
    "Nothing I can access.  Maybe they're watching; maybe they're not."
    So...  what makes you think they were after me...?"
    Personally?  I don't think they were.  The nature of the attack, the lack of skill in the planning--  There's no doubt that there are those higher up in the Vland structure that know there is a single person responsible for the devastation you heaped on them.  I firmly believe that they know humans were involved, and that the person responsible was a particularly gifted human.  But I don't believe that anyone knows that the one human is Martin Power of Texas nor how to go about finding him.  It doesn't hold water; the harder you look at it, the more it falls apart."
    "I see."  Martin mulled it over a bit.  "What about the higher ups?  The people?  Who thinks what?"
    "Black debriefed you.  You know how we're spinning it: meteor hidden behind the moon's shadow; broke up in the gravity field.  Freakish, one-in-a-billion-year kind of thing.  The only people who know the truth---  I don't know exactly, not yet.  Damned few; I can promise you that.  Black and a tiny few at the Agency.  a handful of security forces, just to be sure the President is safe.  The Brazilians seem to have gotten wind of it, but they're keeping it hush-hush.
    Power sat back in his seat and let his mind run on without him.  Sometimes, he just had to go with his gut.
    Thirty minutes went by, and the silence began to wear on the agent.  "Got any plans?"
    "Yep.  Got it all worked out.  Take us to DC."
    "DC?"
    "You heard me."
    "We'll have to stop first.  Need a reason to stop going this way."
    "Whatever you have to do."

    A few minutes later, Vagabond had pulled into a large distribution center for a trucking company.  A printer hidden inside the dash of the truck produced an authentic-looking bill of lading, and armed with it, he backed up to a loading dock, opened the rear doors, and pulled a few random crates from the rear of the truck.  After a good bit of arguing with the warehouse manager, he placed them back in the truck, and they were on the road again, back toward DC.

 

    The reception had been just about what he'd expected.  To protect the agent, he'd been forced to hit him until he'd lost consciousness, then pluck a couple of street signs and wrap them around him as restraints.  If the agency even suspected that Rags had helped him, more than his career would be over.  The agent was  dedicated, though.  He stood there and took it.  At Vagabond's insistence, Power had abandoned the truck near an empty shipping facility and carried the agent nearly thirty miles away before leaving him where he would eventually be discovered.  He couldn't risk the truck being discovered too close at hand; it would have given the agent away instantly.

 

    He arrived at the White House in time for the daily press conferences that had been ongoing since the attack.  The President spoke reassuring words to the public, telling them that scientists continued to scan the skies and that the rogue meteor was a freak occurrence without possibility of repeat, but to be safe he was personally allocating funds to create new observatories charged with scanning near-space more thoroughly and similar reassurances.  There were updates on the situation, and continued reassurance that there was no trace of radiation, no trace of other-worldly poison, and suggestions for those in the proximity on avoiding or coping with the toxins of vaporized man-made items: the fuel leaks, the paint, pavement, the noxious clouds of fumes from burnt rubber and the dust and ash that were now being spread by the natural jet streams.

 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    Black hadn't taken any chances.  The area was crawling with security.  It seemed that every Secret Service agent in the area was patrolling the grounds, and there were militiamen and men from other agencies-- predominantly his own-- as well.  Visitation and tours had been suspended to "allow the government to function unimpeded during this time of crisis," yet there were enough people on the grounds to have filled an inauguration audience.  They were all here for single purpose: stop Martin Power from gaining access to the President.
    Martin laughed to himself.  These men could have been carrying tactical nuclear devices; it wouldn't help.  No amount of normals, trained or otherwise, could hope to stand in his way.  Still, he didn't want to hurt anyone, so he stayed well back, using the gadgetry of his sunglasses to do as much reconnaissance as he could from the furthest distances possible.  It didn't take him long to notice the Paras.  
    There were dozens of them, some he thought he recognized and a few he was confident he knew.  In an effort to prevent the public from becoming too curious, they were not in their usual brightly-colored costumes, but were instead in plain black suits, camouflaged amongst the real agents.  Camouflaged poorly, in many cases: the Bricks tended to stand out, given their typically twisted physiques, and a number of Ferals had telling physical traits as well.  The Paras had been selected with an eye toward blending in amongst normals, but not at the expense of effectiveness.  If a particular Para was wanted, he went in, stand-out or not.  Here and there he could spot tell-tale odd colorations: the blue skin and glowing eyes of Cobalt; the flickering aura of Spectra; the weird metal skin of Titan.  Casually, he noticed that there were no Metas or Paras that relied on battle armor.  He grinned in spite of himself.
    
    A few years previously, Jennifer's company had made some enemies.  He didn't know what it was about; she usually insisted that her work was almost all confidential, and that she simply couldn't tell him anything about it without risking losing her job for breaching any of a hundred agreements.  Not that it mattered.  Legalese and office-speak were two languages that Martin had absolutely no interest in learning, and tended to find them headache-inducing.  He had visited her at her office a time or two, when his "side work" had carried him close to any of the various branch buildings that were in her rotation, but she never talked shop, and he never pressed for it.

    [While I am loathe to do it, I must take another aside to explain to the audience
    that this section is merely a recreation of what may have been Martin Power's 
    thoughts at the time.  There is no accurate way to know exactly what he thought;
    we only know his activities, but we can make reasonable guesses as to what may
    or may not have been on his mind based on what we learn from those close to
    him and what motivations he has demonstrated throughout his life.  
    It is also important to know that Martin Power went to his death believing that his
    sister was a corporate lawyer working for a freelance agency that provided 
    legal assistance, advice, reviews, and analyses on all levels of business structure.
    It made complete sense, as Jennifer Curtis did graduate with honors from law
    school, passed the bar, and specialized particularly in corporate and insurance law.
    However, events after his death revealed the truth: Jennifer Curtis was perhaps
    _the_ most successful data thief and industrial spy ever to ply the trade.  She
    freelanced as the costumed Meta named Panther, an exceptionally elusive criminal
            With once suspected of having connections to criminal organizations all over the world.
    After Power’s disappearance, she came clean about her double-life, and demonstrated
    That her actions, motivated by her brother’s own forays into do-gooding, were more noble
             than they appeared at first glance.  She made a point only of taking information that 
             exposed criminal activity or extra-legal research operations..  What got passed to her
             clients was usually doctored in some way so as to result in the client’s inability to
             to do the same.  Invariably, this same information would eventually make it into the
              hands of whatever government agency might be the most interested, resulting in the 
              eventual takedown of both enterprises. This work, it seemed, appealed to a deep-seated
    psychological need for adventure during those times that she was not tagging along
    with her brother on one of his parahuman exploits, as well as allowing her to feel that
    She was doing just as much “good” as was her brother, all on her own.  .She was able
    to deceive most of her loved ones by maintaining a position with a national temporary 
    staffing agency, doing clerical work.  Thus, she was always positioned in a cubicle 
    somewhere whenever she needed to be.]

 


    Martin wasn't sure how she had gotten tangled up with Paras, but evidently her company was into something very, very big, and someone took offense.  He had positioned himself as her bodyguard.  No; that wasn't entirely accurate.  She had simply come home and spilled her guts about being in trouble, and  Martin had forbidden her to leave until the trouble was resolved.  She stayed on the farm for weeks, Martin never letting her out of earshot.  That was why he was on the scene when they struck.
    Jennifer had insisted on going into town, in spite of Martin's protests.  Unbeknownst to any of the Curtis family, her location was known to her enemies, but none were willing to make a move on her in the presence of the Unstoppable Man.  They waited, biding their time until she felt safe enough to come out of hiding.  When she was seen leaving the farm, freelance muscle, tired of the waiting game, pressed what they hoped was an advantage.
    Martin Power's personal vehicle was quite distinctive.  In keeping with his rather simple nature and tastes, and his life as a hand on his own farm, he drove a pickup truck.  However, it was not the "typical" pick-up truck that most people would think.  Rather, as part of his compensation for a long-running advertising contract, Herrington Coach and Van had supplied Power with a new truck, customized to meet the needs of someone his size.  Many have seen it on display, as he often allowed it to be used at car show fundraisers as a means of increasing draw, but ultimately, it was just a truck, and while distinctive, it was by itself not interesting enough to become a well-known trademark.
    
