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Challengers 02
Star of Wonder
by Davey Jones

El Cerrito, Bay City

It was actually the middle of the afternoon in El Cerrito, a run-down borough in the south-central portion of Bay City. From here it was less than a mile to the waterfront, where decades-old piers welcomed the smaller, faster-moving freight barges and double-story warehouses lined the front. A railroad had run through here, decades ago, but now the tracks were rusted and trash-clogged. Roads had replaced rails, and trucks had replaced trains.

Still, the boom in Bay City's economy didn't always stretch this far. Trash and weeds lined the sidewalks of the roads that led along the waterfront. Some of the streetlights were still intact, but nowhere near all of them. And the El Cerrito police patrolled this section of the town irregularly; their attention was more focused on the people-centric areas.

So Tony Morano and the six young men who followed him as his gang, asian and hispanic and black, strutted their way down twenty-seventh street without concern. There were pedestrians here, out and about on their rounds, but mostly they were dock workers, big enough to defend themselves and ill-inclined to put up with teenagers with attitudes.

The Toros Gang knew when to put up a brave front, and when to seek anonymity. The former was for women, and children, and old people that couldn't defend themselves. The latter was any time they were faced with someone who looked big enough to hurt them instead of being hurt by them.

Tony spat a mouthful of tobacco juice against the dirty green wall of the building along which the gang moved. He pretended not to see a group of three more-or-less attractive young women on the other side of the street; they were already being admired and teased by their friends in the grimy clothing of dock workers. He didn't stop his boys from watching and offering off-color suggestions, because his boys knew to keep it down. Sometimes it was worth the trouble—that one truck driver three weeks ago wouldn't walk his girl down these streets again, not after the Toros had showed her who was more fun to be with—but most times it wasn't.

Besides, they were on a job. The Toros didn't as a habit work, but they did occasionally accept assignments from people. They'd long since gotten a reputation for getting jobs done regardless of obstacles in the way, and Tony had a vision of himself as one of the gang lords who ruled this borough—and even expanding his authority some day to the neighboring areas. He knew of a few of the more influential gang lords, and he was convinced that their power rightfully ought to be his, not theirs.

The job had come from the skinny, bossy little man called Vixer. If he wanted them for something, he always came to them, never sending for them. To this date they'd done a couple of dozen jobs for him, anything from beating someone up to robbery, and they still had no idea where the man called home.

Vixer'd met them when they'd been contemplating moving over into the Chains' area. Bal was a loyal member of the Toros, and one of the Chains had beaten up Bal's little sister. You didn't let a slight like that go unpunished. Tony'd figured out where a couple of the Chains' family members spent their day, and today had been the day when the Toros had been going to exact a little revenge.

And Vixer had appeared from nowhere, and asked if they wanted work. Normally the thought of a rumble with the Chains—or at least their defenseless womenfolk—was all the excitement Tony craved on a hot, bright day.

But Vixer'd offered money, and money talked very loudly to the Toros.

Vixer'd given them ten percent of the money promised up-front, and given them the specs of the job. Tony knew better than to take what he had now and run for it; he'd seen what'd happened to others that had tried to cross Vixer. Hell, he'd helped teach lessons to people who'd tried to cross Vixer!

The warehouse at the corner of twenty-six and Chester was just as nondescript as any of the other transshipping warehouses down here around the waterfront. It was a combination of brick and cinder block, three stories high, with the ground-floor windows long since boarded over. A chain link fence surrounded the quarter-block building and its attendant utility shacks, and remnants of barbed wire topped that fence, long since rusted into uselessness. Some of the building had imaginative graffiti on it; in some places the fence bore some of that spray-painted creativity as well.

Vixer wanted a handful of files from this building, which meant that Tony and his boys were going to have to get past the fence and into the administration shack. While simply barging in and beating up the office workers was an option—they'd done jobs that way before—it didn't look possible today. The minimum-wage rent-a-cops at the warehouse's admissions gate were big and bored, and looked like more than a match for the Toros, singly or all together.

But this fence had been in place for over a decade, and it hadn't been well-repaired in all that time. There were several places where the chain-link had already been cut through, and the electric wires that had once made the fence an object to avoid were now wired well above the holes.

Leroy, the biggest of the Toros, put his foot on the chain-link to push it down, and pulled up with a huge dark hand. Tony led the way, followed by the rest of the gang, and they were inside the fence less than fifteen seconds later.

Normally there would have been a guard walking the perimeter of the fenced area. Today the temperature was hovering near the triple-digit mark, and there wasn't a cloud in the sky. Even from here he could catch the soft laboring whine of the guard shack's air conditioner.

The back door of the administration shack was locked, of course, but that meant little. Jeter was good with locks. The Toros gathered closely around him, as much to cover him as to watch him work, but it took him less than thirty seconds to pick the old doorknob lock. He opened the door quietly, and all of the young men heaved a sigh of pleasure at the heavy wave of cooler air that came from the inside.

The back room was crammed full of cardboard boxes and metal filing cabinets. John-Boy grunted a choice pair of cusswords as he took in the clutter. Tony slapped him on the back of the head and he fell silent. Tony'd been told what to look for.

He picked the filing cabinet. Jeter picked the lock. The drawer slid softly open. Tony counted back just how many files he'd been told to, and found the one he was after.

He often wondered why Vixer didn't just acquire himself the things he sent the Toros for, if he knew so precisely where those things were. He didn't wonder it too hard; he liked the money that Vixer'd have waiting for them once them ambled their way back.

Jeter took the time to re-lock the door through which the toughs had entered. The fewer clues that there'd even been a broad-daylight break-in, the better. The operation had gone like a dream, smooth as silk, quick as a dream.

Leroy tripped over something and went down, and the operation began to unravel right about that point. The pavement was hot and sticky and gravel-strewn, and Leroy rolled over cursing—loudly—and turning anger-filled eyes on his bloody hands and forearms.

And then Hound and Slants did the same thing. Stepping backward to avoid Leroy's ire, both young men went down hard. Tony winced at the crack of their heads on the pavement, and both young men screamed with pain.

And yet, this back-building parking space was completely empty. There was nothing there for the three young men to have fallen over.

It might be a hot, hot day, but Jeter was never without his beautiful leather jacket, stolen some six months back and lovingly maintained ever since. Now Jeter cried out as his jacket unzipped itself and yanked itself up over his head, covering his face. He stumbled forward, tearing in futility at the unmoving jacket, and tripped over Leroy, adding insult to his gangmate's injuries.

Tony looked around hard. There'd been that time when a building's owners had simply strung kite string across their floor in a criss-cross pattern, and that had taken some doing to get through.

He saw nothing.

Then he saw stars as a blow to the head sent him staggering. He went down over Jeter, both yelling in anger and alarm, and he clutched futilely at the folder the gang had spent such time getting to. He twisted on the ground, rising to his knees, and watched in disbelief as the file folder slowly slid away from the building, as though pushed by an invisible breeze. The folder—without ever flapping open or billowing loose paper to the day—hit the fence and wiggled its way beneath it. Seconds later it was out on the sun-baked sidewalk, just sitting there.

Hound made it to his knees before he grunted and sprawled forward, looking for all the world as though someone had just kicked him in the butt. Leroy cried out again as a handful of gravel stung his face. And Tony grunted, going painfully back on his elbows, as he took a punch in the stomach from something invisible.

With a cry of equal parts anger and bravado he convulsed and found his feet. Blood dripped from his arms where they'd scraped the gravel. His carefully combed-back hair was mussed and filthy. His dark eyes darted around, failing to find any cause of his gang's misery.

