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Lords of Justice Michael Boatman Bryan Lee Hitchcock Robert Orme Kevin G. Summers

Published by Altered Dimensions, an imprint of Cyberwizard Productions, 1205 N. Saginaw Boulevard #D, PMB 224, Saginaw, Texas 76179 This is a work of fiction. All the characters, places and events portrayed in this anthology are either fictitious or used fictitiously. Lords of Justice anthology copyright Š 2008 Cyberwizard Productions Individual Authors retain full copyright of their stories in this anthology. First Edition: ISBN: 978-0-9821352-0-4 Library of Congress Control Number: 2008938031 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher, excepting brief quotes used in connection with reviews. Cover art and internal illustrations by Crystalwizard Edited by Crystalwizard

Table of Contents Manny Miracle by Michael Boatman

Book 1

The Paladin by Kevin G. Summers

Book 2

Cold Snap by Bryan Lee Hitchcock

Book 3

More Than One Way to Protect by Robert Orme

Book 4

For J. M. A. and J. You can be heroes too. -Michael Boatman

I would like to dedicate The Paladin to my wife, Rachel Summers, of Leesburg, VA, and my mother, Patty Summers, of Stratford, NH – two good women who've stood behind me and believed in me when I didn't believe in myself. -Kevin G. Summers

Cold Snap is dedicated to the women, past and present, of the United States Armed Forces. In addition to our enemies, these dedicated soldiers face discrimination, harassment and, far too often, sexual assault, during their service to our country. They are not victims. They are heroes. - Bryan Lee Hitchcock

To all those brave enough to think twice about what they fight for and the means they use in that fight. -Robert Orme

Introduction There are many types of super heroes. Some are cosmic powered beings who hurl mountains around like beach balls. Others are merely people; like you or me, who see the injustice in the world and don a mask to try to set things right. Super hero stories range from the simple origin tale, to action packed adventures full of energy blasts and villains, and even to deeper, quieter tales about the humanity of the hero behind the mask and his or her personal triumphs and tragedies. The Legion of Super Heroes long ago taught us that heroes can love and experience heartbreak. The Fantastic Four taught us that they can have families. Spiderman and Daredevil went even farther and showed us that super heroes could have lives, just like normal people, beyond those of the mask they wore. Super hero comics are a vastly under appreciated form of literature. Since Superman’s first appearance in 1938, the genre has lived almost solely within the pages of the comic book. Comics are a fantastic educational tool, as well as a great way to interest children with reading, but most of all comics, and super heroes especially, fire one’s imagination and inspire dreams. Dreams give birth to ideas... and ideas to art. Thanks to the efforts of authors like Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Mark Waid, and Alan Moore, comics have recently began to get some of the respect they deserve. Today, the best stories focus on the super heroes themselves more than on the earth shattering events around them. There’s much left to be explored in the genre and, with books like the one which you hold in your hands, you can see clear evidence of that. Even without vibrant panels of art on each and every page, the super hero comes alive. They bleed, shine, fight, rejoice, find atonement, and die during the quest to make the world a better place. They inspire us to make our own difference in the world, in whatever way we can, as we get to know them better and take a deeper look at who and what

they are. Lords of Justice is a collection of tales just as fun, and well written, as the comics published by DC and Marvel. It’s a thrill packed ride through the world of masks, capes, and high tech gear that will keep you turning the pages to the end and leave you wanting more. Eric S Brown, 2008 Author of The Season of Rot and Cobble

Manny Miracle is Alive and Well And Dying in the 29th Dimension

Michael Boatman

Manny Miracle is Alive and Well and Dying in the 29th Dimension

“Death to all baby-killers!” The Pro-Lifer hurled the screaming nurse over the side of the Gloria Bowers Family Planning Center. The screaming nurse soared high into the air, flipped over backward, and plummeted headfirst toward certain death nine stories below. Sydney Carter, eleven years old and small for her age, shoved her way to the front of the screaming crowd: She had to see. Had to. Because she knew he would be there. The crowd below had gathered to witness the ProLifer’s latest “statement”; hundreds of bystanders, reporters, police and emergency rescue teams fought for the best view of the action. Glittering electronic eyes swiveled skyward, refocusing to capture the screaming nurse’s last moments. The crowd roared with one voice. Sydney held her breath. And as it sometimes happened with Sydney, her secret talent captured the small details; The nurse’s eyes wide with terror; her arms pinwheeling, white sneakers kicking like a woman swimming toward oblivion; a sudden flutter of motion, as if the air congealed around her for the briefest of moments. Then she vanished. The crowd gasped. The air above their heads was clear. No corpse lay, smashed beyond recognition, at the foot of the clinic. Sydney turned as the falling nurse’s scream pierced the stunned silence from an entirely different direction. She looked up, her heart thundering in her chest. Valiant was there. The Far Traveler hovered twenty feet above the heads of the crowd, the screaming nurse clutched in his arms like a new bride. This close, his eyes blazed, the movements of his silver pupils leaving lighting-flash afterimages in the air. He was even bigger than in Sydney’s visions, tall as a mountain, with the shoulders of a demi-god. His skin was a luminous golden brown beneath thick, close- cropped hair as black as the space between the stars. Even his uniform was famous, the shimmering golden 3

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one-piece that clung to his muscular frame had been spun from a fabric so exotic that it moved like skin and shone like polished mirror glass; the silver sunburst in the center of his chest plate burned with a light that could dazzle the innocent and the guilty. But what Sydney noticed about Valiant were his hands. As he set the still screaming nurse gently onto her feet, Sydney’s talent allowed her to study the hands that had saved billions. They were large (Valiant was well over six feet tall) smooth, the nails immaculate, almost pristine. They looked like the hands of a man unaccustomed to hard physical labor. But Sydney knew that Valiant was anything but lazy. In the two years since he’d first appeared in Chicago, he’d saved the planet at least fifty times. “She’ll be fine,” Valiant said to the crowd of National Guardsman, police officers, paramedics and reporters who surged toward them. “Please, give her some space.” Sydney rushed forward, and was immediately shoved to the ground by a horde of screaming teenagers. “Valiant!” “Over here!” “Save me, baby!” She winced as her knees and the heels of her hands scraped the concrete. “Owww!” she cried. “Watch it, you jerks!” Some dim aspect of Sydney’s talent sent a thrill of anticipation rocketing up her spine, and she rolled out of the way a second before a yellow taxi smashed into the street a few feet from where she’d fallen. A moment later, the taxi exploded. The concussion blasted manhole covers into the air all along Michigan Avenue. The Pro-Lifer stood at the intersection of Michigan and Randolph. He was holding the front end of a smashed limousine in his arms, crushing nearly a ton of steel between biceps the size of basketballs. “Face me, fool!” he thundered. “Those who would defend the murder of innocents will be cleansed!” Valiant faced the hordes of admirers that flocked in his wake. “Get away from me!” he shouted. 4