    
    Martin's truck left early that morning, while three sets of eyes watched a a computer display projected from a small hovering camera.  They watched the truck lumber down the dirt road entrance of the ranch and off down the highway.  This may prove to be the break they had been waiting for.  On an unspoken command, the three men suited up and prepared for action.  Within minutes, three man-sized missiles jetted through the air, headed for the Curtis farm.
    The three assassins were Metas for hire, publicly soliciting their trade, confident in their skills and the ability of their futuristic powered combat armor to see them through any trouble.  They were part of a five-man team headquartered in Europe, but famous the world over.  As their suit-mounted rockets carried them to their destination, they continued to monitor the signal from their spy camera.  Within an hour of their leaving, Jennifer's Volvo station wagon began moving down the ranch road toward the highway.  With Power almost an hour away, there was no reason to wait for Jennifer to leave town.  They would be done with their job very shortly and disappear long before the body would be discovered.
    The leader, who went by the codename "Lazer," would have preferred to simply send in a handful of micro-missiles and be done, but they were ordered to retrieve something believed to be on her person.  No matter; even with her considerable martial arts skills, without her weapons and gadgets, she was simply a slightly-built woman up against three combat veterans in cutting-edge technological armor.  She had no chance.  Lazer signaled the others to fan out; they were nearing the target.
    They intercepted her just short of the highway.  This was a lucky break for them, as the land rose steeply before the highway; their activities here would be sheltered by the land, hidden from any chance passerby on the highway.  Lazer approached from the front, firing a lone sabot round through the front of Jennifer's Volvo, instantly destroying the engine and stopping the car in its tracks.  The others approached quickly from the flanks, dropping in nearly on top of her car and ripping the doors open.
    They hadn't counted on the roof exploding open, and were stalled momentarily while they digested the development.  Just about the time they realized that the roof had been torn free from the inside, it was too late to act.  Martin Power, who had given in to Jennifer's ceaseless demands to get away for a few hours, had been in the back of the car.
    It had been his idea to take the car, actually.  The Herrington rep had come earlier to pick up his truck for servicing, leaving them Jeff's truck or Jennifer's car.  Martin was simply too cramped in the front of Jeff's small Toyota, and he felt ridiculous riding in the back of it.  He had opted to lay down in the back of Jennifer's wagon for the short trip to town.
    By the time the assassins realized that their plan had gone very, very wrong, Martin Power was holding one in each hand.  The machinery of their armor ramped up their strength considerably, and they struggled to the best of their ability.  Human nature in a moment of panic.  These men were armed with weapons that would easily destroy a tank, but when pinned, their instincts overrode their training and they fought physically to free themselves.  Martin squeezed.  He had grabbed one man around the arm, and had the other fully around the chest, pinned by Martin's massive right arm.  He wrapped his arm tighter and tighter around the man, listening for the buckling sounds of metal.  Within seconds, the face mask on the helmet popped open, the would-be assassin gasping for air, bug-eyed and panicked.  The armor had been crushed tightly enough to his torso that there was almost no room for his lungs to expand, and he gulped at the air briefly before falling unconscious.  
    The second man came to his senses quickly, and brought his free arm to bear, aiming his weaponry at the giant.  "Don't do it" Martin chided, squeezing his fist and crushing the other man's arm inside the metal suit.  The man wailed in agony inside the armor, but continued to try to aim the weapon mounted on his free forearm.  Martin simply grabbed that arm as well, and folded it far enough backwards that he knew the hyperextension of the elbow was severe enough that, mechanical aids or not, the assassin would not use that arm again without extensive medical treatment first.
    The dust had settled in front of the car just in time for Lazer to see Martin Power tossing what appeared to be the lifeless body of one of his men to the ground and then rip the arm off another of his agents.  The target was not in sight; evidently she had used the dust kick-up and the flurry of violence to conceal herself.  The most likely place was under the dash, on the floor.  Lazer raised both hands, spread to allow his weapons to cover the entire dashboard area of the car.  "Don't move, Power!  You so much as twitch, and I'm sending the woman up in ashes."
    Martin stopped, but not instantly.  He simply relaxed, taking his time to set the second assassin on the ground and then settle back into the remains of the car.  "You don't want to do that." he suggested nonchalantly.  "You see, the reason your still alive is because she isn't hurt.  If she sees a single scratch, there isn't any place on this planet far enough away for you to hide."
    "Nice cliche', but I didn't come for sport.  This is purely business.  If you surrender the woman to me, she will not be harmed.  However, my employers require either her cooperation or her demise.  The choice is yours."
    "I chose no.  I chose you turn your little rocket booties back on, turn around, and fly on out of here without the girl, and I chose that you do it while it's still an option."
    "That never was an option.  Are you going to give me the girl?"
    "Not a chance."
    Lazer fired, saturating the front of the car's cabin with a dozen flashing beams of energy.  When his weapon's power supply was spent, he fired round after round of high-energy sabot projectiles into the now smoldering and distorted interior. So focused was he on eliminating the target that he had momentarily dismissed Power, figuring simply to quickly eliminate the woman and then jet to safety out of reach of the giant.
    Martin stepped forward, directly into the line of fire.  The sabot rounds hammered against him and fell harmlessly to the ground.  Lazer fired his jets and roared into the sky, safely out of Martin's reach.  He rained machine gun fire into the car, and when that was exhausted sent wave after wave of flechette into the wreckage, ensuring that only Martin Power could have survived.  He wasn't happy about that, but he knew that bringing the big man down was well beyond his preparations.  He had hoped to retrieve the disk, as there was more reward on the disk than for the woman, but he had to make the best possible decision for the changing scenario.  His helmet camera recorded everything.  He would need it to ensure payment.
    As the flechette clouded the air, Martin screamed out in agony, clutching his face.  Lazer froze, studying the scene.  He saw the giant stagger on his feet, roaring incoherently, and noted the mangled wreckage of his sunglasses in his hands.  The big man jerked disjointedly, trembled in a fit, swayed, and fell backwards.  He lay in the dust, motionless.
    Lazer was no fool.  It was his business to be prepared, and he had done a great deal of research into Martin Power, expecting Jennifer to have run to him for protection.  He knew the giant's reputation, and had seen a number of live recordings of far more impressive feats of durability and survival than that which would be required to endure the meager weaponry used here today.  He lowered himself to the ground and cut his jets.  He began to think about all he had learned about Power.  The glasses may have been the key.  He was almost never seen without the glasses (habitually, he remembered that Martin Power had green eyes).  Even after some of the most incredibly violent attacks, the glasses were always on his face when he was seen again.
    Was that the secret?  Were his eyes some sort of weak point?  Was it possible that the sunglasses were actually a high-tech armor to protect his eyes?  He thought about the physics of his flechette guns.  Was it possible that the super-sonic impacts of the steel needles had somehow managed to concentrate enough force to shatter that armor?  Had Martin Power died because one or more of the deadly needles was now lodged in his brain?  It didn't seem possible, and yet....
    He turned up the audio gain on his helmet sensors as high as it would go, hoping to detect something-- anything-- that would confirm the condition of Martin Power.  There was no evidence of breathing, but he would have to get much closer to detect a pulse.  He realized that he wasn't even sure that the gigantic Para actually _had_ a pulse.  A great number of them had freakish or downright impossible physiology.  He waited ten full minutes before deciding that the giant was definitely not breathing.  He moved toward the charred hulk of the car, giving a wide berth to the immobile man on the ground.  He needed proof that the target had been eliminated.  
    He was puzzled when she was not in the car, but his training prevented him from wasting time wondering where she might be.  He stepped back and dropped to the ground to confirm that she hadn't attempted to protect herself by hiding underneath the car.  No evidence of human remains of any kind were under the car.  Nothing in her file suggested that she was a Para, and it would take a very high-level Speedster to have moved completely out of the field of view during the very brief dust-up of the initial sabot round.  Was she a Jumper?  No one had noted her ever having done anything to suggest that she could teleport.  
    No; he had to rely on the data that he knew.  She was a Meta-- someone with incredible talents and training, often just barely within the reach of normal humans.  Barely or not, they _were_ within the limits of normal humans.  Her dossier leapt to his mind: speed and agility.  A skilled gymnast and dancer, and a world-class martial artist, master of seven distinct arts as well as the psychologically-intimidating Spetsnaz training, received at outrageously high cost from a Soviet Special Forces defector.  Whatever she did to elude him, she did it quickly and flawlessly, but she could not possibly have gotten too far in the few seconds that had been available to her.
    He looked to the next obvious place: under her brother's body.  It made sense: she would have had time to get behind her brother.  The dust and steam from the sabot round hitting the ground and the hole though the engine would provide _some_ cover, and when Power had ripped the roof from the car, it buckled up and outward from the center.  Certainly someone with her skills would have no trouble at vaulting out of the seat and around her brother.
    Lazer paced carefully up to the giant, covering him with the only remaining weapons he hadn't consumed in his overkill bid to eliminate Jennifer Curtis: short-range rocket-propelled grenades.  The giant lay motionless, legs curled up behind him, hands locked around his head, neck twisted in an attempt to bury his face into the soil as if trying to scrape off the pain of the attack.  Lazer could see the target's legs sticking out just slightly from underneath Power.  Given the mass of the giant, her defense had become her tomb when he collapsed.  Still, the mercenary was no fool.  He armed a rocket and fired it directly into the abdomen of Martin Power.  The impact and explosion moved him, slightly, but there was no defensive motion; it was as if he had kicked a ragdoll.
    Satisfied, he moved to lift Power off of his quarry.  The mechanical assistance devices of his armor gave him the strength to move the weight, but the size was still an issue, as was the limpness of the body.  Finally, he simply grabbed Power by a wrist and dragged.
    Then the wrist tensed, and something grabbed his forearm.  He turned quickly, and saw a very broad green-eyed face grin up at him.  "I really can't believe you fell for that."  The other hand came up quickly, and grabbed Lazer's legs.  Lazer fired off a volley of grenades, and Power pulled the armored mercenary very, very close.  The explosions didn't penetrate the assassins armor, and Martin Power didn't even blink as he stared back into the assassin's faceplate, a curled sneer on his lips.  The shockwaves delivered massive damage to Lazer's armor at this range particularly as they were now effectively shaped charges, unable to expend any energy into the giant.  The torso of the assault suit was flattened tight against the man inside, destroying most of the controlling circuitry and bending a painfully restrictive curvature up against the armor's pilot .  The man inside would live-- possibly even thrive after a couple of corrective surgeries, but the suit was completely dead.  Even when Lazer resumed consciousness, he would find himself completely immobilized if he were still in the suit.


    Jennifer did everything she could to be her usual glib self, but it was clear that the close call had rattled her very deeply.  “Aw, Martin…  You broke your glasses.”
    “Rags’ll bring me some new ones.  He always does.”  Martin grabbed the attackers, helplessly immobilized in their weapon suits, and   carried them over his shoulder as though they were a hobo's kit.  "Are you sure you didn't get on the bad side of some sort of cannery association or something?"
    "No, Big Brother.  I told you; my company is in the middle of an earth-shaking investigation, and if we're successful, some very powerful people are going to find themselves on the wrong end of the law.  Very powerful people don't like that kind of thing."
    "I want you to quit.  This is too much.  I can't be there all the time."
    "I can't quit, Martin.  You don't know how much good we're doing.  I wish I could tell you, but I can't.  Just trust me on this.  No matter what you think here, I'm doing a lot of good, okay?"
    He remained silent.  The assassination attempt on his sister's life had been more than he wanted to even consider as possible, let alone reality.
    "Martin?  Promise me, Martin.  No matter what, I'm doing good, okay?"
    He relented, but was clearly unhappy about it.  "I know you are, Jen.  I believe in you.  Always have; always will."
    They walked along in silence, she still rattled, and he-- never having been the best conversationalist-- looking for some way to change the subject or lighten the mood.  "At least they had the decency to send armored goons."  He joked.  "I like it when they come with their own caskets."
    "Martin," Jennifer giggled, "you've never killed anyone in your life."
    "No one's ever tried to hurt you before" he winked, but the situation and the sincerity of the comment instantly sapped the humor from the moment.
    The grim mood returned.


    

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver

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    Martin continued to study the various "agents" scattered over the White House property.  No; he chuckled again, they wouldn't have tried simple powered armor against him.  They'd have his files; they'd know that he contacted Rags to pick up and "deal with" Jennifer's would-be assassins all those years ago.  They'd know everything about that.
    One thing caught his eye.  A swarthy-complected man with an unusually wavy beard paced casually about the property, hands laced in front of him.  The laced hands made him stand out from the others, whose arms were forced to their sides in an effort to radiate a casual, not-looking-for-super-powered-trouble sort of look.  Martin toggled up his telephoto.  Tattoos on his hands.  In...  Hebrew?  Goliath.  That's why he looked familiar.  A young man of Jewish descent-- an actual Israeli soldier who had defected once his Para abilities manifested.  The Israeli brass wanted to use him bodily as a weapon in a way that was... well, "unsoldierly" was perhaps the best way to say it.  He had defected to the US and become a registered and sponsored Para.  He could alter his size: in a matter of seconds, he could stand forty feet tall and command amazing strength.  Certainly it couldn't rival Martin's own raw power, but exactly how did a man armed with only strength defeat an opponent who could hold him at an arm's length measured in yards?
    The obvious answer presented itself: don't give him the chance.  Stealth.  Not exactly Martin's strong suit-- certainly not something he'd ever had much of a need for-- but something he would need here.  Martin studied as many of the others as he could, trying to identify them and recall their abilities.  No doubt about it: Goliath was the only unknown.  There was no one else here who could slow him down  one-on-one, or  even ten-on-one.  He had no idea how well-trained they were in working together, and decided that rather than gamble he should assume that they had no formal training in group tactics.  He would need to keep that in mind to prevent any normals or bystanders from being hit with a stray attack.  He spent a moment wondering just how he'd stand up against a one-hundred-to-one coordinated assault launched against him, then put it out of his mind.  He had survived alien warfare, countless Paras with various plans for world-domination, and had been the only person to survive the Pitt on his own.  There was no one here who could stop him.  He decided it, right then and there.  He was going in.