And then he cried out again as another blow took him in the face. He felt the blood starting to drip as he tripped over the long-suffering Leroy and went back down.

"Get lost," a voice drifted softly, sourcelessly around the gang. "You're not welcome here." There was a pregnant pause. "Get lost or I'll really hurt you."

Tony hadn't dealt with paranormals before, but as with anyone who lived in Bay City, he was aware of their existence, and how dangerous they could be when crossed. He saw nothing, smelled nothing, and certainly couldn't reach anything—but if he and his boys were being beaten by an invisible something, then that invisible something was by default the winner today.

Another buckshot-like handful of gravel sped the gang members back on their way, and they fought each other getting back through the hole in the fence. Tony was already working on the story he was going to have to give to Vixer to explain why they hadn't acquired the files the man had sent them for—and why they likely never would, now.

Five minutes later the two guards in the guard shack looked up as a dark-haired young asian woman tapped on the glass. One motioned her in. She carefully shut the door behind her. She shivered in the relatively cooler air. "Wow," she said, smiling, "that sure feels good!"

"Can we help you, miss?" the lead guard asked her.

"Huh?" she said, and jumped. "Oh, yeah." She took a bulging pink file folder from under her arm and offered it to him. "There was a bunch of guys climbed into your place through a hole in the fence," she told him. He raised an eyebrow and took the file folder from her. "They snuck into another one of your shacks—" She pointed to the admin one, and both guards nodded understanding. "—and then came out carrying that." She shrugged. "They started tripping and fighting and then they ran off and they left that on the ground. I thought it might be important, so I brought it to you guys." She smiled sheepishly. "Hope it's not just garbage."

The second guard had looked now at the folder. He might have only been a rent-a-cop, but he had some idea of the business that was conducted here, and he recognized some of the information just on the first sheets of the folder. His eyes widened and he closed it again, and took the time to put a heavy-duty clip on it.

"Damned good job, miss," he told her. "This is stuff admin's going to want to know about." The girl beamed happily at him. "Want to hang on while I get someone here? There's probably a reward for getting this back."

The girl held her hand up—reluctantly, both men would have sworn. "No," she said more slowly, "but thanks for offering. I didn't do it for a reward or anything. I'm new around here, and I just thought it was the right thing to do."

"I imagine someone'll still want to thank you, Miss..." His voice trailed off.

"Jenny," she told him, smiling. "Just Jenny."

Richmond, Bay City

Martin Stanosa was short, muscular and well into his fifties. What little hair on his head was solidly gray, frequently grown long and combed over to the other side in a vain attempt to appear un-bald. His eyes were small, deep-set and a distressingly un-piercing blue. His fingers were short, stubby, and sweated constantly as he typed. Even alone in his palatial office, cooling breezes wafting pleasant scents to him, he would sweat. Martin Stanosa was a perpetually nervous person. He had much to be nervous about.

He glanced up from his display as his intercom beeped. "Sir," his secretary said, "your ten-thirty appointment is here." Stanosa nodded to himself; Bernice had worked for him long enough to make no one uncomfortable by mentioning names. Many of his callers preferred that dubious anonymity, and on occasion he used it himself. He tapped the green button twice, a nonverbal signal for her to send the visitor in.

As he finished up his morning's bookkeeping, his visitor strode in. Although, Stanosa reflected, strode was perhaps too strong a word. Slunk might have been a better one. The man was tall, whipcord slender, with short, shaggy black hair, and eyes and mustache to match. Those dark eyes darted about the office, taking in the subdued decor, the prints and plants that framed the walls, the fact that Stanosa himself sat with his back to the huge wall-sized window that let him look out over the cityscape of Bay City. The visitor finished his inspection before he reached Stanosa's desk. Stanosa had met the man before, even given him assignments that had been satisfactorily concluded, but this was the first time the man had come to this corporate center. Danny Fritz was a man with singular talents, talents that did not lend themselves well to the corporate environment.

Fritz took the seat that Stanosa motioned him to and sat back, steepling his fingers. "I've completed the assessment," he said, his voice soft, the whisper of someone who has cultivated the art of remaining unnoticed. When Stanosa nodded, he continued. "Compared to some of the assignments you've given me, this one's a piece of cake. I have all the details I need. The target's giving a talk here in two weeks, and the security measures lined up for him are minimal. So, understand, I don't need to know any more, but I am curious. He's not a para. You wanted a normal killed, why not get someone a little lower on the scale?"

Stanosa was a man who, in the past decade, had grown accustomed to the daily concept of instant, unthinking obedience to his orders. Without it, he felt demeaned, helpless, and he had decided long ago never to feel that way again. He felt a flash of anger that his visitor—a hired killer, at best—would question his assignment in any way. The anger went no farther than his eyes, and he fought it back with logic. Fritz raised a valid point, and he was, in his own field, a highly-respected—or feared, Stanosa thought sardonically—professional.

"A fair question," he growled. He tapped two buttons on his desk, harder than he had intended, and behind him sun shades silently slid across the window, blocking the bright mid-day light and throwing the office into a comfortable amber gloom. He turned, typed at his keyboard. A huge screen in the wall flickered, lit with a display that matched his computer's picture. A man's face, solid, black, temple hair solidly gray, stood out from a nondescript background.

"Jonathan Ward," Stanosa said. "A Psychologist and Sociologist from Washington, D.C. I should say instigator as well. He resigned his teaching position to perform what he sees as his public duty." Stanosa growled in spite of the effort he was making to keep his anger under control. "He sees the growing number of parahumans in America as a sign that such freaks deserve special treatment under the law. Or, to be more precise, that they deserve no special treatment under the law. He has been lobbying for the past two years both here and in Canada to have the special clauses for prosecution of parahumans removed from the books in all three member nations of the North American Union. The Canadian Senate has already scheduled a vote on the proposal, and it is very possible that it will pass." Stanosa breathed heavily for a moment. "Fortunately, legislators in the American Senate are less willing to weaken the rights of the majority—those who are not freaks in some way, by birth or by accident—to live fear-free lives, and have prevented such arrant stupidity from even coming to a vote, at least in the immediate future."

Fritz had sat forward in his seat, studying the face on the screen as it changed, the display updating with information from former Senator Wade's career that backed up Stanosa's assertions. "All right, fine. Up until now, my targets for you have been paras themselves. Five targets, Five dead supers. Now you want a normal who's a para lover. The others weren't a problem; he's going to be less than one." The assassin sat back up in his chair. "It's your money, your targets, and your business. But I'm curious even so. There are paras out there who are assassins for hire. I haven't worked with any of 'em, but a couple of 'em are almost as good as I am. Why not hire one of the ones specializing in normals for this? Why come to me?"

Stanosa closed the wall display. The lights in the room brightened. His first response was to slap the man down; as he'd said, it was none of his business.

But the question was valid, and a curious expert generally had a habit of digging until he'd found out what he wanted to know. This was a truism in the business world, regardless of how honest the business was.

"You object to the contract price?" Stanosa wheezed.

"Hardly," Fritz responded. "It meets my requirements, and I've already said it looks easier than most. If all this is something secret, consider the question withdrawn."

"No," Stanosa said, grimacing. "It is a fair question, after all. Why did I originally choose you? You came highly recommended from a mutual acquaintance. The first commission I gave you was a test. You—shall we say executed it well, so I gave you another. You've proven adept at handling the assignments I've given you. That is why I continue to give you employment."

"Okay," Fritz responded, shrugging. It was true, after all, and he had heard far stranger justifications from other employers.

