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Challengers 01
Before the Dawn
by Davey Jones

12 JUNE
Outside Las Vegas, Nevada

It was a quiet, muggy evening, unseasonably hot even for Nevada, a state known for its extremes of weather. The stars were all but invisible behind a haze of moisture, not quite rain, not quite clear. Heat bugs sang stridently. Not far enough down the road a band of partiers was playing modern country music too loudly as they laughed and danced beneath one of the few street lights still unbroken on this stretch of back road.

The man in the dingy motel room sat at the low scratched table. He eyed the loaded pistol. He'd cleaned it three times this evening. Any more and he'd be taking the finish off the metal. He eyed the unopened beer on the table. Part of him wanted that blurred anodyne to consciousness, wanted it so badly he could feel it. The rest of him knew he didn't dare. He eyed the well-worn deck of cards, cut and re-cut to the point of having been re-shuffled, still a neat stack, un-dealt. He couldn't concentrate on them enough to play solitaire. He eyed the three cell phones on the bed, dreading to see anything displayed in any of their screens, almost hoping for something simply so that the waiting would end.

He'd been with the Undercover Operations Agency for years, and he'd learned that his mother organization was composed of and ruled by traitors to the North American Union, dedicated now to the secret and irrevocable overthrow of the governments of the Northern Western Hemisphere.

And he knew that there was no one he could tell. The UOA trusted no one, and no one but the UOA's parent agency, ATLAS, trusted them. The long-subsumed CIA had nothing on the UOA for black-ops.

His own involvement with that agency, both as agent-assassin and as spy, had already cost him his wife, and his child, and was soon to cost him his life as it had already cost the lives of several of the few people he considered true friends.

He was confident that his end was swiftly approaching. He might not have minded that so much—death was just an experience he hadn't tried to this point, and he'd have the fun of taking some traitors with him—but he hated to leave anything unfinished, and leaving this life with the UOA unexposed definitely counted as a job incomplete.

There was a knock at the door and, in spite of his resolve, his heart jumped. He'd suspected that they'd find him soon, but not so soon. He'd hoped for visitors, but not so soon.

When he glanced through the door peephole he saw a stately, well-dressed black man, hair barely gray at his temples and dark eyes focused calmly on the peephole. Behind him stood a slender oriental woman. Neither was who he'd expected to see, and neither was familiar to him. He glanced at the bathroom door. The back window was small, but he knew he could skinny through it in less than thirty seconds. He eyed the door deadlock. It wasn't that secure.

"Sir," the man's voice came to him through that door, "you're in no danger from us." The voice was controlled and courteous, and the man would not have been willing to swear that there wasn't a touch of amusement in it.

"Go 'way!" he responded loudly in his best drunken accent. He tightened his grip on his pistol. The safety hadn't been on all evening. "Nobody wants t'talk here!"

"Of course you do," the man's voice corrected him, "or I wouldn't be here talking at all." There was a moment while the man in the room digested this. He rubbed at the red-brown stubble on his chin. "And," the man outside continued calmly, "since we both know why I'd be talking to you at all, why don't you let me in to talk about it more quietly?"

The man opened the door a crack. The visitor beamed happily at him through it. The oriental woman watched the gun attentively but without obvious alarm. He glanced up and down the poorly-lit sidewalk. There was no one else in sight in front of any of the motel units. "In," he ordered, waving the gun to punctuate the order. The black man stepped past him, the woman following him at a comfortable distance. Neither paid the pistol in the man's hand any attention.

The ragged man locked the door and swung to cover his visitors. To his dulled surprise, the man had taken the seat at the room's tiny table, studiously ignoring the beer and the cell phones and the cards. The woman settled in the threadbare recliner near the window and the laboring air conditioner. After she finished taking a long look around the edge of the curtains, she looked back at him emotionlessly.

"Why are you here?" he asked the new arrival.

The black man's eyebrows rose. "Aren't you even curious about who we are?"

"I can find that out later," the man assured him, the pistol still openly displayed, "one way or the other."

"Fair enough," the older man said. He looked him in the eye. "I'm here because I suspect you very badly need a friend."

"And her?" The woman's expression never changed; she might have been watching paint dry.

"She's here because I already have friends," the man assured him. The ragged man to whom the room belonged glared at him. This wasn't going the way he'd feared it would go, but neither was it going in any comforting direction.

The black man tilted his head. "James Edward Baxter. Born in Mahogany, New York. Not particularly old. Highly skilled with most forms of weaponry, and seriously well-trained in hand-to-hand combat. Saw a great deal of action with the marines during the Cambodian conflict twelve years ago, and in the Gulf War seven years back. Immediately following the latter, you were recruited into the Undercover Operations Agency." The man called Baxter shifted nervously. He didn't like the fact that these strangers knew even this much about him—especially when he still knew nothing about them. "The UOA found in you an excellent assassin. To their credit, they did a good job with your training.

"You've been out of the military for seven years," the negro continued. "You've been divorced for three years. The UOA informed us six months ago that you'd gone rogue and were in the process of defecting to Scorpion."

"You—" Baxter's voice was a croak. He swallowed hard. "Who are you?"

"My name is Jonathan Ward," the man responded evenly. "That name may not mean anything to you." For a moment the man became darker, as though the air about him were becoming ebonmost night, shadows that flickered about him like flames, his dark eyes fairly glowing.

Baxter twitched, then took note of the pistol in his hand as though he'd never seen it before. "Nightfall," he said quietly. "You're Nightfall." The man so addressed nodded briefly as he gradually brightened. Baxter uncocked his pistol, flipped the safety and slid it into its holster. "I'm honored, sir." He glanced at the woman.

"She's an associate," Ward assured him, "here to assist me."

"Call me Strike," she told him, calm never ruffling.

Baxter gave her a hard look. "Handles usually mean paras. I haven't had good luck with paras so far."

"Yes," she told him without breaking calm, "handles usually do."

Baxter looked hard at both his visitors. Then he pulled his filthy sweatshirt off. Against his hairy chest was duct-taped a small, thin package, clear, showing memory sticks and papers. He jerked the tape off without a sound, glaring at what he perceived as an amused expression in the woman's slanted eyes. He peeled the remainder of the tape from the wrapping, and set it on the table in front of Ward. That man looked at it, grimly interested. "What's this?"