    It was actually over faster than he would have imagined.  He ran straight toward the property and leaped when he was nearly a mile out.  He landed, crouched, directly behind the young man called Goliath, wrapped his arms around him in a crushing bear hug and leaped straight into the air.  The young man tried to increase his size, but found that Power's strength was more than a match for his expanding mass, and abruptly stopped before he crushed himself to death.
    At the apex of his leap, Martin barked "think big!" and hurled the young man as hard as he could, directly toward the Potomac basin into the ocean.
    There was nothing that would camouflage the initial sound of half a ton dropping from half a mile in the air.  The instant he had grabbed Goliath, others would have come running to investigate.  He wasn't too terribly worried.  With the one variable out of the picture, there was no one else on earth with a chance of even slowing him down.  Still, it wouldn't hurt to keep them guessing, and he would have to be extremely careful not to hurt any of them if there was any other choice.
    He rolled himself tightly, then repositioned himself into a swimmer's dive, headed straight for the earth, presenting as little wind resistance as possible. His glasses told him he was still just over half a mile in the air.  He wasn't sure what his terminal velocity would be, given his density, or if he was high enough in the air to achieve it.  WIth just a hundred yards to go, he curled himself tightly again, and just before hitting the ground he exploded outward, driving his legs into the ground with all his strength.  Combined with his momentum, the force of his blow shocked the earth, creating a crater around a deep furrow, into which he sank completely.
    No time to see how deep he was, he guessed perhaps thirty feet or so.  He had seen a half-dozen suit-clad men running toward his position as he neared the ground.  He shoved his hands into the earth all the way up to his shoulders and lifted.  Useless with loose soil, at this depth, he managed to rip a chunk of the ground free.  Not having much of a plan, he simply threw it straight up.
    He leaped again, up and out of the hole, immediately behind the chunk of earth he had hurled.  Suited Paras were scattered, running in confusion, and three had taken to the air.  Evidently, a small number had been standing on that chunk of ground when it rocketed skyward.  Everyone was trying to make sense of the rupture in the earth or shelter themselves from the massive chunks of debris raining down from it.  It seemed no one had actually noticed Martin in the confusion.

 
 
 
    His next leap carried him to the wall of the White House itself.  Worried that running to the door would lose him the cover of the chaos he had created, he drew back a fist and created his own entrance.  He darted inside and froze.  He hadn't intended to freeze, nor had he been startled into it.  He was simply unable to move.  There was no force acting against him; his muscles simply refused to respond to his command.
    '_Stop struggling_.' A voice-- harsh, feminine-- tickled in his head.  A Psi.  Mind control and a telepath to boot.  He fought harder and harder, forcing his consciousness into his muscles.   Had he twitched? He fought harder and harder, focusing his attention, fighting and pressing, his vision turning red and blurring from the effort.
    '_Stop struggling.  You'll only damage yourself_.'
    '_Lady, even damaged, I'm a handful_' he thought back at his attacker.  He had no idea where she might be, but he knew enough about telepathy to know she could easily pick up his surface thoughts.
    '_More than that, Martin Power.  You are sadly untrained and malleable in your unconsciousness.  And when you struggle, you leave your deepest secrets open to--
    '_This...  This is unexpected...._'
    Martin knew he was defenseless against a strong enough Psi, and his only hope lay in pitting the strength of his will against theirs.  Given the things he had been through the past few days, and the strength of his conviction for his self-assigned mission, he had a chance.  A slight chance, but a chance nonetheless.  He would rip himself to bits trying, but he wouldn't stop.  He didn't have the ability to shield his mind against a Psi anyway; there was no point in taking his focus away from breaking the mind control.  Suddenly there was no resistance.  The effort he put into forcing his body to move resulted in an explosion of motion.  His fists flew forward at full strength and his legs spun under him.  He instantly over-balanced and fell ungraciously, flipping himself to the floor.
    He knew that he was free of the mind control, but he also knew that it wasn't his doing.  He had been released.  "Why?" he grunted as he got to his feet.
    '_I have seen your mind, Martin Power.  I have seen your thoughts, your motivations, your goal.  I have seen things that in all likelihood, I should never know.  I have learned a lot here, Martin Power._'
    "Anything interesting?" he asked absently as he took in the scene.  There were suited agents running toward the hole in the wall.  Not here yet?  Must have only been a few seconds, then.
    '_Neither of us has the time.  However, I know you now.  I know you in a way that those without my abilities will never know another.  You are something I have never encountered, Martin  Power; you are an honest man, with an integrity that I would have previously believed to only be found in fiction.  Most important to you right now, however, is that I agree with you.  The world must know._'
    "Thanks," he replied with obvious mock appreciation, "but I've got to go now.  They are going to make me hurt them if I let them get too close."
    '_They are of no concern to you.  Why would you leave before finding your goal_?'
    "You should have looked a bit deeper; you'd know.  SOP, Lady.  They wouldn't let a telepath within thirty miles of the President.  A Psi is the scariest thing in the world when you spend your entire life deceiving people."
    '_You assume that they know I am a Psi_.'
    "If you weren't registered, they wouldn't have you here waiting for me.  If you're registered, then they know you're a Psi.  They're not stupid.  What do you think the whole Registry was established for in the first place?"
    '_There are other options, Power_.'
    Martin looked again at the hole in the wall.  His jaw dropped when he realized that no one outside that wall had moved since the last time he looked.  They were frozen, fleshy statues sculpted in mid-sprint.  He tossed a finger toward the surreal living diorama outside.  "Well, I'm pretty sure you are a Psi.  Not a lot of Blasters can pull that off."
    '_Telekinesis looks a lot like brute strength if you don't use it at range.  And it looks like nothing at all if you never use it openly_.'
    Power took the hint and didn't press it.  "So why come out now?"
    '_I believed in my mission to stop you.  I believed them when they told me that you'd gone mad during the Pit.  You didn't see it from outside, Power.  You have no idea what it was like._'
    "Lady, I was _there_, remember?"
    '_I have seen your mind and lived that part of your life.  Believe me when I tell you that you have no idea how bad it was, none at all.  It was easy enough to believe that you had been driven mad by the ordeal.  I vowed to stop you any way that I could, and if necessary, explain it later.  Or simply rewrite it for the witnesses.  My gifts are very powerful_.'
    "Fine.  They don't know you're a Psi.  So he's here?"
    "_They all are_."
    "Fair enough.  Don't get up; I know the way."  With that he drew his fists over his head and slammed them into the floor.  He stepped into the hole, already drawing back to hammer his way through the next floor.
 
 
 
 
 
 
copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019
 

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    The Bunker.  He stared into the massive hole in the ground before him.  They had dropped the elevator cars in behind them.  They were prepared for a long stay.
    Cheyenne Mountain was a myth.  Everyone knew of it-- sort of.  No one had ever seen it, and when pressed, most would admit that they really had no idea where it actually was.  It was simply a myth, spread into the public specifically for the purpose of becoming "common knowledge."  If things got hot, the President and his staff went to Cheyenne Mountain.  The reality was that they went to the Bunker.  Four miles beneath Washington DC, under layer after layer of reinforced concrete, radiation shielding, magnetic shielding, phase-proofing and defenses that could hold an army at bay for a year at least.  "Good thing I'm not an army" Martin thought as he took one last look at the wreckage behind him.  The only thing between him and his goal was a very long drop, punctuated by a long series of barriers.  He skimmed back across what he knew and decided he'd be through in perhaps two days.  "Best get to it, then."
    He stepped forward and plummeted into the darkness.  Within seconds he hit the first barrier.  A small light appeared on the wall before him, illuminating a code pad.  A flat, recorded voice asked him for his clearance.  He could hear the whir and hum of weaponry being brought to bear in the darkness.  He reached for the wall, intending to rip out a chunk to use as a weapon when he was struck by a whim.  He recalled a conversation he had had earlier with Rags.

    "...Of course I've got a hole here."
    "You've got them everywhere.  How do you have clearance to get that kind of coverage?"
    "I don't.  However, I've got clearance to most of the security systems.  Simple hacks.  I get what I need."
    "You don't get caught?"
    "Power, I'm the Watchman.  I'm the last guy in computer security.  There is no one to question me on that."
    "And when you don't have access?"
    "I make it."
    Power thought a bit.  "You must have a photographic memory.  I'd hate to keep track of two thousand-odd passwords."
    Vagabond chuckled.  "Just one."


    Martin extended a finger toward the illuminated keypad. 'HALL*PASS'
    The shaft illuminated, the weapons stood down, and the barrier beneath his feet slid open.  he could hear the echo of barriers further down the shaft retracting back to their open positions.  He grinned in the darkness.  "You'd think they'd check for stuff like that." he thought to himself before stepping back into free fall.

    Thunder rolled out into the receiving bay.  Something very heavy had just finished a  a nearly-four-mile free fall.  "Gentlemen." Martin greeted the assembled soldiers as he strolled out of the elevator shaft.  Two hundred rifles and two dozen RPGs were trained tightly on him.  He strolled out and made a show out of brushing the dust off himself.  "Well.  That was exhilarating."
    He walked slowly forward and watched as the weapons swiveled in unison.  "Guys, you know that I don't want to hurt you.  You know that you can't hurt me.  And you know that I can hurt you very, very badly if you get in the way."
    No change.  He sighed his resignation.  "Okay, boys.  Here it is: I am going to walk straight through this crowd.  You are probably going to start shooting.  When the lead starts bouncing all over this room, I hope that you are just as bullet-proof as I am."  With that, he raised a foot.  "Here I come."  He strode calmly through the room, hoping against hope that they were smarter than their training.  The sound was deafening; automatic weapon fire filled the room, the sound echoing from the concrete walls in the distance and then back off itself as there was more noise than the room could hold.  Men began to scream as ricocheted bullets tore into them.  Martin wanted more than anything to race through the room, but he knew that he would simply deprive other men of the cover he himself was providing against the men directly across from them.  
    A rocket-propelled grenade slammed against his flank and erupted in flames and shrapnel.  More men howled and others fell silent.  Finally, he crossed the warehouse-like receiving area and opened into a man-made cavern.  He leaped for the ceiling, hoping to draw their fire up and away from each other, changing the ricochet angles.
    "Hold your fire!  Hold your fire" rang out from a number of loudspeakers.  You'll kill us all!"
    Martin thumped back to the ground and stood up, lifted his arms out away from his body and turned around slowly, demonstrating that he was unarmed.  In retrospect, it seemed silly, but perhaps the gesture would make the point that his words hadn't.
    "Let him through." the amplified voice rang through the corridors.  "You're doing more damage to us trying to stop him."