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No one argued with him. The Pro-lifer had been implicated in the destruction of nineteen family planning centers from New York to LA. He’d pulled them down with his bare hands and burned the wreckage with his laser-vision blasts. More than a thousand people, mostly doctors, nurses and even some patients, had been killed in the attacks. The crowd scattered like mice fleeing a raging wildfire. The Pro-Lifer was even bigger than Valiant; nearly ninefeet tall, he weighed more than a thousand pounds. Three years earlier, he’d destroyed a small skyscraper in Seattle, dragging the survivors from the rubble and trampling them beneath his steel-toed boots. Only Valiant had been able to rescue the two dozen survivors, using his powers to blast the Pro-Lifer miles through the Earth before plunging him into a molten river of lava beneath Mount. St. Helens: Super-intense heat was the Pro-Lifer’s only known weakness. Other than that, he was virtually unstoppable. Valiant turned back just in time to take the full force of the truncated limousine as it struck him head on. The Pro-Lifer unleashed a laser-vision blast that instantly ignited the limousine, sending a flaming mass of molten metal and alien hero sailing across Michigan Avenue. Valiant and the burning limousine smashed through the window of an abandoned Dunkin’ Donuts, through the back wall and out into the alley beyond. A moment later, the Dunkin’ Donuts exploded in a howl of flame. The Pro-Lifer flexed his armored shoulders, raised his fists above his head and roared his manifesto. “For the Unborn!” Sydney clapped her hands to her ears. More windows shattered. Then the Pro-Lifer thundered toward the family planning center. A disembodied voice spoke, seemingly from everywhere and nowhere at once. “You’re going to have to do better than that, Arnold.” The air around the clinic shimmered, as if the fabric of reality were being contorted by an unseen hand. For a moment, 5

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every human being within a mile of the center sagged beneath a sudden, unpleasant heaviness. Sydney staggered as her knees wobbled and her arms grew too heavy to lift. At the same time, she could barely contain her excitement: She’d read about Valiant’s ability to manipulate gravity. A moment later, the Far Traveler stepped out of the thin air, right in front of the Pro-Lifer. “Give it up, Arnold,” he said. “I’ve got a lot on my mind today.” The Pro-Lifer roared, lowered his head and charged. Valiant extended his right hand; his fingers spread wide, and clenched his fist. The heaviness that pulled Sydney toward the ground vanished. The Pro-Lifer stopped. His knees buckled as Valiant increased the gravity envelope around him by nearly a dozen times Earth normal. The Pro-Lifer laughed. “Learned a few things while I was burnin’ in that Hell you sent me to,” he snarled. “My power is a function of my will.” He reached up and tapped the side of his iron-wrapped skull. “If I don’t want to move, nothin’ on this Earth can move me. And I got willpower I ain’t even touched yet.” The Pro-Lifer chuckled. “I can do this all day, boy,” he said. “How ‘bout you?” Valiant grimaced. The air around the Pro-Lifer seemed to thicken. It grew even denser, hotter. The Pro-Lifer’s knees bowed outward a little more; the street beneath him groaned and fractured into a spider web pattern of ruptured concrete. Behind him, a line of cars flattened as if smashed by the staff of Osiris. The Pro-Lifer shook his head, flinging droplets of sweat all around. “I can deflect your fancy powers, amigo,” he sneered. “What else ya got?” Valiant’s smile faded. To Sydney, he suddenly looked less like the shining hero she’d come to adore. To Sydney, whose special secret talent sometimes showed her little things 6

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that other people might miss, Valiant looked scared. “You’re right, Arnold,” Valiant snarled. “I don’t have time for this.” The Far Traveler unclenched his fist, and Sydney felt the air grow thin again, cool again. The Pro-Lifer stood erect, and shrugged, like a man throwing off a light cloak. “I’m gonna exterminate a million baby- killers, boy,” he rumbled. “And there ain’t a blessed thing you can do ‘bout it.” Valiant’s grin returned. But this time it was cold, resigned, as if acknowledging some inescapable truth. “I know.” The Pro-Lifer screamed. “What…what are you doing?” Valiant took a step forward and lifted his left fist. “I’m interfering with the nuclei of the atoms in your body; causing them to decay at an accelerated rate. You should be feeling pretty warm right now.” Indeed, from where she stood, Sydney could feel waves of intense heat emanating from the Pro-Lifer. The Pro-Lifer shook his head, funneling Valiant’s power into the Earth below his feet. He took one thundering step forward. “I’m… dealin’ with it… buttstain,” he grunted. “That… all you… got?” “Fraid not,” Valiant said. “When you interfere with the weak nuclear force (which is what I’m doing inside your body at this moment) you set off a radioactive chain reaction. As we speak the cells in your kidneys, liver, lungs and brain are becoming highly radioactive.” The Pro-Lifer stopped. Now his face was pouring sweat in great slopping sheets. “Wh…what’s that you said?” Valiant nodded. “You heard me. In a very real way, I’m giving you cancer and chemotherapy at the same time.” The Pro-Lifer screamed and clutched at his chest. “You can’t do this!” he howled. Valiant nodded. “I can do this, Arnold. Like I said before: I don’t have time for this. Right now I can call it all back. I can make you normal again. But you have to submit. Right here. 7

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Right now.” The Pro-Lifer fell to his knees. The heat baking off of him melted the wrecked cars a few feet away. His face had become a mass of suppurating boils. “Late stage radiation sickness, Arnold,” Valiant said. “That’s gotta hurt. Do you submit?” The Pro-Lifer fell onto his face, his fists clutching at his stomach like a child that has eaten too much candy. “It…HURTS!” he howled. Then… “I give! I give!” Valiant nodded. A moment later the Pro-Lifer, exhausted and panting, rose into the air, surrounded by the golden halo of Valiant’s power. Sydney could see his boils fading as he rose, and knew that Valiant was as good as his word. “Wait a minute!” Pro-Lifer, restored now, howled. Where are you sendin’ me this time?” Valiant gestured, and the golden nimbus shot straight up, carrying the Pro-Lifer into the sky at astounding speed. In moments it was gone. “Valiant! What did you really do to him?” The reporters peppered the cooling air with questions. Sydney noticed that all of them chose to shout from across the street. No one dared venture too close. “The Pro-Lifer has been secured,” Valiant said. “The dark matter servitors in my lunar base are placing him into a meta-containment unit as we speak.” “Was it really radiation sickness?” “Was the public ever in danger?” Valiant’s shoulders slumped. He regarded the gathered media with a kind of sad resignation that Sydney had never seen before. “I would never endanger the public,” he said, as if stung by the idea. “I surrounded him with a focused quantum field a million times more effective than lead shielding.” Sydney moved forward through the throng of admirers, trying to get his attention before he flew away. Five little words. 8

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If she could just whisper the message she’d divined from her Dream she knew she could get his attention. As Valiant’s golden boots lifted off from the sidewalk, Sydney pushed her way through the throng “Manny Miracle is alive and well!” Valiant never looked back. The Far Traveler sailed off and vanished behind the John Hancock Building. But for just a moment… Sydney shook her head. She thought she’d sensed Valiant slow down, his head turning in her direction by only the slightest amount. You’re being stupid, she thought. But still…

The Far Traveler landed in the back yard of Miss Jackson’s house, warping the rays of the setting sun away from him as he stepped onto the back porch, carefully, so as not to alert his foster brothers and sisters to his presence. To an outside observer, he would have appeared as a blurred glob of motion, easily misperceived as a heat haze or optical illusion. Miss Jackson’s back porch would appear perfectly normal, nothing out of place; certainly nothing to indicate that one of the most powerful superheroes in the world dwelled there. Valiant reached for the doorknob. “Easy, V,” Manny said from the Void. “We can’t afford another busted door.” “I realize that, Manny,” Valiant said. “I’m five thousand Earth years old, you know. I’ve amassed a considerable store of data over that time.” “Yo, you’ve forgotten most of what you knew,” Manny said. “And livin’ on Earth ain’t exactly a walk ‘round the solar system.” Valiant let Manny’s sarcasm pass. His host sounded 9