"Open it up," Baxter told him. He edged his way in the now-crowded room to the tiny refrigerator beside the bathroom alcove. He took out another beer and held it up. Ward ignored him. The woman shook her head. Baxter shrugged and replaced it.

"Why are you giving this to me?" Ward asked Baxter as that man perched on the corner of the bed.

"From what I've been able to learn," he responded, "you work for the people I've been trying to get to. If that's so, you'll want—hell, you'll need this. If I'm wrong and you're here to kill me..." He grinned thinly, the expression of one just past the ragged edge of total exhaustion. "Well, I won't go down easily. But I've known for weeks now who's on my trail. There's no one else I can get the information to who'll know how to use it."

The woman called Strike handed Baxter a hand-sized tablet, which he obligingly passed along to Ward. Ward slit the package, pulling the contents out onto the tabletop. He picked up a chip labeled Me First and slipped it into the viewer. After a moment he began to page his way through the display.

Then he looked up, his expression grim. "This would appear to be a great deal of information. Far more than I expect I can read just sitting here." He switched the viewer off, replaced the chip and papers in the package, and handed the tablet back to Baxter, who passed it on to Strike. "I'm certain the papers will require them for context. Indulge me. Give me a brief."

"A brief?" Baxter snorted a tired laugh. "The UOA's planning a coup."

There was a strained silence. Ward's eyes narrowed. "Perhaps a little less brief now."

Baxter leaned forward, clenching his hands. "Maybe 'coup' isn't the right word, but 'revolution' involves armies and populations they don't have. Yet." He paused to gather his thoughts. "The UOA's been ATLAS' enforcement arm for the last thirty years or so," he said. "In that time, they've been built up to be a covert operations agency... hell, a Black Ops agency... to take care of things your agency can't get involved in.

"I know about that because, as you say, I've been a UO agent for years now. At first we just did the job. I won't say it was a clean job, but the stuff needed doing. While Kelso was alive, we stayed on-track.

"When Kelso died and Townsend was appointed his successor, things started going downhill," Baxter said, and there was a tone of anger in his voice. "The agency started focusing more on paras than special agents, and I started getting sidelined. I'd been one of the top agents. I'd been getting the top assignments. Now I was getting milk toast. Things normal agents could do."

Ward cocked his head, the smile in his voice not touching his lips. "Pardon me for pointing this out—"

Baxter nodded, waving a hand. "I know. I'm no para. Happier that way." He spared a glance at Strike. "No offense."

"None taken," was the quiet response.

"That's why you went rogue from the UOA?" Ward asked him levelly. "Because you weren't getting missions you personally liked?"

Baxter gave him a positively deadly look. "After I got sidelined I got curious. Wanted to find out what was going on. We'd always been gung ho on hemispheric defense, but this was something else. A different kind of feel to things. If it was just a shift in agency policy, I could've handled it. Gotten out, found myself something else to do.

"Instead, I started finding out stuff. Nobody ever credited me with being as sneaky as I am. The stuff I started finding out I didn't like. It was stuff that just didn't sound right." He motioned at the pouch Strike was holding in her lap. "It's all there. Figured no one was going to take me seriously without evidence. Well, it's taken me the last five years to come up with that evidence. And I've been trying for the last two to reach anyone trustworthy in ATLAS."

"I know," Ward told him evenly. "I'm aware of most of your efforts."

"Yah. Had what I thought were good contacts." He sighed heavily. "They weren't."

"Agent Russell?" Ward asked him. "Doctor Soben?"

Baxter gave him a hard, searching look. This man had already impressed him with his past; now he was impressing him with his present. "You're better-informed than I'd've expected."

"It's not so much my job to be," Ward told him calmly, "as my responsibility. And when two highly-placed operatives both wind up dead, of substantially the same thing—particularly when it appears to involve, however peripherally, an ex-UO agent who's gone rogue—it does raise more than an eyebrow or two."

Baxter looked back at his hands. His thumb rubbed against his forefinger. "Yeah," he finally muttered. "Yeah." Then he looked up. "Anyway. You wanted a brief, you got a brief. I don't know everything, but I've managed to piece together enough of a case that I've got some high-powered death on my tail. I didn't go rogue, I went on the run. I thought I'd be able to reach someone trustworthy in ATLAS, but I wasn't. The agency put the word out that I'd gone traitor; that was enough to get me shot on sight." He rubbed at one shoulder reflexively. "And I knew I'd get turned back over to the agency if I got taken alive." He rapped his fingers on the bedstead. "I considered sending this information to someplace like the Times or the Rolling Stone but I didn't want to compromise anything that might be needed to stop the bastards." He ran his fingers through his filthy red-brown hair. "I've gone through six low-level contacts in the past six months. Two of 'em were dirty. Couple of 'em had accidents after I talked with 'em. And ATLAS' security's better'n you think it is. I had zero luck reaching anyone who'd be in a position to handle this."

As Strike rose from her chair Baxter glanced at her. She passed him into the bathroom alcove and ran tepid water into one of the cellophane-wrapped plastic cups. As she edged her way back to her seat she stumbled. She kept from spilling her water as Baxter reached up automatically and steadied her. They touched hands for a moment.

Then she drained the cup and tossed it into the bedside trashcan. "Yes," she told Ward, "all true. We need to get him out of here." Baxter's brows came down and he looked hard at her, uncertain where this observation and decision had come from.

"Very well," Ward responded. "Get that secured." She nodded and moved back to the window. Ward took the information packet and slipped into an inside pocket of his sports jacket. He stood, carefully buttoned his coat. "Mister Baxter, if you'll come with us—"

"Where?" Baxter didn't move, but the twitch of his hands toward his gun was visible. If Ward noticed the reflex he gave no sign. Instead, he took something out of another pocket and held it out. Baxter eyed it with dull curiosity.

"Believe it or not, Mister Baxter," Ward told him, waving the tiny insignia until Baxter reached up to take it, "I believe you. Some of us have suspected some of this for a very long time, but there is no evidence at all to support the contention. You'll understand that I sincerely hope that you're mistaken in all of this, and that we can simply set you up in a retirement identity somewhere, but I believe that you believe it, and even the little of your evidence I looked at is frightening.

"Strike and I are returning to our base of operations. I want you to come with us." He managed a thin, comforting grin. "I think if we could figure out who you are and what you are doing—as well as where you are—others can to."