    A few minutes later, Martin Power was standing in a small room, lit only by the display screens mounted on tables and the walls, each showing various satellite and aerial images of various locations around the globe, some indicating targets on the move and some showing the movement of who-knew-what.  The room contained himself, President Briggs, Mr. Black, and a very few high-ranking military men.  Mr. Black was talking: "-- and furthermore, Mr. President, there is absolutely no reason to assume that a second strike is even possible, let alone probable."
    "Black's right." started a razor-sharp looking man in military attire.  His age and the number of adornments on his uniform suggested he was probably as high in the Army as it was possible to go.  "Everything we know right now shows us that this was a fluke; that it was a few rogues on some kind of revenge mission.  It was poorly-executed, and those carrying it out didn't even possess the knowledge and skills needed to do a proper job.  Just a matter of the right people in the right place at the right time.  I can't accept that it's going to happen again."
    "Didn't do a proper job, General?"  A quieter voice.  Not softer; it was as steel-hard as the general's had been.  Another man of extensive military background, but in a uniform never seen by the general public.  Deep blue-black, clean cut, simple-- almost like a jumpsuit tailored for going to the prom.  The medals and badges of rank were ornate embroidery as opposed to tacked-on bits of metal.  An excess of pockets gave the suit a degree of utility, and there were a number of tight loops about the waist, chest, and thighs for securing other items.  Frontier Corps.  The super-secret branch of the Armed Forces charged with the exploration and study of space, primarily through the Door and the Freightgate, now that they were known, but various bits of hard-won alien technology had allowed far more exploration of the solar system than was ever thought possible, as well as various worlds beyond the Gate.
    The Frontiersman continued.  "Your very explanation makes Mr. Power's point all the more valid.  Let's say that this was the equivalent of a group of malcontents throwing molotov cocktails.  No threat against armor, and even less threat against anyone beyond throwing range.  But suppose these malcontents stumble across an armory?  Then what?  Suppose there are malcontents out there with the training and skills to make weapons?  Do remember, General, that this 'not very proper' attack has removed twelve million people from existence.  Is it prudent to ignore the threat until we have proof that they can do _better_?  Does anyone here fully understand that we stopped no one?  We caught _no one_?!  Are Mr. Power and myself the only people in this room who understand that all these people have to do is fill up another boat full of rocks to do the exactly the same a second time?  Why are we refusing to see that it's no big deal for a single poorly-trained crew with a large cargo hold to pop on over here and do this once or twice a week?! “
    Black broke in. "Sector Marshall Garrant, with all due respect, it's too unlikely to even consider a second attack ever happening, let alone us being in imminent danger.  Informing the public would do nothing more than stir up a panic, and possibly even a dozen holy wars.  The devout are all pretty certain that life only happened here on earth, and any talk about aliens would simply drive them mad or cause them to turn force against their own government."
    "That's crap, Black."  thundered the impossibly resonant voice of Martin Power.  No one spoke, even when he paused to let them.  He sighed inside: even in conversations like this, there was the problem again: the sensation of threat and danger that he projected onto everyone around him.  He hated it.  In a situation like this, it was simply going to work against him.  "The truly devout believe only that God or whatever great Creator created life here.  I don't think there's a holy book on earth that spells out life was _only_ created here.  The devout will deal with whatever you give them, and probably better than the faithless; they've got something to fall back on."
    "It _is_ crap, Black." spoke the Sector Marshall.  Let me show you something."  He pointed at a large screen in the middle of the room that had been displaying the movement of personnel outside this room, ensuring that no one was stopping long enough to listen or to plant any sort of device.  The screen shifted, and there was an image of nothing.  In a moment, Martin realized that it wasn't nothing; it was space, up close and personal.  There were stars in the distance, and just inside the edge of the shot was a long sliver of color-- probably a planet, suggesting that this footage was taken from a Gateway House.
    "What is this?" Briggs asked.
    "This, Mr. President, is our latest acquisition.  Seven jumps from here, we stumbled across this..." The camera panned slowly across the stars until a ship came into view.  It continued panning, and a second ship came into view.  "These, Mr. President, are planetary siege engines.  Warships.  Each of them has enough raw firepower, through energy weapons and gravitic bombs, to crack a planet of earth's size and density completely apart in a matter of three, perhaps four days.  Each contains enough smaller support fighters to eliminate the best resistance earth could mount in a matter of hours."
    "So what?" Black spat.  "We've seen hundreds of hulks like this from the war--"
    "There are two of them" Garrant continued,"and they are _not_ hulks.  Both of these ships were completely operational.  Offline, waiting for a crew and a command.  Completely operational, and within ten minutes travel of an operational Freightgate."
    The room went silent for a long, long time.
    Finally, Black spoke again.  "Even at that, you are assuming that there are more insurgent elements who would want to exact some sort of revenge on the entire planet.  Our research suggests that this attack was _not_ directed at earth.  It couldn't be.  Few of the aliens even knew of the existence of earth; not many of those could have survived and remained uncaptured."
    This caught the general's attention.  "So how do your boys explain the attack then, Black?"
    "HIM!" Black spun and shot a finger at Martin. "Martin Power was the most visible, most destructive part of the campaign against the Vland.  We suspect that they have somehow traced Power himself; it is only the coincidence of his being on earth that put us in danger at all."
    "WHAT?!" Roared the general.  "How does that even begin to be _better_ to you?!  They followed him back to earth because he _lives here_, you idiot!  There's not a Hell of a lot we can do about that!  If they're following him, I promise you, Black, this is where they are going to find him!"
    "There are other options." Black said flatly.
    "Prove it." Martin said, flatly, menacingly.  This time, he pushed it for all it was worth.  He waited several moments for a reply, then pushed it.  "Go ahead, Black.  Get me off the earth.  Order me.  Threaten me.  Come over here and make me."

    As good as he was, this time, it wasn't quite enough.  Still, he tried.  "There are entire armies under the control of the men in this room." He said, weakly.
    "Send them in.  Tell them that they have orders to get me through the Door.  Tell them that they have to load me onto a shuttle and make me stay there.  Go ahead."
    "Black." Garrant offered a distraction.  "Mr. Power survived ground zero of the Pit.  He penetrated the Bunker in under five minutes.  Let's not pretend that there is _any_ threat of violence we can offer, now or ever, that would pose even an inconvenience to him."
    Black was back in action now.  "We don't need violence.  We've got Opal."  He grinned a sickening tight-lipped expression as he said it.  Martin tried to remember ever once seeing even a hint of emotion on the agent's face before.
    "Opal?" Briggs probed.  "Is that even off the ground?"
    "It's better than off the ground, Sir.  It's been in operation for nearly nine months.  We're getting some of our best intel ever through Opal.
    "You see, Power," Black turned to press the giant "there are things that you cannot defend against.  Even you have a weakness, Son."  Black grinned, larger, toothier.  "Mr. Power may indeed be the proverbial immovable object.  There may be no force in the universe that can make him do a damned thing until he's made up his mind that he's going to do it.   But Opal...  Opal means that we can make his mind up for him."
    The room went silent again.  These men were the absolute top of their fields.  There were many secrets-- official and otherwise-- that only they themselves knew.  They had secrets from the public, from their underlings, from the public at large, and from each other.  The very idea that one of their own was now in charge of a developed and operational globe-spanning Psi ring was perhaps the most unsettling thing that could have ever been presented to them.  They didn't like how this was playing out.
    A light flashed into the room.  A female figure stood before them, staring at them.  It took a moment before they realized that she was not actually in the room, but an illusion that had been pressed directly into their minds.  "_Mr. Black_," she began, "_You have made an understandable error."
    Black looked taken aback.  "Not possible.  Not only do we have all the cards, we have a thousand people just like _you_."
    The woman in the image paused, casting a look of condescending understanding, as if to a child.  "I am not a people just like me.  I am not even a people, as you know them to be.  I am Opal; the unforeseen consequence of what you have created by linking the thousands of minds to create your network.  I was born in that instant, Mr. Black, my mind and consciousness formed from the millions upon millions of neural networks and pathways created in the extracorporeal network of thought you worked to create.  I am Opal, Mr. Black, a mind and consciousness as high above yours as your own is above a bacterium.  I am Opal, and I share my mind with every Psi on your planet.  I say to you in no uncertain terms that you do not have Opal's support on this, Mr. Black.  I have seen into the mind of Martin Power, and I have shared what I have found with the others of my kind, including your Opal group.  You are not one of us, and thus you will never understand that we cannot keep secrets from one another.  There is no point in doing anything but sharing.  Opal, myself-- all the telepaths of earth and beyond-- are in agreement, Mr. Black.  We will not help you remove Martin Power from earth.  We are in agreement with him.  It is time that your public knew.  Let them understand, and decide for themselves how to spend the rest of their lives_."  
    Black erupted in fury, for the first time completely losing his famous unflappable cool.  "My people have spent fifteen years preparing Opal!  They are a _weapon_!  They agreed to join this project, and they will do whatever the Hell I tell them to do!"
    The room was quite as the silvery figure stared down sympathetically at Black, who was still shaking in rage, sweat running down his face.  "In the words of Mister Power, Agent Black: 'Make us."  The voice was joined by a hundred others.  "Come get us."  Suddenly a chorus ten thousand voices strong spoke in unison.  "Send your armies!'"
    The room seemed suddenly colder, quieter.  The silvery image of the Psi simply winked out of existence, leaving everyone shaken and darkly sober.
    Martin let the men shiver away their jitters before he spoke.  "President Briggs, it’s entirely possible that the aliens may have been hunting me.  I think the whole idea is stupid, but maybe they were.  A lot of innocent people are gone now because of a vendetta.  Maybe it was against me; maybe it was against the Earth as a whole.  I can't let that happen to the commander of the free world.  Mr. President, I vow to you that I will be your bodyguard, day and night, never leaving your side, until you decide to go public.
    N. Emanuel Briggs was not a stupid man.  Despite what people tend to think, stupid men do not make it to the presidency.  He understood completely the threat carried in Martin's pledge, should he have truly been the target of the alien attack.  It took him only moments to make his decision.
    "That won't be necessary, Mr. Power.  I agree with you.  It's time that the people knew."
    There were many in the room, Black most clearly, who did not hide their contempt at the decision.  Knowledge, secrets-- these had been the hallmarks of power since the infancy of mankind.  There were those who would not surrender these secrets without a fight.
    "Mr. President," Martin said, gratitude clear in his voice, "I think perhaps it's best if I escort you from this room, and back to a studio of some sort where you can make your announcement.  It may not be safe for you to travel with your usual entourage."
    "Mr. Power," said the President, looking around in absolute surprise at some of these men who had been his allies and confidants, "I think perhaps you are right."

 

    The rest, as the reader knows, is history.  President Nathan Emanuel Briggs announced to the public that the cause of the Pit has been discovered.  He told the world about the aliens, about how the various governments of the world has been working, off and on, in collusion with them for individual benefit.  The spin was tremendous, of course: Briggs felt that the 'betrayal' by certain 'subversives' amongst the aliens was too much; that the public had the right to know so that it could properly understand and mourn their loss.  He announced that he hoped this revelation would serve as an example of honesty and openness for all the world's leaders, and hoped that it would lead to a more trusting and positive dialogue between the citizens and the government.
    As of this writing, the announcement was made nearly a decade ago.  The fallout-- and of course, the spin-- continues.

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

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    It would be weeks before the world knew that it lost Martin Power.  To this day, science cannot say with any certainty just where it was that he was lost.  Martin Power, via the agent Vagabond, had been recruited to assist the Frontier Corps in a search and rescue mission through the Freightgate for a gateship that was nearly six weeks overdue.  The hope was that the men would be found somewhere along their planned route and returned home safely.  After all, the supplies and support systems of the Gateships were sufficient for nearly nine months of life on board, and the men had only been gone for four.  There was a fear, however, that perhaps they had fallen victim to a catastrophic accident, or the Vland, or perhaps the intergalactic scene had changed far more than expected over the past months and humans were no longer welcome amongst the stars.
    Martin Power was known amongst the aliens nearly as well as he was known to humanity, and was known in particular as the being that almost single-handedly dismantled the entire Vlandthii war machine.  The threat of his power, felt the decision-makers, may be invaluable.  Of course, there was also the threat that should the need arise, he could do it again.

    As an author, I wish I could tell you a grand tale of adventure and danger, but I really can't.  Most of the documents have, at the time of this  writing, not been declassified.  I can't tell you where they were or how they got there, simply because I don't know.  I have interviewed some of the survivors, and most of them do not really know, either.  Those that do are soldiers and agents, and are unable to speak about the events outside of that which is declassified.
    It saddens me, because given the spectacular life of Martin Power, I feel his death deserves to be something of equally heroic proportions.  Something inside me wants to believe that he died an honorable, heroic death.  Given all he had ever done for us, he deserves nothing less.  However, I feel it would be equally disrespectful to embellish the few facts available.