"Why not use a parahuman to execute other parahumans?" Stanosa continued his explanation. "I have no reason to trust parahumans—any parahumans—and thus have no desire to throw money at a problem that I am trying to rid the world of. This is also why I continue to employ you, even for so mundane a target as Mr. Ward." He stopped, considered. Fritz was an excellent assassin, evidenced both by the number of successful kills he had racked up through the years and by the number of successful para kills he had accomplished just in the past six months. He might make a better-than-average steady employee. Stanosa was quiet for a moment.

"Fifteen years ago, my father and I built up the original Stanosa Industries here, in the heart of Bay City," Stanosa began. Fritz, who had already started losing interest, sat up. Clients usually confided their reasons for wishing someone dead—sometimes it was hard to avoid being told the life story of an aggrieved customer—but seldom did they wait five assignments into a string of such before doing so. At the least, he considered, this should be interesting; at worst, it might be material he could use to his own advantage later. "We started small, and through hard work and some clever dealing, began moving to the forefront of the chemical processing industry.

"Almost ten years ago, the paranormal known as Inferno, a member of a team of so-called superheroes called Team Omega, went on a rampage in Bay City. Over twelve hundred people died in the firestorm that resulted from that battle, and over a third of the city was utterly destroyed." Stanosa tapped at his desk controls, and the sunshades slid back, exposing the office to the city. The business magnate waved his hand out at the buildings and roads. "The scars of damage are still visible a decade later."

Fritz nodded. It was not what he had expected to hear, but it was holding his interest.

"One major casualty of the Inferno, as the media came to call it, was Stanosa Industries. Most of our factories and holdings were at the heart of the firestorm and battle, and were utterly destroyed. My father was one of those killed." He said this with no more feeling than he might have shown saying It's a very sunny day outside. "Congress and the insurance industry decided that they were not going to cover the losses suffered by private industry. The offers they made were a pittance. They came nowhere near to covering the losses suffered by Stanosa Industries. After six years of litigation, the Supreme Court decided that the Inferno was best classified as an Act of God.

"Were I not as financially astute as I am, Stanosa Industries might have faded and disappeared," Stanosa growled. His fury was apparent in the tone of his voice, the white of his knuckles as he pounded softly on his massive desk. "But I had, and still have, friends in Congress and the Senate. When the courts failed to repay the debt that the government had indirectly encouraged, other measures were introduced. I have managed to parley Stanosa Industries' misfortunes into fortunes through a wide variety of government contracts. Today, Stanosa Industries are more wide-spread and powerful than my father could have dreamed.

"But the fact remains that such fortunes might have been achieved over a decade ago had it not been for the uncontrolled rage of one parahuman and the careless actions of the other paranormals who befriended him. Rather than see such beings as that granted special protections under the law, I have done everything in my power to insure that these, these blights on humanity are wiped from the face of the earth." He drummed his fingers on his desk. "It was in great part thanks to Stanosa Tech dollars that the laws requiring harsher punishment for any criminal act committed with paranormal abilities. That has only begun to pay the debt that those freaks owe me."

"That's why you had me kill NiteMoth, Dynasaur, Gravitas, Law Lass and Merlyn, then," Fritz offered. The paranormals in question had been second-stringers at best, people who had worked to clean their neighborhoods rather than the entire city. None had proven proof against a sniper's bullet.

Stanosa nodded eagerly. "That's right. And there will be many more to come, I assure you. Nor," the businessman added, "am I the only man to have lost dearly in the Inferno, or who is taking action to see that such a thing never happens again." Fritz nodded again. Professional assassins seldom discussed background or targets with one another—mostly they avoided rivals like the plague—but word did get around, especially about something as relatively unusual as contracts on paranormals. "But in this case, it has become necessary to send a message to all the normals who have elected to side with these offenses to God."

Fritz nodded again. "So Ward will be an object lesson to anyone who wants to generate sympathy for paras?"

Stanosa tipped his head and laughed. It was not a pleasant sound. "Exactly." He glanced for a long moment out at the city. Fritz waited patiently. He knew better than to rise and leave until he had been turned loose. "Exactly," Stanosa finally repeated, looking hard at the assassin. "This will send a message that is unmistakeable." His nod this time was one of dismissal.

Fritz rose, straightened his suit. "As you say. In two weeks, Jonathan Ward will be a dead man."

San Leandro, Bay City

The man strode into the darkened room cockily, stopped in the center of a bright circle of light. He hoped to make his unseen watchers nervous by using his night-vision goggles, but in truth, even after adjusting them, hoping to gain a measure of information on his never-seen employers that might be useful to himself or any of those he had recently worked with, he had learned nothing. The room was featureless, and empty except for him.

"Arctica," a voice greeted him. He nodded his head. "Welcome. You come well-recommended."

"Happy to hear it," he responded, his voice a midwestern twang. "What's the job?"

"Down to business, eh?" a second voice responded. "Very well." As the voice spoke, a holofield filled a yard-wide globe in front of the villain, and he focused part of his attention on it. The first pictures displayed were of a huge factory or manufacturing complex, surrounded by vast tracts of empty land and high double fences crusted with barbed wire.

"Polestar Electronics' El Cerrito complex," a third voice told him. "This plant is used for storage of high-tech electronics. There are certain modules that were constructed for a government project. You will be supplied with part numbers and descriptions. We will require several of them."

"How dangerous are these devices?" Arctica asked quite sensibly.

"They are electronic, not radioactive," the first voice responded patiently. "Without a properly-connected power source, they are little better than metal and ceramic lumps. We require several of these modules, as tracelessly as possible, for—research purposes."

Arctica's mustached lip quirked, but no laugh escaped him. He and those he'd spoken to had already concluded that this customer was involved in industrial espionage. Personally, he could have cared less; if they wanted to pay his fee and meet his conditions, he would acquire all the radios, TVs and vid players they wanted. It beat the devil out of getting an assassination contract, which he hated. With theft, you were looking at two-to-five in Redvault; you got caught killing someone with super powers, and you were looking at the death penalty. Arctica had never been a supervillain who took chances.

"All right." He shifted. "Any special precautions I'm going to have to take with these whachamacallems?"

The picture in the holodisplay changed, showing him a dark shape. The photo had obviously not been taken by a professional or with permission. The shape was boxlike and flat, and he could just make out power couplings and warning labels. A leg edging into the picture showed the thing to be roughly basketball-sized. Beside it was a foam-filled case.

"D'you have delivery specifications?" he asked.

"We will arrange to have a truck and a team ready at a location specified by you outside the Polestar compound itself," the third voice responded smoothly. "All you need do is acquire a specimen of the equipment and get it to the nearest fence. You may turn it over to the contact at that point in time and retire for the evening."

Arctica studied the thing. The job was not impossible by any means; even the best of security systems folded before the power of ice and snow, and there were enough cryokinetic supervillains active right now in Bay City that it would be difficult for the authorities to pin the job on him.

"All right," he said again. "Gotta timetable? Or a special date?"

"The sooner the better," the first voice told him. "Before the end of next week, certainly. Shall we say, ten days from now?"

Arctica thought it over. It was Saturday evening right now. He was going to have to get with Vixer for information about the Polestar Factory's security measures, and probably spend an evening with Shadowstalk considering all the probable pitfalls of the situation. After that, an evening or two calmly studying the ebb and flow of people around the place, learning the best ways in and out. Ten days certainly seemed doable.

"All right," he confirmed. "Standard fees and conditions apply. I'll be able to handle it, so I won't need your backup. If your boys get lost or caught, I get a bonus if I salvage the goods. Agreed?"