"Main reason I'm still here," Baxter told him, turning the small device over curiously in his fingers, "is because I'm pretty sure there's a nasty para sitting at the No-Tell Motel a quarter-mile down the road. He and his partner're waiting for the rednecks to get done partying." He stretched, his weariness obvious to the two new arrivals. "Figured this place was good for a couple of hours' break. Imagine it'd be harder if the manager knew I was in here."

"Dark blue sedan just drove up into the lot," Strike told them. "No lights. I make two individuals." Both men looked at her, waiting for her to continue. She glanced at Baxter. "One of them doesn't look right."

He nodded to her. "Vampyre. He's one of UOA's paras. He's a killer. And he likes his job. He's under orders not to appear where the public can get a good look at him." He grinned thinly, humorlessly. "When you said he didn't look 'right' you weren't kidding."

Strike looked back out of the window without moving the curtain. "I'd seen pictures," she admitted. She looked back at Baxter. "You have made enemies, haven't you?" She looked at Ward. "Last out."

He nodded, obviously expecting this. "Mister Baxter, you might want to be standing." Baxter rose to his feet. Ward held his own charm to his mouth. "Control."

"Go ahead," a voice answered him. Baxter's eyebrow went up.

"Movement," Strike whispered. "Coming this way."

"Three to Philadelphia," Ward told his charm. "Immediate evac. Insignias one, three and two."

"Understood. Stand by."

"What are you—" Baxter had time to start.

...

The figure in the long trench coat and wide-brimmed hat radiated hot fury as his more normal partner finished his pistol-equipped sweep of the room. "Not out the back or in the bathroom," he reported.

The cloaked man shook a misshapen fist, his anger palpable. "#$%! transmats!"


13 JUNE
El Cerrito, Bay City

The young woman stopped before the scuffed door of the dingy hotel room, carefully looking both ways up and down the long walkway before pulling out her door key. It was late in the evening, and even in this neighborhood most were where they were supposed to be, eating dinner and preparing for a night's sleep.

The first thing that caught her attention in the brightly-lit room was the wary look in the dark eyes of her younger sister. "You were gone a long time, Sandy," the girl said, her voice little more than a whisper.

Sandy double-checked the deadbolt and the door chain before setting her grocery bag on the tiny room table. "I know, sweetheart," she said. "I'm sorry." The walk to the convenience store had been long and alarming. Here in the concrete canyons of El Cerrito the sun set early and most of the streetlights no longer burned cheerful welcome to strangers. No one had accosted her—no one had spoken to her, or even seemed to notice her—but she had felt the pressure of a thousand eyes upon her.

She hadn't been truly concerned about herself. She might not be the largest of women, but she had a cocky self-confidence that others could sense.

She had been concerned about what would happen to her younger sister should she disappear into the night.

She said none of these things out loud, but her little sister's expression became bleak. "You could've gotten hurt," the girl said.

"I didn't," Sandy replied matter-of-factly, reassurance for the girl, "and that's the important thing." She opened the grocery sack and withdrew a plastic jug of milk and a few smaller bottles of medicines. She felt her sister's dark eyes on her as she put the milk in the room's tiny, struggling refrigerator. The medicines became an array next to the little sink in the little bathroom.

Then she sat down on the bed. "Come here, Jenny," she said. "Let me see that eye." Jenny obligingly scooted closer, holding patiently still as her sister examined her. Sandy was distressed by the look of the girl's eye; it was still purpled and swollen. But surprise there was in equal part. Yesterday at this time Jenny hadn't even been able to open that eye, and now it looked half-healed. She also took silent notice of how fast the other bruises on the girl's arms and neck were healing.

Other times that their father had beaten them the bruises had taken weeks to fully disappear. Now Jenny looked as though she might look normal again within days.

Her fingers were gentle as they brushed the discolored, swollen skin, but Jenny just sighed. "It doesn't hurt," she said, addressing her big sister's concern, "not really."

"That's good," Sandy responded automatically. She brushed the girl's ebony hair behind her ear. "But I got some more pain pills anyway. Don't wait 'til it starts to hurt again."

Jenny nodded acknowledgement of the sisterly order. "But it hasn't. Not all afternoon."

Sandy felt Jenny's silent gaze, almost felt a purpose. "What is it?" she asked.

"It's D-daddy," Jenny responded. Sandy looked harder at her. "I—I think he's left."

"Left what?" Sandy asked. Then it dawned on her. "Left the city?" Jenny nodded, dark hair disarrayed. "What makes you think so? Was he in the news?"

Jenny shook her head again. "No. No. I mean, yeah, I watched, a little. I wanted to see what Bay City's like." She hugged her knees and Sandy could tell that she was distressed. "I'm not sure I like it. There were a bunch of stories about people getting mugged or robbed or—" She shivered. "Two men came to the door while you were gone."

Sandy felt a spark of fear. It wasn't fear that their father had found them—the man ran alone—but that even this tiny dingy refuge might be dangerous.

Jenny looked at her, eyes big and dark. "They wanted to come in. They wanted to— They were talking about seeing us, and..." She swallowed hard. "I wanted them to go away. I didn't say anything. I just wanted them to go away and leave us alone." She laid her forehead on her knees, projecting weariness. "And they did."

Sandy's brows came down in a frown. "Just like that?" Jenny nodded again. "Did someone make them leave? The manager, or a policeman, or—" She stopped as Jenny shook her head.

"I think I made them leave," the girl said softly. Sandy gave her a searching look and Jenny sighed. She looked at the bathroom sink, and a small bottle of aspirin wobbled through the air to plop to the bed beside her.

"You shouldn't be doing that," Sandy said in a level voice, and her thoughts echoed her words. "What happens if you hurt someone, or—" She stopped as Jenny looked hard at her. In mid-thought Sandy slowly reached over and picked up the bottle.

"Like that," Jenny whispered. Sandy's horror exploded into Jenny's mind and the girl cringed and curled up in a tight ball of misery. "I'm sorry!" she cried, jerking away. "I'm sorry!"

Sandy had known for the last four days that her sister was now what official accounts termed a paranormal. The last beating their father had administered had finally scared and hurt her enough that something had snapped and she had manifested these powers. Sandy remembered a cloud of ghostly, star-filled light that had exploded from the girl, filling the room, brushing at her with immaterial fingers as it hurled their father away to crash against the wall and slide, stunned, to the floor.