The Paladin

Kevin G. Summers

The Paladin

My name is Jared Weiss. I am the Paladin. You may have read some newspaper stories last year about my war on crime. They’re exaggerations... mostly. Apparently, a masked vigilante in a Washington, D.C. suburb isn’t enough to sell newspapers. Well, let me set the record straight. I don’t have superpowers; I can’t fly or bend steel with my bare hands or move things with my mind. I’m not the bored son of a billionaire trying to make some excitement in my life, and I’m not doing this to try and market a new superhero concept to DC Comics. Why am I doing this? Because somebody has to. Because gangs are moving into the suburbs, and kids are getting hooked on drugs every single day. Because what those kids really need is somebody to look up to. They need a hero, and that’s exactly what I want to be. I was twelve years old when my brother died; I was devastated. I worshipped Nick... wanted to be just like him. He did tae kwon do, so I did it too. When he was a freshman at Carmel High School, he went out for the wrestling team. All of a sudden, I wanted to be a wrestler. During his sophomore year, when he quit the team and started hanging around with the Drama Club, I discovered that what I really wanted was to be an actor. Then, near the end of that year, everything changed. I thought it was me – that I’d done something to alienate my hero. I begged Nick to talk to me, to tell me what was going on. I didn’t realize he was strung out on drugs until it was too late to save him. My mom was so busy trying to hold our little family unit together that she didn’t even notice. My father? He abandoned us when I was nine. If he cared at all, he sure didn’t do a good job of showing it. School let out for the summer and, for the first time in years, I felt totally alone in the world. I had just graduated from the sixth grade and was completely friendless. There’s no way around the fact... I’m a geek. I’m short, dopey-looking, and hopelessly uncool. My English teacher, Mrs. Pearson, she’d say that I need to give my reader more information. Well, I don’t know what else to say. I have a plain face and ordinary brown eyes. The only thing that’s memorable about me is my hair, which is jet-black and totally unmanageable. I always look like I just got out of bed, and that’s just one of the many things the other kids make fun of me about. I try not to let it bother me, and up until last year, it didn’t 3

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matter what other people said. I had my comics, and my hobbies, and my big brother. We live in the suburbs, in a little town in Northern Virginia called Carmel. It’s the kind of place where a kid with a bike has access to everything he could want. I spent my days, and the money I earned mowing lawns, at the comic book store or the video rental place. I would have given up every single comic in my collection, including my copy of New Teen Titans #1, for Nick to start acting like himself again. Unfortunately, things just got worse. I got back from the comic store one afternoon and found the front door unlocked. Nick’s Doc Martens were lying in the middle of the living room and that meant he was home. I rushed down the basement stairs to his room, but when I knocked on his door, there was no answer. I knocked again, and when there was still no answer, I decided it was okay for me to be the pesky little brother. I opened the door, and it was like I had stepped into a horror movie. The bag of comics slipped from my hands and slapped against my feet. Nick was curled in the fetal position at the foot of his bed; blood pooled all around him and his lifeless eyes stared at me in a perpetual apology that I will never forget. On the far wall, above the bed, were a skull and crossbones painted with my brother’s blood. God, there was so much blood. I fell to my knees and puked all over the floor. Then I scrambled for the phone and called 911, but it was too late for them to do anything for Nick. Our house became a crime scene, and my mom and I had to live in a motel for a week while cops dusted every inch of the place. Of course, our fingerprints were everywhere, so the head detective, a man named Bill West, printed us to eliminate us from consideration. West said Nick probably knew whoever it was that had murdered him. He said that the skull and crossbones were the symbol of the Marauders, a big-city gang that had been spreading out into the suburbs, and that the prospect of catching whoever did it looked bleak. The next eight months were the worst of my entire life. I couldn’t understand how my brother could have gotten hooked up with the Marauders, but we found out soon enough. The toxicology report with Nick’s autopsy said he had traces of marijuana, 4

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methamphetamine, and LSD in his system when he died. My mom was crushed. I know she wanted to be there for me, but the bills had to be paid and she was at work more often than not. I threw myself into a fantasy world where Batman and Superman always got the bad guy in the end. I lived for Wednesdays, the day that new comics go on sale. I felt so helpless – Nick’s murder was still unsolved, bullies picked on me at school, and the closest thing I had to a friend was the guy at the comic shop. I tried to act like I didn’t care, but all I could think about was what had happened to Nick. I missed my big brother. I miss him still. I turned thirteen on a frozen night in January. I was home alone, hiding up in my room with a stack of comics beside me. Rain pattered against my window as an idea took shape in my mind. Some of my favorite superheroes – Nightwing, Green Arrow, The Question – they didn’t have super powers or fight aliens trying to take over the world. They fought gangsters and thieves and murderers. They fought for vengeance, and for justice. That was exactly what I decided to do. My thoughts kept turning to one hero in particular: Robin. He was always my favorite. He didn’t have super-strength; he couldn’t fly; he wasn’t faster than the speed of light. He was just a kid my own age with nothing but his brains, his muscles, and a handful of tricks in his utility belt. The more I thought about it, the more I could relate to him. I could don a mask and begin my own war on crime. I could make the Marauders pay for what they did to my brother. On that dismal, winter night, the Paladin was born. It was fall, nine months after Jared Weiss conceived of the Paladin, and for the past three days rain had drizzled over Carmel. Suburban houses seemed to shiver with cold as the leaves on the trees began to slowly die. Winter was quickly descending on the little town. A teenage boy in a red hoodie leaned against a streetlight in front of the fitness center at Ruby Welton Park. He jabbed a cigarette between his lips, lit the end, and took a deep drag. Two girls dressed in workout clothes gave the boy a dirty look as they exited the building, and Tom Cole flung a menacing glare back at them. 5

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The girls averted their eyes and stepped up their pace toward their car. Tom stared after them and took another drag on his cigarette. “Bitches,” he mumbled under his breath. “Stupid sluts.” Greg Carter, Carmel High School’s star basketball player, walked out of the fitness center a few seconds later. Tom gave Greg an almost imperceptible nod. They exchanged a few whispered words and a handshake, and then Greg was headed to his car with a tiny Zip-Lock bag in the palm of his hand. Tom watched him go as he slipped a wad of cash into the pocket of his hoodie. He took a final drag on his cigarette, flicked it into the parking lot, and began a long, meandering walk home. At the side of the building, obscured by shadows, a figure stood watching. I put in months of training and planning before making my first appearance as the Paladin. Every second that I was running or lifting weights, I kept thinking about how great it was going to be once Nick was avenged. I knew I was likely to be arrested, or even killed, but the thought of striking back against the Marauders kept me going. I spent weeks trying to come up with a codename, something that would scare the hell out the bad guys, but everything I thought of sucked. Kid Vengeance... Captain Retribution... those are some of the better ones. Finally, I remembered playing Dungeons & Dragons with Nick. We made up characters and pretended to fight dragons and stuff. My character was a wizard, but Nick’s was this special class of knight sworn to battle evil at any cost, even his own life. He was a Paladin. The name gave me chills; it seemed the perfect tribute to my brother. Once I had the name, I needed a costume. I dug out a black Halloween mask, a long-sleeved black tee shirt, and a pair of tae kwon do gloves, and then rummaged through Nick’s stuff. I found a pair of black cargo-pants and a dark gray hooded cloak that he’d worn in the Drama Department’s production of Robin Hood. I took those, shoved some newspaper into the toes of his Doc Martens, and took them as well. Then I cut the shape of a chess piece – the knight – out of a white 6