"Agreed." There was no hesitation in the second voice.

"Ten days from now it'll be, then," he told them. "I'll get started on my end of the deal as soon as my bank account shows the money."

"The deposit will be visible before this meeting is concluded," the third voice told him.

Arctica worked his sore jaw. Invisible behind the mask, his slender, craggy face was a mass of darkly colorful bruises—even three weeks after he'd gotten them. The money these people were offering was good—better by far than most of the jobs he'd had in the last several years—but he was angry at having to take the job, or any job, so soon after the last one. Spacing your law-breaking was the best way to defuse the attention of the authorities; too active too often was a good way to get tracked down, and Redvault wasn't a habit-forming environment.

He wouldn't have had to risk taking a job again so quickly if his two cows of daughters hadn't knocked him cold and taken off with the sizeable stash he'd still been hoarding.

A pale rime of frost drifted across one glove as he involuntarily made a fist and fought his not-inconsiderable temper back. He'd get this job done and lay low for a while, give things a chance to cool off. And while he was laying low he'd keep his eyes open and his ears clean and sooner or later he'd get word about the little bitches.

And when he found them, he'd see that they were made to regret assaulting him and stealing from him. He'd see that they paid, and paid hard. Daughters or not, no one stole from him and got away with it.

He brought himself back to the session with an effort. "Anything else?"

"No," the first voice said. "That will be all for now. We will contact you again when we need you."

The holofield died, and as the spotlight that had illuminated him during the talk died, another light gently dispelled the darkness as an access door opened. He strode confidently through it.

After he was gone, three voices conversed briefly.

"Will he succeed?"

"Probably. He and those who recommended him are some of the most ruthless mercenaries available for work in North America."

"And you still plan to make a team of them?"

"Certainly." There was a bubbling laugh. "Once I have learned which ones are worth keeping and which are worth only casting aside, I will know which will make the best members of our Enforcement Arm." Another laugh. "Most of our rivals have begun building just such super-powered teams to enforce their own industrial policies—why then shouldn't we?"

"What about the risk that one of them might turn us in if they were caught and prosecuted?"

"We shall simply have to insure their loyalty. One way or the other."

The other two voices laughed softly. They obviously had some idea what one way or the other might encompass.

Redvault Penitentiary

Annie Hannigan came awake quickly.

It was still dark, and it felt like it was still in the near-midnight hours of the morning. It had been unseasonably warm for the last few days, but the nights were still cool, and the shutters over the window were pulled almost closed, the bars dark against the featureless highly-lit gray. It was quiet enough that she should have been sleeping. She could hear her cell mate, the woman's breathing not quite noisy enough to be snores. As she listened, the woman twitched and muttered something, shifted and returned to slumber.

Anything that had been loud enough to awaken her should have awakened her cellmate, too.

Annie rubbed thick, strong fingers against her deep-set eyes and lay awake for a moment. She had little difficulty sleeping straight through the night, and had not been having—for her—a particularly bad dream. Her bladder sent her no distress signals. The rough-woven blanket still covered her, so she was warm enough, and the flat, lifeless pillow beneath her head was likewise inoffensive.

Certainly that sad headrest hadn't kept her awake for the past nine months she'd been serving her sentence here for Armed Robbery. The fact that the 'armed' part of it had involved the use of blocks of street paving and suddenly-fluid concrete had certainly entered into the sentencing. Landlock was doing five years minimum.

Being a paranormal in the North American Union wasn't against the law—quite the contrary—but breaking any other law with your paranormal abilities certainly was.

She'd done time for smaller crimes throughout her young misspent life, but those terms had been in normal jails, with normal guards and normal walls. She'd even managed to be part of an escape, once, at the age of nineteen, when she'd been in Ray Brook for car theft. She'd been returned to custody quickly, but she took pride in having beaten the system at least the once.

She wasn't going to do it here. Redvault had been built not quite two decades earlier, when the rapidly-booming population of paranormals post-Invasion had resulted in dozens of super-powered criminals, law-breakers whose abilities made normal jail facilities useless. The walls of Redvault were higher and thicker and harder and laced with all manner of unfriendly deterrent, and this would normally suffice to keep most prisoners in place.

But the Redvault system had received special dispensation—to avoid the cruel and unusual punishment aspects of North American law—to put in place additional safeguards to insure good behavior on the part of the inmates. These were, after all, men and women with the ability to materially affect the universe about them without instrumentality.

Annie turned her head slowly, uncomfortably, when she heard a noise. It wasn't her cellmate's breathing, and it wasn't Rita's stentorian snoring from the next cube over. She could hear the random noises of the night in Cell Block 7C.

Annie wasn't the friendliest of people in the world. She'd long ago learned to sleep lightly when she was incarcerated.

She jerked her head around at another noise. It was soft, like rubber-soled shoes on the concrete floor. To her dull surprise, there was a dark figure standing in the cell between the bunks, tall and slender and clad in black. Only a shaft of prison-yard light showed him to be there at all. A quick glance showed the cell door still securely shut, and it was never quiet when opening or closing.

The guards in the Redvault system were carefully-chosen and specially-trained. She hadn't had to endure the nighttime attentions of guards since her times in the New York State penitentiary system. But that didn't mean that this man was here to do good, either. No one came to someone else's cell in the middle of the night for pleasant conversation.

"What the hell—" she started to growl. The man made a shushing noise and held a gloved finger to his lips.

"Take it easy, babe," he told her cockily. "I'm here on a rescue mission."

Annie was usually at her best after the first couple of cups of strong black coffee. "What?" she responded wittily, her voice still at a normal level.

The figure looked quickly at Annie's cellmate. The woman had snuffled and become silent at the sound of Annie's voice. There was stillness and silence for long, long seconds.

Then the man turned his attention back to the prisoner. "You Annie Hannigan?" he asked her in a whisper that would not have carried past the barred door to the cell.

Annie considered. Her normal response to a stranger—particularly one like this—would've been cursing and violence. But Redvault was the most secure holding facility on the planet. For anyone to get out was next to impossible, and that said a great deal for anyone trying to get in.

She nodded.

The man straightened up, checked his wrist, and then glanced at the cell door. "Good. You ready to go?"

"Go where?" she managed to get out. She hadn't moved.

"Go home, I guess," the man told her. "Or Reno. Or Vancouver. Or Mexico City or Paris or wherever. I'm here to get you out. Once you're out, you're on your own." He shrugged. "I'd avoid Bay City for a while. It's the first place they'll look for you. There's been a wave of paras showing up in the last few weeks. The place's a nightmare."

"Why are you here to get me out?" Annie asked him more lucidly. "Who are you?"

The man clucked his tongue. "I'm here 'cause I got paid to be here to get you out," he told her. "Cash on the old barrelhead, or you'd still be snoozing. Who I am doesn't really matter as long as I can deliver, right? C'mon, get up. Money or no, I can't stay around long. If someone comes along, I'm outta here, and I won't be back."

Middle of the Night + Masked Intruder + Urgency = Escape From Redvault. Annie wasn't the brightest of inmates, either, or she wouldn't have spent so much of her recent life behind bars, but she could recognize a chance at something when it was presented to her.

She shivered at the cold of the concrete floor on her bare feet. "You gotta plan?" she asked him, her waking voice a gravelly whine. Her fingers came up to her throat, touched the circlet there. "If I try t'leave with this on—" She paused as he nodded. She held still when his fingers came to her throat. She felt the collar shift in the little play it had.

Then she blinked. He was gone.

Then she felt the cool night air on her now-bare throat.