But those abilities were telekinetic; she had looked the word up at the library. Jenny could affect things physically with her thoughts, but that was it. She knew Jenny seemed to sense her own feelings more easily and more deeply than the friendship of two lonely sisters might explain, but she hadn't given that aspect of things nearly so much thought.

But to find out now that her little sister could affect the very thoughts of those around her—

Sandy got herself under control immediately. Her little sister had been through more than anyone her age should ever have had to, and the sisters were all each other had any more.

She pulled the sobbing teenager around to her and cradled her and rocked her as she cried. "I'm sorry!" Jenny wailed, "I'm sorry!"

"Shhhh, baby," Sandy told her, still rocking her, stroking her back. Slowly, she realized that she was feeling—from somewhere outside of her self—Jenny's misery and fright. She finally admitted it to herself with a cold shock; Jenny wasn't just a telekinetic, but a telepath and an empath.

All this power, and no idea how to control it, and no one to teach her control.

"It's all right," Sandy told her sister, "it's all right. I'm not angry. Hear me? I'm not angry." To her own surprise, she wasn't. Concern for her little sister was all that occupied her thoughts. "Please, Jen, it's all right."

Jenny's sobs worked their way out—she was sensing her older sister's concern, and not anger—and she eventually heaved a ragged breath and sniffled loudly. "I wasn't—" the younger woman started. "I didn't mean—"

"I know," Sandy told her, and held her close, rocking her silently for a long moment while she got her own thoughts in order. "It's just—Daddy wasn't a bad man after he got his powers," she said. "Not at first. But after Momma left... his powers... they changed him." Jenny nodded against Sandy's shoulder. "Most people that get these powers, the powers change them. Most people don't become better people. They turn bad. Daddy's—Daddy's just one of them." She sighed. "I don't want that happening to you."

"I don't either," Jenny mumbled. "I didn't know I could do that, I really didn't, but I could tell what those men were thinking and I was so scared—"

"I know," Sandy said, looking off into the distance, distracting herself. "No more about it tonight, okay?"

"Okay."

"Is that why you think Daddy's gone?" Sandy got the conversation back on its original track.

Jenny hesitated, then judged that Sandy's anger had indeed abated. She nodded hesitantly, then again, more firmly. "I can't hear his thoughts or anything like that," she told her sister. "But I could kind of tell he was still where we'd been. When I woke up a little while ago, I couldn't... couldn't feel him any more." She snuggled harder against Sandy. "I hope he stays gone forever."

Sandy judged the time to be ripe for a distraction. "We need a good night's sleep tonight. I want to get out tomorrow and find us someplace we can live. This is bad enough for a few days. I don't want to have to live here long-term."

"How can we do that?" Jenny asked, not looking up from Sandy's lap. "Do we have enough money?"

Sandy nodded sadly. "Yes. Not much, but enough." Money stolen from their unconscious father as they had fled into the night. Twice-stolen, Sandy thought angrily, first when their father had burgled a bank, and the second time when his daughters had fled from his anger. "I think it'll be enough for a couple of months someplace. Long enough for me to find a job."

"Me, too?" Jenny asked with surprising enthusiasm.

"No," Sandy responded. "'Me too' is going to get enrolled in school somewhere."

"I haven't got any records," Jenny managed to protest. "I'm too old to enroll in school, and no one'd take me without records."

A smile quirked Sandy's lips. "You may not be able to finish high school," she responded, "but you can get your GED and get into one of the colleges. You're going to get a degree and make something of yourself."

The same empathy that the younger woman couldn't control now broadcast her frustration with her older sister. "What about you?" Jenny asked craftily. "You should finish school too."

"Misery loves company?" Jenny hmphed. "I will. I know I'll need degrees to get any kind of decent job. But I'll find something that'll let me work while I'm studying. We'll both be big people someday." She shifted to sit on the bed with her back to the wall. Jenny waited until her sister was settled before moving to rest her head on Sandy's shoulder. "I grabbed a couple of apartment guides while I was out. Let's take a look at them."

Jenny looked at the little room table. There was a soft fuzz of starlight around her and the two small guidebooks drifted into the air to drop on Sandy's lap. "There." There was an unmistakable tone of satisfaction in the girl's voice.

Sandy sighed. This was going to be more difficult than she'd anticipated. "I'm serious, Jen. I'd rather you didn't do that. I'd really rather you didn't develop these... abilities... any further." Her arm tightened around the girl's thin shoulder. "I don't want to lose you too. You're all I've got left."

"You won't," Jenny assured her with the certainty of youth. "Not ever." Then she snatched up the first of the colorful digests. "Where can we start looking?"


14 JUNE
Redvault Penitentiary

Damien Williams was normally a heavy sleeper. But he was serving the third year of a five-year sentence in Redvault—with parole denied again just two weeks earlier—and inside these walls, he'd found that, big and tough as he was, there were many, many men who were bigger and tougher. The biggest and strongest man in Redvault right now was the supercriminal Blockbuster, little more than a hypertrophied stone-surfaced brick of a man. Unfortunately, he was a brick with a taste for black men, and Damien'd learned to sleep light. Technically there was no way for any inmate to get out of their cell after lockup at night; practically, Blockbuster had visited him three times already this year, and regularly for the past two. Damien's cellmate, a pale, nebbishy man named Johan, who went by the name Technomancer when he wasn't doing three years for cybercrime, was of no use at all for any sort of I'll watch your back, you watch mine arrangement. The first time Blockbuster had paid Damien a visit, the little man had curled up in his bunk, hiding his head, avoiding seeing or hearing the violence. Once Blockbuster had made it clear that Damien was his bitch until further notice, Johan had simply watched the assaults begin, yawned, and rolled over to go back to sleep.

For some reason, no one bothered Johan.

Damien had fought Blockbuster the first time, and several of Blockbuster's equally-large buddies had helped hold him down—and then they'd beaten him half-senseless before taking turns teaching him his new place. After that he'd held his helpless fury in check, vowing revenge someday for what the bastard was doing to him.

Interestingly enough, once Blockbuster had marked Damien as his own, he'd passed the word, and Damien had stopped having to defend himself in the constant fights that went on behind prison walls. Blockbuster's Bitch was a protected person—and in many ways, that made these conditions that much worse. He was the attacker—not the victim.

