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Challengers 03
Sound and Fury
by Davey Jones

18 JULY
Redvault Penitentiary

Through the course of her young life, Rita Braun had stolen many things from their rightful owners—cash at a convenience store, fine art from a museum, even a high-powered sports car that had caught her eye. In this criminal life she'd been successful; when she'd gotten a taste for the high life as the moll of the leader of the largest gang in Atlantic City she'd been only fifteen, firmly resolved never to return to the humdrum banality of the family she'd run away from. She'd learned, not entirely to her surprise, that it was more fun to do the stealing than simply to claim the goods later.

When she'd killed her lover at the age of seventeen and accepted the attentions of his successor, she'd learned that she had a gift for murder as well, and certainly no qualms about death-dealing.

When she'd had a run-in with an oddly-energetic meteorite one winter's night a year ago at the age of twenty-three, she'd simply added a new talent for law-breaking to her already-impressive skill set.

As Rita Braun, she'd done a couple of shorter sentences in the New Jersey State Penitentiary System; the Prosecutor General's certainty of her guilt in several deaths had never been matched by hard evidence, and she'd even managed parole twice.

As the supervillain Fadeout, she was serving time in Redvault, the penitentiary devoted solely to the incarceration and rehabilitation of paranormals, to the tune of five years without parole for her part in a bank job that had gone wrong, leaving a number of people injured and three crippled or maimed. The fact that her partner Landlock had been the one doing the most violence hadn't cleared her of her own involvement.

But Rita had always been a light sleeper. At first it was so that she wasn't surprised when her men came to her in the night. Then it was so that her fellow inmates couldn't get the drop on her.

She could fall asleep quickly, and come awake instantly at any wrong sound.

Which was why it was a genuine surprise to her when she awoke to feel a gloved hand across her mouth.

She started to cry out and the cry died aborning as the hand clenched. "Shhhh," a man's voice whispered.

She was very awake now. Usually a man in her cell meant highly unwelcome attention, but she hadn't had to endure that sort of thing in Redvault. Her heart pounded so hard she was sure it was audible. Her eyes widened as she searched in vain for the face of her attacker. He wore a full-face mask, and his bodysuit included the thin gloves she'd already felt. Nothing of him was exposed.

"Easy, babe," the man whispered cockily. "No noise. I'm here t'get you out." He gave it a few seconds to sink in and slowly removed his hand.

Rita was watching him cautiously. Two other times long, unpleasant assaults had begun with some variation on I'm here to let you go free. "Who are you?" she whispered back.

"No names," the man told her softly, stepping back as she swung her feet out of the bed. She gasped at the feel of the cool concrete floor. "Yeah, you might wanna put your shoes on." She frowned at the grin in his voice. "The job just covers getting you out. Not my name."

Rita looked across the small cell at the blanket-wrapped form of her cellmate. The woman was a light sleeper at best; she was amazed that she and her visitor still had the cell's silence to themselves.

The man glanced at the other woman and held up a snapped capsule. "Got tired of cellmates blowing the capers," he told her, and slipped the capsule back into his pocket.

"You the one got my partner out?" Rita asked him, hastily pulling her sneakers on.

The man cocked his head at her. "I've gotten several of you guys out so far. We talkin' someone in particular?"

"Landlock," Rita told him, rising to her feet.

She'd had led a long life of self-sufficiency, but she'd learned that having someone you could trust to watch your back was infinitely better. She and Annie Hannigan had been on the run together from a gang war gone bad when they'd encountered the same meteorite, and both had gained powers—or had their paragenes activated as the prison medicos had said during their entrance examinations. The two had found that they had more in common than in difference, and had blazed a bloody, money-strewn path up the Eastern seaboard from New York Crater before being caught.

Annie's presence at Redvault had been some slight comfort to Rita. Any familiar face was better than none.

He nodded. "Last job, actually."

"Did you take her someplace in particular?" Rita pressed.

"Took her to the mainland," the man responded. "Told her she'd better find someplace out of the city to hole up. It was quiet then, rough from all the attention since the old team got themselves offed, but they've got a new team of heroes installed now, and it's gonna get rougher around there pretty soon. Once I turned her loose she was on her own. Dunno where she's at now."

Rita nodded. She and Annie had a system worked out where they could leave each other messages in newspaper classifieds or the online bulletin boards accessible from any library computer. If Annie had stayed in the Bay City area, the two would hook up.

Her fingers came up to the killcollar on her throat, Redvault's Final Solution for intractable and murderous supervillains. Breaking it off would set off the quarter-kilo of high explosive in it, as would simply swimming out of range of the neutralizer signal from the Admin building.

The man read her concern. "You guys think those things are so tough," he chuckled.

"You'd think so too if you had one hanging off your neck to blow your head off," Rita groused.

The man just made a tching noise. He worked his gloved fingers between the collar and her neck. She held very still, concerned that his manipulations might trigger the thing's anti-tampering functions. Granted, any time she had tried it she'd been given a very audible Cease And Desist warning, but still...

There was a silver shimmering and the man was gone. There was a coolness against her neck. Her fingers went back up, and she felt her heart skip a beat when she felt only smooth skin. The killcollar was gone.

Her exultation peaked quickly and died almost as fast. Her powers only allowed her to warp certain electromagnetic frequencies. She could make herself or other things invisible to light, and to sensors on a number of other frequencies of energy, but she or the object would still be there, vulnerable to a physical search. She could make her cell door invisible, but it would still be there as well, solid and unaffected and completely impassible.

Another silver shimmering briefly illumed the cell and the man was back. "You ready t'go?" he asked her unnecessarily.

"#$%! yeah I'm ready!" she growled equally unnecessarily.

"Roger that," he said and stepped up to her. "Put your arms around me."

In spite of everything that had happened in the last minute or so she hesitated. "Why?" she asked him suspiciously.

"Fringe benefit," he told her, and again she could hear the grin that she couldn't see. "We're on the clock, babe. You want out or not?" She gave him a quick, angry look but stepped up to him, hugging him loosely. She growled and held still as he took a firm grip on her buttocks. "And away we—"

As the silver shimmering faded, the cell was dark and silent once more.


18 JULY
El Cerrito, Bay City

Jennifer Lee paled as she read the newspaper accounts of what had happened the previous evening.

Police reported that a supervillain identified by the FBI as Arctica had been positively identified as the man who held up a convenience store near the Encino district. According to the report, he'd escaped with a substantial sum of money, leaving two clerks behind partially encased in ice. The police had set up a dragnet to apprehend him, but so far had no clues. An interviewed doctor had stated that the two clerks, rushed to the nearest hospital, would both survive having been encased in thick sheathes of ice, and hopefully neither would require extensive physical therapy to regain full use of their frozen limbs.

Jenny closed her eyes and shuddered. She knew a little bit about supervillains—and this one in particular. For the last few months she had used her own paranormal abilities as the superhero PsiStar. She did this on her own, without thought of reward, and often in spite of the expressed disapproval of her sister Sandra, who distrusted most supers on general principles.

She had a fair right to. Sandra and Jenny had grown up in the household of a super. Their father, Alan, had gained super powers several years back. Rather than use his powers to help society, though, he had chosen to use his powers to further his own goals, and become a petty thief who had gradually worked his way up to more serious crimes.

And those powers had changed him. After his wife had disappeared—none of them had ever known where she had gone, or if she was even still alive—Alan had grown more and more abusive. The girls had grown up in the most hellish life imaginable, that with a super-powered abusive father.

As Alan had moved on from criminal job to criminal job he had brought his crippled family with him. And, several months ago, during a drunken rage, he had beaten Jenny badly enough that her powers had flared into activity. Alan had been knocked unconscious. Sandra, already terrified, had gathered her little sister and fled, never looking back. The two had settled in El Cerrito, a district of the sprawling Bay City on the coast of California, and begun to make a life for themselves. Sandy was working hard at her goal of becoming a reporter, and she had recently seen to it that Jenny had completed her GED so that she could attend college and make something of herself. The two had each other, and that was all. After weeks of struggle and difficulty, life was finally looking up for them.