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undershirt and sewed it onto the chest of my black tee shirt. The knight would be my symbol – like Superman’s S-shield. With my costume complete, I moved on to my arsenal. I bought a utility belt from the local army surplus store, and stuck everything I might need in my war on crime – flash bombs, throwing stars, a pair of metal handcuffs, a slingshot, and an old can of pepper spray – in its canvas pouches. Once I had everything together, I spraypainted Nick’s red BMX a more suitable black. Now I finally felt ready to face the world as the Paladin. The Paladin mounted his bike and followed Tom Cole. I’ve heard all the rumors about him. Jared’s thoughts churned as he pedaled through one of the nicest neighborhoods in town. Tom should be a freshman at Carmel High, but he’s still in the 7th grade. He’s the oldest kid at Carmel Middle School; he’s always got the coolest clothes and the newest gadgets, and whenever he leaves the room, the other kids whisper that his money comes from selling drugs. I don’t know how much of that I believe, but I know what I saw when we were changing clothes after gym three days ago – a red skull and crossbones tattooed on his shoulder. The Paladin kept to the shadows as he pursued his target to a run-down apartment complex called Carmel Commons. He ducked behind a dumpster and watched Tom enter one of the buildings. A minute later, a light flicked on inside a second-floor apartment. “I’ve got you,” the Paladin whispered. I was crazy with excitement. In just a few hours I’d witnessed a drug transaction and found out where the dealer lived. I wondered if I might become a detective someday, or an FBI agent. I began to dream about the future, and after so many months of depression, it felt great. Then tragedy struck again. Two days after I followed Tom to his apartment, a story spread through Carmel Middle School like a forest fire. Greg Carter was dead of a drug overdose. I felt like I’d been hit by a truck; this was exactly the kind of thing I wanted to prevent. I should have done something that night, but I just crouched in the shadows and watched Greg throw his life 7

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away. My feelings of guilt were matched only by my furious anger. I wanted revenge for Nick, and for Greg. I wanted justice. A plan was already forming in my mind. It was a brisk Friday night in early November, and Jared was home alone; his mother was working late, as usual. Around ten o’clock, he donned his costume, slipped into the night, and pedaled toward Carmel Commons. When he arrived at the apartment complex, he parked his bike between two cars, took a quick look around, and crept toward the building. “This is the end for you,” he muttered as he closed in. “Tonight I’m going to make you wish you never heard of the Marauders.” His cape rippled like a gray flag as he leapt onto the building’s fire escape and climbed to Tom’s apartment. The Paladin peered through a dirty window and spotted Tom, dressed in a pair of gym shorts and a black Metallica tee shirt, walking toward the living room with a bag of microwave popcorn in his hands. The Paladin tapped on the living room window as Tom stuffed a handful of popcorn in his mouth and started to sit down. Tom’s eyes narrowed and he spun around. “Who’s out there?” The Paladin backed out of sight and waited. A few seconds later Tom opened the window, stuck his head outside, and glanced around. The Paladin drew back his fist and punched him right between the eyes. Tom’s nose shattered and he crumpled to the floor. The Paladin climbed through the window, swept the apartment with his gaze, and then crouched over his fallen adversary. He grabbed Tom by the shirt collar and growled into his face. “Tell me where I can find the Marauders.” “Wh-who the hell are you?” Tom coughed. The Paladin slapped him hard across the face. “Answer me!” Tom’s body went limp as he passed out from the shock of his broken nose. The Paladin let go of his collar and straightened up. I came here for information, he thought, and so far I’ve got zilch. I have to make Tom talk before someone comes home and finds me. 8

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He pulled the handcuffs from his utility belt, dragged Tom into the kitchen, and cuffed him to the handle of the refrigerator. Then he removed a dirty glass from the dishwasher, filled it with water, and dashed the liquid in Tom’s face. Tom’s eyes fluttered open. “Wh-what the hell are you doing?” The Paladin jammed his forearm into the older boy’s throat. “Tell me where I can find the leader of the Marauders, or I swear to God I’ll...” Jared paused. There was one constant among all the comic book heroes that he admired – they never killed. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. If I kill this guy, I’m no better than the people that murdered Nick. But for all I know, Tom could be the very person that cut Nick’s throat. Rage overwhelmed him, and Jared glared at Tom with cold fury. “Tell me where they are,” the Paladin’s voice was a low, menacing growl, “or I’ll kill you.” Tom groaned and ignored him. The Paladin’s expression twisted into a snarl and he increased the pressure on his prisoner’s throat. “Th-the Majestic,” Tom croaked as he tried to force Jared’s arm away with his free hand. The memory of an abandoned movie theatre on the outskirts of downtown Carmel sprang to Jared’s mind. He released his chokehold, rose to his feet, and dialed 911. “Emergency assistance, how can I help you?” “I’ve captured a drug dealer. He’s a member of the Marauders.” “Is this your idea of a joke?” “No, ma’am. This is my idea of community service.” He set the receiver on the counter and headed for the window. The front door of the apartment opened before he could escape, and a dark-skinned man strode in. He caught sight of Jared; their eyes locked, and time screeched to a halt. The man lunged forward as the Paladin yanked a throwing star from his belt and threw. The star whirled 9

The Paladin

through the air in a perfect arc and sank into the man’s forearm. He screamed. The Paladin made a beeline for the window, but before he could make good his escape, the man ripped the star from his arm and rushed across the room. Sharp pain exploded through Jared’s midsection as the man’s fist connected with his ribs. He collapsed, gasping for breath. “You ain’t gettin’ out of here alive, punk.” The man reached for him, but Jared rolled onto his back and kicked him in the balls. The man’s eyes widened and he crumpled to the floor, cradling himself and whimpering like a dog. You never see them do that in the comics, Jared thought as he scrambled to his feet. The sound of a gun being cocked captured his attention and he froze. “Wh-who are you?” said a quavering, female voice. The Paladin felt his muscles ripple as adrenaline rushed through his veins. “Answer me, or I swear to God I’ll shoot you.” Jared’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment under his mask. “I’m... the Paladin.” “Turn around. Slowly.” Jared obeyed and found himself staring down the barrel of snub-nosed revolver. A small woman in a hot pink sweat-suit held the gun with two trembling hands. God, Jared thought, Tom looks just like his mother. Ms. Cole’s dark hair fell in strands around a face that was almost pretty. “You’re just a kid,” she squinted her terrified eyes. “How old are you?” “Old enough to have seen my brother murdered by the Marauders!” The strange man staggered to his feet. “Kill that little fu… .” Ms. Cole turned the gun on him. “Is he telling the truth? Did your gang murder his brother?” The man stopped moving and his eyes fastened themselves to the gun. “H-how the hell sh-should I know?” Tears spilled from the woman’s eyes and her aim wavered. The Paladin kicked the gun from her hand. She shrieked 10

The Paladin

as the weapon clattered to the floor and discharged into the sofa. The Paladin dashed for the window, dove through it, and scrambled for the fire escape. As he started down the ladder, sirens sounded in the distance. He panicked. His foot slipped on a wet rung and he fell toward certain death, but his cape caught on something as he neared the ground and arrested his plummet. It tightened around his throat and began to strangle him. Jared kicked frantically, and the fabric ripped loose; he dropped the remaining five feet and landed in some thick bushes. Climbing from the scrub, Jared gritted his teeth and rushed through the shadows toward his waiting bike. He climbed onboard and shoved off, pedaling frantically into the night as blue police lights turned into the Carmel Commons parking lot. When I got home, I stashed my bike and costume in our shed. I was climbing back through a ground floor window that I’d left unlatched when my mother spoke from the darkness. “Jared? What on earth are you doing?” My heart sank when I realized that she was sitting in the dark on the corner of Nick’s bed, waiting for me. Her face was almost indistinguishable in the darkened room, but I could feel her anger. I stared at her and couldn’t think of anything to say. “Do you think I’m stupid? When I got home and you weren’t here, the first thing I did was check all the doors and windows. Imagine my surprise to find that Nick’s window was unlatched.” She stood and drew in a deep breath, like a dragon about to spit fire. “You saw what happened to Nick! Now you’re acting just like him!” “Mom, I...” She stormed over to me and grabbed my face. “Listen to me, Jared.” Her voice was low and quavering. “I know I’m not around as much as I wish I could be, but I love you more than anything. I loved Nick too, and now he’s gone. What he did, that wasn’t my Nicky. It was the drugs. And now you... you’re...” She started crying and I reached out to her, but she shoved my hands away. “Jared, you need to tell me what’s going on.” A thrill of fear shot up my spine. “What do you mean, Mom?” 11