Her fingers touched her neck, felt only flesh. Her heart raced. She felt a roar building in her chest, exultation that was almost too intense to resist about to culminate in the noise that would end this fiasco before it truly began.

How did you imprison someone who could manipulate solid matter as though it were play-doh? Someone to whom bars and walls and the earth itself were little more than tools to be used?

You put around their neck a collar made of a quarter-kilo of the most highly-concentrated explosive. You set that collar to be held safe only by a constant radio signal. If Annie had tried to flow the collar into another shape, it would have gone off. If she had tried to use her powers to convey herself back to the distant mainland on a column of Earth, it would have gone off. If she had simply gone wild and rampaged against the prison, the collar could have been set off from the Administration building.

And everything from the rib cage up on Annie would have ceased to exist in a bloody mist.

America had been victimized by paranormals enough that it had finally taken steps to insure that paranormal criminals stayed in prison.

And Annie had seen the indoctrination videos that graphically demonstrated what had happened to the few inmates who had thought the killcollars a bluff and tried to remove or circumvent them.

And now the hated collar was gone. Her fingers touched her throat, her neck, her disbelief warring with her sudden excitement.

She reached out and felt for the solid matter that surrounded her. She knew already that she would stand no chance against the forces arrayed against her; the most she could do was go on a rampage, destroy walls and floors and maybe blow a few rivals' heads off with their own manhandled killcollars, but in the end, a guard's bullet would take her in the head, and she'd be just as dead as if she'd attempted escape on her own. Redvault's guards were only under orders to shoot to wound if they thought it would make any difference.

Even as her excitement was dying like a candle in a rainstorm, she felt a puff of air and her midnight visitor was back. He looked up at her as he brushed his hands off. "All taken care of," he told her brightly. "You ready to go?" She nodded numbly, still unable to believe that the events of the last two minutes had actually happened, halfway convinced that she was going to wake up any minute now from another disappointing dream.

The man stepped up to her. "Nothing personal, babe," he told her, and his arms came up to circle her. Before she could object, the world flickered and swam.

Then cell 7-C-32 was silent and dark and held only one occupant.

Windsday, Festival Week, Yul (21 Yul 6224 DE)
(in the real universe, 16 JULY)
Tsilrebbe, Gurdonne, Megas-Tran

The outfit that Patricia Kaetlyn Clark wore was beautiful, bright shades of blue set off by the gold and silver metallic threads that chased out designs. She had saved up her meager allowance to have it made for her, and had intended to see it used often and enthusiastically in what little spare time she saw. Right now it covered exactly nothing of her as she sat on a bench seat at the edge of the balcony, hunched over, chin resting on the arms that, like the rest of her body, wore a handful of artfully-sprinkled jewels. Her full lip poked out. Her dark eyes were at half-mast. Below her, the visible street was filled with merry-makers and well-wishers, men and women who intended to party away the dark, starless flow of night. That there was a reason to celebrate was as good a cause as any as far as they were concerned, and Pat had lived here among them long enough to grow enthusiastic about taking part in the inevitable Windsday festivities.

Through the night skies distant forms drifted, dancing through the skies. Two young men, bodies glistening with the ardor of their passion, drifted close to the house, their attention as far as could be from the streets of good cheer. "Leave some for me!" Pat called up dispiritedly.

But here along Hejwig Lane in the borough ruled for generations by the Clan of Meiqer, whence descended her host family, in the town of Tsilrebbe in the county of Gurdonne in the world of Megas-Tran, the party in the streets raged without her. And here in Malkin Manor, home of Wolf Daggar and her tutors, his wife Matel and concubine Kaneugh, another party was in full flow. A hard-fought election had been won and a hotly-contested position had been awarded and her host family was enjoying their newly-enhanced status with the aid of several dozen friends.

"Duty to one's household," a girl's voice said, "comes before pleasure in the arms of strangers." Pat turned a hard dark eye on the speaker.

Lilith Lunette Demarais, Pat's fellow Terran student, was dressed much as was Pat, but her girlish figure left little to be concealed. Her long ebony hair had been styled to display trails of jewels, and such minimal makeup as her hostesses had been able to restrain themselves to use gave faint color to her otherwise pale face. Her expression was calm and emotionless, but her dark eyes glittered with inner amusement.

"Bite me, Lilu," Pat muttered.

The girl's rouged lips stretched in a fractional smile that exposed small, perfect fangs. "I doubt," Lilu pointed out, "that you would taste good enough to make it worth the effort."

"Great," Pat said into her folded arms, "now even a vampire doesn't want anything to do with me."

Lilu turned her fathomless gaze onto the partying neighborhood and shook her head. "So much wasted time," she murmured.

"Speaks the eternal virgin," Pat snarled, still heavily in self-pity mode. She felt Lilu's gaze on her harden, and disdained to face the woman in an adolescent's body. "Trust me. Maybe after you hit your second century you'll find someone kinky enough to do it with a kid. 'Til then, I promise you, you don't have a clue what you're missing." She growled helplessly into her arms. "And I do!"

"Well," Lilu said, a rare touch of sweetness in her voice, "at least you are hating every minute of it. That is something, after all."

Before Pat could come up with any riposte, a blonde woman of medium height and full build, herself clothed little more than Pat or Lilu, stepped to the door of the balcony. Her golden eyes crinkled as she smiled at the sight of her students. She took one last pull from the hookah that floated obediently behind her, then left it and the lights and sounds and scents of the party to stand alongside the younger women.

She returned Lilu's quiet nod; the girl-woman was not one for overmuch speech at the best of times. "Not enjoying the party, then?" she asked Pat, and stifled a laugh at the woman's sudden surprised jerk.

Her smile had become merely formal before Pat turned a respectful hairy eyeball on her. The young woman, one of two from Earth to study the peculiar flavors of sorcery practiced here, had quickly learned the ins and outs of daily formality in this society, and working with the woman on a daily basis for the last few months had given her a pretty fair idea of just how much intransigence she could get away with. "Puh-leeze," Pat responded, respect carefully intertwined with just the right amount of frustration to get her point across without crossing the line. "I got ahead on my studies. You and Kaneugh both said so." Matel had the courtesy to nod acknowledgement of the point. "I've finished all my chores, and even did some of Clarin and Tedrov's to boot. I was all set to hit the party this evening." One hand listlessly flicked at the flap of cloth that made up her outfit. "Had Aery make this one up for me special."

"Lord Daggar's party has singing and partying and drink," Lilu pointed out politely, knowing full well what was going through her fellow student's mind. "Dancing as well, if you wish." She leaned closer and stage-whispered, "I have seen it for myself!"

"'Dancing'," Pat echoed distastefully, putting the local meaning on the word. "Getting down with guys old enough to be my father, or young enough to be my kid. Where's that get fun?" She sighed heavily, then buried her face on her forearms and sighed again more heavily. "Gawd. I just need to get close to some wide shoulders and hairy chests, y'know?"

"Patience, Patricia," Matel smiled. "The party will not last forever, but I'm willing to wager that there will still be a street full of well-endowed faces to dance your night away."

"All the good ones'll be taken," Pat muttered. Another sigh and she turned to face her instructor and her fellow student, one hand still propping her head up, resolutely tuning out the block party that was so loud and bright and energetic. "Y'know," she offered, "now that Lord Daggar is a member of the Landsråd, I'd've expected him to invite Throm and Tan'sharra back home for the party." She shrugged. "If not permanently." She knew how much both of Lord Wolf's women wanted their oldest children returned home, and how much each hoped his new position on the Greater Council of Megas-Tran would let him set aside the orders of exile for each. One of Lilu's dark eyebrows went up as she turned her quiet gaze on her teacher. She was well aware of the state of Matel's children—even the ones that weren't here tonight—and simply avoided the subject in conversation. All she needed, tonight of all nights, was for Pat to make the woman mad. Again.