And now Jenny saw that their father, the supervillain known as Arctica, had finally made his own way to Bay City. The girls' nightmare might be beginning all over again.

"Sandy?" Jenny's voice was small. She swallowed and put more strength into it. "Sandy?"

There was no immediate response from the kitchen. The clink of dishes being washed and rinsed continued. Jenny shivered. She flinched involuntarily at the memories of beatings she had suffered, rubbed absently at one cheek where a last bruise had lingered for weeks. She had powers. She could defend herself.

Sandy couldn't. If their father learned that they lived here in the city, he might easily track them down.

She was glad that she had, for once, listened to her sister and not gone out on patrol last night. She couldn't say, even now, what she would've done if she'd been the one to encounter her estranged father in the middle of a break-in. Encino was far outside the range of her normal patrols, but once the thought had occurred to her she couldn't banish it. She was glad that the helpless store clerks hadn't died as a result of her father's actions.

She hadn't had a high opinion of her father in years; this didn't help his standing.

Jenny acted as PsiStar around the time she spent studying in preparation for the start of College—something Sandy made her do several hours a day. Neither girl had been able to attend school with any regularity, moved around by their father as he went from job to job. Sandy felt strongly that an education would be what kept both of them from becoming the kind of person their father had turned into. Sandy herself worked hard as a journalist, and had managed to use her communication skills to secure financial aid for Jenny to begin school. It was not an easy life, but it was rewarding, and the two had one another. Family could make up for many lacks.

She jumped when Sandy came into the living room. "Dishes are done," the young woman told her sister. "Honestly! How can one person make that big a mess?"

Jenny shrugged and tried to close the newspaper casually, without seeming urgency. She hoped her sister hadn't seen the article that had so disturbed her. She would simply make sure that that particular page of the newspaper got conveniently lost, or ripped up or wrapped around something messy. She didn't want Sandy to have to worry about their father any more. "Sorry," she said with a sheepish smile. "I didn't know it was going to take that many pans."

"It normally doesn't," her sister told her dryly. She glanced at her younger sister. "Go get dressed and get your shoes on."

"I am dressed," Jenny responded. "Why?"

"You're not dressed," Sandy corrected her. "Those same old shorts and t-shirt don't count. Go put on some civilized clothes." Sandy headed to the tiny bathroom. "It's a beautiful day, the sun is shining, the birds are singing and the wind is cooling things off. We're going shopping."

"Huh?" was Jenny's studied response. Then she realized what her sister had said. "Huh?" At the bathroom door she continued excitedly. "What for? Where? With what?"

"Get dressed," Sandy responded. Jenny disappeared into the bedroom. "What for is some decent clothes for you before school starts, and a couple more outfits for me so I've got something different to wear. Where is the Fargo Thrift Store. It may not be Fifth Avenue, but Rita says it's bigger than Gold's here in the neighborhood." Jenny appeared behind her, clean blouse askew, struggling into a short skirt. "With what is the money I got for the articles on the new heroine in town." She caught Jenny's eye and smiled. "I got a bonus for doing the first-ever profile on PsiStar." She shrugged. "Figure some of that money's yours. The bills are paid and the refrigerator and shelves are actually stocked." These were valid concerns. Even in the El Cerrito district of Bay City, the cost of living was not low—and it was one of the lowest-rent districts in the metroplex. The church's food pantry helped, but tight was tight.

"What about the other guy?" Jenny asked. Sandy hadn't been the only reporter on-site when PsiStar had made her public debut last week, although Jenny hadn't spoken more than five words to the man, reserving her attention for her sister.

Sandy went back out into the living room. "Never saw anything big appear in his paper," she said, taking her shoes from the tiny closet beside the door. "There was a dry report about a new hero in town, but he had no name or photo or words. I not only had an exclusive interview with the new heroine, but what amounted to an exclusive on the entire story. Taking out one of the street gangs is big news around here. Jose was very pleased."

Jenny joined her in the living room, smoothing her skirt down over her hips. "Does that mean I get to pick my own clothes?"

"No more shorts," Sandy told her firmly. Jenny's face fell. "I'm sorry, but you're not going to dress to advertise. You shrink or they grow. Past that, feel free. We don't have that much, so creative shopping becomes a necessity, not just an art. Shoes." Jenny glanced down and disappeared back into the bedroom. "Actually, that was 'we need to find you another pair of shoes' but yes, you do have to be wearing some to ride the bus."

"Sandy!" came Jenny's voice from the bedroom. She came back in tugging on shoes and smiling. "Could I get some more shorts if I gave you another exclusive interview?"

"No."

"What about if I stopped a crime today?"

"No."

"What about if I saved the world?"

"No. You're almost nineteen. It's time you learned to dress like an adult."

"Sandy!"


18 JULY
Richmond, Bay City

"God damn it's hot today!" the black man growled, and tilted his paper cup to drain it.

His companion sat in a wooden chair in the threadbare kitchen, much closer to the window fan that made so very little difference in the oppressiveness of the kitchen of the tiny house. "Weather reports are calling for a heat wave for the next few days," he responded, more calm than the first man. He held out his own cup. The first man tilted a large bottle of Colt 45, filling both cups full.

The men were, to the untrained eye, identical. This was appropriate. They were twins.

Adrian Williams was the older of the two by a quarter-hour. Sweat did not roll down his face as it did that of his younger brother Damien. He did not like the heat, but he did not seem as affected by it as did others. Damien, on the other hand, was dripping, stripped to a pair of boxer shorts, doing everything he could to cool off.

Adrian took a thirst-relieving sip, and continued. "Besides, during a heat wave, the police stay busier. Accidents and Road Rage incidents go up by almost three hundred percent." He took another sip. "It'll keep them away from us."

Damien blinked sweat from his fury-filled eyes, glanced at his brother. "So? We gonna do it then?"

Adrian hiked an eyebrow, jerking his head toward the living room visible through the tiny kitchen door. "What about Lashawnda?" he asked cautiously.

Damien snorted and took a more substantial swallow of his liquor. "Told the b!tch to take the kid and take a hike. Told her I had business to take care of."

Adrian nodded. "As long as she doesn't get overly curious, there should be no problem."

"Hey, bro, she likes the money. She don't ask where it comes from."

"Fair enough." Adrian sat forward. "Yes. We need to pull a job, and quick. The Crime Cartel sent someone to my place yesterday to let me know that they want their money."

Damien finished his cup, poured more. He chuckled. It was not a pleasant sound. "Man, why worry 'bout that bunch? We could take 'em, easy."

Adrian shook his head. "It's not a matter of whether or not we could take them," he responded. "We probably could. Then what? They got us the information that we needed to take care of Holzner and his bunch. We couldn't've gotten that on our own. They got us the contacts we needed to handle the Bloods."

"They sure as hell know better'n to mess with us again," Damien grunted.

"And the Crime Cartel is the bunch that told us about the group that's forming a criminal strike force," Adrian continued.

"Ahh," Damien grunted. "Who needs 'em? You and me, we can handle anyone who comes up."

"That may well be so," Adrian agreed, "but look at how we have to operate. Any time we manage to find a decent job, we don't seem to get away with as much as we plan on, and a lot of it winds up going to bribes and paybacks. Hell, we might as well turn legit as keep doing it this way!" He took a sip of his drink. "Way I see it, a big team of crooks'd have the edge, 'cause they'd have backup, and they wouldn't have to cover their own overhead. I'll bet they got lawyers that get 'em out of Redvault if they get caught. How'd you like to have a legal eagle there to haul your $$ out next time you got slammed?" Damien grunted angry acknowledgement of the point. His freedom from incarceration was still relatively fresh, and he did not have good memories of his last Redvault stay. "And the jobs'd be bigger, and you got somebody besides the Crime Cartel to give you pointers or information."