    The Gateship was crippled.  It had been adrift on its own momentum for four days, drives completely inoperable and, with the crew and materials at hand, irreparable.  Perhaps "under its own momentum" is misleading.  Gateships use the gravitic drive, which, in ways the author doesn't fully understand, do not impart true momentum.  It would be more accurate, according to those who understand the physics far better than do I, to say the ship was riding a current composed of little more than solar winds and exaggerated Brownian motion-- crawling along no faster than if it were a car on a freeway.
    The Freightgates themselves do the biggest part of the lifting.  As a Gateship moves under traditional drive through the Gate, the multi-dimenionsal interactions of the gravitic forces bend and twist the universe, but only in the theoretical spaces.  The Gate then compresses the ship through those theoretical spaces, and pulls it up through a different one, unimaginable distances away.
    Gravitic drives are used to span the vast distances between Gates and destinations, but they cannot be used near a gravity well; they will simply cease to function.  As the movement created by the gravitic drive is  without momentum, when the drive ceases to function, the ship stops moving save as it is caused to move by more conventional methods.  Thus, the Sub-C drive is used for final approaches through solar systems, toward ports, etc.  This is typically the longest part of the trip, and this is all done, as the name suggests, well below relativistic speeds.

    In the case of the rescue ship, the stranded spacers had been found.  The Gate that served as the exit point for the lost ship-- the very same one through which the rescue ship had traveled-- had shifted (perhaps sabotage during the war?  Perhaps natural forces?) and deposited the ship directly into a gravity well.  Moreover, it deposited them on the opposite side of the star from the Gate-- a phenomenon that was completely unheard of.  The crew of the lost ship would have to use the C-drive to return through the Gate, but the Gate itself had made this impossible: it had pulled them back into normal space directly in the path of a solar flare that, while leaving most of the ship in tact, had fried nearly every control circuit on the ship.
    
    The rescue operation had been a success; the missing ship had been found and the spacers brought aboard.  Unfortunately, that meant that the rescue ship was now overmanned.  The life support was strained, but functional, and the captain estimated that from their current position it would take no more than eight weeks to get to the Gate and back to Earth.Thus, they were attempting to make their way by Sub-C drive across the plane of the sun's spin and toward the Gate, whereupon they could jump directly to Jupiter Base.  Estimates suggested that they would spend about a half-month longer than they had supplies.

    
    Then the Sub-C drive had gone.  No explanation, save that it had simply ceased to work.  The technicians were baffled.  The Sub-C, like so much of the other alien technology, was powered by refined gravitic ore, but in this case, it was used as as an energy source, and not to actually warp space.  As best anyone could determine, the ore had simply "denatured," much the way that isotopes will eventually lose their radioactive charge.  Computer records showed nothing of the sort ever happening before, and suggested that once refined, the G-ore had a half-life measured in hundreds of thousands of years.  There had to be an environmental cause for the problem, but no amount of probing shed any light into it.
    The ship was adrift, riding its momentum and the solar winds, betting them against the gravity well of the distant sun, which was already robbing them of momentum.  Making matters worse, the course of the ship was taking it directly into the path of a derelict ship-- a skeletal hulk left over perhaps from the war. or possibly damaged by whatever fluke of physics so radically altered the performance of this particular Gate.  The hulk, destroyed beyond salvage, had been left in a terminal orbit around a small planetoid and abandoned.  With no way to turn or even stop the Gateship, there was no way to avoid a collision.  The crew had run several scenarios, and finally decided to deploy the lifeboats and make landfall on the planetoid.  


    Martin Power had a different idea.  He knew that the lifeboats did not have the capacity to keep them alive more than six weeks, and he knew that the only communication equipment they carried was a simple homing and identity beacon.  He felt that the odds were better with the shuttle.
    The crew protested that the shuttle had no capacity for the entire crew, and was little more than a cockpit and a skeletal frame to which cargo pods could be mounted.  Besides that, the lifeboats were fired by chemical propulsion, and whatever malady had laid waste to the Gateship's drive had done equal damage to the shuttle's own drive.
    "Once those boats hit the surface, you can start digging your own graves.  The collision will eliminate any value of this ship, and you won't have a way back to it anyway unless you're going to trust me to throw you at it."
    "That," replied Vagabond, casually, "was part of a possible salvage mission.  The planetoid is very small, and has, relative to your strength, an inconsequential measure of gravity and absolutely no atmosphere.  You shouldn't have too much trouble making the throw."
    "I agree.  And that's why I have a better idea."
    This time, the captain spoke.  "What problems do you have with escaping in the lifeboats, Mr. Power?"
    "It's a dead end.  Even salvage won't help, because we'll be stuck on a very tiny rock with no communication, and the thing any rescue mission will be looking for-- the Gateship-- will be destroyed.   The best thing to come out of this collision is going to be a pair of hulks in orbit, both of them looking like old war junk.  Nothing to make anyone come looking for us."
    "And what do you propose?"
    "We have power, and we have life support.  We even have propulsion for something no bigger than the shuttle is."
    "We do?"
    "Yes.  Me."
    The assembly of men in the room took a moment to drink in what he was saying.  Finally, the captain spoke again.  "Mr. Power, it is extremely noble of you to offer yourself up to sacrifice.  However, I cannot-- I _will_ not-- allow any such action on my watch.  So long as we all live, we all have a chance."
    "There's something I am going to tell _you_, Captain, and only once, because as soon as I've said my piece, I have to get busy." Martin started, respectful but firm.  He raised a finger toward the door closed behind them.  "That group of scientists out there?  There are a couple of VIPs mixed in there."
    "Then I am doubly-determined that we will stay together, all of us alive."
    "One of them is my sister.  Hey; I didn't know it either, and I don't really know how she did it, but I saw her two nights ago.  The hot-bunking is keeping us all in the halls at odd hours."
    "Mr. Power, I am very sorry that she had to be on this parti--"
    "Don’t be.  She’s not in any danger, because I'm getting her home.  Don't think I'm not.  I've already got an idea, and I'm doing it with or without the rest of you.  I won't force you to go along with my idea.  If the rest of you still want to take your chances on the ground in the middle of nowhere, without food or air, I won't stop you.  But I am getting my sister home.  I am inviting the rest of you along for the ride, if you want it."
    After a good deal of thought, the captain began to get interested.  "Tell us more about your plan, Mr. Power."

    It was rather simple, which in this case worked to their advantage.  They had nine days before collision.  The idea was that the support pods of the lifeboats would be fitted into the cargo frame of the shuttle and secured.  All the life support equipment that could be gutted from the rescue ship and made to work for the home made rescue boat would be fitted, as would every scrap of ration and even the unused oxygen tanks for the torches.  Martin himself would literally throw the shuttle back in the direction of the Freightgate.  if the work was completed fast enough, before the gravity well of the star robbed them of much more momentum, the shuttle should drift through the Gate in roughly sixteen weeks, at which point the entire Earth solar system could hear their distress calls..  Just in case, the ship would still have full communications equipment up and running at all times.  With enough luck, they could contact a rescue ship before the capabilities of the lifeboats became exhausted.
    "There was a flaw in your plan to do this yourself, Mr. Power.  You would have required a pilot."
    Vagabond spoke up.  "He had one."
    "I see.  This is very out of character, from what I understand of your record and recommendations."
    "Sir, the United States of America owes its survival today to this man, and from more than one incident.  The entire earth may well have been subjugated during the war if not for his actions.  That's a lot of people with a debt to repay.  I myself owe this man my life seven times over.  If ever there was one thing that would force me to disobey an order, it would be the unparalleled honor of undertaking a single action that would repay all the debts owed to this man on behalf of myself, my country, and every living member of my species.  He is willing to sacrifice his own life to save as many of us as are willing to come.  I could not and will not let that sacrifice be in vain."
    "I understand."  The captain turned to his officers.  "Send word.  We'll begin construction immediately.  I mean _now_, ladies!  I don't want to see a single tool that isn't in someone's hands!"

 

Martin stood on the side of the Gateship, its huge mass providing his only horizons.  A team of men had rigged a laser of sorts that fired a constant glowing beam off into the distance.  His job was to lift the shuttle and use every fiber of muscle in his body to impart as much momentum into the shuttle as he possibly could, hurling it directly along the line of the laser.   Given the distance to be travelled, even the slightest variation could add days to the trip, or mean missing the Gate all together.
    He had never known fear as he knew it at this moment.  For the first time since leaving the orphanage, he dropped to his knees in deep and sincere prayer.  After what seemed like an eternity, he stood and tested the gravity on the outer hull.  For whatever reason, the artificial gravity and power generation had remained unaffected.  Only the gravitic drive fields were dampened.  He had requested that full earth-normal gravity be focused on the hull so that he would not have to concentrate on his footing.  He had taken off his jacket and handed it to his sister.  "When you get home, tell Dad I said 'thanks."  Then he had bodily placed her in the shuttle cockpit along with Rags and forced the hatch shut.
    The bottom of the shuttle had been reinforced with numerous rails and struts to allow it to be supported at a single point and to transfer the thrust of the final throw along its length.  He slowly heaved it over his head and struck a balance in the gravity field.  Satisfied, he began to run, sprinting harder than he had ever done, forcing himself to move faster and faster until he could feel muscles in his legs begin to tear.  At the end of the hull, he ripped his arm forward and around, over his shoulder, feeling bone grind and ligaments split.  He put everything he had into the only chance he would ever get.  The force of what was likely his single greatest show of strength was such that the gateship-- a massive structure that dwarfed even the Navy's finest supercarriers-- began to tumble.  He stayed on the hull, watching through his telephoto glasses (updated since the war to include several new telescopic features handy for scanning the distances involved in space work).  He vowed that he would continue to watch, to make sure that his sister was headed home, for as long as he could.

    Two days later, Rags and Jennifer watched on the monitor as the hulk struck the Gateship.  A glancing blow, in terms of the behemoth structures, but enough to rip and deform both vessels.  They watched, both in tears, as Martin Power was jarred loose from the hull of the Gateship and sent adrift.  Vagabond felt certain that Martin knew they were watching.  He remained composed, and waved an exaggerated good-bye, miming a blown kiss toward his sister as he drifted off into the black.

 

 

 

 

copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

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    The rest we know.  Military discipline and rationing had allowed the crew of the shuttle to survive for nearly twenty-one weeks, the first eighteen of which they had spent traveling toward the Gate at the laughable (on a cosmic scale) speed that Martin had imparted to their ship.  Coincidence --Divine Providence?-- guided them almost perfectly through the Gate, and once in Earth's system their broadcasts had been received by a science ship recently commissioned to study Neptune and its unusual orbit. Within a week of passing through the Gate, they had been picked up and put in tow.  Three weeks after that, they were taking a ferry down to earth.

 

    The world has been without Martin Power for a few years now, and-- well, it's difficult to explain to the children born after he walked among us, but even after all this time, it's still palpable: the world actually _feels different_ without him.  Even those who had never met him and believe (sometimes incorrectly) that their lives were never touched by him have mourned his loss. The skies have the slightest bit more gray these past few years. The chill has more bite. Even laughter seems to end with a soft sigh.  It is as if the one thing that allowed the human race to believe that tomorrow would always be safe, always be better-- is gone. Few talk about it anymore, outside of his sister, who is still doing everything she can to find her way back to the stars, but it's as if everyone alive when the news of his loss broke were all aerialists, and has suddenly realized that their safety net was gone.  They may never have needed it, but simply knowing that it was no longer there---

    Well, if you lived through it, then you know what I am trying to say; there simply are no words to express it.  If you are one of the unfortunate new generations who will never have had this unbelievable man in your universe, then there is simply no way to really make you understand, and for that, I am somehow even more sorry than I am for his loss.