The girl relaxed as Matel's smile became gentler. "Wolf and Throm have... come to an arrangement regarding visiting here," she told the girl. "Throm was already engaged in making music for a vast audience on his Earth when the invitation reached him. He promised to contact us soon to arrange a home visit to congratulate his father." The older woman turned to lean on the balcony rail, looking back in at the noisy, happy celebration in the house. "And it proved not possible to reach the world of Tan'sharra's exile to bring her home."

Pat's eyebrow went up half-heartedly. "Isn't that odd?" she asked. The younger woman grinned when the older woman tried to fix her with a disapproving look. "I know you and Kaneugh send her messages every now and then, and you haven't had any problem doing it. Or any disapproval I've seen from Lord Wolf." Lilu tried and failed to conceal her own curiosity.

Matel smiled again at the shared secret. "No. You know of the world on which Tan'sharra serves her sentence. It is ruled by one who is little desirous of contact with other worlds of the multiverse. It is not the first time that contact with that Earth has been rendered impossible, and it will likely not be the last." She shrugged. "It would have been nice to have all of Wolf's children here to share his victory, but for now Clarin and Tedrov will function as 'all' of his descendants. Tedrov is glorying in playing the part of paxman to his father this night." Pat snorted a faint laugh. The younger son of her host was going to grow up to be a spitting image of his hidebound, formal father. "So the celebrations will continue regardless."

"That's for sure," Pat returned glumly. She turned back to face the neighborhood, putting her chin on her folded arms. Then she perked up. "Hey, look at that," she said, pointing far down the lane. Matel leaned past her to look and Lilu moved to the rail as well.

About a quarter-kilometer away a small caravan slowly picked its way through the well-wishers and partiers that lined the cobbled street. The standard bearer wasn't looking around, but the man he escorted was, smiling and waving to the crowds in a display of good will.

"Chieftain Laserre," Lilu observed. Pat nodded. By now she knew who Lord Wolf's chief rival for the newly-opened post on the Landsråd had been.

"I thought he and Lord Wolf hated each other?" Pat asked. "Why would he be coming to wish him well?"

"He is not," another woman's voice said. Pat, Lilu and Matel turned to find Kaneugh, Wolf's concubine, standing behind them. "There is an expedition in the Elya Outlands that requested the presence of a senior mage. As soon as Wolf's position was secured, he asked Laserre to join the supply caravan headed there and to render whatever assistance the researchers need." Her delicate shoulders rose and fell in a graceful shrug that indicated how little the facts behind the Chieftain's appearance truly interested her. "Laserre accepted the assignment with all good grace."

"If Lord Einchent dies within the sevenmoon, as most predict," Lilu observed quietly, "there is every possibility that Laserre could win a seat on the Landsråd at that time. But he will want the continued goodwill of those already on the Council during that time."

"As well, he is second only to Wolf in knowledge and skill," Matel pointed out. Pat and Kaneugh nodded agreement.

The women remained silent as the ten-mantor caravan wound its slow way past them. The man Laserre looked up as he passed the balcony, and gave the women a courteous nod, gentleman to ladies. Lilu gazed right through him, thoughts obviously elsewhere. Matel and Kaneugh nodded fractionally in return. Pat lifted a hand in a weak wave. The man's attention returned to his caravan and the partying hordes about him, and soon he was out of sight.

Kaneugh shifted. "I came out to bring you back in, Matel," she said, once more the formal hostess of her Lord's celebration. "We are coming to that part of the celebration where many will accept only a wife, not concubine or senior daughter, as being in charge of affairs."

Matel nodded and touched her cowife's shoulder in thanks. "Patricia, Lilu," she said gently, "come along. You have duties toward Wolf's guests as well." At Pat's ill-concealed sigh she smiled archly. Lilu sighed more quietly. "And the sooner the well-wishers are happy, the sooner the celebrations will die down. If you need time to dance with a handsome chest or two, it would befit you to help that time arrive."

"Whatever," Pat muttered, clambering to her feet with long-limbed grace. Matel and Kaneugh exchanged a smile at the young woman's reluctance.

"Those of Earth are held to a lower standard of hospitality, you know," Kaneugh stage-whispered to Matel as she stepped into the house.

"I heard that!" Pat responded with irritation. Lilu, trailing the group, just sighed again. Those less than a century old had little sense of tact or true subtlety, after all. It was just something to get used to.

El Cerrito, Bay City

Jennifer Lee entered her small, threadbare apartment, carefully locking and bolting the door behind her. She wandered into the kitchenette, her posture bespeaking weariness, and took out a pitcher of tea. She added sugar and lemon juice to a battered glass, mixed the tea in, and finished up.

As she went back to the living room she glanced at the fourth-hand television set, which obliged her by clicking and slowly coming to life. She settled down to watch the latest episode of the random drama she'd tuned in on. Her sister Sandy was working late, covering some long-running union convention for the paper she'd begun to get semi-regular assignments from.

She sipped her tea, grimaced at its coldness. Then she half-smiled. She closed her eyed and wrapped her hands around the cup and concentrated for a moment.

Then she cried out, yanking her hands away, barely remembering to stop the flow of liquid in mid-air, the cup falling unattended to the thin rug on the floor. She sucked at her hands and shook them, making little noises of pain. Carefully using just two fingers she picked the cup off the floor and set it on the Spool that the sisters used as a coffee table. The liquid was boiling gently and steaming as it gradually drifted to the cup, flowing into it as if from some invisible container.

As Jenny concentrated on her misery she stopped, and frowned, and sat up. She looked around.

Then she smiled hesitantly. "Hello," she said, quiet happiness in her voice. "I wasn't sure if you were coming by tonight."

There was a woman with her in the apartment where there hadn't been a moment before. Taller than Jenny by half a head, she was garbed in a long black dress with silver-white chasings on the edges. Her ebony hair was a waterfall down her back to a silver-white hairband. On her forehead a small stone glowed softly blue.

"I was here when you came back," the woman told her patiently, moving to take a seat in one of the two aged chairs in the living room. Jenny looked crestfallen, and the woman continued to smile patiently at her. "Tell me what you did," she suggested.

Jenny shrugged. "Mrs. Colladro, down in 5D, she's got a new baby," she said. "The baby was miserable, and Mrs. Colladro couldn't figure out what to do, and, well, she's got the other four kids, and her husband's working double shifts." Jenny shrugged again. "I went down and offered to try and help with the baby. Turned out he just had gas."

"And you could tell that from here?" the woman asked her.

Jenny shook her head glumly. "No. I could tell he was hurting, but not what was going on. Mrs. Colladro, she's a good mom. She was just having a hard time tonight." Jenny smiled gently. "I just eased the pressure a little, and then helped her change his diaper. I think the little guy likes me better now."

Her visitor smiled. "And when you returned?"

Jenny brightened up. "Well, I let myself in without using the key. Got some tea, but I did that by hand, I didn't want to make a mess in the kitchen." The woman nodded. "Turned the tv on, and was watching it." Then she shook her stinging palms self-consciously. "The tea was cold. I thought I'd warm it up some." She glared at the cup of steaming liquid. "I guess I overdid it. I burned my hands."

"I don't see any tea stains on the floor," the woman observed.

Jenny shook her head. "I spill tea on the carpet and I'm gonna hear about it the whole way to and back from the laundromat." She shook her hands again. "My hands still hurt, though."