"Hey, who the hell needs the Cartel, anyway?" Damien muttered. "Just tell 'em to go to hell."

"I might do that if they weren't so useful to us right now," Adrian admitted. "But remember what's happened to the guys that have tried to screw the Cartel over." Damien swigged, said nothing. "Remember Grammer? 'Member how he told everyone he was settin' himself up and the Cartel could go fsck itself?"

"Man was a fool," Damien said. "Got in Redvault a week later. Still there."

"'Cause the Cartel turned his $$ in," Adrian revealed. "They don't like people that try and screw 'em over, and they're big enough to make it stick." Damien grunted again. "And we've had to use 'em several times. They're pretty good about givin' us info on credit, but I don't wanna wind up in Redvault 'cause of the Cartel."

"Okay, okay," Damien growled. "You always know what we need to do."

"And like I said, the Cartel guys told me about that number who's watchin' all the guys in the city for the next few weeks. Figure we could live pretty well if we joined up with some super villain team, or even some corporation that wanted fancy enforcers." He nudged his younger brother and grinned. "Eh? Eh? You sayin' you wouldn't mind three squares, good liquor and a fsck a night just to go out and kill someone on occasion?"

Damien grinned devilishly at the thought. "Yeah, man, I could handle that." He slurped the rest of his drink and dragged his forearm across his forehead. It came back gleaming. "Hey, think I could get me a white b!tch?"

Adrian smiled more sincerely. "Bro, I think you could have you one of all kinds, and just switch 'em off, a different one every night." Damien guffawed at the thought and scratched himself. Adrian grinned. He finally had his hot-headed brother pointed in the right direction.

It had always been that way. Adrian and Damien shared a lack of education, both having dropped out of school before reaching high school, both having learned what they knew on the streets, first in the gangs of Bay City, then with one another once their mutant abilities had surfaced. But Adrian was cooler, the thinker; Damien was the one who could be counted on to leap into a situation without thinking. Adrian spent a great deal of time, and more than a little of their ill-gotten monies, getting his brother back out of trouble.

From what his contact at the Cartel told him, this would indeed be a pleasant position if they could win approval. Life as a professional hit man was always to be preferred to the life of a freelancer living from robbery to robbery. Both men had spent time in Redvault since they'd chosen crime as their careers; neither had any desire to go back there.

"Okay," Damien grunted again, fanning himself. "What's the pitch?"

Adrian leaned forward, elbows on the table. "The Wells Fargo down San Carlos. They're big, they always have a lot of business deposits come in Friday nights, and the police won't be able to get there quick enough 'cause of the traffic patterns. Too many shopping malls around. Too many civvies hangin' around. We'll be in and gone before they can even get close."

"What happens if someone makes us?" Damien asked, actually on top of the situation for once.

"Not a problem," Adrian responded. "I already had a—talk—with Lashawnda. Anybody asks her, we been here with her all day." Adrian did not mention that his 'talk' with his brother's girlfriend had been violent, and had left him feeling much better than it had her. Adrian tended to take advantage of Damien's frequent drunken absences to indulge himself with his younger brother's girlfriend, something the woman was too terrified to tell Damien. Adrian reflected that her 'willingness' to keep quiet about his occasional conjugal visits was for the best all around.

"Sounds good," Damien said, and belched. "When we doin' it?"

"Actually, let's go get dressed," Adrian told him, pushing his unfinished drink to his brother, who took it and downed it in a single gulp. "We're headed out now. I scouted the place out yesterday."

Damien blinked blearily at the sun-blasted window. "Damn, it's gonna be even hotter in overcoats 'til we get there!"

Adrian, whose powers encompassed temperature control, chuckled, not anticipating any great discomfort. "Just think of all that cool green soon as we get done!" he advised.

Damien lifted the liquor bottle and took a long drink. He wiped his mouth on his arm and stood up. "Yeah!" he said, a trifle loudly. "Sooner we get goin', sooner we find someplace with some air conditioning!"

"I'll buy that for a dollar," Adrian returned.


There were times, in spite of all the heartache and difficulty of day-to-day life, that Jenny was happy to have super powers.

The temperature here on Woodland Avenue was in the high nineties; it was higher still out of the shade of the trees that lined the street. She wore a t-shirt and skirt; her sister wore a light sun dress. Both now sported long-brimmed baseball caps and sunglasses against the sun. Even so, they were taking advantage of anyplace that offered cool and dark for a few minutes.

Jenny had been using telekinesis sparingly this day. Her sister already had several bags worth of goods that Jenny was lightening substantially. And while she was unable to use her telekinesis to greatly affect her own body—and she had no intention of trying, not after the experiment two weeks ago with the tomato!—she had found that she could raise or lower her body temperature to a degree. It was still hot to her, but not nearly so uncomfortable as it was for the people around her. In spite of her energy, though, she was beginning to droop.

Sandy, on the other hand, seemed immune to the greatest discomforts. As long as she had a goal in sight, vagaries like hundred-degree temperatures and complete lack of cooling breezes did not enter into her world-view. "Three blouses, two skirts, one pair of shoes, and two t-shirts," she offered as the pair left the shelter of another store. She shielded her eyes with her free hand. "And one pair of shorts." Jenny beamed proudly. "I think it's about time we found some place to have some lunch? Someplace like Baskin-Robbins, maybe?"

Jenny perked up at this suggestion. "Sure!" she chirped. Then her face fell. "Can we afford it?" she said disconsolately.

"I believe so," Sandy laughed. "Don't sweat it."

"Ha, ha," Jenny said, smiling. "Very funny."

Sandy pointed up the street. "I believe I see an ice cream shop up there. Sound good?"

"Uh-huh!"

Sandy turned to lead the way. "I swear, if I find out all they have at this place is vanilla I'm going to start a—" She stopped, belatedly realizing that she was talking to herself. Her brows came down with the beginning of heat-inspired irritation. "Jenny, will you—"

She stopped, startled. Jenny was stiff, knuckles white with their grip on her shopping bags, her dark eyes wide and staring. Concerned, Sandy glanced behind herself, and saw nothing out of the ordinary. As she watched, her younger sister flinched and blinked.

She stepped up to Jenny and looked her in the eye. The girl did not seem to notice her. "Jen?" Sandy said softly, ignoring the passers-by who ignored them. "Jenny?"

"There's—" Jenny started, and flinched again. "Something's— They're hurting them..."

Sandy frowned. "Who's hurting who, baby?" she asked softly. She pulled Jenny out of the way of the pedestrian traffic. "What is it?"

From behind her, in the distance, sirens began to wail. She felt a sinking sensation in her stomach as she turned to look. Two—three—four police cars were pulling up to the bank two blocks distant.

The only thing she could think to say was "Darn it. I really wanted that ice cream."

Jenny seemed to surface. She gasped softly, then looked around herself, as though surprised at what she was seeing. "Sandy?"

Part of it was personal drive. Sandy Gray liked reporting, and intended to be good—if not one of the best—at that occupation. And part of it was practicality. She knew she still had bills to pay.

She started passing her bags to her sister. Jenny took them without immediate comment, struggling to maintain a hold before remembering to invisibly lighten her load. When Sandy passed her purse over, Jenny managed to gather her wits to speak. "What are you doing?"

Sandy took out the small digital camera she'd been able to pick up second-hand, thumbed it on. She looked her sister in the eye. "I'm going after this. A normal robbery wouldn't net me anything at the paper. We get those from the police blotters. But there are already four patrol cars down there, and I hear more. If there's a story, I need to get it." Jenny opened her mouth and Sandy bulled over her. "Take the bags and head back down to the bus stop. Wait for me there." Jenny tried to speak and Sandy held up a silencing finger. "No buts. If it turns out to be nothing I'll come find you in a few minutes. If it's not nothing then this'll help toward rent." Jenny was still trying to get a word in edgewise. Sandy kept going. "Jen, please, just do this, okay?" She gave her little sister a quick kiss on the cheek. "Go." She turned and trotted in the direction that other people were migrating from.