Once—just the once—he'd let his temper get to him. He'd paid for it, personally and in terms of six more months added to his sentence in this smooth, beautiful hellhole.

Redvault was the prison designated for incarceration of paranormals, the vast majority of which in the North American Union were antisocial. Technology had made many great strides in the decades since the Invaders had been repulsed from Earth, but that technology still didn't fully understand paranormals and their powers, and there was no one-device-fits-all gadget that would cancel out all paranormals' abilities. Place dozens of angry, antisocial paranormals in the same building, and you could have watched them demolish the place.

Even setting it away from population centers—Redvault Island was fifty miles to the west of the ocean shore of Bay City, largest city in the Northern Hemisphere—would have served only to slow these people down, not stop them. Many could fly, or run—or do other things—fast, or freeze the ocean itself into a surface that could be walked upon. Most of the villains would have been back in circulation in days.

So Redvault had fallen back on lower-tech, but ultimately perfectly-good, deterrent. The killcollar. A quarter-kilo of the highest-yield non-nuclear explosive, worn in a solid, tamper-proof collar around the neck.

Tampering with the collar got one a very loud warning that one had less than thirty seconds to live. Interrupting the circuit of the killcollar resulting in an immediate explosion; only a constant signal from the administration building kept the collars worn by all the inmates from immediately going off. Some prisoners could manipulate solid matter; the collars were designed with that possibility in mind.

Prisoners newly-arrived were always given full briefings about the killcollars, and were always shown video footage of criminals that had thought themselves able to buck the system.

Take the collar off and you died. Conceal the collar from the authorities and you died. Escape the island, leaving the safe signal behind, and you died. Refuse to obey any order issued by a guard or the authorities, and they had the legal right to detonate your collar, then and there.

Use your powers while in Redvault, and you died.

The authorities of the North American Union had long ago tired of supervillains on the loose, and had received special dispensation from the court systems—eventually ratified into law in the United States, Canada and Mexico—allowing for this one example of 'cruel and unusual punishment.'

Technomancer was one of the few individuals against whom a standard killcollar was virtually useless. With his abilities to cybernetically control all electronic equipment, he could simply rewire his own collar to allow him to circumvent the safe signal, keeping his collar armed while slowing him down not in the least. He could open the lock on the killcollar as though he possessed one of the encrypted keys all the authorities had on-hand, should it be necessary to get a malfunctioning collar off quickly.

So the authorities had modified his collar. It was heavier, and harder, solid metals and welds, and relied on no radio signal. Its guts were purely mechanical—things proof against Technomancer's gifts. And Technomancer remained a model prisoner, as he had no desire to risk his life on such a slipshod contraption.

But Technomancer had the power to control other collars. It had taken Damien a long time to learn that people were nice to Technomancer because Technomancer could release them—at least briefly—from their own collars. This was how fights got resolved without either party getting their head and torso blown to bloody flinders. This was how people like Blockbuster paid recreational visits to people like Damien.

After one particularly enthusiastic visit, Damien had felt that he could take no more. Knowing full well that the little wimpy man could trigger his collar, he'd still threatened him. Get this thing offa me. I'm gonna kill Blockbuster. Johan had protested, peacefully. He had no desire to be implicated in a jailbreak or a murder. His own sentence would be up soon, and he didn't intend to be sent back here again. And he was only valuable to the other, more abusive prisoners if this particular ability's use didn't reach the ears of the authorities, who might easily have moved him to solitary—where there was nothing over which his powers worked.

But Damien had been insistent, and finally the little man had acquiesced. Damien had been free. He'd dragged Johan with him to open doors and put out lights and disable alarms.

And he'd glared down at his abuser in his cell, and had taken a deep breath. He might escape later, and he might be caught and put back in his cell—but Blockbuster was going to die.

And he'd forgotten how fast a man the size of Blockbuster was. Blockbuster's hand had gripped his throat, stilling his own super-ability—that of paranormal generation of sound—and the huge man had lifted Damien, kicking, from the floor. He'd pronounced himself displeased with Damien. Johan had taken less than two minutes to return to his shared cell and come back with Damien's collar, replacing it at Blockbuster's command.

Damien had screamed a lot during the long, unpleasant assault that had followed. And he'd limped back to his cell—Johan had already returned there, and gone back to sleep—and Blockbuster had taken several more opportunities that week to teach Damien just where his place as bitch was.

And Damien seethed with helpless anger, and he was not a man who suffered anger well or gracefully. And he felt the cold chill of fear as well—the assaults hurt physically as well as mentally.

And although he was normally a heavy sleeper, he'd begun to wake up quickly when someone entered the cell. It never did him any good when it was Blockbuster, but at least he was then awake and somewhat prepared.

So this time he came awake in a cold, terrified rush—and heard nothing. He glanced around. He saw nothing. The lights from the prison yard shone through the barred window. Johan lay on his side, blankets drawn up to his chin, snoring softly. The cell door was closed, and Blockbuster never bothered, seeing it as one more way to torture Damien—"Look, boy. All you gotta do is make it to the door and you're home free!"

And then one of the ebon shadows on the wall moved, and a slender man's form stepped forward.

Damien frowned. Blockbuster was big enough and strong enough to use Damien as he wished. This man was more normally-proportioned, someone who'd've had a hard time beating up Johan. Who he was and what he was doing in the cell were a mystery.

"You Deathcry?" the man asked him, his pale voice less than a whisper. Johan continued to snore softly. "Damien Williams?"

"Who the fsck wants t'know?" Damien growled. Both men looked at Johan as he snorted and twisted and, comfortable again, drifted back to sleep.

"The guy who'll leave without you if you don't keep your damn' voice down, that's who," the man whispered harshly. "Are you?"

Damien hesitated, and then nodded. The man nodded back. "Right. Get your shoes on. I'm getting you out of here."

Damien continued to lie on his bed frowning at his visitor. Of the many things he'd supposed the man could say, that wasn't any of them. "Yeah?" he finally responded, in the advised whisper. "How you figger t'do that?"

"My business," the man told him. He glanced pointedly at the floor. "Shoes if you're wearin' 'em. Makes no difference to me. I've already got mine on."

Damien slowly swung his feet out of bed and into his shoes. He reached down to pull the velcro tight. "Where?" he asked, still suspicious. Things like this didn't happen to criminals like him.