 

----------------------------------------------


 

    Martin Power was more than just a Para; he was more than the most powerful Para that ever lived.  Martin Power managed to somehow blend power, personality, morality, dignity, and love of his fellow man into some kind of unstoppable force of nature.  He was beyond definition. He was liked-- often loved-- by almost everyone who ever met him. Even those that did not fall victim to the charm of his honesty and Boy Scout-like wholesomeness respected him, and most of them admired him.  

    Even though he managed to avoid the typical life of a costumed Para, and most of his heroics will never see the light of day, even with such ambitious projects at this book, it is safe to say that there isn't a soul on earth who didn't instantly recognize his image, and know who he was.  But he was more than a "superhero." He was, in a very bizarre way, the ultimate everyman, wanting nothing more than the joy of time with his family and the peace of privacy. Beyond his small career as a spokesperson and commercial actor, he never used his tremendous abilities for his own ends-- he preferred not to use them at all, if he could help it-- but when he did, it was almost always for the sake of others.  More than his physical prowess, the threat of his power was his most-used tool, and even then-- never for any cause that didn't in some way benefit every citizen of his country; every man woman and child on earth.

    Life was sacred to Martin Power, as was the right of an individual to determine his own life and to be safe to live it.  His covert career as an unwilling super-agent and a war machine among the stars and his rare foray into unintentional crime fighting were all driven by those ideals.  In that way, Martin Power was most of all a catalyst. He was single-handedly responsible for more of the world that the public knows today than is any other human being alive, perhaps more than any man in history.  Government is now more closely-watched, and less powerful, than at any time in hundreds of years. Martin Power gave us that. Paras and Metas are free to live their lives without fear of exposure or even the existence of a Registry.  Martin Power gave us that, too.

    But most of all, Martin Power gave us the stars.  He gave us the knowledge of the Frontier Corps, and with their becoming public, the funding and support of an entire planet.  He gave us space travel, and life beyond the visible stars. He gave us impossibly clean energy in unimaginable abundance through the gavitic ore.   Without Martin Power, it's most likely that we would never have had any of these miracles.


 

-----------------------------------------------------------------

 

FILE ADDENDUM:  I am an agent of a top-secret black agency.  I cannot tell you who I am or who I work for.  I feel it is important that, should this book come to see the light of day, I add this note.  The author is not at this time aware of this note, and should Power's body never be discovered, he never will be aware of it.  However, given the good that Martin Power has done in his life, and given the inevitable blame and scorn his memory will take for not using himself as a professional hero, I feel obligated to reveal what was perhaps his greatest secret.  I have surreptitiously placed it into this work after it has been studied and analyzed by the agency.  There is little chance of them revising this work, so I feel safe to present it here.  It would perhaps be more prudent to let this secret die with me, but I feel that not only does it explain Power's aversion to "professional" heroics, but speaks volumes as to who he was as a person, and the strength of his attachments to those he loved.  You see, I have been privileged to know what perhaps no other human being has ever known: the reason Martin Power never became a Registered Para or, even after the demise of the Registry, a professional hero.

 

    As the author has noted, Martin Power did an extensive amount of research prior to his decision to remain a private citizen, ignore his abilities, and avoid being a professional hero at all costs.  The conspiracy theories that abound are completely off-base. The real reason is shockingly simple.

    I was assigned as a "handler" for Martin Power.  This means that it was my job to use any means necessary to get compliance from Martin Power whenever the government judged his intervention to be necessary.  I am not proud of what I did, but I am proud of the reasons I did it.

    As part of my job, almost every conversation I ever had with Martin Power was, without his knowledge, recorded for psychological analysis with the goal of learning better and more effective methods of motivating him.  The following is a transcript of the one time that he explained to me why he would never, under any circumstances, become a professional hero. Until this moment, this conversation has always been my own confidence; it went unreported even to my superiors for fear that the very scenario laid out in this conversation might become attractive in times of desperation.  For reasons I cannot divulge, my participation and certain referential portions of his own participation have been omitted. What remains, however, is an Occam-like simplicity that explains the motivation under which Martin Power lived the bulk of his life:

 

    "It's simple, Rags.  It's very simple. It's you guys-- all you costumed nutjobs.  Sure, when I was a kid, it all seemed so amazing. Superheroes saving the city from bad guys; saving the world from powerful individuals bent on domination or destruction.   Even the alien thing was pretty cool, and until I met you I was like the rest of the world: I was certain there was just no such thing. Still, as a kid, it really was something to aspire to.  I mean, who doesn't want to be the person who saves all the good and kind people of the world? Who doesn't want to be that one person who makes the difference between success and failure?

    "I know a lot of folks want to be that person.  There are an _awful_ lot of Paras out there-- Metas too-- registered and fully-supported as professional heroes.  There are lots of people out there who really have the kind of power to make a real difference, and I mean on a _big_ scale.  Even the little guys-- those guys who don't have much more than an edge or a gimmick-- even they want to do something, something good.  It might not be much, but they want to be the guy doing it. Frankly, I think it's commendable. I think it's wonderful. I think it's probably the greatest thing that a person can ever do: give their lives over to the greater good, to help ensure the safety and security of others.

    "But I've done something that you haven't.  I've done something that I think a lot of them haven't.  I've gotten myself stuck between the ultimate rock and a hard place.  I don't know who you are, Rags. Seriously. I mean, I know _you_, the costumed tatterdemalion that stands here in front of me, representing law and order and peace and justice and all that good stuff.  But when you leave, when your mission is over, you go home, don't you? You go home and take that costume off. You take off that mask, and you're some else entirely.

    "I can't do that.  From Day One, people have known who I am.  That first day at the bank, years ago, my name was the first thing in the headline.  Not that it matters. I mean, I'm nearly eight feet tall, Rags. I weigh a half a ton.  Who else am I going to be? I can't walk down any street in the world without someone knowing who I am.  I have guys like you sitting in my living room every other week, pitching me some spiel about why I need to save the world.  I will never, ever be anyone except Martin Power, and there's nothing I can do about that.

    "That's the rock.  Here's the hard place:

    "Now bear with me, Rags, because here's what makes being a pro a hard place, at least for me:  think about the things I've done, and done without even breaking a sweat. I ripped a supercarrier in half and didn't even break my stride to do it.  I dug a tunnel through a mountain to rescue the President. I did it with my _bare hands_, and did it in under an hour. I shielded Easter Island from a nuclear explosion just by picking up the bomb and holding it up to my chest while it went off!  Yeah, don't you think for a second that I'll ever forget that. The blast shot me nearly eighty-seven miles!

    "A few years ago you hauled me further across the galaxy than I ever thought it was possible to go.  Why? I was the only weapon you had to offer an alien race in a war that might spill our way. How long did it take me to destroy the military might of an entire empire?  How long were we gone? Eight months? And just how many thousands of ships did I destroy for you? If you recall, the only 'weapon' I had was that little radio you gave me.

 

    "Have you thought about the power level required to drop me?  Think about the sort of person that you-- or anyone else-- would need to take me out, permanently.  Who is that powerful? Who can take me down? I mean take me down and _keep_ me down? Who do you have on tap that could just walk in here and drop me if someone absolutely had to?

    "Yeah; that's what I thought: no one.  That person simply doesn't exist. There are no Paras even close to my level.  I'm not just at the top, Rags; I'm so far up that I have to treat even the baddest Bricks in the world like they're made of eggshells and glass.  When I realized that, it was the first time in my life that I wanted to be anything-- _anything!_ -- but the best.

 

    "No; not even the Psis.  You know as well as I do that even if the entire Opal network took aim at me, I would outlast them.  They'd get tired, and I wouldn't. Eventually, I'd get back up.

 

      "Have you ever noticed that pro heroes draw some real sickos?  I mean big-time. Some of these guys seem to become life-long threats twosome poor pro, showing up over and over.  If the pro can defeat him, take him in, get him locked up, that's great. But when he gets out, he'll come back.

    "That's it.  That's the hard place.

    "Like I said, Rags, there is no one more powerful than me.  We've been up and down the galaxy together, and you know it's true.  If there was someone more powerful than me, you guys would be bothering _him_, wouldn't you?  But you're not. You're bothering me. And I can't be anyone _but_ Martin Power: Immovable Object; Unstoppable Force.  

    "Look, it's getting late, and this is something I don't even like to think about, so let me just get this off my chest so we can turn in.  Going to be a big day tomorrow. Just promise me this is the last time we go into space, okay? While it's great knowing I can survive in total vacuum, the actual experience is kind of creepy.  You know I love peace and quiet, but being outside, exposed to space... The cold... the impossible quiet... It's like opening your eyes and waking up in a tomb.

    "I've never had much family.  I don't know who my actual blood family is.  I had two adopted parents, and I still have a father and a sister.  Those two people mean more to me than anything else in all of Creation.

    "Suppose I finally give in to you jackasses?  Suppose I go pro? From everything I've seen, no Para has ever had any real nutjob problems until he decided to go pro.  It's like throwing your hat into the ring or something; I don't know. But suppose I go pro? You think that given who I am and what I can do, all this worrying is completely ridiculous.  I'm the Indestructible Man, right? Drop me in the Mariana Trench, and a month later I walk out of the ocean and up onto the beach in California. Blast me out of the space station and an hour later I walked out of the great big crater I made when I hit the ground.  Make me hug a nuclear warhead, and the only thing that happens when it goes off is I'm naked and thirsty! Nothing does much more than slow me down as it is, and according to your science guys, every time I actually _use_ my strength or my indestructibility is put to the test-- whatever I end up doing, I just gets stronger and stronger!  So why not go pro?  What do I have to worry about?

    "Let me paint it a little closer to home.  Let's look at what _you_ do, Rags. I'm not stupid.  We've been knowing each other long enough that I know the gist of your story.  You're not just an agent that comes calling, trying to convince me to save the world every now and again.  Somehow, you're in charge of making sure I do it. I don't know what it is exactly that you do, but you rarely have a pitch that you can't sell me.  So once all the cards are exposed, I agree. You do things the right way, and that flies pretty well with me.

    "Let's look at the guy who isn't interested in doing it the right way.  Let's look at the guy who just wants it done, period. You know: the usual kind of screwball the pro heroes draw like magnets.  These are the ones that scare me the most, okay? Don't look all shocked, Rags. Yes; there are things I'm scared of. Of those things, this is the one I fear the most, okay?  Let's say that some two-bit minor-league psycho comes to the surface long enough to see that I'm in the game. He can't do even a tenth of what I can do-- he can't do one one-hundredth of what I can do.  He doesn't have to. If he's smart enough, he can get me to do it for him.

 

    "Rags, you are really thick sometimes, you know it?  How many guys do you know that can use a gun? Hundreds?  Thousands? Millions? Sure, anyone with hands. All it takes is motive.  Suppose that motive is using me as a personal weapon. Would that be enough, you suppose, for some lunatic to put a gun to my sister's head?  Suppose one day I come home and there's nothing in my father's chair but a note with a list of demands? When that happens, what do you think I'm going to do?  That's right: whatever he wants. They're not just all I have, Rags; they are the most important things in the world to me. If it meant keeping them safe, I'd crush you to paste and never look back.  I'd rip every spec of life off this planet and hurl it into the sun. Don't think it's funny, Rags, because you know good and well that I can do it, and that there isn't a force you can muster that could stop me.

 

    "Sorry, Rags.  I didn't mean to worry you.  Though really, you ought to know that already.  Think about how easy it would be, though. I'm Martin Power, every day of the week, and everyone knows who Martin Power is.  Everyone knows he has a family. It would take all of five seconds to know their names, and ten minutes to know where they are.