Jenny watched her go, stupefied. Something about this was screaming wrong! to her. Bank robbery simply meant men with guns and masks and threatening notes. But someone down there—she was sure the source of her discomfort was that distant bank—was hurting other people.

And her sister was headed into the middle of it.

She didn't remember the bags she was loaded down with until she took a step to follow. Dully she knew that she had to find some place safe to hide the bags. They needed these goods too much for her to abandon them or allow them to be stolen.

As she watched, a herd of panicky-looking people milled out of the front of the bank, to be moved out of the way by the police. She turned to head back to the thrift store.

She looked back as a high-pitched shrill of sound, painfully-loud even at this distance, erupted from the bank. People around the bank collapsed, holding their ears and curling into tight balls of agony and screaming unheard in the cacophony.

Jenny closed her eyes and swayed. It took effort to block out all of the feelings of terror and pain that were washing over her. The techniques Watcher had been imparting to her helped, but she didn't use them every day. It took long seconds to achieve some sort of peace in her own thoughts.

Just when it seemed as though the sound could get no louder or more painful there was a muffled explosion and the front of the bank blew outward, raining concrete and metal on the people who had fled.

Jenny gasped. Then her expression grew grim. She turned and trotted back down the street to the thrift store, pushing and shoving her way through the slower-moving pedestrians around her.

Behind that building, she glanced about reflexively, finding herself alone. She glanced up as her feet left the ground, and touched down seconds later on the rooftop. A decades-old air conditioner unit labored in the relentless sun. The slim shade it offered would shield her bags for a time. A pair of ancient folding chairs testified that someone came up here from time to time; she had to hope that they would not visit while she was otherwise occupied.

From the edge of the roof she could see gray-brown clouds of dust settling in front of the bank building. Rubble littered the street, cars, and people. Some of the people were beginning to move again. Two of the police sirens were still working.

She concentrated. There was a soft flare of starlike light around her, the impression of something flaring and hot, and the shimmering around her body of her t-shirt and skirt changing shape into her PsiStar costume.

She took a deep breath, two, calming herself. Then she stepped into the air and darted toward the combat zone that had been a bank street front just a moment ago.

There was another painful shrill of noise and she slowed, futilely covering her ears. A flash of familiarity caught her eye. Sandy, creeping closer, hands over her ears, tiny camera clutched tightly in case of a prize-winning shot, seemed to sense something unusual. She looked up.

The sisters locked eyes for a timeless moment. Neither wanted the other to be in this place this way.

Then Jenny resolutely shook her head and aimed for touchdown in front of the bank. Her flight wobbled as another semi-solid crack of painful sound erupted across the street. Windows shattered. The last two police sirens warbled and fell silent. Most of the people on the street convulsed and went still.

A man in a simple t-shirt outfit with a dark bandanna over his nose and mouth stepped into sight. He leaned back to take a breath, and the terrible noise stopped; when he leaned forward, the sound started again. Okay, she decided, he's some kind of super-screamer. Should be able to handle him. She descended, perhaps a little faster than she had intended when she had to spare effort to invisibly blunt the killing noise, drifted over to land about ten yards distance from him.

Damien Williams, now Deathcry, blinked and cursed angrily. Everyone else was incapacitated or unconscious, thanks to his hypersonic screams. But now there was a woman—a punk girl to look at her!—standing in front of him. The costume alone was a dead giveaway; she was either competition or a hero. He blinked, unsure whether he saw a haze of starlike light floating around her. Her eyes shone gold-orange.

He hesitated. The last time someone had stood up to him they'd been a superhero, and the fight had cost him two years of his life in Redvault.

His eyes narrowed. "Who the fsck are you?" he yelled more normally.

"I'm PsiStar," the girl told him calmly.

Jenny was astonished to realize that all her time in practice and neighborhood patrols was paying off. She honestly felt little fear as she stood before this man. Foremost in her thoughts was to stop him before he could hurt anyone else.

"Put down the bags and surrender," she told him firmly. "Surrender to the police, before anyone else gets hurt. The only charges right now are destruction of property and attempted bank robbery. Don't make things worse for yourself." She had found in recent weeks that her reputation alone would let her talk many perpetrators down from the commission of crimes.

This wasn't one of those perpetrators. The villain laughed harshly. "Fsck that, b!tch! I'm Deathcry, and this money's mine now! Hell, maybe I'll just buy you for Tuesday nights!" He leered. "Got anything in there worth my time?"

Jenny flushed, both at the words and the thoughts behind them. She sensed his resolution just before his chest expanded. She concentrated on the tightest shield she could around her head.

The crack of sound that emerged from his throat shattered windows around her for an eighth of a mile. Three of the policemen crouched behind their cars jerked and went limp. The force of the blast got through her shield, and she staggered, breath exploding from her, feeling as though she had been hit by a truck. Lights flashed before her eyes, and she felt her hearing give way to a harsh ringing. When she shook her head, drops of blood flew. Her watering eyes widened.

Another man emerged from the bank behind Deathcry. She blinked away tears and the image cleared up, but did not change. One half of the man was aflame, sheets of fire that sprang sourcelessly from his flesh, apparently without discomfort to him. The other half was crystalline, covered in ice. As he walked she could barely hear through the ringing in her ears the ice cracking and refreezing, renewed by whatever bizarre powers he possessed. "You shouldn't've messed with us, girl," that man said aggressively. "Firefrost has enough power to take care of you!"

Deathcry stopped to take another breath. More sirens became audible. All three paranormals looked up the avenue. Two motorcycle policemen were approaching the battle zone. One was speaking to the microphone of her cycle's radio; the other had his pistol out as both slowed.

The man of ice and fire pointed at the new arrivals and a sheet of liquid flame stretched out to envelope them.

Jenny wasted no more time protecting herself. Flame was not something she had any control over, but she could not stand by and watch two people—two policemen—killed horribly. She psychokinetically fanned the air in front of the policemen as hard as she could.

The wall of flame curled up, away from them. They screeched to sloppy halts, turned back a few yards, and stopped.

Jenny concentrated and the flames curled back, high, and down, and fell on the man who had generated them. She realized that he might not be completely invulnerable to his own abilities when he stopped generating the flame and held his arms up protectively. For a moment she could not make him out in the firestorm.

Then the fire, without fuel or impetus, died away. The man stood there, unharmed, but without any ice on that side of his body. He seemed stunned. Jenny moved to take advantage of the situation. She caught the eye of the newly-arrived police. "Get the bystanders out of here, now!" she called. The cops nodded and dashed over to drag bodies and people away from the combat zone.

Jenny had turned her attention from the criminals. That was a mistake, perhaps a fatal one.

Deathcry screamed as he had not before. The shockwave of sound was enough that Jenny was knocked backward in spite of her attempts to stabilize herself, her body flung against a police car. Unheard in the noise she cried out at the impact, hoping she had not just cracked a rib. Deathcry amped it up and she was knocked backward again. When the man stopped to breathe, she leaned forward and toppled to her knees, then onto her hands. She shook her head, trying to blink away tears and clear her hearing. Her chest hurt just breathing. She tried to ask her father to not hit her any more—

"Hey, hold that pose, b!tch," she dimly heard Deathcry growl as he stepped closer. "I'll show you why you shouldn't'a messed with us!" He inhaled hugely—

—and from nowhere a form garbed in day-glow gold and blue dropped onto him. His breath shot out of him in a cry of pain as he went down hard. "Here I come," the figure sang, "to save the da-a-a-ay!" Snark? Jenny thought to herself. What's he doing here?