"Bay City's all I was told," the man responded.

Damien's fingers went to the collar. "What about—" he started.

Then he gripped the stranger's hands firmly when they reached for that collar. "Let go," the man whispered harshly, "or I leave without you. The money's to make the best attempt I can to get you out. You hose it up, it's your own damn fault. I don't think the guy who's payin' me'll pay me to try again." Damien breathed hard, his heart pounding. Escape! was all he could think. Getting out of this hellhole, getting back to civilization and his brother, getting away from Blockbuster—those were the thoughts that filled his head.

"Fine," the dark-clothed man said, "I warned—" Damien released the man's hands and jerked his own down to his bed. "Better. Hang on a minute." Damien sat very still as the man's fingers took hold of the collar. Past warnings had been loud and impossible to ignore, and he didn't think the guards would take long to get to this cell to find out what was going on—

—and in a silver shimmering the man was gone—and the cool breeze on Damien's neck told him that his collar was gone as well. His fingers clutched at his neck, finding nothing there.

And the man was back; one second gone, the next there, the same silver shimmering briefly lighting the cell.

Damien's heart pounded even harder. Without the collar, he was free to use his powers again, to send sonics out that could crush stone, warp metal, and shred human flesh and bone. He was free to go and take his revenge on the bastard that had used him like a damned woman

As if reading his thoughts—and Damien's face had never been suitable for poker—the stranger spoke up. "You start to use your power and I leave you, and you're right back where you started from. Maybe worse, since you don't have a collar on any more and the guards'll wanna know why." He shrugged. "Once I turn you loose you can run or hide or stand up and pick fights. You do whatever you want. But you do it after I tell you we're loose, got me?"

"Got you," Damien growled, tempering his exultation. "Let's go, man."

The figure nodded. He put a hand on each of Damien's shoulders. "Take a last breath here," he ordered the prisoner, "'cause the next one'll be—"

And as the silver shimmering faded, the cell became dark and silent once more.


19 JUNE
Richmond, Bay City

Matthew Williams winced, pale eyes narrowing in sympathy as the picture on the security recording shook and fuzzed into static to the notes of a thunderous impact and terrified screams and a bestial roar.

Normally Williams spent his time at the Cunningham Institute for Science and Technology making things happen. Specifically, he was the personal assistant—he knew and didn't care that some muttered the word enforcer—for Armand Gordine, right-hand man to the CEO of the Cunningham Institute for Science and Technology, International. CIST was a company that strove to remain at the forefront of the high-tech industry, and while Williams was no tech-head, he knew enough about science and technology to use it intelligently. He wasn't there to help with research; he was there simply to make sure that whatever Gordine's researchers needed they got. Most recently Gordine's research team had been headed by one 'Doc' Girven. Should someone somewhere—usually but not always outside the confines of the company—get in Doc's way, Williams saw to it that such person was removed.

Just a few minutes earlier there'd been an alert from one of the lower levels of the complex, one of the biotech ones. He didn't spend time there as a rule, but it wasn't an alert he was familiar with, either. Besides, Doc had been spending time down there recently; it was entirely possible that Williams was going to find himself on babysitting duty again while Doc's latest mess was cleaned up.

Before heading downstairs Williams had called up the security video feed. He'd seen it happen before—someone had snuck into a top-secret area, done their damage or stolen their data, and then set up a noisy diversion to cover their escape; he'd kept a copy of the recordings from the time the supervillain Shadowstalk had done this. He knew the plant security people were on their way; he had time to check ahead.

To his dull surprise, only one camera was still transmitting, and what he'd come up with was a live feed filled with blurred, yelling figures and one huge dark tattery shape that roared in a voice that sent a chill up even his iron spine. One of the first victims of whatever was going on down there was the main security camera itself; it had been struck by what looked very much like one of the lab tables, and after that he'd had a clear view of one wall of the lab. The lights had been knocked askew, and all he could see on the wall were odd shadows that leaped and jerked across it in time to the screams.

Now he was trying to pull some sense from the speakers, and having little luck. He shrugged away another chill as the roaring died down at about the same speed that the screaming had. After long seconds there was icy silence.

He jumped at the metallic screech of one of the heavy lab doors being battered and pounded and torn from its housing. The door crashed heavily to the floor; one corner slid into the miserable camera's view.

The sound of thumping and shuffling and heavy, bestial breathing gradually faded to silence.

For now, his assumption was that one of the paras the center was studying had escaped containment, taken offense at his state and decimated the lab and its staff before attempting an escape. At any given time CIST might have an Observe And Study on anything from one to ten paras that had been sentenced to Redvault, or specifically sent here for further study on their way to that nigh-inescapable prison. He quickly tapped on-screen a list of paranormals that the government had remanded to the company. Then he frowned at the names on the list. None of the paras officially here were supposed to be capable of the performance he had just caught the end of, and all showed securely in their cells.

Neither, he noted with some disquiet after looking at a different list, were any of the paras who were 'unofficially' here for study either unaccounted for or so capable.

He tapped Doc's number into his desk phone, and was not really surprised to receive a busy, try later response from the man's PDA.

When he reached that particular sub-level, he found the usual cadre of security personnel posted in various places standing watch—but they were all keeping people out of that particular testing section. Normally Williams would have treated this as standard procedure—but these people didn't look like the normal security crews. They were better armed, wearing armor and helmets and professionally-grim looks.

The first of these guards that he flashed his ID card to didn't want to let him in, but a brief, pointed conversation with the chief of this detachment got that ironed out. Two checkpoints later he ran into a different phalanx of security guarding the direct access to the section where the incident had occurred. This time his ID gained him nothing. "No one's being permitted in right now, sir," the guard had told him levelly. "Safety concerns."

"I'm not concerned about my safety," he assured the man, stepping around him. The guard moved, smoothly but surely, to remain between Williams and the doorway. The guard remained competently polite, but his stance made it clear that he wasn't budging.

For a moment Williams considered simply taking the man down and proceeding on his way. The guards were good, but Williams was confident that he was better.

From out of the darkened doorway two battered, bleeding technicians stumbled, each escorted by pale, frightened-looking medical technicians, and all of these efficiently shepherded by a tall, slender auburn-haired woman dressed completely in black, from high-collared long-sleeved blouse to ankle-length skirt. The technicians were standard personnel, and Williams had seen the medtechs before, but the ebon woman was new to him. His eyes narrowed.