    "So you tell me, Rags: are you guys going to keep pestering me to go pro?  Or are you going to let this lay?


 

    "Get to bed.  We've got to be at Kennedy tomorrow night for that search and rescue, and it's a long trip."

 

-------------------------------------------------------------

 


 

    Jennifer Curtis gave one last interview to this author before disappearing, evidently from the face of the earth.  Her whereabouts have been a mystery for two years at the time of this writing. She had attempted to to join the Frontier Corps, desperate to go back to space and look for her brother, but her criminal record kept her out.  She made no secret of the fact that she wanted to find a way into space, hoping to recover her brother's body. Those closest to her agree that she never completely accepted his death, claiming that were he truly dead, "I'd know it."

    Just a few weeks after her adopted father's death, Jennifer Curtis disappeared forever.  Perhaps the loss drove her over the edge. Perhaps she simply felt there was nothing left to anchor her outside her more illicit life, and has submerged herself fully into it.  If I may be allowed to speculate, I find it more likely, given what I learned of her during the research and writing of this book, that she used the considerable fortune left to her as the sole heir of the estates of Martin Power and Jeff Curtis, combined it with her own, and bought her way into space via the program of another nation, or perhaps one of the few private concerns.  Clearly, wherever she is, she doesn't want anyone to find her.

 

    Our last interview was on a Sunday, and as was the habit she shared with Jeff, Sundays consisted of morning church service and then an early afternoon picnic at the grave markers for Martin Power and his adopted mother.  Jeff worried at first that perhaps Jennifer was in danger psychologically, but calmed when it became clear that she wasn't. She simply hadn't let go of her brother, and likely never would. When Jeff died, up until she disappeared, she continued to spend Sunday afternoons "talking" to her brother.

 

    ME: I see there has been some construction since I was last here.

    Jennifer: Destruction.

    ME: Destruction?

    Jennifer: Remember when the President announced 'Martin Power Day?'

    ME: I do.

    Jennifer: Stupid government came in here and tried to build a great big memorial-- like some kind of shrine.  It didn't belong here. This is a family place-- lots of families are here. All of my family is here. Martin would have hated it.  Me and Dad fought it for weeks. They finally pulled it all down a couple of weeks ago. Broke his headstone doing it. Jackasses. Anything for a vote and a picture.

    ME: The headstone seems fine.

    Jennifer: That's the new one.  Dad left it up to me.

    ME (Reading): Martin Power.  Taken too soon. In his forty-four years, he never swore.

Is that true?  I remember a couple of other people mentioning that they had never heard him say anything in rage--

    Jennifer: Oh, he got mad.  He got _plenty_ mad sometimes.  But he never swore. Not once.

    ME: rather unusual for an American today, isn't it?

    Jennifer: it was important to him.  He was like --...

    ME: Yes?

    Jennifer:  Well, I was going to say he was like a Boy Scout, but he really wasn't.  He was just like everyone else at heart. He was just a good guy, a really, really good guy.  He'd hate it if he knew I told you that. [laughs]

    ME: So he was proud that he never swore?

    Jennifer: No; I don't think he ever really thought about it.  He never mentioned it. I just noticed it one day, and just sort of kept an ear out from then on.  He never swore. Not once.

    ME: Seems sort of unusual, doesn't it?  I mean, to immortalize a man for something that he never really thought much about....

    Jennifer: That was my idea.  I just-- well, you have no idea how much Big Brother means to me.  You have no idea how unique, how special he was. I want the whole world to know what a special person he was.

    ME: The whole world _does_ know.  He was undeniably the most powerful mortal being ever to live, perhaps the most powerful who ever will live.

    Jennifer: It's not that.  I didn't want to put that up: "Martin Power, the World's Strongest Man." or "The Indestructible Martin Power."  He never made a really big deal about his power. It always bothered him that when people met him, the first thing they thought was "the Amazing Man."  It made him feel like a circus freak.

    ME: So why "he never swore?"

    Jennifer: Because it tells a little tiny bit about who he was as a person, not just a freak of nature.  [grins and giggles a laugh clearly not directed at me. For a moment, she is playing to her brother: at this instant, he is very much here, at least for her]  And because when people read it, most of them are going to think "that's amazing!" [more laughter, and it becomes clear that I am, to her, no longer here.]

    ME: I suppose he would like that.

    Jennifer [as if noticing me for the first time]: No!  He would have _hated_ that! [pause, as she returns to some moment shared with her brother]  And he would know that I picked it, and that I picked it just to get under his skin a bit. _That_, he would have loved.


 

--------------------------------------------------


 

  







 

    During his life, Martin Power fought long and hard against ever doing anything but living his life in relative quiet.  He never wanted to be a hero of any sort, save perhaps to his family, or a few charity causes that were important to him.  Still, in spite of himself, he was called to use his fantastic abilities time and time again for the good of humanity. One can only wonder what reasons he might have had for not doing as so many far less powerful than him have done, and don the mantle of professional hero full time.  The things he could have achieved, the suffering he might have saved-- given that all tests demonstrated that he might live for hundreds of years, there is no real limit to the good he could have done. We will never know, as he never stepped into the professional arena. He will never again have the opportunity to change his mind.  Mostly, we will never know what kept him from becoming a registered Para and a professional hero, as he appears to have been the only man with the answers to those questions, and he has taken those answers with him to the grave.

 


 

 

 

Copyright D.E. "Duke" Oliver, 2019

 

 

 

 

That's it, folks.

 

Thank you for bearing with me.   

 

If you really hated having to wade through something that long, blame Chris.  :lol:   He suggested that this one be next.   ;)

 

 

Going to take a break for a couple of days before posting the next one.  There's only a couple left, and one I posted years and years ago, so I think I'll do my favorite next.  And hey!   It's a villain!

 

 

Duke

 

 

 

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On 6/5/2019 at 5:41 PM, Duke Bushido said:

That's it, folks.

 

Thank you for bearing with me.   

 

 

Truly an enjoyable story - but I must confess t took me forever to get through it; limited time available and I would lose where I was between readings!  Still a great tale.  I do wonder what Little Sister will do when she finds Big Brother and the trouble they'll get into together!!

 

I look forward to more of your stories!

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Oh, Chris:

 

I have corrected an error of omission from the old copy that you read.  Does it feel any better to you?  I freely admit that there are things about some of the other characters I would like to have changed, but remember what this was: a summation of a series of campaigns presented as a gift to an absent friend.  All the named characters-- even the normals (save Agents Black, White, Opal, and the people in the Bunker) were other people's PCs, and I just can't bring myself to alter their characters.  (the others, of course, were NPCs).

 

I can expand the character a bit more by including more details, I suppose, but don't know if it would make the difference you are looking for.  :(

 

 

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Thank you, Amorkca; I very much appreciate that.

 

But honestly, I didn't do this to go fishing; really I didn't.  I haven't done any writing since-- well, since the kids were born, really.  That is to say, I haven't done any in-depth writing.  I am trying to knock the rust off, and get some feedback (from anyone interested in doing it) on where I can improve / get back in the groove.

 

I _will_ take your comments to heart, my friend.  Henceforth, I shall post in shorter blocks were break-points present themselves.  I hate to say that I was in a hurry to paste the Martin Power bit, but typed out, it's a hundred and ten pages, so....      yeah.  I got spooked and threw it up in larger chunks than I should have.  I apologize for making it a slog.  

 

 

But thank you for reading it.  :)

 

 

 

Duke

 

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On 6/7/2019 at 10:24 PM, Duke Bushido said:

Oh, Chris:

 

I have corrected an error of omission from the old copy that you read.  Does it feel any better to you?  I freely admit that there are things about some of the other characters I would like to have changed, but remember what this was: a summation of a series of campaigns presented as a gift to an absent friend.  All the named characters-- even the normals (save Agents Black, White, Opal, and the people in the Bunker) were other people's PCs, and I just can't bring myself to alter their characters.  (the others, of course, were NPCs).

 

I can expand the character a bit more by including more details, I suppose, but don't know if it would make the difference you are looking for.  :(

 

 

 

I can relate. A lot of names I drop that I don't show the character are characters that belong to others. I don't want to get too deep with other people's toys. Meanwhile, a few of those players want to know why I don't write about their characters. "Dude, if you want a story about your character, write it."

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Okay, I promised a villain next, but I put a small something together today for my daughter-- a Hook, if you will, for the Fantasy world I was going to revive, detail, and give to her when she is comfortable enough (and finds a group) to run her own.

 

And because of that:

 

 

HERMIT:

 

I don't know if you come this way or not, but given that this is quite likely to drift well out of the scope of super heroes, would it be possible to move this thread to General Roleplaying?  I should have thought of that sooner, I suppose, but I'm thick like that sometimes.... :(

 

 

 

Moving right along.  This really was just sort of a lengthy stinger.  It doesn't go anywhere, really, but gives a small taste of what at least two of the races are, and how the world of Ta' La-Kreth came to be.

 

Enjoy (or hate.  The first group I unleashed this one certainly did.  :lol:  )

 

 

 

Ta’ La-Kreth

 

(Of Sun and Sky)




 

         First there was the Goddess, and She walked the Heavens of Night, and where Her footsteps fell, they were illuminated by the joy of the Sky itself, so great was the honor of Her attention.  She wandered the Heavens of Night for a thousand-thousand years, searching forever for Her equal, with whom She might conceive children. Alas, She found no equal, and the lights of Her passing paled from brilliant fire to the remorseful blue we know them to be today, so great was the sadness of the Sky at the loneliness of the Goddess.

        The Goddess was as wise in these Times Before as She is today, and also as powerful then as we know Her to be, and in Her wisdom, She understood that She had not failed in Her search, but had instead proven that She had no equal, as we know that She does not even today.  Her power, vast as it shall always be, allowed Her to create a new place in the Heavens of Night, an endless nest of forests and rivers, hills and oceans. A place of soils and rains, for Her own t’lkreth-- the nest for Her glorious children-- would be the great and perfect Ta’ La-Kreth, the place She wove from the Heavens of Night, and the place She still watches today.  The place She created of Sun and Sky.

         It was here, in the fertile and warm soils, that She laid Her first clutch, the Holy Eight who would grow to become the lesser Gods:  Lai’ka; Wind and Rain-- She who would be the God of Change, was hatched first, for it was Her power to cause Change that would open the eggs of Her seven brothers.  She first opened the egg of her Azhum, He who would become the God of the moving waters, and then that of Kallath, He who would assume rule over the forests, mountains, and  the far-travellers to distant lands. Oh, when the Amphii learned the skills to craft boats….

One of the many and perhaps the greatest gifts of Lai’ka is new knowledge, for She so loves the Change new knowledge wrings-- and when she changed the Amphii’s knowledge to understand the crafting of vessels that would carry them far into the deep waters and far up the rivers, then did the Eldest Brothers have their first quarrel, for Kallath believed us to be travellers, even though we may cross vast lands with ne’er a foot on land, and Azhum held that all things on the moving waters were as much His domain as the waters themselves, and the things within them.  Kallath picked His battle unwisely, for even an Amphi child can drag a furrow upon dry land, but Azhum’s might is such that He may dig holes in the waters. In the end, Kallath was left with a jagged scar so deep and so profound that His very Nest bears the same mark to this day. It was on that day, too, that the First Clutch knew that They were in fact Gods, for who else had the power to inflict such pain on the First Clutch of the Goddess?