Firefrost screamed in rage and aimed a blast of fire at the new arrival. By all rights the blast should have fried the bouncing Snark in mid-flight, but he managed to bounce just away from it, and the flame wasted its energy on the uncaring sky. As the villain turned and walked flame at the bounding, singing hero, Jenny took the opportunity to catch her breath. She rubbed at her eyes, wiping away tears, and futilely wiped at the blood coming from her nose and ears. She was going to be a mess after this. A few deep breaths later and her racing heart began to slow its pounding. She found the energy to get one knee up. From there, leaning on the police car, she managed to lever herself upright.

Until now all of her enemies had been normals. This was her first experience actually fighting another paranormal, and it was an eye-opening experience.

She looked back at the combatants. When one blast of flame came very close to singeing Snark, she joined the battle.

Firefrost grunted, stumbled and cursed as something hit him in the back of the head. He turned back to the woman who had called herself PsiStar, and growled his fury; she was standing up and moving toward him. He knew from the blood on her ears and face that Deathcry had hurt her. He gestured commandingly at her and cried out in spite of himself as another invisible punch took him in the gut. Bending over, he tried to focus on the girl and another unseen blow twisted him around. He staggered, leaned against another police car, and swiftly brought his ice-covered arm around.

Jenny deflected the first shards of ice and hail that whipped at her, but was forced to give way as the man increased his efforts. She made another telekinetic stab at him, and saw him twist with the impact, but he didn't let up. She took another step backward.

She glanced behind her at the sound of footsteps. Deathcry was on his feet. He favored his arm, obviously injured by the impact of Snark, but hatred and fury glittered in his eyes. He took a deep breath to scream—

—and choked as his breath was cut off. He pawed at his mouth, at his throat, yanking his bandanna down in a vain attempt to open his airway.

Jenny had taken all the sonic punishment she intended to take.

As Deathcry thrashed around, she had to concentrate harder to maintain her grip on his esophagus. Pieces of ice clipped her in passing. She realized she was going to have to release one of the villains in order to battle the other. She already knew she was hurt from the hypersonics of Deathcry; she had to hope she could survive the other villain's ice attack until she could render Deathcry unconscious. She clamped down on the screamer's throat, worrying less about whether he would survive her assault than she was about whether she would survive it.

Sandy crept closer as the battle raged away from the bank front. She hoped the pictures she was getting would come out; she hadn't taken the time to clear the old photos from the storage card, and running out of space was becoming a concern. This was going to be a story that would pay their rent for months!

When the man who screamed choked up and convulsed, visibly strangling, she put it down to Jenny, and spared a concerned thought for her younger sister. Still, she had seen Jenny's powers in the past, and had to hope that the girl knew how to use them well enough to defend herself.

When the second man emerged from the bank, she felt her blood run cold. She could take pride in her younger sister's skills and powers, but two against one was bad odds for someone with much more experience.

The new man stretched forth an ice-covered hand and a miniature snowstorm blasted at Jenny. At first the snowflakes and ice flowed around the girl, but she was visibly injured, and seemed to be struggling; within seconds the snow was sticking directly to her. Then she staggered and the snow and ice began to cake up. Within seconds she had disappeared behind a veil of frigid white.

Jenny! Sandy thought in despair. Then her eyes narrowed. That was her sister this man was attacking! She didn't have to look far to find a fist-sized piece of building material. She hefted it. She was no sports player, but she wasn't going to stand by while her little sister was hurt or killed.

Jenny closed her eyes against the assault, snow and ice caking up on her. Seconds later she could not open them for the weight of ice. Her heart pounded as she tried to take a breath and got a mouthful of snow. She released her distant hold on the screamer, and pushed frantically at the ice that now encased her. From a distance she heard the man's gloating voice. "So much for you, b!tch! Suck this!" Then the man cried out in pain and she heard him stumble in the rubble.

"Hey, nice shot, babe!" she heard Snark's voice join the whirlwind of noise. "Good pitching arm! Just remember, I'm on PsiStar's side!" Jenny felt distant fear and satisfaction and realized that it was Sandy who had just distracted the supervillain, probably saving her little sister's life.

She forced herself to calm. She couldn't move and couldn't breathe—but she had the means to extricate herself from this icy prison. She heard the villain Firefrost curse the air blue.

"Hey, watch your language!" she heard Snark again. "There are tender ears here. And Starry's too!" She felt the impact of Snark kicking and punching at the ice and snow that now encased the girl.

She concentrated, and watched the snow around her puff up with psionic stars. "Woops," she heard Snark say, voice weakening with rapidly-increasing distance.

There was a flare of psionic stars from the pile of ice and snow, and Jenny stood revealed in the center of a crater. She panted frantically. Summer air had never tasted so sweet. Then she said firmly "I told you, mister, you need to surrender!"

Deathcry stumbled to his feet. He was shaking, and breathless, with spots before his eyes now from lack of air. But he knew what it would mean to be caught and sent back to Redvault. "Bite me, b!tch!" He inhaled to scream.

A telekinetic ram punched him in the gut. "Watch your mouth, you disgusting thing," Jenny told him angrily. Deathcry stumbled backward at another invisible punch in the jaw.

"Woo-hoo! Get 'em, Starry!" Snark cheered from atop a light pole. Jenny did a double-take, wondering how the devil the man had gotten that high that quickly. "You're number one with me!"

"Oh, that's a comfort," Jenny muttered. She concentrated on immobilizing Deathcry.

Firefrost realized then that this robbery was a bust. He grabbed three of the largest bags of currency and stumbled to his feet. Snark caught sight of him and crouched to leap. Firefrost sent a wave of fire his way, and Snark reconsidered. The villain then laid down a wall of flame, igniting the gasoline that had leaked from the ruptured tanks of two of the police cars. The villain got to his feet, dashed toward the nondescript van the two men had stolen to use as a getaway vehicle. In the excitement of the sudden conflagration, no one took note of him.

As soon as he reached the van, he tossed the money into it and climbed behind the wheel. He took a second to power down, quenching his flames and using the waste heat to melt the ice from his side, evaporating the moisture to leave himself dry. He removed his identity-concealing mask, and sat, in almost every way a normal, panic-stricken human being.

The twins had agreed on an emergency signal. He picked the air horn up from between the seats and triggered it. The sound carried a long way.

Deathcry staggered, stood to face PsiStar. In the near distance he heard the sound of the toy horn he and his brother had agreed on as an emergency evacuation signal. He knew that he needed to leave, now.

But there was no way in hell he would let some slip of a white girl beat him in a fight! He could not allow that to happen.

Another deep breath, this one while pretending to lean over as though he was blacking out. "Surrender!" the girl called to him. "I mean it!" He held up a hand placatingly.

Then he coughed explosively. PsiStar, braced, still staggered. The flames from the burning fuel tanks billowed back, landing on some of the non-combatants that the police had been dragging out of the way. There was a scramble to slap out the flames.

Deathcry gloated. He'd broken the b!tch's concentration. Another harsh bark of sound and PsiStar stumbled backward. Deathcry heard the airhorn signal again, but ignored it. In a minute this b!tch would be dead, and he and his brother could take their time getting away. He stepped forward, inhaled again.

"Nice song," Snark called from on high. "Can you sing the high parts?" Deathcry noticed him still sitting where he was, but his arms were raised. The villain frowned, confused.

He heard the sound of something large and heavy crunching to the ground behind him. Then his world flared with unbelievable agony as the board over which he had been standing came up, lifting him from the ground. He went ahead and screamed but with substantially less force behind it. Still screaming, he curled into a ball, holding himself and weeping tears of anguish.

"Look at me, you," he heard PsiStar say. He tried to blink away tears, and caught a glimpse of a golden boot. As he rolled on the ground, his blurred eyes caught hers. She glared at him, hard and angry.