As if sensing his attention the woman looked at him. He didn't let it show, but he was surprised nonetheless at the complete absence of any emotion on the woman's high-cheeked face. Even the most detached of observers would normally be showing sympathy or irritation or boredom. This woman's face was more like a mask, a mannequin constructed to look human. For a moment he merely put it off to tremendous self-control.

But deep within him stirred a spark of genuine curiosity. Normally, he wanted to know what he needed to know to get the job done, and nothing else. What he didn't know he couldn't spill, and what he didn't seek out wouldn't get him in trouble for having learned what he shouldn't've known.

He didn't bother knowing the names and looks of everyone in the company. He had a good memory for faces, it was true; he'd spotted more than one ringer attempting to sneak into the company with stolen or forged identity cards through the years. But memorizing everyone in the corporation would've been a waste of time, given the resources he could bring to bear.

But he did make sure to know the names and faces of anyone who might be important enough to someday require his attention, and this woman, obviously a figure of authority—the guards were still looking at him, not her and her charges—wasn't one of the ones he knew.

"You're going to have to leave this section, sir," the security guard told him. He brushed the man off in irritation, eyes tracking the woman and her group of charges. His eyes went back to the guard when that man cocked his rifle. "I have my orders, sir," the man continued, businesslike without being macho about it. He wasn't playing a power game; he was following orders with an earnestness that could be admired. "This section's to remain clear until further orders."

The woman in black and her group had disappeared into another doorway, one leading back to the upper levels. Williams turned a cool look on the young guard. "Do you know who I am?" he asked grimly, seriously considering whether or not to take the man's weapon from him. Some of his methods of physical action were fast and some required almost no room to move and all of them hurt greatly.

The guard nodded to him, and Williams felt a stir of unpleasant surprise. He'd expected to find that this was someone new to the corporation and needing some serious indoctrination. "Yes, sir, and you're not on the authorized list for this section. You have to leave. Right now."

Williams eyed the guard for long seconds, the other man seeming in no way intimidated. Then the enforcer turned one last look at the dark corridor from which the injured people had emerged.

His eyes narrowed as he watched the door at the end of the short corridor closing in slow, hesitant jerks, as though someone were hiding behind it, hoping to conceal themselves. From the guards? Williams thought. Then he caught a glimpse of a ring on a finger. Not the guards.

Williams gave the guard a spare nod and left the area the way he'd come in, feeling that man's attention on his back like a searchlight.

This was going to require some serious investigation, he decided. He didn't know why Doc would have been in the section where the injured people were—he usually worked on other things, in brightly-lit labs with plenty of radios blaring and attractive secretaries keeping him focused.

But Williams was confident beyond doubt that the man's hand closing the door had been Doc's; that gaudy graduation ring was a dead giveaway. Desperately, quietly shutting the door to avoid the attention of his own assigned assistant.


June 19
El Cerrito, Bay City

Jenny stood at the end of the long, grimy hallway, near the open window. The light was warm and bright, the glass stained so that she had to rub her fingers hard to clear away the grime enough to see the neighborhood.

She glanced back briefly when Sandy raised her voice—not quite an argument, although with her fuzzy new empathic senses the young woman caught the fact that her sister was annoyed at the stubbornness of the landlady with whom she was negotiating.

The hall was plain and bare. There was dirt and small trash on the floor—not enough to make the place look like a dumpster-filled alley, but still enough make the fastidious teenager wish she was elsewhere—or that she had a good broom and dustpan. The walls were an off-white that wasn't quite brown and wasn't quite gray. She could see the cinder-block building material in a few places, showing through spots where a few of the uppermost layers of paint had been worn off by years of the passage of elbows and shoes. The floor was tile, an occasional square missing, most of them flat and scraped nearly featureless by those same years of shoes.

It wasn't as clean or neat as any of the houses she'd lived in through the course of her life, and she had automatic concerns about staying here. Still, after looking around all day, this was the best the sisters had come up with—and as Sandy has pointed out, they were limited on startup funds. They had already agreed that once they'd made it good—somehow!—they'd find better accommodations. Until then, they'd have to take what they could get.

She looked back into the outside world. Close by she could see a rusty fire escape on a nearby building. Below her was an open area with a beaten-up basketball goal, protected by an indifferent chain-link fence. Three wooden benches, paint peeling from each in the bright coastal sunlight, circled it for the benefit of spectators. The bricks of the building immediately to her right were a pale, lichen-stained white. The sidewalk was off-white and dingy, with dirt and leaves and trash still littering it.

Down to the west, a half-block, was the closest major intersection—six lanes of blacktop, with twinned rivers of traffic a soft, steady roar. From there she sensed mostly the frustration and irritation and anger of the drivers forced to keep pace with everyone else, and she quickly decided to look elsewhere in her curiosity.

The building beside the apartment complex was lower than where they were, three stories and painted a disgusting military green. Tall letters ran down the length of the second story: GARAGE. There were shop windows along the first floor, and boarded-up windows on the third. The power lines that snaked through these streets ran close to the buildings, not out toward the road. She leaned hard, and could just make out a dilapidated bench halfway up the block—and the skulls and bulldogs and flames that had been amateurishly painted all around it.

Across the street were mostly more apartment buildings. At the west end of the street at the corner was a small grocery story. The sign was written in English letters, but it wasn't a word she knew, so she figured it was an ethnic store. Part of her, always curious, wanted to see that store, see what they had to offer the community around here. Part of her was hot and hungry and tired from a day's wandering through a hot city, and just wanted to get back to wherever they were going to spend this night.

At the other end of the street were several five-story buildings, all dingy gray and off-white. Part of the wide, dirty lot had a chain-link fence around it, and another side, barely visible, was a tall brick wall. She could just make out the sharp twisting of barbed wire along the whole line, and decided that the cars in the lot were there for repair or for impound.

She saw only a handful of people walking the sidewalks, and those were mostly grocery-bag-carrying women with gaggles of children around them. There were men, mostly dark-skinned, hispanic and negro, in rough clothing and sleeveless shirts, lounging around on the corners. They seemed to pay the passers-by no attention, but she noticed quickly that anyone walking past these cliques moved more hastily, and avoided eye contact.

She looked at her sneakered feet, blinking away tears from the brightness of the outdoor world. She looked around. She opened her new, extended senses up and out around herself.