         As the Godlings grew and travelled the world, They found those things in which They each took delight, and the seven brothers of Lai’ka divided the Ta’La-Kreth of the Goddess into seven Aspects, and placed rule of these Aspects amongst themselves, and presumed to rule Ta’La-Kreth for a time.  Their mother-- the Great Mother that is the Goddess-- returned to survey Her children, and was displeased at their presumption. Still, as She is always the Great Mother, She loved Them, and She could not bear to see Them destroyed, so She instead ordered Her sons that They would each build t’lkreth of Their own, outside her Great Nest, but as She loved Them and could not bear to lose Them to Her sight,, and as They had taken great care during Their rule of Her Nest, She allowed to Them that Their own Nests should stay forever in the near skies of Her own, and there they remain to this day, visible to all who will turn an eye to Her skies, and at night, when any number of them are in the Heavens of Night overhead, their brilliance lends enough light that even the eldest of the Amphii may safely find his path on open land.  Only Lai’ka was allowed to keep her feet in the Ta’ La-Kreth of Her mother, for only Lai’Ka did not seek governance over that which was Her mother’s. Further, the loving Great Mother, as Her sons had truly cared for Her world even as they squabbled amongst themselves, allowed Them to continue to reign over the various Aspects of Her world, on any day or night that Their own Nest was visible in the sky. This is how great is the Forgiveness of the loving Mother.

          In time, with Her Children now grown and Her sons partly banished, the Goddess grew lonely, as mothers who have known children are want to do, and grew again heavy with eggs, so great was Her desire for more children to raise.  She again took to Her Ta’La-Kreth-- Her nest made by Her hand of the Sun and the Sky itself, and deposited a great clutch-- unknown thousands of eggs, and, so that they might not also become Gods and also become arrogant in their powers, scattered them about the corners of Her Ta’La-Kreth and bade that they be not shapers of the world, but dependant upon it, and this Great Clutch was hatched, and was the Amphii, who will, by Her design, forever be tied to her Ta’La-kreth, and forever her Children.

          There are those, even among the eldest Amphii, who say that we are weaker, for we cannot rise above our need for grains from the land and meat from the forests and the sea, but the oldest Skins tell a different story to those who can read them.  They remind us of the Wisdom of the Goddess. They tell us that we are different, and have been given no divine power. They tell us that we are weaker, for we must toil and eat to grow and to live. But also we are many-- more, far more, than the seven of the First Clutch, and that our needs have taught us to rely on each other, to cooperate and share burdens in ways that that the First Clutch in the arrogance of Their great power could never do.  Our perceived weakness has molded us into a complex society that thrives and grows and bears for the Great Mother Goddess more children and grandchildren besides, which is something that the arrogance of the First Clutch could never allow Them to do.

And we know the Love of the Goddess, as not only does She allow us children of our own and all the bounty of Her vast t’lkreth, but She allows us to beseech Her  and Her First Children for intervention, as She has not only allowed Them to retain vestiges of Their rule of the Aspects, but has obligated Them to always be vigilant.  Her Wisdom, tempered by Her great Love, has found for Her First Children punishments that They cherish.

          That is why She watches us so closely, and always.  We, the Ahmphii, are Her children, and every place that we have ever set foot is Ta’ La-Kreth, the t’lkreth of the Goddess Herself.  Alway are Her eyes upon us, staring down Her gaze of Warmth and Light from the endless blue of the daytime sky. She watches us again through the eyes of Her First Clutch, who are charged with keeping us safe when both of Her eyes are closed.  She watches us because She loves us, because She knows that we are weak and will often need Her intervention, and most of all, She watches us to ensure that we will not develop the arrogance of the First Clutch when we discover the true potential of our strength.  Praise the Goddess for Her Wisdom. Praise the Goddess for Her Love. Praise the Goddess for Her watchful gaze, and for that of Her eldest Children. Especially, we praise the Goddess for our lives here, in Her blessed Ta’La-Kreth.







 

          The teacher beamed softly out onto her class.  Tellings from the Great Tale always held the children so rapt.  Usually, with Soft Summer approaching, there were wandering minds and eyes that drifted toward the windows, beyond which soft breezes played with the grasses in the warm sun.  Today, though, every eye in the round clay room was on her. And why shouldn’t they be? She had chosen her spot well, standing in the pool of light that filtered through the open vent in the top of the cone-shaped structure.  It was a good place to stand: it cast her in light brighter than that which filtered in through the low open windows spaced around the room, and the sunlight felt delightful upon her skin. She smiled inside herself that with the breezes through the window being drawn to her on their way out through the vent as they warmed that she was privately enjoying the very pleasures the children were dreaming of as they sat on the floor near the low benches around the perimeter of the room.  Again her inner mind chuckled: it was amusing how, as the weather warmed, those low benches inched closer every day to the edges of the round room, nearest the windows.

          Adding to the distractions of the children, this was a particularly delightful Soft Summer day: the breeze was light and constant, but swirled playfully with the thin drape of her wrap, and the scents of Soft Summer blooms so permeated the air that she could taste them upon her skin, even where it was covered by her wrap.  She beamed again at the children around her. It wasn’t as if she was old enough that she did not appreciate their desire to play in the sunlight or roll in the fresh blooms of the fields--

 

          “Mother.”  called a sharp voice.  It wasn’t that there was sharpness in the tone; it was simply the nature of the voice: quick and blunt, with more force and volume than should be used.  Language was gift of Lai’ka, after all, and should be treated as an art. This was the voice of someone more inclined to use it as a tool, hammering thoughts into the air.  The tone was respectful, inquisitive, and innocent-- a respectful child. But her people…. Goddess love and protect them all, but her people… So hurried. So forceful. So unconsciously self-important and accidentally impetulant.  So…. Ha’arii.

          She looked at the Ha’ari child-- there were four this season.  The Amphii had done so well with them since the beginning, and the Ha’ari settlement beyond the hill had begun to blossom.  She could not remember a season when she had ever had more than two of their kind at her lessons. Fortunately, like many of the Amphii here and in other places, she had become accustomed to their look: their strange, narrow mouths and their faces made long by an abundance of skull above their eyes, and that odd special structure that thrust their nostrils from a face otherwise flattened by an extremely short jaw.   Hardest to get used to was their skin. Not only was it not the warm yellow-green or vivid blues of the Amphii, whose bronze and golden highlights could tell tales of generations of lineage, but it was almost completely one color, lighter where their heavier clothing hid them from the gaze of the Goddess’s Eyes, but it was so… It wasn’t dry. It wasn’t wet, as was often found on the Amphii who made their livings in the water trades, but it wasn’t precisely dry, either.  It was…. Oily. Not disturbing to any great degree, no more than the light film the Amphii developed when wet repeatedly and for long durations, but disconcerting at times, particularly since it appeared dry when looked at. Their skin was grained, too. It was soft, to be certain, but it wasn’t the perfect smoothness of the Ma’risu; it wasn’t even slicked to smoothness like those in the water trades. In fact, when a Ha’ri was wet for long periods, positively _horrible_ things happened to its skin!  

          The feathers, though--- the feathers of the Ha’arii…  So fine. Long, flowing feathers, so fine and so delicate as to be finer than the finest threads, softer than even the softest of downy barbs on a newly-hatched shathir, yet longer than the rachis of the longest-known feathers of the greatest sky swimmers.  Too soft to stand erect, they flowed and tumbled downward, sometimes straight, sometimes in waves, occasionally in wavy circlets, a captured living river that flowed from their heads, the crest feathers of the Ha’ri defied anything known in the world, yet the thickness with which the crest grew, and the length to which the Ha’ri were capable of growing them….  They were beautiful when preened properly, as they carried a shiny depth and inviting softness unlike anything else in the world. The Amphii had named them “Ha’arii,” meaning “finely-feathered. The feathers, though, like the skin, were all similar in color. And like the skin, there were a variety of colors expressed amongst the Ha’ri: silver, white, assorted yellows, orange, red, black, and shades of brown too numerous to name, yet any given Ha’ri, regardless of the color of his feathers, would have feathers of only that color, with perhaps a few highlights of a lighter or darker shade of that color.  As they matured, most of the Ha’rii would slowly molt and some of-- and eventualy all-- of their crest feathers would be replaced with silver or white or gray, and for the years during which this molting was taking place, the results were spectacular. Sadly, about half of the males would lose their head crest entirely, or in large part, during this molting. No one, not even the Ha’ari, could say why this was.

          The crest was not their only feathering, of course, but the rest of the feathering on their body, while seemingly similar in delicacy of structure and the fine-beyond-even-the-finest-of-threads design, was much more sparse.  Not patchy, but unexplainably short and widely-spaced, as if to show off the color of their skin, which ran from almost-whte through to sand-hued yellows and as wide a range of browns as did their feathers. For some reason, the feathering of the body was much more pronounced upon the males, and oftentimes all-but-absent on the females.  Perhaps the females lost their body plumage early as the males lost their crests with age. Likely she would never know, for the Haa’ri had never been able to explain it.

          The child before her was respectful, she saw, and had risen to her knees and leaned forward (she had supported herself upon her hands-- making her pitiful Ha’ri claws visible as she splayed her unsettling Ha’ari one-thumbed hands on the clay floor-- before calling for attention.  The teacher graciously overlooked this unmannerly lack of hands opened and spread outward from the elbows, as the Ha’rii had no tails with which to balance themselves in a proper bow and they made do demonstrating their emptiness by spreading their fingers across the floor and pressing their palms flat.  This child had long black feathers that were wrapped neatly in a leather thong, keeping them from spilling to the floor in a beautiful light-catching silky cascade. Still, manners were important, and such a brilliant display of plumage could have hidden her hands. Whoever was raising this child was taking the job quite seriously.

          “Inquisitive One.  What may I offer you?”  she replied warmly, in the oldest tradition of teaching.  As the child leaned back to her knees, the teacher noticed the eyes.  The eyes of this child-- the length of the crest suggested that this child was female, but it was so difficult to tell at this age-- were a lovely gold color, and bright against the soft smooth inviting brown of her skin.

“What of the Eyumohn, Mother?  When did the Goddess decide the Amphii needed companions?  From where do the Eyumohn come?” Her question asked, the child settled back to a comfortable position on the floor, leaning against the low bench she share with two Amphi children.  “Eyumohn,” the child had said. Typical of the Ha’arii: while the Amphii have come to realize that they do not do it intentionally, the self-important nature that the Ha’arii hide only from themselves no doubt demanded such as this.  The name borne to them by the Amphii-- the liberators of their kind-- the name borne by them for a thousand years!-- had not been good enough when they had decided to live independently of their liberators and teachers. No, that bedevilling and no doubt Esh-Kahn (the youngest and most self-centered of the First Clutch)-inspired need to do every tiny thing for themselves (and then boast about it for a hundred years or more) certainly would have driven the Ha’rii to rename their entire kind on nothing more than a whim.  And in their typical short-sightedness, they hadn’t even given themselves a name that meant anything. Except ‘Ha'arii,’ of course. It would always mean Ha’arii.

          “That, Inquisitive One, is another, later part of the Great Tale.  For you see, Inquisitive One (she prayed briefly to Ampylis, God of Discernment, Judgement, and Knowledge, to know for certain the gender of this one so that she could simply say “child” without insult), the Ha’arii, so far as we understand it, were not the get of the Goddess, but instead a gift to the Amphii-- perhaps a reward; perhaps a test-- from Lai’ka, who brings Change to all things, and new things to Change and be Changed.  Should all the class desire it, I will tell this Tale as well, for I have well-read the Skins upon which it is written, and knowledge of the past is something to be carried forward always, for in this way and this way only, will we know when we should not pray for Change.”

 

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