The man's agony-tightened body went limp in the span of a few seconds, and his screams died to nothing.

Jenny did a quick scan of his mind, and confirmed that consciousness had indeed departed. Then she glanced around hastily and did a quick scan of the area. She sensed fear and pain, so much of both it was overwhelming, and concern and resolution and satisfaction.

Nowhere did she sense any thoughts that felt of super-villain. The other one must have fled. Part of her wanted to chase him down, but the rest of her realized that she was not in any shape to do so. Wearily sat down on the rubble. On top of the last few minutes' battle, that psibolt had taken a lot out of her.

"Hey, Starry," she heard Snark's voice a moment later, "you still gonna be able to do the watusi, or do I need to get a new dance partner?" Jenny had a headache now on top of her other injuries. She quietly reached for some piece of rubble to peg the man with. Then she rubbed her eyes clear, and saw that, even as he spoke to her, he was checking out the bodies lying unmoving, or twitching, or twisting and moaning. She was forced to admit that he was making himself useful, however aggravating he might be. She looked around.

Bodies, everywhere. Some people who had been walking by and gotten caught when Deathcry blew the front of the building out. Some people who had been in the bank when the attack began and who had tried to flee. Some were moaning, crying for help or mercy. Some, she realized with a tired thrill of horror, would never move again.

She had fought crime for several months as PsiStar, but she had never in all that time engaged in all-out combat with a supervillain. And never in all the cases she'd handled had so many people been caught in any crossfire.

She staggered to her feet, put a hand to her head at the stab of pain that shot through it. She took one step, then another. In the distance she heard the wail of sirens, and hoped someone had had the good sense to summon ambulances.

Then she saw a small, brunette-haired form in a colorful sun dress crumpled on the ground. Her eyes widened. She felt her heart skip a beat. "Sandy—!" she whispered, and was to the side of the woman in another second. She did not know whether to laugh or cry when she found that the dead woman was not her strong-willed sister.

She cast about telepathically, conducting a frantic scan of the area. It took long seconds before she found a faint echo of the pattern she sought. There, near the bank; Sandy was bent over ministering to someone else injured. She had blood dripping down her cheek from a cut, and her dress was scuffed and dirty. She was wadding a man's coat up to place beneath his head, one of a long string of such mercy operations.

Sandy looked up at the feather-light brush against her thoughts. The sisters' eyes met. Neither blinked. Where were you? I thought you'd been— Jenny remembered the still face of the woman at the front of the bank, and could not complete the thought.

She sighed heavily in relief, and Sandy nodded fractionally. Both sisters were safe. They would get together later, once this mess had been straightened out. Right now, both had things they could do to help.


Adrian Williams drove slowly, carefully, and legally. He made certain that he was no better and no worse than anyone else on the roads of Los Angeles. He saw a couple of police cars race in the opposite direction, lights flashing, and grinned thinly. They would have no reason to suspect him, an otherwise normal citizen of the city, of any crime.

He took the turns that led to the 'hood where his brother holed up when not on the lam or in prison. First things first. He would park the van somewhere, leaving it to be found and returned to its owner, with no one the wiser about who had stolen it. Once the owner had it back, the police would likely be notified to drop the case—if indeed the owner had bothered to call the authorities in the first place.

The money would go into the attic of the fine Miss Lashawnda's house for now. Tomorrow he would reach his contact with the Crime Cartel, and make arrangements to get payment to the man for past services rendered. Once his accounts had been cleared, he would evaluate his next move.

He shook his head at his younger brother's foolishness. Had he simply cut and run, the two could have escaped in the confusion, and both could have spent a week or two celebrating their ill-gotten gains before going out to find another job. As it was, Adrian reflected that Damien was going to spend some time behind bars. The police had no local lock-up for paranormals; such were immediately remanded to the custody of Redvault, to be held there until charged and tried. Adrian grinned thinly. He remembered what it had been like when they had found out that, without their powers, they were no longer the toughest men on the block. His brother had been especially shattered at his treatment at the hands of a number of much larger, much stronger inmates. Well, Damien, even as a child, had hated being held down. Maybe this would his wake-up call, and next time the younger brother would listen to the older brother.

On a whim he pulled into a convenience store. He took a fifty from one of the currency bags and walked inside. It took but a moment to pick up several bottles of Thunderbird. He made certain to count his change, too; the clerk was one of those foreigners, and looked untrustworthy.

He whistled through his teeth as he steered back into traffic. Without his brother around, he knew just what to do to occupy himself. The lovely Miss Lashawnda would make a fine weekend's entertainment while he helped her deal with his brother's absence. And if she got too tired to use? Well, there was always her young daughter. He whistled louder. It was going to be a fine weekend.


18 JULY
Richmond, Bay City

Matthew Williams sat back in his reclining chair, scratched at his light brown hair, and rubbed at his pale, almost colorless eyes. He steepled his fingers before his mouth. He thought hard. He said nothing.

Matt Williams was frustrated, and he didn't suffer that condition happily.

For years now he'd been the number one man behind Armand Gordine, the head of Research and Development for the Cunningham Institute of Science and Technology. CIST was one of the largest, most influential players in the world of high-tech, based in great part on their own exploitation of such invadertech as they'd been able to reverse-engineer without being successfully challenged about in the courts. While technically it had been illegal since the conclusion of the Invasion to traffic in invadertech, practically it was known that the governments of North America had the burden of proving that technology's use first.

CIST had flourished in the past few decades because CIST was very good at covering its tracks. A lot of advanced technology had been developed during the course of the Invasion by strictly human resources, and a lot more tech had been developed using invadertech during the Invasion. It was one of the ways that the Invaders had been driven off Earth, after all.

And Williams had always been one of those who covered tracks and obscured trails and saw to it that there was nothing for an investigation to use against his employer.

Although it had to be admitted that CIST did move more slowly than other high-tech companies. Inertia, Incorporated spent more time in the courts defending—more often unsuccessfully than otherwise—their patents against the no invadertech laws than it did exploiting its own 'discoveries.' And Cameron International had providentially chosen the wiser course, diversifying to other nations where the laws against use of invadertech were different—or at least different enough to make court challenges prohibitively difficult, and thus maintaining a slender lead in the high-tech industry. Other companies, like Bolt Armaments or Stanosa Tech or Polestar Electronics, had taken the safer route of working primarily on government contracts. Companies like those would never be so challenged in the courts of the North American Union—but neither would they ever be big players on the world front.

But under Gordine's leadership, CIST hadn't trailed CI by much, and given the man's charisma and personal drive, CIST would be the Number One technology leader on the planet—sooner or later.

And this was one reason for Williams' frustration. CIST was a high-tech company; it always had been, and it was supposed to always be. He himself carried more gadgets than any filmic secret agent, and he remained a shadowy figure in the world at large. Rivals knew not to mess with CIST in great part because of him and his carefully-chosen assistants and their invisible ops.

But lately? Lately, things had been happening within the company that only really made sense if interpreted in a certain way.

The lead biophycisists—Backlund and Girven—had been running scared for days now. Some monstrous creation—given their histories, he assumed it was something of theirs—had gotten loose and wrecked a fair part of the downstairs research areas before getting loose in the outer world—and disappearing. Williams had been coldly angry, not because of the escape—although there was that—but that he hadn't been informed that biotech had successfully created such a monster. He could have included such a creature in his plans, had he known.

A biotech miracle like that should never have been concealed from him—it should never have been possible to conceal it from him. It took years to develop biotech like that—he knew several of CIST's largest rivals were running their own research programs in those areas, and how far along each of them were.

Yet the creature that had made its way so destructively to freedom seemed to have sprung forth fully-finished, like Athena from her father's forehead.