Cold Snap

Bryan Lee Hitchcock

Cold Snap

Chapter One: Tour of Duty The convoy kicked up a cloud of dust as it wound through the narrow lanes lined by pale houses with windows shaded by colorful cloths from the blistering sun. Sarah took another drink from her water bottle and looked out at the faces of Iraqis who stopped to watch the humvees and cargo trucks go by. There were some hopeful faces, but mostly their looks bore accusations – occupiers, infidels – and lines of suppressed rage; something Sarah could relate to. She’d worked for more than a month to get a new assignment; anything to get away from Sergeant Meyers. Now she just wanted to forget him and what he’d done to her. “I think we’ve been through this intersection twice already,” Sarah said. Sarah rode shotgun in the second humvee and her new friend, Private Franklin, drove. Her new unit, the 508th Maintenance Company, had orders to deliver two trucks of “undisclosed classified materials” from Baghdad to Tikrit in the northwest. Seventy-five clicks out, just over half-way, the road had led them to this sprawling town, not detailed on any of the maps. “Man, these guys couldn’t find Tikrit if they was standing in it,” Franklin complained. “And the guy leading has even less sense of direction than you, Blondie.” Franklin was a short, slender woman with dark skin and an easy humor that Sarah loved. “Hey! I don’t see you getting us on track, Miss Geography Expert.” Franklin made an exaggerated face of feigned outrage and Sarah laughed. The Hummer ahead burst with smoke, flame and blood, flipping over. “Oh, my God!” Franklin slammed on the brakes. The Humvee squealed and slammed into the wreckage, throwing Sarah against her seatbelt and crushing the wind from her 3

Cold Snap lungs. Bullets erupted through the driver’s side door, breaking the glass and splattering Sarah with Franklin’s blood. Sarah fought for air, looking down first at the blood and then to Franklin. Franklin’s breath bubbled on her lips and Sarah tried applying pressure to the wound on her neck, but there were too many wounds. Sarah heard another explosion and an array of weapons fire. Franklin died with a shudder, her eyes fixed on the rusty cloud building outside. The door opened beneath Sarah’s grip and she slid out. Her knees felt rubbery, but she forced herself into a crouch, pulling along her M-16. She scrambled for cover behind a small house, bullets pinging around her. Rusty mist billowed from the side of one cargo truck. Figures appeared out of the smoke and clouds of dust. As soon as she saw their weapons, she fired on them and they went down. Her right knee exploded in pain as a bullet sent her crashing to the ground. Screams pierced the roar of the burning humvee and Sarah could hear people choking and crying for help in English, and some language she didn’t recognize. Her throat tightened and her body heaved in its quest for air. Something ignited in her chest and she passed out. Sarah woke in a tiny room, dimly lit with oil lamps. The stench of blood and human waste made her sick. Three men from her unit were there, bound and gagged with strips of cloth; lying on the floor as she was. Someone had wrapped a crude bandage around her knee, but the pain was debilitating. In the hours that followed, everyone around her showed increasing signs of sickness. All she could do was watch and cry as captives and captors alike deteriorated from a hacking cough, to vomiting rusty phlegm, to whimpering death. She could hear people outside the room, but no one else entered. Sarah envied the men from her unit in one way. At least they’d died with their honor intact. She waited for sickness and death to take her, too. All her mom would ever know was that she died after a firefight - a hero - and the whole episode with 4

Cold Snap Meyers and his buddies would just disappear. But not long after the last man died, assault rifles roared outside. Sarah smelled smoke. Out of the darkness and dust walked a man. A marine. He scooped her up in his arms and Sarah felt hope in his strength. When they left the building Sarah looked up at her rescuer in the crisp light of the phosphorous flares. “You’re gonna be okay,” he said. The gasmask muted his voice, but she could see his eyes. He had serious green eyes. Eyes you could trust. She knew nothing about him, but imagined that he was everything that Sergeant Meyers would never be. The door of sleep closed before he got her to the chopper.

Chapter Two: Coming Home Sarah’s second tour in Iraq, and fourth year of service, ended while she recovered in Germany. She’d joined the Army to get money for college. After September 11 she’d been ready to serve as long as needed, but not even her desire for justice could keep Sarah from choosing an honorable discharge over a career in the army, not when there could be another Meyers out there. Going to college meant going back home, at least for a little while. She loved her mom, but the trailer park seemed to have shrunk while she was away. Her sister Jenny lived in the trailer next door. She worked at a giant retail chain for minimum wage and depended on their mom to help pay for nearly everything. Sarah adored her niece and nephew, but she and Jenny had fought like cornered rats for as long as she could remember. Jenny’s habit of dropping her kids off for Grandma to watch while she went out filled Sarah with icy rage, but she kept her cool; she just didn’t want to go there anymore. It didn’t help that Sarah woke nightly, shouting and shaking with terrors. Her mom pleaded with her, “Who’s this 5

Cold Snap Meyers? Baby, what happened to you over there?” All she could do was let her mom hold her tight as the shivers tore through her. After two weeks at home, Sarah started hunting for an apartment every day after her shift ended; driving around Sacramento in her beat-up compact. SF seeks roommate to share 2 br apt. $450 per month. Must be cleanly, employed, and prompt with bills. Call (916)555-9118.

It was a solid ad and the price was right. Sarah liked people who knew what they were looking for and she liked Janice from the first time they met; standing at the door of the little apartment a few blocks from the UC Davis campus. Janice was shorter than Sarah, with the soft body of a scholar, long waves of golden brown hair, and green eyes made slightly owlish by her glasses. The apartment was clean and sparsely decorated with just enough thrift store furniture to give it character. As it turned out, Janice was a hell of a cook and loved making dinner for them both, as long as Sarah split the cost and did the dishes. The place always smelled like basil and oregano. Moving out of the trailer was tougher than Sarah anticipated, though. Packing all her stuff had a finality that she hadn’t even felt when she’d shipped out for Iraq. Her stuffed animals went to her niece, with the exception of a battered unicorn that her dad had given her for her sixth birthday; the last one he’d lived to see. Makeshift bookcases lined the walls of her new home and Sarah found herself scanning the titles, unicorn clutched to her chest, on the nights she shook herself awake from the rusty haze of nightmares she didn’t even try to recall. She was awed that one person could own so many books. Janice was a Religious Studies major and a Wiccan, which meant nothing to Sarah except that Janice always said “Goddess” instead of “God” when she cursed. Odd, but not a deal breaker. To Sarah, religion had always been a bore and a chore. She’d given up 6