"Why?" the woman asked her.

Jenny gave her a friendly glare. "That tea was boiling," she reiterated with more force. "It burned me."

"No," the woman said, "my question was 'why do your hands still hurt?'"

Jenny opened her mouth to respond, and stopped, suspicious. Any time this woman asked her a leading question like that, the answer was inevitably simpler than she thought to give the first time.

Then it dawned on her. "They still hurt because I haven't healed them...?" The woman nodded approval. "I haven't healed them 'cause I don't know how," she protested half-heartedly.

"Why do you think you don't know how to heal them?" the woman asked.

Jenny sighed heavily. "Look, I know you've been teaching me how to fine-tune my telekinesis, and if you hadn't showed me how to hold these, these mind screens without any conscious effort I'd've probably gone nuts by now, hearing everybody's thoughts." The woman tilted her head, giving Jenny room to hang herself. "But all I was trying to do was heat my tea up and I burned myself. If I can't do something simple like that, I bet I'd make my hands explode or something by concentrating on them!"

"Then don't concentrate on them," the woman said. Jenny gave her a puzzled look. "In the past weeks, when you've been injured, you've noticed that you heal a great deal faster than you used to."

"Yeah," Jenny said cautiously. "Yeah, like when I gashed my finger on that nail last week, and it was all better in less than a day."

"Exactly," the woman said. "Were you to be healing someone else then yes, concentration would be a factor, but it's more important to know and be comfortable with yourself before you try to use your abilities on another." Jenny's lip poked out. She was tired and thirsty and not following this. "Don't concentrate on the damage to your hands. Concentrate on something else. Concentrate on cooling your tea enough to drink it. Concentrate on following the television program you picked out." Jenny's look said that she still didn't understand. "Your mind knows how to take care of your body, now," the woman told the girl. "As your control and your confidence grows you will be able to exercise more conscious control over what you wish done. For now, your subconscious knows that you don't want your hands to hurt any more. Give yourself something to do, and let your hands heal themselves." The woman's patient smile never changed. "The more you concentrate on them, the longer they're going to be painful."

"But I don't want them to hurt!" Jenny protested.

"Then they will not. Cool the tea. Do it more gently than you tried to heat it."

Jenny huffed but looked at the cup. "Doing things like this is harder than it looks," she pointed out.

Her visitor nodded. "Your talents are more broad-based than others. Some people have only the telekinesis that allows them to slow molecular movement—cryokinetics."

Jenny's expression was bleak, but she continued looking at the cup. "Like Daddy," she said in a small voice.

"Others can speed molecular movement, but not slow it," the visitor told her. "Such pyrokinetics are highly-specialized. You are not. You may always be able to do it to a small degree, but it is doubtful that you'll ever be as powerful at such a single gift as is one who owns no power but that one, or have fine enough control to duel with them on their own playing field."

Jenny sighs. She closed her eyes. She opened them again when she heard the rustle of her visitor's sleeve. The woman touched the tea with a slender fingertip. "Hmm. Feels just right for the end of an evening." Jenny, disbelieving, touched it hesitantly. Then she smiled.

Then she smiled even bigger. "You said if I don't concentrate so hard on something that's wrong with me that my subconscious will fix it so I don't have to worry about it?" The woman nods. "Does that mean I can quit worrying about it and my subconscious will give me bigger breasts?"

The woman didn't laugh, but the twinkle in her eye showed her amusement. "There are limits to any power," she told the crestfallen teenager. "What you have is entirely adequate. Be comfortable with yourself."

"Boys like girls with bigger hooters," Jenny protested weakly.

"Don't worry about what 'boys' like," her visitor told her easily. "Don't worry about what anyone thinks about you but yourself. Be comfortable with yourself, and confident in yourself. You'll find that your abilities are far more biddable if you aren't worrying about what others think of you."

"You don't mean to just blow people off, though," Jenny responded hesitantly.

The woman shook her head. "No. It will always be far more comfortable to a telepath to be liked by those around her. But it is important as well to remember that you must be a complete person—your own person, not anyone else's image or expectation of you." The woman waited until Jenny looked up and caught her eye. "Shyness and insecurity are for those who do not have confidence in themselves or their choices or actions. You have powerful gifts, gifts that will soon prove useful not only to you but to those you will be spending time with."

"But you're still not gonna tell me who those are, huh?" Jenny pointed out. Her visitor just smiled, and Jenny huffed. "Fine. Keep your old secrets." She picked the cup up and took a sip. "Mmmm. Yeah. That's what I needed."

"And how painful was it to pick the cup up?" her visitor asked.

Jenny's eyes shot open as she looked at her hands. They trembled, on the verge of dropping the cup, then steadied. She examined the right hand, then the left. She looked up at her visitor, half-aghast, half-delighted. "They don't hurt any more!"

"As I told you," her visitor said. "Sometimes it's a matter of concentrating heavily on what you want to make happen, and other times it's a matter of relaxing your consciousness and allowing your self to handle the problem." Her visitor shifts. "I don't suggest that you poke holes in yourself to test it, but take note in the next few days. If you scratch yourself, or cause yourself some injury, don't obsess over it. Don't dwell on it. Self-psychogenesis is one of the easiest powers you have to use—you've been doing it without realizing it since your powers were triggered—you simply let that part of you that knows what is wrong make it right."

"So I can't use that power to help someone else?" Jenny asks, sipping her tea. "Just me?"

Her visitor shook her head. "That power, as with all the powers you have, can be used outwardly as well as inwardly. But the simple imposition or cancellation of motion through telekinesis is not so dangerous as the ability to use that telekinesis to force the cells of the body to your will. Become comfortable with the idea that you can heal yourself first. Then begin to look outward and learn to do the same thing for others."

"Yeah," Jenny said, staring at the wall, taking another sip of tea. "Yeah. Yeah. What if I'd tried to do something like that with Mrs. Colladro's baby, and I'd hurt him instead?"

"Simply don't," the woman told her calmly. "That proficiency will develop in the course of time. Until then, continue with the exercises that we have worked on, and master the powers most powerful within you."

Jenny nodded. She finished her tea, then looked at the clock. She grinned sheepishly as she finished a huge yawn. "I'm sorry. I've been running around all day, and I've still got to make something for supper, and—."

"I, too, must be going," the woman said. "I merely came to speak to you of the incident with your hands."

Jenny blinked. "You weren't here when I got here," she observed slowly. "But you knew I was going to—" She broke off as her visitor smiled to her, the same infuriatingly no-information smile she always used when she wasn't going to answer any more questions. Jenny huffed, then, as one unable to hold a grudge for long, got up and gave the woman a hug that the visitor bore peacefully. "Thanks. I mean, thanks for coming by and checking up on me, and thanks for telling me how to make that whole hand-healing thing work. I learn so much from you, ma'am. I'm really grateful."

The woman smiled again as she rose to her feet. "And I've told you before, you don't need to call me 'ma'am'."

Jenny smiled happily. "Sorry. Thanks, Watcher."

Smithston, Colorado

Dan Brewster cursed sulfurously and tossed his wrench back into his dirty, well-dented toolbox. He stomped for a moment, and looked as though he was giving serious consideration to kicking the recalcitrant truck over which he'd been leaning for the past three hours. In the past he'd yanked at his scraggly beard; in spite of his greatest efforts he'd never been able to achieve the unkempt-bearded-look of a hard-edged biker, and so his beard was just an uncombed mass of graying hair that caught his ire from time to time.