And it had taken intense effort during the past several days, but he'd finally tracked the source of that 'tech'—he wasn't sure now that the word tech was what he wanted to call it—to a new division of operations, Section 13. Of course, he'd thought disgustedly to himself, it would have to be section thirteen. A section that was taking more and more resources, and more and more manpower, and that he had wound up stonewalled at every turn in his attempts to gain access to.

He'd managed to learn that the section existed; that was as far as he'd been able to follow his inquiries.

He'd finally brought his concerns up with his chief, Gordine. That man, with incredibly uncharacteristic behavior, had been unwilling to speak of the matter. Williams had seen that kind of behavior before—particularly in someone who was involved in something they didn't like, and over which they exercised no real control, and from which they had no viable escape option.

Gordine had finished that conversation by telling to find something else to occupy his time—and that had been enough to cement his attention on the affair.

Williams was jealous of the power he exercised in the organization—or had exercised, he admitted, before these new people had appeared and begun wielding more and more influence. New people, at the same level he himself operated in the chain of command after years of diligent effort. People with names like Samantha and Tabitha and Adam and Endora—as if anyone was likely to accept such patently-false cover names as real. He'd've been hard-pressed to come up with any more obvious cover names for special operatives. The newcomers nodded if they were directly addressed, and their pale cold eyes followed every move made, and their smiles went no farther than their lips when they bothered to pretend to smile at all. They were doing the same things that Williams had been doing for years—but suddenly they had backing and he didn't.

Over the past few months he'd watched in growing resentment as resources disappeared into the depths of that underground complex in the Albany section of Bay City, and he'd watched with growing anger as every effort he made to learn the secret of that division had come to nothing—even as the breakout last week solidly told him that the division in question was accomplishing the impossible—tailored life forms, fully-grown and ready for use. He was being locked out of something vital and important, and he didn't like it—and people like Williams didn't handle frustration well.

Even his boss had noticed his growing preoccupation. Williams hadn't failed to notice the man distancing himself from his former enforcer. He knew he was going to have to resolve this situation soon, or abandon it completely.

But today, all of his wide-flung efforts appeared to be paying off.

He had acquaintances throughout the company. Most of them he considered his marks; they wanted something only he could do, or he knew something about them they didn't want others to know. Whatever worked to help him do his job, worked.

This woman wasn't highly-placed; the upper echelons of the Cunningham Institute frowned on internal relationships, particularly if there was a chance that fraternization might lead to a compromise of security. But the woman believed herself in control of the relationship with Williams, and had proven prideful and pliable enough to maneuver into divulging why Williams' own gold-level security card wouldn't gain him admittance to Section 13—and when and how it would be possible to circumvent that security.

And the first two times this afternoon he'd tried the method recommended by his inside agent it hadn't worked, and his frustration was growing by the second.

The third time was the charm. He swiped his card through another door's reader and input a different numeric code than his own. For long seconds nothing happened—the same nothing of recent hours and days and weeks that had so frustrated him.

Then the door clacked softly and sighed as it slid an inch. Before the locks could re-engage Williams yanked the hatch open and slipped inside. He automatically stepped to the side, keeping his silhouette from showing against the door, but realized quickly that this was unnecessary; it wasn't pitch-dark in the corridor, but the lighting was definitely low.

He took his time moving down the long hall. He recognized the place—or the layout of it. These were the same kinds of labs that could be found in any of the upper levels of the complex. His first guess was that this was simply a new project, with unheard-of levels of security, in the unused space far below ground level.

It still didn't make sense to him, and he wanted to know.

None of the doors were labeled, and none of them opened for his new, jimmied security pass. The first couple of failed attempts didn't concern him greatly—he'd've been surprised if they had opened so easily—but after a couple of minutes' failures, he started worried. If he couldn't get in anywhere not only would he not find out what was going on, but he'd doubtless be caught—and with even less doubt, sanctioned. He knew he'd sanction someone he caught roaming around unauthorized and snooping something he was guarding. He'd done it before.

His roaming brought him to a lab door near the end of the hallway. Just as he passed it he caught the soft hiss of it cycling. He dodged back so that when it opened it would hide him, and thought like a wall poster.

A lab technician stepped out into the hall, attention focused on his tablet. The second figure out was one of the new people, the slender blonde woman the others called Samantha. Williams slowly brought his stiffened hand up, ready to stun or cripple—or kill—these two.

Neither looked in his direction, heading back the way from which he'd come, the technician muttering coordinative words into his earpiece, the black-clad enforcer obviously on escort duty. A cat would have made more noise than did Williams as he snuck around the slowly-closing door, flattening himself against the wall and silently urging the doorway to now shut faster.

The door clicked softly in the silence, and Matthews knew he was locked in. For the moment, this didn't worry him. He stood in an alcove opposite a wall of glassite observation windows. There were workstations, but they all showed screen savers. There were chairs, but they were all pushed up to their stations. There was a meeting table in the middle of the room, but it was clear. The dark room was empty except for Williams.

He tested the two doors on the narrow ends of the corridor in which he stood and found them sealed. He paused at the tight circular stairway beside the second one. He stilled his breathing and listened carefully. From the level below him he heard the whir of fans and the soft click of electronic equipment. He heard no living beings.

He ascended the stairway, clinging to the side, hands ready to strike, but it was a waste of concentration; there was no one there. He took the time to catch his breath and look around. This room was fronted by a wall of transparent observation panels. As downstairs, the workstations against the wall were locked, but none of the screen savers had engaged. Someone had been here within the last few minutes.

He felt his confidence returning, his anxiety dimming. These were familiar surroundings.

Hugging the wall, he edged around to look out of the windows into the gymnasium-sized complex beyond. At the other side another wall of observation windows—he strongly suspected they were the mirror image of those behind which he stood—were white-lit. He could see people moving about, and people seated at the workstations. He nodded. That was likely the control room for operations down here, and this room nothing but a backup.

Back downstairs he pulled his own security tools out, and had the reluctant second doorway open in less than thirty seconds. He closed it softly behind himself, and jiggled it, confirming that it had locked again behind him.

The open area was unlit save by the light of the control room, and even in that brilliant illumination it was almost too dark to make anything out. Shielding his eyes from the direct light of the windows helped; dark shapes began to take form around him. Most prominent were what looked like stacks of crates and equipment. He thought it unusual that supplies would be stored in a testing area—which he assumed this to be—but then again, he still didn't know for certain what they did do here. Ten feet from the door he encountered a locked-down workstation. He eyed it and fingered his access card, but decided against trying it. It was probably secured against his card as well, and the very attempt would be logged and get him noticed.

He almost ran into one of the stacks of equipment before catching himself. He stepped back and only thought the curse he'd almost given voice to. He touched the oddly-shaped stack. The containers—if that's what they were; now he was beginning to doubt his own assumption—felt odd, rough and slick and warm and cold and not, now that he was able to explore them more, like containers so much as just an oddly-formed column.

He moved to another, and to a third, and his puzzlement grew. He couldn't tell if they were plastic or wood, stone or metal—some of them had a curiously spongy feel to them—and they were becoming rather cool and clammy to the touch.

He sighed. He'd wanted to explore a mystery? Well, dammit, he was getting what he wanted. The fastest way across this area was straight through. Right now no one in the well-lit observation lounge was looking down. Ten seconds' fast shuffle and he'd be at the other side of the room, and could make his way through that doubtless-locked door. As he started to move several of the figures shifted, gathering around what he assumed was the counterpart to the meeting table in the first observation deck. Good. If they were about to have a meeting, they'd be less likely to hear him opening that bottom hatch—and he definitely wanted to listen in to what was being said there.

He didn't for a minute believe that a meeting would be held behind such well-secured hatchways for something as mundane as a weekly accounting update.