Most of the feelings around her were just people. Hungry, and irritated, and tired, and occupied and television-hypnotized. She felt bright sparks of souls, and realized that they must be the children who lived in these tiny apartments; they were the only source of happiness that she could rell.

She knew as well as Sandy that they couldn't afford any better place, at least not now, and it could take days to find another place that offered this place's access to main streets and city bus lines. Like it or not, this was going to be their home for a while to come.

The woman with whom her sister was engaged in lively discourse felt of the irritation of heat and of the smug satisfaction of knowing that she'd achieved another sale. Jenny frowned tiredly, knowing the sisters couldn't afford any better, and knowing how it looked for them to be traveling around with no baggage except Thanks For Shopping Here plastic bags in their hands—but still she objected to being thought less of.

Still, given that the neighborhood appeared to be a hazy mix of hispanic and arabic populations, she supposed it was a good thing that Sandy spoke Spanish passably well. She herself knew a few words in a handful of languages, the Spanish that her sister had studied, the Japanese of her long-dead mother, a few words of French picked up during her freshman year of high school—English was the only language she was fluent in, and while she loved to talk to people, she hated to have to negotiate.

She felt more relief than anything else from Sandy, and decided that a deal must have been struck. Soon they'd be in a place—from the looks of it, tightly-cramped and poorly-cleaned for years now—that they could call their own. They could start setting down roots, and building up foundations for themselves—here was still better than the anywhere of accompanying their father on his wanderings—and just learning to be regular people again.

A stab of fear, almost too weak to be relled, caught her attention. She looked around, seeking to localize the source of the discomfort. It grew stronger as she searched.

Long seconds later she locked in on the cause. Two women, arms laden with bags, walking down the sidewalk, were backing slowly toward an alley. A group of five unkempt young men swaggered around them in a loose circle. She couldn't hear the words through the glass, let alone a half-block's distance, but she could feel the young women's fear, and the young men's almost obscene sensations of anticipation and triumph.

People on the other side of the street just looked down and kept walking. Jenny knew as surely as she knew her face in a mirror that they were all thinking not my business, don't get involved.

She opened her mouth to cry for Sandy's help—and stopped. Sandy couldn't do anything. All Jenny's outburst would do was draw attention to her, and right now the sisters didn't want to draw any more attention to themselves than they had to.

Jenny's heart pounded as she watched. She wanted to help, she truly did, but she couldn't—

Then she took a deep, steadying breath, and she concentrated on those ragged young men so far away. She'd never affected anything much beyond her arm's reach before, but from somewhere or other came the thought that it was line-of-sight that mattered, not distance.

She couldn't think of anything dramatic to do—not without risking injury or death to someone down there—but she could manage something simple.

She couldn't hear the lead tough's voice raised in surprise, but she watched him windmill back. He jerked himself to a stop on the curb, and shook himself. She could feel, oh, so distantly, that he wanted to blame his 'stumble' on his prospective victims—in spite of the fact that he'd been nowhere near anything to stumble on.

The circle drew tighter around the helpless women. Jenny's eyes narrowed, her lips thinning.

The young men staggered away as though a bomb had gone off between them, tumbling backward, most going to their butts or backs. Jenny gasped, her fingers stifling a scream, as the lead tough somersaulted backward out into the road. There was the squeal of tires and the braying of horns and the crashing of fender meeting fender—but the young tough, curled in a self-protective ball, lay otherwise unharmed in the middle of the slow lane.

The young women seized the moment, scampering away to disappear into the ethnic grocery at the corner.

The landlady and her sister were right there beside her. "What's wrong?" Sandy asked her, and her thoughts indicated that she was afraid it was something paranormal.

Jenny pointed out of her clear space on the window. "There—" She swallowed; this had been a close call, and she'd almost been responsible for a death, good intentions or no. "There were some young men. They must've gotten into a fight or something. One of them fell out in the street and almost got run over."

The landlady effortlessly edged Jenny away, peering through her thick, ugly glasses. "I know dem boys," she told Jenny in a thick accent. "Dey no good. Be good t'ing dey all get runned over!" Jenny felt her heart skip; the one value she'd been able to cling to most of her life was that life was sacred—all life, even young punks like those men. One never wished for someone else to be dead.

Sandy's hand on her shoulder was a shock of calm. "We've got the apartment," she told her little sister. Jenny slumped with relaxation and exhaustion. "I'm going down to sign the papers and make the first payments. We won't have electricity until we go and get it turned on tomorrow, but there's water. You coming downstairs with us?"

Jenny hesitated, and shook her head. "I'll start looking around the place," she told her sister. "See what we're going to need to do first to make it livable."

Sandy gave her a hug. "All right," she told her, accepting the key from the landlady and handing it over. "Don't go wandering around. Wait until I'm back up." Jenny nodded. The landlady led Sandy to the creaking, squeaking elevator.

Jenny stood for a long time in the empty hallway, feeling the emotions of those living around her washing over her, getting a feel for the place.

Her fingers tightened around the key. She'd been more right than she'd known. When she and her sister went out tomorrow to turn on utilities and to shop for the basics that would make life at least somewhat pleasant, she was going to have to look around carefully—she was going to have to painstakingly examine everything she saw. She was going to be living in this neighborhood for however long, and she was not going to just sit in their apartment while life treated the people in these blocks badly.

While other people treated the people badly.

She tossed the key up in the air with determination, and then uttered a bad word that made her blush when she missed catching it on the way down. She glanced around, and then held her hand out, watching the key float gently back to her fingers.

God had given her these powers for a reason. No one else was going to get hurt on her watch. No one.


Challengers 01: Before the Dawn is a Feral Hamster Press publication of a Davey Jones production. Copyright by him. All rights reserved. No foolin'. While all of the characters and situations herein are Davey Creations, many of them owe inspiration to the characters (of other Earths) of others, like Anthony Cardno or Gina Dartt.

While I'm not a huge fan of what my friend Dave calls 'Deconstructed Origin Stories," I thought it best to introduce a lot of the guns in Act One that I'll be using in Act Four (or Seven or Ten or...). There will be supers here, and they'll call themselves the Challengers; it's just going to take a few stories.

Next Episode: we see the start of the team in the birth of a new heroine. Challengers 02: Star of Wonder. Also by me.