Only the fact that the truck on which he labored belonged to one of his oldest regular customers stilled his foot from the vehicle and his fingers from his whiskers. Brewster's Auto Works was small—there weren't many big businesses in Smithston except for the Tectum Plant, fifteen minutes further drive up the road—and they managed to keep a steady stream of satisfied customers bringing in vehicles and references alike. Beaten up as the old truck already was, one more kick likely wouldn't have made a difference—but mad as he was, Brewster still remembered his Daddy's words: you take care of your customers.

Another man, working on a smaller engine in the shop's other bay, glanced up. The name stitched into his grimy work shirt said Jim Dawson. He pulled one glove off to scratch at his short, shaggy brown hair. "Now what?" he asked, in the tone of a man used to asking another man the same something an awful lot—and usually getting the same answer. He set his own wrench aside. As often as not, these conversations wound up becoming hands-on maintenance sessions.

"This!" Dan responded, full of fire. He hurled another few choice curses at the truck.

Dawson looked the truck back and forth, more like he was looking at what made it a truck than what color the sun had bleached its paint job down to. "Old Man Peterson's truck? I thought you were gonna try and talk him into buying your old Silverado?"

"Damned old man's too cheap!" Brewster growled. "He's had the damned thing as long as he's been drivin' and he damn sure don't wanna get rid of it now!"

"What's it doing?" Dawson asked, moving over to join his boss and, not incidentally, calm the man down.

"Not damned running!" Brewster howled. "Look at my damned checklist! I've done every damned thing on there, and the damn' thing will not run! I can't even get the damned thing to turn over!" He leaned over to bang his head—gently—against the aged air filter. "I'm gonna wind up having to tear the whole damn' thing down, and that's gonna take the better damn part of a couple'a damn days!"

"Barnes didn't give you any ideas about what's wrong with it?" Dawson asked his boss. The third worker in the shop, Dawson's senior by three years, was frequently the go-to man on older, crankier machines, himself possessed of a back yard full of dead cars and trucks that showed his expertise.

"Barnes went home early today," Brewster responded, and Dawson could tell from the tone of his voice what the man thought of that development too. "Said his wife was sick."

Dawson shrugged. "Sounds like a pretty good reason to me," he offered. Brewster gave him a dark look. "Look," Dawson continued in a calming, soothing voice, "it's hot, and it's been a long day with just the two of us here. Why don't you go sit in the office for a few minutes? Grab yourself a soda or something and enjoy the air conditioning." Brewster opened his mouth for an acidic riposte—his workers knew that he seldom drank anything but beer—and Dawson bulled onward. "Truck's not going anywhere. My car's not due 'til tomorrow. Lemme take a look and see if I see something out of true. Bolt missing, wire loose." He solved his boss' dilemma by physically turning him and pushing him toward the soda dispenser between the cash register and the back room that served as Brewster's Quiet Spot and the business' record-keeping room. "Try the orange ones. They're pretty good." He grinned at Brewster's muttered response, but the man tiredly stripped his gloves off, dropping them onto his own toolbox, and headed back to the little room.

Dawson turned his attention to the old truck. He took the time to wipe his hands on the grease rag stuffed into his thick work belt.

Then he leaned over the open engine, and he braced himself.

And he closed his eyes, and seemed to do nothing.

A long three minutes later his brown eyes opened again, and seemed to find their focus on the truck's engine, exactly as they'd started those few minutes ago. His lips drew to the side in a sardonic grin, and he headed for the general parts drawers on the far wall.

Brewster was sitting under the full blast of the window air conditioner, shirt opened and cap twisted to capture more of the cool air. Every ten seconds or so he'd glare at the soda dispensers. The only thing he had a license for were snack food dispensers, and he really didn't like soda pop. There was a small college-dorm refrigerator underneath the drafting table piled high with technical manuals, but he'd finished the last of his own beers two days ago, and hadn't made a trip to 7-11 to replenish his stock.

He jumped, startled in spite of himself, at the heavy, rumbling roar from the garage that rattled the window of the office. It took him ten seconds to get back to the truck in question, to see Dawson wiping his hands again and grinning at him.

"All right, smart$$," Dawson said to his worker, his attention flickering rapidly between the old truck and the young man who'd gotten it to run. "I know you're gonna gloat, so get it over with. What was it?"

Dawson grinned and motioned, and Brewster followed him. Dawson pointed into the cab of the truck. On the seat was a small music player; it obviously did nothing else, and Brewster thought it highly likely that Peterson had the thing only because one of his grandchildren had given it to him. The truck was old; the only power ports for newer equipment were the cigarette lighters. Dawson pointed, and Brewster squinted. There was another device sitting beside the music player, and it had the look of something that went into the cigarette lighter.

"Old Man Peterson's got his music player," Dawson reported. "Didn't want me to rig him a direct power line for the thing. 'That'll just mess up m'truck.'" Brewster nodded; he'd had more than one such conversation with the old man in question. "So he went to the Dollar Store and picked up one of those adapters."

"Yeah?" Brewster prodded his employee.

"Most of those things are pretty cheap made," Dawson told him. "They'll last for a while, if you don't push 'em. But Peterson pulls everything loose when he turns his truck off. In, out, in, out." He reached in and pulled the power adapter up. "This thing busted a wire inside. Not so bad by itself, but the next time he plugged the thing in—and I'm bettin' that was when he brought it in—he blew two fuses. One of 'em was for the cigarette lighter." He tossed the little power adapter back onto the seat. "The other one was for the ignition. No power, no ignition, no truck running. And you probably would've had to tear a lot of the truck apart to find it."



Brewster scratched his head. "So how'd you find it?"

Dawson grinned. "Had one of my own. Knew the kind of trouble it could cause. Thought I'd look there first." He shrugged. "Got lucky the first time out."

"Damn straight."

Dawson grinned at his boss. "This mean I can call it an early day?" he asked hopefully. "I'd really like to get home early enough to make sure I've got everything I need for this weekend. Shingles, sealer, nails. That gives me time to make one more run to the store tomorrow if I'm still missing something."

One thing Dan Brewster hated doing was letting people take off early. Sickness or injury, that was one thing, but just for personal reasons?

Then he sighed and deflated. Dawson was the best mechanic he'd known in years, and the man did have a tendency to pull miracle fixes out of his hat—and he had just saved him a lot of work.

He slapped his cap against his leg. "Fine. Get your damn stuff closed down." Dawson grinned hugely and headed for the car he'd been assigned to. "In here on damn time tomorrow," he added. Dawson just grinned. Tomorrow was Thursday. Friday was almost here. What could possibly go wrong with that little time left in the week?

Challengers 02: Star of Wonder is a Feral Hamster Press edition of a Davey Jones production. All rights reserved. All the characters and situations herein are the creations of Davey, but he owed a debt of gratitude toward several long-time writer-friends who allowed him to create his own versions of many of their characters to populate his own world.

For those not in the know, Throm (son of Wolf) is exiled to Earth-ST, one of the Earths of this paratime couplet. Tan'Sharra (daughter of Wolf) is exiled to Terra-ST, another parallel world. Throm's adventures (as the hero Mystic) were covered in the dead-tree issues of Delta Force. Tan'Sharra's adventures (as such, as the heroine Dancer) was covered in the first issue of Alliance NorthAm, and will be covered more in these e-pages).

Next Episode: There's another midnight visitor at Redvault Penitentiary. A heroine has her test of fire—and more. And someone's curiosity takes them to a place where they really didn't want to go. Challengers 03: Sound and Fury. Be there.

(Oh, and you saw the second—or first, depending on how you want to look at it—member of this team-to-come in this episode. You just didn't know it. :)