He was halfway across the clear central area, moving like a ghost, soft-soled shoes making no noise on the smooth concrete of the floor, when he heard something. He edged against the nearest of the odd column-stacks and stopped breathing, willing his heart to slow in its pounding. He wasn't sure what he'd heard—it could have been the fall of a sheet of paper, or a step, or the brush of stiff black cloth against one of the oddly-shaped columns—but he was more alert now than he had been in the past hour.

In spite of his experience and his paranoia he cried out, once, quickly-stifled, at the sharp jab of pain when something stabbed at him just behind his right ear. Then the reflexes of a trained killer took over, and he moved, darting across the open area to another of the columns, moving audibly to circle around it, then silently doubling back on his own tracks to seek a different point for ambush, intending to take the attack back to his attacker.

And then his attacker was right in front of him in the grayness, dimly-lit blurs of sinewy-muscled arms and stony legs, punching and kicking and pounding at him, his own arms burning from the punishment they were fending off. He took a single step backward, to get a better stance, and started giving as good as he was getting. He hadn't been Gordine's chief enforcer in particular and CIST in general for all these years without picking up most of the dirty tricks of fighting that were out there.

Neither combatant made a sound—the thought flickered through his mind that this person might not be authorized to be in here either—and apart from the muffled slaps and thumps and shuffling soft footsteps only Matthews' grunted gasps were audible.

Long painful seconds later he sensed more than saw an opportunity and took it without thought, his attacker forced back, staggering and slipping as Williams pressed his counterassault. A solid straight-armed punch to the chest sent his assailant crunching into the nearest of the columns. It was the beginning of the end; Williams was instantly on the stranger, following this up with stabbing stiffened fingers to the throat and a palm-and-fingers twist that filled the dark near-silence with a loud crunching snap before the dark figure convulsed. Williams was right there, a hand finding the figure's mouth to muffle any cries, the other arm tight around the body to keep it still until it stopped moving on its own. Only as he was lowering the slowly-shivering body to the floor did he realize that this was a woman.

It was almost half a minute before he lifted his hand from the woman's mouth, feeling no more breath, no more heartbeats. He leaned over, panting as heavily and as quietly as he could, reoxygenating his blood, giving his painful hands a chance to recover. He twisted his head to pop his neck and barely stifled another cry of pain, flares of light blurring his vision. One hand went back to where the woman had first struck him and came away stick and wet and he knew then that he had a good injury there. He rose to his feet and started to give the still figure a petulant kick. He rose above it; he had to get out of this open area as quickly as he could. Silent as the fight had been, there was still a distinct chance that his opponent's absence would be investigated—and probably sooner, not later.

One hand grasping the woman's stiff blouse, he pulled her toward the lit windows; there were columns there too, and the closer her body was concealed to where people were working, the less likely they were to look.

He gasped as he felt something like cool, tingly spider webs brush his face. He paused. He frowned. He reached ahead of himself in the darkness. He felt something in his way—something he couldn't see—like a soft rubber wall. The tips of his fingers tingled and there was a soft flicker glow around them, so darkly-violet that it was painful to look at. He pushed harder. The almost-invisible flashes continued before his fingertips, but the barrier didn't give way.

Then the flaring turned into burning pain, as though his fingers had been dipped into acid-covered needles. He bit off a yell and backed away, his opponent's body forgotten on the floor.

For a moment nothing else happened.

Then in the silent darkness he heard a sound and froze, panting as silently as he could, his heart beginning to pound again. The noise sounded like an old recording of some kind, soft and scratchy and fading in and out like a late-night radio station. After long seconds the seemingly-aimless noise resolved itself into a voice—but not a voice like any he'd ever heard before, waking or in his nightmares.

And the voice was speaking words—that he could tell—but try as he might he could not pull any of those words into the front of his mind. Those words rolled past him like a quiet breeze, but something in their gently echoing timbre sent a chill down his spine.

His eyes were drawn to where a line on the floor began glowing in the same dim painful not-a-color. He tracked it, tracing the line as it slowly lengthened and twisted and became almost like writing, although in no language he recognized. Another line began to un-glow and move in the same way, and then another, and another. Within a ten-count lines were drawing themselves all across the floor, as though spelling out bizarre words that he couldn't recognize, much like the disquieting speech that was growing steadily in volume.

The sweat on his back felt cold when he realized that the self-creating lines were remaining within the confines of the invisible wall that had gone up around him. He knew there had been some experimentation with force-field technology; CIST and CI had both been pursuing that line of research, each for their own reasons regardless of the government contracts. But from reports mentioned by Doctor Gordine, neither company was anywhere near this close to achieving that Holy Grail of reverse-engineered invadertech.

The lines of not-writing climbed the walls of the chambers, oddly like reverse photography of lines of paint dripping from a ceiling. In the dimness—somehow, the strange glowing wasn't actually illuminating anything—he began to make out more and more of the columns than he'd realized were here—simply by dint of their presence like cutouts obscuring the glowing walls.

He glanced up, and only remembered to breathe again when the remainder of the self-drawing lines of unlight met at the zenith of the room.

Then the columns began to glow as well.

And only then did the thought occur to him of what else this looked like—like the circles magic users set up when they were trying to cast a spell—usually to summon a demon to do their bidding.

His thoughts flashed to a tattery saurian shape that had roared in tones that bespoke no earthly origin, and the sound of something large and heavy beating down security gates to escape into the night of the city.

He'd never heard of his company or his superiors messing with magic—from what little he'd learned about it through the years, it was far too random to be worth pursuing—but now it was dawning on him that what had escaped from the labs days ago hadn't been built by the researchers.

It had been summoned—by people who hadn't known what they were doing.

He looked down. He looked around. His fingers brushed the invisible walls, recoiling once again from the star-bright flares of agony. His fists at his side shook.

To the best of his knowledge, summonings of this kind always required a sacrifice.

And then he made the mistake of looking up again.

"Doctor Gordine," the man in black said, his voice low, grating and powerful, cold metal on colder ice. The man in the lab-coated suit started, looking up wildly, obviously mesmerized by the sounds that had been coming out of the deck below the observation windows.

"What is it, Adam?" the man said, rubbing at his fleshy cheeks and looking away. The noises had changed in timbre now, less of the agony that had marked the first forty-five seconds of the operation than of stark, rending terror. There was a technician at each of the six workstations at the other end of the room. All of them concentrated hard on their screens. No one made a sound. A bead of sweat rolled down the face of the nearest woman. She didn't move to touch it.

"This will be over shortly," the man told him. He spoke the words as though they'd been scripted; there was no genuine feeling of comfort there.

"I know," Armand Gordine said. He tried to put his hands in his coat pockets and that didn't work. He reached for a pen, and forgot what he was doing before completing the move. "I know. Still." He glanced back at the darkened window as a new tone entered the rapidly-weakening screams. "The man's been my assistant for ten years now. There's no way he could've let something like—like our experiments go uninvestigated."

"He did kill Endora," the man called Adam pointed out grimly.

"I know," Gordine acknowledged. "But he might have been useful nonetheless."

The man Adam didn't smile. "He already is."

Gordine closed his eyes and sighed heavily. He wasn't a man normally trouble by conscience, but the past three minutes were not now how this evening was supposed to have gone. "See to Endora as soon as—as soon as this is over."

"I cannot," the dark man told him severely. "She was taken instead." He turned his own dark eyes out into the dimly-unlit darkness outside the windows, where something twisted and roiled and flowed in great liquid waves of darkness upon darkness and something else that had once been human had finally stopped screaming.


Challengers 03: Sound and Fury is a Feral Hamster Press publication of a Davey Jones production. All rights reserved. This is readerware, not shareware (you can read it, but you can't have it).

All the characters and situations in this story are the creations or developments of Davey, and are thus his. However, many of them are based on the characters created by others of his writing ilk, pastiched with permission.

Next Episode: A man with a past he's trying to escape runs into something that offers him a future he doesn't want. Challengers 04: All Good Things. It'll be by Davey, if slightly used.