Cold Snap praying in Iraq. It never seemed to work. To her surprise, Sarah found solace in freshman physics during the second term. Even some of the basic concepts defied common sense, but the experiments were undeniable and Atmospheric Science stole her heart. Studying the clouds and wind, Sarah almost felt like she could fly. The communications club produced a weekly video podcast of alternative news and weather for the campus area and Sarah read the weather in front of a green screen. Guys would ask her out, claiming they watched the show just to see her. Sarah suspected that it was just the “skinny blond” thing, rather than her fashion sense. She could have knocked them out in miniskirts and tight tops, but she wanted to look like a professional meteorologist, not a bimbo in a music video. Her sister Jenny had perfected the art of being blonde, sexy and dumb, and Sarah was having none of it. Besides, she just wasn’t interested in the boys at school and she didn’t mind being labeled a geek or even an ‘ice princess.’ She explained to Janice one night, over an illicit pint of Piña Colada ice cream. “My mom is always after me about “finding a man.” Makes me ill. I’m sorry, but once you’ve been carried out of a burning building by a marine, the bar is set kinda high.” “I guess I can see your point.” Janice seldom dated and never brought anyone home, either. “Besides, most of these guys want to screw a blonde.” She hoped Janice didn’t think she was gloating. “I’m just practicing my excuses for the next motherly chat.” “A bit cynical, aren’t we? Aren’t you glad they find you attractive?” “I don’t give a damn about being attractive, honestly.” “Then why do you work out all the time?” “Because I like rocking out to Evanescence.” Sarah parodied the undulating Goth-rock dance moves of her favorite singer. Janice laughed. “Besides, running every day is hardly ‘all the time.’” Janice rolled her eyes. “It’s like you’re still in training.” 7

Cold Snap Sarah stopped dancing. “I am. I… the war is far from over.” “You think you’ll have to go back?” The note of panic in Janice’s voice puzzled Sarah. “No. I don’t know. Pass me the ice cream.”

Chapter Three: The Racketeer The really crazy day, the one that changed things forever, was a Friday. Payday. Going back to delivering pizzas had been out of the question, so Sarah got a job driving forklift at a super market. Her sophomore year was about to start and she’d been working double shifts to save money. Even with her army money, school was expensive. The pay was barely worth enduring the manager’s crap about women drivers, but Sarah delighted in proving him wrong daily. The credit union was packed. It was near the end of the day and the two-story windows at the front of the bank let warm light fill the room. She’d picked Janice up from her job at the school library and they were almost at the front of the line when the trouble started. The power went out, followed by a crash and explosion from outside. Sarah knew the sound of a car exploding when she heard it. Then the front windows shattered inward. A bus skidded through full of screaming panicked passengers, and toppled on its side. A moment later the bus lifted from the ground and hurtled back into the street, people falling out like rag dolls as it flew. Sarah looked up from helping a man whose leg had been crushed, to see a looming figure clad in gray steel climb onto the debris. His shadow stretched across the destruction. “Quiet! Get down on the ground.” He swung a meterwide black ball on the end of a thick chain at the bank floor. It crashed down with an ear splitting crack, shattering the marble. 8

Cold Snap Three more men strode through the wreckage as Sarah tore off a piece of the bleeding man’s shirt to make a tourniquet. Glancing up, she recognized their leader from news reports. Racketeer Continues Spree by Darren Turtokov (Sacramento) The criminal cyborg, known as the Racketeer, struck again yesterday. Police detectives say ten people are dead and sixteen were wounded when the Fisher Savings and Loan in Roseville became the ninth bank to be hit this year by the notoriously violent criminal and his gang, known as the “Wrecking Crew.” “We are doing everything we can,” said Sacramento County Sheriff officer Dan Patrick. “But, what can we do against someone who just strikes at will and then disappears? They destroy everything we throw at them.” The self-styled Racketeer is believed to be rapper Kray-Z a.k.a. Terence Howe of Beverly Hills. Howe was convicted on several drug trafficking counts in a five hundred million dollar sting operation four years ago; the largest drug bust in U.S. history. During a 2003 breakout attempt, Howe sustained multiple shotgun wounds and was believed dead. He resurfaced last year with the Wrecking Crew and began his current campaign of crime. The Racketeer has offered several times to end the robberies if the state of California pays him a billion dollars. Rumors are swirling about a declaration of a state of emergency to pressure the federal government for assistance.

The Racketeer looked like he’d just stepped out of a rap video; Raiders cap pulled down to shade his eyes, baggy designer blue-jeans, and gleaming white court shoes. Gold and 9

Cold Snap diamonds flashed from necklaces and every finger, but he hardly needed the jewelry. His bare chest, his face, every bit of skin that Sarah could see, was plated with shining gold. She felt his footsteps like the thump of heavy bass. Two more men flanked him. One wore a skin-tight blue outfit, like a diving suit, with yellow racing stripes, driving gloves and helmet. He carried an Uzi machine pistol. The other guy was munching on a bag of chips and wiping his greasy fingers on his Battlestar Galactica t-shirt. Sarah kept working on the injured man. Her hands were red with his blood, but he might live if she could finish. Clouds of dust and the sobs of the injured surrounded her. Everyone was face down except her. She could hear Janice’s frightened breathing nearby. The golden man smiled. Even his teeth were gold. “Everybody listen up.” His voice was thick and amplified, a bass hum she could feel through her feet. “If you cooperate, you might live through the day. I am the Racketeer, for them folks living in caves. This is Daytona.” He indicated the fellow in the racing stripes. “My blowtorch, Popcorn.” He patted the geeky snacker on one chubby cheek. “The big guy is the Demolisher.” The one with the ball and chain flashed a smile that twisted with wrecked and missing teeth. “Now that I’ve made the introductions, I believe my friend said to get your ass down, bee-atch!” He stepped forward. Sarah knew what was coming, she knew she should get away or roll with the punch or something. She finished the last knot and backed away. The blow was faster than any she’d ever seen, skinning her chin as she fell backward on her rear. “Pretty fast for a girl. What’s so important about this guy?” “He needs a hospital. Please.” Sarah’s heart was roaring like a drag racer in her chest. “Oh, that makes all the difference. Go on then, you can go.” Sarah didn’t need an engraved invitation. She got to her 10

Cold Snap feet and walked back to the injured man. His eyes were closed and he whispered prayers. She stepped into the Racketeer’s shadow. He smacked her with the back of his left hand and she dropped, the side of her head slamming onto the marble floor.

Chapter Four: The Open Door The vault door hit the ground with a deep clang, waking Sarah from a dream of gunfire and rusty smoke, her head cradled in the crook of Janice’s arm. She was surprised, and faintly disappointed, to feel her heart still beating. People were huddled with them in an office at the back of the bank. Daytona guarded them with his machine pistol in hand, chewing gum noisily. “Sarah?” Janice’s eyes sparkled. She brushed Sarah’s hair out of her face. “I can’t believe you’re awake. He hit you so hard. Are you okay?” Sarah was not okay. “Jeez, I’m freezing cold and my brain feels like one big muscle cramp.” “You’re probably going into shock. Goddess, I hope they let us go soon. This is a nightmare.” “You have blood on your shirt, are you okay?” “I’m fine; this is your blood. Your head hit the ground. I thought he killed you.” “Thanks for taking care of me, Jan.” “Of course. I just hope we get out of this alive.” “What the hell is going on?” Sarah sat up. “They’re stealing money from the vault.” There was an explosion outside. Janice flinched. “The Racketeer sent the guy with the wrecking ball out to fight the cops. This is so crazy.” A woman nearby was holding a hand to her husband’s forehead, whispering to him. It attracted Sarah’s attention. “What is wrong with him, ma’am?” “Oh Lord, I think he had a heart attack. He’s so weak. Jesus, why did this have to happen today? Floyd never comes to the bank with me.” 11

More Than One Way to Protect

Robert Orme

More Than One Way to Protect When he felt his rifle becoming heavy in his hands, Alan Sherburne’s first thought was that he was having an attack of conscience. He wasn’t going to kill Brennan, no matter how crooked his politics were. I was so sure I had it in me... He stared at Brennan a second longer, steeling his resolve. Then his view was closed off as the rifle sight became too small to look through. “Hey!” He looked up, and standing over him like a dark cloud blocking all his dreams from sight, was him. His face was less mysterious and frightening than Alan had been lead to believe, but the undisguised fury at all things criminal that he saw in that common face was hardly comforting. His muscular left arm was stretched out toward Alan Sherburne, focusing his entire will upon the startled man. There was no mistaking him. Besides the costume that enclosed his entire body in a simple pattern of black and white, with a fierce insect embossed in the center of the chest, there were the wings. Alan had always assumed that they were made of plywood or plastic, but seeing those four transparent, membranous, and seemingly gossamer growths spurting from his back, he began to wonder. Though Alan’s heart filled with fear at the sight, his hesitation lasted only a second. And the hesitation came mainly from his respect for the costumed man as a sort of comrade-in-arms, though they’d never met before. Wishing there was time to convince him that they should be allies, he turned the rifle on the figure over him - only to find that he couldn’t pull the trigger. The trigger guard had shrunk, trapping his finger. A gloved fist slammed into Alan’s face, knocking him backwards. The rifle tumbled against the ground, twisting and tearing his still entrapped finger. He groaned in pain. “How many?” the costumed man demanded. “It’s just me,” Alan Sherburne answered, then involuntarily yelped as his assailant yanked him up off his feet. “Justice is not built on stupidity. Or mercy.” His grip on Alan’s shirt tightened. “Tell me where they are, or you take a flying dive off this building.” 3

More Than One Way to Protect This was it: his chance to be a martyr. The Revolutionary had told them all to expect this moment, to rejoice in it when it came, but Alan had never believed it could really happen to him. I don’t want to die... not like this, at any rate. He swallowed. “One more sniper on the building over there. Three more waiting in the vacant store across from -” The costumed man yanked the rifle from Alan’s hand, dropped him, and hefted the rifle to his shoulder, restoring it to normal size as he did so. He fired off three shots in fairly quick succession, then turned back to Alan. “There’s a pay phone on the bottom floor, I’m sure. Call an ambulance for your friend. Then stay put.” With that, he jumped off the side of the building. Alan grinned with relief. It looked like the masked man was stupid after all. Pulling his cell phone out of his jacket, he placed a quick call. “Lou? You’ve got trouble coming.” Ethan McCarthy, alias the Termite, was thinking at full throttle. His reluctant informant had failed to mention the third sniper, so he could hardly be trusted to not inform his friends on the ground. If he came from the opposite direction to the one the sniper expected, however, he might surprise them. It was his best chance of saving the lives at stake. Maneuvering in mid-air was becoming more and more natural to him. He had been given the power to concentrate or diffuse the molecules in a given area by force of will, and this allowed him to glide by supporting his wings under moving sheets of extremely dense air. Being able to move in anything other than a straight line, however, took months of low altitude training and immeasurable bruises and frustration. It had been worth it; Ethan now experienced only a slight queasiness when he banked around the corners of the building. Turning the third corner, he came upon them. Though there were five, not three, they were in the right spot and headed in the right direction. He’d have to hit them hard and fast; five was more than he’d ever handled at once. 4

More Than One Way to Protect One of them turned and spotted him at the last instant, but by then it was too late to turn around. Ethan closed his eyes. God, let my momentum be enough... He scattered the first four, then took out the one in the lead with a right hook. One of them quickly recovered and aimed his gun. Moving by instinct, Ethan contracted the sleeve of the man’s shirt, cutting off the circulation in his gun arm. He cried out in shock and pain, and dropped his weapon. A practiced kick to the jaw knocked him into the man behind him. For his next opponent, Ethan resorted to one of his favorite tricks: expanding the waistband of his pants. Suddenly too slack for the man wearing them, they fell to his ankles, making his trip. The Termite’s fist stopped his fall. The last one had lost his gun with Ethan’s initial charge. Before he could recover it, Ethan expanded the gun to the size of a novelty item. While the man groped for a weapon too big to use, he closed the distance between them and dropped him with a blow to the nerves in his neck. He turned and saw that a couple of them were getting to their feet. “Stop right there.” They smirked. “What, you think we’re afraid of you?” “Considering that I can, for instance, contract your chests until your hearts burst under the pressure, you had better be.” “You wouldn’t.” Ethan stared at him coldly. “If I have to, I most certainly will. Don’t push me. Neither of us wants to find out how little I take before I shove back.” They hesitated. Ethan could see they were beginning to realize that he was telling the truth, but their fear was battling something else. “You boys aren’t being paid for this, are you? What were you hoping to accomplish?” One of them turned to the other. “Steve?” Steve nodded. “Yeah. It’s obvious that he realizes what needs to be done. He’ll help us if we tell him.” “What are you talking about?” Ethan demanded. 5

More Than One Way to Protect “It’s simple. Injustice has taken over this country. We bring back justice.” “By assassination?” “For now. Our numbers aren’t big enough to stage open warfare.” “That’s criminal. Nothing more.” “Like your killing us wouldn’t be criminal, too? And how about what our forefathers did to found this nation?” Ethan sighed deeply. Then he reached into the pocket on his leg and pulled out his cell phone. “I’m not going to listen to any more of this. I’m calling the police now, and the lot of you are just going to sit and wait until they get here.” Leaning back into the sofa, Alexander McCarthy switched to the news channel. “- claimed that there was one more sniper, who managed to elude capture. The remaining seven have been held for questioning, but it is unlikely that they will be prosecuted, since the only eyewitness who had a clear sense of what was going on, the Termite, refuses to testify. This is the third time that the Termite has refused to testify in a case where he was a key eyewitness because testifying would require him to state his name. “Local law enforcement officials were further aggrieved by the airborne vigilante because he used excessive force by shooting and seriously injuring the two snipers. The Termite has said in his defense that his actions were necessary in order to -” “Shut that thing off, Grandpa. I don’t need to hear this.” Lindsey turned on him. “We need to hear it,” she snapped. “Since you never tell us what you do in that suit of yours.” “I don’t like talking about it. It’s not good conversation. I said shut that damn thing off, Grandpa! You want the kids to come in and see that stuff?!” “Don’t yell at me,” Alexander said softly, and turned the TV off. 6

More Than One Way to Protect “You’d better tell me about it now,” Lindsey said. “Did you kill someone again?” “No. I didn’t have to.” Ethan’s expression suddenly softened. “I’m sorry, Grandpa. You can turn the TV on to something else. There’s gotta be an old movie or something on now, right?” “You didn’t have to. That mean you would have if you did?” He stared into his sister’s eyes. “Yes. I can’t let innocent people die when I could have done something about it. End of discussion.” “And... and we have to hear about this... from the TV?” “What good does it do you to hear about it at all, huh?” Ethan answered, storming back to the cutting board. He doubled his efforts on cutting up the celery. “I’ve done it before, and I’ll probably have to do it again. You know that! Right? So what good does it do you to know when?” “It’s not just that, Ethan. When we don’t even know that you’re going into action -” “I just ran into those guys on the way over here! Whaddaya want from me?” “I want you to get some control over this habit of yours, Ethan!” He stopped to scoop up the celery and drop it into the bowl. “I am in control,” he said firmly. “I’ve made a commitment to protect people. I’ve made a conscious decision to not limit myself in following that commitment.” Lindsey stepped over to him. “Look at me.” He obeyed, not blinking. She stared hard into his eyes. “You can’t save everyone.” “I’ll save everyone I can.” She was silent a moment, her lips searching for an argument, and then she turned and walked off. “This is worse than having a cop in the family.” Ethan grinned. “Isn’t it, though?” He turned his attention to mixing up the meat loaf, and only spotted his lanky brother-in-law Greg coming into the kitchen cum living 7

More Than One Way to Protect room out of the corner of his eye. “What I don’t understand,” Greg said, “ why you call yourself the Termite.” “Well, why not?” He turned his gaze to Greg while continuing to work, watching his pondering expression that looked so humorous, and perhaps was meant to be. “First of all, it’s hardly a name to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. I could understand it if it related to your power somehow, but how does shrinking and expanding things make you a termite?” “Hey, you’re forgetting that I can fly.” “Termites can fly?” Ellen piped up. She had just come in from the dining room with Ethan’s brother Mark - her husband. Ethan nodded. “The breeders can.” “Oh, big deal!” Greg groaned. “You could’ve taken any number of things that fly on a regular basis. Why not ‘The Dragonfly’?” “I dunno. Too flashy, I guess. ‘Termite’ sounds more modest.” “You know, the name would fit a lot better,” Mark said, “...if you’d use that other power of yours.” Ethan stopped in his work. “No,” he said, his voice calm but thunderously loud. “Until the day that I have no choice, I am not doing... that.” “Other power?” Greg asked, raising his eyebrows. “Uh, sorry Greg. That’s one of those secrets for blood relatives only -” Greg averted his face and held up a hand. “Say no more.” Lindsey was glaring at Mark. “Uh, yeah. Sorry ‘bout that Greg,” he said, and emptied out what was left of his beer can into the sink. “Better can the subject altogether, anyway. I hear the kids coming.” There were only five of them so far, even if it seemed like another one came along every fifteen minutes. Three were 8

More Than One Way to Protect Lindsey and Greg’s, including the baby napping upstairs, and two were Mark and Ellen’s. Ethan could hear them stamping up the back porch like a herd of elephants before they crashed through the door into the living room. “Hey, uncle Ethan’s here!” Evan yelled as he came in. “Yippee. I’m here. Start up the parade.” Tina stood on her tiptoes to peer onto the counter. “Are you cooking, uncle Ethan?” “Yep. Wanna help?” Ethan lifted her up onto the counter and let her help him with the green beans. Excepting Evan, the other kids went to persuade Grandpa Alexander to change the channel. “Are you staying over?” Evan asked. “Nah. I’ve got work tomorrow.” “But tomorrow’s Saturday.” “I call that life in the real world, kid. You’ll get there someday.” “We haven’t seen you in forever.” “I know!” He put mock emphasis on the words. “How’s the soccer been going?” “We won three games in a row - but then we lost to Melborne.” “You’ll always lose some, kid. Always. How many assists did you make?” Later, when dinner had been consumed and the kids had run off to play outside again, Greg brought out one of the better bottles and the adult conversation ensued. “You really ought to have a few kids, Ethan,” Mark said. Ellen laughed. “Slow down! He doesn’t even have a girlfriend yet.” “Nor will I. I’d be a terrible father.” “Oh, come on! You’re a mile ahead of the two schmoes here who’ve already done it.” “There’s three of those schmoes here, Ellen, and don’t go saying I’d be a better father than Grandpa.” “You might be,” Grandpa Alexander said seriously. “The 9

More Than One Way to Protect kids all love you.” “That’s because I’m not allowed to discipline them. Thanks, but I’m much happier being the favorite uncle. Speaking of which: Mark, when are you and Ellen going to score the hat trick?” “When I get a raise, I think. Our money situation is a little unsteady right now.” Ethan excused himself at half past midnight, on the pretext that he needed to get some sleep before leaving for work in the morning. The air outside was cool and still, bathing him in the peace of reflection. He’d enjoyed the evening; it had filled him with warmth and life through every moment. It was good to take a moment to soak in the experience, to cherish it in his memory. He was just beginning to reach into his pocket for his car keys when he heard soft footsteps behind him. He snapped around. “Work on a Saturday?” Lindsey asked, her eyebrow raised. Ethan relaxed. “You spooked me. Yeah, there’s work to be done. Those guys earlier today weren’t acting on their own.” “Ethan, can’t you give it a rest? The kids would love to see you some more. So would I.” He looked away from her, to the patch of bushes lining the front lawn. “It can’t wait, Linds. I need to use an off day to get my tracking done. And those guys won’t wait a week to strike again. I’ll come down and see everybody next month when I get the chance.” “I wish you wouldn’t keep on doing this.” She shook her head in remonstrance. “I love you, Ethan. Sometimes I think I love you more than my own children.” Ethan put a hand to his chin, and adopted a musing expression. “Are you talking about the times they’ve dribbled stuff on your favorite carpet, or the time I fixed your roof?” She did not answer, instead surprising him with an embrace. “Please. Don’t let me lose you.” 10

More Than One Way to Protect “Linds...” He gently stroked the top of her head with one hand. It was silent for a minute. “Look, Linds. Upstairs. The kids are in bed. You can see the nightlight on... that little glow right there. How could we sleep if we didn’t know that those kids are safe? “I’ve been given strength... incredible strength. Enough to make sure that your kids are safe. And this is supposed to be a country where the strong protect the weak. What kind of man would I be, if I didn’t try to live up to that responsibility, if I didn’t do all I could to make sure that everyone’s children are safe at night?” Another silence passed. “You really do believe in all that, don’t you?” Ethan nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.” He kissed his sister on the forehead. “Don’t worry about me, okay?” “You can’t keep this up forever, Ethan. It’s like... like playing a slot machine without stop. Sooner or later you lose everything. Someday you’ll get killed.” “Probably, yeah.” “It could even be tomorrow.” He paused. “It won’t be.” He gave her shoulders a parting squeeze. “Bye, sis.” And he turned to go.

Chapter Two The man who had once been Barry Gallup, but was now known by everyone who knew him as The Revolutionary, switched off the television set as it came to a commercial and turned to his fellow patriot Alan Sherburne. “Not exactly up to our expectations, was it?” “No sir; it wasn’t.” “So frustrating, to have had all our plans go well, and when we finally move in to take credit, to shout out the good word of Revolution...” - he snapped his fingers - “...the plan is 11

More Than One Way to Protect all swept away.” Even seated at a plain desk, The Revolutionary cut an inspiring figure. His well-toned, muscular form was swathed in a form-fitting costume of bold blue, red, and black. A short, dignified beard graced his chin, solidifying the noble determination of his face. His eyes were calm but full of life. Alan nodded grimly. “I know exactly what you mean.” He wished now that he hadn’t cooperated with the Termite. Just forget it. He probably knew about my comrades-in-arms anyway. And at the time I thought they would overcome him... didn’t I? The Revolutionary stood up, an impressive six foot eight, and began walking with no obvious destination. “Obviously, the Termite is a factor that we need to start considering. Even more so now that he’ll be looking for us.” “How is it that you know that, sir?” “It’s obvious, patriot Sherburne.” He abruptly turned a corner, and Alan had to briefly jog in order to keep up with his vast stride. “Aside from myself, he is the only superhero in the county. If anything goes on in the local area that he doesn’t like, it’s his job to put a stop to it. And it won’t be hard for him to guess that the assassination attempt wasn’t an isolated incident. He’ll be looking for whoever ordered it.” Biting his lip, Alan remarked, “Not good.” “Actually, if we handle the situation properly, that works to our advantage. It should make it easier to get rid of him.” He stopped to open the door to the tactics room. “Get rid of him? You want to kill the Termite?” The Revolutionary sighed as he stepped inside. “Sherburne, you’re well-versed in the Revolutionary War, aren’t you? You remember how the rebels dealt with the Tories?” He pressed a button near the door, summoning his lieutenants to the room. “I don’t like it any more than you do; I had hoped to peacefully co-exist with my fellow. But since he insists on defending the enemy, it’s clear that we have no choice. Understood?” “Yes, sir. If there’s any way that I can assist with that operation-” “Certainly. I appreciate that, patriot Sherburne.” He 12

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